I like Greece and I like Greek tavernas, they are almost always friendly inviting places and the food is inexpensive and good value and it rarely disappoints. I like the way that when you arrive and select a table you get invited into the kitchen to meet the chef, to carry out an inspection and to satisfy yourself about hygiene standards and then get to choose the food. I like the carefree ambiance and the complete lack of formality, outside wooden tables and rattan chairs, check tablecloths, extensive menus and unhurried waiters. I like the cheap paper table covers so you can spill food and drink without worrying about disapproving looks or being presented with the laundry bill, I like the certain company of scrounging cats and I especially like those with live bouzouki players running through the familiar catalogue of traditional Greek music and always starting and finishing with the obligatory ‘Zorba’.
Greece has a culinary tradition dating back thousands of years and over the centuries Greek cuisine has evolved and absorbed numerous influences. Greek food is best kept simple because too much refinement is generally considered to be against the spirit of Greek cooking and typical dishes include souvlaki, fried meatballs, squash balls, octopus, shrimp, squid, feta cheese, olives, stuffed vine leaves, tzatziki eggplant dip, small sausages and giant beans. For the evening meal, Greek tavernas serve such specialties as moussaka made from lamb, eggplant and béchamel sauce, kebabs, pastitsio, a speciality of Corfu, that consists of lamb or goat meat with macaroni and tomatoes, stifado, braised beef with onions and paidakia, which is a delicious grilled lamb or goat chops.
My personal favourite is Kleftiko, which is a knuckle of lamb, cooked slowly and served with vegetables and rice. In Greek, kleftiko means stolen meat and according to legend, this dish would be made with a lamb stolen from a flock as it grazed on a hillside. The thief would cook the meat over many hours in a hole in the ground, sealed with mud so that no steam could escape to give him away. Nowadays, to recreate this, the lamb is sealed inside a paper package, which keeps the meat moist and traps its fragrant juices.
On the island of Ios in the Cyclades there is beach taverna, which serves possibly the best calamari in the whole of the Mediterranean. The little place is delightful with a shaded terrace that overlooks the beach and the tiny bay and it is run by an old woman who probably should have retired years ago and it has a limited but interesting menu and with the sort of prices that I really like. Going to the beach and the taverna is part of the Ios routine and everyday I can happily sit at the same table and have the same delicious calamari and dish of Greek salad.
Also on Ios in the Chora at the very top of the town next to a row of redundant windmills is a taverna called ‘The Mills’ with tables that sprawl untidily across the pavement and with table cloths flapping vigorously in a constant stiff wind that brings a slight chill to the evening air, so much so that local families who dine at the restaurant slip on warm woollen jumpers as a precaution. This is completely unnecessary of course because the wind is simply refreshing and by no means cold enough for additional layers of clothing. The nice thing about the Chora is that although it is a place for tourists it is also a real place where people live as well and go out together for dinner. While parents and grandparents enjoy their food and wine the children, in their best clothes, play in a dried up flowerbed of red earth, chase the stray cats and generally have a very good time.
My favourite Greek taverna, however, without a shadow of a doubt was the ‘Boss Bar’ on the island of Santorini in 2004. It was an untidy little place right on the beach at Perissa and on a fortnight’s holiday we dined there most evenings and when we felt obliged to try somewhere different, just for a change, we almost always wished that we hadn’t and went back there later for a final drink. The ‘Boss Bar’ really had been an excellent place, the staff were attentive and friendly, the food was good, the beer was cold and the prices were reasonable. It has taken me a while to get to the point of this story but there was always complimentary ouzo to finish the evening (except when there was complimentary melon which quite frankly wasn’t so good) but the place had my fullest recommendation. On my fiftieth birthday a very substantial meal for nine cost only €85, I left a hundred, the owner refused such a generous tip, I insisted, and he completed our meal with at least €25 worth of complimentary sweets and drinks.
I returned to Santorini in 2006 but was devastated to find that it had gone, probably because the owner had been far too generous with the complimentary ouzo.