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With Greek restaurants and tavernas, maybe cats should be awarded instead of “stars”, rosettes, or crossed knife-and-fork symbols when judging their excellence, or otherwise.
At any Greek eatery, at some stage, a cat is sure to join you, although I’m not sure whether the presence of many cats is a good sign or a bad one. Do cats go to where the food’s good, or do they maybe congregate where it’s not so good, because there’ll be more leftovers for them?
In Greece, much cooking is done on a barbecue pit. They use ovens, too, but this wasn’t always the case. Not long ago, ovens in houses were a rarity and people used to cook in communal ovens, the main purpose of which was baking bread. Anything oven-cooked was, therefore, usually a special treat, reserved for special occasions.
Today, though, oven-cooked pork, chicken, lamb and kid are popular; beef is less frequently seen. And, of course, there’s the ubiquitous seafood.
Bill Bryson once counselled that it’s often not a good idea to eat where they show you pictures of the food. So, what do you do when you see the food … squid or octopus; I didn’t count the legs; deceased cephalopods, anyway … hanging up drying in the sun outside the restaurant?
Incidentally, it should be noted that the Greek word for squid is kalimari. Do not confuse this with kalimera, which is Greek for "good morning!". After all, do you want to be remembered as the person who went around saying "squid!" to everyone you met?
There’s always the Greek dish everyone knows. Moussaka. If you can find any, that is … all too often, I asked for moussaka to be told it’s too early, or it’s finished. What was going on? Surely there couldn’t be a ‘season’ for what is, at bottom, a glorified shepherd’s pie?
I finally found moussaka at a plain, simple and inexpensive family-run taverna on the island of Leros. The lady told me I couldn’t have any right then, but said a time when I should come back.
Mamma’s daughter, visiting her family from her home in London, explained. She said that it bears no comparison with a British ‘pub grub’ moussaka, which is usually cooked in advance, frozen and nuked in the microwave as required. But, Mamma bakes fresh moussaka every evening … enough for eight people. It won’t be ready until 9:30 … and you’d better not be late, or there’ll be none left.’
Of course, I was back ten minutes before the appointed hour … and all I can say is it was well worth the wait. And, the ever-present attendant cats waited in vain!
And, yes, I’ll name names! It was the Taverna Finikas, in Alinda, to which I shall make an immediate beeline if I’m ever in Leros again. It was here I discovered another Greek restaurant secret. Don’t bother to order dessert; just ask for coffee after your meal, and the chances are they’ll bring a sweet little something to go with it.
Bekri Meze was another ‘discovery’ I made on Leros. Pork stewed in olive oil and red wine sounded good, although I had reservations about the feta cheese crumbled into it. I needn’t have worried. It was delicious, and I called for more bread, in order to soak up the last succulent drop.
Some cooks say the cheese in a bekri meze can be omitted, just as some say you can add olives while cooking. It would seem that there are as many recipes for bekri meze as there are for Irish Stew … and there as many different recipes for Irish Stew as there are cooks. On Crete two years later, I was served a bekri meze which was more like a stroganoff!
I found a recipe in one magazine which stated that bekri meze consisted of not only pork but also chicken and sausage. No red wine or cheese, though … a sort of cassoulet without the beans. However, it also gave a recipe for kiourbasi … which seemed almost identical to the bekri meze I was served on Leros at the excellent Neromylos Tavern.
Unfortunately, that magazine lost points with me because its recipe for octopus in wine neglected to mention the prime ingredient. Or, maybe they know that their readers realise what the essential component must be, and don’t have to be told ‘First, catch your octopus’!