Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Athens and the Food of Greece

Our last leg of our trip is upon us and it is sad to see it coming to a close. We went at this trip with everything we had, putting a lot on the line. Nicole found a way to step away from work for a month and is unfortunately faced with the fact that her computer broke down within the first day of our travels. Who knows what her work has in store for her when she returns. And me, I had a secure job and built myself a home at the Getty and I decided to let that all go in order to pursue this goal that Nicole and I shared for the last 2 years. You ask if there are regrets. I only have one answer….not one. This trip has not only taught us about culture, history and cuisine, but also about us, our relationship, our goals and our desires. This trip carries a price tag, but in my mind and in my heart it has been priceless.

Athens and the island of Santorini may be our last stop, but it is definitely not the end of our experience, our eating and our fun. Nicole and I have been looking forward to this part of the trip for some time now. The excitement of our arrival fills our minds as we patiently wait for our plane departure and share our last plate of Iberico Jamon. The thinly sliced cured ham, salty and buttery with a nutty background takes front stage to the toasted baguette dunked with olive oil and manchego cheese. This would be our only food until our arrival in Athens 8 hours later so we ate big.

I sensed landing in Athens was a small victory for Nicole. Her eyes lit up and her big beautiful smile became a permanent fixture on her face when the airplane’s tires touch downed. We practiced Greek phrases all the way from Rome as Nicole would be the lead communicator on this leg of the trip.

Our arrival at the Grand Bretagne Hotel in downtown Athens was inspiring. That is, it inspired me to work my butt off to get this rich. Nicole and I were definitely out of place in this hotel (aahh, the beauty of Amex award points), but as my good buddy Pete said “Just pretend you’re in the entertainment business” so we did as we sucked down champagne in our VIP reception and followed our “butler” to our suite. Crazy huh?!

We got to business opening our automatic curtains, eating fruit from the basket the hotel provided and munched on the various chocolate truffles. This was definitely high style and one in which we were afraid of getting used to.

We received a phone call from Nadia. She is the cousin of Nicole’s best friend Kathreen and she would kind of play host to us while we were in Greece. We met with her very close by at the Benaki Museum which displayed Greek and Roman antiquities. Sound familiar? They happened to be serving dinner that night from their balcony with a view of the lit up Acropolis. That’s right, 2500 years of history as our back drop for our buffet style dinner.
We were greeted by astounding Greek hospitality by Nadia and her boyfriend Vangilles (I don’t know how to spell that name, but apparently it is popular over here). Hospitality in Greece is something to be documented. It seems that almost everyone wants to go out of their way to comfort us, give us something or offer help and this is not solely from Nadia and her friends. This is from strangers as well. A funny story, we were underground finding our way on the metro and we must have looked lost, but we weren’t. A young man randomly approached us and in his best English asked if he could help us find our way. In typical defensive Los Angeles fashion we sternly answered “No” and wondered to ourselves what he wanted from us. Man we felt like idiots after that encounter.

Back to dinner. Things started slowly as Nicole’s Greek was getting warmed up and the same could be said for our Greek hosts and their English. They both spoke perfect English, but when not in practice one begins to question their command of a foreign language. Vangilles even wondered if he spoke English like a Russian – hilarious joke by the way!
Nadia put me on the spot a little and told the caterer, who happened to be her uncle, that I was a chef so the back story of all our great conversation was if I enjoyed all the food. Luckily I was hungry, but in all seriousness the food was great. We had a crunchy beet salad tossed with balsamic vinegar, Nicole’s favorite, Greek Salad and a stringy zucchini salad toss with fresh herbs and sautéed prawns. Greek salad is a little different here and it is much better. The main difference being the lettuce. Here the peasant version of Greek Salad is huge chunks of sweet tomatoes, sliced red onion, green pepper, kalamata olives, a slab of moist and salty Feta cheese and an agreeable Greek olive oil. I would call this harmonious and a dish that we would eat with lunch and dinner for the rest of our stay in Greece. The second courses were small red peppers stuffed with braised chicken and finished with a spiced Hollandaise sauce, tender roasted lamb leg and tiny nickel sized dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with lamb and rice) with thick and creamy Greek yogurt. What an excellent start to an all ready exciting part of our travels. The food was great, the view was great, but most of all the company was great. Nadia and Nicole caught up on old times and some current gossip while Vangilles and I found a bond that all men are able to find no matter the language barrier: sports, stupid jokes and hot actresses.

