How to Eat Your Way Through Greece
Even with the high expectations travelers bring with them on a Greece vacation, the country manages to surpass the hype. Having visited Greece recently myself, I can confirm that it really is as wonderful as you think (and it might be even better). In particular, the food and wine are astounding, but beyond this, the culture behind the culinary is soul-stirring.
Greek restaurants in America taught me that I liked the cuisine, but I wasn’t prepared for how (and I don’t say this lightly) life-changing the food in Greece would be. It’s akin to comparing a Facetime call with your best friend to spending time together in person. The IRL get-together is more… vivid. Which, incidentally, is the word I’d use to describe Greece’s culinary scene. It’s all so fresh, vivacious, full of life and even rich in its simplicity. I would return to Greece solely to eat (and drink). One could plan an entire trip around meals.
Read on for a culinary guide through four food groups that will delight your taste buds (and maybe change your life, too) on a Greek holiday.
According to Greek myth, Aristaeus, son of Apollo, learned the art of dairying from nymphs and later bestowed the gift of cheese upon mortals. (Praise Aristaeus, am I right?) While the origin of cheese is debated, we do know that cheese has been competently produced by the Greeks since at least the 8th century BC.
Today, cheese is central to the Greek diet and culture. When you visit the country, you'll find that slices, cubes or blocks accompany nearly every meal (and yes, that includes breakfast and dessert). It's no surprise, then, that the country regularly tops annual lists of cheese consumption per capita.
Feta, with its characteristically tangy and salty taste, is Greece's most popular cheese and a protected designation of origin (PDO) product. This means that the only real feta is produced in Greece using traditional methods. Made from sheep's milk cheese and sometimes a bit of goat's milk, feta is aged in brine-filled barrels or tins. Feta made with goat milk is said to be milder, while those with a higher percentage of sheep milk are sharper. Feta can hold its own in a meze platter, but it's also used in tyropita (a traditional, flaky cheese pie); served atop Greek salad; sautéed in olive oil and smothered with veggies as a main dish; or plated alongside a crisp, cool watermelon in the summertime.
Graviera is another popular cheese variety made from sheep's, goat's or cow's milk (or some combination of these); its flavor profile ranges from sweet and buttery when young, to nutty (and sometimes spicy) as it ages. Graviera is available across the country, but notable varieties are produced in Crete (see if you can pick up on the unique roasted caramel taste), Lesvos, Amfilochia and Naxos (where it's made solely from cow's milk). Find graviera in baked dishes, on a charcuterie board or my personal favorite saganaki—a lightly battered and pan-fried appetizer.
Manouri is a semi-soft, fresh cheese made from the milk whey drained during the production of feta cheese. In comparison to feta, manouri is creamier and less salty. It's delightful for dessert, either on its own or with fruit. Authentic Manouri is made only in Macedonia and Thessaly, but you can find it on restaurant menus in Athens too.
If you plan to go wine tasting during your trip (which I do highly recommend), you may want to bring an empty suitcase from home for all the bottles you'll end up buying. Greek wines are delightful and unexpectedly affordable.
Greek wines tend to be acidic (which creates a tart taste) and tannic (dry), with lower alcohol content. Rather than overtly fruity profiles, the nation's volcanic soil produces earthy, herbaceous and mineral flavor notes. The wines are distinct and complex, but no sommelier would categorize them as soft, which is exactly what makes wine tasting in Greece so interesting. Plus, you’ll drink wines there that are made from lesser-known grapes (more on that later).
Despite having one of the oldest winemaking traditions in the world (some evidence shows that it dates back 6,500 years), Greece's modern wine culture is relatively young, only gaining notoriety on an international stage in the last few decades. This is thanks to innovation from a new generation of winemakers who have brought about a renaissance by both dusting off and reintroducing indigenous fruits and planting new (and more widely known) grapes in Greek soil. Furthermore, there’s a natural alignment between Greece's traditional minimalist wine production techniques and the wine industry's movement toward organic and biodynamic farming at large. The trend finally caught up to the Greek way of viticulture.
In Greece, wine is almost always enjoyed alongside a meal or snack, so many vintners consider food pairings during production. Greeks follow the “grows together, goes together” method. On islands, for example, many meals include seafood—the perfect pairing for the whites and light red wines that are most commonly produced there.
On Greece's largest island of Crete, grapevines grow next to olive groves which both helps to protect vines from warm southern winds and makes for a lovely aesthetic. The most common grapes here are Vilana (which produces a white wine with citrus fruit and floral aromas; pair it with white meats or salad), Madilari (a red grape which is often used in blends) and Kotsifali (a spicy red wine that is a nice companion to baked meat and spicy cheeses).
