Discovering the heart of Greek Melbourne

Have you ever heard the saying, that people make a place? This is certainly true of the suburb of Oakleigh, Melbourne's real "little Greece." It is just 25 minutes from the CBD and home to many Greek families. It is an evolving suburb that is home to waves of Greek migrants, from the 1950s, 60s and 70s - until today's post-economic migrants. Melbourne is well known as one of the largest Greek-speaking cities outside Greece. While 'Greek Melbourne' still has its roots in Brunswick, Northcote and Richmond, it's true centre is now the vibrant suburb of Oakleigh.

Oakleigh is all about 'real food'. It has the best produce from Australia (and Greece) and it's provodores and restaurateurs are focused on time honoured, home style cooking. Victoria Kyriakopoulos, our guide for the day tells us how at Greek Easter, the centre of Oakleigh - which is peppered with delis, cake shops, fishmongers, souvlaki bars, butchers and the odd christening shop (with big frothy white gowns on display) - is a colourful bustling parade. Whole lambs and baby goats are carried up and down the streets and placed in car boots and the shop windows are filled with beautiful displays of decorated Easter candles called "lambathes" and traditional Easter syrup pastries and biscuits.

We are not here for Greek Easter, but we have joined one of award-winning food presenter and author, Maeve O’Meara's Gourmet Safaris - the Greek Safari of Melbourne - which just happens this month to be a part of the 'Flavours of Greece'. The Greek Community of Melbourne’s annual festival of Greek cuisine. As we walk down Portman Street to join the tour, one of the first sights to greet us is a giant lamb on the spit being loaded into a car boot. It may not be Easter, but it is clear one local family will be enjoying a celebration today. One of the local butchers has also set up an outdoor BBQ and older men are lining up for grilled pieces of liver and traditional orange and red wine or leek (loukaniko) sausages. The smell, the musical sound of the Greek language and the warm smiles on the Greek faces that surround us - I feel more like I am in the middle of a village back in Greece. We are certainly in the right place to experience the Greek heart of Melbourne.

Meeting at Mezedakia Restaurant, we wandered up the small staircase from Portman Street to be warmly greeted by the lovely Victoria and the huge welcoming smile of Maria Krontiris, the delightful owner of the restaurant. Her smile grew bigger as we started the day with a cup of her very hot, thick, sweet Greek coffee, complete an impressive kaïmaki (or crema) and a large piece of moreish galopita - a creamy semolina custard that is baked until golden, then bathed in sweet syrup. It was hard to stop at one piece, but as Maria said - "make sure you keep room for the delicious lunch I will be preparing for you!" The gorgeous Maria had the same happy glint in her eye - which my mother in law sometimes has after spending hours in the kitchen preparing a feast - and I knew it was wise to take her advice and pace myself for the bounty of beautiful, home style Greek food that was to come, during the day.

Maria's galopita
The very lovely Maria Krontiris
Before starting out from Mezedakia for the tour, Victoria (a journalist who had the amazing job for many years writing the lonely planet guides to Greece) shared with us how her love of Greek food - and writing about - had developed. Sadly, Victoria's mother has passed away some years before and she did not have the chance to record her mother's well loved family recipes. Victoria found an old school exercise book, where her mother had recorded some recipes. Not all of the recipes were for her own family dishes and many of the recipes were incomplete lists of ingredients. This had prompted Victoria to search out the recipes for the dishes of her childhood from her friends and family in Oakleigh. After hearing Victoria's story, I knew we were going to be part of a very special experience.
On the tour, we were also joined by Victoria's sister in law Yvonne - who was described by Victoria as "a saint." As we sipped on Maria's delicious Greek coffee, Yvonne gave us a demonstration of the best way to make it. Laid out on the table before Yvonne was the essential toolkit for making a Greek coffee:

  • Greek coffee
  • Sugar
  • A briki (μπρίκι)
  • Espresso cups
  • Cold water

"Start with very cold water and use the espresso cup to measure the water needed for each cup of coffee and pour the water into the briki" Yvonne said. Today, Yvonne was demonstrating how to make a medium-sweet coffee, called metrios (μέτριος). "Add 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 heaping teaspoon of coffee to the briki and stir", said Yvonne. In terms of the best brand of a Greek coffee to be used - and there are many - I was thrilled to see that Yvonne was using the brand I recently discovered, and love, for its strong and persistent coffee aroma - Laiko.
There are two other ways to enjoy a Greek coffee - unsweetened, called sketos (σκέτος) or very sweet, called glykos (γλυκός) (which uses about 2 teaspoons of sugar to 1 heaping teaspoon of coffee). There is also the 'vary glykos' (βαρύ γλυκός) which is an extra strong sweet coffee using 3 teaspoons of sugar and 2 heaping teaspoons of coffee. Most people tend to choose a medium-sweet coffee.

