Open markets are often the greatest place to experience the very essence of a city’s culinary culture. I enthusiastically say yes to a Central Market whenever I travel.
On busy Athinas street, the Central Market, also known as Varvakeios, is a lively city market place, opened in 1886 to the food trade. Evripidou Street is synonymous with the scents of the shops selling food from the colonies. The iron-and-glass 19th Century market has massive stalls divided between seafood and fish products and all types of meat on one side of the street, and vegetables and fresh fruits on the other side. The Varvakeios can be sensory overload, do wear close toe shoes, as you may wade through a bit of water in the fish area. I’ll never forget looking down at my tennis shoes in the fish market in Catania, Sicily, fish bits clinging to the tops of my canvas shoes! Nothing worse than fish guts stuck to your shoes!
Shop for the tastiest feta cheese and delicious renowned olives, sun ripened fruits and vegetables and don’t miss my favorites, the spice shops. The meat area may not appeal to everyone, as it is not at all surprising to see hanging meat carcasses, large glass cases of tongue and innards.
From the core of the Mediterranean, Greek cuisine is comprised of an extensive variety of dishes reflecting its diverse backdrop, extensive history and crossroads to other nations.
Wandering around downtown Athens, you will discover a plethora of restaurants, taverns, and cafés, but perhaps the most intriguing and interesting place to discover local Greek food is within Athens’ food markets. This is a superb location to purchase palatable gifts to bring home, especially authentic spices and herbs. The food is pungently fresh, and you’ll mingle with locals buying their daily provisions. This is where you see the little old ladies selecting their evening meals from the fishermen with the daily catch.
And it’s an incredible introduction to Balkan market culture: merchants screaming prices, luring you to taste a special apricot, elderly ladies analyzing the perfect tomato with a well-practiced squeeze, and aging gentlemen drinking coffee at the market cafes while observing the scene, whiling away the day. Within the cavernous halls there are small cafes and tavernas serving traditional Greek dishes, keep your eye open for the underground restaurant near the vegetable market.
Olives – Preserving and seasoning olives is an ancient tradition, dating back to the early Greeks. Each region of Greece has a distinctive method of flavoring and pickling olives. The vendors are very generous with their products, encouraging tasting!
Greek Spices – Greek cooking doesn’t rely on many specific herbs, but a few essential spices include oregano and sea salts, many flavored with orange or lemon peel. One of the most colorful and ancient looking spice shops ‘Elixir’, located on one of the streets bordering the Central Market; here, you can also find spatholatho, an ointment originally from Kea Island that ancient Greek soldiers used to heal their wounds. Elixir is a family business operating since the 1950s, they also sell enormous bars of natural Olive Oil soap. The wooden display boxes also contain many varieties of tea. The young Greek man behind the wood counter will cellophane bag your selection and label all your purchases. Don’t miss the large branches of bay leaves. Spices are easy to pack and bring home. Burning bush, oregano, chamomile and other common Greek herbs, some grown on the slopes of Mt. Olympus and Tayretus. Consultations are offered on the healing properties of various spices; sage is good for memory, cloves help digestion, ask for specific needs.https://www.elixir.com.gr/
Cheese – There are shops in the market who offer traditional Greek feta cheese, made from sheep, goat, or cow. Besides the yummy feta, another popular Greek cheese to look for is kefalotyri, a hard, salty sheep’s-milk cheese.