Does Greek yogurt taste different in Greece? YES. Especially when you try it at the last dairy bar in Athens.
Have you ever tried a food you think you know so well, and suddenly something happens and you'll never look at it the same way again? That's what it was like when I tried Greek yogurt in Greece. The snowy yogurt was so thick that it nearly held its shape as it was cut and plated on a classic white saucer, with honey and fresh walnuts crowding the top and spilling over to the sides. Like nearly all yogurt in Greece, it was made from sheep's milk - and I'm sure the shop owner would say that there was a lot of love in the mix too, for I was visiting the Stani Milk Shop, the last dairy bar in all of central Athens.
Stani isn't the kind of place you easily stumble upon, though it is a very easy walk from Omonia Square, one of Athens' best known landmarks. Guided by Despina from Culinary Backstreets Athens, my friends and I were in the safe hands of a local when it came to navigating the side streets and discovering little delights that I'd otherwise easily miss.
Despina explained to us that Stani is a 4th generation dairy bar that dates to 1931, and the last of its kind. In bygone years, there was a popular tradition of stopping into a dairy bar for a glass of warm milk in the morning or to have creamy desserts such as rice pudding alongside evening coffee, but that practice has all but disappeared. Widespread refrigeration means that families have their own milk at home and, these days, its more common for busy Athenians to grab a mid morning coffee and small pastry (often savory) in lieu of a full breakfast or a morning mug of milk.
While dairy bars are known for serving warm milk, everything we ate was cold - and far more elaborate. In addition to the incredible, sturdy yogurt with honey and walnuts, we also feasted on galaktoboureko. "Gala" means milk (or so I'm told!) and this yummy treat was like a cross between a milk pie and a custard pudding with a filo pastry crust. It was smooth, substantial, and the perfect balance between sweet and subtle.
Last but not least, we d0ve into a heavy plate of moustalevria. Despina explained that the name translates into "wine pudding" and the leftover grape materials from the wine harvest are called "must". In olden times, ash was a traditional ingredient but our more modern version was laden with cinnamon and nuts. To my palette, it was a curious, delicious concoction.
It didn't really remind me of wine or grapes and yet there was both an intense sweetness (and I was reminded that grape juice is a common sweetener in lieu of sugar in many recipes) and also a kind of acidity that played well with the cinnamon (was it the tart grape skins? Was I imagining a splash of nearly-fermented wine?) The texture was smooth, yet unusual. There was a slight jiggle, as if Jello was moustalevria's third cousin once removed.
I have a special affection for waste not, want not recipes and this was a delightful and clever one. I'd never imagined that milk, wine and grape leftovers, spices, nuts - and maybe ash! - would come together so beautifully and I'm so glad I had the chance to try it. It wasn't an everyday treat for me (that would be the galaktoboureko), but it's definitely something I'd seek out again on a future trip.
Omonia Square is bustling (some might say it's hustling....) with people and traffic. Athenians told me that just a few short years ago, it wasn't considered the finest of addresses and had a rather unsavory reputation. Not knowing this on my first few visits, it struck me as just another busy, slightly gritty public square and transit hub in a big, busy city. And if the Stani Milk Shop is any indication, there are delightful side streets and small shops that are eager for an intrepid traveler to take just a few steps off the beaten path.
The sounds of the busy square were a distant memory as we sat and ate at one of the tables set up outside the milk shop and listened to Despina tell us about the history of dairy in the city. It was a beautiful, relaxing spot and the large umbrellas were the perfect cover from the sun. The shop also has a few small tables inside should you find yourself visiting in rainy weather. It sells tubs of yogurt and a few baked goods and milk based treats suitable for taking home, which would be great for anyone renting an apartment during their trip.
If you're dreaming of trying real Greek yogurt in Greece, a stop here will make all your dreams come true!
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