Once the coffee and sugar have been added, Yvonne explained that it was all about letting the mixture slowly brew in the briki on a medium low heat. "When the foam rises to the top of the briki (it can move very fast), remove from the heat", explained Yvonne. Victoria noted that traditionally in Greece, the briki was left to brew over a very long period of time, after having been placed on hot sand. After the removing from the heat, Yvonne advised to evenly divide the foam, called kaïmaki (καϊμάκι) among all cups, then fill cups with the remainder of the coffee, taking care not to disturb the kaïmaki. "The thicker the kaïmaki, the better the sign is that you have made a perfect Greek coffee", Yvonne said.

Greek almond short bread, kourambiethes and a demonstration of the best way to make a frappe at Vanilla
Walking past the plantings of olive trees and bay trees in main mall of Oakleigh, we headed for our next stop on the tour, Vanilla Lounge and Bakery. The tables and chairs outside Vanilla were packed with groups of elderly Greek men chatting animatedly and smoking the odd cigar. Later in the afternoon, we saw the same tables filled with glamorous bright young things in their aviator sunglasses. There were also small groups of yiayias, talking quietly with their friends - out enjoying the afternoon sunshine, after having cooked the days lunch or finished their shopping in preparation for the big Sunday family lunch. Throughout the day, the mall is filled with a host of boisterous young children, running around and playing alongside the public art in the mall.

Helen Spanos explaining the various Greek pastries, biscuits and more at Vanilla
At Vanilla, we are greeted by the energetic and passionate Helen Spanos and her head pastry chef Marco. But before we experience the delight of watching Marco prepare one of the most well known breakfast pastries in Greece, it was time to see (in action) the fine art of making a classic Greek summer drink - the frappe (φραπέ).
Frappe is Greek institution - a frothy concoction of sugar, ice water and instant coffee. Like a traditional Greek coffee, frappe can be made glykós, métrios or skétos. In Greece, all varieties may be served with that classic taste of Greek childhood - an evaporated milk called 'noynoy'. With milk, a frappe becomes a frapógalo (φραπόγαλο). At Vanilla, if milk is added (at all) - it is fresh and just the tiniest dash. As Victoria says, "in Greece you don't so much as buy a frappe, you rent the chair." The same could be said for the tables of Vanilla patrons filling Eaton Mall, where many were lingering over their 1-2 hour long frappe.
Marco putting the finishing touches on a fresh tray of bougatsa
Next comes the bougatsa (μπουγάτσα). This is a favourite breakfast "street food". It is traditionally made with very large phyllo sheets that are folded over multiple times encasing a thick, creamy, vanilla custard filling that is made with very fine semolina. Bougatsa is best served warm and sprinkled with copious amounts of icing sugar and just the tiniest bit of cinnamon. Too much cinnamon, warns Helen and the bougatsa will be bitter. Helen explains that all of her cakes, biscuits and pastries come from recipes developed especially by Vanilla - having evolved from the time that Helen and her husband Thanasi ran the famous 'Medallion Cafe' on Lonsdale Street. There are different types of phyllo pastry, varying in thickness, for the range of sweet and savoury pastries made at Vanilla, adds Marco.

The bougatsa is divine and it takes Mr K straight back to the memory of the best bougatsa he ever ate, which was very early in the morning and fresh from the oven of a baker in the back streets of Corfu town. There was a line of eager Corfiots, from bus drivers to yiayias, which stretched around the block all awaiting this favourite breakfast pastry. Vanilla's bougatsa is declared by Mr K to be just as good as the one from Corfu, possibly even better.

In addition to the bougatsa, Helen also shows us Vanilla's speciality cream puffs, called 'kok' (κωκ) in Greek. Helen tells us that there is no real English equivalent for 'kok' and there are lots of giggles from our group as cheeky jokes are made about the name of the pastry. The kok is made from two light pastry shells, sandwiched between a speciality cream and bathed in a light syrup before being coated with a special chocolate glaze. Helen encourages us to have a taste, in addition to our bougatsa and frappe.

