I like to try and take a cooking class whenever I travel, endeavouring to learn and understand more about the cuisine of the country that I’m visiting. But I must admit that after holidaying around Europe and eating at numerous restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner over the past eight weeks, I’m not entirely sure if I can remember how to cook. So with an equal sense of trepidation and excitement, I arrived at the Diavlos Tavern in the heart of Athens, eager to escape the late-afternoon thunderstorm and ready for my three-hour cooking lesson in Greek cuisine.
After meeting cooking instructor Fofi Olympidou outside the restaurant, our group of seven participants who were all coincidently international travellers like myself, went upstairs into a private room where the table had been laid with our individual workstations and aprons. I must admit that this is only the second cooking class that I’ve undertaken where you are seated for the entire session and my relaxed holiday vibe loved it!
Fofi started the session with an introduction to Greek cuisine and challenged us as to what our own understanding of traditional Greek fare was. For as long as I can remember I had somehow associated baklava with Greek food, probably because I see it served in Greek pastry shops and Greek restaurants back home in Melbourne. Fofi corrected that perception by commenting that baklava was actually a legacy from the Ottoman Empire, which has been assimilated into Greek cuisine, but is not considered to be traditionally Greek.
The traditional Greek menu for the evening was to be zucchini balls, tzatziki, dolmades, Greek salad, spanakopita, roast lamb with potatoes followed by a Greek yoghurt dessert. I’ve never prepared any of these dishes at home so I was really looking forward to participating in the end-to-end cooking process, all the way from the beginning to eating and enjoying the final result.
As per Greek tradition, we started with an aperitif of raki made from grapes, complemented with mezze, which is a term used to describe small serves of food to accompany drink. It was rather nice to begin the evening with something other than ouzo as aniseed is not my favourite flavour and I’ve been served quite a few glasses of this aperitif during my time in Greece. The raki was quite smooth to drink but with a powerful finish that you typically get from beverages with 45 per cent alcohol volume. I took note of Fofi’s advice to take small sips and enjoy with the mezze of bread, feta cheese, tomatoes and olives served on the table.
The dish taking the longest time to cook was the roast lamb with potatoes, which needed to be baked in the oven for approximately an hour and a half, so this naturally was the first recipe to be prepared for the evening. Fofi explained that sheep and goats are quite prevalent in the mountainous areas of Greece, therefore lamb is a meat that features predominantly in Greek cuisine. With one portion of lamb given to each one of us, we carefully followed Fofi’s verbal instructions by making several cuts into the meat and then filling each hole with a sliver of garlic, pinches of dried oregano, salt and pepper before placing back into the baking tray. Take careful note of the container of olive oil in the photos above which is almost full at this point in the evening.
Rather than getting up and washing our boards and utensils in the kitchen, there were bottles of vinegar and paper towel on the table that we could use to wipe down our individual preparation areas and knives, before starting to peel and cut potatoes into small portions for the next part of the dish. Topped with a dressing made from lemon juice and mustard, Fofi generously added more salt, pepper and oregano to the baking tray before liberally applying olive oil over the lamb with a little water and then covering in preparation for roasting.
With the lamb whisked away to be cooked in the oven, the next part of the lesson was to start the spanakopita which is a classic Greek dish not dissimilar to a cheese and spinach pie. Most of us are typically accustomed to buying and using ready-made sheets of filo pastry to make spanakopita at home, but Fofi assured us that it was relatively quick and easy to make our own pastry for this recipe.
Combining a simple mixture of flour, water and olive oil together in a large bowl, the dough began to take form and surprisingly a KitchenAid or Thermomix was not required other than some old-fashioned elbow grease. Most of us were given a small ball of dough to roll and then flatten into a circular shape that would be used to cover the base of the pie dish, which I must admit wasn’t an easy feat to achieve sitting down.
The next step was to start to chopping the herbs and vegetables for the filling and then spread over the pastry base before covering with the two remaining discs of pastry that had been set aside. One of the key ingredients of spanakopita is feta cheese which is traditionally made from either sheep or goats milk. Rather than cutting the cheese in preparation for the filling, Fofi gave some excellent advice on how the cheese should be grated instead so as to control the residual liquid content, in addition to some great tips for removing the excessive salty flavour typically found in purchased feta cheese.
Fofi demonstrated everything so beautifully, including cutting the top pastry layer into equal portions neatly without breaking through into the filling beneath. With a quick milk wash before being placed in the oven, another dish had been completed and all in the space of 15 minutes. Many hands make light work but I’m pretty positive it would take me five times as long to achieve a similar result in my own kitchen, but definitely worth a try at home.
