You all know my MO by now. I’m in a foreign city, hungry and have a hankering for some local food. This time it’s in Athens, Greece. Of course it’s easy to just hit the road well traveled in the Plaka district and some sidewalk cafe might jump out and tempt the tastebuds. In my case, I need something more authentic, somewhere that locals would be proud to share. So, I call my friends at Culinary Backstreets, a food tour organization that provides escorted guidance to venues that no tourist would ever find.
Our lucky stars were aligned and we landed an extra special tour with Carolina Doriti, a well known guru of Greek gastronomy. Carolina is the star and creator of My Greek Table, a show that has aired on Greek TV and American PBS. The company excels in curating tours that expose the food and its cultural aspects combined with walking tours of the backstreets you may never see in a guidebook.
Starting from Monastiraki Square, positioned in the shadow of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, alleyways branch out in every direction with shops catering to a shopaholic addiction, but we are here to eat and Carolina is only too happy to oblige.
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It’s 10 am and we walk through an artful graffiti decorated alleyway to the Psiri district.
As every morning should require, we stop at a wholesale bakery for a taste of koulouri, a circular tube of bread coated with sesame seeds that resembles a thin pretzel. This is followed up at another venue that specializes in straight out of the oven bugacha, a sweet flaky phyllo pastry oozing hot vanilla custard with each bite. Coffee drinking could easily be considered a national pastime, so when in Greece we do as the Greeks and visit an authentic coffee shop for a quick cup of Joe.
With caffeine consumed, it’s the shot of adrenaline that puts us in overdrive. It’s eye popping, colorful drama as we stroll through the Central Market with a block long line of butchers hawking their best cuts of beef, lamb and pork along with what could termed, mystery meats. For us it’s only for looks as our next stop is in the vibrant and pungent fresh fish area. Carolina leads us to a small hole in the wall cafe with four seats and a small counter. For two generations this place is the spot that local vendors have flocked to for a drink and possibly a bite of fresh seafood. Carolina has picked up a fresh calamari that the owner obligingly prepares for us along with mussels and small sardines washed down by a shot of ouzo.
Thumbs up and we are off to another local institution, isolated from tourists. It’s a small little shop specializing in the superstar of all Greek food, souvlaki. There are several versions of this bbq meat but pork is the real deal and this place rules among locals as the best of the rest.
To finish off this culinary culture trip, we visit a deli for a sampling of kavourmas, a ground beef type of savory spiced casserole and a tray of cold cuts and cheeses along with sweet tooth sampling of yoghurt and honey topped off by sweetened julienned carrots, sometimes referred to as spoon sweets.
A leisurely stroll through neighborhoods of sidewalk cafes, shops and stores selling every imaginable product, the tour has mysteriously circled back to the square where it all began a thousand plus calories ago. It’s an off-the-tourist trail adventure that combines tantalizing street eats, local traditions and neighborhood sightseeing
Culinary Backstreets operates in many major cities and I’m counting the days until I can hook up with another opportunity to delve into local food culture.