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Ethnic Cuisine: Greece

by Lou Seibert Pappas

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Greece, a republic 50,962 square miles in area, is located in the southern Balkan Peninsula of southeastern Europe. The population of the country numbers around 10 million and the capital and largest city is Athens. The basic monetary unity is the drachma. Greek Holidays make this a popular travel destination.

Ancient Greece is considered the cradle of Western civilization, starting about 2500 years ago. In those days Greece controlled much of the land bordering the Mediterranean and Black Seas. In Athens and elsewhere in Greece, magnificent ruins stand as monuments to the nation's glorious past.

The Greeks came under control of invaders for more than 2,000 years. They lost their independence to the Macedonians in 338 B.C. and did not regain it until A.D. 1829, from the Ottoman Turks. Since then, Greece has had many serious political problems. Yet their arts, philosophy, and science became foundations of Western thought and culture.

About a fifth of Greece consists of islands and no part of Greece is more than 85 miles from the sea.

Greece and its sun-kissed isles offer a tantalizing cuisine that is fresh and fragrant, served with warmth and vitality. The Greeks' zest for the good life and love of simple, well-seasoned foods is reflected at the table. Theirs is an unpretentious cuisine that makes the most of their surroundings.

It is a cuisine entrenched in history and punctuated by the cultures of its neighbors for centuries: Turkey, the Middle East, and the Balkans.

This land of blue skies and sparkling seas offers a variety of fresh ingredients close at hand. Olive trees flourish, providing a flavor-packed oil to bathe other foods. Vineyards thread the rolling hills, and the grape crush and ferment produces excellent wines, some resin-flavored. Fragrant lemon trees produce the golden fruit whose tang pervades Greek gastronomy.

The seas are blessed with a variety of fish and shellfish and harbor-side tavernas serve them grilled, baked, and fried and often whole, with the head still on.

Lamb is the principal meat served and a holiday festivity calls for ceremoniously spit-roasting a whole carcass out of doors. For everyday meals, lamb is braised and stewed in casseroles with assorted vegetables and skewered and broiled. Pork, beef, and game are marinated, grilled, and baked. Chicken is broiled or braised. Good meat and vegetable combinations are endless, often embellished with the golden lemon sauce, avgolemono, or a cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce.

Moussaka, layered with eggplant or zucchini and a garlic-scented meat sauce, and bearing a custard topping, is the ubiquitous casserole dish. Pilaffs are laced with spices and nuts. Fila pitas, composed of the wafer-thin pastry, and layered with chicken and mushrooms, spinach and feta, or lamb and leeks, are a delight. An abundance of fresh vegetables inspires imaginative cooked and marinated vegetable dishes and salads, often strewn with mountain-grown herbs: garlic, oregano, mint, basil, and dill. Fresh feta, Romano, and Kasseri, in particular, are used lavishly to accompany homemade whole-grain bread or salad or to grate and top vegetables or pasta.

Undoubtedly baklava is the most famous pastry, a multi-layered affair ribboned with nuts and oozing with honey syrup. A visit to a Greek pastry shop reveals the versatility of fila dough in dozens of different fila pastries, many of Turkish derivation.The honeyed fila pastries and buttery nut cookies compose a separate late afternoon meal accompanied by thick Greek coffee. Fresh fruit -- generally figs, orange, apples, and melon -- usually conclude the late evening dinner.

Feasts and festivals are integral to Hellenic life. Name days, saints' days, weddings, and holidays are the occasion for merriment, a bounteous table and spirited folk dancing.

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