If you’re a regular reader of my site then you’re into Greek food, enjoy the reports from my vacations in Greece and you’re interested in Greek cuisine and it’s ingredients.
Athens – Greece’s capital is home to about 5 million people. That’s alot of people that have to be fed. Most Greeks will go to their local butcher, “manaviko” (fruit and vegetable) stand, neighborhood fishmonger or shop at one of the several farmers’ markets that roam and set up in sectioned-off streets on various days of the week.
Supermarkets, big-box stores and shopping malls also exist in Greece and yes, Greeks will also shop there and I would be a hypocrite if I damned those that do-Â as I shop a supermarket too!
However, most Greeks do not buy produce from a supermarket and many will still buy cheeses, meats and fish and seafood from local, neighborhood merchants.
Smack in the middle of Athens is the Varvakeios Agora – Athens Central Market. If you’re in Athens and you’re enthused about food and markets – you have to stop here. Getting to Varkakeios is really easy.
Get thyself to Omonia Square and seek out Athinas Street (street names are bilingual). Omonia Square is a roundabout with streets like Athinas that surround Omonia like spokes on a wheel.
Varkakeios is a five minute walk from Omonia Square and you know you’re near when you start to hear the hustle & bustle, the shouts of touters, the smell of herbs and spices, the sounds of livestock.
Varvakeios Agora consists of the Central (or Municipal) Market of Athens on both sides of Athinas and the surrounding area and shops are included in Varvarkeios Agora. On one side of Athinas are the fruit and vegetable vendors who will sell the freshest of seasonal produce. In the old days, produce was strictly local but it’s 2009 and transport makes it possible for food to be sent from all over Greece.
There are shops facing Athinas street that sell dried fruits and nuts. Further inside the main fall are two grand halls – one with all the fish and seafood vendors and the other contains the purveyors of meat.
You will be met by touters, people who will urge you to buy from their stall. If you’re intent is to simply be a spectator, smile and move on. If you want to take photos (and you don’t know Greek), show your camera, offer to take a photo of the vendor or with the vendor. Greeks love being photographed and hey, we’re such hams!
Visiting a central market gives you a good slice of Greek Life.Â Varvakeios opens very early in the morning and closes late in the afternoon. It’s very crowded, it’s loud, the sights and smells will excite you and if you’re the type that likes people-watching…this is the place.
If you’re a little tired and hungry, there are many small eateries (oinomagheria) that offer traditional Greek food for an affordable price with some wonderful retsina from a barrel.
Construction of the Athens Central Market began in 1876 and was completed by 1886. The architect was Ioannis Koumelis. The market as we know it was built to replace the many sheds that served as the main market inside the ruins of the Library of Hadrian, after it burnt down in August of 1884.
The name Varvakeios comes from the Varvakeion Lykeon (school) which stood from 1857 to 1956 in a nearby square, next to Sokratous Street. Psarianos Ioannis Varvakis, a wealthy merchant from Epirus donated funds to help build the school for gifted boys. The Varvakeion Lykeon was gutted by fire during the Dekembriana in late 1944 and in 1956, it was demolished. As an ode to this piece of Athens history, the Central Market area is affectionally known as Varvakeios Agora.
When in Greece, I always go “gaga” at the wide array of fish and seafood and the sheer freshness of it. Living in Toronto, I’m fortunate to be able to seek out decent fish and shellfish but really…the fish you eat in Greece was just hours earlier swimming in the seas that surround Greece.
A common fish you will find in the markets of Greece is the sea bream. The Greeks call this fish “tsipoura”, “dorade” in French. Sea bream is excellent for grilling, served as a fillet or poached.
Today, I’m going to pan-fry the fish and then finish it off in the oven. I’ll dress the fish with an Avgolemono Sauce, an egg-lemon mixture that figures prominent in Greek cuisine.
Serving fish with an Avgolemono Sauce is a classic pairing. It could be a fish soup with Avgolemono or something creamier, like in this dish. Some recipes call for the fish to be pan-fried and then finished on the stovetop. I’m a little perplexed as to how I will be able to fit sea breams into even the largest of skillets. A simple transfer to a deep baking tray does the trick.
The ingredients here? Little…fish, fennel bulb & fronds, leeks, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and stock. The key steps here are pan-frying the fish and pulling-off the Avgolemono sauce.
When pan-frying a fish, the pan must get hot with no oil in the pan. You’re going to rub the fish with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Lay the fish down and let the pan do the work. With a fish the size of sea bream, you want the fish to fry for about 6 minutes to a side.
As for Avgolemono sauces, the biggest mistake anyone can make is to multi-task while making the sauce. Avgolemono is simply an egg and lemon mixture. Hot liquid is tempered so that you don’t end up with scrambled egg. If you gradually introduce the hot liquid to beaten eggs and lemon juice, you’ll pull it off each and every time.
Finally, this classic dish is usually made with the European variety of celery. The stalks are long and thin but this vegetable is used alot in Greek cooking and not always available in the markets here. Here I’m using fennel stalks (usually discarded) and the fronds. I get that celery flavour plus some anise undertones…perfect for today’s fish.
Sea Bream (Tsipoura) With Fennel and Avgolemono
4 whole gilt-headed sea bream, trimmed, scaled & gutted
2 cups of fennel, stalks and bulb, roughly chopped
1 leek, sliced
1/2 cup of olive oil
fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
approx. 4 cups of vegetable stock
juice of 1 lemon
1 heaping tsp. of flour (diluted in water)
Pre-heated 350F oven
- When ready to cook your fish, generously rub the fish with olive oil and season (inside & out) with salt and pepper. Bring a large skillet to a high heat and NO oil in the pan. Place the fish in the skillet, reduce the heat to medium-high and fry the fish in batches for about 6 minutes a side (leave the fish alone, the pan will do it’s work).
- Reserve the fish in a deep baking tray and set aside. Pre-heat your oven to 350F, middle rack. In the same skillet over medium-heat, add the olive oil and your chopped leeks and saute for aboutÂ 5 minutes, scraping up any brown bits with a wooden spoon. Add your wine, half the stock (2 cups) and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, add the chopped fennel and simmer for another 5 minutes. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
- Pour the contents of the skillet over your fish in the baking tray and add more of the reserved stock, enough to submerge the fish just over half-way. Cover baking tray (I used aluminum foil) and bake in your pre-heated oven for 30 minutes.
- In the meantime, dissolve the flour with some water and then pour into a large bowl. Add your eggs and lemon juice and whisk until a little frothy. Set aside.
- Take your baked fish out of the oven and remove the cover. Bring your bowl with the egg & lemon mixture nearby and start beating it. Take a ladel of the stock from the baked fish and while beating (whisk or fork), slowly pour the liquid (while beating) into the egg & lemon mixture. Scoop another ladle of hot stock and again, slowly add to the egg & lemon mixture while beating. If you have enough liquid for another ladle, repeat this step.
- Now slowly pour the Avgolemono Sauce over the fish in the tray and gently shake back & forth to distribute the sauce evenly. Cover with aluminum foil again and allow the Avgolemono to set for about 5 minutes.
- Divide and plate, with some vegetables as a bedding, then the fish and a spoon over some Avgolemono Sauce over each fish.Â Garnish with some chopped fennel fronds and serve with a rice pilaf.
- Pair the meal with a Tsantali Ampelonas...a Greek white made of Sauvignon Blanc andÂ Assyrtiko grapes.
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