Offering an abundance of high-quality produce at every turn, Greece has long been ranked among the most famous gastronomic destinations worldwide. Evidence of cookbooks dating back to as early as 330 B.C. shows that food and drink is entrenched in Greek culture and remains a cornerstone of social events and gatherings throughout the entire peninsula and islands.
In fact, the Greek word “symposium” – a word that is as old as Greece itself – literally means “drinking with friends”, so this is a place that really knows its stuff when it comes to sharing and sampling food and drink with your loved ones.
By effectively using their infrastructure, producers, farmers, hotels, restaurants and tour providers are working in harmony throughout Greece to create a network of easily accessible food tours, tastings, and events so that visitors can enjoy the unique quality products of the land. These tend to operate all year round and extend from the lush mountainous regions to the beautiful island landscapes and offer a distinctive experience at every stop.
Likewise, a recent move to introduce more PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) certifications means that visitors can guarantee the quality across a variety of products, including meats, fruits and vegetables, legumes, wine, herbs – medicinal plants, fish and dairy. More than just “moussaka”, “souvlaki”, and the famous Greek Salad, Greek cuisine offers a wealth of ancient recipes that form the basis of the Mediterranean diet.
Starting in the North of the country, in some of the lesser-known regions, you can find some of Greece’s authentic delicacies. In Imathia and around Amyntaio, you can find Xinomavro, the most distinguished red grape variety of Northern Greece.
Grown traditionally in the uplands of Naoussa, this prized red wine grape is perfectly adapted to the continental climate and produces a medium to full body wine.
Compared to varieties such as Nebbiolo, Sangiovese or Pinot Noir, because of its unique flavour and character, Xinomavro can be noted for its aromas of tobacco, plums, raspberries, and floral undertones.
Another rare find in the North is what the Greeks refer to as their affordable “red gold”. The Kozani Crocus (exported worldwide under the name “Krokos Kozanis”) is premium Greek saffron grown in Kozani. One of the world’s most rare and precious ingredients, it has been used since ancient times for its vibrant colour, distinct aroma and beneficial properties. The high-quality crocus is a PDO product and it adds rich golden colour and flavour to foods when used sparingly. There is a long list of foods you can use it in, ranging from cheese products such as cottage cheese and parmesan to soups, chicken and meat, various spirits, pasta and rice.
Staying in the North, on Skiathos, food has always been the defining feature of this quaint Northeastern island. With farmers and fishermen working side by side to create an abundance of tasty produce, visitors can expect fragrant fish stews or fresh seafood with “horta” (wild greens) as a staple, fava (puree of yellow split peas) with sardines, and “tsoflia” (as the locals call crayfish and lobster) with courgettes. Areas such as Lalaria, Tsougrias or Kastro are considered prime fishing spots, and here you will find freshly caught fish and shellfish laid out in crates ready to be taken to market or restaurants. With fennel, chard, sow thistle, chervil, plus innumerable wild herbs growing prolifically across the island, the “hortopita” made with traditional filo pastry (also known in Skiathos as “ka lapodia”) is a perfect way to use up these tasty aromatics. Another delicious pie, the spiral-shaped “tiropita”, which is rumoured to have been invented here, is also worth trying. Moving on to desserts, the “aspro” is a traditional sweet made with finely chopped almonds, sugar syrup and lemon. Aspro is traditionally served at festivals with a homemade walnut or cherry liqueur, which is often carefully crafted by the Women’s Association. Along with other fruit and botanical liqueurs, such as the aromatic rose geranium liqueur, the spirits are made traditionally by leaving them for 40 days in the sun to ensure maximum sweetness and punch. Another sweet product that has garnered international recognition is Skiathos honey. Crafted from mountain herbs and flowers and produced under organic standards, this award-winning honey is enough to satisfy even the sweetest tooth. Finally, when in Skiathos, make sure you sample the wines made from premium “roditis” and “malagousia” grapes. A subtle Greek native, Malagousia saw a revival in 1983 when it was rescued by intrepid winemakers who believed in its potential. Boasting a solid bouquet and musk aroma, with notes of melon, citrus and peach, this wine makes a great accompaniment to all the local fare.
