I was expecting spectacular food from my first ever trip to Greece. Succulent roast lamb, juicy leaf-wrapped dolmades, salty moussaka – I had dreamed for months of eating all of them, all the time. But what I wasn't expecting to fall in love with first, when I sat down to breakfast on our first day in Athens last year, was the yoghurt.
I've had Greek yoghurt before, where the predominant taste is not sweet, but tart. But I'd never had a yoghurt like this. Ridiculously thick and creamy, yet somehow melting in my mouth.
I paired it with some slices of apple, and honestly, didn't need anything else for breakfast. And yet there was so much more to try. Like the honey that I was advised to mix in. So flavoursome, but not overwhelmingly sweet, as though a more discerning, subtle class of flowers had been chosen by the local bees.
But at the Hotel Attalos, a budget option near the Acropolis where we were crashing before a ferry to the islands, there were dozens of things to try. And so I did.
Like the feta. It was something of a conceptual challenge to go straight from one bowl of white dairy product to another adjacent one, but the feta in Greece vastly surpassed even the most gourmet offerings I've tried here. As a result, Greek salads – which I feel like I also ate for breakfast, although it may be the one meal where I didn’t – tasted perfectly balanced, and not as overwhelmingly salty as they can be elsewhere.
According to Greek mythology, the gods sent Aristaios, son of Apollo, to teach Greeks the art of cheese making. Buy good Greek feta and take it to another level with this marinated feta recipe.
There were certainly olives, which were something of a surprise to see at breakfast, and we dipped everything we could in the olive oil on the table, which also tasted spectacular.
Breakfast buffets have always been a particular weakness of mine. I love both cooked and Continental breakfasts, so the temptation is always to try absolutely everything. But the vast spreads we experienced in Greece were unlike anything I've tried before.
The eggs were served several ways – most commonly baked in a large tray, mixed with various varieties of tomato, onion, feta and spinach. Paired with freshly-baked pita bread, the circular, sesame-covered koulouri bread, or a chunk cut from a crusty rustic loaf, the eggs were really quite different from the usual scrambled or poached offering.
There were many other baked offerings available too. I found it hard not to fill up on the spanakopita - spinach and feta pie, with perfectly crumbling puff pastry. I'd never thought of it as a breakfast food, and yet there it was. But I also wanted to leave room for the baklava, which really didn't feel like a breakfast option but I find irresistible at any time. There were other little-baked treats too, ranging from dry shortbread-like biscuits to moist honey-drenched cake.
The galatopita or custard pie was another dessert-like highlight. Again, I could probably have just eaten one slice for brekkie and left it at that. But I didn’t.
The Hotel Aressana, which we stayed at on Santorini, was part of a scheme to provide traditional Greek breakfasts to tourists. And while their enormous buffet surely contained many selections that wouldn't have been a viable traditional option for locals, they had been inspired to assemble a range that was quite distinct from the usual generic hotel selection.
What I found surprising about the food on the islands was that several of the lunch and dinner options weren't as enjoyable as Greek food back in Australia. It was explained to me that not much grows on those rocky outcrops besides olives, so much of the food has to be brought in by boat, and reheating was rife. It may well be that we chose our restaurants badly and that there was a perfect little taverna just in the next street from where we ended up, but I found myself regularly being offered pasta, and the one souvlaki roll I tried was put to shame by several well-known places in Melbourne.
But the breakfasts are something that I've missed ever since returning to Australia. I took myself off to one of Sydney's most renowned Greek restaurants, Alpha, to try their weekday breakfast menu, and was blown away by the feta they served - I paired it with sourdough, avocado, cherry tomatoes and poached eggs, which felt a bit more like a generic Australian breakfast. I ended up wishing I'd tried the yoghurt, honey and walnuts or the spanakopita muffins - I'll be back for that.
Breakfasting in Greece reminded me of something I've often heard from nutritionists – that it's best to eat really simple, high quality, non-processed foods. With such excellent yoghurt, feta, olives, olive oil and bread everywhere, who needs to bother with anything more complicated?
I never had my moussaka, nor a plate heaving with lamb shoulder. I still wish I’d known where to look. But what I did enjoy were the abundant but simple breakfasts. And truth be told, I ate so much every morning that I barely had room for lunch or dinner anyway.
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Gigantes plaki, or "giant beans", are traditionally served as part of a mezze, and this easy recipe can also satisfy as a stand-alone main. Traditionally cooked in an earthenware pot, this recipe uses petimezi to lend a gentle sweetness to the dish.
This is a classic Greek recipe for spinach and feta pie which originated in Thessaly. The traditional technique of rolling out all the separate layers and making the pastry goes back generations.
This elegant appetiser is easy to assemble, and a showcase of all that's delicious in Greek cuisine. The sweetness of the fig teams well with the saltiness of the fetta.
Pickling your own olives is a very easy task. The hardest bit is waiting patiently for 1 month while they pickle away, but rest assured the results are well worth it. Put your own stamp on this recipe by adding whatever herbs and spices you prefer. You will need 4 good-sized glass jars, washed and sterilised with boiling water and one uncooked whole egg in its shell for testing salt levels in the water.