Fresh Fig Cheesecake with Greek Yogurt, Almonds & Honey (& Greece for rent)

It’s hard to believe the changes that have taken place in Athens since my last visit in June.  The whole city is for rent, prices of soft commodities are 3 times what they are in other countries (6 organic eggs €4.60 versus €1.55 in Berlin).  Tax after tax is thought up and levied, the newest one - a 4 per square meter property tax paid yearly, if your flat is 100 sqm, you pay 400.  That is on top of car taxes, pool taxes, VAT of 23%.  I’m even at a loss for my fictitious “if I lived here, I would open a…” scenarios.  Right now, there is nothing I can imagine opening.  Sure, every other shop is for rent but let’s say I opened a cake shop, a Victoria Sponge would cost me about €8 euros to make, if I were to then apply the industry standard mark up of 3x, I would have to sell it for €24.I invited my girlfriends over for lunch, like I always do.  The mood was sober, these are young, talented, intelligent women who went to the same international school as I did.  They were not / are not trying to cheat the system, a simplistic retort that people like to throw around in tandem with “Well, whatchadya expect?”, but they don’t have a single opportunity.  To the point that one even closed her Etsy shop because she couldn’t afford to pay the taxes, on her Etsy shop!  The mind boggles.

In the once boisterous coffee shops, people talk in hushed voices, even the motorcycles are quieter, it’s eerie.  I find the Greeks themselves softer, like they’ve spent an extended period of time being rolled back and forth in the waves until their sharp edges have been filed down to smooth curves, like a sea glass you want to run your fingers over.It’s only at the beach that the mood lightens up.  Avlaki beach, the same beach I’ve been going to since I was a little girl.  With a mountain range that looks like a reclining dog, minus its head.  Not a thing has changed in 25 years (except for the prices and that people now smoke rollies instead of Marlboro or Camels), they still sell greasy cheese pies and Frappés so strong they give me heart palpitations.  There are fat, thick legged children building sand castles as best as they can with the impediment of arm floaties.  Whole families show up, grandmothers with epic breasts and backsides and, if they’ve survived 50 years of hen picking, their usually emaciated husbands, a few sprightly hairs dancing around on their otherwise bald heads.  This is the Greece I remember growing up in.

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Vegetarian Stuffed Peppers & Tomatoes (with a side of EasyJet rage)

I lost it the other day, totally and utterly, flushing hot with reduced hearing and tunnel vision - lost it.  Tra la la the Suzy has left the building.  It happened in the Speedy Boarding Easy Jet line.  Where else right?  I’d done it all: paid the fee to check in a suitcase; decanted my shampoo into teenie tiny bottles;  put those bottles in to a plastic bag; taken apart my bra to get at the wire that has the airport bouncers convinced I could detonate it.

I erroneously thought that by buying Speedy Boarding (more money spent), I can avoid the stampede.  Well, not really because Easy Jet is totally twisted, so what they do is the leave the gate blank until 20 minutes before the flight takes off.  Which means everyone pools in front of the monitor, necks craned waiting for the gate, standing of course because Schonefeld airport only has two seats.  If you are even 5 minutes late in noticing the gate, it’s over, you have to queue again! This time in an airless hallway, shuffling slowly in what is now the third line.    We are about the 10th in line, only because I blocked the stairwell as I was gingerly pushing Layla’s pram down step by step, with a whole plane load of people behind me groaning that I was going so slowly but never once offering to help. When a whole gaggle of over gelled, over accessorized Greek men looking like they are on their way to audition for a middle-aged boy band make their way into the Speedy Boarding queue.  Seeing a woman traveling with a child they opt to:

a. Help with the buggy

b. Play with the child

c. Cut in front of them

Yup.  C.  They picked C.  Silly fools that probably still live with their mother and drive tuned up Fiats but have Ferrari sunglasses. (Oh ya! I’m angry.  Pick up on the venom?)“Tell me,” I asked sarcastically “is your Speedy Boarding somehow superior to mine? Allowing you to cut in front?”  Dumb stares all round at what to do with the little woman with a pram who is antagonizing them.  “What do you do when you see an old lady struggling to cross the street?” I continued.  “Rob her?” Read more of this post

Melilotos - Restaurant - Athens

In the words of Usher - OMG!  What a find!  Well, I didn’t find it, Charly Wildler of the New York Times found it.  I found the article.

