Moussaka, tzatziki, pastitsio, souvlaki, gyros, spanakopita, faki, baklava. These foods provided a culinary soundtrack to my six months in Greece- each dish washed down, obviously, with a cool pint of Alpha or a glass of ouzo. For some reason, it wasn’t until three nights before I departed the island of Lesvos that I realised the combination of the food, the drink, and the place, was special. This realisation came at a restaurant overlooking the sea.
Traditional music was playing from somewhere up the street. The Aegean Sea was just an olive’s throw away, lights from the restaurants and bars illuminated the water. There was a light, lively atmosphere in the warm air. Greek salad, fried feta, moussaka, pastitsio, chicken souvlaki, and a few plates of tzatziki and chips were placed on our table by the moustached owner. (Stereotypes sometimes add so much to a situation.) A few small bottles of ouzo, wine and eight glasses accompanied our food.
It was at this table that I learned that the first cookbooks and recipes were written by Greeks. This was unsurprising really. We had been hearing about how the Greeks invented nearly everything in the world. They are a proud people despite the country’s recent financial problems. So not only did they invent the beautiful food on our plates, they also described it, in poetry, two and a half thousand years before Ramsey or Oliver or the moustached man sliced an onion.
As it turned out, she was right; the Greeks did invent the cookbook. This fact is somehow comforting. I savoured this information like it was a Kalamata olive. “Thank God it wasn’t the British,” I thought, vaguely nationalistic. Mithaecus is credited with writing the first cookbook. However, only one line has survived, and unfortunately it contains some questionable tips for preparing a fish.
“Tainia: gut, discard the head, rinse, slice; add cheese and olive oil.”
Cheese and fish? I don’t think so. But thankfully, Archestratus, another Greek gourmet who wrote one of the first cookbooks, came to the rescue to warn Sicilians about adding cheese to fish. (There is debate about which Greek food-lover wrote the first recipe-book.) He took issue with Mithaecus’ ill-advised instructions. Life of Luxury, his most famous work, was a parodical poem which focused almost entirely on fish and wine. A mix of humour, food and poetry- what more could one wish for?
Poetry is central to Lesvos’ culture. It was home to the great poet Sappho, who gave Lesvos, or Lesbos, its name. To this day, lesbians flock to the island’s beaches, especially Skala Eresou in Eresos, Sappho’s birthplace. She didn’t write about food; her poetry was about love. But I remember feeling a great deal of love for the souvlaki I ate on Eresos beach one Tuesday afternoon. This corner of the world was paradise that day.
To avoid descending into a full-scale Greek history lesson here, let’s return to the twenty-first century. If the ancient Greeks can get fish wrong, I suppose I could also be erroneous, but nonetheless, I will offer a few quick guidelines. Always store feta in olive oil and add some peppercorns. Make your own pita bread; you will not regret it. Always choose a good bottle of ouzo- Mini, Barbayanni and blue Samara are perhaps the best. Retsina is acidic and awful, at least to an Irish tongue. Alpha is the nicest beer and Fix is quite drinkable too. Leave moussaka for at least one hour before enjoying it. And finally, if you insist on drinking ‘freddo’ (iced) coffee, do reserve it for the afternoon- the foam will make you bloated by mid-morning.
For people wishing to attempt a Greek dish, most of the ingredients can be found in the shops. You can buy (average quality) feta in most supermarkets. Still, Greek food and drink is uncommon. Ouzo is almost impossible to find. Guinness and Jameson and even Irish coffee can be bought over there, but ouzo-wise, it’s dry enough in Éire. You’ll have to catch a plane to find it. I’d recommend that.
Surprisingly, it is not the food or ouzo which is most noticeable when one first arrives in the Hellenic Republic. It’s the frappe. My first encounter with frappe was in a café in Mytilene with nearly as many stray but lovely dogs as customers. And there were plenty of customers.
The waitress came to take my order. In a panic I looked towards one of the Greeks at our table for help. He uttered something to her in their native tongue and she smiled, nodded and returned with about seven glasses of frappe. I was told to sip my glass of frappe as slowly as I could. It was more of a guideline than a demand but I followed the advice against my instinct. Roughly three hours, one long conversation and about fifteen rolled cigarettes later, I took my final sip.
This café was situated directly across from Sappho Square in the city centre. This is the square that I had to walk to at the end of my stay six months later. The yellow taxis were lined up. I looked back at the statue of Sappho, staring back at me under the Aegean sun. Sappho’s words in the poem No Word describe my unwilling departure from her island better than any of my own.
“she said to
me, ‘This parting must be
endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly.’
I said, ‘Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave shackled by love
If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared”