Greek food: salad

21 Bizarre Facts About Greek Food That Will Surprise You

Greek food is known around the world for its flavor and healthy ingredients. The vast array of its famous dishes you see repeated around the world on restaurant menus is a testament to this.

But what are the raw materials that make Greek food famous? A journey into mythology, history and the Greek countryside.

1. The precious saffron

Red saffron

Greece is the world’s largest producer of organic saffron. The most famous is the red saffron (Krokos Kozanis), a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product. Scientists place it among the most valuable spices inherited by ancient civilizations due to its aromatic, color, pharmaceutical, and aphrodisiac properties. The northern Greek prefecture of Kozani is one of just four regions in the world where saffron grows, and it’s of supreme quality. Farmers collect, sort, and process it without any help from technology. Keep in mind that you need approximately 50.000 stigmas to produce just 100 g of red saffron.

2. Mastic, the natural chewing gum

The mastic of Chios island is also a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product, exported from Chios worldwide. It is a natural, aromatic resin that the mastic trees produce and grows exclusively on the Aegean island of Chios. It’s the only place in the world, probably because of the volcanic composition of the soil and the climate. Mastic is used as natural chewing gum, but most importantly, as a necessary ingredient of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. In the culinary world, you will find it in ice-creams, chocolates, chewing gums, beverages, tea, coffee, pasta, sauces, liquors, ouzo, and wine.

3. Raisins: from Odyssey till today

Greek food: raisins

Raisins, also known as currants, have been cultivated for many centuries in specific areas in Greece. One of the oldest known raisins is the Corinthian variety. You can find references to how the product dries and gets its final form throughout the Odyssey and the texts of Aristotle. However, the first detailed written record was in 75 AD by Pliny the Elder. He described a tiny, juicy, thick-skinned grape with small bunches. Almost 1.000 years later, the raisins became a trade between Venetian merchants and Greek producers from the Ionian coasts. In the 14th century, merchants sold them in the English market under the label “Reysyns de Corauntz”. The name raisins of Corinth was recorded in the 15th century, after the Greek harbor, which was the primary source of export. Nowadays, Greek raisins are exported worldwide and are considered a gourmet Greek food with many culinary uses.

4. Sweet like Greek honey

Greek food: honey

Honey is one of the Greek food products with high international recognition due to its high quality, incredible flavor, and excellent aroma. Many of the plants in Greece are aromatic and medicinal herbs, carrying their qualities to honey. The honey produced in 2018 was 30.000 tons from 2.5 million bee colonies. About 55% of the production is pine honey and 10% is thyme honey. Almost all the rest is blossom honey, mostly from orange and lemon trees flowers, and wildflowers. There is also heather honey, which tends to crystalize more easily than the rest, and two more “rare” types, chestnut and fir honey.

Honey has properties that make it last for many years without going bad. Of course, humans discovered this and figured they could use it as a preservative. Thus, people have used honey to preserve grain and fruits for later use, as well as meat. We also know that people used honey for thousands of years as an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory to treat wounds and minor burns. The Greek historian Herodotus (4th century BC) recorded that the Assyrians used to embalm their dead with honey. Alexander the Great’s body was reportedly preserved in a honey-filled sarcophagus almost a century later.

5. Golden apples

Greek food: oranges

The Mediterranean climate of Greece is most appropriate for the cultivation of citrus fruits. That’s because they need sunshine for a reasonably long time and a mild and moist winter season. Thus, the citrus tree cultivation ranks second after the olive tree; it occupies about 500.000 acres and produces about 1.000.000 tons every year. The most common are oranges, mandarins, and lemons, followed by grapefruits and limes. The Greek name of citrus trees is Hesperidoidi, and their kind includes 11 species.

They took this name from the Hesperides, nymphs of ancient Greek mythology, daughters of the Night and the Ocean. They were the ones guarding the Golden Apples, which Gaia (Earth) offered as a wedding gift to Goddess Hera. Some scholars identify these famous “golden apples” as oranges, and stealing them was one of the 12 labors of Hercules. There are about 160 varieties of orange trees in Greece, and in general, southern Greece cultivates most of them. The number of orange trees in Greece is about 12.500.000 (2018). Did you know that orange is the world’s third favorite flavor, after chocolate and vanilla?

