Travel Greece: Guided food tour - culinary safari through Athens

One summer years and years ago I visited a Greek Island. The moment I stepped out of the plane and into the sunshine, I decided that Greece is a seriously beautiful place. Whenever I am back in the country, I see I was right. People often ask what my very favourite cuisine is. Next to great taste of food I am equally fascinated by its history. Food connects people from all over the world, no matter their background. Who would have thought that there are so many details I didn’t know about Greek food and Greek traditions? Today there are dishes that are still as firmly anchored in the Greek diet as they were thousands of years ago. Centuries ago Greeks cooked with grain products, vegetables, fruits and olives. The Persians later added yogurt, rice, nuts, and honey and sesame seeds. Arabs spiced things up with for example cumin, cinnamon and cloves. The Greeks then started enthusiastically using potatoes and tomatoes in their cooking when these food staples were first brought from the Americas.

Culinary safari through Athens.

History and Culture of Greek Food Through the Eyes of an Athenian

We meet on a sunny morning in the centre of town. When I arrive I become part of a group of ten people from all walks of life and from all over the world. We will be taken around the streets of Athens by the beautiful character Despina, who in the beginning tells us about this tour and how she had the idea for the first ever guided food safari through Athens. She was sure tourists would want to hear and learn about the history of Greek food, and she knew that she wanted to guide people through her town. She created several tours from scratch and with that had all the ingredients in the proper proportion. Her vision became reality when she founded Athens Walking tours.

Despina believes that since we are going to share food we all have to know each other, and before we start everybody introduces themselves. Joining a tour like this gives you the headspace to truly enjoy the day. You wouldn't need to check a map, and you can fully embrace every moment as you will get lost. We learn about history and culture of Greek food from Despina’s perspective while she guides us with ease through the streets of Psiri. Discovering this part of Athens is an adventure. It is not Plaka or Syntagma Square but a neighbourhood that is pretty much off the beaten track of most day visitors. 

Notebook designed by Chris Lee

Athens and its Heavenly Scented Trees

Close your eyes and imagine the smell of blossoming bitter orange trees. Thinking of Athens, first thing that springs to mind is a heavy smog cloud hovering over town, but how could I be so wrong? The spring air is pregnant with this very sweet smell. The orange fruit looks striking against the blue sky. Greeks use the peel for making marmalade, and they add lots of sugar to it. If the product tastes half as good as the scent of the trees, one is certainly in for a treat. As we talk about this fruit a priest walks by (carrying a ZARA paper shopping bag) and Despina changes topic and gets us interested in the history of the Greek Orthodox church.

Greece - A Sesame Koulouri A Day

I don't know about your morning habits, as a start into the day I drink Cappuccino, I sometimes eat croissants, and deeply engrained in my morning routine is a bowl of porridge plus fruit. For (many) Greek people a breakfast means a coffee and a cigarette, whereas a big breakfast means coffee and four cigarettes (I beg you to not try this at home). As utterly hair-raising as this is for non-smokers, eating food for breakfast, just think of beans on toast, is a concept that on the other hand will freak out most Greeks.

On nearly every third street corner in town you'd find a street vendor with a small stall selling koulouria. And after Greeks had their early morning coffee, they would later eat one of these. And that is exactly what we do. And I can assure you they taste heavenly fresh. The Turks are just as crazy about this delicacy made from wheat flour, yeast, sugar, salt and water, plus sesame seeds. 

Middle Eastern Honey Pie at a Former Drug Store

We all look at the honey dripping from the loukoumades. After combining wheat flour, salt, yeast, warm water and honey they have just been fried in vegetable oil moments earlier. They are surely a straight to the hips type of food, but honestly the moment they are offered to us I decide the cinnamon sprinkled “mouth fulls” are too good to resist.

Meat and Fish Market – Greeks Love to Eat Vegetarian

There is this massive fish and meat market in Athens. We browse along the spotlessly clean kept stalls while we try not to fall on the slippery floor. Despina gives several warnings; everyone in the group is prepared to walk cautiously. There are butchered animal pieces literally everywhere. The hall doesn’t smell, that surely must be a good sign. We pass several hanging upside-down cow halves, their heads thoughtfully placed next to the corpse. The skinned sheeps heads on the butcher’s blocks stare at me out of dead and almost black eyes. And then there are boxes and boxes of fish, big and small. I wonder where they kill these massive amounts of animals, I don't dare imagining it. Greek people are into meat but overall they prefer to eat seafood, and they also love to cook vegetarian, and that especially when it involves beans.

