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2012 - Spring Issue
¡Comidas Sabrosas!
World Cuisine
Article: Jessica Muncrief
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I have had the great pleasure of two excursions to Greece, once for a long weekend in Athens and once for a month on the island of Crete. Prior to my first trip, my experience with Greek cuisine had been quite limited, so imagine my delight when a whole new world opened up to me — a world filled with thick slices of tart and creamy cheese made from goat's milk; plump olives of every variety and color; tender meats generously seasoned with oregano and other fragrant spices; seafood delicacies still salty from the sea; and aromatic pies filled with both sweet and savory ingredients. I was fortunate enough on both occasions to spend time dining with locals of all ages and backgrounds, and in each instance, my experience was greatly enhanced by the famed Greek hospitality. I spent many pleasurable hours around the table savoring numerous dishes and sipping strong liqueurs while being regaled with humorous tales as if I was a member of the family as opposed to a complete stranger.

    Once you have truly
experienced Greek culture,
it is easy to see why this
flavorful cuisine has lasted
and evolved through such
a vast timeline.

To truly appreciate the culinary traditions of this country, a little background information is essential. Greece civilization boasts a long history of more than 3,000 years, all seasoned with influences from a myriad of cultures. In each era of Greek history, we see new people from all the over the world arriving (some peacefully, others not) and indelibly leaving their mark on the heritage of this Mediterranean peninsula. Perhaps the earliest influences on modern Greek cuisine can be traced back to the Minoans who arrived in Crete around 2700 B.C. They domesticated sheep and goats, grew grains, gathered fruits and nuts, and made a primitive form of wine from wild grapes. Their greatest contribution however, was the discovery of the olive and, subsequently, olive oil. Not only are these both staples of the cuisine, they remain the economic foundation of Greece even to this day.

From about 800 B.C to 146 B.C. was a time of great prosperity and growth for this country. While the ancient Greeks were busy influencing the future of western civilization in terms of philosophy, politics, education, art and architecture, they were also making advances in their food production. They raised cattle, pigs, and poultry, as well as bees for honey production. They evolved the practice of wine making through dating and fermentation practices. Wild sage and oregano were gathered and used as seasonings. Orchards of olive and almond trees were planted. They also invented dough and hundreds of varieties of bread and modernized the methods for baking them. Foods popular in modern Greek cuisine that trace their roots back to this ancient era include horta, a boiled dish of leafy greens seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice; fake, a traditional lentil soup; and pasteli, a crunchy confection made of sesame seeds, honey and nuts.

Occupation by the Roman and Byzantine Empires dominated the next eras of Greek history and their influences in terms of food were significant. The Romans are responsible for introducing phyllo, the delicate, thin crust that forms the basis of many of the sweet and savory pastries popular in Greece. The Byzantines are credited with introducing the slow roasting of meat on a spit and the fabulous feta made its debut during this time also. Traditional delicacies attributed to this time include spanikopita, a mixture of egg, spinach and feta wrapped in a phyllo crust, and tyropita, a triangular turnover also made with phyllo stuffed with a white, cream cheese.

Due to turbulent relationships over the course of history, many Mediterranean nationals will only grudgingly admit the reciprocal influences Turkish and Greek cultures have had on each other, but the similarities are too strong to deny. The practice of enjoying meze, or many small dishes shared by the table, is common in Greece and it certainly has Middle Eastern ties. And while they have put their own touches and flavorings in them throughout the years, many popular Greek foods have Arabic and Turkish roots such as dolmadakia, grape leaves stuffed with herbs and rice; tzatziki, a very popular appetizer dip made of yogurt and cucumbers; moussaka, a casserole dish layered with meat, eggplant and potatoes; gyros, meat of different varieties delicately shaved off of a vertical roasting spit often served wrapped in pita bread; and baklava, a light, sticky pastry generously sweetened with honey and nuts.

Once you have truly experienced Greek culture, it is easy to see why this flavorful cuisine has lasted and evolved through such a vast timeline. I have continually noted both in the country and in various Greek restaurants around the world, that an appreciation of fresh, healthy ingredients is tantamount. Processed foods and preservatives are shunned in favor of a wholesome diet full of olive oil, vegetables, whole grains, natural sweeteners like pure honey, and an abundance of fresh seafood, meats and cheeses. And in every bite is a taste of ancient history. ///
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