Two weeks ago, I was packing my bags for my big trip of the year – last year was Paris, Rome, and Florence – this year was Greece. I was looking forward to new sights, experiences, good weather, relaxing, and, of course, the food and wine. I was so excited to see if Greece was really as picturesque, serene, and as delicious as I’d been led to believe (spoiler alert – it is!). I was ready to eat my way through all the gyros, saganaki, souvlaki, and baklava that I could find. We spent a few days each in Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini and each place was full of unique memories, and not surprisingly, a lot of them centered around food!
In Athens, the moussaka and loukoumades were on the top of my list. I had never tried moussaka before, but this one from Arcadia (near the Acropolis) was incredible. Moussaka is typically layers of ground beef, eggplant, and béchamel, but this one was wrapped in eggplant and had chunks of lamb inside – hearty and delicious.
Loukoumades are delicious Greek donuts – think donut holes covered in honey and walnuts. They taste event better when you’re enjoying them next to the Temple of Zeus! Perfect with a cup of coffee, I enjoyed these on both of our mornings in Athens.
On our last morning in Athens, determined not to miss the ancient agora, or food market, I made the trek to see what all the hype was about. I had heard that the market was particularly busy in the morning because restaurants made their daily selections, so I wanted to be a part of the action. Half of the market is dedicated to fresh fish, while the other half favors meat – large cuts of it, think beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken, rabbit, etc.
It reminded me of my all-time favorite market in Florence, but without the cheese, pasta, and ready to eat food vendors on the inside. The outside of the agora is lined with vendors selling spices, nuts, dried fruit, and olives, so in a matter of minutes you can be ready to cook a delicious Mediterranean meal!
In Mykonos, we rented an ATV and headed to Paradise Beach (think a Las Vegas nightclub happening outside on the beach) to enjoy lunch. The gyro was served as a platter (not the sandwich with pita bread, I had been use to having) and as it turns out, the popular meat for gyro in Greece, isn’t lamb, but actually pork. We opted for chicken, and it was incredible. You could tell it had been spit roasted and shaved off just before getting to the table. The meal wasn’t fancy by any means, but certainly memorable.
My favorite sweet treat I enjoyed on this island (aside from a lot of gelato) was bougatsa – greek milk pie. The best I can explain it is that it’s phyllo dough around a mildly sweet custard – just the perfect balance of crunchy and creamy. I’m looking forward to trying my hand and making my own!
Our last stop was Santorini. I’m convinced that Santorini is probably one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s simply stunning with its white washed houses and hotels, blue roofs, lots and lots of stairs, and gorgeous sunsets.
On our first night, we had dinner at Pelekano’s in Oia. Luckily, the food is as delicious as the sunset (definitely make a reservation!).
We started with a watermelon and grilled haloumi salad with fig sauce. My boyfriend, the one who doesn’t typically eat anything that has the word salad associated with it, suddenly had a new favorite dish. The fruit and cheese combo provided the perfect balance of texture and sweet and savory flavors. I see lots of grilled haloumi dishes in our future this summer!
For dinner, I tried the giovetsi, a traditional greek pasta dish, made with hilopetes (the pasta – a small square egg noodle) and a braised beef sauce. It was simple and delicious and paired well with a glass of Assyrtiko – a Santorini grape.
The next day, we visited Ammoudi Bay, nestled into the bottom of a cliff in Oia. 300 stairs, and a few donkey sightings later, we reached the bottom.
The view is nothing short of spectacular and the water is a shade of turquoise I had never seen.
Fish is the feature of all the restaurants in the bay and it’s unbelievably fresh, having been caught only hours before. You go to the counter and make your selection so you know exactly what you’re getting. Lobster, prawns, sun-dried octopus, are all popular, and preparation is simple, just as it should be. After our grilled haloumi with Santorini tomatoes, we tried grilled tuna (that had been caught the night before) and salmon tartar – it was perfectly briny, seasoned with little more than olive oil, lemon, and pink peppercorns, and paired nicely with grilled bread. Apparently, some people hike back up the 300 stairs after they enjoy their meal, but I valued my relationship enough to know it was time to head back to the hotel by car!
At the end of the day, I learned that Greece is a beautiful and delicious place, and a perfect place to relax. You won’t see the flaming saganaki that was actually invented in Chicago, but you will taste some incredible Mediterranean flavors.
If you can’t pack up and get to Greece right away, check out The Chopping Block's Culinary Adventure: A Trip to the Greek Islands on Wednesday 5/30 at the Merchandise Mart for the ultimate Greek feast. Also in our Mediterranean Meze class on 6/5 at Lincoln Square and 6/23 at the Merchandise Mart, you’ll get to enjoy all the flavors (including haloumi) and spices of the region without the plane ticket!