As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Athens, Clare Hargreaves sample Athen's street food on a food tour of the city
Athens has always been good at street food. Think oregano-perfumed pork souvlaki, served from a hole in the wall, inside a comforting cushion of doughy pita along with chopped tomato, red onion and a dash of yoghurt. Or nut-packed baklava oozing with honey that leaves your hands sticky for days. Or cheese pie that Greeks often eat a hefty slice of for breakfast with their wake-up morning coffee (though it’s also good at any time of day!).
Now Athens is taking its street food to another level. Enterprising Athenians are setting up delis selling Greece’s best health-giving olive oils and salty artisan cheeses or opening ice-cream joints specialising in kaimaki, a delectable ‘stretchy’ ice cream made from buffalo milk and mastika resin from the trees of Chios.
Creative chefs such as Greek MasterChef’s Harry Bonanos are dishing out fusion food from colourful vans while others are giving innovative twists to Greek classics on streetside stalls or setting up fantastical themed cafes. And the annual Street Food Festival in the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Gazi now draws crowds of several thousand hungry visitors.
A great way to get a taste of Athens’ vibrant street food scene is to join one of the Food Tours run by Alternative Athens, a small company that started in 2013 with the aim of showing travellers “the genuine side of Greece, away from easy tourist stereotypes.” Its young, enthusiastic guides take you to places you might not normally find to give you the delicious inside track.
“Clothes shops folded during The Crisis but street food stalls multiplied,” says Food Tour leader Tania Fiore as we set off. “People need quick and cheap but tasty food, so we saw lots of new places springing up.”
We kicked off in smart Nikis Street, off Syntagma Square, at a shop simply called Baklava selling every possible permutation of the honey, nut and filo pastry (bring wet wipes for your post-baclava fingers.) One tray holds neat rows of green bundles, baklavas whose pastry is made with ground pistachios and have become a best-seller. Their honey baklava with cream is proving a winner too.
You couldn’t do a food tour without tasting olives and olive oil, and Malotira Deli, on Apollonos Street, is the place to do it. Co-owner Cretan-born Errika specialises in products from small producers, which you won’t find in supermarkets. “We do this because we’re foodies and we’re very proud of what we have here in Greece,” she says. “Basically we stock the foods we like eating ourselves, so you could say the business is a bit selfish!”
Errika sees her role as not just selling food but sharing her knowledge about how it’s been produced. She also advises on food pairings, so she might marry morsels of Cretan smoked pork with cubes of a special graviera cheese (like gruyere) and sikomaida (dried fig-cake from Corfu). Nibble your way through a platter and see if you agree.
Having been brought up on an olive grove in Crete, Errika knows how to tell a superb oil from a good one. All her oils are early harvest, organic and extra-virgin. But she also selects for a high content of polyphenols which, according to academics in California, have been found to have significant health benefits. They recommend a 20g spoonful a day. But when you taste the smooth liquid gold on offer here, like Corfu’s The Governor, that doesn’t seem too great a hardship.
Flagging? Time for a coffee. And there’s nowhere better to enjoy one than on the terrace of Cherchez La Femme, a cafe on Athens’ famous Mitropoleos (Cathedral) Street. The coffee is not an insipid expresso or cafe au lait, you understand, but a proper ‘Greek’ (again its origins are disputed) coffee, black as tar and so strong it’ll get your pulse racing in seconds. You watch the grains being measured and brought to the boil with water in their purpose-made copper pot, known as a briki, at the bar, then down the coffee with a chunk or two of rose-perfumed loukoumi. You might spot a few youngsters adding milk to their Greek coffees, something that would get the old guard in Greece’s more traditional kafenia doing double speed on their worry beads. But here at Cherchez la Femme, anything goes.
Happily, an early “lunch”, in the form of souvlaki, is on offer just a few blocks away, in picturesque Agias Irinis square. Tania leads you to Kostas, which at first glance looks like a scruffy hole in the wall. But the queues in front reveal that this is no ordinary souvlaki joint. Here Kostas has been braving the heat of his grill to produce first-rate kebabs for over 65 years. They’re topped with a dash of yoghurt and a spoonful of hot chilli sauce, but you’re wasting your breath if you try to ask for its secret recipe. Such is the place’s enduring popularity that if you turn up after 3pm you’ll find the place boarded up. “Kostas closes when he’s sold out, and that’s usually by three,” says Tania.
It’s probably a good idea to have eaten before reaching your next stop, the central market, housed in a magnificent wrought-iron hall that gives London’s Spitalfields and Borough markets a run for their money. Ruby-red lamb carcases (heads on) hang mournfully in rows inside glass cases, but if that’s too much for your stomach or nostrils you can move on to stalls of gleaming silver fish (skilfully positioned so their eyes catch those of their customers), shiny aubergines, super-size beef tomatoes, and neat pyramids of spices, olives and nuts. The pricetag on some of the pistachios signals they’re something special: blonde-shelled fistikia from the island of Aegina, renowned as some of the finest the world, with their own PDO protected name to prove it.
The tour, like all the best restaurants, ends on two desserts. The first is loukoumades, prepared at Krinos, a retro-style cafeteria that since 1923 has resided in the majestic 19th-century building that was once Athens’ first pharmacy. Loukoumades are dough balls, roughly the size of golf balls, that are deep fried, then liberally doused in honey syrup and cinnamon.
The final stop is a cafe in Iroon Square in Psiri, Athens’ answer to Soho. Give your stomach a few minutes’ rest before the final onslaught by watching the dough acrobatics performed by a local pastry-maker. These involve rolling a slab of butter-rich filo, then stretching it by throwing it into the air until it’s roughly a metre in diameter. The paper-thin pastry is then filled with soft, oozy custard filling to make bougatsa, a flaky-pastry custard pie. “Grab a piece in your hand to take with you,” says Tania. Well, perhaps she could make that two. Or three. Athens’ street food is so good, the more you eat the more you want.
Words and Photos by Clare Hargreaves.
Disclosure: Clare Hargreaves was a guest of the Greece National Tourism Organisation. Clare had full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Athens in October 2019 for Green Traveller's Guide to Athens.
All opinions are the author's own.