Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Ouzeri is the Greek equivalent to a Spanish tapas bar that serves ouzo – a potent distillate from grape or grain-based alcohol, which is distilled with anise, fennel, and other herbs and is similar to the French Pastis, only drier – to accompany a multitude of small plates featuring classic dishes beloved by the Greeks. It is a place to have a drink with savory food attached. Not a full meal, just bits of this and that. The difference is that, while Spaniards have tapas as a prelude to dinner, Greeks are content to sit and nibble on small meze dishes, and at the end call it a meal.
Once upon a time ouzeris, which originated as working class hangouts, served small helpings of simple fare such as bits of smoked herring or pickled bonito; perhaps a sliced sausage and a small chunk of kasseri cheese, olives, maybe a couple of fried or pickled peppers, and “village bread.”
An Athenian ouzeri is usually a small place – many times described as a “whole in the wall” – but is the epicenter of Greek and especially Athenian meze culture, that is small plate cookery where customers stop for a quick bite. It is anathema to Greeks to drink without eating, so what an ouzeri offers is numerous appetizers as Greeks love to get together with friends or relatives at a local place for a quick drink and a few nibbles to discuss the political scandal of the day, family and friend’s news, a recent theatrical review or any other subject that comes up.
At present, the small dishes can still be as simple as a plate of little fried meatballs; freshly grilled or fried or plain cheese wedges or small flame-grilled sausages with a mustard sauce or as elaborate as a piece of omelet stuffed with cubed potatoes and a paste of cooked skinless tomatoes with sautéed red and green onion and celery or a sandwich stuffed with crabmeat. A newer meze is roasted chicken wings in a spicy sauce. Then there's puree of yellow split peas and olive oil known as fava. The pickled olives and cornichons are usually present as well as pickled or tinned fish in its many varieties. Small fresh fish (maridaki), floured and deep fried, plays a leading role as well as morsels of smoky charcoal grilled octopus, battered fried mussels in a garlicky sauce and many spreads such as taramosalata, tzatziki, eggplant salad and scordalia – a potent little dish of mashed potato with lots of freshly cooked garlic. And freshly baked, crusty bread is always part of the offerings.
All these make the basis of meze, that is small eats, that can be as frugal as a small wedge of hard kefalotiri cheese, a slice of cucumber, a quarter of a tomato and a couple brined olives, usually considered part of the price of the drink or as elaborate as a large spread combination of all the above, and those dishes are paid for but are still fairly inexpensive.
In addition to ouzo, bottled beer or a litter of wine are the beverages for the group of friends, known as the “parea”. It should be noted that teenagers are considered in Greece as adults-in-training therefore are allowed to drink alcoholic beverages to get used to consuming them without getting inebriated. There are very few alcoholics in that country as locals are used to drinking wine or harder stuff and will automatically stop before becoming fully intoxicated. A modern remnant of the ancient Athenian culture, prevailing nowadays throughout Greece is the idea that being seen drunk is a faux pas to be avoided at all costs.
The concept of meze dates back in Greece at least to the time of Aristophanes, who described as symposium appetizers a collection of radishes and olives, beans and cheese. There is even mention in ancient texts of sweet cheese pies, perhaps precursors of tyropitakia, the feta-in-phyllo triangles that are a quintessential Greek nibble.
During my last trip to Athens, I discovered a centrally located ouzeri that offers a good meze variety. It is called Ouzeri by Papaioannou and it is located on a street near Syntagma Square, Valaoritou 7, near the upscale Kolonaki neighborhood. I had an afternoon repast there with friends I had not seen since 1967 and it brought back memories of the good life in the Athens of my youth!
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