Every cuisine in the world is the sum of its parts, of its ingredients, in other words, those basic foods and flavor combinations that are the cook’s alphabet for both carrying on traditions and creating new dishes that are both authentic and contemporary.
Greece is blessed with a wide gamut of basic ingredients that flourish in this perfect Mediterranean climate. First and foremost, of course, are olives and olive oil, which are as basic as water to the Greeks. Fruits, greens, and a wide array of fresh, seasonal vegetables and legumes are the mainstay of traditional Greek cooking, some with distinctly regional associations. Greece is also blessed with a wealth of “natural gourmet” products, foods that come from the land or sea and that have a long history, such as honey, saffron (Krokos Kozani), Mastiha Chios, a great wealth of herbs, both fresh and dried, and botargo as well as other preserved seafood specialties. The sea provides excellent conditions for organized fisheries, and aquaculture is one of the most important industries in Greece. Greeks have been consumers of cheese and yogurt from time immemorial. While feta is the best-known Greek cheese, there are at least 60 unique regional cheeses. Other specialty foods that define the Greek table and boast both historical and cultural depth are the sweet and savory rusks, called paximadia.
Following is a brief description of some of the basic Greek ingredients.
1. Beans and pulses – What would the Greek-Mediterranean cooking be without the plethora of healthy, delicious dishes based on beans and legumes? The most ancient legumes are the lentil, chick pea, fava bean, and vetch, or split pea, all of which are still widely consumed in soups, stews and baked casseroles all over Greece. Greeks traditionally eat beans at least once a week. But New World beans have also become a staple and several Greek regions mainly in Macedonia, are home to beans with the coveted Protected Designation of Origin. Famed Greek giant beans (gigantes) and white beans of varying sizes grow well in the fertile wet soil of Greece’s rainy North.
2. Botargo (Avgotaraho) – Arguably Greece’s most gourmet product, botargo is this country’s “caviar.” It is the salted, pressed roe of the grey mullet, bafa in Greek, which migrates en masse to the marshlands off the coast of western Greece and in some parts of Halkidiki, then attempts to migrate out to sea again to spawn. The mullets are caught on their exodus, at which point their swollen egg sacs are removed. When sufficiently dried and pressed, they are preserved in bee’s wax. Botargo is an ancient delicacy and has a rich, deep flavor and soft, unctuous texture. It is savored on its own in thin slices, sometimes with a twist of lemon and a crackling of black pepper. It is also excellent mixed into pasta and flavored with nothing more than exquisite Greek olive oil.
3. Chios Mastic Gum – Mastiha, as it is called in Greece, is the crystal resin of the craggy, gnarled Pistachio lentiscus tree and it is produced exclusively on the island of Chios, where it has been the source of much island wealth for thousands of years. Mastiha is one of the most mysterious substances, at once a spice, an incense and a medicine, proven to be beneficial to ulcers and other stomach ailments as well as to oral hygiene. As a spice it is unique because it is so versatile, insinuating itself with equal facility into sweet and savory dishes, and pairing beautifully with everything from citrus to tomatoes to chocolate to creams and yogurt. In order to use it one must crush it first in a mortar and pestle, either with a little salt (for savory dishes) or sugar (for sweet dishes). Keep it away from electric spice grinders.
4. Feta – The national cheese of Greece, feta is one of many cheeses with Protected Designation of Origin, which means it may be produced only in Greece and only in certain specific regions: Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, the Peloponnese, Mainland Greece, and Lesvos. Feta by law is produced from either 100% sheep’s milk or a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk. It is aged either in barrels (fewer and fewer producers make barrel-aged feta) or in tins and in recent years there has been a considerable effort to produce organic feta. Feta graces the iconic Greek salad, but is an excellent cheese on its own. It pairs well with tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, and squashes, among other foods. It may range in flavor and texture from mild and creamy to sharp and hard, depending on production methods, regional distinctions, and season.
5. Fish – Although the supply of fish in the Aegean and Mediterranean is dwindling, fish and seafood continue to be important and beloved foods to the Greeks. It comes as no surprise, given the importance of fish on the Mediterranean table and Greeks’ affinity for it, that the country is one of the world leaders in fish farming, with sea bream, gilthead bream, sea bass, and trout the most popular and commercially successful species. On the seafood front, mussels have been farmed in Greece since antiquity, and northeastern coast of the mainland all the way up to the eastern fringes of Halkidiki and Thrace, which are laced with small coves, are closely associated with both mussel production and cookery. In the context of the Greek-Mediterranean diet, oily fish (not farmed), such as sardines, anchovies, and mackerels are an important part of the culinary traditions. But the most iconic of all Greek sea creatures and preparations is surely the octopus, grilled and stewed and savored in every part of the country and in almost every Greek restaurant in the world.
6. Florina Peppers – You know they are in season first by the sweet aroma they exude piled in mounds at farmers’ markets all over the country. Florina peppers are long, fleshy and bright red and grow in Florina as well as other areas of Macedonia and Thrace. They are delicious roasted, which is usually how they are enjoyed, and are one of the most successful Greek exports, roasted and preserved in brine. They stand on their own as an excellent snack or meze but often are used in sauces and dips, especially combined with feta or other soft white cheeses, olive oil and herbs.
7. Fresh Fruits – The whole Mediterranean fruit bowl grows in temperate Greece and each season has its specialties: apples, pears, kiwis, and quinces in winter; citrus fruits in winter, spring, and throughout the summer (specific varieties are cultivated so that there is almost always some seasonal orange available), apricots, cherries, and strawberries in late spring and early summer, then the whole spectrum of luscious summer fruits, from peaches to melons to figs and, finally, grapes, at the end of every Greek summer. Some fruits are closely associated with specific regions, such as the small crab apples from Mt. Pelion, called Firikia; peaches and cherries from central Macedonia; cherries from Agia in Larissa; citrus fruits from the Peloponnese; figs from Kalamta and Evia; and more. Greece exports much of its harvest, either fresh or processed into juices and canned product (especially canned peaches). But, luckily, there is still plenty to savor fresh all year round. Greeks, in keeping with the Mediterranean tradition, typically eat several servings of fruit a day, mainly after the meal. There is also a whole range of preserves, called spoon sweets, made with seasonal fruits (as well as some vegetables and young nuts) put up in simple syrup.
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.