6. The fragrant island

The variety of the Chios island mandarins is among the most aromatic in the world. Even when they are unripe, their aroma amazingly escapes the citrus groves! Thus, it takes over the entire island, making Chios known both in Greece and abroad as ‘Myrovolos’ – the fragrant island.

7. Look but do not eat

When you walk in the center of Athens, you can’t miss the orange-like trees that line up along the streets. Well, no matter how delicious they look, do not eat them! They are bitter oranges, not edible as they are. However, you can try them when they are turned into a delicious traditional bitter orange spoon sweet.

8. Fleur de sel

Salt

The two main elements in the production of salt are the sun and the sea – and Greece has plenty of both. Many Greeks still gather salt using traditional tools, then wash and crush it without chemical processing. The famous “fleur de sel” is what the ancient Greeks called “anthos alatos” (salt flower). Even today, locals harvest it by hand, with traditional methods and tools. This way, you can enjoy a 100% natural and not chemically treated product, perfect for every Greek food.

9. Laurel or Daphne

Greek food: laurel
Local cooks use laurel leaves in Greek foods like soups and stews

Apollo was the Greek god of music, poetry, art, and sun, according to mythology. He mocked the god of love, Eros, for his use of bow and arrow, as Apollo was also patron of archery. The insulted Eros then prepared two arrows: one of gold and one of lead. He shot Apollo with the gold arrow, instilling in the god a passionate love for the river nymph Daphne. Then he shot Daphne with the lead arrow, instilling in her a hatred for Apollo. Apollo being in love, continually followed her, begging her to stay, but the nymph continued to reject him till one day Apollo was bound to reach her. She then called upon her river god father for help, and so, to “save” her, he turned Daphne into a laurel tree (dafni in Greek).

While giving her prophecies at Apollo’s oracle, Pythia was chewing leaves of laurel. Furthermore, at the Pythian Games, which took place every four years in Delphi in his honor, a wreath of laurel was given as a prize. Hence it later became customary to award prizes in the form of laurel wreaths to victorious generals, athletes, poets, and musicians, worn as a chaplet on the head. The Poet Laureate is a well-known modern example of such a prize-winner.

Cooking laurel leaves

The laurel trees are native to the Mediterranean region, and their leaves have been a part of the culinary and medicinal world for thousands of years. Local cooks use the leaves as a spice to flavor Greek food like soups and stews, most commonly in their whole form. Nevertheless, they remove them from the dish before consumption. Laurel is also a medicinal plant with many health benefits and therapeutic value. Its leaves can relieve symptoms of indigestion and other stomach-related ailments. In addition, they help to give relief from abdominal pain and gastrointestinal infections. When the essential oil of laurel leaves is extracted, you can mix it into a salve. Then you can apply it to your chest to help in various respiratory conditions.

10. The home of fasolada

Perhaps you think that the Greek national food is moussaka or souvlaki, but it’s not! It’s “fasolada”, a bean soup locals usually eat in the winter or when the weather is cold. It’s an effortless but delicious dish containing white beans, carrots, onion, garlic, a couple of laurel leaves, celery, tomato juice, and of course, olive oil. The bean soup and the lentil soup (fakes) are widespread and popular dishes with traditional and relatively simple recipes cooked for centuries by Greek families.

11. Meet the potatoes

In 1828, after four hundred years of Turkish occupation, Greece’s first Prime Minister was Ioannis Kapodistrias. He tried to introduce the potatoes to the Greeks, but, to his disappointment, when the shipment arrived, the Greeks showed no interest in the potatoes. Kapodistrias, knowing the Greek mentality well, positioned armed guards around the potatoes. Presuming they were of great value, the Greeks began to steal them. This way, potatoes gradually spread through the country and became a favorite Greek food.

