The hawkers yell, the metal shutters clatter and the salty scent of fresh sliced fish mingles with cinnamon, lobster tanks and the bloody entrails of hanging innards. Like many a live food market, Varvakios Agora heaves with industry, pulses with activity and throngs with the shoulder-thumping movement of a focused, frenetic crowd intent on getting by – and buy.
Yet this place, in Athens, feels like something more. If Greece can be said to be the home of democracy, and the Acropolis, the beacon of hope and respect, what can the city’s central food market tell us about the history of trade?
Not all that much, as it turns out, the residents more concerned with shifting their produce than sifting their way through the sands of time. Unless, of course, that is the message: the history of trade is the history of getting on and trading, not the history of pondering the philosophies of the past.
Recommended reading: 27 Ways Food and Travel Go Together (Not just for “Foodies”)
And while the market floor may wear tell tale spatters and splatters of blood, the story of Greek Food, of course, reaches much further than that. It reaches through the complex labyrinth of this Grecian city out toward feta cheese and fresh tomatoes served on bright white plates aside deep blue seas and an even bluer skies.
Despite growing up in Europe (for most of the time, anyway,) I was intrigued to discover that I don’t know all that much about “Greek Food.”
Souvlaki – yes. Taramasalata – of course. Stuffed vines, well, it’s at this point that we tend to enter into a who-invented-what discussion that blends the Mediterranean into the Middle East.
But whatever the ancient boundaries and modern squabbles, today was my crash course in all things Greek Food.
From the visceral stalls of the marketplace, we moved through shaded stalls and walkways that sang with spice and danced with damson. We passed by baskets of natural sponge and sauntered beneath speckled violet sausages that hung from the rafters. (Given the heat, it was likely less of a saunter and more of a slump but let’s gloss past that in the name of poetry, shall we?)
I knew I was slumping my way towards a cooking lesson (the heat became too much) – but I was unprepared for what came before.
But not in a practical sense: education from a dedicated museum.
Saline dripped fed into bacalao, a fish so salty you can usually spot the shimmer of crystals. Except, this time, more salt flowed into the fish, leading to a column of crystals on the floor below.
Silverware clung one to another, representing the central role of food in the home. And beneath the glare of a student’s lamplight, an interesting geography lesson took place.
Baklava, the sticky sweet honey-soaked treat found, among others, in Turkey and Greece formed the Aegean Sea that separated the shoreline.
The piece showed that both shared food and water stretches between these feuding rivals, both of whom claim the sweet as their own. Yet the raised edge of the pastry also highlighted the division, the obstacle between the two.
Or at least, I think that’s what it meant.
Away from the lamplight and into the sun, Costas, a chef with a disposition so cheery both he and baklava ought to be sent into top level diplomacy, slapped fish onto the counter and put us to work.
We’d a busy afternoon ahead: sea bass, mussels, cucumber soup, spanakopita and some ice cream I’m pretending to ignore as part of my no-dairy lockdown.
Typically, I love cooking classes for the chance to chat to people from different cultures, to experiment with photography and to try different flavours.
Costas has a different idea: he intends to make me work.
Apron on, hands washed and camera abandoned, I’m pummelling dough, rolling spirals and delving into a sea bass with some fancy tweezers and a sniper’s eye for bones.
It’s surprisingly satisfying. Incredibly so.
While I spike on with the tweezers, the rest of our small group takes care of the rest: chopping dill, blanching spinach, sipping wine. The menu couldn’t be further from my experience of Italy, but the basics remain the same: simple recipes made from ultra high quality ingredients (plus, in both cases, a nice touch of sunshine but I don’t think that that’s essential.)
But as the sun does shine and we pause while something sizzles, I get the chance to reflect on the day, and the week in Greece in general.
Sugar, blood, spice, war. Crumbling pastry, squashed spanakopita, fresh and delicate mussels and a rogue bone found in a single sea bass (whose job was it to take care of that again?)
But above all else, the best thing about my brief foray into the world of Greek food was the laughter and friendship that came along for the ride.
Let’s raise a glass the world over to culinary traditions that support sharing, good conversation and good friends.
Disclosure -I found out about the Gastronomy Museum, its market tour and cooking lesson as part of a paid consulting project with Afea Luxury.as ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like here on the blog. Otherwise, there’s just no point.
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