In June this year, a new “museum” joined the rich roster of cultural institutions in Athens, Greece, and is the first dedicated to Greek gastronomy.
As culinarybackstreets.com reveals, the young founders of this unique center have chosen an unlikely subject for its debut exhibit: the products and cuisine of Greek monasteries and nunneries.
“If you think religious communities subsist on bread and water, and devote their days to prayer and meditation, you’re in for a surprise. Across the country, from Mt. Athos to Crete, monks and nuns are increasingly involved in agriculture, often organic, and sell their honey, wine, olive oil and a host of other foods and condiments to support themselves. And although they rarely eat meat, they have a reputation for eating very well – despite the fact that piety prohibits them from relishing the pleasures of the table the way we do,” says one of the five founders, Constantinos Matsourdelis.
The museum is housed in a restored late 19th-century mansion off Athinas Street, five minutes walk from the Central Market of downtown Athens and its adjacent to fruit and vegetable stalls, the spice emporiums of Evripidou Street, and the cafés and eateries of Psyrri.
“Museum is perhaps a heavy word to describe it. The delicate paintings on the ceiling draw the eye upward, giving each room a different atmosphere, and there are only a few rooms, so don’t imagine you’ll get a backache. Apart from those showing scenes from monastic life with blown-up photographs as backdrops for, say, a wooden winepress, clay beehives, kitchen utensils – like a fascinating early macaroni machine – copper pots and ceramic bowls, there is one devoted to the products themselves. This is more than a display – it’s also a shop, so you can pick up a bottle of raki from Toplou monastery in eastern Crete, oil from Agia Triada near Chania or rose petal jam from a monastery outside Corinth, just to cite a few examples,” Matsourdelis says.
In a sense, the Gastronomy Museum is a product of the economic crisis, because programs to help young people start their own business never existed before. As Matsourdelis says, young people stop by night and day, so he and his team hope the place will become a hangout for them as well as older Athenians interested in their culinary heritage. It can also become a tourist destination.
The Gastronomy Museum serves coffee from 10 am, meals from noon to nine, and drinks until after midnight. It is closed on Mondays. Some of the activities planned include showings of films with a food theme, such as “Babette’s Feast” or “Politiki Kouzina” (“A Touch of Spice”), cooking lessons for adults, food-related events for kids, talks and book presentations. It is also planned to change exhibitions a couple of times a year, highlight cooking from different periods or regions — with Macedonia being next — while the menu will be changing accordingly. Though always traditional, it will incorporate occasional contemporary “tweaks” and variations from week to week.