Editor’s note: We’re sad to report that Aigaion has closed.
Loukoumades! In the long, slow afternoons that would follow the enormous Sunday lunches with the full complement of our parents’ friends, all one had to say was that word, and the calm would be broken. Women (and sometimes men) would instantly bustle into the kitchen, haul out large plastic basins and begin the preparation. After what always seemed an interminable wait, plates loaded with golden, deep-fried balls of dough, crispy and drenched in honey, would appear from the kitchen, followed by a yelping array of children.
We would eat our fill and then lie around as our parents debated the relative merits of loukoumades versus zvingi (the richer, more solid variety not requiring yeast) and the recipes that produced the best results. We remember one friend creating much consternation by insisting on a family recipe that included the use of yogurt. She was pooh-poohed until she disappeared into her kitchen and whipped up a batch. After tasting them, the doubters, though full on loukoumades, had to eat their words, too.
This was all far away in distant Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – where the expatriate Greeks clung firmly to their traditions and to each other. Coming to Athens, we encountered similar scenes of enthusiasm and activity surrounding the mention of that magical word. We also discovered what in Greece is known as a koino mistiko – a “common secret,” or not really a secret at all – a small basement establishment, opening up from an unassuming door onto one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Aigaion is a little shop of delight, serving freshly fried loukoumades all day long and all year round.
Housed in a 19th-century neoclassical building, Aigaion opened its doors in 1926 as a traditional coffee shop – the framed menus on the walls attest to that fact. A few years later, loukoumades appeared on the menu and eventually became the main product on offer. Aigaion is still run by the same family; Yiorgos Fyllas, the present owner, is the grandson of the original proprietor and, in staunch Greek tradition, bears his name.
In true kafeneion style and in keeping with Aigaion’s history, the décor is stark and utilitarian – tiles, white walls, small marble tables and metal chairs – but therein lies some of its charm. On the walls, blue-framed prints of ships and engravings of ports support the name, which means “Aegean.” It is not an atmosphere to linger in, though looking at the old menus, it seems that, back then, you could linger as long as you liked playing card games – for a price.
On a recent visit, as we sat, a family of four came in. They ordered two portions and shared, making short work of them. Then after some debate, they ordered “One more portion, please.” That disappeared even faster, and they were off.
We too ordered a portion of loukoumades. They came swiftly. Crisp on the outside, soft and warm on the inside – perfect little gold rings sitting in a pool of honey, dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon – very satisfying. You have the choice of ordering your loukoumades topped with dark chocolate (“We make it ourselves”) and/or nuts. We remembered that they used to offer a cheese topping, but it was no longer on the menu, and when asked, our waiter reported that it had been taken off because it hadn’t proved very popular.
We decided to try the latest menu additions, jellos supposedly made from freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice. They were very refreshing but tasted more like the juice came from a carton rather than directly from the fruit. There were also sweet and savory pies that looked very tempting.
Our dour-faced waiter eyed us with suspicion when we attempted to engage him in conversation but warmed up eventually and told us that he hailed from the island of Tinos and had been working at Aigaion for 30 years. “There was a time,” he said, “when I would have whipped your plate away before the last forkful was in your mouth, there were so many people waiting outside. We still have our regulars, though. Mostly old people. Young people come too. Couples that order one portion between two.”
According to our Tinos friend, the menu expanded 15 years ago to include savory cheese pies and then three years ago, sweet pies were included – portokalopita (orange pie), karydopita (walnut pie), galatopita (milk pie) – and now the jellos.
There are frozen specialties you can take with you to cook at home, including mini croissants, apple and cheese pies and, of course, loukoumades. If, however, you don’t want to mess around with hot oil, you can get a freshly fried portion to go, sweetly dripping in a box, and if you live close enough, you can even ring and have them delivered, piping hot, to your doorstep.
Aigaion is neither the sole nor the oldest of downtown Athens’ traditional loukoumades shops. Most are located in areas that have seen better days and have not quite started the ascent into trendy gentrification. Each of these establishments has proponents who will ardently argue its superior merits, usually because they’ve been going there since childhood or since coming to the city. There are also the nostalgic pessimists who will tell you that all these “famous” places are not what they used to be. Usually they know of some obscure hole-in-the-wall in their neighborhood where the cook still remembers how it should be done.
Nowadays, loukoumades are undergoing an enormous revival. Many a restaurant will offer them as an after-dinner treat, replacing the more traditional halva or fruit. New shops are opening their doors all over the city, serving them with ice cream, chocolate sauce, berries, glyko tou koutaliou (syrupy fruit preserves) and every other imaginable topping, sweet or savory.
Yet, despite all the frenzy, Aigaion is unlikely to lose our business when the loukoumades urge overtakes us – these things are, after all, clearly about tradition.