Care for an ouzaki? Like so many words in Greek, ouzo is often referred to affectionately in the diminutive, which makes it even more seductive and appealing. Just a ‘little’ drink, nothing pretentious or serious about it, an ouzaki can be an excuse to pause in the middle or end of a busy day for a chat with friends or a cardinal feature of a summer holiday on an Greek island. Whatever you call it, sharing a carafe or miniature bottle of ouzo is an essential Greek experience. While there are absolutely no rules about doing it properly, there are certainly ways of getting the most out of it.
Ouzo can be made from grape or grain-based alcohol, which is then distilled with anise, fennel, and other herbs, according to closely guarded formulas particular to every producer. It may range in alcoholic content from the relatively ‘mild’ 38% volume to the finest double distillates of 48% volume. It is the presence of anethole in the anise that turns the clear alcohol white when water is added. Don’t confuse it with the grappa/schnapps-like raki, tsikoudia and tsipouro, which are all different words for the same thing—the first two being native to Crete, the last found on the mountainous mainland, especially in and around Volos.
Tyrnavos in Thessaly was the first place in mainland Greece to make ouzo in 1856. But the place most associated with the production of ouzo is Plomari, a coastal village on Lesvos (Mytilene). There are some 300 ouzo brands throughout the country, of which the best known are Isidoros Arvanitis Ouzo Plomari, Barbagiannis, Mini Mytilinis, 12 and Tsantali.
But back to the ouzo-drinking protocol.
Ideally ouzo should be enjoyed on a hot summer’s day or evening in a café on the water, or a seaside taverna admiring a sunset (or handsome/pretty passersby). However, the custom is most certainly not limited to a few months a year or a scenic location. Or even a time. The sun need not be over the yardarm (noon in nautical parlance) and ouzo time may continue well into the afternoon or past the dinner hour (a very loose concept in Greece).
More important is the company, or parea. Greeks rarely drink alone and almost never imbibe without at least a nibble. So gather a couple of friends and choose a table you can hunker over. Some experts maintain you should never sit formally but rather place yourself askew, slouch a bit and rest one foot on the rung of a nearby chair. Without ordering it, you will always be brought a dish of something simple—olives, pickles, salami, cheese—along with your carafe of ouzo, pitcher of water and a bowl of ice cubes (although purists feel that ice is anathema). But before you take a bite, clink glasses with your pals and say stin iyeiá mas (to our health).
Serious drinkers will order more little dishes, usually as many as there are friends. They are likely to be salty, spicy or sour, to offset the slight sweetness and intensity of the ouzo, but nothing that requires a knife and fork. If all you want is an aperitif with a snack to precede a full lunch or dinner, these titbits will suffice. But making a meal of mezedes—a whole host of “little dishes”—is another very Greek (Anatolian and Middle Eastern) habit. Fish and seafood, fried or salted, rank highest—anchovies, sardines, octopus—but garlicky vegetables, peppery meats, minty meatballs, sausages also complement ouzo very well.
Around Athens you will find dozens of eateries known as mezedopolia—places that specialise in these little dishes—whose menus run to several pages. Instead of ordering a three-course meal, you can set your imagination free and make a meal of as many dishes as you can manage. Don’t forget though. They are meant to be shared, not gobbled by one person. The sharing adds to the camaraderie.
Here are some of our favourite mezedopolia (also known as ouzeris) in the Athens area.
One of the oldest mezedopolia in Athens, this is a place to come for its décor alone. Although it’s only been in its present location since the mid 1980s, it has the atmosphere of the original establishment which opened in 1932. Wonderful tiled floors, period photographs, a splendid painting of Athinas Street with no cars, shiny marble tables and gleaming wooden chairs create the perfect setting for browsing through its six-page, leather-bound menu. Justly famous for its seafood meze—shrimp croquettes, home-made lakerda (cured tuna), skate with garlic sauce—it also features tempting treats from Anatolia such as pita (pie) with pastourma (spicy cured beef) or saganaki (fried cheese and sausage) Constantinople-style and intriguing items like "Drunkard’s delicacy". Surround yourselves with as many dishes as the table will hold and work your way through them slowly while you sip your ouzo of choice. Don’t under any circumstances come here on your own.
Roughly translated, oxo nou means carefree and that’s what you’ll feel the moment you enter this casual, comfortable Cretan eatery. There are cushions softening the usual taverna chairs, banquettes lining the back wall, lamps with shades askew, and a welcoming shot glass of raki almost as soon as you’ve sat down. The waitresses are cheerful and if you happen to bring a child along, they’ll bring paper and crayons to keep her busy while you’re consulting the menu. Cretan cuisine is known for its fresh ingredients, succulent little pies with greens or cheese, snails, smoked meats, and staka, a cousin of clotted cream. Staka may not be the healthiest condiment in the Cretan diet, but try it with eggs, dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves) or even fried potatoes and you won’t regret it. All the island’s classic meze can be found here, and on nice days you can sit outside.
To Ouzeri tou Laki
To many Greeks and foreigners, ouzo and a table of mezedes are best enjoyed by the sea, watching boats come and go. In Athens, Lakis’ ouzeri is about as close as you can get to having that experience, though the surroundings are landlocked. A kaiki (fishing boat) rudder stands by the entrance, a ship’s wheel hangs on one wall, nautical motifs decorate others, and the ceiling lights resemble seashells. An open refrigerator displays an exciting array of fresh fish and seafood, brought in daily from Kymi and Skyros. You can choose your own fish to complement unusual dishes such as chickpea fritters, mackerel with caramelized onions and sardine moussaka. Many customers are regulars, sipping from 16 different brands of ouzo and toasting the sign opposite the entrance: “All the world is a madhouse, but this is the headquarters.”
Most mezedopolia have a generous selection of ouzo brands, but Hohlidaki probably holds the record with 130 in their collection. The bottles are arranged on and above the counter that separates the cosy, funky dining area, with its vintage posters, photos and ancient (functioning) jukebox, from the kitchen. It might take a while to taste them all, but the menu offers so many appetisers, you’ll find it hard to choose. Not only does this 30-year-old ouzeri serve scores of standard delicacies, it also changes its menu at least twice a year to focus on a specific region of Greece. Last time we were there, it featured dishes from the Ionian islands—lentils and eel from Lefkada, baked eggplant from Zakynthos, Corfiot sofrito, and Cephalonian meat pie. Eating here is always a gastronomic adventure, a way of exploring foods you would ordinarily have to travel extensively to savour.