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If it’s your first visit to Greece you’re in for a treat – Greek food is a delight and, for most visitors, experiencing the laid-back taverna lifestyle is very much a key part of their holiday. But be warned: Greece isn’t for dieting - the food is far too delicious!

The world's first known cookbook was written in Greek and, by the time of Alexander the Great, professional chefs in Athens had to undertake a two-year exam course. The excellence of Greek cuisine was such that Roman Emperors and officials took Greek chefs to Italy.

Athenaeus wrote The Banquet of the Learned around 200 A.D. and many of the meals described in his writings are still eaten today. During the Dark Ages, when Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, culinary skills were preserved in monasteries where, when cooking, the monks wore a white version of their famous tall black hats - later adopted by chefs as a sign of their competence.

In the tourist resorts the tavernas tend to ‘cater for the British’ and you’ll find menus in Greek and English, maybe other languages as well. Don’t be surprised if the waiter appears with the menu and a basket of bread – this is traditional as the Greeks eat a fair amount of bread with their meals. It’s usual, but not obligatory, to have a starter and your main meal will usually be accompanied by some chips and a small side salad or veg. Oh, and don't expect your starter to arrive before your main course... it doesn't always  work that way...

Menus tend to be mainly for tourists, Greeks prefer to ask the waiter what's available, or they'll walk up to the kitchen and look. 

So, sometimes you won’t be handed a menu, you’ll be invited in to the kitchen – not to inspect the place (remember Nelson and turn a blind eye) but to see what’s cooking. That’s really traditional and I’ve often found that the older the décor, the better the food. If you want ‘traditional’ you can find it on Kefalonia but, usually, a little tucked away. Here’s an idea of what you might find:
Η Βρυση
Traditional garden grill
Open 17:00 - late
Tzannata, Poros

As the Greeks tend to start work early and then siesta in the afternoon, they eat around midday and then, maybe, again late in the evening. Their belief is that hot food is unhealthy and Greeks tend to spend a long time over their meal, eating slowly and giving it time to digest. So, if your meal arrives lukewarm, that's traditional, not bad service (if you ask, "Zesto, parakalor" they will heat it up for you).

Most Brits expect their meals to come with chips and veg but, in traditional tavernas, if you order, e.g. Kefalonia Meat Pie then that’s what you’ll get. If you want chips, you order a plate of chips; if you want vegetables, you order a plate of horta, or whatever.

You might also find that some terms are interpreted differently, e.g. a pork steak is what Brits call a pork chop. A beef steak will likely be rump, not sirloin and, generally, it's best to go for fillet steaks.

Vegetarianism as such isn’t widely practiced in Greece but, by tradition, Greeks eat a lot of vegetables – partly because when Greece and Greeks were pretty poor (as many now are) they would go out in to the hills and pick horta, a wild plant that looks a bit like dandelion leaves – sometimes known as vlyta on Kefalonia – a variety of horta.

Old habits die hard and, when you’re out and about, you might see a big new car parked by the side of the road and notice a little old lady nearby picking horta. Not only is it free, it’s pretty nutritious – a staple part of the traditional healthy Greek diet.

So, when Greeks go out for a meal they tend to want to eat meat – or seafood, which is more popular in Greece than in the UK. Being mostly surrounded by seas you might think that fish would be plentiful and cheap in Greece but the Med has been drastically over-fished by the big fleets from northern Europe and fish stocks are pretty precarious.

If you see the word ‘kat’ next to a menu item it doesn’t mean you’ll be served the cute, fluffy little thing you were feeding scraps to yesterday – it means the food has been frozen, e.g. fish. So, if on the islands you order e.g. red mullet it will almost certainly have been caught locally within the past few days; if you order Nile perch...

Don’t forget that, in Greece, fish comes cooked as is – head, tail, eyes an’ all. Just ask the waiter when you order and the chef will fillet it for you, if required.

Greek menus can be quite entertaining, here’s some dishes I’ve seen on offer:

Lamp chops (lamb chops)
Fried Aborigines (fried aubergines)
Kiss Lauren (quiche lorraine)
Pig spit (pig on the spit)
Geek salad (served with micro chips?)
Bold vegetables (boiled vegetables)
Sea buss (yup, runs between Poros - Skala - Katelios)
Scrabbled eggs (a bit wordy)
Hamburber (too many scrabbled eggs?)

The wine list can be equally… interesting…

A wine bottled and labelled (in Greek) as ‘Plagies of Ainos’ was translated into English as ‘Plagues of Enos’

And it’s a bit scary when it says “all the wine has been passed by the management”… hmm

Bear in mind that most Greek tavernas in the UK are Greek-Cypriot and that their cuisine is slightly different to what you’ll find on offer in Greece, e.g. houmous, haloumi and Keo are Cypriot specialities, although you can now buy haloumi and sheftelia in Argostoli and, e.g.,Vanessa taverna in Poros may have them on the menu.

mezethes A meze in a Greek taverna in the UK means a huge mixture of dishes, in Greece a mezethes is a small plate of olives / gavros / squid / pistachios to accompany a glass of ouzo. In some tavernas you might see pikilia on the menu – something (vaguely) like what Brits think of as meze.

Greek mezethes are typically served in the kafeneion, the ‘coffee shop’, the Greek version of a working men’s club, but without the comedians and strippers (sorry girls!)  By custom(er) only, these are all male preserves where tavli (backgammon) is played and ouzo (and coffee) is consumed along with mezethes.

Nowadays the distinctions are getting somewhat blurred, especially in the tourist areas but, traditionally and maybe still in rural areas, there was/is specialisation:

a taverna served dishes cooked in the oven, such as mousaka, pastitsio, stifado, youvetsi and kreatópita (Kefalonian Meat Pie) – a good example is Patsouras  in Argostoli - go up to the kitchen and see what's on offer.

a pseestaria specialises in grilled meats, such as kontosouvli, souvla, pansetta, ‘chops’ and kokoretsi (now banned but still available in certain places)

a souvlatzidiko specialises in souvlakia and yiros pita - inexpensive, filling and tasty!

a psarotaverna specialises in seafood, usually priced per kilo - go in and watch it being weighed, as the Greeks do.

Traditionally, none would serve sweets (desserts), for that you would go to a zakharoplasteio, where you’d find baklava, kadaifi, galaktobouriko, etc.

While you’re out and about you might come across a khasapotaverna, a pseestaria attached to a butcher’s shop, e.g. in Agia Eirini, although it now functions as an ouzeri / mezedhopoleio, which serve ouzo, barrelled wine, coffee, and mezethes. And quite possibly you’ll come across an estiatorio - an ‘upmarket taverna’, or restaurant.

Your diet can wait ‘til you get back home, so...

Kali orexi – enjoy your meal (I’m sure you will).

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