Every cuisine in the world is the sum of its parts, of its ingredients, in other words, those basic foods and flavor combinations that are the cook’s alphabet for both carrying on traditions and creating new dishes that are both authentic and contemporary. Greece is blessed with a wide gamut of basic Greek ingredients that flourish in this perfect Mediterranean climate. First and foremost, of course, are Greek olives and Greek olive oil, which are as basic as water to the Greeks. Greek fresh fruits, greens, and a wide array of fresh, seasonal vegetables (like Florina Peppers) and legumes are the mainstay of traditional Greek cooking, some with distinctly regional associations. Greece is also blessed with a wealth of “natural gourmet” products, foods that come from the land or sea and that have a long history, such as Greek honey, saffron (Krokos Kozani), Mastiha Chios, a great wealth of Greek herbs, both fresh and dried, and botargo as well as other preserved Greek fish and seafood specialties. The sea provides excellent conditions for organized fisheries, and aquaculture is one of the most important industries in Greece. Greeks have been consumers of Greek cheese and Greek yogurt from time immemorial. While feta is the best-known Greek cheese, there are at least 60 unique regional cheeses. Other specialty foods that define the Greek table and boast both historical and cultural depth are the sweet and savory Greek rusks, called paximadia.
Greeks have used Greek herbs as flavoring agent, tisane, and medicine from time immemorial. Indeed, even today, there is a well-established folk pharmacopoeia based on an often ingrained knowledge of the therapeutic powers of herbs. In cooking, most herbs are used in their dried form and the most beloved are oregano, thyme, savory, spearmint and mint. On the other hand Greeks enjoy some Greek herbs (dried) or aromatic plants as beverage by combination with hot or boiling water. There are many of them throughout the country, but the most famous are chamomile, sage and mountain tea, all well-known for their therapeutic benefits.
What would the Greek-Mediterranean cooking be without the plethora of healthy, delicious dishes based on Greek beans and legumes? The most ancient legumes are the lentil, chick pea, fava bean, and vetch, or split pea, all of which are still widely consumed in soups, stews and baked casseroles all over Greece. Greeks traditionally eat beans at least once a week. But New World beans have also become a staple and several Greek regions mainly in Macedonia, are home to beans with the coveted Protected Designation of Origin. Famed Greek giant beans (“gigantes”) and white beans of varying sizes grow well in the fertile wet soil of Greece’s rainy North.
Although the supply of fish in the Aegean and Mediterranean is dwindling, Greek fish and seafood continue to be important and beloved foods to the Greeks. It comes as no surprise, given the importance of fish on the Mediterranean table and Greeks’ affinity for it, that the country is one of the world leaders in fish farming, with sea bream, gilthead bream, sea bass, and trout the most popular and commercially successful species. On the seafood front, mussels have been farmed in Greece since antiquity, and northeastern coast of the mainland all the way up to the eastern fringes of Halkidiki and Thrace, which are laced with small coves, are closely associated with both mussel production and cookery. In the context of the Greek-Mediterranean diet, oily fish (not farmed), such as sardines, anchovies, and mackerels are an important part of the culinary traditions. But the most iconic of all Greek sea creatures and preparations is surely the octopus, grilled and stewed and savored in every part of the country and in almost every Greek restaurant in the world.
Arguably one of Greece’s most gourmet product, botargo (avgotaraho) is this country’s “caviar.” It is the salted, pressed roe of the grey mullet, “bafa” in Greek, which migrates en masse to the marshlands off the coast of western Greece and in some parts of Halkidiki, then attempts to migrate out to sea again to spawn. The mullets are caught on their exodus, at which point their swollen egg sacs are removed. When sufficiently dried and pressed, they are preserved in bee’s wax. Botargo (avgotaraho) is an ancient delicacy and has a rich, deep flavor and soft, unctuous texture. It is savored on its own in thin slices, sometimes with a twist of lemon and a crackling of black pepper. It is also excellent mixed into pasta and flavored with nothing more than exquisite Greek olive oil.