“You will love this taverna,” chortles my new friend Jens, “It is totally old-school. All the other taverna owners hate him because he catches his own fish and cooks it cheap.” We are on our way to Zorba’s, a Greek tavern set back off the main street in Antiparos town. By day this small porch restaurant is dominated by old men, drinking iced coffees, playing backgammon and telling tall tales. But in the evening, Zorba’s reluctantly serves local, down home Greek cuisine to visiting tourists like myself, Ash, Lily and our new friend Jens, his wife Michaela and their young son Frederik. I say reluctantly because upon arriving at the tavern it was, to all appearances, closed. The owner sat at a table, sipping his coffee, flicking his worry beads and, upon our inquiry of his opening hours languidly pointed towards one of the rickety tables scattered under the rusty iron he called a porch. Coated in plastic for easy wiping down in between guests, the tables sit in between octopus and fish hung to dry in the afternoon sun. Although I knew the answer, I asked Jens if this was the octopus we would be eating imminently. “Oh yes,” he says almost salivating at the prospect, “It is the way that they do it here. It is first dried, then fried or grilled. We will be having both.” After eating rancid shark (and liking it) in Iceland, a little early onset decay is not something that keeps me away from an opportunity to eat, so armed with Jens’s wholehearted recommendation we sit down to our appetizers.
“We will eat the Greek way,” says Michaela, “and order many plates of food to share.” I do not have the heart to tell her that sharing, and many plates, is not something that is foreign to the Forster family. “It is good that you are with us, because we cannot order all of the things that we love when there are just two of us to eat it,” she adds. First we sample some of the fine dips that Greeks are often known for. Tzatziki is the most often featured overseas but Michaela also orders taramosalata, skordalia, saganaki, choriatiki salata and fried cucumber. Taramosalata is a fish roe salad mixed with pureed potatoes. While first impressions might sound unappetizing, it was, by far, our favorite. Skordalia was similar but sans the fish roe and heavy on the garlic. Saganaki, or fried feta, was rich, smooth and very tasty with the brown bread served alongside. The choriatikisalata is an obsession of mine. Known in the rest of the world as a Greek Salad, here it is simply called a country salad or a village salad. It’s made up of roughly chopped up tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, olives, a dash of vinegar and a liberal dosing of the most unbelievable olive oil. Finally the top is garnished by a large slice of feta, or if you are lucky a slice of the local, crumbly cheese. This is by far my favorite Greek dish. The vegetables are fresh (just pulled from the plant that morning) and taste so vibrant that I swear I can taste the salt air, sun and fresh breeze of the island in them. I am not overemphasizing my love for it, either. I have eaten a salad like this every day thus far.
Appetizers aside (and alone would be enough for a meal) our first course brought the cephalopods. Octopus, as promised by Jens, prepared two different ways, grilled and fried. “This is the best,” exclaims Jens, octopus tentacles protruding from his mouth, “I think it is better from the hanging out in the hot sun.” Fresh octopus tastes like nothing else on earth, slightly chewy, a little briny, tasting of the sea that they were plucked from only that morning. Lily tried and loved the fried octopus, and even gave some to the hungry cats that skirted our feet and occasionally rubbed against us, staring up with pleading eyes. The squid however, was spectacular. Anyone who has ever enjoyed calamari should come to Greece to try the fresh squid. Soft, tender and mild, it was nothing like the chewy, rubbery boot leather that is called calamari at a chain restaurant in America or any counter meal at an Ozzie pub. The juices on the plate were mopped up with the crusty bread that accompanies almost every meal.
“Let’s go look at his fish!” announced Jens, as the cephalopod course was nearing an end, and he leapt up from the table and gestured for me to follow him into the kitchen. From a cool box, the owner proudly pulled his catch of the day. Holding up mackerel, whitebait, sardines, gopa, marida and mullet, he gestures that we should choose. Jens, by far the more experienced Greek kitchen eater, chooses one of the mullet and I pick a healthy portion of whitebait. The mullet comes to us grilled on charcoal and marinated in lemon. The whitebait, battered and fried. We eat the whitebait like little potato crisps, picking them up by the tail and eating everything, head, bones, the lot. As I carefully pulled the meat from the bones of the mullet, the fish eyes popped out onto the plate, “You want one of those?” I asked Jens. Screwing up his eyes as if to say “what sick bastard would eat an eyeball?”,his expression was incredulous. There was no way to back down now so I picked up the eyeballs and quickly chewed, following them with the cheeks, rumored to be the best portion of the fish. As long as you don’t think too much about the fact that fish actually have cheeks, I have to agree they were relatively tasty. After recovering from watching my display of eyeball consumption, Jens joined in attacking the mullets, leaving nothing but the backbone, ribs and head for the waiter to remove.
After such a meal one must “settle the stomach” with a small (this seems to have a different meaning for Germans, as you will soon see) digestif. A bottle of ouzo is brought to the table along with water and a bowl of ice. After pouring the ouzo into a glass and then adding water, Jens tells me that the cool water allows the essential oils in the ouzo to release and form an emulsion (“the oils are soluble only in the ouzo, not in water, you see?”). The addition of a couple of cubes of ice creates a refreshing, calming drink that “does what is advertised” and helps to settle and digest your food. It also has the redeeming quality of being highly alcoholic. “We must not return this bottle,” assures Jens, eager for another drink, “it would not be proper.” Encouraging me to empty my glass, Jens has another poured and emulsified almost before I swallow. The result of all this traditional “meal digestion” is Marcus tottering up from the table, beaming red-faced at everyone around, giving the owner a collegial pat on the back, a casual eyewink and finger point at our diffident waiter and then swerving off in the general direction of our apartment. “Was that not a great meal?” asks Jens through the ouzo goggles that both of us are now wearing. “Yes mate,” I reply, “thanks… thanks very much.” As we proceed to our abodes, taking a short detour down a side street, tripping over the curb several times and performing more than a few unannounced arcing staggers into trees, Vespas, and the ocean, we arrive home content, happy and full, giving thanks to the Greek kitchen for its bounty. For after such a meal, how could anyone not feel wealthy?