Margi Farm, Kalyvia, Greece
Authentic farm to table dining in the Athenian countryside.
We had been planning our trip to Greece for months, and I was determined to experience as many different angles of the country as possible. Before our trip, when we mentioned to friends that we'd be visiting Greece, the responses ranged from jealousy, to questions about which islands we'd visit, to warnings about spending too much time in Athens. Often, people described Athens to us as dirty or grimy. Since we live in New York City, we generally ignored these comments, expecting regular big-city crowds and all that they entail.
We were surprised by Athens, particularly the sheer amount of graffiti. The walls at ground level of almost every building are nearly completely covered. However, compared to New York, the city itself was very clean. We weren't stepping over garbage in the streets or subways, for example. And of course, it was crowded and geared towards tourists, especially around the Acropolis and Monastriaki. What we wish we had known before we went is that local Athenians also vacation in August, often to one of Greece's breathtaking islands. As a result, most of the spots catering to locals were closed until September.
In an effort to experience as authentically Greek food as possible, I booked a farm dinner and tour. The evening took us away from central Athens into the Athenian Riviera and countryside. The farm is affiliated with the Margi Hotel, which arranges the tour and dinner; you need not be a guest of the hotel to visit the farm. We used Uber to get to the hotel (about an hour out of central Athens), and the hotel arranged for transportation to and from the farm. While we were worried that the event might be strictly touristic and superficial, it turned out to be one of the most memorable meals we had during our two weeks in Greece.
Before we went to Margi, however, we spent the day in central Athens. We wandered through the Central Market, marveling at the fresh fish, goat, lamb, and pork. And when I say fresh, I mean "we-saw-a-bin-full-of-skinless-goat-heads" fresh. This was another way that Athens surprised me. Even within a large, bustling city, customers had personal relationships with their food and its source. The market served both the household shopper and the restaurant chef. Your dinner would be butchered in front of you, to order. You could compare the quality of dozens of options before selecting the lamb you'd roast for dinner. And you could find a source or butcher you preferred and trusted, and return day after day to a familiar face selling you high-quality, fresh meat. This mindfulness of and connection to the source of one's food stands in contrast to the packaged, seemingly autocthonous foods found in most American supermarkets; this mindfulness was on full display at Margi Farm, and was one of the characteristics of Greek cuisine that informed both mainland and islands.
That evening, we arrived at the Margi hotel early, so we had drinks by the pool as we waited for the shuttle. The service was slow, but that was normal for Greece and for a setting where folks likely linger for long stretches. The hotel and bar staff were very friendly, though, especially when they learned that we were headed to the farm. The hotel is located in the area known as the Athens Riviera, a seaside area that is home to wealthy locals and the playground of visitors who are looking for a more glamorous Athenian experience.
Diners visiting the farm can drive themselves there if they wish, but we took the shuttles arranged by the hotel. It took around 30 minutes to reach the farm in the Kalyvia area, at which point there was no sign of either graffiti or seaside resort. Upon arrival at sunset, we were treated to tippero and lemonade, along with some small bites. Tippero is a strong aperatif, and I was glad to have the lemonade to cut it. I mixed the two together to make for easier drinking.
As farm guests mingled over the appetizers, our host introduced the youngest visitors to the kittens that had recently been born on the farm. Meanwhile, I wandered through the pomegranate and lemon trees. When the host began his official tour, we learned about the farm's philosophy of avoiding the use of any chemicals on their crops. They believe that food should be "as uninterrupted" as possible. This informs not only their cultivation practices but also the preparations of their meals. They'd rather lose an entire crop to an insect "invasion" (to use his word) than to sacrifice their commitment to organic farming.
After walking through the small farm's front acreage of produce, which also includes olives and grapes, we walked toward the back of the farm where the animals are kept. On our way, we passed the dining area, an alluring pavilion where food was being prepared. We saw the smoke rising from the oven, and the aroma of roasted goat met us.