12. More than 140 million olive trees

Greek food: olives

The cultivation of olive trees began in Greece during antiquity. In fact, some olive trees in Greece that were planted in the 13th century still bear fruit to this day. Furthermore, today’s cultivation and exploitation techniques are not very different from ancient times! Nowadays, Greece has more than 140 million olive trees, covering over 20% of the cultivated land. It’s the third country in the world in olive production, only behind Spain and Italy.

Apart from being the world’s 3rd leading producer of olives, it has more varieties of olives than any other country. The areas with the highest production are the Peloponnese and Crete, although olive trees thrive throughout the country. In addition to producing olive oil, the Greeks are also the first to consume it. The per capita consumption of this Greek food is approximately 16,5 liters annually, while in areas like Crete, it’s even more. At the same time, in the USA, for example, it reaches 1,1 liters per person. Still, around 75 million Americans never use olive oil in their food.

Olive oil quality

The olive oil naturally comes in a range of colors from pale to a deep yellow/golden to green. However, the color is not an indication of quality. The more chlorophyll is present in the oil, the greener it gets. The oil harvest starts in late autumn, lasting till the end of the winter in some areas. Note that it usually takes 5-6 kilos of olives to get 1 kilo of oil. Farmers pick the green olives when they have obtained full size, but they are still unripe. On the contrary, they pick the black ones at full maturity. Perhaps the most popular olives are the “Kalamon”. Their name derives from the city Kalamata, where they are traditionally grown. They are olives of exceptional quality, particularly large, and handpicked one by one!

13. Mediterranean diet

Greek food: salad

The term traditional “Mediterranean diet” is the one on which the Greek cuisine is based. It reflects food patterns typical of most Mediterranean regions in the early 1960s, such as Crete, parts of southern Greece, and Italy. Its core principles are minimally processed, seasonally fresh, and locally grown Greek foods, fresh fruit, and dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt). Fresh fish, poultry, and red meat are cooked using many herbs and, of course, by using only olive oil as the principal source of fat.

Greek food: dairy products

14. The land of cheese

The first recorded cheese maker ever is the one-eyed giant Cyclop, as mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. The annual per-person consumption of cheese in Greece is about 25 kilos, more than in France or Italy, which are also famous European cheese lovers. Greece has become an important exporter producing some of the finest cheeses globally for every type of cooking. Apart from the best-known feta, many other varieties, equally protected under the PDO provisions, are worth tasting. Among the Greek food that you will try, do not miss the hard, salty kefalotyri and graviera, the sweet manouri, the fresh myzithra, and the smoked metsovone, all produced traditionally and qualitatively.

15. Where feta is born

Greek food: feta

Feta is a famous Greek food and the most well-known cheese in Greece. It is a soft, white, very nutritious cheese and an excellent source of calcium. Producers make it from sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk. In any case, goat’s milk can not exceed 30% of the total mixture. For 3-4 days, the producers add salt to the feta cheese and place it in wooden barrels. Then they set it in a saline solution (brine) and refrigerate it for at least two months. The European Union made feta a protected designation of origin product in 2002. If you see feta in your supermarket, but the producer made it in another country, well, it’s not feta!

16. Greek yogurt with honey

Both regular and Greek yogurt have the same main ingredients, yet their taste and nutrients differ. Greek yogurt varies from other yogurts because it goes through a straining process to remove the whey. Because of this process, it has more protein, less sugar, and a much thicker consistency. The cuisine of ancient Greece included a dairy product known as oxygala, which was like yogurt. Galen, the famous ancient doctor, mentioned that locals consumed oxygala with honey. It’s similar to the way people eat today the thickened Greek yogurt.

Greek drinks

17. The gods of wine

Wine

Being located in the temperate Mediterranean region, Greece has all the favorable climatic conditions for vine growing. Like many local agricultural products, wines carry a long history and a heritage that comprises unique viticultural practices and a treasure of local grape varieties. Greece produces wine for more than 4.000 years – after all, it is the birthplace of Dionysus, the god of wine! Today, plenty of wineries, wine varieties, and award-winning Greek wines have emerged, placing Greek wine in the coveted international wine scene.

