Sou­vlaki so­lu­tion

Food en­trepreneurs in Greece are de­fy­ing the coun­try’s fi­nan­cial cri­sis

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - HE­LENA SMITH

GREECE may be plagued by fi­nan­cial woes, but it is also in the mid­dle of a culi­nary re­nais­sance. In the past three years, the coun­try has ex­pe­ri­enced a boom in food tourism — proof that in re­ces­sions peo­ple still eat. Thanks al­most solely to pri­vate ini­tia­tive, olive har­vest­ing, cheese mak­ing, wine tast­ing and culi­nary tours have taken off.

‘‘The culi­nary scene has been in­flu­enced by the cri­sis, as many Greeks have re­treated from global culi­nary trends to the com­fort of Greek cook­ing,’’ says Despina Trivo­lis, who runs the Athens branch of global net­work Culi­nary Back­streets.

‘‘We are al­ready get­ting a lot of in­ter­est,’’ she says of the com­pany’s de­ci­sion to launch walks around Athens this month. ‘‘There seem to be a lot of in­de­pen­dent foodie trav­ellers who want to eat like Greeks.’’

Even be­fore Greece’s debt drama, the na­tion had be­gun to re­dis­cover the ben­e­fits of re­gional cui­sine. And that cu­rios­ity has trans­lated, in­creas­ingly, into many peo­ple re­dis­cov­er­ing their roots as a great ru­ral mi­gra­tion has be­gun. Overnight, the coun­try has ex­pe­ri­enced a surge in ex­ports of ev­ery­thing from olive oil to honey and feta cheese.

‘‘There is def­i­nitely a lot of in­ter­est from a younger gen­er­a­tion who are all keen on in­vest­ing in Greek culi­nary prod­ucts and ser­vices, be it try­ing to ex­port their fam­ily’s olive oil abroad or learn­ing the ba­sics of or­ganic farm­ing for their fam­ily’s un­used plots,’’ says Trivo­lis.

Typ­i­cal of a gen­er­a­tion that has been skilled and schooled abroad, Trivo­lis is keen to show an Athens far re­moved from the cliches at­tached to Greece since the ar­rival of mass tourism in the 1950s.

Since the cri­sis be­gan, Greek prod­ucts have be­come must-buys, with su­per­mar­kets high­light­ing home-grown fruit, veg­eta­bles and other food in their ad­ver­tis­ing. In Athens, there has been a surge in wine bars with cel­lars that are ex­clu­sively Greek, such as Hete­ro­clito and Oinoscent, both near the cen­tral Syn­tagma Square. There are also restau­rants serv­ing re­gional del­i­ca­cies, such as Kriti in Kani­gos Square, which of­fers au­then­tic Cre­tan cui­sine.

Culi­nary Back­streets has deftly de­cided to cap­i­talise on the ex­plo­sion. ‘‘Our walks con­sist of a full day of eat­ing

above and walking around the heart of Athens, the area that we like to call the stom­ach of the city,’’ says Trivo­lis. ‘‘They in­clude 10 or more culi­nary stops, but also a taste of the real con­tem­po­rary Athens, a city where you can find neo­clas­si­cal build­ings, Bauhaus ar­chi­tec­ture and Ro­man ru­ins within the same block.’’

Trivo­lis says the tours will stop at places such as Kostas (Pen­telis 5) in Agias Eiri­nis Square, said to serve some of the best sou­vlaki in town; Stani (Marika Ko­topouli 10) in Omonoia, which prides it­self on its Greek yo­ghurt; and seafood restau­rant To Tri­antafilo tis Nos­timias (Lekka 22, hid­den away close to Syn­tagma).

The an­cient Greeks may have in­vented gas­tron­omy (and, some say, wine), but Trivo­lis be­moans the tar­di­ness of young Athe­ni­ans in grasp­ing the con­cept of culi­nary tourism. ‘‘It’s in­sane, con­sid­er­ing the su­perb prod­uct that Athens can of­fer as a culi­nary des­ti­na­tion.’’

Lux­ury re­sorts have joined the trend. Costa Navarino, a re­treat in the south­west Pelo­pon­nese favoured by film stars, has turned to the food busi­ness, es­tab­lish­ing its own pro­duce line, Navarino Icons, in 2011. The re­sort of­fers cook­ing classes with lo­cal women shar­ing fam­ily recipes, and wine and olive har­vest­ing tours.

‘‘Har­vest­ing olives has been hugely pop­u­lar,’’ says Peter Pou­los, a part­ner in Navarino Icons. ‘‘At a time when more and more want 100 per cent trace­abil­ity with prod­ucts, we have found that vis­i­tors are de­lighted to see how the olives are har­vested off the tree and then pressed and bot­tled with­out preser­va­tives.’’

Cook­ing schools have also pro­lif­er­ated, pop­ping up on is­lands as far-flung as Ikaria, in the north Aegean, where cel­e­brated Greek-Amer­i­can chef Diane Kochi­las runs ex­tremely suc­cess­ful classes.

ALAMY

Kostas is said to serve some of the best sou­vlaki in Athens

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