Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Give me mezze!

There’s something very reassuring and heartwarming about Greek Cypriot food, particularly the mezze - the tasty sharing plates usually eaten as starters. Eating these seems to transform me into a better dining companion – all my usual gripes about not enjoying sharing small plates of food seem to evaporate when I’m ensconced in a down-to-earth taverna, fluorescent striplights humming away over my head, the tv blaring out some cheesy variety show in the corner and stray kittens skidding about my feet begging for scraps. I just love it all, especially the action of everybody tearing off hunks of bread to dunk into a delicious taramasalata or tzatziki dip. I feel laid back, fat and happy – and really don’t mind sharing. Yes, really.

On a recent brief visit to the southern Greek coast of Cyprus for a friend’s wedding, I felt contentment drench into me during two particularly memorable (and enormous) mezze sessions – we found two restaurants that base their entire menus on mezze alone, so you can graze on starter dishes to your heart’s content. Sometimes, don't you think that starters are the best part of the meal?

Agios Georgios Alamanou, Limassol

The first was at a beachside ‘fish tavern’ called Agios Georgios Alamanou on the beach near Limassol where you ordered a selection of fish mezze from a set menu and let the waitress do the rest. We just sat back in amazement as she dunked down plate after plate in front of us – all for a very reasonable 20 euros per head, which included free salad, bread, dips and desserts!


Cheap and cheerful decor – the best food on holiday, in my opinion, comes from down-to-earth places such as this:




First up: tomato, cucumber and olive salad and amazing crisp toasts flavoured with garlic, oregano and salt, liberally seasoned with olive oil, so very delicious and impossible to put down:




Deliciously lemony taramasalata dip:




Gorgeous wodges of grilled creamy halloumi cheese – crisp and salty on the outside, creamy and satisfyingly chewy on the inside. I could eat this cheese every day and never get bored (note the addition of a healthy side chip!):




And now for the big daddy – the ‘Beachside’ fish platter – this amount served three people more than handsomely. We wolfed down lightly battered calamari rings and octopus, fresh bream, battered meaty white fish, grilled langoustines sprinkled in parsley, and a healthy double-carb offering of both chips AND rice – properly amazing. Everything was super-fresh. Note the hugeness of the platter compared to the size of my friend K’s hand:




As if that wasn’t enough, behold the free dessert mezze platter, containing ice cool fresh wedges of watermelon, crystallised citrus fruits and mini warm honey doughnuts (so addictive like little bombs of sweet floral crack cocaine):




We waddled out of there, listing like the Marie Celeste, delighted with our meal…

Agios Georgios Alamanou


Seven St George’s Taverna, Paphos





My second incredible mezze meal occurred in Paphos, at Seven St George’s Taverna, whose mellow outdoor courtyard (see above) was dripping in grape vines and bright pink bougainvillea. All of the produce and wines served are organic, and you could really taste the quality in every dish. Tiny kittens skittered about the place, hoping you would let them have a scrap from your plate. I was far too greedy to let them have anything!

A sexy-voiced waiter with eyes of the clearest blue told us that we would pay a fixed fee and that he would bring plate after plate of mezze until we begged him to stop. Yeah right, I thought, good luck getting me to stop. But, four rounds of savoury platefuls later, encompassing a veritable odyssey through wonderful vegetable mezze right through to considerable variations of carnivorous ones, I actually found myself asking him to hold back bringing any more savoury dishes, as we wanted to save space for pudding. (I have an entirely separate stomach for desserts – a useful tool for any gourmand).

In this shot you can see pickled celery, carrots in yoghurt sauce, cauliflower dip, garlicky walnut dip, tzatziki, warm potato salad. Just out of the picture, we also had platefuls of miniature fried black olives, beetroot salad and slices of local cheese, plus a warm raisin wholemeal loaf fresh from the oven:



A beautifully fresh tomato and lettuce salad, spiked with fresh dill:




A happy plateful of the above:




Now to the warm mezze – scrambled eggs with courgette, lentil stew, meatballs and stewed lamb:




Roast lamb, braised taro root in tomato sauce, chicken and mushrooms in creamy tarragon sauce, stewed aubergines, more mushrooms…




By this point I was thinking ‘schtop, schtop, I can’t eat any more!’ But the dishes kept on coming – aromatic beef stew with rice, rosemary-infused carrots, green beans with tomato and cinnamon sauce, more rice…




And lo: my separate pudding stomach kicked into action for the pudding mezze (I have never experienced a mezze spread consisting of puddings, it is a BRILLIANT idea). Apple crumble, warm gooey chocolate pudding, hot lemon pudding, vanilla flan and sticky banana toffee pudding with fudge sauce. Heart be still!




Mezze restaurants of Cyprus, I salute you – ‘tis a wonderful and sociable way to eat. Obviously helped enormously by the fact that the portion sizes are massive and that there is always enough for everybody…or am I just mellowing?

Seven St George’s Tavern
George and Lara