Markets are often the best place to experience the very essence of a city's culinary culture—and quickly. Contributor Giulia Blocal brings us this introduction to the food markets of Athens, Greece.
The farmers market at Perissos. All photos by Giulia Blocal.
From the heart of the Mediterranean basin, Greek cuisine is composed of a wide variety of dishes mirroring its long history, variegated landscape, and crossroads nature. On a recent trip to Athens, I encountered lots of meat (pork, lamb, beef, goat, chicken, veal, and rabbit), vegetables, and tasty savory pies (including tiropita, layered phyllo pastry filled with cheese, and spanakopita, spinach pie), as well as Greek islands cuisine (mostly known in its Cypriot version), characterized by traditional fish and seafood dishes like red mullet parpuoni, sea bass lavraki, and gilt-head bream (tsipoura).
If you wander around downtown Athens, you will find plenty of restaurants, taverns, and cafés, but perhaps the best place to explore local Greek food is within Athens’ food markets: The food is unpretentious and fresh, and you’ll get the chance to mingle with locals and discover a more genuine, alive side of the town.
Varvakios Agorà, on Athinas St. betw. Evripidou and Sofokleous Sts.
Best for: Tasting local specialties, culinary souvenirs, authentic Greek lunches
You don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate Athens’ hectic, colorful Central Market. It’s the perfect place to not only try some Greek specialties, but also to pick up edible gifts to bring back home, such as Greek olives, cheeses, spices, and herbs. And it’s an incredible introduction to Balkan market culture: vendors shouting prices, ladies glancing at food counters with a well-practiced look, elderly men sipping coffee at the market’s cafes while “supervising” the general situation.
The market is divided into two main sections: The open-air part is where you’ll find fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, and those world-renowned olives, while within the 19th-century iron-and-glass complex are the meat and fish counters, plus some very local, largely no-name cafés and tavernas serving up traditional Greek food. Locals refer to these as “working class restaurants”; perhaps the most intriguing is the secret underground restaurant located at the bottom of the vegetable market.
Here’s what to buy:
Olives: Preserving and seasoning olives is a longtime tradition here, dating back to the ancient Greeks. Every region of Greece has a different way of pickling and flavoring their olives, and at the Central Market you can sample them all; you need only taste a few to decipher if you’re more into big, round juicy olives or the shriveled oil-cured type. Many olive vendors are equipped to vacuum-seal your purchase, so you can easily and safely bring these back home as souvenirs.
Cheese: There are shops here that sell nothing but traditional Greek feta cheese, made from sheep, goat, or cow. Beyond the ever-delicious feta, other popular Greek cheeses to look for include mizithra (which varies dramatically depending upon age, from the cottage-cheese-like fresh variety to the aged hard, granular kind) and kefalotyri (a hard, salty sheep’s-milk cheese).
Greek herbs: Greek cuisine doesn’t rely on many herbs and spices, but the few it uses are essential, particularly oregano. At this market you can find shops, and even vendors in the street, exclusively selling bunches of dried oregano twigs. Probably the best place to buy spices and herbs here is “Elixir,” located on one of the streets bordering the Central Market; there, you can also find spatholatho, an ointment originally from Kea Island that ancient Greek soldiers used to heal their wounds.
Best for: Scoping local produce, getting to know Athens’ distinct neighborhoods
Saturday is open-air farmers-market day in Athens, and every neighborhood has its own. I visited those in Exarchia and Perissos, both very interesting in the way they mingle with the characteristic traits of their respective areas.
At the farmers’ market in Exarchia (Laiki Agora, Kallidromiou St.), the downtown neighborhood famously known for its anarchist students, the backdrop to every vendor’s stand is a street-art mural. Some of these murals are about politics, while others are just plain beautiful. The market stretches along Kallidromiou Street as far as the posh neighborhood of Kolonaki. While you can find any kind of fresh product, expect prices to be a bit higher than at the Central Market. If hunger strikes, wander into one of the many cozy bars bustling with students for a coffee or snack.
Located in a former industrial area in the northern suburbs of Athens, the no-frills farmers market in Perissos (Laiki Agora, Salaminos St.) will surprise you with its abandoned chimneys appearing behind the stands. The farm-fresh products combined with the area’s urban landscape and industrial heritage make for quite an interesting contrast. Nearby you can also visit a former factory that’s been transformed into a huge supermarket.
About the author: Giulia Blocal blogs about unconventional destinations, offbeat spots, street art, outskirts, and urban landscapes at www.blocal-travel.com. She lives in Rome, but her heart belongs to the Balkan countries. Follow her on Twitter @Blocal_.