Marianna Leivaditaki grew up in Crete, cooked her way through Greece, then across Europe, and now heads up BLOQS Kitchen in Enfield. She takes High Life on a taste tour through her homeland, from the best spots to sip tsipouro to pretty harbour views accompanied by killer ntakos
In Northern Greece there’s a beautiful village called Pades. It lies in the foothills of Mount Smolikas and is a place of intense natural beauty. It’s made up of tiny stone houses, and the crisp pine and cypress-scented air is occasionally punctuated by the smell of wood-burning stoves.
Family-run kafenio (taverna) Stou Anasa Ton Onta is the place to eat here, as you can sample some of the best dairy produce in the country (the sheep’s yoghurt and feta cheese are musts). For meat lovers, wild boar, partridge, lamb and mutton can be found during the right season, but the simply seasoned, charcoal-grilled lamb cutlets are something else (beware when ordering, though, as they’re served by the kilo). Garnish with plenty of freshly squeezed lemon juice, fresh bread and a salad laced in their local vinegar.
Litochoro, Pieria region
A visit to Greece isn’t complete without a trip to Mount Olympus. At its base lies the small town of Litochoro: a gateway for mythological explorers and adventure seekers. Here sits one of the best places to eat in town: the contemporary kafenio, Disco Romeiko. Owned by locals Nikos Evgenis and his Cretan wife Maritina Daskalaki, this special spot is somewhere you can stop by for a morning coffee and then find yourself still there at midnight with dozens of new friends. Morning offerings include a variety of quality coffees and sandwiches packed with carefully sourced Greek products and local vegetables. As the day goes on, guests begin stopping by for the range of handpicked local delicacies that appear: beautifully made cheese and charcuterie plates, cured fish from the island of Kalymnos, and Maritina’s signature dish – green fava purée. As night approaches, local and Cretan wines (try the delicious Romeiko from Manousakis winery) and fancy cocktails start to get added to the mix.
On the Eastern coast of Greece lies the coastal city of Volos. It’s big, heavily populated and industrial. Despite this, it’s deeply immersed in the cultural food tradition of social gathering spots known as tsipouradika. The word comes from the strong spirit made locally called tsipouro, which is prepared by the distillation of grape remains after they’ve been pressed for wine. The by-product, called strafylla, includes the stalks, seeds and skins of the grapes, and is what’s primarily drunk in these spots, dotted throughout the city. Every time you order some tsipouro, a small plate of meze (usually olives, cheese or freshly cut cucumber) will accompany it, so you don’t have to order food separately. As time passes, the plates evolve into cured fish, slices of octopus in oil and vinegar or grilled prawns. You go there not to get drunk or to eat, but to socialise and have a good time. A traditional spot I love is called Kavouras and is open only during the day.
Schinoussa, an island in the Small Cyclades
One of the most beautiful islands of the Aegean, Schinoussa has managed to maintain a healthy rhythm to life. Surrounded by blue seas and beautiful beaches, it’s become an island known for rest and reflection – and as a Greek gastronomic treasure. The best fava beans in Greece are found on the island – there is even a dedicated fava festival in July. Try ‘married fava’: a delicious fava purée combined with octopus, anchovies or something else punchy and savoury. Sampling the local honey is also a must, as is having a taste of some locally made cheeses such as ladotiri and ksinomizithra. If you try out one of the local tavernas, be sure to ask for a seafood feast and stuffed squid – it’s delicious. Stop by at Hara’s, an old, whitewashed walled building that is the perfect place to sit and have a great morning coffee with a freshly squeezed orange juice and tasty local breakfast.
Chania is home for me. It’s where I was born and raised. Crete has everything – from high mountains and deep gorges to white sandy beaches, amazing traditions, generous hospitality and incredible food. When I go home, I love heading towards the water and finding a spot to have a nibble on sea urchins and sun-dried octopus. I usually avoid the busy centre and head towards the neighbourhood of Halepa, where I grew up. Near the sea there’s a small taverna also called Halepa, where tables are dotted under tamarisk trees, offering cooling shade to sip on a cold beer and chew on fresh octopus. If you visit, say hello to the owner Antonio and ask for his specialities. I usually go for a plate of sea urchins, an octopus, seasonal wild greens and some fried whole baby fish.
While exploring the old part of the city, there are a million places to sit and have mezze, but finding the right one isn’t easy. Tucked away in a little street behind the main church (Mitropolis) in the Venetian harbour lies a small mezedopolio (mezze bar) called To Steno. Its salads are laced with pickled kritamos (Cretan rock samphire) and change seasonally. Its Cretan ntakos – barley rusks with fresh goat’s curd (mizithra), local olives, marinated anchovies and red ripe tomatoes – are perfect.
Athens has become an amazing destination to enjoy the gastronomy of Greece on every level. Whether you’re searching for good street food such as mouth-watering souvlaki (thinly sliced pork wrapped in pita bread with tomatoes, onions and fried potatoes) or an extravagant meal prepared by famous chefs, it’s a city that caters for all. However, the place I like to frequent is slightly different. Tucked away in the neighbourhood of Psiri is one of the best, and most authentic, places to eat grilled pork chops, O Telis. They’re braised on a charcoal grill and served with Greek salad and chips (plus a few extras). Its baked feta with tomatoes and hot chilli peppers is a perfect addition on the side. Tables are always packed, the atmosphere loud and noisy and the plates simple and delicious. If you’re not sure what to order, look around and ask for the same as the people next to you.
Aegean: Recipes from the Mountains to the Sea by Marianna Leivaditaki is available to buy now (£26, Kyle Books, Octopus)
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