Allison Levine is owner of Please The Palate, a boutique marketing and event-planning agency. As a freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications while eating and drinking her way around the world.
One of the best ways to get to know a city is through its food. Going to historic locations, trying local dishes and visiting markets are ways to explore a culture. But it can be difficult to know where to go when you are traveling. Is the guidebook sending you to a hot tourist spot or does the hotel get a kickback for recommending some restaurants over others? If you want to eat where and what the locals eat, Culinary Backstreets has the answer.
This two-year-old company started in Istanbul, Turkey by writers Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer. They currently offer culinary walking tours in Istanbul, Athens, Barcelona, Rio, Mexico City and Shanghai. Culinary Backstreets covers the regional food of an area. They take small groups on walking tours through a city’s authentic dining scene with a guide who may be a food writer or a chef and who is knowledgeable both about the city and food. As Culinary Backstreets states on their website, “our purpose is twofold. Yes, we want to get you to some good places to eat. But, we also want to make sure that some of these spots and the artisans making food there – unsung heroes who are sometimes forgotten or taken for granted at home – find a new audience and get the recognition and support they deserve.”
Sadly, when I was in Turkey last year, I was not aware of this company and was met with the challenge of not knowing where to eat. So, when I was heading to Athens recently, I made sure that I would do one of their walking tours. We met in Omonia Square, one of the oldest squares in the city, in the heart of downtown Athens. Our guide was Carolina Doriti, a private chef and caterer. She explained that Omonia Square was once the center of downtown, but there was a period of time when the area was filled with drugs and less desirable to visit. In the last few years, the area has been cleaned up and new businesses have opened but there are some that have stood in the same place for decades and survived the bad years. This is where we started.
Located around the corner from Hondo Center in Omonia Square, Stani, which means stable or pen, is the oldest dairy shop in Athens. It opened in 1931 and to this day, they have made their own yogurt from milk from the same local family farm. As it was our first stop of the day and still the morning, we tasted goat milk yogurt with honey and walnuts, a classic Greek dish. When the goat milk yogurt is fresh and thick, there is no comparison to what we buy in a grocery store. A few other specialties at Stani are bougatsa, a common pie made with milk, semolina, phyllo, powdered sugar, vanilla and cinnamon and no eggs, and kadaifi, phyllo filled with nuts, honey, cinnamon and clove. Greek kadaifi is very sweet but less so than the Turkish version, which has more sugar and butter. We finished off with anthogalo, also known as fior di latte or flower milk. It is made by boiling the milk very slowly at a low temperature and then collecting the froth and whipping it.
Kristakis, the name of the store and the family name, was opened by the current owner’s grandfather. His grandfather came from Crete and went to Alexandria in 1900 before returning to Greece in 1912. He first opened his restaurant in Chania in Crete, but then opened in Athens in the 1950s. They specialize in lukumades, little doughnuts made from a batter that has no sugar or butter in it. When the little balls are hot, they are dumped in sugar water, which seeps in, and then covered with cinnamon and sesame.
From Omonio Square, we walked a few blocks to the Central Food Market where there are blocks and blocks of stalls selling meat, fish, vegetables and more. Like most food markets, there are rows and rows of colorful fruits and vegetables. We made a few stops at stands where we tasted various types of olives. We then entered the meat and fish sections, which are not for the squeamish. The various aromas and the visual of unusual cuts of meat, such as tripe, hanging from hooks can be daunting.
As we wandered through the meat and fish market, we stopped into one of the little food shops for a meze, or tapas, plate including grilled gruyere, a sausage made with pork and leeks and a lamb burger. We then went to Zafolis, a cheese store that has been open since 1916. Here we tasted feta cheese that must be made with 70% sheep milk and 30% goat milk and is one of the oldest recorded cheeses made by the Cyclops in Homers’ Odyssey; kefalotyri, a goat and sheep cheese that is salty like Parmesan; and kasseri, a sheep cheese that can be grated and melted or fried and topped with honey.
After the market and a full, but not yet finished, morning of eating, we took a coffee break at Mokka. This specialty coffee house makes all types of coffees but the specialty is Greek coffee, where the coffee bean is blond, meaning it is not roasted above 180 degrees Celsius and then is boiled in warm sand.
After a coffee break, we headed to the street Evripidou to visit Karamanlidika, a deli specializing in meats, such as pasturmas (pressed beef or camel meat that is cured in salt, paprika, cumin and garlic), soutzouki (thick, fresh, spicy and hot beef sausage), Armenian dried salami with cloves and pepper, boiled pastrami and tongue. We also enjoyed Greek dolmas with strained yogurt and a selection of goat cheese from the islands of Crete and Tupoli.
For the final stop of the day we went to To Triantafilo tis Nostimias, which translates to “rose of deliciousness.” A fish restaurant since 1950, the restaurant is tucked away down an arcade off of Syntagma Square and we would have never found this restaurant if not for our food guide. A completely nondescript tavern, the food, which included local grilled sardines, marinated anchovies, fried calamari and fried cod with garlic paste (the official dish of Greece’s “No Day”), is simple and fresh and very tasty.
With my stomach full, I finished the culinary food tour feeling I had a good appreciation for various Greek dishes. While there is so much more to explore, Culinary Backroads provided an introductory history of the food and culture of Athens.