We’ve spent the better part of the summer and fall of 2011 exploring markets to include in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center curriculum for 2012. Some have been elegant, like the Mercado Santa Caterina in Barcelona, and some more rustic, like the markets in Ashdod and Corfu. But nothing could have prepared me for the wild and wonderful Agora Market in Athens. The only way I can describe it is something in between an episode of the television show MASH and my grandfather’s poultry processing plant!
I have befriended a local taxi driver in Athens, who is always anxious to collect me, our culinary center students or my fellow Marina chefs for an adventure in Athens. So on this bright and sunny day, a few of us headed out for a stroll through the central market and the sites of this ancient city.
Our first stop was the entrance to the Agora meat and fish market, where a prolific spice merchant sat with parcels of fresh lavender (which we used to make a crème brûlée at Jacques that night and decided to put on the menu). We also bought bags of bright pink peppercorns, savory pumpkin-colored turmeric, deep brown cloves and dried sage and oregano.
With spices in hand, we headed into the covered fish market. There are dozens of stalls, many of which look the same, offering the same fish and seafood.
Some stand out with a unique offering of one special fish, as was the case with this accordion-style steak cut through the loin of a salmon or the similar center-bone steak cut of the Rameoz. I stood for a while watching a young man, obviously the apprentice of the family, scaling whole fish with an ease and skill that comes from the repetitive work we chefs love so.
I remember a talk given by Chef Thomas Keller, of Bouchon, Per Se and The French Laundry, at the Culinary Institute of America a few years back, and his coaching the students that if they were bored easily with the tasks of the kitchen, then they were in the wrong profession. He claims it took him years to perfect his hollandaise sauce.
We passed through a small passageway to the meat aisle. In the passageway, the first stall housed a young butcher proudly displaying the various offal he was selling today. I realize this is a scene only a chef could appreciate, so we stood transfixed watching the chorus of skilled butchers doing their morning mise en place. The cleavers were the size of things seen in Ang Lee samurai movies. The mastery of these men (and they were all men!) was hypnotic.
They could line up a 13-rib loin and with 12 swift movements divide them into perfect chops. This market is more Middle Eastern than European in that the butchering takes place right in front of the customers (ergo the MASH analogy), and a chopping block with boning knives, cleavers and a honing stick was a common sight.
Goats, lamb, pork and chicken were the most common species we found in the meat market, and I returned to the culinary center determined to fabricate a chicken that day – just to reassure myself I had not become too “gentrified” and distant from my poultry farmer’s granddaughter roots!
Before we left the meat section of the market, we stopped in to the “diner” that was strategically placed only a few feet from the butchers. There were 10 huge stockpots with various stews and soups simmering away. Locals and merchants were huddled over these steaming bowls with big hunks of bread and wedges of cheese. If it had not been for our fear of goat guts being flung into our stews from the butcher a few feet away, I am sure we would have stopped for a bowl or two. Another day…
Before we headed over to the produce stalls, we stopped in to an artisanal cheese maker, who shared a few slices of the fresh cheese they make in Athens from both goat and sheep milk. Cow milk is considered inferior, so the cheeses are tart and fresh and wonderful!
After the vibrant ghoulishness of the meat market, the produce stalls looked pretty tame. Peaches are in season, so they were bright white and pink and luscious. The tomatoes were medium size and quite red and ripe, so we had to take a few bags back to the ship.
Lemons and olives are always so enticing when placed in close proximity, as they were today, so I took the opportunity to speak to a few of the olive vendors and ask them to share their personal favorites with me. The variety of saltiness and brine and pungency of olives is fascinating. I am a student of olives and olive oils, and this market was like falling into a honey pot!
There was a kind soul, a local gentleman who was arranging and rearranging the vegetables in his stall. What I love most about the markets we visit is the attention to detail. These stalls are competitive, and because locals shop there, the merchants have to maintain high standards to entice their customers back day after day. They tolerate we tourists, but their bread and butter is the locals and chefs who rely on the freshest of product for their homes and restaurants, families and guests.
Many of our students in the culinary center hear my “elegant egg” lecture – which channels my poultry farmer grandfather. Eggs are a fabulous (and much maligned) food with high nutritional benefits and enormous versatility. We pay close attention to the size of eggs in baking and pasta making, so I stood trying to figure out how .13 and .12 eggs in Athens compare to medium, large and extra-large eggs back home.
On we went to the stalls of dried fruits and legumes. The Greek diet, which is enviably healthy and nutritious, relies on lots of pulses and beans and legumes. So it was fun exploring the huge variety that was available today. We purchased some dried Kalamata figs for class to make our figs stuffed with feta and sage rolled in prosciutto.
There were a number of impressive charcuterie stalls with sausages and cured meats. We were surprised at the variety and diversity of the offerings, like smoked whole ribs and blood sausages.
Next we hopped in a cab and headed off to the Acropolis.
Up we climbed, past the arena where they were setting up for a concert, to the top and the Parthenon and Athena’s Temple. As a self-confessed olive-oil-aholic, I wanted to spend time with my patron saint, Athena. Mythology tells the story of how Athena gave the city the gift of the olive tree, and they rewarded her by naming the city in her honor.
Her temple is so elegant, the lines so strong yet feminine. I was so set on getting a photo of the olive tree and the temple that I failed to see the little Acropolis dog in the photo. There are a dozen dogs who lie sleepily on the ruins, and somehow they give the cold stones and ruins a homey quality. I also met a mother and son from my hometown of Amelia Island on the trip, proving that we are all really only a few degrees separated… as they say!
On the climb down we were told that the temple below is the oldest temple with an intact wooden roof. So hard to imagine what life was like here so many thousands of lifetimes ago. And of course, I am always contemplating what they ate and how they cooked it!
After our climb, we needed some refreshment, so off we toddled to the Plaka. As we entered from the hillside, there was some intriguing graffiti on a building just before the ancient, winding streets and alleys. On our stroll down the hill, there was a single, beautiful pomegranate tree.
Lunch was a Greek salad followed by grilled chicken and charred pita. We choose the spot based on the smell of the grill – not a bad barometer at that!
Before returning to the ship, we walked by a most fascinating shop, Brettos. It is a distillery with literally hundreds of mixtures, spirits laced with honey, cayenne, anise – you name it! They also have a 20-plus page wine list, so I had my favorite Assyrtiko from Santorini, which never fails to please.
Even though we were in Greece, today was a favorite class featuring a Spanish specialty, Perfect Paella. So back to the kitchen we went with our Greek tomatoes and peppers and onions to make a Valencian paella!
One of the things I like most about this class is the work we do on our knife skills and mise en place. It is out of respect for the product and the zen of cooking that we arrange our ingredients and get ourselves organized and ready to cook! Once again, a stellar group of students made tasty dishes in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center.
Thanks for joining me on another day in the life of Marina and the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. One of my favorite sites for Greek and Spanish recipes is bonappétit.com. Check out the October issue and the Party Hearty section for some fabulous recipes that rely on seasonal produce like we found at the Agora market in Athens!
Executive Chef, Bon Appétit Culinary Center