Athens – Tuesday, 21 September, 2021
I’ve started thinking about the last few years in a totally new way – BC and PC. Most definitely, we are not out of the Covid woods by any means. But being able to travel a bit more (ie a bit more than nothing) has meant that this summer started to feel something like BC – ‘Before Covid’ that is.
Of course, at times foreign travel seemed an almost Herculean task, especially at the beginning. A trip to Paris in June, for a desperately needed reunion with my son, did feel akin to Frodo’s journey to Mordor. Navigating the multiple Covid tests, both in and out, combined with the added novelty of post-Brexit immigration controls, was a little daunting. But you adjust to most things in life and a journey back to Greece after two years has finally happened.
A quick pit stop in Athens, before venturing further afield, was for long-overdue ‘catch ups’ with friends and family. But I really wanted to catch up with the city too. When we were last here in January 2019, I don’t think it would have crossed our minds for a second that we wouldn’t return for the best part of three years. There would definitely be changes, for sure
On the cards, back then, was the much-awaited opening of Ergon House, in the heart of downtown Athens. I’ve been a fan of Ergon since first coming across their stuff at ‘Isle of Olive’ in London. Since then, Ergon Café, just off Regent Street has become a real favourite for a spot of light lunch in the West End, so a whole Ergon House could not be missed.
After a quick tirópita (aka a cheese pie) at the old favourite, ‘Ariston’ on Voulis Street (it would be rude not to! ) the next stop was at 23 Mitropoleos Street.
Ergon House opened to much acclaim in the spring of 2019 as the first ‘foodie hotel’. The concept was – and is – to have ‘rooms over the inn’. Of course, for a hotel charging in excess of £180 a night, these are a bit more than just rooms, but the fact that there is no opportunity for ‘in room’ dining is quite a statement. Instead there are kitchens where produce bought at the ground floor ‘market’ can be cooked, either by the guests themselves, or with the help of ‘in house’ chefs. There is, of course, a restaurant too – but this is not a hotel with a food offering tacked on. Here the restaurant and the ground floor grocery store are centre stage.
Since starting Ergon in 2007, brothers George and Thomas Douzis, have been showcasing the best of Greek products, and Ergon House doesn’t disappoint. I don’t think I’ve seen a better selection of Greek produce. But what was more interesting was the number of innovative Greek producers there are now. It’s also really great to see a move to things that are really on trend internationally.
It’s fascinating to see that the dairy producer, ‘Olympos’, has moved into the business of vegan milk substitutes, with almond, hazelnut, peanut and walnut drinks, all being produced from Greek nuts. The same goes for Ergon’s own brand of nut butters – all made using high end Greek ingredients.
I’m guessing that Covid lockdowns were the spur for the internationally acclaimed bar, ‘The Clumsies’, to bottle up some of their cocktail bases for home consumption. Forget that ‘gin in a tin’, an ‘Aegean Negroni’ in a bottle sounds far superior!
For virtually every product there is a Greek version on sale here, from the obvious to the obscure; from beers and juices, pastas and pulses, to drink mixers and pickled vegetables. I really hope we see some of them abroad sometime soon.
There is fresh produce too – fruit and vegetables, fresh fish and meat. Being ‘in transit’ this time, I couldn’t sample any of them, but I certainly look forward to doing that.
Ergon with its indoor ancient olive tree (it’s said it is 200 years old) and living harvest wall is a combination of traditional and innovational – something that is right at the heart of the whole business. This is not just a deli, or a café, or a restaurant, or indeed a hotel – it is all of those. At the heart of the concept for this ground-breaking project is an immersion in Greek gastronomy. I will be back.
However …. I was really sad to see one of my old favourites ‘Pantopoleion’ on Sofokleous Street has closed down. It was always a pleasure to shop there and I loved being able to taste the different olive oils and vinegars. Such a shame that it’s gone.
On the upside, for the non-foodies, I can highly recommend a trip to ‘The Naxos Apothecary’ – another ‘gain’ since my last visit. Only a short walk from Ergon House, this an additional project from the founders of the internationally acclaimed cosmetic brand, Korres. Brothers, Yorgos and Apostolis Korres, developed the concept of the ‘Naxos Apothecary’ based on the biodiversity of their home island, Naxos. From the island’s ‘herbal treasures’ come homeopathic treatments and phytotherapeutic skin care. The store is airy, bright and minimal – the staff are knowledgeable, charming and well-versed in all the natural ingredients and their properties. It’s a very calming, natural experience in the heart of a busy city
Talking of islands…. It’s time to be making tracks…
The Naxos Apothecary 3-5 Kolokotronis Street &, Voulis Street, Athens, Greece
Ergon House 23, Mitropoleos Street, Athens, Greece