Moving to Ioannina on the northwest of the mainland, we find even more delectable delights to please the palate. In Greece, there is a saying to “live like the Pasha in Ioannina”, which basically means that in Ioannina, a person can enjoy the absolute best that life has to offer. In terms of food, this equates to fresh fish from the nearby lakes, a moderate Mountain climate allowing for a variety of prime seasonal fruit and vegetables, and infamous Ioanninaian desserts such as the “sker bourek” (sugar pie), the exceptionally delicious baklava and the other syrup pastries. Frog legs, eels, trout, mountain herbs, and spices are all staples in Ioannina cooking. They are prepared and served in both innovative and traditional ways to captivate visitors and locals alike. One typical product made only in Ioannina and nowhere else is an alcohol-free liqueur. This completely unique liqueur is based on a mixture of organic vinegar, nectar, fruit syrups, and herbs. It is usually served over crushed ice and makes the perfect alternative to an alcoholic beverage. The traditional coffee shops in the town also serve “sherbetia”, or sherbet, a kind of sweet wine flavoured with fruit and flowers.
Heading east, Limnos is also a lesser-known destination that offers noteworthy Greek produce. The island’s ancient history is closely linked to top-quality local products, such as wine, cheese (PDO or not), exceptional thyme honey, wheat and the very tasty “mavragani” flour made of an old local wheat variety. These products are the beating heart of the local gastronomic tradition.
Its traditional cheeses are based upon age-old methods, and some of the most recognised for their superior quality are Melichloro, Kalathaki and Feta. With unique production techniques and distinctive flavours, these cheeses are not to be missed.
Two other famous products you must try are “flomaria”, a type of pasta found locally, and “trachanas”, a kind of Greek comfort food made from fermented grains and yoghurt or fermented milk then turned into a thick soup.
For all those who enjoy a tipple, wine from this area is considered to be par excellence. Considered in ancient times to be the ambrosia drunk only by the Olympian gods, today, local grape varieties produce excellent wines with delicate aromas and flavours and a global reputation. Top-quality white and sweet wines are made from Moschato Alexandrias, a white aromatic grape variety, on the island’s volcanic terrain. This variety produces Protected Designation of Origin wines and has been awarded prizes in international wine contests and exhibitions. The red grape variety Limnio (known locally as Kalampaki) is cultivated in east Limnos.
Aside from winemaking, Tsipouro and ouzo spirits are also produced in the local distilleries known as lakaria. Have an ouzo drink next to grilled octopus, seafood and other local delicacies, or try it on the rocks to really get a taste of an authentic Greek symposium!
No trip to the Eastern islands of Greece would be complete without heading to Chios, the home of the world-renowned specialty, mastic gum. Derived from the Schinos tree, all attempts at harvesting the resin from trees elsewhere has never succeeded, meaning that Chios remains the only place in the entire world to produce Mastic or Mastiha PDO. Commonly found in sweets such as ypovrychio, liquor, ouzo, cookies and even chewing gum, Mastiha’s unique flavour has woody, pine and vanilla notes that make a memorable impression. Chios offers various agritourism programs specifically aimed at visitors who wish to learn more about the ancient cultivation, harvesting and preparation of this special teardrop-shaped ingredient.
This charming island is also home to PDO registered citrus fruits, including the Chios mandarine which is considered to be one of the most aromatic in the world. Used in abundance in drinks, savoury dishes, desserts, preserves, essential oils and cosmetics, this juicy and perfumed variety is the perfect balance of sweet and savoury.
Thanks to its Mediterranean climate and rich soil, Chios is also a hotspot for mushroom hunters in Autumn. One variety found in the north, amanites, is particularly treasured and makes for a delicious accompaniment to the locally-produced “Ariousios Oinos, a supreme red wine with its roots dating back centuries. Spirits are also produced in abundance on Chios Island and make for the perfect treat for liquor lovers. Make sure to sample souma, a spirit made from figs, or local ouzo flavoured with anise, coriander, fennel, lemon flowers or mastic.
