We’ve talked before about Greek coffee, and it’s true that going out for coffee is one of Athenians’ favorite pastimes, but there are plenty of Greeks who prefer tea or infusions. And in fact, the practice of gathering wild herbs has a history that stretches all the way back into antiquity. References to Mediterranean flora are found everywhere in history, from Egypt to Asia Minor and from Homer to the ancient Greek philosophers’ texts. Take, for instance, Hippocrates, the so-called father of medicine, who focused on the healing properties of plants and actually recorded about 400 species of herbs and their known uses in the 5th century BCE. That era saw a heavy trade in herbs between the Mediterranean and the East.
Due to its temperate climate and exceptionally diverse flora and fauna, Greece is one of the richest countries in the world, herbally speaking. Wild herbs, usually collected from mountains, are used for teas and infusions – the majority of them intended as natural remedies – and for cooking and baking.
Here, we’ve listed a few of the most popular Greek herbs and described their uses and have included recommendations for several shops around Athens where they can be found. Of course, they can neither replace medicine nor are they meant to be consumed in extreme quantities. You may also wish to check first for allergic reactions to any of these.
Recently claimed to be a natural weapon against Alzheimer’s disease, tsai tou vunu, or mountain tea, can also aid the upper respiratory system and fend off colds and has other notable antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, according to some scientific research. Look for the dried leaves of plants of the genus Sideritis, which grow on the slopes of Mt. Olympus.
Chamomile (chamomili) dates back to ancient times: Hippocrates, for one, used it as a painkiller. Its elegant white blossoms are modest in appearance but can be applied as a poultice to calm skin irritations. Brewed as a tea, chamomile can help settle an upset stomach or aid in sleep. Another herb used for relaxation is louisa, or lemon verbena.
As for headaches and migraines, a cup of strong fliskouni, or wild mint, might do the trick. Ancient Greeks perfumed their bath water with mint leaves, which were known for their antiseptic qualities even then.
Faskomilo, or sage, is made into tea for its antioxidant and stimulant properties. (It’s also fantastic as a seasoning for pork.)
Dictamo (Origanum dictamnus, or dittany) is a wild plant native to the island of Crete. It has a very strong, pleasant fragrance and flavor and is thought of by many as the Greek edelweiss, as it grows on steep slopes. Dictamo soothes an upset digestive system as well as headaches and toothaches. On Crete, young people would traditionally offer it as a sign of their love, which is why it is also known as erontas (Cretan for erotas, or love). Dictamo is a relative of oregano, which is perhaps the most commonly used herb in the Greek kitchen. Often included in the classic “Greek salad” of tomatoes and cucumbers, oregano is rich in Vitamin C. And according to Greek folk wisdom, it is said to protect one from black magic and the evil eye, though there’s not much in the way of scientific study to support that.
Evripidou Street, just two blocks away from the central market, is Athens’ herb and spice district. Sacks and large jars filled with every kind of dried herb line the road. In many stores, small bunches hang on the walls, giving off the scent of the Greek countryside. Travel back in time by stepping into the diminutive Elixirion, where within beautiful antique wooden cases the rarest herbs wait to be found. Owner Periklis Koniaris and his wife offer expert guidance to the uninitiated or curious. Among the most popular choices are mountain tea, oregano, thyme, sage and verbena. And if you need a natural sweetener, Elixirion also offers a variety of honeys.
In the southern part of the city, you’ll find Batavia (formerly Arkefthos), a sophisticated grocery store specializing in herbs and teas. The mini-chain’s four shops are strategically placed throughout Athens and the suburbs, but the best among them is the one in the bustling neighborhood of Kallithea.
However, when it comes to Greek herbs we can’t think of a better guide than Stefanos Papatziallas, owner of Madras teahouse. He sources all his tea directly from producers in China, Japan, India, Kenya, Vietnam and other countries, as well as from producers all over Greece. A few years ago, Papatziallas asked the Benaki Phytopathological Institute to develop a new method to rid wild herbs naturally of pests and at the same time maintain all of their organic properties. Today, Madras produces a great range of organic dried herbs, which he exports to the UK and U.S. as well. At Madras, you can compare mountain teas from the island of Euboea and from the Magnesia area in Thessaly. We find the former stronger in aroma and flavor, the latter milder and more elegant. For anyone wishing to dive deep into the world of tea, Papatziallas will happily share everything he knows.