For our recent trip to Greece (my third, Gilles’ first), I was faced with the challenge of creating a two-day Athens itinerary would hit all the major sites my “Greece virgin” dreamed of visiting but also give me something new to experience. While googling “Things to do in Athens” I came across a private walking food tour that turned out to be exactly what I was searching for.
We met our guide, Kostas, who also happens to be the founder of the Athens Walks Experience! tour company, on a sunny late May day at Monastiraki Square. Tall and outgoing with a welcoming grin, Kostas greeted us like long lost friends. A fact that soon made perfect sense when we learned how his business came to be. For many years he showed visiting friends and family around Athens, focusing less on the ancient sites and more on the city’s extensive food culture. Six years ago he turned those personal tours into a full-time business.
As Kostas led us through the narrow, vendor-lined streets off Monastiraki, he explained why food plays such a significant role in Greek social life.
“Hospitality,” he said, “is a huge part of Greek culture. Greeks love to talk and socialize and, of course, eat.”
Our first stop was at Meliartos, a kitchenette with the best pites or pies in town. Kostas should know — it’s his personal mission to find the finest food in the city to share with his clients.
We learned that pies, a mainstay of Greek cooking, can be sweet or savoury and cheese-, meat-, nut- or custard-filled, but are always made with thin layers of pastry called phyllo.
According to Costas, pies are so important that “if you marry a Greek man, your mother-in-law will make your life hell if you cannot master phyllo.”
We tried a sweet version of the pie with soft cheese and drizzled honey and one with meat. Kostas is right, it’s the phyllo that makes it special – light and flaky perfection.
Back out on the street Kostas bought two koulouris from a street vendor. A popular breakfast food, they look like skinny, over-sized sesame seed bagels. But their texture, crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, make them unique. At that exact moment, koulouris became one of my new Greek obsessions.
Next stop was Mokka, one of the best coffee roasters in Europe. Watching the Greek baristas (Graristas?) make your coffee at this fourth generation coffee shop was entertainment in itself, and not like anything I had experienced. There is no percolator here – they prepare your cuppa joe on hot sand, like the Bedouins did 500 years ago. The result was a too strong for my sweet café au lait-loving taste buds but Gilles enjoyed the bitter brew.
As we strolled on, we asked Kostas how he became so knowledgeable about food. He explained that he was inspired by his grandmother, a famous chef of her time. His parents worked full-time so, as a small child, he spent his days with her in the kitchen. She played cooking games with him. By the age of 12, Kostas knew how to make every dish Greek food canon.
“There is nothing fancy about Greek food,” said Kostas. “It is simple and healthy, relying on fresh ingredients grown locally”.
That sentiment was on display at Varvakios, the Athens Central Market, where fresh fruits, spices, meat and fish are widely available and extremely well-priced. For those of us used to seeing our food cello-wrapped on Styrofoam trays, the market is a thrilling rush for the senses. Carcasses hang from hooks in the meat stalls and you may find yourself face to face with a goat or a pig in ways you never imagined (be warned, this ain’t no petting zoo). Over in the seafood department, dozens of varieties of fish, squid, shrimp and octopus are splayed on ice, ready for the evening’s meal.
Next we visited a specialty food store called Panapolio which boasts of “2,000 local products from 225 carefully selected producers”. Featuring aisles of deli meats and cheeses, wines, olive oil, vinegar, capers, tuna in oil, honey and pasta, I declared this shop “Foodie Heaven”.
To highlight the simple food philosophy, Kostas prepared us a Greek salad made with tomatoes he picked up at the market and a sampling of Panopolio products — white oregano, feta, olive oil. I died.
The olive oil alone was cause for celebration. We sampled it, not by dipping something in it, but by drinking it from a cup. Kostas said Greek olive oil is the best in the world. I could not disagree. Greece still has many family farms where they pick olives by hand and cold-press them within 45 minutes of harvesting. We asked why we aren’t more familiar with this olive oil at home.
Kostas said this is typical. “Greeks are terrible sales people – they hate to sell things so don’t promote their products well.” What a shame for us.
Next he served us some Greek yogurt with honey. Uh-oh, new obsession forming. Greek yogurt is different to anything you have tasted anywhere else. North America got on the Greek yogurt bandwagon a few years ago but our Greek-style offerings cannot compare. Real Greek yogurt is thick and tart with a velvety texture. When combined with thyme-infused Greek honey, it is just magic in your mouth.
We purchased all the olive oil and honey and we could carry. If there was a way to transport yogurt home, we would have bought cases of it too.
Next stop, Miran. Opened in 1922 by a family fleeing the Armenian genocide and still occupying the same building, Miran is a deli/cheese/spice shop. Under a jungle of hanging garlic and sausages we sat down to enjoy a platter of free range buffalo and turkey slices, hand-rolled dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with rice or meat mixtures), as well as hummus and Metsovone and Manouri cheeses. It was all so good but by this point I was filling up quickly.
The final stop on our food journey took us to Lukumades, a small shop that sells, wait for it, lukumades. These little dough balls consisting of water, flour and yeast are first fried in oil and honey, then injected with different custard flavours and/or covered in a sauce of your choosing. Gamely, I managed to choke back my share of these yummy spheres of goodness (and may or may not have finished off Gilles’ portion as well).
After four hours of casual strolling, enlightening conversation and delicious food sampling, our afternoon ended back at Monistiraki Square. It was the best city tour we had ever been on. We learned more about Greece and the Greek way of life in a few hours with Kostas than we did on any other excursion. Why? Because our walking food lesson allowed us to experience and appreciate a new culture in a way that truly resonated: through the simple moments of enjoying great food in wonderful company. Thank you Kostas, Gilles and I both loved every second.
Have you ever been on a food tour? What did you like about it?
As with all my reviews, I received no compensation or discount for my participation in the Athens Walks tour.