Finally, you can’t visit Chios without tasting the local pasta. With a type of pasta to suit every dish, some of the standout varieties include fytilaki, a short, twisted tagliatelle with mastic flavour and spartos, which are traditionally served with a cooked tomato sauce. The twisted striftaria pasta with mushrooms also makes for a superb pairing for white meat or seafood.
We can’t really discuss Greek produce without mentioning Greece’s ‘liquid gold. A cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, Greece is the third-largest olive-oil producing country in the world, after Spain and Italy. About 65% of Greece’s olive oil comes from the Peloponnese.
In this region, the most prized Greek olive for the production of olive oil is the Koroneiki variety, originating from the area of Korone in Messenia, Peloponnese.
Often considered a superfood because of its high nutritional value and exceptional taste, olive oil is generally the main ingredient of almost every traditional Greek recipe. In fact, it has a history of being used for around 4,000 years.
An area rich in produce thanks to its prime location and fertile terrain, the Peloponnese is also home to the production of the Agiorgitiko grape. Considered the king of the red grapes here, Nemean native Agiorgitiko has a medium-bodied, fruity and rich aroma that makes for the perfect pairing to bbq meats and tomato sauces and native Greek herbs and spices.
Heading southeast into the Aegean Sea, we find the Cyclades and the little up-and-coming island, Folegandros. Located between Paros and Santorini, this gem boasts pristine beaches, stunning hilltop views, and strong gastronomic traditions that remain a vital part of everyday life. The island is home to a distinctive bread-making tradition, which can still be sampled at one of the two bakeries. The ancient wood-fired ovens are loaded with brushwood to create age-old white and wholemeal bread varieties. The puff bread, which looks like “lagana Lazarakia“, are tiny buns stuffed with raisins in the shape of a little man, and they are consumed on the feast day of Lazarus on Saturday before Easter but you can buy them in the local bakeries all year round. Pies are also a firm favourite here, with “sourotenia” being the most famous. Packed to the brim with souroto cheese and onions and wrapped in two thick phyllo sheets, it is definitely not to be missed. Other savoury options include “chortenia“, stuffed with flavourful local greens, and “manouropita“, made with mizithra and manouri cheeses. Folegandros is also a haven for cheese lovers, boasting local versions of souroto, manouri, mizithra, melichloro and skliro. Hand-crafted from either goat or sheep’s milk or both, they are used throughout the local cuisine in pies, pasta, salads, and rice dishes.
From here, Santorini is a short trip by boat and is awash with more epicurean delights. A well-known tourist destination, Santorini is a hotspot for the Assyrtiko grape variety.
Considered the noblest white grape variety in Greece, Assyrtiko is indigenous to the island even though it has been successfully cultivated elsewhere on the Aegean Peninsula.
An acidic wine even in full ripeness, the wines are rich and refreshing with crispy acidity and excellent minerality. The aromas of the wine include citrus fruits, lemon blossom, orange peel and grapefruit.
Also worth a try is the ‘nectar of Santorini’ aka Vinsanto, which is produced exclusively on Santorini from the indigenous varieties of Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri. The grapes grow very ripe and concentrated while retaining enormous amounts of acidity. After a week or so of drying in the sun and left for at least two years in large oak barrels, the Vinsanto PDO from Santorini is one of the most sumptuous sweet wines in the world.
Over to the southeast sits the mythical island of Symi. One of the country’s most distant Eastern Aegean outposts, Symi has authentic fish tavernas, fine restaurants and traditional ouzo and meze tavernas that are like something out of a vintage postcard. The fresh fish is par excellence, and dishes such as chickpeas with dill, stuffed cabbage leaves with fava, homemade goat’s cheese, and the famous little locally caught shrimps will definitely leave a lasting impression of this picture-perfect island.
Moving further south, Crete is another hotspot for supreme Greek cuisine. In fact, Crete’s gastronomic traditions date back to the Minoan period, with some ancient techniques and heritage products still featuring heavily in modern cooking.
Cretan cuisine is based on the same principles found throughout Greece: local, seasonal, fresh and simple, but delivered to an unparalleled standard.
Items such as Cretan Graviera cheese have been recognised as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), and Crete is the second-largest premium olive oil producer behind The Peloponnese.
