For many of us in Athens (and beyond), the Covid-19 lockdown has been among the most challenging periods in recent history. The situation bred feelings of insecurity, raised lots of questions, many unanswerable, tried our patience and, perhaps most importantly, taught us that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted.
On the flip side, some of us had the chance to rest and reflect, to get to know ourselves in silence and consider how we’ve evolved – things we never had time for in our normally fast-paced life. A number of philosophical questions even came to mind: Are we truly happy? Are we really enjoying every moment to the fullest? Are we grateful for what we have?
One question, though, grounded our experience: What are we going to eat? Food added some color to a rather mundane routine; we looked forward to the next day’s menu or cooking challenge. It was the rare pleasure that was not taken away from us. While I was able to fulfill most of my cravings in my own kitchen, there are certain foods that just aren’t the same at home. So as lockdown wore on, I found myself dreaming of octopus, shellfish and fresh fish, particularly small red mullets – I love them fried.
I was also craving a large portion of fresh lobster pasta with tomato sauce, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and ground black pepper. One night it was charcoal-grilled octopus with some tomato, sweet red onion and caper salad, and a glass of ouzo, of course. In Greece, octopuses are hung on wires to dry in the sun before being grilled. They end up tasting like the sea and are heavenly when paired with ouzo.
However, all these dishes require the right environment to properly enjoy them. I need to be by the sea, staring at the water, blinded by the sun, smelling the salt in the air, and ideally barefoot and covered in sand. Not at home in my PJs watching Netflix! Of course, the most ideal setting for one of these meals is on one of my favorite Cycladic islands, particularly those that fall in the group of the “Small Cyclades,” famed as they are for their incredible seafood.
Curious to hear about other people’s cravings and the foods they missed most during this extraordinary lockdown, I turned to the lovely Athens CB family, a team of very experienced eaters, to find out about their preferred first bites.
Johanna Dimopoulos, a CB contributor and food blogger, lives in Kifisia, a northern suburb of Athens, with her 10-year-old daughter, Danae. Her husband lives and works in Bahrain, and if it weren’t for the lockdown, she and Danae would have spent Easter with him over there. Instead she stayed at home doing what she usually does – cooking and baking. Like me, she managed to fulfill most of her cravings during lockdown. The only thing she really missed, though, was small fried fish and zucchini fritters as she has a rule to never fry food at home. The moment the restaurants and cafés opened, she went to Agriolouloudo, a charming little family-run kafeneion that serves small meze dishes. “It was lovely to see them again and enjoy their delicious zucchini fritters,” she said.
Writer and journalist Diana Farr Lewis is originally from New York but has been living in Greece for most of her life and knows Greek food better than most Greeks. Like Johanna, she also lives up north in Kifisia along with her husband, Harris, a retired doctor in his mid-90s for whom the restrictions on freedoms brought back memories of the Second World War. Both vibrant and young at heart, the two of them had a relatively pleasant time during the lockdown: Diana went for long walks, enjoying the blooming nature and the beautiful spring flowers. Every day she cooked a nice lunch, and in the evenings they played backgammon, sipping on wine and munching on a meze platter. “We stuck to the meze tradition for dinner to avoid putting on excess weight!” she explains with a laugh. Like me, she also missed fried red mullets the most. Their first lunch out was at Hohlidaki, one of her favorite spots, where they enjoyed about 14 different seafood meze dishes including lovely fried mussels, fresh cockles, grape leaves stuffed with rice and herbs, and preserved artichokes in olive oil with lemon juice. As she says, “I feel so grateful to be in The Big Olive rather than The Big Apple these days!”
Manteau Stam, one of CB’s photographers, lives in the southern suburb of Glyfada, close to the sea. She spent the lockdown with her family: her mom, Athena, her sister, Avra, her brother-in-law, Animesh, who is from India, her two nieces, Rhea and Niovi, and her beloved dog, Marcel. Sadly, the only one missing was her father, who was and still is stranded in Cairo, Egypt. She didn’t miss eating out during the lockdown, as her sister and brother-in-law are both excellent cooks who draw from lots of different cuisines. Manteau particularly enjoyed their take on bulgogi, literally “fire meat,” a Korean dish that is basically marinated grilled meat (usually beef, but can also be pork or chicken) typically served with rice, and their homemade ice cream. Sounds like a delicious lockdown!
Not only a CB walk leader, Constantinos Kalfakakos is also an incredible DJ. He lives downtown in Pagrati and, in fact, moved into a new apartment right before lockdown – so he had plenty of time to get it all organized. Besides music, which kept him occupied and engaged, he turned to gardening while stuck at home. He also experimented with strawberries, the star of the season, making liquors from the fruit, one spiced up with mint and one with rose geranium (although no verdict on the results – they’re still not ready to taste yet). What he missed the most was gathering with a big group of friends around a table full of spicy meze, cold cuts and cheese, and, of course, tsipouro, at a place like Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani, a deli and meze restaurant that we visit on our Downtown walk. He hasn’t managed to go there yet, but he’s been out and about in his neighborhood, which is packed with cafés, bars and eateries.
Kiki Vassalou is also a CB walk leader as well as a journalist and travel editor. She lives downtown in beautiful Petralona along with her partner and two boys aged 4 and 8. Even though their house is located very close to Filopappou Hill, which faces the Acropolis on one side and the sea on the other, and is a favorite spot for urban nature lovers to walk and picnic, she admitted that it took a lockdown for her to really get to know every last corner of it. They cooked a lot as well, but didn’t make any bread (unlike many others) – there’s a great bakery right around the corner that never stopped baking her favorite sourdough loaf. However, Kiki did miss some foods: seafood like calamari, cuttlefish and particularly grilled octopus, with a side of fresh tomato salad drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Like me, she believes that you must eat these foods by the sea to properly enjoy them – the environment matters just as much as the dish.
Editor’s note: As our cities begin reopening and adapting to the new normal in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, we are asking CB team members as well as chefs, journalists and food personalities to share the meal they are most looking forward to eating in our new “First Bites” series.
- June 9, 2020 First Bites
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