Musing over Ouzo and Greek Summers

Last summer, my husband Spyros and I invited some friends to our Dimitsana home for ouzo and appetizers.

Dimitsana, Greece

Dimitsana, Greece

Spyros watered the plants and hosed down the terrace. I made the hors d’oeuvre and dressed the small traditional tables in embroidered table linens. Comfortable chairs, enjoyable Greek music, and lit candles turned the veranda into a cozy and welcoming place. A bottle of cold Ouzo, a glass pitcher with iced water, and delicious food welcomed our friends and put us all into a great mood. What started as a simple early evening gathering turned into a magical and memorable night for all of us.

Times like these are battery chargers fostering and cultivating physical and mental wellness.

They are diversions from boring routine and hectic work, allowing us to pause and suspend in time, giving cares permission to drift away. The hours from sunset to complete darkness and beyond seemed like an eternity. Through it all, we were floating with the heightened awareness that what really matters is good friends and the mystery of the velvety starry sky. The perfectly cool night, the inter-play between ouzo sips and bites, and the pleasure of the here and the now was uplifting.

When our guests left, we all were as sober and clear-headed as when we started our evening. Ouzo tickles the throat and warms the heart. But can only be enjoyed in small sips, between little bites. A glass or two can last for hours. If one gets intoxicated, it is not from the alcohol and the food but rather from the charm of such moments. Drinking ouzo is a ritual. There is no need to empty the glass with three big swigs. Water is for thirst. No need to devour the food either. The delight is in the quality, not quantity. The enjoyment, in the surroundings and the ritual itself.

Ouzo is the ethnic drink of Greece. The heart and the core of the Greek earth.  

Made from the best grapes, ouzo is flavored mainly with anise. Other sweet aromatics such as mastic of Chios, angelica, orange and lemon blossoms add variety with their individual aromas.

It is socially unacceptable in Greece to drink without food. Since ouzo is excessively strong on an empty stomach, whenever Greeks get together to share a drink, an array of traditional mezethes always follows. The term mezes (mezethes or mezethakia in plural) refers to small portions of appetizers. A version of tapas, with a distinct and piquant flavor.

Both ouzo and mezethakia are usually served before lunch or dinner to stimulate the appetite, not fill the stomach.

Ouzo does not replace the wine or beer of a normal lunch or dinner. It can, however, take the place of dinner altogether, as long as the appetizers keep coming and glasses are not empty. If the atmosphere is enticing and the conversation stimulating. Summer in Greece is unthinkable without it, whether served by the sea or in little authentic cafes and popular spots, in big cities and small villages.

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The typical mezes served in most cafés is a small plate with whatever is available. 

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Tomato wedges and crisp cucumber slices, sprinkled with sea salt, are a must during the summer. 

Greek semi-hard cheese, such as Graviera, small pieces of bread and Greek olives are staples throughout the year.

Any single ingredient such as nuts, cubes of cheese, tidbits of meat, vegetables or dips, and spreads will do.

 Elaborate mezethes such as keftethakia (small meatballs), grilled octopus, fried smelts, sardines marinated in olive oil with herbs definitely raise the bar. They create the right atmosphere for singing, shouting OPA, dancing, and . . . romancing.

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For years, ouzeries, tavernes, and psarotavernes serve ouzo with a collection of mouthwatering dishes, replacing dinner all together. Guests relax and enjoy delectable traditional bites and lovely music in open-air scenic atmosphere or in the comfort of the indoors.

The Greek summer flirts with ouzo more than any other drink. Maybe, it’s the other way around and ouzo does the flirting. Yet, it does not stop at simply easing the senses. Rather it invites a full romance and an Apollonian/Dionysian affair, arousing the senses to heightened awareness. Not into mischief or oblivion.

While ouzo is the cool drink for the summer, autumn and winter have their own grappa-like spirit, tsipouro. 

Greeks are proud of it and love it.  Also called raki and tsikoudia, this is the favorite distilled spirit in the countryside where vineyards are cultured. Its production is allowed by permit only.

Crafters make it at the end of the grape-harvest and the wine fermentation process. The pomace of skins, stems, and seeds left after the drawing of the new wine is brewed in sealed huge pots. The built in-the-pot-steam is then condensed under running cold water. The collected water-like tsipouro is an extract, almost pure alcohol. Usually, it is heated with honey or sugar, often ignited, and served hot with appetizers.

When I was young, my father took me once to a verdant site with running cold water rivulets, where raki was made. There, I witness both the process and the joyous playfulness exchanged between the generations, as the elders passed down to the younger men this traditional ritual, probably as old as Dionysus himself.

 What a mystical place and an awesome experience that was!

