Tired of feeling like a fish out of water when it comes to buying fish in Greece – or ordering it in a restaurant? Katerina Tsitsipis and Aristotelis Makris of Livin’ and Lovin’ Greece, run regular organised tours of the lively wholesale fish market at Rentis, where you can chat with local fishmongers, learn about local varieties, and enjoy a perfectly-grilled fish afterwards. Here, Katerina Tsitsipis brings to life this popular Athens institution and also shares her dummy’s guide to the most popular local fish varieties to have you ordering like a native in no time.
TO THE MARKET, TO THE MARKET
You can never get the real feel of a city unless you visit the places frequented by locals: the places where the heart of the city actually beats. Such a place is the central market, or as many know it, the Varvakios. Situated in the very centre of Athens, the market is a vivid jungle of sounds, colours, and smells. Ah yes, the smells.
Some people say they cannot stand the smells of fish or meat. But a fresh fish market has to smell like fish, otherwise you might as well just pull a packet of fish fingers out of the freezer! At a fish market, you can see the fish, touch them, smell them, and learn how to choose the freshest specimens. It’s helpful to have your own fishmonger, the one you always go to and, eventually, trust. Incidentally, my fishmonger’s criteria for selecting the freshest fish from the pile is not exactly conventional. But I find it really does do the trick! She says: the fish should smell like fish but not have an overly-strong smell of fish; they eyes should be clear not blurry; and finally, it should look “vivid and shiny, and not like someone who’s been drinking and smoking the night before!”
Another piece of advice: going to market isn’t just about shopping; it also means socialising! The easiest thing in Greece is striking up a conversation. If you are a foreigner, it’s even simpler: you will be fully “investigated” about your life here, why you came, what you are doing, etc. At the same time, you will get to know everyone’s “news”. For me, and countless others, that’s one of the major lures of the market.
Very often, when we take a group to the fish market, we buy some fish, then take it to a nearby taverna where we sit down and eat it together as the perfect conclusion to our excursion.
We absolutely love fish here in Greece. And not only in the summer, or at a fish taverna by the sea, we eat fish all year round. Most of us have childhood recollections of “yiayia” declaring: “Eating fish is good for your eyesight! It’s like fruit; you can have more than one!”
Knowing the names of the most popular local fish in English and how they are translated into Greek is a great start. But it’s not enough. You also need to know how Greeks eat and cook their purchases, and how to tell if the fish is fresh or not.
Here are the most common kinds you should know:
Gavros ( γαύρος) or anchovy. We love it fried, in the oven with garlic, parsley (which we put everywhere), olive oil and lemon (which, again, we don’t hold back on). A cheap, excellent source of calcium and ω3, especially since you eat them with the bone. The same applies to sardines (sardelles), which are also at their best grilled.
Atherina and maridaki: tiny little fish, like whitebait, fabulous with ouzo.
Barbouni (μπαρμπούνι) or red mullet and its cheaper cousin, koutsomoura. Not so cheap, but amazing when fried by a connoisseur.
Bakaliaros ( μπακαλιάρος) οr cod fish. I make soup with them, but they triumph when made into croquettes. Fry them and serve them with garlic sauce.
The super stars consist of Fagri ( φαγκρί) οr snapper, Rofos (ροφός) or dusky grouper, tsipoura (τσιπούρα) or sea bream. The latter has two kinds: the open-sea one, more costly, and the sea-farm kind, cheaper, but still very tasty. Grilled is one of the most popular ways of cooking them. Personally, I stuff their stomach with a slice of lemon and parsley, wrap them in a baking sheet and pop them in the oven. Of course with a little oil, salt, pepper, and more lemon. Mmmmm, super!
BUY AND GRILL AT VOLAKAS:
Volakas is the kingpin taverna in the central market of Rentis. It’s the place where all the lorry drivers and wholesalers eat every day, which means: if you are in charge of the cooking, you really don’t want these particular patrons to be unhappy. Now that part of the market is open to the public, Volakas and its amazing owner, Varvara, have become local celebrities. Here, you will find very honest, decent Greek cuisine, at very reasonable prices, without any “touches” or novelties. Just the way our mothers used to cook.
To find out more about Livin’ Lovin’s fish tours, visit www.livinlovin.gr
Katerina Tsitsipis has been a teacher for nearly four decades. She started out as an English teacher (specialising in Business English), before moving to teaching Greek to expats. Katerina launched “Livin’ and Lovin’ it in Greece” (LIVIN’ LOVIN’) with her husband Aris, in order to provide expats and visitors with a profound understanding of Greece, its people, culture and timeless spirit, as well as the chance to explore its hidden treasures.
Insider Weekly, April 26, 2017.