Here we are then, with two hours left. The hectic swirl of Omonia Square lies behind us and we are ready to explore one of the big lively streets of Athens, Athinà Street, on foot heading towards the Acropolis. It is a wide, tree-lined street with a continuous succession of shops: household articles, including excellent incense; hardware, with heaps of goods displayed on the sidewalk, and also tiny shops – in fact open cupboards on the street – with confectionery and herbs (hundreds of dry herbs in bags: lime, sage, bay leaf, wormwood, camomile…).
There aren’t any coffee bars. But there is a strong smell from a coffee shop (roasting the coffee but without any to drink …) with gleaming brass grinding machines and a vast range of blends and roastings for Turkish coffee accompanied by the typical sweets common throughout the Middle East: candied fruit, almond confectionery, lukum, or Turkish delight. And at last, there on the right, the signs and lights of the meat market.
From the street you enter into a kind of covered store, illuminated by hundreds of lights hanging from the roof supports over the stalls laden with meat. A surreal sight. A corridor takes you inside away from the lights, turns and turns again, before once again leading you, still disoriented, towards the familiar friendly hubbub of Athinà Street.
On either side of the alleyway, piled on steep stalls like the terraces of a stadium, are displayed cuts of meat of every imaginable type. And down below a crowd of butchers comes towards us, aprons needing a wash, each loudly proclaiming the high quality of their produce. We continue in a daze through the group, standing around like in a Fellini set. Their cries (actually offering reasonable prices) rise into the maze of lights and roofing, amidst a flourish of bare arms, glances and knives, and sweet meaty smell.
We reemerge on the Athinà, senses still overwhelmed by the experience (a feast for Polyphemus? A vegetarian’s nightmare?), relieved to see light and green trees. And just a little further on, beyond the din of car horns, are the fruit and vegetables. The delicatessen merchants have colonized tiny niches in a long arcade. Their goods, inevitably, have to be all displayed in the passageway: dried fruit, spices, assorted canned food, sausages, sauces, olives, salted anchovies, sardines, mackerel, tuna in oil, dried salted cod.
And taramà? taramà “not ready made”? But of course, certainly: the taramà is no longer in wooden casks but in large white plastic buckets. We choose some, deciding to trust a young boy beckoning us in. Behind a minute counter an old man removes the lid from one of the buckets surrounding him. He shows me the contents. It is the real thing, proper unprocessed taramà, bright pink and firm like almond paste. I gesture that I want to smell it and the man passes over a sample on the tip of a knife: excellent. We buy a kilo for less than 15 euros, without even bothering to bargain. A special treat for the whole family that will last a while.
Mission accomplished, we can spend the last few minutes browsing round the fruit and vegetable stalls. There are a lot of grapes, both white and black, of varieties similar to our Italian ones, and also thick bunches of small round pink grapes; there is spinach and small elongated white eggplants, good for filling; large bowls of torshi, a sort of mixed pickle (carrots, turnips, cauliflower, green peppers, gherkins, celery…), slightly sour and excellent to accompany kebabs or grilled meat. This is another reminder of Egypt, where torshi is used to garnish the shawarma kebab in pita bread, with the meat cooked on a vertical spit. Unfortunately there is not enough time to buy or taste anything. But I have the feeling that next summer my father’s vegetable garden will be growing white eggplants: I have to let my family try them. Stuffed with rice flavored with onions, mint and parsley and stewed with lemon juice and garlic, they get soft and creamy, and are so delicious together with the familiar purple ones…
We leave the market heading towards the Acropolis which stands commandingly at the end of the street, above a jumble of building sites. Undaunted, we continue and discover small streets climbing upwards, bare rock contrasting with the bright sun and shade of tiny squares boasting a single tree, T shirts waiting to be sold, tourist voices, hidden gardens. Almost concealed, a door leading off a small patio would have taken us (free of charge) into a museum of traditional musical instruments, as an alternative to the archeological excavations protected by high netting. We decide to interrupt our short exploration for a cold coffee shaken under the pergola of the Café Trianon. A definite recommendation – all we can see around us are large glasses of frothy coffee with straws. History discretely observes us from up above. A slight breeze stirs the pleasant heat.
Taramà: salted roe of gray mullet or cod. It is the consistency of almond paste with a pink beige color and intense but delicate aroma of preserved fish.
Recipes for salted taramà usually suggest making it as a mixture with boiled potatoes or softened bread, but the Greek shopkeeper in Cairo taught my mother to just make it like mayonnaise and this is the version I will describe:
3 spoonfuls of taramà
a few drops of lemon juice to taste
olives and salad leaves as garnish
According to preference you can use just olive oil or a mixture of olive oil and corn oil.
Place the salted fish roe in a bowl. Crush it gently with a fork and begin adding a little oil as though making mayonnaise, mix and add a few drops of lemon. When the mixture is well mixed, skewer a clove of garlic on the prongs of a fork. Continue to mix and add oil and lemon until the paste is bright pink with the consistency of a thick béchamel sauce (must not slide off the spoon).
Spread thinly on bread or crostini.
It can be served with garnish of green salad and black olives.
Ready made taramà:
None of the ready-made products we have tasted compares with the “real” one though they can give an idea of what it is like or assuage a craving!
Before buying jars or cans, check the percentage of fish roe present and how much and what coloring agents are used…
Elena Giovanelli is a translator and has collaborated with Slow Food since its foundation.
Giovanni Valle is a freelance writer and creative.
Adapted by Ronnie Richards