March 26, 2005

Oliver Ames goes to Greece, part 5: Let them eat octopus

(To blog readers: My son is traveling to Greece in April with a group from Massachusetts’ Oliver Ames [OA] High School [see March 5 post]. To give students and parents a glimpse of some of the places on the group’s itinerary and to provide links to sites the travelers may find helpful, I’m devoting 10 consecutive daily posts from March 22 through March 31 to places on the kids’ Greek itinerary. [I can’t think of a better place than Greece to hang, really or virtually, but if you’d like to go elsewhere, cruise the archives to visit scores of other great places, from Jamaica to Jordan, Malta to Mexico.] Wherever you end up, Kalo taxidi! Have a good trip.)

We stopped for gas and learned about olives. The white stucco gas station sat on a thin, gray road between Nafplio and Xiropigado, a beach resort town on the Arcadian coast. Olive groves surrounded the station on three sides and spread to the horizon. Another endless grove sat across the road.

After he finished pumping, the gas station owner handed us a brochure describing seafront apartments he owned in Xiropigado and tried, in a mixture of English and Italian, to persuade us to decamp from our Nafplio hotel and move to the beach. We were very happy in Nafplio, but promised to consider his property the next time we visited the Peloponnese.

We asked about the armies of olive trees that marched up the hillsides, and it turned out that some of the groves belonged to our enterprising friend. I asked whether the olives were picked by hand. “Yes, by hand. There are plenty of people – some are gypsies from Bulgaria and Romania – who work when it is time to pick the olives.” We learned that the fruit of an olive tree is picked every two years and that November and December are the prime picking months.

Inside his gas station, our friend had a row of liter water bottles filled with hand-pressed olive oil. He picked one up and offered it to us. We were staying in hotels and had no cooking facilities, so we declined his gesture but did accept the next gift he offered. He plucked a pink carnation and a sprig of basil from a window box and passed the scented herb under my nose. “Vassiliki,” he said. “So you will not forget Greece.” I assured him that was impossible.

The gas station set in a sea of olive trees and selling hand-pressed oil from those trees is a metaphor for the close connection Greeks have to their food and its sources. Greeks harvest the sea and land around them. Greek food is invariably fresh and often eaten close to its source. Greek tavernas, restaurants, markets, shops and bakeries offer a beautiful, bountiful array. Americans, accustomed, sadly, to the packaged, processed and chemically preserved products purveyed without love or care by corporate food factories and monolithic agribusinesses, should find the Greek table a refreshingly flavorful experience, one to be savored. Greek fare is good, simple and healthy. Linger and enjoy.

While in Greece, I developed a weakness for octopus (oktapodia) and squid (kalimari), marinated and charbroiled on an open grill, often right in the street. Fish of the gods. Some of the other lovely, fresh foods to experiment with and appreciate:

Almonds (amigdala); apricots (verikoka); dates (chourmas); figs (sika); honey (meli); olives (elies); nuts (fistika); yogurt with chopped cucumber and garlic (tzatziki); stuffed grape leaves (dolmades); cheese pie/quiche (tiropitakia); mussels (mithia); Santorini’s famed bean soup (fassoulata); sardines (sardeles); prawns (garides); meat kabobs (souvlakia); bread (psomi); eggplant casserole (moussaka); salad with tomato, cuke, onion, pepper and a raft of feta (salata horiatiki); rice (risi); grapes (stafilia).

Eat and be happy. As for the charbroiled octopus that left me weak in the knees and contemplating never going home, Harry’s Greece Travel Guide offers this (very straightforward) recipe for do-it-yourselfers:



- WASH the octopus
- DRY the octopus
- POUND the octopus with a meat hammer until it begins to shred
- CUT the octopus crosswise into pieces
- MIX other ingredients in a bowl
- ADD the octopus and marinate one hour
- SKEWER the octopus
- BROIL the octopus on a charcoal burner or oven broiler rack, 10 minutes each side


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