The Boom of Independent Stores – All for One and One for All

People in Athens really stick together to get through the crisis. It was expected that many small stores would shut their doors when the crisis hit but the exact opposite happened. With the crisis in its full force people from the rest of town started to buy goods at all the small stores in town and store owners are doing accordingly well. Despina shows us where to best buy dried lavender, mountain tea (dried leaves of ironwort) and a variety of herbs and spices that are used in Greek cooking.

At the Delicatessen: From Olives to Mastiha

In this country there has to be olive oil in everything you eat. Greek food is cooked with olive oil. Full stop. If you fry goods you do this with sunflower oil and after that (immediately) drizzle live enhancing olive oil on top. The concept of cooking with anything other than olive oil is sort of unheard of, and Greeks can't imagine what else one would want to use. Butter. What? Shaking of heads plus rolling of eyes.

Greece is after Spain and Italy the third biggest producer of olive oil. The olives grow particularly well in this pure mountainous climate in Greece. That Italy buys olives from Greece and sells it as their 'best oil' tells everything about the high quality of Greek olives. Olives are harvested, pressed and bottled without preservatives.

I wonder why Greeks are so humble when it comes to their products and not marketing them more. Same goes for Greek cheese. There are 120 different types of cheese produced in Greece, and it seems that the only one people know is Feta, OK, the one or other person might know halloumi too. Despina encourages us to ask for regionally produced cheese every time we travel in Greece to also get to know the other 118 cheeses. There are roughly 300 cheese varieties in France, and I am sure everybody can name many of them. Say cheese and people will think France. Did you know that Greeks eat more cheese than the people of France per capita?

We sample huge chunks of feta cheese with fresh farmhouse bread, thyme honey and olive oil.

I'm in foodie heaven, totally inspired by all the smells and flavours, hungry to absorb every detail, and Despina happily reveals another Greek foodie secret. She mixes the leftover bread, honey, cheese and olive oil in a bowl. Popara is simple, yet these few ingredients combined are another winner altogether.

After we sample our way through Black Olive Paste, a hot Capsicum Dip, Mustard and chewy Spoon Sweets we finish our visit at the delicatessen with liquor made from the resin of the mastic tree. It smells like an unusual wild mix of herbs, and it tastes soft and lingers warmly in my mouth. With mastiha the Greeks always had their very own version of chewing gum until someone introduced the convenient stuff from the US. The resin is popular for its health benefits and now it is fast becoming the new Greek super food. Despina later shows us a café where to best try mastiha ice-cream.

Mandarins and Halva at the Fruit and Vegetable Market

The tahini based halva is from India originally, but it has forever been very popular in Greece. There are different varieties to choose from. And since the mandarins at the neighbouring stall are smiling at us too, we eat one of them as well. 

Athens Street Art

Let Us Eat Pie

Pies are a true Greek food staple. The chef preparing the dough for the pies does this with very fast hands. He swirls the dough sheet several times around and high up into the air before he lays it out on the counter to fill the savoury ones with spinach and cheese and the sweet ones with semiola. We eat both varieties hot from the oven. They taste delectable. As we leave I look over my shoulder to wave the chef goodbye and he manages to wave back while swirling around the next dough sheet.

The End of the Food Safari Through Athens

In the end we all sit down to eat a surprise dish. It is amazing to be around people who truly enjoy food and are passionate about it. My research adventure was supported by Athens Walking Tours. The four hours were hours exceptionally well spent, I learned so very much about the history of Greek food and left the tour hugely inspired to explore more of Athens.

About Athens Walking Tours

The company launched in 2004 to provide small walking tours. The Culinary Tours range from 2.5 hours to four hours. Prices for food tours are between EUR 44 and EUR 74.

The company offers many more specialised tours, for details on all tours: Athens City Tour & Acropolis -Just the Acropolis tour -Acropolis, Ancient Agora & the Attalos Museum -Acropolis, City Tour & Acropolis Museum Tour -Athens Food Tour - Sweet Bites and Sights (Acropolis & Plaka) -Athens Wine Tasting Tour -Athens Cooking Lesson and Dinner, please visit the website. You can also find Athens Walking Tours on Twitter and Instagram.

Top Tip: Book in advance and go hungry.

What is your favourite Greek food? Can’t wait to hear from you.

From Berlin with love