Vanilla's specialty cream puffs, called 'kok' (κωκ)

Blue and white pictures of classic Greek scenes, pages featuring soccer victories from Melbourne's Greek newspaper, Neos Kosmos and a smattering of icons cover the wall behind Panayiotis, the owner of O'Psaras on Portman, our next stop on the walking tour. While Delphi had its wisdom-filled priestess, Panayiotis is definitely the fish and seafood oracle of Oakleigh. Founded by Panayiotis family, O'Psaras has been selling the highest quality fish and seafood for three generations - and it is not about to stop, with Panayiotis son Dimitri joining him on regular trips to the seafood market to find the best quality, freshest and cleanest seafood for O'Psaras' discerning clientele.

Panayiotis, the owner of O'Psaras on Portman with a giant octopus

Panayiotis grabs a handful of sardines and places them along the glass counter top, explaining how small fish such as sardines and anchovies play a huge part in the Greek diet. Panayiotis tells us how the sardines can be lightly grilled or dusted with a little seasoned flour and lightly fried in flavoursome olive oil, eaten with lots of fresh lemon juice. I nod my head appreciatively knowing these are my mother in law's most favoured lunch, alongside a big bowl of horta or perhaps a warm bowl of fava.

There is a saying the Greeks have 'salty blood' due to their love of the sea and the bounty it offers. This certainly runs through the Ionian Island blood of my mother in law and Mr K, who both have a passionate love for the best quality fish and seafood. My mother in law takes her fish home from the fishmonger and inspects it in microscopic detail - cleaning it with a toothbrush. Panayiotis says he has about 5000 customers through his store in a week. If they are all as exacting as my Greek family when it comes to fish - I have a profound level of respect for Panayiotis and his family.

"I could never sell this to a Greek", says Panayotis holding up a long fillet of fish. "Greek people want the head of the fish, they want the bones" he says placing the whole enormous rockling fish on top of the sardines. The fish in Panayiotis shop is all line caught. He will never sell fish caught in a trawler net. Panayiotis tells us the insides of trawler net fish are full of sludge and mercury from the sea floor. "You want a fish with a very clean inside... If I sold fish from trawler nets, my customers would bring it back" says Panayiotis.

Arriving next on the counter are some kalamari - which come with an explanation of the difference between these, squid and cuttlefish. Squid and cuttlefish are very, very rarely used in a Greek cooking. Cuttlefish maybe only to flavour a Lenten broth. Kalamari is king - be it lightly flash fried or stuffed with spinach, rice, pinenuts and currants and slowly cooked until tender.
The kalamari is closely followed by a seriously giant octopus, which in a past life had been feasting on South Australian crayfish. Mr K almost swoons at the sight of it - dreaming of char grilled tentacles rubbed with rigani and lemon. Panayiotis tells us the octopus has been tenderised in his friend's concrete mixer. Then it comes time for the tastings - freshly shucked coffin bay oysters and sea urchins. The oysters are lush, creamy and taste of the sea. Mr K asks one question of Panayiotis, chuckling, he says "do you have some wine to have with the oysters?"

The beautifully styled Kalimera Souvlaki is the next stop on the tour. Carefully grouped old family photos are placed on the exposed brick walls and the rustic white tables contain small olive trees, lanterns and Greek tomato paste tins hold cutlery. Old hurricane style lanterns that are found all over Greece - particularly in sea side tavernas - are held in place by long ropes stretching from the roof. The restaurant is so similarly styled to contemporary tavernas in Greece - I forget for a few moments that I am actually in Melbourne.

We are met by the charming Thomas Deliopoulos who hails from Northern Greece and has been living in Australia for three years. His restaurant has other new arrivals and Greek students serving tables and working the grill. Thomas tells us that Kalimera is his new start, new life - and all about new souvlaki for Melbourne. In many Greek-Australian souvlaki bars you can usually only buy lamb souvlaki. In a Greece you would never buy a lamb souvlaki - it is always traditionally pork, or sometimes chicken. Thomas has bought traditional pork souvlaki to Melbourne. He tells us that he only ever uses very small female pigs, the rigani is direct from his family in Greece and the recipe is his grandfather's.
When I walked into Kalimera, my eyes took me to a Greece. Thomas' generous tastings mean my nose and mouth are now there too. This is seriously the closest souvlaki to that I have eaten in Greece. I turn around and Mr K has seemingly inhaled two pork skewers and is working his way through a pita - with handmade bread, of course. He looks deliriously happy. Thomas tells us that his business is not just about making money, it is for the future of his young family.

