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A Greek tragedy

Fergus Henderson condemns anglicised Greek food, and saves his applause for the feta and raki of Athens.

Just north of London's Oxford St there used to be the Greek strip, famously frequented by the Bloomsbury group, where tavernas rubbed shoulders. But everything runs its course and this street no longer runs with retsina, one's Geiger counter no longer goes off the scale when waved over bright-pink taramasalata, and no longer can the sound of merry revellers breaking plates be heard late into the night.

If I've started this thought with a far from upbeat tone, more of a Greek tragedy than a legend, the memory of a visit to Athens quite a few years ago adds to my gloomy outlook. Every time I got into a taxi, I would tell the driver where to go and he would turn around and say, "No good. That part of Athens is shut," and so lively discussions would ensue: not the best apéritif.

But please don't cry into your pita bread just yet. If it seems I'm somewhat down on Greek food, then I have misled you; when treated properly, Greek food is truly Olympian.

Let's take a Herculean leap to a more recent trip to Athens and a whole new culinary myth and epic of deliciousness. The artist Angus Fairhurst was having a show and Sarah Lucas was placing a mechanical masturbating arm on a rooftop. Things were looking chirpy already.

Lunch was in a vault under the central market. All through lunch I observed legs arriving into this vault down the stairs from the street - a strange thing when we're used to meeting people face- rather than feet-first. The vault housed a restaurant feeding about 100 diners and was staffed by an old man and a very young boy. Not speaking Greek myself, I was a little thrown when our young host said something to the old man with a force that sounded like "Go and suck crap in hell." Well, a fantastic platter of grilled sardines appeared. Then another exchange of a similar nature took place: this time it sounded like "I pissed in your coffee this morning." And the most sublime bowl of chickpeas arrived, cooked in stock, olive oil, and my Greek was not up to finding out what else, but chickpeas have never tasted so good. A final conversation between our host and the old chef - which sounded, incidentally, as though they were threatening to disembowel each other and use their giblets to beat each other around the head - actually meant "If you go up to the market and pick up some halva, you can have that with your coffee."

My next lunch was again simple but perfect: a platter of small red mullet salted and deep-fried, eaten with fingers, and washed down with something you should not try at home, as it will never work outside Greece: retsina, served not very cold in a coloured aluminium jug. You couldn't help but think that there was a certain musk of Alzheimer's about it.

The night fell and I drove out of Athens to a little taverna between a concrete factory and a truck garage. It looked very promising. But that may have been because of the baby lamb cooking on a spit over a fire just outside the front door. My Alzheimer's was fuelled by the homemade raki with which we washed down our splendid dinner, but I can still recall something with Greek feta sprinkled with fresh chillies, the grilled offal of the lamb and the beast itself, served with potatoes that were boiled and then grilled thoroughly with butter and lemon squidged (a technical term) on them.

The strange anglicised Greek food has had its day; once again you've got to go there to see the real deal.

I just wish I could remember where "there" was.


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