The Mediterranean diet is now known to be one of the healthiest in the world.
Greek cuisine is pretty well known nowadays, although the British perception of it is somewhat coloured by the fact that most of the ‘Greek’ restaurants in the UK are in fact Cypriot. The cooking is pretty similar, but two of the mainstays of Cypriot eating, hummus (chickpea dip) and haloumi (grilled cheese), are rare in the Peloponnese – although the former is becoming more common, mainly because visitors are asking for it, and the latter has a cousin in the commonly found saganaki (fried cheese).
The Mediterranean diet is now known to be one of the healthiest in the world. There’s no real secret to it: plentiful olive oil is combined with fresh, local products. Greek cooking, and most of what is on offer in Greek supermarkets, is still very seasonal and this is vital (as we are starting to relearn in other countries). The ultimate proof of this is the so-called ‘Greek salad’. Again, it’s not complicated – just simple, fresh ingredients put together. But compare one made with shipped supermarket ingredients in the middle of a UK winter, with one from the most basic of village tavernas in the Peloponnese. There is simply no comparison. It is no exaggeration to say that first-time visitors are known to go into a stunned ecstasy the first time they bite into a local tomato.
On the other hand, one reasonably legitimate complaint made against eating out in the Peloponnese is that the food can be monotonous. Every taverna seems to have the same menu and serve the same dishes. Part of this is due to the nature of the menus themselves. They are often speculative affairs, listing all the dishes that the taverna might one day serve, rather than what they have on offer right now.
However, it is true that the once clear distinctions between the types of Greek restaurant are being broken down. Once, grill houses pretty much only served meat, fish tavernas only fish, tavernas only oven dishes, and ouzeries just served meze. Now they mostly all seem to do a little bit of everything and come under the general title of tavernas.
Every restaurant of any worth, however, will have its specialities, be it a particular dish that they are known to do well, or an oven dish that they have just cooked up for that day. The trick to getting these is to ask. As always it is worth learning from the Greeks themselves – they rarely glance at the menu, instead engaging the waiter in a long, and sometimes passionate, conversation about what is good today, what dishes go especially well together, and so on. Try doing the same: waiters normally have some English, and if not it is perfectly fine to go and explore the kitchen and point.
Water is the king among Greek drinks. Each village extols the virtue of their local spring, and people will travel long distances to fill up bottles from a particularly renowned one. The old men boast that they can taste a glass and tell you where in the Peloponnese it came from.
Not so long ago, the Peloponnese was the despair of coffee lovers, but that has changed in recent years. Old-fashioned ‘Greek’ coffee is in fact Turkish, but you’d be wise not to point this out. It is made by boiling the coffee grounds and sugar in the water, and is served in tiny cups with no milk. Old men can make these last for hours. Like all coffee in the Peloponnese it comes either glyko (very sweet), metrio (medium sweet), or sketo (no sugar); opting for the last is considered a little bit odd.
Greeks normally only drink alcohol whilst eating. Up to very recently you couldn’t even order a beer without getting something to eat with it (if only some nuts or cut-up cucumber). Even today the only time Greeks will generally drink without accompanying food is late at night in a bar or club. Extreme public drunkenness is still considered shameful.
The Greeks drink a remarkable amount of whiskey for some reason, but the best-known local spirit is ouzo, a clear, anise-flavoured spirit that turns white with the addition of water. It never seems to transfer well to other countries, but seems to go down well in Greece itself.
Look out for tsipouro, a fire water made from grapes after they have been pressed for wine. It is normally knocked back in shots and can be very strong.
Greek wine was long a matter of some amusement, but this has now changed (at least for those in the know); after all, Greece is one of the first places to have cultivated the vine, and the Peloponnese is at the heart of this. There are now some excellent wines to be had, and top Greek restaurants can keep fantastic cellars without recourse to any foreign wines at all. A good bottle of wine is comparatively expensive, starting at around €15 and upwards, but can be very good value for its quality. ‘House’ wine in the Peloponnese is an entirely different question. This is generally very inexpensive and served by the kilo in jugs (a meso kilo, ‘half kilo’, is half a litre and good for two people – at least for starters). It normally comes from large boxes these days, but sometimes is more local, and barrelled.