Meze, or Mezedes are the very DNA of Greek food.
By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani
A sip, a bite, a word. For those who know the world of meze closely, you can easily find yourself in this sentence. For those who are not yet fully familiar: you have a world to discover.
You can call them samplers, you can call them an aperitif. But you would have it wrong.
Meze inextricably linked to Greek, Turkish and the Levant food
We could describe them as appetizers, only they do not precede any main course: they are the meal itself.
Meze are a way, a style of eating; a set of courses, of small to medium size, which accompany the real protagonist of those tables: the beverage.
The meaning and origins of meze
Meze originate from the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and from countries further south, such as Lebanon and Syria.
Their history runs through the centuries in the very DNA of these countries, thus going hand in hand with some of the most long-lived peoples in these, the lands of history and antiquity.
Their name comes from the Persian language, where mazzeh or mazidan meant “taste,” “flavor.” As if today it was a tasting.
The… abstract spirit
The culture of meze is strongly connected to some fundamental principles of all the above-mentioned countries, especially of Greece. Conviviality and the characteristic hospitable attitude have found a practical metamorphosis in these banquets, where there are no personal courses, but only dishes to be shared.
This was true up until the beginning of the last century, when it was customary not even to bring plates to the diners, who would have served themselves directly from those of the course, to reinforce the idea that there should be no divisions within such a sacred gesture such as the meal.
The… liquid spirit
As mentioned previously, the Greek meze almost play a framing role during these distinctive meals. The real protagonists, the real focus of the gathering, are the drinks served with them. The list of spirits we find on these tables is extensive.
From raki, in Greece and Turkey, to arak, which is found in the Levant, up to the well-known ouzo and tsipouro.
They are all strong distillates and they are preferred cold. Some like theirs with ice and others with a drop of water.
In recent years, however, the consumption of beer and wine has seen increasing growth: also thanks to their taste, they are preferred by the new generations.
In short, the important thing is to eat well; but the fundamental thing is to drink well.
The Greek culture of tsipouro
This liqueur is one of the most well-known symbols of Hellenic gastronomic culture.
It is a brandy with a strong alcohol content, about 45 proof.
It has both the pure variant and the one flavored with aniseed: among Greek tables you will hear about tsipouro “με(me)” and tsipouro “χωρις”; that is “with” and “without” aniseed.
However, in reality, this distillate does not only represent a meal element, culturally speaking. Inside every sip of the liqueur is hidden a story of rebirth and hope.
In September of 1922, the Greek city of Smyrna was invaded by Turkish military forces and the entire Greek and Armenian quarters of the city were burned down a few days later.
This fact marks the end of the Greek-Turkish war, and in October of the same year was signed the armistice: which saw about a million Greeks having to leave the shores of Asia Minor and go to live in Greece.
This fact irrevocably stained the Greek history of the early 1900s.
The new immigrants who arrived in the city of Volos, a port city on the outskirts of Thessaly, began working in the local fishing boats and ships.
During their breaks from work, in the desperate search for a moment of serenity in their lives which had been turned upside down, they found themselves coming together to dine: everything revolved around the tsipouro, which not only gave them energy but above all a sense of being carefree.
They brought with them various delicacies as well, mainly the traditional recipes of Constantinople. That’s how the first establishments called “τσιπουραδικα” (tsipouradika), or “places of tsipouro,” were born.
Where the only thing that could be ordered was the distillate, in various quantities, while the dishes were chosen by the cook and the host, according to availability. Places of gathering and a strong sense of identity, where the brandy was the common denominator between people in search of comfort as they fought against the oblivion of their past memories.
In short, a lifeline in a single sip.
One sip, one bite, one word.
We are… what we used to eat
Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here.