Athens is more than the capital of Greece. It is a metropolis, a city on top of a city. Houses and apartments are stacked next to each other, behind each other and on top of each other from the city center to the ocean and up the rising mountains. It is so concentrated you would think that this was the only part of the country to house all its inhabitants. In a way it is. There is a small unemployment problem in Greece and to work you have to be in Athens so that is why there is so much concentration in one area. But please, don’t get me wrong here. The congestion does not take away from the sheer excitement and life that this city contains. This place moves, but with a village flair and is filled with commercial offerings rivaling the best that L.A. has to offer. This is a big city with big city aspirations, but I think the people of Athens are still grounded and hospitable to remember their roots and their predecessors. Evidence lies in things like the Acropolis, Zeus’ temple and the hospitality that was mentioned before.

The next few days would be an all out onslaught of history, Greek cuisine and culture. We spent our first day visiting the archaeological sites of the Parthenon, Zeus’ temple and other parts of the Acropolis. This was definitely an all day affair and quite the workout on this hot day climbing to the highest point in Athens. Luckily, Nadia was an art history major and had actually been on a few archaeological digs herself. This was the way to take a tour of a major part of not only Greek history, but civilization’s history. She walked us through each monument of beautifully preserved marble pillars and statues and explained each one’s significance to the entire site. I have absolute admiration and respect for the buildings in my presence. Each felled column or standing arch represented ingenuity, drive, passion and ambition of the people of that time and all those that would follow.

There are few things that I’ve learned on these travels. One is that I can actually identify quite a bit when it comes to food and to reading menus, but the other is how much I actually don’t know. It seems that when we read and we travel we are supposed to know more, but honestly, I keep learning how little I do know. Arguably, this is one of my favorite parts of the trip even over all the food. The rich histories that surround each country dictate how a country ends up developing to our current state. To learn how many times Greece has had to defend its state, to learn about Spain’s dictatorship, to learn that French was at one time the international language and all the other large and little things about European history. It has truly been inspiring.
My appetite grew to immense amounts after this tour. You had to know what was on my culinary agenda – gyros! We walked through the Plaka, or town center, and found a small little café called Petros that happened to be Nadia’s favorite. The lamb was marinated with a thick garlic marinade and was stacked on top of each other until it formed a 3 foot high stack of lamb that was slowly roasted on a vertical rotisserie. They shaved the meat placed it in a crisp toasty pita and finished with red onion, French fries, and the creamy garlicky cucumber yogurt sauce tzatziki. They say this is not healthy fare, but I tell you what, for 1.75 Euro this fast food will blow away any Mickey D’s or Carl’s Jr. back home.

The next few days would be filled with dolmades, feta cheese, tiropita (baked cheese in filo), spanokopita, melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant with yogurt, garlic, onion and olive oil), Greek salad, gyros, souvlaki (basically kebabs), grilled vegetables, fried calarmi, taromasalata, lukaniko with lemon (grilled country sausages), and frappes. And we were fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Pappas, members of our church, who treated us to Taverna food with keftades (meatballs), souzoukikia (meatballs braised in tomato with cumin), and braised rooster with orzo.

The food has been outstanding, the company amazing and I still can’t get over how kind and gentle the general population has been. We have shopped and have been greeted with almost perfect English everywhere we’ve been. Although, the biggest surprise has been Nicole’s Greek. I didn’t even know she understood how much she does and the locals really appreciate when she speaks Greek to them. She is still a little shy with it, but with a 1 month stay in Greece I bet Nicole would be half way fluent.

I will have to get to our walk through the bar district on a Friday night at a later time. I need to get back to enjoying the island life of Santorini.

Until later…..

1 comment:

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