A CULINARY ODYSSEY OF GREECE
To the west of Greece, Greek food has long been synonymous with cheap and cheerful, but there's reason to believe that it’s been growing out of that particular skin. After all, there was a time when Italian food was seen as spaghetti and meatballs and little else, and look at it now. The perception of Italy having a cuisine limited to pasta has changed dramatically (although why anyone would think that a whole country subsisted on nothing but a single food is beyond comprehension).
When my uncle came to visit one summer, I took him straight to the Danforth, also known as Greektown, which he promptly dubbed Salonika because he had spent a lot of time in Greece during a career in shipping and was hankering for some Greek food. We ate there almost daily during his visit, and we would circulate thanks to a cab company whose drivers all seemed to be Greek. My uncle would sit up front and start to grill the driver about Greek dishes I'd never heard of, in particular a garlic-ridden soup that he used to eat in the port of Piraeus. Nothing came of it the first couple of times, but the third time -- when he got the idea to do the grilling in Greek -- he hit pay dirt. Yes, the driver said, you can get that dish here, but it's not on the menu; the owners, he said, made it for themselves and their friends. He recommended a couple of restaurants where we might lucky, and my uncle was set for the rest of his visit.
Greek food is a lot more than just lamb, stewed vegetables, a few appetizers and soggy baklava. And anyone who has stood in a kitchen for several hours preparing the Greek dish "moussaka" knows that it's a far cry from shepherd’s pie. I say this because there are people out there who think moussaka is a 20-minute slinging-together of mashed potatoes and ground beef. And maybe it has to be if diners insist on Greek restaurants being "cheap." You get what you pay for. Moussaka is a multilayered dish, where each layer is prepared and cooked separately before it's assembled and then baked. It involves sliced, drained, fried eggplant, a meat mixture, potatoes, and béchamel sauce, which alone takes at least half and hour to make.
Greece, lest we forget, has sea and sun and mountains and islands where olive trees and herbs grow wild. Food is fresh and it's seasonal, and the traditional diet is low on meat (although statistics show that Greeks are eating more meat these days) and high on pulses, fish and seafood, cheese and yogurt, vegetables, breads, grains, nuts and olive oil -- all components of the Mediterranean way of eating.
I had a taste of the real thing recently, when the International Olive Oil Council held a symposium on Greek food, and produced a lunch made from recipes from some of the guest speakers, cookbook authors of high repute who had come from Athens, New York and San Francisco, and a restaurateur from Montreal who has already succeeded in introducing gourmet Greek food to Canada in his restaurant, Milos (Greek for windmill). The lunch was succulent, the kind that lingers in your memory for a long time.
We began with small black olive-stuffed phyllo pies as light as air, hot pepper and feta spread on a variety of country breads, tender smoked trout, and a Thracian salad made with purslane, diced tomatoes and cucumber, fresh mint leaves and other fresh herbs. This was followed by baked sea bass with rosemary and accompanied by the wild greens so dear to Greek palates, steamed and lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, and giant beans baked with honey and dill. Dessert came later, buffet-style, but for all its sophistication, I preferred the fresh white cheese called Manouri with almond-stuffed fresh figs.....
To this day, I think of the Danforth as "Salonika" amd I always remember my uncle when I'm there, transported back to Greece and practising my long-forgotten Greek. In case you're wondering, my family was spread all over the globe; I grew up with many languages being spoken around me, and having a good ear, I picked up a few. If I've forgotten most of them, it's for lack of practice.