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Dear Culinary Backstreets,
I’ve noticed that a dish called “moustalevria” pops up in shops all over Athens in the autumn months. What is it, and where can I get it?

To get to moustalevria, we must first start with wine, which has been an inextricable part of Greek culture since antiquity. The Ancient Greeks spread the practice of grape-growing and winemaking throughout their colonies, literally preparing the ground for some of the Mediterranean’s most important wine regions. In addition to wine, the Greeks have also made use of moustos, or grape must, the unfiltered and unfermented juice from freshly pressed grapes. Moustos is turned into petimezi (grape molasses), a naturally sweet syrup, and boiled with other ingredients to make moustalevria, a thick, tawny, jello-like pudding.

Moustalevria is a simple dish, but there are many ways to make it. Using petimezi instead of moustos makes a sweeter, more commercial-tasting version. One old-fashioned method involves tying up a small amount of wood ash in cheesecloth and placing it in the boiling moustos to draw out the impurities and clarify the pudding. Some might use semolina or corn flour to thicken the dish, and still others might add honey or sugar for extra sweetening – a shortcut we don’t approve of. In our humble opinion, the best, most authentic moustalevria is made with fresh must and flour.

In Greek, the grape harvest is called trygos, and the month of September is known as o trigitis (loosely, “the wine harvester”). Traditionally, moustalevria is enjoyed during the trygos, so from late August to November you’ll find individual portions of the stuff in clear plastic cups in most bakeries and supermarkets in Athens. (Outside of Athens, moustos is easier to find, and many Greeks make moustalevria at home.) Sometimes the pudding is so thick that it’s chewy, and the flavors can range from earthy to nutty to sweet – but a good one is never too sweet.

We love the moustalevria sold at two of our favorite local eateries. At Varsos, the famous old-fashioned coffeehouse in the affluent suburb of Kifisia, the pudding is dark, sweet and topped with a thin layer of walnut trimmings that accentuate the dish’s earthiness. Stani, the downtown dairy bar famous for its Greek yogurt and classic desserts, makes a lighter, yet equally flavorful version garnished with sesame seeds and cinnamon.

But the best moustalevria of all comes from the small town of Markopoulo, about 30 km southeast of Athens, which is known for its vineyards and winemaking tradition. There, the Daremas family makes organic red, white and rosé wines, which they sell at their wine shop by the bottle and, as is customary in Greece, by the kilo, straight from the barrel. Their bakery, one of the oldest in town, makes a moustalevria that is as close to the old-fashioned original as you’re likely to find. Lighter in color, studded with whole almonds and dusted with almond shavings, their version has no added syrup or sugar and is unusually delicate in flavor. If you can’t make it to Markopoulo, you can find Daremas’ moustalevria at Ellinika Kaloudia, a Greek delicatessen near the Acropolis Museum. They get it once per week (usually Thursday) but sell out pretty quickly, so be sure to call in advance to make sure they have it in stock. – Despina Trivolis

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