I opened a bottle of ouzo the other night and was immediately transported back to Greece. To the large seaside town of Volos, a place I keep coming back to in my mind and in the pages here.
Like all of Greece, there is a sense of history about the place. Strategically located at the foot of Mount Pelion where the centaurs were said to have roamed, the port city is also linked to the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Every road taken and every footstep trodden is on thousands of years of civilization. Our trip in the Fiat Panda into the villages of the surrounding hills took in orchards and vineyards where time stands still, where the rhythms and routines of generations long gone continue. Likewise along the city's portside promenade, where the rusting fishing boats and millionaire pleasure craft are docked; if you close your eyes for a second, it is possible to imagine sails, oars and momentous incidents in Greece's maritime history.
Of course, taking in all of the history, extending the grey cells into the realms of the imagination requires adequate sustenance, which Volos is more than capable of providing. History and geography aside, the town is also an exemplary bearer of one of Greece's culinary fillips, the ouzeri.
As the name implies, there is drinking involved. Ouzeria are essentially taverns where Greece's most famous beverage is served with ice and water. Preparing this aniseed-flavoured aperitif is like a simple chemistry experiment, as when the liquor hits the ice it becomes a cloudy subtle blue-grey. Water can be added to weaken the alcohol kick. In taverns of this type across the country, mezédhes (snacks) are served alongside the ouzo, typical examples of which would be olives, feta and pickled octopus.
What makes Volos unique is that the ouzeria here do not serve ouzo but rather an anise-flavoured version of tsipouro, an older liquor made from the residue of the wine press and known as raki in other regions. This variation warranted a name change it seems, for these kinds of restaurants in Volos are known as tsipouradika rather than ouzeria. And in contrast to our earlier exposure to simple ouzeria in other parts of Greece, where we might have been waiting for a ferry or bus and the mezédhes served would be three kalamata olives and half-day-old bit of bread, the tsipouradika of Volos are truly gourmet affairs.
But it pays to understand their workings.
On our first visit to the dockside's Iolkos restaurant, we chose the tsipouro in little 50ml bottles and ordered up big from the menu. As we individually customised the tsipouro with ice and water, several small plates of what we hadn't ordered arrived. In poor Greek and dodgy sign language, we postured no, there had been a mistake. In poor English and oppositional sign language, the waiter postured yes, the order was indeed correct. This yes-no business went on for a while until it slowly dawned on us that the snacks were included with the drink order and we were destined for a night of monumental eating that could be injurious to the fasteners on our trousers.
The aforementioned small plates kept coming with every further small bottle of tsipouro we ordered. A dining disaster that only gluttons could endure ensued. On the table with our growing collection of little bottles sat plates of swordfish fillet with a crunchy salad of yellow peppers and red onion, mushroom caps grilled with cheese, ham and red peppers, shrimps done in a butter, lemon and parsley sauce, octopus tentacles, their suction cups grilled crisp and black on a vinegary salad of carrot and cabbage...and more, all delectable, all from fields or seas nearby.
On this night, the mains followed: grilled lamb chops, other fish and squid dishes, a huge Greek salad, of course all served with bread.
We slept well.
On the following night, having learnt the ropes, we only ordered tsipouro.