Thursday, August 13, 2015

Active Foodie in Thessaloniki

Food is the most serious matter for Greeks. Here big families gather daily around the table, and having dinner together is customary. Large groups of friends or colleagues celebrate nearly everything, from a marriage to the signing of a contract, in taverns, and not in bars. When Greeks cook at home, and they do this quite a lot, they discuss the menu in advance with their guests. 

During lunch and dinner, normally lasting many hours or even a few days, in places such as Crete, recalling the ancient ''Symposia’', they talk about food no less than about politics or football. I saw this everywhere – on the islands as well as in the mainland, in taverns and homes of ordinary farmers and fishermen, as well as among musicians, artists, and university professors.
Many local cultures thrive in Greece, and the ancient city of Salonica is a rich heir of historic civilizations – classical Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Jewish, and Balkan, to name but a few. I will share with pleasure recipes and culinary and other stories during our trip, the main points of which I outline below. I do not like strict plans, so I suggest to improvise and adjust our excursion to your particular wishes and interests. Salonica’s quite large central market offers to the connoisseur more than we can experience during a day trip.
First we will go to one of the many stores selling herbs and spices. In Greek cuisine they are used much more frequently than in other Mediterranean countries. I will help you choose the best ones, and tell you what spices and herbs are used for salads, and with which ones you can prepare hot meals. There you’ll also find excellent soap, hand-made from olive oil, as well as natural unrefined sea salt, with exquisite taste, quite different from the usual industrial one, addictive delicious dried tomatoes, and original mountain herbal tea, often gathered in Olympus itself. All these can make lovely gifts, and their little weight makes them especially practical for travelers. Their prices can vary from the economical to the astronomical (even crocus, an excellent and less costly than others local variety of saffron, can be found here for quite cheap prices).
Then I will show you the fishmonger shops, at the central part of the market. Fishermen often sell fish themselves – strongly built Greeks with weather-beaten faces, they bring their nightly catch, laid on ice, and beckon visitors to their stalls, shouting prices and the virtues of their assortment. Ask and they will clean the fish you buy, immediately after weighing them on huge metal scales. Here you will see a wide variety of unexpected sea treasures: tiny gavros, hefty tuna, shiny sardines, black mussels in their shells, pink squid, octopus, sometimes even fish-scorpions and fatty eels.
The Greek poet Archestratus had written a humorous didactic poem, ''Hedypatheia’' (“A passion for a life of luxury”), advising where to find the best food in the Mediterranean world. Attaching great importance to seafood, he devoted three quarters of his writings to fish dishes. Ancient Greeks prized fish highly: in Aristophanes comedies only rich people could visit the fish market, while Demosthenes spoke of somebody who embezzled public money “to spend on fish.”
In the last century, fish was the food of the poor because meat was more expensive. Today it depends. In some taverns on the mainland fish dishes are the most expensive. On the islands however, as I have noticed, fish and seafood are often prepared in more interesting ways, and cost less. In the market of Thessaloniki sellers are generally welcoming. Maybe they will not tell you stories, if you don’t speak Greek, but they will allow you to take photos.
Then we will move to small and charming shops specialized in cheese, wines, and other countryside delicacies. Often belonging to producers themselves, they range from an outlet of a nomadic Vlach tribe of the Pindus mountains to a Black Sea rare delicatessen shop. You are allowed to taste a lot, and choose whatever you prefer. Hard or soft cheese, varieties of traditional Greek yogurt that you will not find in any supermarket, interesting appetizers based on cheese or olive oil. Nearby is the largest covered market, Modiano, a bustling center of local trade built before the Second World War. Here we will find a great selection of fruits, nuts, olives, fresh pastries, and wine.
We can also visit exquisite patisseries, and we can go to a cafe, where I can enlighten you on the traditions of Greek coffee (or Turkish, for the rest of the world). By the way, if you can’t live without tea, remember that Greeks do not drink it a lot, and you will not find it in taverns. But Salonica boasts one of the best tea importers in the world, ''O Dromos tou Tsagiou’' (“The Tea Path”), whose shop is just five minutes walk from the central market.
We may conclude our walk by visiting the port. Passing through an old quarter filled with souvenir shops and taverns, I’ll show you best lunch spots. Alternatively, we can take a taxi to the old city, overlooking the port, and enjoy the view of the Aegean Sea and Mount Olympus from there. The variety of bars, cafes, wine bars, taverns and restaurants is infinite.

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