‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ – Plato was definitely on to something.
Hellenic cuisine has been largely shaped by occupation, settlers, conquerors and visitors, its development informed and necessitated by Greece’s fractured geography.
Walk into any small village in Greece, find the local taverna and, chances are, the first dish you’ll receive will be a porridge-like concoction of lentils – finished liberally with olive oil and capers. It’s a dish dating back to the earliest settlers of Greece, the Minoans, and establishes a common thread in Greek food. The only shared facet throughout the country’s wildly differing gastronomic traditions: simplicity and deliciousness.
Macedonia still produces some of the country’s finest wines, a history perpetuated by Alexander the Great’s love for the region’s tipples. The menus of the area’s capital, Thessaloniki, feature dishes with a heavy Jewish influence, the city once playing host to the world’s largest population of the ancient religion’s practitioners. Thrace, in the country’s northeast, had a heavy Roman influence at the time they built their great (and now ancient) highway, so expect things like barley pilafs and sour-milk noodles featuring prominently on the area’s menus.
As we head towards the Peloponnese, we find an area as famous for its roasted goats and game-changing honeys as it is for its role in Homer’s epics. The popular holiday island, Crete, is known for ancient foods like tarhana – tiny kernels of air-dried yoghurt and grain that plump up like couscous when boiled. These recipes endured due to the island’s remoteness, becoming so ingrained over thousands of years they refuse to leave the collective gastronomic consciousness. The residents of the Ionian islands, once under Venetian occupation, still enjoy karithopita – a walnut cake popularised by their harsh rulers.
And so, we come to Athens, a confluence of all these influences and so many more. All the dishes that have put Greek cuisine on the global map – souvlaki, baklava, fava and many more, reveal a historical trail of cooking influence in which the Romans, Ottomans, Venetians, Minoans and countless others have had a hand. You would think so many hands would create something of an identity crisis but it seems to work inversely in Athens’ tavernas. So strong is the identity of Greek cuisine – thousands of years of contrasting influence have created menus rich in their simplicity, perfected through savvy use of what is readily and freshly available, the same mantra as those who came many thousands of years before – and that’s what makes Greek food so exciting.