8. Greens and Herbs – Greeks have used herbs as flavoring agent, tisane, and medicine from time immemorial. Indeed, even today, there is a well-established folk pharmacopoeia based on an often ingrained knowledge of the therapeutic powers of herbs. In cooking, most herbs are used in their dried form and the most beloved are oregano, thyme, savory, and mint.
9. Honey – It is not an overstatement to say that Greece produces the best honey in the world. The country’s incredibly rich flora provides bees with a huge variety of wild flowering plants on which to feed. Greek honey is thus distinguished by the season and by what bees graze on: flowering plants and blossoms, in the spring; flowering thyme in the early summer; pine in summer and early fall; heather after the first fall rains; chestnut and a few other rarities further along in the year. Beekeepers do not employ their bees in the arduous task of pollinating vast monocultures for industrial farming, but rather move their hives from place to place depending on what is flowering, abetting the bees, in other words. They harvest honey at the end of each feeding cycle. There is one Greek honey variety with Protected Designation of Origin, the fir honey from Vitina in the Peloponnese. Arguably, though, the most sought after honey is the aromatic thyme honey, the most famous of which comes from Crete. Connoisseurs say that the most mineral rich honey is pine honey and that the honey produced in the early fall, after the heather has blossomed, is also extremely beneficial. In the Greek kitchen honey is the most ancient sweetener and is still used as such today, in a wide array of classic and contemporary confections. It also lends depth and balance to many a savory dishes, especially baked beans and some lamb and goat preparations.
10. Olive Oil – There would be no Greek cuisine without olive oil. The country is the world’s third largest producer of olive oil, but first in the production of extra-virgin oils and first in consumption, at more than 20 liters per person per year. The main Greek oil olive is the tiny Coroneiki. The most acclaimed olive oils are produced in the Peloponnese, Crete, and Lesvos. There are 15 Greek olive oils that have a Protected Designation of Origin, and another 11 that have PGI status (Protected Geographic Indication), attesting the product’s excellence. Olive trees grow in 50 out 54 Greek prefectures. In the Greek kitchen olive oil is the basic cooking fat but it is also the basic sauce and garnish, drizzled raw over countless dishes, from fish to beans, and even used in baking. So endemic is olive oil to the Greek kitchen that there is a whole category of olive oil-based preparations, called ladera after the Greek word for olive oil, ladi. The last few years have seen a move toward estate bottlings and a push among high-end producers for oils that fall into a newly minted category, super premium.
11. Olives – The world’s most famous olive is, of course, Greek: the almond-shaped, brownish-black, tight-skinned Kalamata. There are dozens of table olive varieties in Greece, most with regional provenance. All olives start out green and turn black or dark brown as they ripen. Certain varieties are harvested green, others, such as the Kalamata, are left to mature a bit longer and harvested as they turn color, and still others are left to mature fully on the tree, turning leathery and wrinkled in the process. Green olives are often stuffed or seasoned with wild fennel, or lemon and garlic or hot pepper flakes. Kalamata and other dark olives are stored in either vinegar or olive oil. Wrinkled black or plump brown olives, which come mainly from Thassos and Halkidiki respectively, are salt cured. Olives make an excellent snack and addition to many foods, from salads to sauces. In recent years, some Greek food producers have experimented with sweetened olives, in the form of jams and preserves.
12. Other Table Cheeses – There are more than 60 regional Greek cheeses ranging in flavor and texture from soft, spreadable and sour, to sharp and hard, to smoked and nutty. Of these, 20 are PDO cheeses, but only a few ever make it outside the country’s borders. These tend to be the most popular table cheeses. Among them are: the mild, semi-hard sheep’s milk Kasseri, which is in the pasta filata family of cheeses and is not dissimilar to the Balkan kaskeval. The best comes from Macedonia, especially Soho, outside Thessaloniki. Then there is Graviera, a delicious, nutty, mild-to-sharp cheese that is made predominantly with sheep’s milk or a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk, or, in the Cycladic islands of Tinos and Naxos, with cow’s milk. Cretan sheep’s milk graviera is probably the most widely available. Manouri, a delicious creamy whey cheese similar to the Italian ricotta salata, is an excellent dessert cheese. Another delicious Greek cheese, and one especially suited to red wine, is the smoked Metsovone, a cheese shaped in logs, aged, smoked, then dipped in wax. The fez-shaped Ladotyri of Mytillene, a hard cheese aged in olive oil, is also an excellent accompaniment to red wine.
13. Rusks (paximadia) – Rusks (like the original biscuits) are twice-baked bread shaped either in thick wedges, rounds split horizontally in the middle, or into smaller bite-size chunks. They are an ancient food and still are the stuff that farmers and fishermen take with them to field and sea, because their low moisture content enables them to last forever. Rusks need to be rehydrated in a little water before using. The most famous dish made with them is a bread salad from Crete called dakos, which calls for placing a rusk on the bottom of a plate and building it with chopped tomatoes, crumbled sharp white cheese, herbs, and, of course, olive oil. The best known rusks come from Crete and are made with barley and wheat flours, but there are many regional varieties, too, made with rye, chick pea flour, or plain wheat flour and seasoned with herbs and spices. In Greek rusks are called paximadia.
14. Yogurt – Greek yogurt has become one of the country’s most successful exports. It is renowned the world over for its thick creamy texture and deliciously sour flavor. Traditionally, Greek yogurt was set in clay bowls and made from either sheep’s or goat’s milk. It was and is especially sharp, with a thick creamy “skin” on the surface. There are several basic types of Greek yogurt distinguished by the kind of milk with which they are produced (sheep’s, goat’s, and, today, cow’s), and there thickness, which is determined by whether or not the yogurt has been strained, usually in muslin bags, until it is the consistency of sour cream. Greek yogurt is the ingredient that gives tzatziki (the yogurt-cucumber-garlic dip) its tang. It is used as a condiment for spicy meat dishes and some savory pie. It is also used in lieu of béchamel in some baked meat dishes. But best of all it is a classic breakfast item, mixed with Greek honey, or the traditional light evening meal, served plain with a little bread.