What I wasn’t expecting is that they only have one table.  That’s right!  This is a restaurant that primarily does deliveries to the nearby hotels and offices. They have one table with two chairs right by the door, which the staff (read as family)  sit at when there is a lull in service.  By around 1:30 the chef is in the kitchen and the table is stacked high with bags of food to be delivered.

I asked Despina (the restaurant manager, wife of the chef and daughter of the other chef)  if it would be ok to sit there and have lunch?  She said, “Sure, if you don’t mind the craziness”.  Crazy indeed.  The phone rang continously while we were there.  3 delivery boys were constantly bustling in and out.  And I couldn’t see the chef for the orders lined up in front of him.

Even though its 35 C outside today I ordered meat and rice stuffed vine leaves with avgolemono sauce (an sour lemon sauce thickened with egg).  I received a generous portion of 8 and I ate 6 of them.  I would have eaten them all but 2 migrated to my friend’s plate.

Followed by a large piece of refreshingly light cheesecake that Despina’s mother had made that morning.

As I was chatting away to Despina after I had paid my bill.  She told me that she fell in love with Konstantinos (the chef) when she asked him to cook a dish that was “her on a plate.”  How original - don’t you think?  He created a dish of stewed beef with chestnuts.  She was hooked from that moment on, apparently she loves anything with chestnuts.

They decided there and then to open a restaurant.  Konstantinos is a chef that loves his craft, it obviously did not sit well with him when his then employer suggested that he wash some old chicken in vinegar (to get rid of the smell) and serve it to customers.  Instead Despina and Konstantinos decided to open a place that suited their palate and where they did not compromise on ingredients and quality.  ”At the beginning we used to just eat the food we hadn’t sold ourselves, we would never serve it again the next day!  But now we are so busy that we just sell out before the day is done.”

Melilotos doesn’t advertise either.  ”If we did, we might get too busy.”  I would imagine that would be a good thing but Despina set me right “My mother cooks a lot of the food.  And she cooks just like she is doing it for a big family.  She wouldn’t be able to cook in the huge quantities needed for a big restaurant.”

What insight!

But more importantly, how wonderful that there are still family run places - that are in it for the love of the trade.  Truly outstanding!  You must visit. Its only opened during the week, daytime only.  And if that one table happens to be taken, well order some food to go and sit in Syntagma square and enjoy some serious home cooking!

Mellilotos, Xenofondos 15 (inside the lobby on left); (30-210) 322-24-58. Open Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m
Melilotos has now moved to a new location 19 Kalamiotou, Athens.

Some of my favorite shops in Athens

Whenever I visit Athens, I always make it a point to visit these shops:

The Mastiha Shop. 

Based on the natural gum that comes from the Greek island Chios, this clever shop (that now has a branch as far afield as New York City) has all kinds of spin offs.  From soaps, to coffee, to liqueurs and even a great book by Greek cookery writer Diane Kochilas.  I always buy my “I bought you this in Greece” gifts from this shop because it has some wonderful tins with tasty variations of Mastiha sweets.  What I love to eat from there are the sour cherries in syrup and the lemon flower blossom preserve. 

The sour cherry is out of this world on mastiha ice cream (if you are in Greece and you can find it) if not its equally divine on some vanilla ice cream.  I would have never even noticed the lemon blossom topping had the shop assistant not pointed it out.  When I realized at the check out that it was 8.50 I thought she had identified me as the foreigner to help shift her stock.  When I spooned it on to some Greek yogurt as she had advised.  Well…  Perfect marriage of flavours!  I have been eating it instead of my usual Greek yogurt and honey.  

My toddler is a very finicky eater.  I always make sure to take her along to the Ariston cheese pie shop.  I had passed this little shop for over a decade before I even realized there was food inside!  Now I wonder how on earth I could have missed it!  Even though it is flanked by shops selling cheese pies on all sides, there is a steady stream of well heeled Athenians walking along with the plain white envelope bearing a steaming Ariston pie.  They also have pies that include spinach, leeks and other vegetables but try the original to start.  And make sure to pick up a fruit juice from the fridge, it works well against the salty backdrop of the cheese.  