We reached the paddocks where the goats were kept, next to the farm's mascot, Mr. Billy. At the end of the row was the chicken coop. Guests were invited to feed and pat the animals and to collect eggs from the chickens. On the evening of our tour, the egg collecting was masterfully completed by a group of children whose delighted shrieks blended mercifully with the chicken's own organic cacophony.
It was at this point that I became most acutely aware of that mindfulness I had first sensed in the Central Market. As the children played in the coop and met the goats, there seemed to be no irony or sadness that we were about to feast on goat and chicken; in fact, this was simply accepted as the natural order of things. But here was mindful farming. Here was a gracious and thoughtful relationship with the land that gives sustenance. Perhaps other readers, particularly those in more agrarian locales, are more familiar with this ethos; but in New York City, where the "farm-to-table" movement is both significant and successful, the farm is generally out of sight.
Here, though, the eggs the children collected were put immediately to use. They helped our host break them into pans simmering with tomatoes, olive oil, sugar, and salt. The recipe could include thyme, our host explained, but it was omitted this time.
We took our seats in the communal setting, and awaited the completion of the food preparations. We enjoyed the traditional music played by a duo. After our long day walking through Athens and seeing the Acropolis, we especially appreciated the coolness of the evening and the feeling that everything was as it should be. We sat across from a local family whose three year-old son had learned how to use peek-a-boo to become the center of attention. As the dinner progressed, they gave us dining and drinking recommendations and helped me with the spellings and histories of some of the dishes.
Dinner was served buffet-style, and we had our choice of about a dozen different dishes. The goat was tender and just gamey enough. As was true for all the foods we had that night, it wasn't overwhelmed with spices. The roasted chicken was juicy and delicious. And that egg dish was savory and comforting. Our entire meal was accompanied by bottomless local sauvignon blanc.
There was a salad of tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, which could be topped with sturdy feta. We also had our choice of spicy and fried feta, the latter of which was lightly breaded and crispy. The spicy feta was a tasty topping for pita bread, and the Greek salad had a perfect acidity.
Roasted vegetables were on offer, as was an eggplant dish with garlic. This was savory and perfectly mushy. And one mustn't forget the potatoes. Greeks have an affinity for French fries. We saw them at almost every meal, this one included. What I don't remember having here, surprisingly, were the equally ubiquitous roasted potatoes in lemon and olive oil. Nevertheless, my plate was filled to overflowing, and I even went back for second helpings. The combination of fresh, cleanly prepared food in such a peaceful setting, along with the abundant wine, live music, and joyous laughter and conversation made this meal a wonderful introduction to Greek food and culture.
Our dining was not rushed at all, and I am a slow eater. After our dishes were cleared, we had a bit of time to relax. The band continued to play, and some of the smallest dinner guests began to dance around the tables. Eventually, fresh fruit and chocolate cake were brought to the tables. They were followed by galaktoboureko and ekmek, two pastry and custard dishes that were both delicious and texturally heavenly. The galaktoboureko, shown below in the ramekin with a knife, was a thin phyllo pastry filled with custard and sweetened with honey. The smaller ramekins are the ekmek, which uses an even thinner angel hair pastry and a chantilly custard. Our friends across the table explained to us the Turkish influence in these dishes, a result of the four centuries of Turkish people in Greece. Both of these desserts stand as monuments to the gods of custard. They were indulgent and sweet even while maintaining a deceptive lightness in the phyllo. By comparison, the chocolate cake -- delicious in its own right -- seemed laden and heavy, an anchor where the custards were kites.
Our overall experience at the Margi Farm was immensely satisfying. This meal capped off our first full day in Greece, and it provided a fitting and accurate introduction to the hospitality and love of good food prepared well that would characterize our entire stay in Greece. Because the hotel arranges the tour, I got the impression that many farm visitors are not locals; we were fortunate to sit next to a family from a nearby town. I'd still say that the farm dinner is emblematic of Greeks' connection to their food and to their land, and our experience at Margi gave us a welcomed reminder about the ways in which both physical and spiritual sustenance inform each other.