Migrating birds definitely know a thing or two. Having spent the last few months in Athens, I can confirm that going South for the winter is the sweetest way to spend the darkest months. Obviously, we have not gone as far as Africa, but the weather has been kinder and the days, even in December, were not quite so short.
But that’s it – our winter sojourn in Athens has come to an end and we are off, back to northern climes tomorrow. The bags are packed and we have said our goodbyes to friends and family. I had a few things to buy to take home, so a trip to one of my favourite streets in this city, seemed a fitting way to spend our last day.
I have a confession to make here – I absolutely love Evripidou Street. It is to be found just off Athinas Street, near the Varvakeio Market; a fascinating part of town anyway, in its own right.
Here there are shops that specialise in tools, others with barrels and baskets. There are cook shops like Aladdin’s cave and hardware stores, displaying their goods like works of art. But when you turn onto Evripidou Street you find yourself somewhere very special.
This is no tourist-orientated souq or trendy foodista market – this is a glorious cornucopia of spice shops, herbalists and delis. Here you can buy sacks of flour – yes, I said sacks – in a shop the size of a small newsagent.
Looking down a flight of subterranean steps you find stores, selling possibly every kind of dried bean and lentil you could ever need. There are barrels of honey and olive oil, sold ‘loose’, and a place close by to buy the bottle to store it in. There is even a shop that specialises in string. This street is heaven.
There are some very famous shops here too. The first you come across is ‘Bahar’, at number thirty one – easily identified by the almost permanent queue outside. ‘Bahar’ has been supplying the people of Athens with spices, herbs, dried fruits, grains and pulses since 1940. They have moved with the times too; goji berries, dried cranberries and blueberries are now in the mix.This is the perfect place to pick up supplies of fragrant, Greek oregano and thyme.
A little further down you arrive at a shop that is something close to salami heaven. The ceiling is festooned with ropes of dried sausage, cured hams, and garlic; this is ‘Miran’,
In the early 1920’s Miran Kourounlian, a refugee from the collapsing Ottoman Empire, settled, first in Piraeus and then at 45 Evripidou Street in Athens. From the depths of Anatolia he brought with him the art and passion for making pastourma and soutzouk.
Pastourma is a salted, spiced and cured meat. These days it is usually made from beef but traditionally it was made from camel meat – today this is the most expensive pastourma. The other signature product, soutzouk, is an air-dried, spicy beef sausage.
Over the years the name Miran has become synonymous, not only with pastourma but also with impeccable quality. Today the shop stocks all sorts of deli products from Greece and the rest of Europe – here you can find the best quality Italian prosciutto side by side with a stunning Greek version from Evritania. The cheese counter is totally bewitching and the choice of olives is to die for. There is salt cod and anchovies in oil and even some superb kippers. The credentials of this enchanting store has the best endorsement of all – it is constantly busy, the clientele coming from every strata of Athenian society.
Across the street, in a beautifully restored neo-classical house, is another food treasure, and one new to me, ‘Ta Karamanlidika Tou Fani’. Whereas Miran is a deli with a few tables, ‘Ta Karamanlidika’ is a little taverna with a fantastic deli counter.
The menu includes pastourma and soutzouk but does not stop there. The pureed chickpea salad – it’s definitely not hummus – is creamy and sharp. The bulgur salad is refreshing and counterbalances the richness of the cured meat dishes perfectly.
Not to be missed are the pastourma pies – ‘pastormadopitákia – and the little pans of something resembling huevos rancheros – here the eggs are baked in a tomato and soutzouk stew. The house wine is excellent but on a cold winter’s day, the perfect beverage is a glass or two of the beautifully smooth but strong house tsipouro. The kindly lady of the house always serves a complimentary plate of yogurt and carrot spoon-sweet for pudding.
‘Ta Karamanlidika Tou Fani’ is a real gem, serving some of the best quality and most traditional of Greek produce in a completely unpretentious way.
And with that, I say a fond farewell to Athens, for the time being. I will, of course, be back.