Land of Plenty
Within this fabled land of gods and legends, where ancient ruins and rich culture intertwine, lies a profound gastronomic heritage holding the same majesty as its mythology. From sun-drenched islands to rugged mountains, Greece's distinctive terroir births a cornucopia of unique products, each offering a taste of the history, ethos, and soul of a nation that has mastered the art of celebrating life through food.
Ancient recipes form the backbone of the local diet, inviting visitors to savour culinary traditions that transcend time. A haven for gastronomes, Greece's food and drink culture is deeply ingrained in its history, and the country's commitment to quality is evident through certifications such as PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), which guarantee the authenticity and provenance of various local products.
From north to south and east to west, a golden thread prevails: simplicity, quality, and conviviality are the keystone of Greek gastronomy. Each of its traditional dishes pays tribute to the unparalleled beauty of the country's natural bounty, unveiling centuries of authenticity and craftsmanship passed down over generations. Off the beaten path, hidden in village tavernas and family kitchens, lies a world of flavours waiting to be discovered — and every corner of Greece has its own edible stories to share.
Beginning in the north, Greece's lesser-known regions reveal a trove of authentic delicacies ripe for the picking. In the uplands of Imathia and fertile soils around Amyntaio, the distinguished Xinomavro grape thrives. Perfectly adapted to the continental climate, this red varietal yields a medium- to full-bodied wine noted for its multifaced flavour profile encompassing tobacco, plum, raspberry, and floral undertones.
The scenic slopes and ravines of the northern territory also bear a prized culinary treasure: the Kozani Crocus, Greece's "red gold". This premium saffron, grown in Kozani's verdant valleys, is one of the world's most rare and precious ingredients. Its vibrant colour, distinct aroma, and beneficial properties have been cherished since ancient times. A mere pinch of this PDO product adds a luscious golden hue and rich flavour to various dishes, from cheese products to soups, meats, pasta, and rice. Locals also enjoy the regional speciality "yaprákia", especially during the festive season, which features meat and rice wrapped in a salty cabbage leaf and fashioned into an egg shape. Another highlight is "Kozanitiko kichí", a circular pie made from buttery phyllo pastry and filled with cheese.
In the northwest Aegean Sea, Skiathos, a picturesque island where food has always been at the heart of its identity, offers its own abundance of delectable treats produced by a close-knit network of local farmers and fishermen. Here, to the backdrop of stunning panoramas, visitors can savour fragrant fish stews, fresh seafood with wild greens known as "horta", fava with sardines, and crayfish and lobster with courgettes. The island also boasts a plethora of wild herbs, such as fennel, chard, sow thistle, and chervil, which find their way into traditional pies like "hortopita" and the spiral-shaped "tiropita". Indulging in Skiathos desserts is a must, especially since many feature the renowned local honey, imbued with aromatic notes of the mountains' native herbs and flowers. The traditional sweet "aspro" made with almonds, sugar syrup, and lemon is a favourite, and pairing it with homemade walnut or cherry liqueur enhances the eating experience. To complete the Skiathos culinary pilgrimage, sample the wines made from premium "roditis" and "malagousia" grapes, which beautifully complement the local fare.
In Ioannina, located on the northwest mainland, the gastronomic delights continue. In the freshwater lakes, delicious fish flourish, while the moderate mountain climate allows seasonal fruits and vegetables to thrive. Frog legs, eels, trout, highland herbs, and local spices are staples in Ioannina's cuisine, prepared innovatively and traditionally to captivate the taste buds. Be sure to leave room for dessert, as Ioannina is famous for its exquisite sweets like "sker bourek" (sugar pie), baklava, and other syrup-doused pastries. One unique product exclusive to the region is an alcohol-free liqueur crafted from organic vinegar, nectar, fruit syrups, and herbs. In the heat of the summer months, it's a welcome treat, served over crushed ice as a refreshing alternative to alcoholic beverages. Traditional coffee shops also offer "sherbetia," a sweet wine infused with fruit and flowers.
Heading east, the islands of Limnos and Chios offer a delightful array of traditional eats that showcase the country's deep-rooted connection to the land. Limnos, known for its ancient history and top-quality local products, produces exceptional thyme honey, wine, cheese, and the delicious "mavragani" flour made from an indigenous wheat variety. Traditional cheeses like Melichloro, Kalathaki, and Feta are crafted using age-old methods and offer distinctive flavours. Don't miss out on "flomaria", a speciality pasta from the island, and "trachanas," a comforting thick soup made from fermented grains, yoghurt, or fermented milk.
Limnos is also famous for its outstanding wines, considered the ambrosia of the Olympian gods in ancient times. Local grape varieties, such as Moschato Alexandrias, prosper on the island's volcanic terrain, producing delicate white and sweet wines that are globally renowned. The red varietal Limnio, known as Kalampaki locally, is cultivated in east Limnos. Grown in Greece and nowhere else, it's also the oldest referenced grape in the world. For those who appreciate spirits, Tsipouro and Ouzo can be enjoyed alongside grilled octopus, seafood, and other local delicacies.
Moving on to Chios, this enchanting island is famous for its production of mastic gum, derived exclusively from the Schinos tree. Chios remains the only place in the world to produce Mastic or Mastiha PDO, which adds a unique flavour to various sweets, liquors, cookies, and chewing gum. Visitors will be pleased to discover various agritourism programs on Chios, allowing them to learn about the ancient cultivation, harvesting, and preparation of this unusual ingredient.
Chios also offers PDO-registered citrus fruits, including the highly aromatic Chios mandarine. These citrus gems find their way into a wide range of goods, from drinks to savoury dishes, desserts, preserves, essential oils, and cosmetics. In autumn, the island becomes a hotspot for mushroom hunters, with prized varieties like Amanites adding flavour to local dishes. Pairing perfectly with this fungi's umami richness, gourmands can accompany meals with "Ariousios Oinos," a prestigious red wine rooted in centuries of tradition.
