In much the same way as last year, November has found us in Athens again. After a few days of dappled, grey skies, the weather has reverted to type – the sky the deep azure of the Aegean, with a warmth reminiscent of late spring rather than early winter. Feeling blessed by this winter sun, we go exploring.
On the way to a regular haunt at Kavouri, we take a turning off the busy highway that hugs the Athens coast. Away from the traffic, we are in quiet residential suburbs – the houses and apartments oozing affluence. However on one street the asphalt gives way to a dirt track, and we hit a dead end. But this is a dead end with a hidden gem.
Emerging out of nowhere is a scene from any Greek island in summertime. There is a little rocky bay, with a shingle beach and the sea beyond, sparkling in the bright sunlight, like a glitter ball. A small group of retirees – friends it seems – are swimming, chatting and soaking up the sun.
There is a small unpretentious taverna – furnished with the ubiquitous, plastic patio chairs and populated by the standard cast of taverna cats. It seems a sleepy place and we appear to be the first customers of the day. We order a couple of beers, fried kalamarákia and, of course, a Greek, ‘Horiátiki’ salad.
It is probably the most famous of all Greek dishes and one that would hardly seem to need a recipe. But sometimes, it is the simplicity that is complex to deliver authentically – less is nearly always more.
For the perfect Greek salad, first of all you need really good tomatoes. Of course, the best tomatoes are summer produce, but, if you shop carefully, you can still find acceptable ones this late in the year. The true delicacy in a ‘Horiátiki’ is in what lies at the bottom of the dish. There is nothing quite as tasty, or quite so moreish, as a chunk of fresh bread dunked in those delicious, tomatoey juices. There is no other taste that screams its Greekness quite so loudly.
I have found that the trick for getting those juices to leach out is in the cutting of the tomatoes – far better to almost hack irregular chunks, rather than slice neat sections of tomato. Next is the cucumber, which in Greece is always peeled. The onion should preferably be the red variety, again not too neatly sliced, and the peppers must be green and, if possible, the pale, thin skinned variety. Add a good sprinkling of salt and a more than generous glug of top quality olive oil and toss all the ingredients very well. Finally – and this is a top secret tip – drizzle a scant teaspoonful of cold water over the salad. Place a large chunk of hard, salty feta on top and a scattering of shiny, black olives and serve.
And that’s it – nothing less but definitely nothing more.