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Diner: The Days of Tsipouro & Mezes

An eater relishes his downtime in Greece

By Chris Kemp · July 5th, 2006 · Diner
Oliver Meinerding

It's a sunny day not too long ago, and I am sipping from an iced glass of tsipouro outside my favorite ouzeri on Skiathos, a pretty island in the Aegean Sea, wondering why I don't live here year round.

There are a couple of half-finished plates of mezes in front of me and all is good in the world. Or it certainly seems to be from where I'm sitting, a few feet from the quayside and a gently bobbing row of fishing boats. Roughly 50 nautical miles to the west, across a sea dotted with the numerous rugged green islands of the Sporades archipelago, lies the sun-baked scrub land of mainland Greece. And beyond that, the hot, sprawling mess of Athens and Mount Olympus, the summit of which can be glimpsed from Skiathos on a clear day, if you can be bothered to look.

I'm not exactly sure what day it is because, since arriving on the island a few weeks ago, I have discovered that there simply is no need to know. Almost certainly, one day will follow the next as it has done thus far. I sit on the harbor and look out to sea. Maybe it's Monday, I think, taking a sip of my tsipouro. On the horizon, the sea merges with the sky. The sun sits high in the air, somewhere above the cobblestone streets of the bustling town. Out to sea, a ferry emerges from behind the neighboring island of Skopelos, trailing a messy white wake behind it. I take another sip of my tsipouro and consider which meze to sample. A dog barks. Perhaps it's Thursday.

By now, you're probably wondering what I'm talking about. What is tsipouro? What's an ouzeri? What are mezes? And do certain CityBeat staffers have psychiatric problems? In that order, the answers are: a drink; a place; a dish; and, yes, without doubt, most of them do but, having been blessed on my arrival by Panagia Kastriani -- the patron saint of Skiathos -- I do not.

I am merely partaking in the wonderful Greek tradition of slowly eating my way through an afternoon -- sampling plates of grilled octopus, sardines in olive oil, village sausage, stuffed grape vine leaves, feta cheese, marinated beans and cheese pies, as simple wooden fishing boats bob up and down in the calm blue of the harbor and the sun moves across the sky.

More precisely, I am sampling what the locals call tsipouro and a plate. Each time I order a tsipouro -- a strong Greek spirit made from fermented grape must -- I receive a meze -- or a Greek appetizer -- to enjoy it with. There is no way of knowing which meze will accompany each round of tsipouro.

Yesterday, I ate grilled octopus on a bed of lettuce, followed by pieces of pale and delicately poached octopus in olive oil, which was then followed by a plate of gavros -- the lightly battered and fried anchovies that are a staple on the island. Today, I've eaten taramasalata, a bright-pink-colored dip made with fish eggs and eaten with crusty bread; fried slices of eggplant and zucchini, served with tzatziki; a spicy feta cheese dip and garlic bread; and a plate filled with black pitted olives and dolmades -- aromatic vine leaves stuffed with rice, onions and herbs.

The tsipouro is sweet, smooth and intensely flavorful, with subtle aniseed undertones and a clean, thin finish that is reminiscent of vodka. It arrives at the table in a miniature drink-sized bottle, accompanied by an empty glass and another glass filled with ice cubes and a spoon to cool it. Some people mix it with lemonade, some use water and others use ice cubes. Traditionalists consider it blasphemy to contaminate their tsipouro with anything less than more tsipouro. Among its effects, three or four glasses of it seem capable of altering the passage of time, stretching one moment out and then squeezing the next until I no longer know whether I have been staring at the grilled octopus on my plate for two minutes or two hours: its neat little rows of suckers, which decrease in diameter along its length, becoming almost impossibly small near the end; the tasty and chewy white flesh within; the elegant taper to the tentacle, shaped like a number "9" on my plate. And is that the same ferry on the horizon, ploughing across the sea toward us? Or is it the next one? Or have a missed a couple? I take another sip of my tsipouro, and order another bottle, excited to see what meze will accompany it this time.

It's a small serving of shrimp salad, with sliced onions, green peppers and crusty bread. This is not eating on the run. It's not convenience food. Greece is not a fast food nation. Back in the United States, it's not uncommon to look out a car window on the highway and see a fellow driver cramming a hamburger into his face. At any time of the day or night, drive-thru windows are congested, like a constipated intestine.

Not in Greece. You won't see Greeks trying to eat mezes in their cars as they drive up Papadiamantis Street toward the modest acropolis on the hill. They make sure that, for at least a couple of hours a day, they simply don't have appointments -- unless meeting with friends for tsipouro and a plate and relaxing on the harbor can be considered an appointment. Of course there is work, but once it is done there is tsipouro and a meze.

Eating here is a process, not simply a means of ingesting enough calories to keep going until the next meal. The ingredients that were used to make the mezes in front of me have all come from the soil around me. Fennel and mint grow in thick green bunches on the side of the road; sturdy fig trees and tenacious grape vines grow in the fields; neat rows of well-tended olive trees march up the hillsides, reclaiming the land and bringing it to order. Some of the ingredients come from the sea, brought to the harbor early in the morning by the fishing boats whose lights blaze brightly all night, floating, like ghostly, disembodied stars, in the narrow straight between Skiathos and Skopelos. Mezes don't carry a list of ingredients or nutritional information -- they simply contain what they contain. They taste good and they help the tsipouro go down, although it never needed much assistance.

I order another one and receive a small salad, with a generous slab of feta cheese, to accompany it. The feta tastes creamy and sweet, unlike any feta I've ever eaten in the United States. It is perhaps the best $3 I have ever spent. I take a bite and put down my fork. There is no rush to finish, and several thousand reasons to eat as slowly as possible. I take a sip of my tsipouro. Mixed with lemonade, it is sweet and refreshing. I look out to sea again, and I begin to wonder one more time what day of the week it is.

Contact Chris Kemp: letters@citybeat.com


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