Scientists discovered one of the earliest known wine presses in Palekastro in Crete. Moreover, the Mycenaeans actively traded wine throughout Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, Sicily, and southern Italy. We also know that later in ancient times, the reputation of a wine depended on the region. In the 4th century BC, the most expensive wine sold in the local agora in Athens was that from Chios.

In ancient Greece, citizens almost always diluted wine, usually with water, or snow if someone wanted to serve it cold. The Greeks believed that only barbarians drank unmixed or undiluted wine. Dionysos, the god of the wine himself, in the 375 BC play “Semele”, gave the general instructions about how much wine one should drink. “Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture”.

18. When you drink ouzo

Ouzo

Ouzo is an alcoholic spirit with aniseed, traditionally and exclusively produced in Greece. Combining the unique herbs of the Mediterranean with a traditional process, ouzo is the most famous of Greek spirits. When you add water or ice to ouzo, which is clear in color, it turns milky white and releases more of its aromas and flavor.

The history of ouzo starts around the late 11th century in Asia Minor, then part of the Byzantine Empire. The cosmopolitan Greek merchants and marines of the time mastered from Arab spirit-makers the art of creating aniseed-flavored drinks. They carried this knowledge with them at the Aegean islands, starting from Mytilene and then Macedonia and Thessaly.

There are two theories about the name “ouzo”. First, it comes from the Turkish word “üzüm”, meaning “grape” and “grape juice”. According to the second belief, the term “ouzo” was born in Tyrnavos, in Thessaly. There, a wealthy Greek merchant used to export his products in Marseilles into wooden boxes with the inscription “uso Marsiglia” (“to be used in Marseilles”).

19. Coffee time

Freddo Espresso

When a Greek tells you, “Let’s have a coffee”, what he really means is, “Let’s sit down and have a chat about everything for a couple of hours or more”. The two most popular kinds of coffee are Greek coffee and freddo espresso. The first is served in a small cup, while the second is served in a glass with ice cubes.

The traditional Greek coffee is a potent brew made in a specialized small pot called “briki”. You add water, coffee, and some sugar, if you want, in the briki, and you place it on medium-low heat. Then you stir till you dissolve it, and you just wait for the foam to come up. Be careful, you don’t drink the grounds at the bottom of the cup. Nonetheless, what some people do, especially in the villages, is to swirl the cup, turn it upside down and leave it like this for a while. The patterns left on the surface of the cup, if you believe in coffee cup reading, will predict your future! This method of fortune-telling originates in China and is known as tasseography, or tasseomancy (kafemandeia in Greek). There, people used to read tea leaves in the cups for centuries.

However, in most places today, and especially for younger people, freddo cappuccino and freddo espresso are the ones they prefer. But if you find yourself in a mountainous village, Greek coffee is still the only coffee you can get!

Greek food: Herbs everywhere

Chamomile

Due to the country’s unique climate and rich soil conditions, Greek flora is one of the most exceptional worldwide. According to international references, Greece ranks third globally in biodiversity and among the top five countries with the most significant wealth of aromatic plants. There are 7.500 different plants and herbs (about 1.200 are endemic) to Greece. About 20% of them are aromatic or medicinal plants. Today, the herbs found in Greece are the same gathered thousands of years ago in Ancient Greece. Their uses have remained unchanged, not only to flavor delicious Greek cuisine but also for medicinal purposes. Especially in the villages, people still follow what Hippocrates, the ancient physician, and father of medicine, said; “Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food”.