Known primarily for its hospitality, expect bountiful portions and options that might include mashed fava beans with olive oil and chopped onion, “Chochlioi boubouristi” (fried snails), “Marathopitakia” (fennel pie), “Hirina apakia” (smoked pork), lamb with stamnagathi (a type of native chicory), sautéed rabbit in wine, roasted wild goat, “sioufi chta” pasta with dried mizithra cheese, among many others.
Cretan cuisine boasts many savoury delights and local sweet dishes that are known country-wide. “Lychnarakia” and “pitarakia” pies filled with honey fresh Myzithra cheese; pie from Sfakia, and crunchy “xerotigana” are just a few of the island’s treats and a shot of tsikoudia, the age-old Cretan digestif, or a local wine will help wash it all down nicely.
Looping round to the Ionian islands, we can sample the rich gastronomy of the some of western Greece. Corfu and Lefkada are particularly noteworthy for their local products and cuisine, with olive oil being one of the many prized products.
Usually associated with its award-winning beaches and authentic mountain villages, Leftkada is brimming with virgin olive oil from the hinterland, as well as a variety of wild flower honeys , unique sweet wines made from the rare variety of Vertzami red grape, award-winning ‘Englouvi’ lentils and Leftkada salami, which are both native to the Ionian island.
Aside from these treasured culinary delights, traditional dishes such as homemade pies, salted codfish cooked with potatoes and onions, cuttlefish cooked in its ink with rice, sweet and sour ‘sofigado’ (veal with quince and molasses or grape-juice syrup), ‘cocotos’ (rooster or beef) with thick macaroni in a rich aromatic sauce, or ‘savoro’, fish served in a sauce with plenty of rosemary and of course, lentils served with ‘riganada’ (dry bread moistened with olive oil, vinegar, oregano and salt), are all worth a try when visiting Leftkada.
Staying west but heading north from Leftkada, we find the mythical island of Corfu. Famous for its charming and colourful architecture and lush landscape, the island’s historic town is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Corfu also boasts a variety of products such as cheeses, butter, olive oil, hams and cured meats (salado, nubulo fumicato or nombolo), and citrus fruits, such as the PDO kumquat from Nymphs, which are all highly regarded throughout the whole of Greece. In fact, a liqueur infused with the treasured kumquat is considered the traditional drink of Corfu, so this tipple is not to be missed when on the island. With a rich wine-making tradition, visitors can also see vineyards at almost every turn on Corfu. They each produce a variety of different wines, including some of the most famous options such as the white kakotrygis, muscat, and the red petrokoritho, skopelitiko and rozaki.
Another distinctive flavour of the Ionian Island is “tzitzibira” (ginger ale). Created by letting lemon juice, natural lemon-oil, freshly grated ginger, water and sugar ferment inside a bottle, this particular kind of beer is exclusively produced in Corfu.
Having been strongly influenced by Venetian cuisine, Corfu also has unique local dishes that can’t be found anywhere else in Greece. For example, visitors can find dishes such as Bourdeto, a spicy tomato dish with scorpion fish, fokatsa is the Corfiot version of “focaccia”, Savoro, or Savoro, little fried fish in a white sauce with garlic, rosemary and vinegar. If you prefer something sweet, then try the local Corfiot treat mantolato, which is made of ground sesame, honey and whole almonds.
Aside from these inspiring dishes and destinations, Greece offers an impressive array of ancient, up-and-coming, and sweet wine varieties. Wine tours are a unique way to explore Greece’s rich and fertile lands with something to suit even those most discerning wine lovers. (Click on the links for a comprehensive list of Greek PDO sweet and dry wines.)
With every region in Greece having its own traditional produce, delicacies and recipes, there is always something new to discover. Simplicity, quality and conviviality are all at the heart of Greek gastronomy. Whether you are in the mountains or on an island, in the east or west, the food reflects the everyday life of each region.
Greek cuisine is rich in authentic flavours and aromas and best enjoyed with friends and family at home, in a restaurant or in a taverna.
To find out more about Greece and gastronomic tours of the country, click here.