Speed down the National Road till you’re in sight of Rendi Market, then follow the trucks off the highway and into a vast depot of concrete sheds. Though the trucks are there to pick up and deliver fruits and veg from all over Greece to supermarkets, grocers’ and farmers’ markets, we pulled over and started shop-hopping.
Rendi, an industrial district of small factories, warehouses and train yards on the west side of Athens, has never been an area where one would go for pleasure. Back in 1955, a wholesale fruit and vegetable market opened there, midway between Piraeus and central Athens. In 2013, the Organization of Central Markets and Fisheries (OKAA) decided to create an annex for ordinary consumers. Panagiotis Stamboulidis, president of the OKAA told Athinorama Magazine that the consumer market was a way “to give people a chance to shop at discount prices with more space and less commotion than the Varvarkeios Central Market” downtown.
The retail shops remained outside our purview until last December, when our friend Katerina Tsitsipi (who sometimes organizes tours to Rendi) proposed an outing for a turkey and other Christmas goodies on the cheap. Walking around the market, we were impressed by the variety of goods on sale, their freshness and the ease with which we could look things over – large spaces, few shoppers – and the prices. Most of all, though, it was Katerina’s banter with the shopkeepers that made our exploring so much fun. Though she was familiar with the market and on first-name basis with everyone working, she also makes fast friends with people she hasn’t ever seen before.
Though the trucks are there to pick up and deliver fruits and veg from all over Greece to supermarkets, grocers’ and farmers’ markets, we pulled over and started shop-hopping.
We ended our outing with lunch at one of the retail area’s two eateries, Ta Mezeklikia tis Agoras (whose name loosely translated could be The Market Deli). While we headed straight for the counter to pore over the huge range of cold cuts, cheeses and preserved fish (many of them from Miran, the famous Anatolian meats shop near the Athens market), Katerina struck up a conversation with a group of men sitting near the entrance. She discovered the eatery was fairly new and that one of the men, a wholesaler named Petros Martzoukos, was a co-owner. They exchanged cards and she joined us at the table, where we were struggling to decide what to choose from the entirely delectable menu. We finally settled on fried eggs with tomatoes and tsoutzouk (soft and spicy Turkish sausage), a sauté of different mushrooms and a salad of Cretan greens and cheese – all while enjoying the attractively refurbished factory space with its old-fashioned tiled floors and beamed ceiling.
In early April, with Easter on the horizon, we felt it was time to pay another visit to Rendi. Katerina pulled out her cards and called Petros, whom we’d met in December. Back then he had offered to show us the wholesale side, usually off limits to non-professionals.
The market seemed even busier that Thursday, even though we were fairly late, with more trucks on the exit ramp. A Market Deli waiter insisted on leading us to Petros’ “office,” threading us in and out of hectic streets and alleys lined with concrete sheds on raised platforms, trucks backed up in front of them. We climbed up to where Petros greeted us warmly amidst the commotion of his guys carrying sacks of zucchini, cardboard crates of apples and wooden crates of the season’s first strawberries to and fro.
Petros explained that his is just one of the dozens of clearing houses in Rendi that receives products from all over Greece and then dispenses them to the retailers. He has been working there since he graduated from high school in 1992. When we asked how he could stand the constant noise and bustle, he grinned. “I thrive on it. When there’s no fassaria, I don’t feel alive!” He told us that he’s been working with the same farmers for ages, having picked them for their reliability and quality, and that the state conducts checks for pesticides and other harmful chemicals almost daily. “Don’t bother to go to the organic markets. It’s not worth it. Controls are so strict nowadays.” As if to demonstrate, he popped a juicy strawberry into his mouth and into ours. Then, despite our protests, he sent us back to the retail market in his car with a 5-kilo crate of strawberries each.
Back in the quiet zone, we flitted like butterflies into every shop. First, the Minoan Agora for Cretan delicacies, from cheeses and rusks to raki, honey and herbal teas (which you can taste). Then To Pantopoleio (everything shop) for more deli produce, plus pistachios and eggs from their own coops in Megara. Next, O Antonis for a mind-blowing array of nuts and sweets, Easter eggs and bunnies, coffees and dried fruits. After, we were off to the manaviko (greengrocer) with avocados half the price of those in our own farmers’ markets. Next was a frozen food emporium with all the usual seafood, meats and veg, but oddities as well, like alligator tails and rattlesnake. Another everything shop, the Elliniko Pantopoleio, with a bit of well, everything, including donkey thistle oil, which we were told is good for the liver. The Enalion fish shop had an incredible array of fish and seafood, whole and cleaned, outshining any market in our neighborhood. The nearby Flerianos, which carries frozen fish, had a display case of something we’d never seen before – bottled sea water from Spain! Then we stopped by the kreopoleio (butcher), with a huge assortment of meats, of course, but also a large section devoted to special preparations, like chicken or pork cut for gyro (which makes a perfect stir fry), or exotic kebabs and marinades, along with a well-stocked deli counter. We did regret that we were trying to fast for Lent.
By 3 p.m., we were ready for lunch and had reached the Cretan trilogy of shops: the fishmonger Rokakis, a bakery/fastfoodadiko and the Volakas mageirio (home-style cookery), the market’s other sit-down spot. Volakas, named for the rounded boulders in the inner harbor of Chania, didn’t have as large a selection as it would have had earlier in the day, but we were content with a seafood yiouvetsi (orzo bake), boiled greens and a cheese omelet (which Katerina declared was just like the ones her grandmother made).
Barbara, a redhead who runs the place, told us that both Volakas and the bakery, where she used to work, make everything from scratch, and that it has to be good because they have a regular clientele – the truck drivers – who would be quick to protest if disappointed. It is home cooking that might just be better than most homes. A great final stop after a hard day’s shop.