I must have flown over this Balkan coastal country on a dozen trips to and from Europe but never made a descent here. Greece, the cradle of Western civilisation, looked very good in history books but not on a Bengali foodie’s menu. The more universal palate of London with its fame as the ‘world food capital’ suited me so well that I never looked anywhere else. London indulges me with every gourmet delight I can dream up. So why am I thinking wistfully about this sunny and mountainous country shaded by olive orchards, today? No, I haven’t grown a new-found taste for “hubris”, “catharsis” and other finer points of Greek tragedy. I am still a hopeless food fanatic, never far from a restaurant, in any part of the world.
Then, a well-travelled friend goaded me to look beyond the holy trinity of Piccadilly, Hyde Park and Borough Market and expand my food trail by a few hundred miles into Mediterranean Europe. I was very hesitant at first. It was impossible to include a lengthy detour on an already time-constrained holiday. More important, what will I eat in Greece? Not sure why I was packed out of London into a flight headed for Athens, I made peace with the prospect of a very bland trip circled by honeymooners and selfie-seekers.
Greece is carved out of Europe, Africa and Asia; it’s a pocket of old-world charm determined to hold its own in the confluence of cultures. The pace of the land and the people may take some getting used to at first. Then, once you are lulled by the balmy Mediterranean climate and grandeur of the blue, blue sea, it is time for unexpected flavours to reveal themselves.
The Greek island of Santorini is one of the more popular hosts for visitors from all over the world and is dotted with taverns, called taverna in these parts. A great place to start my Greek odyssey, I found. Restaurant and fish taverna Argo had all the right offerings with its sunny terraces overlooking the beautiful bay. What drew me to Argo was its traditional Greek flavours made fun with a twist; its speciality dish, Patatina, is simply an outstanding medley of garden-fresh potatoes and eggs.
Argo meets the most Bengali-sized craving for seafood. After the sumptuous breakfast, I was ready to take a walk even with the honeymooners, among flowering bougainvillea leaning on white-washed walls in sunlit alleyways. The picturesque stroll made me hungry and I checked with my bucket list of restaurants in Santorini.
My lunch date with Greek food was waiting for me at Selene. Not only did this wine-and-meze taverna confirm my friend’s highest recommendations, it proved to be a temple of Greek gourmet cooking. Here one can indulge oneself with cooking classes while enjoying Squid in Seaweed, Rabbit Marinated in Red Wine, Dorado with Wild Greens and Caper Cream or Grilled Lamb with Eggplant Puree.
As a fulfilling day neared its end, I made my way to dinner at the Aktaion taverna. I had heard much about its heritage. Now into the third generation of the same family that founded Aktaion, it is a reference point on the culinary scene. It treats its guests with a splendid display of the owner’s artworks and dishes like Zucchini Pie, Marinated Anchovies with Garlic, grilled and marinated mains or Shrimps in Basil Pesto.
The next day was a tryst with local history. It took me to 1800. Situated in a sea-faring captain’s house from 1845, this restaurant preserves the original colours, furnishing and even the captain’s wooden travel chest. Like its ambience, the food is also a memorable escapade into another world. The great Mediterranean recipes and hand-picked Greek wine list are perfectly orchestrated with an impressive view of the Aegean Sea from its rooftop terrace.
Exploring a little further into the local lore, I discovered Sunset by Paraskevas. This 30-year old restaurant was founded by a local fisherman and his wife; it is famous for its fresh fish, hand-picked daily by the owner himself from local markets. The Sunset lures its guest with its top-secret recipes like the lobster pasta.
As the port below the village began to twinkle with evening lights and dusk crept over the mountainside, I took another bet on my friend’s recommendations. Now I was off to Atlantis Island for a gourmet dinner. Atlantis is known for refined food and service. Here I could hand-pick the ingredients for my customised recipes. The menu is a surprise every year but what has stood the test of time is the abundance of fresh, local ingredients such as fava beans, tomatoes and white eggplant.
By now I had to agree that my detour had turned into a honeymoon with Greek flavours. I was head over heels for its generous variety of both vegetarian and meat dishes. Excellent raw ingredients and flavours rule Greek cuisine, like oregano, thyme, bay leaves, oyzo, mastic, crocus, konzai, rosemary, lemon, and, of course, olive oil. Fine meat, fish, seafood, cheese and fresh vegetables are prepared with olive oil and paired with brilliant wine for a mythological feast.
On my last day I took a leisurely afternoon walk to Krinaki taverna. Housed in an 1832 wine production warehouse, it is a lively gathering of minds and palates with poetry readings, wine tasting and art exhibitions. Any Greek food pilgrimage is incomplete without a trip to Nichteri. Touted as one of the best tavernas, Nichteri pays homage to the island’s traditional cuisine. The menu offers Greek delicacies from sun-dried tomato salad, Kefalotyri cheese with lemon marmalade, steamed mussels to decadent and honey-based desserts.
As my stay came to an end I could not help thinking of the first cookbook that was recorded in Greek in 330BC. From that day on, the culinary experts of this land have not lost their zeal to innovate, experiment and excite. The traditional diet has undergone a renaissance and provocative new uses of age-old ingredients keep the cuisine as fresh and juicy as the bounty of its surrounding orchards and sea.
Anjan Chatterjee is the chief of Speciality Restaurants, which owns Mainland China, Oh! Calcutta, Cafe Mezzuna, Sigree Global Grill, Hoppipola, Asia Kitchen and more. And yes, he is a foodie