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Fish of the Aegean, Delicious but Scarce

Fish and seafood have never been plentiful enough to become a staple food; the fish of the Aegean sea is exceptionally delicious, but scarce.

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With its many islands, Greece probably has more boats per capita than cars.

The best fish islanders manage to catch is sold to the big cities for much-needed cash. Fish and seafood is more plentiful in the north of the country, off the shores of Macedonia. "The Black sea, well fed by great rivers such as the Danube, is comparatively rich in plankton. The Mediterranean itself is poor. The famous blueness of the Mediterranean and the clarity of its waters betray this poverty, and while they attract human beings, they signal a marine desert to fish. The relative poverty of the Mediterranean, most severe in the eastern basin, accounts for the limited population of pelagic fish," writes Alan Davidson, the British scholar and food writer, author of the unsurpassed "Mediterranean Seafood".

 

Not plentiful, but utterly delicious, the fish and seafood of our waters is appreciated very differently here. Greeks don't think highly of fresh-water fish; trout is one of the cheapest fish you will find in the central fish market of Athens. Most of the trout farmed in the rivers of central and northern Greece is smoked and exported to Europe. For Greeks, tsipoura (gilt-head bream, or porgy) is by far the best and most expensive fish.

 

According to a common Greek proverb "the best fish is the fresh fish", and by fresh, we mean no more than half a day old. During their summer vacations in one of the numerous islands of the Aegean, many Greeks go to the port every morning to wait for the fishing boats to return. There, together with the tavern owners, they choose the fish they would like to eat for lunch or dinner. That almost live fish has an exquisite flavour, that is impossible to find anywhere else in the world.

 

"In general, it is my belief that the eel is king of all viands at the feast and leads the way to pleasure...", wrote Archestratus, whom scholars and chefs, including the renowned Alain Senderens, the inventor of "nouvelle cuisine" consider to be the father of modern gastronomy. Archestratus was born in Sicily and lived in the second half of the 4th century BC. He travelled to the four corners of the then known world "testing carefully the delights of the stomach". The results of his investigations are in "Gastronomy", a series of hexameter verses; for many centuries he was treated as the foremost authority in matters of food.

 

Archestratus repeats over and over again that the best fish and fowl should be prepared simply, with a minimum of ingredients and served with a sauce on the side. In a passage where he describes how to cook mullet, he criticizes Sicilian Greeks, considered the best cooks of his era,: "Bake them gently, and serve without any greasy sauce. And let no Syracusan or Italian Greek come near you when you are preparing this dish. For they don't know how to treat delicate fish, but they ruin them by pouring cheese all over them, and adding vinegar and silphium". 

 

Modern Greeks cook fish simply, as though following Archestratus' writings to the letter. Unlike the French who often cover fish and seafood with complicated sauces, Greek seafood cuisine calls for only the bare minimum additions.

 

Barbecued over charcoal fire, is for us the ideal way to enjoy a nice bream, a bass, a red snapper, a tender cuttlefish or some shrimps, basted with just lemon and olive oil and scented with oregano. And, of course, we love fried calamari, small sardines and marides or atherina, a kind of white bate. Fish soup is another traditional dish which appears in different versions all over coastal Greece. Kakavia, as fish soup is called, takes its name from an ancient Greek pot (kakavi) that was used to boil the fish in; this delicious soup is sometimes cooked in sea water.

 

Octopus, the polypus of ancient Greeks, from which the Italian word pulpa and the word "polyp" are derived, was a delicacy that only the Greeks and other Mediterraneans appreciated. But things have changed. Today even the most conservative Americans and Europeans, who didn't dare to try it a few years back, are now feasting on octopus not only at the seaside taverns on the islands, but in Greek restaurants all over the world.

 

Another fish that Greek gourmets love, is skaros (sparisoma cretense, a kind of parrot fish) which in early summer is quite commonly found in the south-eastern Aegean sea. About 15 inches long, with very thick scales, skaros is the only fish we grill or bake without gutting or scaling it. Only its bitter gall is removed, and when cooked, its whole skin can be easily peeled off, while its intestines are mashed and mixed with olive oil and lemon, to create a delicious sauce that is poured over the cooked fish.

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