The next dish to be prepared on the evening menu was the ever popular dolmades which I enjoy eating but have never made from scratch. Dolmades, or stuffed grape vine leaves, can be made with meat and rice, however the traditional version we were making had a rice and herb filling. Fofi first demonstrated how to lay the leaf on the board followed by the wrapping process before letting us reciprocate. My first dolma wasn’t too bad considering but the quality improved markedly with each new attempt. Once the saucepan had been filled with our own contributing efforts, Fofi added water and a few glugs of the obligatory olive oil to the dish before sending it downstairs to the kitchen to cook during the remainder of our lesson.
While there is a lot of meat in Greek cuisine, Fofi explained that stuffed vegetable dishes and the use of vegetables as an accompaniment to each meal, are also key to traditional Greek cooking. The next dish of zucchini balls is a popular inclusion on mezze platters and entrée courses and relatively simple to prepare. Apart from grating a few zucchinis and chopping spring onions, it was a matter of adding eggs, flour, herbs and cheese to create a dough-type mixture. The hard part of rolling the individual balls and deep-frying in olive oil (of course!) was best left to the kitchen staff down below!
The perfect accompaniment to crispy zucchini balls is naturally tzatziki, which is a mixture of thick Greek yoghurt, shredded cucumber and garlic. Because of its cool, creamy texture tzatziki is often paired with rich meat dishes or fried foods for added flavour and to assist with digestion, however it is also commonly served as a dip. The most identifiable ingredient in tzatziki tends to be the presence of finely minced, raw garlic and so for the quantity we were preparing to be served with our evening meal, everyone at the table was each given a glove of garlic to peel and chop for the bowl. When all the ingredients had been included, Fofi poured a very healthy amount of olive oil into the bowl before combining everything together into a smooth consistency. As if by magic, the first batch of zucchini balls arrived at our table, in time for us to try with the just finished bowl of tzatziki.
While we were busy devouring the zucchini balls and tzatziki with a glass of Greek white wine, Fofi started to prepare and cut the ingredients for horiatiki, or what we commonly refer to as a traditional Greek salad. This dish is essentially a meal in itself, consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, sliced red onion and capsicum (bell pepper), topped with feta cheese, dried oregano and olive oil, although variations of this salad will occasionally include capers.
Fofi explained that horiatiki served in restaurants should have a large slice of feta cheese on the top, as a way of demonstrating to the patrons that the cheese served in the salad has been freshly cut from the block and has not been recycled from a previous dish. Good to know!
Olives and olive oil are essentially the heart and soul of Greek cuisine. Olives are generally served at every single meal in Greece, even breakfast! Greece is the third largest producer of quality olive oil after Spain and Italy but is largest consumer of olive oil in the world. This fact has been well and truly demonstrated throughout the entire evening, as the olive oil container is now empty with Fofi continuing to generously pour any remaining liquid over the salad as a dressing.
And so now we had arrived at the final dish to be prepared for the evening, a Greek yoghurt dessert. According to Fofi, a good quality Greek yoghurt must have at least 10 per cent fat content – if it doesn’t, its not Greek yoghurt! Greek yoghurt is considered to be good for the digestion, particularly after consuming rich meat or fried foods, therefore it tends to be served with fresh or preserved fruit (which is also referred to as spoon sweets in Greece) for dessert.
This dessert is also a simple dish to prepare – strained Greek yoghurt, a can of sweetened condensed milk, grated rind and juice from a lemon, all combined together with a whisk. I don’t think I’ve ever made such an easier or tastier dessert in less than 10 minutes.
It’s hard to believe that three hours have already flown by and while the class was fun and informative, the real action begins as we head downstairs into the restaurant terrace to consume all the dishes that we had helped prepare.
Our banquet-style dinner started with the freshly made horiatiki, followed by the zucchini balls and tzatziki dip, and the dolmades. The new batch of zucchini balls were more crispier than our first sample, no doubt from having benefited from a longer stint in the deep-fryer, matched nicely with the sharp and creamy tang of the tzatziki.
Fresh out of the pan, the warm dolmades were glistening in the candlelight, with a sleek sheen from its prolonged olive oil bath. The texture of the cooked rice combined with the moist grape leaves and the soft, subtle flavour of dill was absolutely delicious and I started to question whether I would ever consider purchasing dolmades again.
The same could also be said for the next course of spanakopita, with the crispy, thicker-style pastry that we had helped to prepare. The crunchy and crisp texture of the pie pastry was definitely more flavourful than its commercial counterparts and almost a complete meal in itself.
Then the main course of roast lamb and potatoes that I had been eagerly anticipating arrived at the table. The slow-cooked meat and soft, lemon and herb-flavoured potatoes was definitely a highlight but it was certainly a struggle to consume my allocated portion of lamb following all the previous courses. And by way of demonstration that Greek yoghurt is the answer to all digestive ailments, the chilled sweet yoghurt dessert was served at the conclusion of the evening.
I can’t remember attending such an informative cooking class and preparing a range of delicious recipes with a simple list of ingredients and relatively easy cooking processes. With everything demonstrated and explained so effectively, I’m looking forward to going home again and preparing my own traditional Greek dinner for my friends and family.