In Plaka, at the foot of Athens’s Acropolis, informal tavernas huddle along the narrow alleyways built on pre-historic footpaths,
informal ‘feet-in-the-water’ thatched eateries cluster along beaches and around harbours, providing the centre of action and gossip on Greek islands, and everywhere you’ll see hopeful hovering cats. On Cyprus (see our Cyprus feature), restaurants and bars line the lengthy waterfronts of Larnaka and Limassol and populate the area around Paphos’s old harbour fortress.
Even if you don’t speak Greek, you can wander into a taverna kitchen, peer into the pots, assess the fresh fish and point to what you want. In the little villages of Cyprus’s Troodos Mountains, small tavernas with shaded, flowering courtyards serve modestly priced set menus. Take a place at your table as the waiter brings first jugs of house wine, baskets of fresh pita bread and then a leisurely and lengthy procession of dishes: first the mezze, which can be well over a dozen small dishes, then lamb or chicken followed by seasonal fruit.
In the Greek islands, meals are defined by local produce and whatever fresh fish arrives on the boat each day. Everywhere ‘village’ salads are served (the typical ‘Greek salad’ of cucumber, tomatoes, olives, onions, and green peppers topped with sliced feta cheese). Though crisp Kos lettuce originated in Greece, it is considered a delicacy to be savoured separately. Halloumi cheese is popular in Cyprus, there are a variety of cheeses made on Crete, and it is common to see cheese cooked in filo pastry and served as a morning snack or special treat for feast days.
A mezze is a happy table covering of dishes to be shared, including taramasalata (grey mullet roe paté), tahini, zadziki (cucumber and yoghurt), fried chopped octopus, plus, on Cyprus, snails in tomato sauce, small fried fish served with lemon wedges, and pickled vegetables. Avgolemono soup blends eggs, lemon juice and soup stock, and Santorini is noted for its puréed broad bean soup. Meat is usually lamb or chicken, and occasionally beef braised with onions (stifado). Lamb comes minced in moussaka, cubed and kebab-threaded in souvlaki, wrapped in vine leaves with rice in dolmades, or as spiced meat balls with mint in keftedes.
For dessert, you have the honey-and-nuts enriched desserts like baklava to look forward to — but the oranges, Cretan tangerines, grapes, melons, (and 75 varieties of peach alone in Cyprus), will be more flattering to your bikini line.
Stin iya sou (health to you)…
The aperitif is the aniseed-based ouzo (some of the best comes from the island of Lesbos) diluted with water and ice and perhaps accompanied on Cyprus with a handful of sunflower seeds known as passatempo (passing time). Retsina red or white wine wine goes well with spicy dishes; its unique flavour comes from pine tree resin, originally added for medicinal purposes.
Halkidikis and Porto Carras are good red wines, Santorini’s rich lava soil creates a full-bodied Nikteri white and Kaldera red, and Rhodes has Lindos dry white and red Chevalier de Rhodes. Raki is a high-alcohol schnapps-like drink for after meals along with brandies like Metaxas.
Cyprus’s wine was drunk by the Pharaohs; Keo, Ekto and Sodap produce good reds and whites. Sherry and Commandaria sweet dessert wine are also made in Cyprus.
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