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Six weeks exploring Greek cuisine 

Going Greek

Hardly anything grows in the chalky, volcanic soil on the Greek island of Santorini except grapes, grape tomatoes, wild capers, and small white eggplants. Perhaps because of the intense struggle to survive, these fruits seemed compelled to become extraordinarily flavorful. Tomatoes straight off the vine are sun-dried sweet while capers are so abundant their leaves are used in salads. Many of the island's wineries allow their grapes to grow in untrellised tangles of old vines covering the mountainous terrain.

One of the signature white wines from Santorini is Asyrtiko. Of particular note is the wine made by winemaker Paris Sigalas for his Sigalas Wine Company. This crisp wine has excellent structure, a lemony finish with a mineral aftertaste, a food-friendly wine that's a good match for the seafood dishes served throughout Santorini and Greece.

Wines from Santorini and from other Greek regions can be found on wine lists at reputable restaurants in the larger cities in Greece. But the majority of eateries, particularly the tavernas and ouzeris, rely on beer, ouzo, and barrel wines, sometimes made by the family who owns the establishment and are served inexpensively in various sizes of carafes, often made of copper.

The foods I sampled in the six weeks I spent traveling throughout Greece, roughly the size of the state Alabama, ranged from the quintessential yogurt to some rather badly crafted, overwrought stews. In general, the touristy places produced forgettable prescribed foods: Greek salads with cheap feta; moussaka with indefinable proteins; clunky stifadho, a traditional stew; and dolmas straight from a can. In some tourist areas like Cretan port cities and Athens, eateries often employ sidewalk hawkers to exhort the menu; these should be avoided. Much better were the out-of-the-way places with paper or plastic tablecloths and menus only in Greek.

One such place in the port town of Rethymnon, Crete, a city filled with Venetian architecture, is a mother-daughter operation with the mother manning the kitchen and the daughter managing the outside. Grape leaves arrived in a neat mound flavored with yogurt and lemon while packed inside with minced meat, rice, and basil. The traditional Cretan dish of rusk, a hard barley crust, with tomatoes and cheese (essentially a rustic bruschetta) tasted of the stripped-down elegance of summer. An ouzeri in Athens offered a spectacular dish of baked artichokes in a lemon sauce accompanied with a simple plate of grilled sardines.

Badly produced olives, yogurt, and honey do not exist in Greece. Olive trees line the routes of roads, front homes, and collect in large orchards wherever land is available. Since recorded history, olives have been a trading commodity and the primary ingredient of Greek cuisine. The selection ranges from the brined-cured Nafplion green olives to the ubiquitous rich and fruity Kalamata. Dozens of varieties of olives are readily available in the large produce markets in Athens and Thessaloniki.

Greek yogurt has become more popular in the United States during the past five years. But the difference in the taste of the brands sold in the United States and the yogurt found throughout Greece is surprising. While the brands such as Fage tout 0- or 2-percent milk fat, the yogurts in Greece promote high milk fat. The best was from a local dairy on Santorini, which had a whopping 10 percent of cow milk fat in their yogurt. Even in Crete, the sheep milk yogurt, with its subtle sourness, had the creaminess of fat. Perhaps due to this fat, the Greeks do not need to load yogurt with sugar products. Instead, local honey, nuts and fresh fruits provide the contrasting taste.

Seafood dishes excel throughout Greece, a country with 2,000 islands. No visit to Greece is complete without tasting the wood-roasted almost-melting tentacles of an octopus highlighted with olive oil, salt, and oregano, or an order of grilled anchovies. The national mythic fish, though, is the small red mullet (barbounia) selected by the patron from a case and then the chef cooks it to order.

Some of the most popular foods in Greece are street foods (but not the sesame-covered soft pretzel that, at times, could stand in for a discus). Spanakopita, or spinach pie, is prepared with either a doughy type covering at fast food places or delicate phyllo dough at bakeries. Sometimes spanakopita is baked in a pie shape and cut into wedges, or twisted into a rope. At Ariston, a pie shop operating since 1910 in Athens, the line streamed out the door at all hours to purchase their cheese pies, as well as their leek and artichoke, or mushroom sausage pies.

Greek gyros are particularly flavorful and cheap even with the weakened U.S. dollar. At the better gyro joints, the meat, either pork or chicken, is lean and tightly layered on a vertical spit. In Thessaloniki this sandwich is prepared with mustard, in Athens with tzaziki, and in Crete with aioli sauce.

The best of the street food, though, (aside from the wonderful cherries found at produce stands) was the loukamades truck stationed near the historic White Tower in Thessaloniki. Loukamades, fried billowy soft doughnut holes soaked in honey syrup that explode in your mouth, are the Greek equivalent of a funnel cake, and can be found in similar tourist areas. In Santorini, Loukamoudoupolis, a small bake shop adorned with a crown of towering loukamades, offered some of these tasty treats stuffed with chocolate. "May you always have sweet in your life," the proprietor said. Not a bad way to end my Grecian culinary adventure.

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