Epicurean Journey Greece: Athens

Athens from above

There I was standing on the ancient grounds of the Acropolis, a mortal mingling in the land of gods. It was October and I was in Greece on assignment with The Luxury Collection to photograph their hotels’ culinary offerings, and in part to experience the country’s cuisine and cooking traditions. Twelve days. Five destinations. Seven hotels. A gig of a lifetime.

I’m not sure how a trip to Greece has eluded me for this long. In a sense its cuisine has as well. I was well versed with a spanakopita (spinach pie) and Greece’s best answer to street food, the gyro. But I didn’t know that in Greece wine is intentionally produced to pair with food. Or that rarely is any dish spicy hot. I learned that of all the Greek wines I am partial to vinsanto, a dessert wine that looks and tastes like the elixir of love.

Over the next few posts I’ll be sharing parts of my trip from each destination: Crete, Costa Navarino, Athens, Mykonos and Santorini. To get an overall sense of what two weeks in Greece entailed have a look at the short video I filmed. (Hearts will melt at approximately 00:44 secs into the film.) But while my travels started in Mykonos I cannot help but start my story in Athens, the heart and soul of Greece.

The Acropolis, Athens

It’s a slippery path to the Acropolis. Marble stone steps are polished smooth by the soles of millions who visit each year. “Take small steps,” I cautioned Alison, my hometown friend and wedding photographer who has joined me on this leg of the trip. We didn’t have much time to be tourists in Athens but we couldn’t miss the pride of Greece. The Acropolis, roughly translated to “high city” is where citizens of ancient civilization would take refuge if the city was attacked. Such a treasure are the marbles of the Parthenon that I managed to stoke slight agitation from a few locals at the mere mention of London. In a 300 year old winery in Santorini a conversation about grapes grown from volcanic soil somehow led to an impassioned history of the Parthenon sculptures and the British Museum’s refusal to return them.  To say the least, it’s still a touchy subject two hundred years later.Athens acropolis

candids-by-jo-in-athensAthens acropolisVisiting the Varvakeios Agora | Athens Central Market

Chef Asterion Koustoudis led the way into the Varvakeios agora, Athens’s central market. It was lively for a weekday morning with vendors tirelessly calling out to customers hoping to drum up business. Where modern supermarkets have drawn the younger generation of shoppers the central market have retained a more mature clientele. I was in the midst of the over 40 club and sidestepped their small trolleys to meet the chef’s fishmonger.Athens food market sausages athens-central-market-prawnsA fish market selling fresh fish should not smell fishy Chef Asterion said as he selected calamari and prawns for our afternoon photoshoot at the Hotel Grande Bretagne’s Roof Garden restaurant. I managed to nod in agreement before the fishmongers pulled me to their workstation to demonstrate how to descale, gut and clean a fish with a motion so quick and seamless I barely managed to catch footage. One of the pleasures in watching others work in their own element is seeing the pride in which they do it and that morning in the market was yet another example.Fishmonger at the Athens Central Market
varvakeios-fish-market-athensAthens food market eggsathens-market

Photoshoot at the Hotel Grande Bretagne

There’s an undeniable allure to Hotel Grande Bretagne. Its history is as rich as the 18th century tapestry it wears on its wall. Often referred to as the grand dame of Athens the hotel has hosted royalty, foreign dignitaries and Olympians during the best of times and the worst. I was there in a semi-tumultuous time myself as the Greek air traffic controllers’s threatened three day strike was wreaking havoc on travelers’ flight plans as well as my own. As the concierge desk fielded queries and provided support to guests I tried to allay my worries while on a food photography assignment for the hotel. (The strike was eventually called off but not before we ended our stay in Athens early and boarded an overnight boat to Crete.)
hotel-grande-bretagne-athensHotel Grande Bretagne lobbyChef Asterion Koustoudis Athens Grand BretagneAny professional food photographer will tell you: do not shoot food while hungry. Rarely is ever one shot the shot and it takes time to build a scene to one that feels natural or interesting. And you never want to run the risk of eating the hero (the star of the food shot). But even with the Acropolis overlooking my shoulder and an audience of restaurant guests casting glances while I worked I couldn’t help but take that bite of the chef’s sea bass confit in olive oil and summer vegetables. It also happens to be my favorite shot.
Athens Grande Bretagne roof garden Grilled calamari Grande Bretagne Roof GardenAnother photoshoot I did was afternoon tea at the Winter Garden. Perhaps influenced by the hotel’s name (Grande Bretagne means Great Britain in French) the Winter Garden offers high tea daily. While I did not have the appetite to try the cakes (remember my no shooting while hungry rule), Alison enjoyed enough for the both of us.
winter-garden-grand-bretagne-afternoon-teaHotel Grande Bretagne desserts

Modern Greek dining at the Tudor Hall Restaurant

Before we were due to board an adventurous overnight boat trip to Crete, Alison and I relished our last dinner in Athens at the Tudor Hall Restaurant in The King George Hotel. The emphasis of the restaurant is on seasonal produce in creating authentic Greek dishes with a modern twist. Chef Alexandros Koskinas easily won our allegiance with a salad of cherry tomatoes and capers, the gems of Santorini, but it was his sultry white eggplant salad that will forever live in my top food memories bank.
candids-by-jo-athens-tudor-hallgreek-wine-from-santoriniThe eggplant salad is always prepared by the guest’s table. Previously grilled for 25 minutes for a smoky flavor, the meat of the eggplant is then scooped out and layered with the simplest of ingredients: lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, fresh onions, chili oil, vinegar then parsley. We’re told the order in which these ingredients are added is important to the taste.  I can only trust him as it is without a doubt the most luxurious eggplant salad I’ve ever had – and this is coming from someone who doesn’t particularly care much for the nightshade.ggplant salad Athens Tudor Hall restaurantGreek smoked eggplant saladIt’s unfortunate we had to rush our meal to catch the overnight boat to our next destination but I did not leave before having another firm favorite, their moussaka. Our waiter, Kostas, declared it the best moussaka in Athens. It is all in the sauce, he confided in us. I leaned in as he was about to divulge trade secrets. Instead of a bechamel sauce we use Greek yogurt and gruyere cheese. I feel a little guilty in potentially betraying his confidence here on the blog but the world needs to know the secret to Athens’ best moussaka.

Note: I was a guest of the Hotel Grande Bretagne and worked in collaboration with The Luxury Collection for this piece.

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