Food travellers joining our gastronomic experiences love hearing our stories about Greek food and the local cuisine. We put together a list of 10 Greek food “tidbits” to enjoy, while dreaming of your culinary vacations in Greece.
1. Greeks, the champions of olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil slowly receives cult status around the world as the miraculous component of the Mediterranean diet. More and more scientists prove its medicinal benefits through researches proving that EVOO helps prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer. At the same time, olive oil sommeliers highlight the gustatory profiles of premium extra virgin olive oils according to the olive variety and the terroir, just like wine sommeliers do with wine. Together with talented chefs, they help create exquisite dishes of haute cuisine.
Greek extra virgin olive oil has always been the superstar of our Greek cuisine. We hold two world records at the same time: Greeks are the biggest producers and most avid consumers of extra virgin olive oil in the world. Specifically in Crete, locals consume 34lt of extra virgin olive oil, per person, per year (!).
Greeks have discovered the benefits and extraordinary taste of olive oil since ancient times. No wonder that one of the oldest olive trees in the world “resides” in Crete – that of Vouves, believed to be between 2,000 – 4,000 years old.
Did you now? In Greece and Turkey, it is still in practice the ancient sport of oil wrestling, where athletes are slathered with glistening olive oil before competing.
2. Her Majesty, “Queen Feta of Greece”
Feta cheese is probably the most well known Greek product, made even more famous recently with this baked feta pasta recipe going viral on social media. Feta has also received Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in the EU. Among other specifications, this means that, in order for a white brined cheese to be called feta, it must be produced in Greece only (bye, bye danish feta). Not only this, but made exclusively from sheep’s milk or a mix of sheep’s and goat’s milk. On top of this, only from Greek breeds of animals grown in certain Greek regions, fed on their natural flora. Pretty specific, eh?
Feta has been made in Greece since antiquity, and proof for that can be found in ancient Greek literature. According to the myth, the “first” cheesemaker is referred back in 8th c. BCE, in Homer’s Odyssey. The giant Cyclops, Polyphemus is considered the accidental “father” of homemade feta. The story describes that, as Polyphemus transported the milk collected from his sheep in animal skinbags, one day he realized that the milk had curdled and had taken a solid, tasty and conservable form, probably the forerunner of feta.
3. Greeks VS Barbarians
Ancient Greeks distinguished themselves from foreigners. Their sense of identity was also reflected through their common food culture. But which were those similar dietary habits that set them apart from the so called “barbarians”?
Ancient Greeks considered the daily consumption of meat a barbaric tradition. Animal killing was mainly connected to religious sacrifices and big feasts. In the same way, they didn’t drink milk, especially cow’s milk and butter, but created cheese from it instead. As for ancient Greeks, the cultivation of land was a sign of progress and civilisation, a way to transform the gifts of Greek nature through human skills and ingenuity.
Greek wines, along with grains and olive oil, were the pillars of ancient Greek diet. Getting drunk was frowned upon, therefore Greeks wouldn’t drink their wine straight, but mixed with water. Other “flavourings” included saltwater, honey and… pine resin. The Greek wine referred now as retsina, was created thousand years ago. In ancient Greece resin was used to seal the lid of amphorae (ceramic vessels) in order to preserve the quality of Greek wines, when exported to Greek colonies. Soon, Greeks became familiar with this new, distinctive taste and seem to enjoy their resinated white wine even till today.
4. Ikaria is the Greek island where people forget to die
Ikaria island is a “blue zone”, where people live to be more than 100. Locals practice Ikaria’s longevity secrets for ages. Do you want to know them?
These islanders have a very different perception of time. From the moment you land on the island you experience Ikaria’s motto: “Don’t stress if there’s no reason to”. People here have a very relaxed lifestyle and take their time to do things, not rushing to squeeze errands into a day. They meet up with friends to drink wine, chat and play games, while they keep very close family ties. Ikariots, no matter their age, they keep being active in their communities, which gives them energy and a sense of purpose. Most of them grow fruit and vegetables in their own garden and reap the benefits of Mediterranean diet. They eat less meat and sugar, enjoy Ikaria’s plant-based food, drink a lot of herb teas, consume tons of olive oil and never skip their daily ritual, a cup of Greek coffee after their mid-afternoon siesta. The highlight of social interaction and unity you will ever experience in Ikaria is its famed “panigyria”. These are long-lasting Greek traditional feasts to celebrate Saints and involve lots of local food, copious amount of Ikarian wine, music and dance till the day after.
