Kay and I had never been on a food tour before Athens, but this was hands down my best decision of the trip.
I wasn’t even thinking about food tours, but I stumbled upon the site Culinary Backstreets while searching for Greek celiac restaurant cards. I realized that they offered food tours, so I emailed them shortly before we left to check if it’s OK to handle a gluten-free diet. They responded quickly with a positive answer, so I booked a tour for us that Wednesday evening, with not too much notice for our Saturday food tour.
The information email said to come with comfortable walking clothes, shoes, and an appetite. I’m always a little nervous about food with my diet and low blood sugar, so I still ate a small cereal bar before we left our place just in case there would be issues finding me gluten free options on the tour. You need to be prepared as a celiac. Kay on the other hand, ate nothing before we left.
When we met up with our guide and fellow food tourers on Saturday at 9:30am. The guide was actually a few minutes late because he was picking up some special gluten-free items for me. I really appreciated that he made the extra effort to pick up alternative options for me on such short notice. He only really had Friday and Saturday morning to prepare for a gluten-free eater!
First stop was breakfast:
Greek rice pudding with cinnamon, Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts and baklava, which unfortunately did have gluten in it. What can you do? When the guide explained the “bite of shame” which is the leftover piece that everyone is too ashamed to take, I pressured them to eat the gluten for me.
In the past, I would take the bite of shame without any shame! I also used the excuse in the tour if something was gluten free that I should take the bite of shame for that item because I can’t eat the other things. It works to my advantage sometimes. 😉
If I couldn’t have the baklava, I was going to go crazy on the other two. The Greek yogurt and honey was SUMPTUOUS. Om nom nom.
The rice pudding was also so delicious. I am such a fan of cinnamon in the morning. The only thing missing at this first place was coffee.
On the way to the second place, our guide stopped at a local bread stand where he explained how lots of Greek can grab a quick morning bite similar to New Yorkers and their bagels. I couldn’t eat this one either, but Kay could enjoy his pretzel.
The second place ended up being a donut place, at which point my hopes started to dampen a bit. I was worried that the whole food tour would be like this.
Look at those donuts… covered in honey. They look so yummy! So gluten-y as well. 🙁
My hopes were lifted though, when the guide gave me a special gluten free cookie from the bakery he’d stopped at earlier that morning. It didn’t look as yummy as the donuts, but I was happy to be included still.
Kay also assured me that the donuts were actually not nearly as sweet as they looked and that compared to our pre-gluten donut escapades in the US, I was not missing out.
Our next stop was a local feta shop:
My excitement perked up. Dairy is on the table again thanks to a recent food test, so I’m all about the cheese again! 🙂
(Photo by Lund Brynilsen)
Who wouldn’t be excited to eat fresh feta made by little old Greek men? Look at that pro!
We tried two kinds, soft and hard. Kay preferred the soft kind, which is almost never exported from Greece, but the hard kind was also extremely tasty.
After our cheese, our guide took us on a tour through the meat and fish markets:
I’ve been to fresh food markets in halls in cities before, but I have never really been to a meat market like this. It was quite an experience: Loud, smelly, a little abrasive and the threat of blood and animal parts flying through the air. I am not sure we would have ventured in on our own, but I’m glad we did.
All around the meat hall, the place was packed with butchers chopping meat and shouting to potential customers. The butchers used wooden blocks, which surprised Kay because they are banned for hygiene reasons in Switzerland.
The butchers also didn’t have much protective gear. Most wore their own clothes and did not use gloves. Some were smoking or drinking takeaway coffee while they worked.
After we passed through the fish hall where we all tried not to get our feet too wet, we arrived at a little tiny hole-in-the-wall place.
I liked this place if not just for the Ouzo at 11 in the morning. 🙂 One of the other girls on the trip did not drink alcohol, so guess who landed the extra “shot of shame” here?
(Photo by Lund Brynilsen)
Here, the guide also slipped the cook some special gluten free bread for me, which you’ll see in some other photos further on. For gluten free, it was a surprisingly nice, normal bread. At first I was wary because I did not believe that it could really be gluten free, but I had no reactions to it later on, so it was the real deal.
