Stephen Akehurst, proprietor of The Greek Kitchen, in Athens, Greece. Photographed by Ioanna Fotiadi for Greece Is
One of the things I loved most about being a teenager was all the sneaking around. After years of being a studious, obedient Catholic school kid, around age fifteen I suddenly discovered the joys of clandestine shenanigans. Want details? It was the sixties. Enough said.
But zipping off to another country? That never even crossed my mind. So I was impressed and charmed by the story of Stephen Akehurst of Brighton, England, who at the age of seventeen told his mother he was visiting London and instead snuck off to Athens, where he began a lifelong love affair with the city, the culture, and the food.
When I was a child in the UK the supermarkets built massive stores on all the nurseries and farmer's markets, taking away local produce, dictating what we should be eating, and covering it in plastic. The thought of Greece with its blue water and white houses and fresh produce seemed like paradise. Athens was crazy and alive and filled with colour. The central market was amazing and terrifying at the same time; it was a real onslaught of the senses. But I was hooked. Once you've eaten real Greek food in Greece you've spoiled yourself for many other cuisines.
Wanderlust later took you to Latin America, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen, but you kept returning to Greece.
Travel led me to a career as a tour manager with a small-group travel company, and I got to work in Greece a lot. During the tours I would always talk about the amazing local food and how important it was to eat as many local dishes as possible. People started asking about cooking classes, of which there were few, often more suited to budget travellers. I saw a gap in the market and decided to settle in Athens and fill it.
Is it true that Greek food and wine can help you live 100 years or more?
The island of Ikaria is a Blue Zone, where people live far longer than the national average, and it is believed that drinking the local wine, along with a high-plant diet and plenty of physical activity in a great climate, contribute to this. This is quite common throughout Greece; you will see people living independently well into their elderly years.
Today, Ikarians are almost entirely free of dementia and some of the chronic diseases that plague Americans; one in three make it to their 90s. A combination of factors explain it, including geography, culture, diet, lifestyle, and outlook. They enjoy strong red wine, late-night domino games, and a relaxed pace of life that ignores clocks. Clean air, warm breezes and rugged terrain draw them outdoors into an active lifestyle.
Cooking classes led to market tours, and now you’re launching wine tastings?
We really wanted the wine tasting at The Greek Kitchen to be a fun learning experience for anyone, no matter their level of interest or experience in wine — a low-key few hours with great wine and great company. We give you an introduction to each wine, talk about the region and pair the wines with local dishes.
Cooking is at the heart of everything we do at The Greek Kitchen. So I gathered up the whole team, who all come from different parts of Greece and have very different tastes, and we drank the wines to work out the pairings. Each team member brought something interesting and unique to the table, and we surprised each other. The wines are all quite versatile, and we have so many amazing things to eat in Greece that we want to encourage people to really explore the combinations.
What about retsina?
Retsina is an interesting one! It's considered to be the oldest wine we drink here. The flavour is influenced by the ancient Greeks’ use of resin to line the wine barrels. It can be really hit or miss; personally I have to have it ice cold if I'm going to drink it. While retsinas are produced all over Greece, it’s considered the drink of Thessaloniki; Afros, the one that we use in our wine tasting, is from there. Retsina goes with a lot of your classic Greek dishes like Greek salad and fish; it pairs really well with sharp ingredients like barrel-aged feta and the other cheeses. However people who love retsina will drink it with anything. It’s nice in a spritz, and some people even drink it with coke, but that's a bit gross even for me!
Rich and I loved the Greek wines we tried there last spring — including the retsina at Diporto, a modest underground eatery near the central market in Athens. They didn't even ask if we wanted it; they just automatically put a jug of it on the table. For more, see my post The Mystery of the Vanishing Greek Taverna.
Any advice for people who aren’t in Greece but would like to try the wines?
To be honest it can be really hard to find Greek wine outside of Greece; for some reason we don't export very much. But if you find some, I would start with a classic like an Assyrtiko, an old variety from Santorini — so it is rich with minerals and has an essence of the sea in it. My favourite at the moment is Greek sparkling wine. We have a Moscato Blanco from the island of Limnos, and it's so fruity and fun; just the smell of it makes me think of having a great time with friends and eating sticky orange pie.
Photo by Santo Wines
For those planning a visit to Greece, what wines would you suggest?
There are so many! I really love going to Santorini and exploring the wineries there. Santo Wines is so dreamy and in one of the most amazing locations on earth, while Domaine Sigalas and Gaia Wines are also producing some amazing bottles. Closer to Athens you have the Spata region with Gikas, Boutari, and Papgiannakos — all worth checking out. Then in northern Greece you have the Naousa region with excellent wineries like Dalamara and Argotia.
The ancient Greeks were masters at wine cultivation and most of the techniques and practices that we use today were developed by them; we're talking about centuries of skills and experience being passed down from generation to generation. Wine is at the heart of so many occasions; we drink it at celebrations, with family and friends, in religious services, and use it in many of the dishes we enjoy. I can't remember the last time I went to a Greek home and wasn't given a jug of wine to get through.
One of the joys of leaving the teenage years behind is that you no longer have to sneak around to obtain a jug of wine. Also, you’re able to bring a bit more budget and discernment to the party. Rich and I plan to be in Greece this summer (more about that in future posts) and we’re looking forward to checking out as many of Stephen’s suggestions as possible. Will we try retsina with coke? Stay tuned to find out.
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