We’re sitting at a pavement table of an understated pie shop near Syntagma Square, discussing the place of the humble pie in Greek society. Talking is just as important to Greeks as eating. Combined, they are the ultimate expression of social interaction. Our genial host, Xenia Mavrommati, asks what we’ve already seen in Athens and what we’d still like to taste and explore. The next six hours, we’re told, will be tailored as much as possible to our interests. So your tour may differ to mine, especially as it’s also offered over two and four hours.
"They’re made by women’s cooperatives around Greece,” Xenia tells us, as we sample cheese pie with spring onion from Folegandros, mushroom pie from Ioannina, and sweet milk pie from Zagori. The shop is the inspiration of a couple of former bankers. We talk Greek geography and Xenia’s love of pies. (“They’re the ultimate kitchen hack… whatever leftovers you have, in they go.”) She tells us about her grandmother teaching her how to roll out wafer thin filo pastry. “It’s the true test of a Greek daughter-in-law,” she says.
The Spice of Life
The talking continues as we set off down Athens’ pedestrianised shopping thoroughfare, Ermou Street, with pit stops at the 11th century church of Panagia Kapnikarea and the bar once housing the city’s first theatre. In doing so, we learn about life under Ottoman rule and King Otto, who became Greece’s first king in 1832.
Photo: Eleni Veziri
Photo: Eleni Veziri
We head into Evripidou Street where we learn how the demographic of Athens changed after the 1923 Greece-Turkey population exchange. Some of the city’s new residents opened herb and spice stores around the Athens Central Market. The one we visit, O Petros, dates from 1950 and welcomes you with aromas of thyme, sage and chamomile. It’s a treasure trove of pulses, wheats and spices, each product labelled with how it benefits your health. The thyme honey being dispensed into jars will make you want to return.
A Quick-Fire Tour of Psirri
From here we enter Psirri, with its cool urban vibe. Xenia tells us about its cops-and-robbers past. Apparently, the mid-19th century fashion was for men to wear jackets with one sleeve, so they could draw their gun quicker. The ultimate shame was to be caught by the local police chief (who also owned a souvlaki shop). As punishment, he would publicly smash your gun and snip the tips of your pointed shoes.
We visit Agios Dimitrios, Athens’ first cathedral. And we drop by a bakery so popular that there are morning queues for koulouri, the sesame seed-studded bread ring that is the favourite on-the-hoof breakfast of Athenians.
Photo: Thomas Gravanis
Coffee Culture, Greek Style
Time for a well-earned coffee break at I Oraia Ellas (it means ‘Beautiful Greece’). Or “King Otto’s luxurious meeting place for gentlemen and foreign delegates”, as Xenia describes it. This landmark haunt has moved since its original 1839 location. But its history is preserved in black and white photos of the politicians, journalists and students who gathered here. We enjoy a Greek coffee and an authentic sweet and discuss the place of food in all aspects of Greek life and death.
We move on to Plaka and through charming Anafiotika, under the Acropolis, where we talk street art (ancient and modern). We hear the history behind Anafiotika’s island alleyways—so narrow and winding that the houses are numberless.
We emerge into newly-popular Koukaki, with its wealth of foodie hotspots. Our lunch is served at a deli-diner. It’s designed around the concept of a Greek convenience store in the days before supermarkets, “where you could enjoy a bite and a gossip with the patron”. The patrons here are Yannis and Stavros. Their well-stocked shelves reflect the products that inspired them while travelling around Greece during their previous careers as lawyers. On cue, Yannis appears and looks every bit in the mood for a gossip.
There follows a tasting menu of extra-virgin olive oils. We discuss optimum acidity, polyphenols and blood pressure. “Drizzle it, pour it, gargle with it,” Yannis says, “just don’t cook with it.” Out comes an assortment of cheese (made with cow, sheep, and goat’s milk) followed by a tasty array of small dishes from various regions of Greece. There’s split pea puree (fava), courgette fritters, stuffed vine leaves, aubergine dip, smoked ham, and fried pork in wine and honey sauce. All washed down with white wine and tsipouro (local firewater). The final touch is a selection of strained yoghurts with candied orange and rose petals. Good job there was plenty of time to digest. And talk. Top tip: As you head down Agiou Dimitriou street, in Psirri, duck into a little courtyard. You’ll find a coffee shop straight out of 1950s Athens.
What’s the verdict?
A genuinely personal experience with a very hospitable host. The stories were authentic and the quality and quantity of food was just right. The cultural context is half the experience.