Athinas is one of our favorite streets in the whole of Athens. Running from Omonia to Monastiraki squares, it has a scruffy, chaotic, disreputable charm that has hardly changed since we moved to Greece more than 40 years ago. From the Omonia side to City Hall and the Central Market, hawkers and peddlers – of everything from sunglasses and “magic” juicers to contraband cigarettes – make the sidewalk an obstacle course for the crowds of shoppers in search of bargains in open storefronts. But who cares? Some people stop to watch or haggle; others surge into the traffic to cross the street, regardless of whether the lights are red or green. Most of them are what snobs would call the hoi polloi, going about their daily errands.
The southern half of Athinas appeals to us even more, because so many food stores are concentrated here. Besides the garishly lit, endlessly fascinating clamor of the Varvakeio Central Fish and Meat Market, the side streets too are dedicated to food, usually according to type – vegetables, preserved meats, cheeses, herbs and spices – as if they were Anatolian souks. In this quarter you may doubt whether Athens is a European city after all.
Each of these mini bazaars deserves a separate introduction all to itself, as do some of the shops and eateries (Diporto, for one) nearby, but for now we’ve singled out one very special store, about three blocks from Monastiraki Square.
Called Peri Lesvou, or About Lesbos, this discreet shop with olive-green décor lies in the section of Athinas taken over by hardware stores. You may have trouble even spotting it amidst the sprawl of paint tins, gardening equipment, watering cans, bales of wire and windbreak material cluttering the sidewalk.
Once inside the orderly interior you can browse freely through shelves with a dizzying array of attractively labeled honeys, jams, spoon sweets, colorful pastas, organic olive oils and booze or peruse the center tables piled with biscuits, paximadia (sweet and savory rusks), preserves, sauces, vacuum-packed and loose olives, pickles and candies.
At the far end, a cheese counter beckons to the left, an assortment of fragrant olive oil soaps, body butters, shampoos and lotions to the right.
What makes this display unique is that virtually all the products come from the North Aegean islands of Lesbos, Limnos and Chios. They are exceptional in that, to Greeks at least, they are far better known for their fruits of the sea and earth than for their beaches and resorts. Eleven million olive trees carpet Lesbos, and durum wheat fields gild Limnos, once the granary of the Aegean, while Chios is the world’s only viable source of mastiha (mastic), the flavorful sap of a tree related to the pistachio. Sardines and anchovies still fill fishermen’s nets off the first two islands, which also produce fine wines and ouzos to accompany them on the meze table.
The shop’s owners, two young men, hail from Lesbos themselves, so they’re familiar with the island’s bounty and the people who supply it, whether they be members of women’s cooperatives or cottage industries. Lefteris Antonakos, a wood sculptor by preference, is constantly on the go, filling orders; his partner Andreas Karanatakis, a former chef, was visiting his father in the hospital; and Magda Antonakou, Antonakos’s lively young aunt, seemed to be running the store on the day we visited. Not only was she climbing the ladder to add ouzo bottles to the top tier of the booze section, she was greeting all the customers, in English if they were tourists, often by name if they were locals.
She couldn’t answer all our questions at once, so she sat us down with a small paper cup half-filled with mastiha liqueur, the drink that’s replaced limoncello as a digestif in Athens restaurants. The Greek customers usually asked for specific items, like ladotyri or kasseri from the cheese counter, their favorite rusks or even a transparent emerald-green soap with an olive leaf captured in it. The foreigners were drawn to the honey, organic oil, sweets and that beautiful soap. If we’d had a porter, we would have taken a selection of rare ouzos and some bottles of dry white Limnos wine, which goes down very nicely on a hot summer’s day or evening. Instead we took advantage of Antonakou’s stint at the cheese counter and bought a big wedge of tangy ladotyri and a hunk of goat feta a regular was tasting just to make sure it hadn’t changed.
When asked which products customers liked best, Antonakou said they all leave the shelves equally quickly, an astounding claim for a shop with so much variety. But it’s not surprising when you think of Peri Lesvou’s reputation for quality. “We check on our producers often – of course we know them all – and we also choose them for value for money. That well-known company you mentioned just now is much more expensive than the smaller family firm with the same range and so we only stock a couple of their sauces.”
As Antonakou said, “You may find similar shops in Plaka that cater to tourists in love with Greek tastes. But we’re different, open all year long and much more economical. We have to be if we want to keep our Greek customers happy.”