In Greece, the most important meal of the day—and usually the most exciting—is the mid-day meal, the mesimeriano. While it’s possible to translate mesimeriano as “lunch,” that doesn’t begin to get at the concept. Americans usually treat “lunch” as the sober and utilitarian half hour with which they break up their work-day. The Greek mesimeriano, on the other hand, rarely begins before two in the afternoon and often lasts for many, many hours. Mezedes, the appetizer-sized plates of Greece, are ordered in abundance and shared around the table. This occasion for drinking and dining is treated as a ritualized occasion for pleasure, sustained conversation, relaxation and, if the mood strikes, singing. What follows the mesimeriano is usually not a return to work, but a long, satisfying snooze somewhere in the shade or by the sea. Most Greek businesses re-open from six to nine at night, once everyone re-emerges from the siesta and returns to waking life.
The menu of the mesimeriano depends, in part, on the beverage of choice. Beer and wine are fine choices (though wine-drinking always feels like a nighttime sport to me), but afternoons in Greece are more typically lit with the brightness of spirits distilled from the grape—ouzo, tsipouro, and raki–as well as the salty, spicy, and fortifying dishes specifically designed to be consumed along with them.
I just returned from seven weeks of travel in Greece and I enjoyed the mesimeriano almost every day. Some were easier to recover from than others: a few mesimeriana didn’t end until it was time to begin thinking about dinner. Although every mesimeriano felt like an event to be remembered, I’ve limited myself to describing just three of these meals, as an excuse to recommend the restaurants where they happened.
My first Mesimeriano, Heraklion, Crete: Mezedadiko Peninta/Peninta
Odos 1866, ap. 20. Heraklion. Tel: (011 30) 2810 286220
Greece’s national drink, ouzo (and also tsipouro—see below), is spiked with anise, is typically diluted with water and ice, and is meant to be sipped. Ouzo is sweet and fiery and one goes to a place called an ouzeri to sip ouzo and share mezedes.On Crete, however, you drink raki. Like ouzo, raki is distilled from the by-products of wine making, but this grappa-like rocket-fuel has no anise (confusingly, if you order raki in Turkey, you get something much closer to ouzo). On Crete, it is poured from chilled carafes into tiny shot glasses and is meant to be downed in one gulp. The best raki is smooth and clean as glass: the quintessence of the grape. Since it is lower in alcohol than ouzo, it’s not unreasonable to throw back a dozen or more shots over the course of a meal.
The day I wandered into Peninta/Peninta (i.e. “50/50”), I had no intentions of touching the stuff. I’d just arrived on the island that morning, having taken the overnight ship from Piraeus to Crete. My legs were still rubbery from the crossing and my head swam a little, so drinking didn’t seem like a great idea. But I was hungry, which is how I wound up in Heraklion’s central market.
As with most Greek cities, some of the best meals are found right in the marketplace, where vegetables, fish, and meat are being peddled just steps from your table. While I was disappointed to see that the Heraklion market had been invaded by tourist shops (all of them selling the same, mass-produced Chinese garbage), I was stunned by the quality of my lunch at Peninta/Peninta.
I sat against the restaurant’s back wall, where I found a table bathed in sunshine. Within moments—before I’d had a chance to order a more sensible beverage—one of the waiters arrived at my table with a “tablecloth” square of butcher paper, a frozen carafe of raki, a thimble-sized glass, and a bowl of tiny Cretan olives. Seconds later he returned with a small bag of bread. No, he brought me a small bag of perfect bread—some pieces brown, some white, and some flecked with barley. All had been made with a wild yeast starter and hailed from the nearby “Touli” bakery, which has kept Heraklion in excellent bread since 1865. Helpless before these opening salvos of hospitality, I filled my glass with raki and tilted it back, my face to the sun.
I don’t really remember ordering about a half hour later, but I ordered perfectly, assembling the essential elements of the Cretan diet before me: grain, greens, fish, and olive oil. The best organic olive oil in Greece comes from Crete and a bottle of it was there on the table. It was golden and scratchy and had been pressed from green fruit: perfect with the bread.
When I finished my first carafe of raki and the waiter replaced it, I considered ordering more food. The menu at Peninta/Peninta offered many other temptations: snails sautéed with rosemary and vinegar; apaki–a smoked pork loin famous in Crete; local sausages lit with garlic; and a nice selection of cheeses. But I’d eaten right and there was always the possibility of dinner. When I left the restaurant an hour later my lips were glistening with oil, my land-legs had returned, and my brains were effervescent.
This is the first of a three-part series.