Besides its sunsets, Santorini is probably most celebrated for its wine. The island's volcanic soil causes grapevines to grow deep in search of nutrients which in turn helps create complex flavors and desirable textures. Most vineyards on Santorini do not water their crops (despite receiving little rainfall); the vines thrive from the sea's humidity alone. As a result of its environment, Santorini produces salty, tangy whites and smoky, earthy reds.
The Assyrtiko grape (white) makes up about 80% of the crop on Santorini. This wine is typically acidic and briny and best enjoyed with food; pair it with feta, sardines, grilled fish or fried calamari. If you love reds, try an aged Mavrotragano with spicy lamb meatballs in a tomato sauce. This grape was historically used in sweet blends, but has been reimagined as a high-end red (sometimes compared to the Italian Nebbiolo) with excellent aging potential.
On the mainland, about an hour west of Athens, is the wine region of Nemea which is Greece's largest red-wine appellation. With 40+ wineries in the area, you'll find a variety of vino produced here. The most popular is Agiorgitiko, a native variety. This grape is versatile and used to make everything from light rosés to full-bodied, velvety reds. The most common profiles of the grape are fruity (think raspberry and blackberry), nutmeg and black pepper. An Agiorgitiko on the bolder end of that scale pairs nicely with roasted meats and spiced dishes.
When I first caught sight of a Grecian olive grove, I was struck by the way an olive tree's leaves catch the light. Under the bright midday Mediterranean sun, they almost seem to shine. Even in winter when the nearby grapevines have begun their seasonal hibernation, the olive tree's leaves stay intact, shining, green and glossy—a beautiful sight to behold.
Most of the olive groves are found in the Peloponnese and on Crete, but you'll find trees growing throughout the mainland and islands. Seeing these trees in their natural environment will help you understand why the fruit they bear (and indeed the trees themselves) are such a central part of Greek culture. Athena became the goddess of Athens because of her gift of an olive tree; Crete's economy was once based on olive oil; the winner of the ancient Olympic games was crowned with an olive branch.
Today, you'll find olives at nearly every meal, sometimes cooked into a dish, but as frequently in a meze or a table snack. They top Greek salads and are used in breads, pies and tomato-based sauces.
Black Kalamata olives (named for the Kalamata region in the Peloponnese) are the most famous export; they’re often preserved in vinegar and olive oil. Find them in a meze spread, in olive bread and on Greek salads.
The most common green olives in Greece are Nafplion olives (again, named for the region where they grow). Nafplion olives are brined in salt, water and spices; they’re delicious on salads.
The other primary use for olives is, of course, olive oil which has been an industry in Greece for thousands of years. Greeks do cook in olive oil, but they also top many dishes with a drizzle in order to add a subtle fruity, peppery flavor. There's frankly no limit to what it can be added to: eggs, pasta dishes, steak, cheeses, dips, greens, soups and (this may shock you) rich chocolate desserts.
If you fall head over heels in love with olives when you go to Greece, visit one of the olive museums to learn more about the history of cultivation and use through time.
Greek's culinary scene tends to place a lot of focus on freshness. The fruits and veggies are served based on season and geographic availability (especially outside of the larger cities); the fish on the menu depends on what the fisher caught that day; and meats are sourced locally. What you’ll eat, then, largely depends on where you go and when.
The main dishes here sometimes include meat but allow room for other ingredients to be the star of the show. After all, meat wasn’t part of most Greeks’ daily diet until the last 50 years or so. Due to its cost, it was reserved for religious feasts and special occasions.
Vegetarian or not, be sure to try a dish called Ladera (which literally means "in oil") where vegetables are sauteed in olive oil. It's simple, often including tomato, onion, garlic and herbs along with beans, lentils, chickpeas or split peas. The colors and flavors in this dish are simply stunning.
Souvlaki, one of the most famous Greek dishes, is marinated meat (usually pork) grilled over a spit. Order pita kalamaki for a flatbread filled with meat, onion, tomato and tzatziki, or ask for kalamaki to try the meat on its own with a side of olive oil toast.
Fried calamari and charcoal-grilled octopus are common on the islands. Menus also feature anchovies, cod, shrimp, trout, mussels and sea bass. Seafood is usually prepared simply with olive oil, salt and pepper, allowing the flavors to shine on their own.
Don't leave Greece without trying the traditional mousaka, a layered baked dish with sauteed eggplant, lightly fried potato and tomato-marinated minced meat that is topped with bechamel and cheese. Imagine lasagna without the noodles.
I mentioned that the culture around food in Greece changed my life, and that’s true. Since coming home, I’ve made a conscious effort to slow down and savor every bite; to lean into long meals with too many courses (each topped with olive oil of course!); to eat more simply; and to drink much more wine.