Have you ever tried Ouzo? Tsipouro? Go for a new experience! Dare serve ouzo or tsipouro and mezethakia!black-tapenade-toasts-5950008

Host an early night affair. Set a casual yet inviting table.

Choose Greek appetizers.

Serve the Greek ethnic drink, either cold, with ice or with water and ice. Drink in small sips, so that it lasts.

Leave room for observation or conversation. For jokes and intimacy.

Let the flavors and aromas of Greece take you and your guests to the sunny land where everything is simple yet marvelous.

No matter where you are, you can find magic, beauty, and romance.

It doesn’t have to be Greece. It does not have to include any hard spirit.

Take time to enjoy a glass of Greek wine, a glass of Perrier water, a Greek coffee or a cup of tea.

Make a ritual of it. Do not be in a hurry. Flirt with your surroundings. Romance your drink, the beauty, and the magic around and within. Do it alone or share with friends. Have a love affair of the senses and with each and every moment. Make it a celebration!

Both you and your friends deserve it. OUZO deserves it!!!

 

Note: This post was inspired by an essay in my book, Sailing to Ithaca: A Year’s Journey, Nurturing Body and Soul, soon be out. 

 

 

 

About the Author

Katina Vaselopulos

Originally from Greece, Katina Vaselopulos and her husband, have made their home in Chicago for the past 47 years. Their four children and nine grandchildren offer countless adventures. Katina also enjoys cooking and baking, teaching and learning, reading and writing. Her soon-to-be-published book, Sailing Toward Ithaca, takes the reader on a journey through one year of her life. She invites the readers along, to sail through life’s journey open to all possibilities and to nurture relationships with self, others, and God by striving for self-knowledge and inner growth. Other projects include What Is Cooking in Niles, a cookbook of Greek cuisine, and a thesis, “Dostoyevsky’s Major Novels: Polemics against Liberal Thought,” for which she received high honors at Northeastern University of Illinois.

Comments

  1. Hi Katina,
    Thanks for this lovely blog capturing the unique Greek ability to enjoy the moment with just a few essentials: good food, good company – a glass or two of ouzo of course. That’s what I have always loved about Greek life and joyous simplicity. I look forward to reading your new book Sailing Toward Ithaka – a bewitching title.
    Regards,
    Marjory McGinn

    • Thank you Marjory for coming over! It means a lot to me! Thank you for your beautiful and encouraging words and observations. Isn’t a wonderful coincidence that your journey took you to Greece and mine took me to Chicago? Yet both our native lands and the ones we adopted influenced us to see the world and life the way we do. Kavafy is one of my favorite poets, and Ithaca my favorite poem ever since I was a teenager. I use the Odyssey ( Odysseus’ adventures) throughout my book, as a thread to connect my essays. I am expecting my ms from my editor this coming Thursday. I am curious to see her notes.

      All the best to you, always,

      Katina

  2. Beautiful article, nobody would describe ouzo experience better than you

    Drinking ouzo is a ritual

    • Thank you, Maria, both for coming over and your lovely words. Drinking ouzo is definitely a ritual that connects us to so many things and people. Life presents us with amazing moments all the time. We just need to seize them! Carpe diem! (Seize the day!) as the Roman poet, Horace CD, said.

  3. Tasos

    Mrs Katina congratulations for that great post about Ouzo and how Greeks know how to cherish it well. For a moment, I thought I was in Greece!!

    • Thank Taso for stoping by and for your encuraging words! They mean a lot to me. We have to persuade the world that life can be lived and enjoyed in little moments and simple things. Blessings my friend!

  4. A wonderful Article Katina, reflecting on the benefits of Greek “Filoksenia” and the value of spending times like these, gathering with family and friends. A wonderful highlight too, for one of my favourite drinks, Ouzo and how to sip with meze. An article I enjoyed reading very much:-)

    • What a beautiful surprise to see this post circulate again, thanks to you, Panayioti! Thank you for your comments which show how much our Greek values and life style mean to you. And “Filoksenia” is indeed a value and part of the life style in Greece. I believe that in Greece, more than anywhere else, people drink without getting drunk because Greek gatherings with friends and family are rituals that touch the soul and the spirit as much as the senses. Bless you my friend. It’s truly a gift getting to know you :-)

  5. Katina,
    I loved your blog article. It captured the true Greek spirit. I look forward to reading your book. Until then, your essay was a delicious appetizer! OPA!

    • Dr. Alex,
      How wonderful to see you here!

      Your words fill me with joy, inspire and encourage me to hope that I might be able to touch few hearts.
      Thank you for taking the time to read my post and leave a comment.

      I love your OPA! book. You and Dr. Elaine have done an amazing job.
      I can’t wait to share with my children!

      OPA! Indeed! Wishing you and the world a 2015 blessed with OPA!

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