I’m not going to be coy about this: I am studying abroad 100% because of the food. Food is my life. I double major in food, work in the food industry, research food photophysics, cook and am just generally a complete food nerd. So I would seriously be amiss if I did not share with you some of my food adventures in Greece.
Food adventures should start off at the source of the food, both the farm and the market. On one of our first days in Greece, we volunteered at Organization Earth, a charitable and sustainable organization, where we prepared meals for refugees using organic produce grown onsite. I was surprised to learn through this experience that seasonality and sustainability are pillars of the Mediterranean Lifestyle. One of my favorite experiences was one step further down the food production line, at the Varvakios Agora, the central market of Athens. The beautiful, bustling market spanned almost an entire city block with distinct sections for meat, fish, product, and spices. The quality and freshness of the food was evident in the vibrant colors and crisp scents floating in the air. I’m so jealous that Greeks can get their foods this way all the time, while I’ll have to revert back to packaged foods when I return to the states. Even foods that I don’t necessarily love tasted amazing here because they were in season, fresh, and local- like mandarin oranges!
As a fitting transition that highlights the importance of cooking with fresh, local foods, our class literally walked directly from the Varvakios Agora straight into the Museum of Greek Gastronomy in order to cook our main meal of the day. After donning a kitchen apron and taking in the clean, minimalist decor of the cooking classroom, our culinary lesson began. I was so excited. I was about to take a cooking class in Greece, learning how to cook a three course meal of traditional Greek fare from a Greek chef. And the excitement bubbling up inside me led me to do something uncharacteristic. Typically, I am a quiet observer. I enjoy standing in the back and taking in everything, rather than being the center of attention. However, when the chef asked for volunteers to prepare the first dish, I did not hesitate and jumped at the opportunity. I always thought it was cliche that those who study abroad come out of their shells and are more outgoing as a result of their international experiences- but perhaps there is some truth to it! Nevertheless, soon my bubbling excitement translated to bubbling mixture of semolina flour and simple syrup as I stirred the traditional dessert called halva. We got to make maroulosalata, tiropita (my favorite!), psari plaki, and semolina halva.
If I had more time during my undergraduate career, I would have also loved to experience the study abroad program in France, learning about the microbiology of wine and cheese. I am pretty sure that I am so interested in food science and food production because when I was little, my parents used to drag me along on wine tastings in Sonoma Valley and the North Fork of Long Island, and I actually learned a ton about wine production and sensory analysis (but was unfortunately not allowed to taste first-hand). That’s why I was so excited when our class got the chance to visit the Skouras Winery in Greece to see their production facilities and learn how to properly conduct a wine tasting.
#FoodSciOrDie Fun Fact: In addition to their normal production step of barrel fermentation, Skouras Winery is conducting an experiment to replicate the ancient Greek method of wine making. Information from archaeologists and ancient poets were pieced together to obtain a description of the ancient process. Instead of fermenting the wine in wooden barrels, egg-shaped, porous, ceramic tanks, called “amphoras”, are used. The shape of these tanks facilitates circulation of the wine as it ages, because as the wine naturally warms, it travels to the top of the tank, consequently pushing colder wine down to the bottom. In ancient Greece, differently shaped amphoras were used in order to indicate the region where the wine was produced. Unlike wooden barrel fermentation, which develops additional notes such as chocolate, oak, vanilla, and white pepper, using ceramic tanks solely develops the primary fruit and floral characteristics that come directly from the grapes.
Weirdly enough, I got the chance to use those wine tasting skills another time during the trip- but that time we were tasting olive oils! Before I came to Greece, I knew olive oil was a big thing there. But I don’t think I could have ever been prepared for the magnitude of the Greeks’ obsession with the dark green elixir. During our free day, a big group of us from class decided to do an olive oil tasting and dinner at the first olive oil bar in the world- the Olive Oil Bar by GAEA. This was quite an experience, as our olive oil sommelier was obsessed with olive oil. We learned about the health benefits of olive oil polyphenols, such as oleocanthal and oleopein, and the production process of how olives are squeeshed to make olive oil. In order to taste olive oil, the sommelier poured a generous amount into a wine glass and told us to hold the bowl of the glass in the palm of our hands to heat up the oil with our body heat, the complete opposite technique for tasting wine. Next, we covered the top of our glass, swirled the oil, and sniffed, taking in all of the released aromatic compounds. Finally, we took a sip, holding it on our tongues for a second before swallowing and experiencing a bitter, burning sensation in the back of our throats. According to the olive oil sommelier, the more bitter the better, as the sensation is an indicator of high polyphenol content- and coughing or cringing after swallowing is a complement to a healthy olive oil! Following the tasting, we headed downstairs for a huge meal centered around olive oil. Periodically, our crazy sommelier would sneak up behind us, asking us if we liked the dish and then douse our food in olive oil, claiming that we would enjoy it more with a generous helping of the essential condiment. He was definitely a character! After the olive oil tasting, I definitely left feeling that “Olive (I love) Greece”!