The abundance of spirits on Chios provides a treat for liquor lovers. Sample Souma, a spirit made from figs or local Ouzo fortified with anise, coriander, fennel, lemon flowers, or mastic. Last but not least, the island's beloved pasta scene is more than worth exploring. With myriad forms and flavours to choose from, epicures can delight in the likes of "fytilaki", a short, twisted tagliatelle infused with mastic, or "spartos", a long, twig-shaped pasta traditionally served with a rich tomato sauce.
Pasta and olive oil go hand in hand, and in southern Greece, this 'liquid gold' is produced with great expertise. Most of the olive oil comes from the Peloponnese region, where its prized Koroneiki olives yield a high-quality product that's been a cherished cooking ingredient for thousands of years. Another culinary gem of the Peloponnese is the Agiorgitiko grape, known as the king of red grapes in the area. Its medium-bodied, fruity flavour and rich aroma pair perfectly with barbecued meats, tomato sauces, and native Greek herbs and spices.
Like its soils, where olive groves and grape vines bloom in abundance, Greece's seas also offer plenty of culinary riches. With its extensive coastline, it comes as no surprise that seafood plays a prominent role in Greek gastronomy. From grilled octopus kissed by charcoal flames to succulent shrimp prepared with a splash of lemon, the taste of the sea is omnipresent. Greek fishermen, masters of their craft, bring in the daily catch, ensuring that only the freshest fish grace the tables. This is particularly evident when venturing south of the Cyclades constellation in the Aegean Sea.
Those looking to sample some of the nation's moreish bakes should head to Folegandros. This stunning island, boasting dramatic cliffs and shimmering waters, is a haven for bread lovers. Imbued with a distinctive bread-making tradition, the local bakeries use ancient wood-fired ovens to create traditional white and wholemeal loaves. One must-try speciality is the puffed bread "lagana Lazarakia"; shaped like little men, these bite-sized buns delight the palate with a raisin-filled stuffing. Pies like the famous "sourotenia" filled with cheese and onions are also highly recommended.
Bread and cheese are a match made in heaven; so, naturally, Folegandros is a cheese lover's paradise, offering locally crafted varieties like Souroto, Manouri, Mizithra, Melichloro, and Skliro, which are incorporated into various dishes.
Moving to Santorini, this island — usually known as a tourist hotspot — also offers an incredible food and drink scene. Its winelands are home to the Assyrtiko grape, considered Greece's noblest white variety. The wines produced from Assyrtiko are famed for their acidity, crispness, and excellent minerality, offering citrus fruit and floral aromas. Santorini's exclusive Vinsanto, made from indigenous grape varieties and aged in oak barrels, is a luscious sweet wine with concentrated flavours.
In Crete, the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, culinary traditions date back to the Minoan period, offering a window into age-old culinary customs. Cretan Graviera cheese, recognised as a PDO product, and premium olive oil, are among its culinary treasures. Cretan dishes range from mashed fava beans with olive oil and chopped onion to fried snails, fennel pie, sautéed rabbit in wine, and roasted wild goat. Sweet treats like "lychnarakia" and "pitarakia" pies filled with honey and fresh Myzithra cheese add to the island's distinctive foodie offering. To complement these delicious flavours, a shot of Tsikoudia, a traditional Cretan digestif, or a glass of local wine is the perfect accompaniment.
Akin to Crete, the charming Ionian island of Lefkada in western Greece, produces superb olive oil, along with wildflower honey, unique sweet wines made from the rare Vertzami red grape, and award-winning Englouvi lentils and salami. Traditional homemade pies, salted codfish with potatoes and onions, cuttlefish cooked in ink with rice, veal with quince and molasses, or grape-juice syrup called "sofigado" are all must-tries in Lefkada. Lentils served with "riganada" (dry bread moistened with olive oil, vinegar, oregano, and salt), plus rooster or beef with macaroni in a rich aromatic sauce called "cocotos", are also highly recommended dishes.
Moving northward from Lefkada, we arrive at the enchanting island of Corfu, known for its vibrant architecture and historic UNESCO-accredited town. This Ionion gem offers a range of culinary delights, including cheeses, butter, olive oil, hams, cured meats, and citrus fruits, such as the renowned PDO kumquat from Nymphs. Corfu's winemaking tradition is also noteworthy, with vineyards dotting the landscape and producing famous white wines like Kakotrygis and Muscat, and red wines such as Petrokoritho, Skopelitiko, and Rozaki.
Corfu's gastronomy exhibits a strong Venetian influence, giving rise to unique local dishes. Bourdeto, a spicy tomato dish with scorpion fish, and "fokatsa", the Corfiot version of focaccia, are among the specialities to savour. Savoro is another popular choice, consisting of little fried fish in a white sauce with garlic, rosemary, and vinegar. For those with a sweet tooth, "mantolato", a Corfiot treat made of ground sesame, honey, and whole almonds, promises a pleasing indulgence.
No matter where one ventures in Greece, it's clear that the country's abundance of fresh, premium produce endows each region with a plenitude of delectable, inimitable dishes. Whether lovingly crafted by home cooks, professional chefs or devoted producers, the country's dedication to preserving and bettering its culinary heritage is ever-evident, showcasing the passion and pride that define Greek gastronomy. From the humblest tavernas to the finest dining establishments, the emphasis on traditional recipes and local ingredients is unwavering. Without a doubt, this commitment to quality, paired with a deep-rooted food culture, epitomises Greece as the veritable land of plenty when it comes to food and drink.