5. There’s a tree in love with Greece only
Chios is a Greek island in the north-eastern part of the Aegean sea, that has a world exclusivity. Its the only place on the planet were the precious masticha is produced from the resin of the mastic tree. Although native mastic trees can be found around the Mediterranean, only in Chios mastic trees ooze their beneficial “teardrops”, while attempts to grow it elsewhere in the world never succeeded. Mastiha is the first natural gum ever existed, therefore gifted its name to the word “masticate”. Known for its medicinal and gustatory properties since ancient times, mastic crystals can be used to add a Greek flavour in your desserts and mastic liqueur to make cocktails or drink as an after-dinner digestive.
Mastiha has a very distinctive taste and is a great food souvenir from Greece to bring back home. Join our evening food walk to learn more about it and of course to taste it!
6. There’s a coin in my cake!
Vasilopita is the Greek New Year’s cake that contains a hidden coin believed to give good luck to the receiver, followed by a gift as well. Vasilopita cake is dedicated to Saint Basil who is actually the Greek Santa Claus. The story has it that when St Basil was the bishop of Caesaria in Cappadocia, he called on the citizens to raise a ransom payment to stop the siege of the city by its enemies. Each member of the city had to give whatever they had in gold and jewellery. Miraculously, the attack never happened and Basil had to return all the valuables to the citizens. He had no idea what belonged to whom, so he baked loaves with their items inside and gave it back to the citizens. By miracle again, each citizen received back his own jewellery.
7. The Saint of lost things and his cake
Did you know that Greece has its own “Lost & Found” food? Yes, it’s called Fanouropita.
Fanouropita is a Greek vegan cake (or Greek fasting cake). Made with olive oil and no dairy at all, it is baked to celebrate Saint Fanourios. The celebrated patron saint of “revelations” is believed to help you find your lost belongings. His name comes from the Greek verb ‘fanerono’ which means reveal. Disclosures might also have a metaphorical meaning, so for example, singles may bake a cake in his name in hope of finding love soon.
8. The Greek potato story
As said many times before, we recommend our culinary experiences as the perfect way for travellers to get to know the Greek food culture. But at the same time, we also learn from our guests food stories from around the world,- a reason we love our job so much. Recently, during our afternoon food tour, our guests shared a food story from their country that made us feel somehow connected. We discovered that we shared a similar story about how potatoes were introduced into our countries. The Greek story has it that, in early 19th c., Greece’s first governor, Ioannis Kapodistrias, wanted to introduce the cultivation of the potato into the new country. According to the legend, he ordered potatoes to be given for free, but Greeks showed no interest in the new, “exotic” crop. Therefore, he thought of a trick; he ordered sacks of potatoes to be unloaded on public display and placed guards around them. The guards were instructed to turn a blind eye, when the locals started stealing all the potatoes, thinking that they were something “valuable”. Kapodistrias’ plan was crowned with success and Greeks finally fell in love with potatoes.
9. The invention of Greek cold coffee
Back in 1957 during the International Trade Fair in Thessaloniki, Nestle company was introducing a chocolate beverage produced instantly in a shaker. One of the employees wanted to have his regular instant coffee but could not find any hot water, so he mixed the coffee with cold water in the shaker. This is how Greek frappe was invented, accidentally and out of need. This foamy cold drink quickly became a massive hit all around the country. Locals made this Greek coffee with water and ice cubes, (sugar and milk) and sip it with a straw. Frappe now has been replaced with the most popular cappuccino freddo and freddo espresso, but Greeks still enjoy them with the same pleasure!
10. Cretans welcome you with a shot (of raki)
If you’ve ever been to Crete, one thing you still remember is for sure the burning shot served to you by locals for welcome. Raki or tsikoudia is a Greek alcoholic drink made on Crete by distilling grape pomace. But it means much more than that. Raki incorporates the Greek hospitality in a glass and is a way to communicate and break the ice. If a Cretan is happy to see you, you will know; he will invite you over for a shot glass of raki, and treat you with a lot of Cretan food. Be aware: you’ll probably end up drinking more than one, chatting and laughing all night. In Cretan restaurants, tsikoudia is offered for free at the end of your meal with fruit or sweets, as the owner’s thank you note for being a guest.
A must do when visiting Crete during fall, is to join one of the “kazanemata”. These are big feasts set up in most villages to celebrate the making of the new tsikoudia. To better enjoy it, Cretans even created the “ten commandments” of raki:
“The first glass (of raki) brings appetite, the second health, the third joy, the fourth happiness, the fifth excitement. The sixth brings chatter, the seventh fight, the eighth the police, the ninth the judge… and the tenth, funeral”.
We love to hear from you. Have you ever been to Greece? Do you have any funny Greek food stories to share with us? Let’s chat.