20A. Oregano, marjoram, fennel, mint, rosemary

  • Oregano may be the most common herb in Greek Cuisine and Ancient Greece. It was encouraging good luck and health and symbolized joy.
  • Marjoram (mantzourana) is a close relative of oregano, with similar uses in Greek food, but has a more delicate flavor. In ancient times, people were placing marjoram on the graves to help fill the final resting place with eternal peace. However, it’s a symbol of love too. So they also made marjoram wreaths for newly married couples to ensure happiness and love.
  • Fennel (maratho) looks similar to dill, but the taste is very different, with a distinct anise flavor. Its Greek name, maratho, derives from the place name Marathon. There the Greeks defeated the Persians (490BC) in a field covered with fennel.
  • The Greek mint is of superior quality, aroma, and flavor because of the rich soil and the warm temperatures. Locals use it in many dishes as well as a tea for indigestion, nerve disorders, dizziness, sore throats, coughs, headaches, and insomnia.
  • Rosemary (dentrolivano) is a member of the mint family. It’s thought to be a perfect antiseptic, blood purifier, medicine for asthma and breathing problems, and headaches and indigestion reliever. It goes mostly with roast meat in the kitchen, especially lamb, giving a particular flavor.

20B. Thyme, chamomile, sage, mountain tea

  • Thyme is one of the few herbs which will retain all its flavor when dried. Furthermore, it’s one of the herbs to give a unique taste to Greek honey. In Ancient Greece, thyme was a source of courage. Women used to give it to warriors before they headed to battle. Moreover, people placed it beneath their pillow to aid sleep and send away the nightmares. Today we know that oil of thyme is an effective mouthwash and antiseptic, while as a tea, it helps coughs and bronchitis.
  • In springtime, the Greek countryside is full of chamomile. So, a lot of people still gather the beautiful flowers and dry them. Chamomile tea is well known as a sedative, a relaxant, as an aid for stomach disorders. Hippocrates was the first to mention chamomile and recommended it for purification, protection, and fighting colds.
  • Sage (faskomilo) is a strong-tasting herb that helps to lower cholesterol, enhance memory, and smooth skin irritations and inflammation. The ancient Greek physicians praised it so much, believing that its use brought almost immortality or long and healthy life. Consequently, it inspired the Romans to name it salvia, meaning, saving lives.
  • Mountain tea is also known as shepherd’s tea in Greek and was famous for its health benefits since antiquity. According to Greek mythology, even the mighty Titans were consuming it. Today there are about 27 species to grow in Greece, each with a different flavor. In some areas, farmers call it “sideritis”, from the Greek word for iron “sidiros”, indicating the iron content in it. It’s a herb that boosts the immune system and cures colds, respiratory ailments, sore throats, and stomach aches. Recent studies have proven that “sideritis” has anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-spasmodic properties.

21. Share your… Greek food

The Greeks are social, hospitable, and like to get together to share a meal. This usually happens either at a family-friends home or a local “taverna”. Chatting, laughing, even arguing sometimes, these meals usually last for hours!

Conclusion

Congratulations on making it this far! If you are passionate about Greek food, here you will find the hands-down best dishes of Athens.

Last but not least, if you want a detailed plan for your trip, don’t miss out on my step-by-step itineraries. They include the best places in town and their pins on Google maps, so you don’t miss a thing. Most important, they are carefully and simply designed, depending on the number of days at your disposal: Athens in 1 day, Athens in 2 days, Athens in 3 days, Athens in 4 days, or hidden gem in Athens if you plan to stay even more days.

Make Your Trip Easier

Accommodation
I always book my accommodation with a reliable service like Booking.com. Besides their price guarantee, you can rest assured that you will have 24/7 support in the event of any problems with your hotel. Always make sure you read reviews from other guests before booking.

Airport Transfer
If you want to get to and from Athens Airport with peace of mind, I recommend pre-booking your taxi with Welcome Pickups. Their flat rate is a few euros more expensive than random taxis, but they are totally worth it. They use local English-speaking drivers, wait for you at the arranged meeting point, even if your arrival is delayed, and introduce you to the city along the way.

Flight
Don’t forget to use Skyscanner before booking your flights as it compares different airlines to provide the cheapest and fastest solutions. Moreover, you can save a lot of money if you are flexible with your dates.

Travel Insurance
Nobody wants to think about all the things that could go wrong on a trip. However, these things can happen, so do not miss taking out travel insurance: SafetyWing is the one I use, as its plans are affordable and can save you a lot of trouble.

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