I had a different plate from the others here as well. I think they had some meatball type thing which had gluten, so I got seared shrimp instead. My favorite part again was actually the fried cheese.
Finally, on to the coffee place Mokka! It was almost noon and Kay and I had not had any coffee before we left, so I was really looking forward to this!
The English couple on the trip explained that they had already ordered Greek coffee and were told not to stir it, which they hadn’t understood. They stirred and drank and had a horrible experience because Greek coffee is like Turkish coffee, as we found out.
You need to let the coffee sediment sink to the bottom after brewing, so you sweeten the coffee while cooking and then let the whole thing settle and absolutely do not stir or you will get a mouth full of grinds!
Kay makes Turkish coffee at home sometimes. It’s one of the only coffees that we drink sweet with a bit of sugar and kardamom. So I knew that I would be a fan of Greek coffee!
The brewing process, which admittedly is a bit different than how we make our Turkish coffee on the stove:
The brewing tins look the same though:
And the result is a nice, subtly sweet cup of mocha. 🙂
After coffee we walked to Kotzia square by the city hall of Athens where they hold a local food market in the springtime.
Our guide explained that the market is not open like this year round or even all summer. In the summer, it gets far too hot, so everyone leaves and heads to the islands to cool off.
Here we sampled fresh olives and a special kind of black one without salt. They were wonderful! I’m a big olive fan as well.
So much fresh produce for cheap prices. I wish I could do some weekly shopping here!
(Photo by Lund Brynilsen)
The strawberries also smelled heavenly, even if the guide said that they do not taste that great.
This place was packed. Even with the guide bringing us there, we figured that it must be nice if the locals are going. We tried to come back for dinner here on our last evening and were disappointed to find that it was closed. A Greek pair tried the same thing though, and they were also disappointed to find the restaurant not open.
Here they served tapas-like food with cheese and meat.
This time we finally had some meat!
On the plate in the bottom of the photo was a special cut of camel, which we had never had before. I thought it tasted fine. You are supposed to take the salty edging off and leave it behind before eating.
On the way to the next place, we passed by a spice market.
When we searched for the previous restaurant again, we came through the spice streets again while they were closed and you could still really smell all the strong spices in the street.
The guide also explained a bit about how the city developed without some good city planning, so some of the streets and buildings are very narrow or very strange shapes.
The second to last place was more fast food style. Time for some souvlaki!
No… the gyro below was not for me, but look how tasty with the fries it looks! Mmmm.
I had my safe bread again, but could eat the souvlaki normally with tzatziki. We were warned not to eat too much here before our big meal at the end.
Funny thing… the guide gets feedback from the restaurant owners and the person who owns this place asked, “Your customers, don’t they like my food? Why don’t they ever finish it? What’s wrong?” and the guide had to explain how it is for a food tour and that people are saving space. Everybody is worried about not being able to try everything with all the delicious food stops!
Finally at the last stop, which was the entrance to some kind of inside tunnel mall. The guide explained how lots of places like this developed when the city needed more space and less streets and walkways.
We definitely never would have come in here to this restaurant. The entrance was a little dark and scary. I am positive that we would not have ventured in here. We would have missed out!
Here we had a wide array of fish that Kay and I would probably also be intimidated to try. It was great having a guide just order whatever and tell you to try it. 🙂
We also had potato salad and bread.
The others could try the batter-fried calamari while I had the grilled octopus below. The guide said he actually prefers it below rather than deep fried.
Some white fish… fish galore!
And good old grilled feta and tomatoes. Oh my, yes please.
At the “last supper” we could finally stuff ourselves the rest of the way. Kay had been trying not to eat all the gluten-y bites of shame that nobody else wanted and without as much bread as the others, I was also still fairly hungry. We definitely left feeling very full!
I don’t think I can recommend this food tour enough. I felt really well taken care of with my celiac disease. Exceptions cannot be made for everything, but they were very accommodating and I still tried such a wide array of food. Kay of course got to try everything. He found the price a little expensive, but I thought it was fair for a 5.5h guided tour to all these special places. Having a guide speak Greek with the restaurant staff was also really helpful for me and I loved not having to worry about my food choices that day.
I will definitely be looking into tours in other cities that we visit. Have you been on a food tour while traveling?