One of my favourite chocolates is chocolate covered cherries.  I have loved them since I was a child (despite them being infused with brandy or maybe because of that…?).  Ah, but there is such a delicate balance to be played in the making of a perfect chocolate covered cherry.  The cherry within still has to be plump and flavorsome not a shriveled skin around a cherry stone.  There has to be at least 1/2 a teaspoon of liqueur.  Dark chocolate, that is preferably a thin shell.  I have visited a lot of hoighty toighty establishments and asked to sample this only to be disappointed!  But!  I can say, hand on my heart, that the search is over, I have found it, Aristokratikon!  They also have the best pistachios from Aegina and of course loads of other chocolates I have never even tried because I am to busy buying out their entire supply of cherries!

Address Book, in order of appearance:

Mastiha Shop, 6 Panepistimiou & Criezotou str, Metro-Syntagma, T. 210 3632 750

Ariston, 10 Voulis Str, Metro-Syntagma, 

Aristokratikon, 9 Karageorgi Servias Strk, Metro-Syntagma T. 210 3220 546

Is this Paradise?

Its starting to sound like this Foodie in Berlin title is a bit of a misnomer.  In a couple of weeks I will actually be living in Berlin.  

In the meantime….

….more on Athens.

When I was about 7 years old, my parents decided to move to either Vienna, Austria or Athens, Greece so that I could receive a better education at an International school.  My mother was sent on a reconaissance trip first to Vienna and then Athens.  In Vienna it was cold, raining and I got the measels.  

When she arrived in September in Athens the air was warm, their was a gentle breeze and glimpses of the deep blue sea and blue sky, untainted by even the slightest wisp of cloud…  But Athens stole her heart when she stepped on to the pavement and saw that they were planted with olive trees…

…and that there were oranges rolling down hills.  

At night, with the windows open, the clatter and clinks of people enjoying food, fine and company would sound like they were in the living room with her.  And there would be a thick scent of Jasmine, which I smell as I type this.  

She thought she had arrived in Paradise.  Needless to say, they picked Athens

Varsos, 120 years of rice pudding…

We came to Athens to visit my mother.  And every visit to Athens has to have a visit to Kiffisia and a pastry shop called Varsos that has been open for over a century.  It’s worth a visit just to gape - ever so discreetly - at the lady that sells the Tsoureki (a brioche like bread flavored with mastic).  You can’t miss her, she is probably in her fifties, bleached blond hair that she styles in the fashion of a hedgehog having a bad quill day and lots of make up.  And she never smiles.  Never.  

But you don’t come to Varsos for the smiles, you come for Greek yoghurt and honey with walnuts.  I dare you to find the yoghurt under that mountain of honey and walnuts.  In London I would be lucky to find 3 whole walnuts on that dish, at Varsos I lost count at twenty!  

Or go for the refreshing Rizogalo (rice pudding).  Did you notice the word I used?  ”Refreshing”.  That’s because rice pudding at Varsos and in Greece in general relies on corn flour to thicken it.  First the rice is boiled in water and then the cooked rice is added to the milk.  The choice of the serving dish is essential too.  It comes in a shallow dish about 2 cm high, with what looks like an alarming dousing of cinnamon.  The cinnamon is an integral part of the authentic Varsos rice pudding experience.  One spoon full and you are bound to be hooked.  The ratio of translucent creamy milk to chewy rice grains is ideal.  It’s chilled to the right temperature.  It’s got a thin skin that means that the rice pudding doesn’t flood out into the space created by your spoon. 

Whatever you do, don’t order a Cappuccino or a Latte.  This place is old school; they haven’t the foggiest notion of how to make a good coffee.  Instead, order a Frappe the national drink of Greece.  Basically its instant coffee served over ice in a tall glass that you sip through a florescent straw (always florescent, never white and stripey).  It will take the enamel off your teeth and give you a stomach ache but it will having buzzing away like a happy little bee despite the oppressive heat.

I am flying back to London tomorrow and I will be surrounded once again by Starbucks, Giraffes, GBK etc.  How boring!  

open for over a century.  


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