Further down from Kalimera Souvlaki on Chester Street is the Oakleigh Market. But before we get to the market, we stop by the Oakleigh Music Centre and join in a spontaneous Zorba dance. Mr K also picks up a bar of his favourite Greek chocolate - Lacta and a discussion ensues between Mr K, Victoria and Peter (the photographer on our tour) as to which is the best Greek chocolate brand - Lacta, Pavlidis or Ion. It is decided that you always firmly prefer one brand.

Post Zorba dance, we make it to the Oakleigh Market. There are butchers, a fishmonger and grocers - but we are here for a quick stop at the Oakleigh Market Nut Shop and then onto the Athena Deli. The nut shop smells like my mother in law's kitchen - all rigani, cinnamon and mountain tea. I buy a large bag of rigani and also one filled with cinnamon quills, which are from Greece and incredibly aromatic. A box of clove and cinnamon tea also takes my fancy, along with some large tins of the fantastic Kyknos tomato paste - made from the incredible tomatoes grown in the Peloponnese. The Kyknos tomato paste will be perfect for making Anna's garlic spaghetti.

The Athena Deli is also a true delight. Owner Theo Gougoulis gives us an overview of the range of feta on offer. He says while the Dodoni Brand has always been known as the best feta, newcomer Epirus brand is - in his view - an even better feta. Theo says the same rule for cooking with wine also applies to feta cheese - in the same way that you would only ever cook with a wine you would also drink, only ever cook with a cheese that you would also eat just by itself! Theo also tells us how to keep our feta fresh, by making your own brine and placing the feta in it, if it starts to get a little too fragrant.

Then it is time for Theo's son, Peter, to give us a great demonstration of how to make the classic Cretan summer snack - dacos, with plenty of juicy fresh tomatoes, creamy feta, aromatic Greek olive oil and just a sprinkling of rigani. We taste the delicious dacos, along with some plump green olives (which have been marinated in Athena's own special mix of lemon, rigani and garlic). We also try some Kefalograviera (Κεφαλογραβιέρα) cheese, made from a mixture of sheep's and goat's milk, it is salty and aromatic. I love the flavour it adds to my zucchini fritters. Then it is my turn to swoon as Eve, Theo's wife hands around spoons of thick, creamy Dodoni yoghurt. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you might remember how I fell completely in love with this yoghurt while visiting Parga last year. What a joy to find that the Athena Deli gets this yoghurt regularly flown in from Greece. Peter is even going to try and help me find a way to get it to Sydney!! Hoorah!!

The second last stop on the tour is at Nikos Oakleigh Cakes. Here we meet the gorgeous Matoula who offers us a heaving tray of baklava and advice on life..."you must have light food, yes, but not just green leaves - we are not goats" she says - encouraging us to take a second and third piece of baklava. Matoula also tells us that we must enjoy each day of life, as a gift, without fear.

Finally, we return to Mezedakia Restaurant - for lunch!! Maria and her big smile are there waiting for us. We sit with a mother and daughter and another lovely lady from the tour group and we swap notes on our finds for the day, as well as tips on Italian truffle tours and the current state of obtaining a Greek passport. As we chat Maria brings us a beautiful selection of home made dips - tirokafteri (spicy cheese), tzatziki, eggplant and taramasalata. Kolokithokeftedes (zucchini fritters) which are wonderful light and moreish arrive next. This is closely followed by the most delicious fish soup - filled with the aroma of celery leaves and made incredibly rich by a heartwarming avglolemono.

Even though I have been eating all day, I can't resist Maria's divine food. I feel like I am sitting at Mrs K's family table - Maria's food has been prepared with genuine love. After the soup we have a refreshing traditional Greek salad and some Horta. Maria has used some endive today and it has been bathed in a mix of very fruity Greek olive oil, salt and a lots of tangy lemon juice. Then comes the piece de resistance - slow baked lamb and potatoes. The lamb was placed in a low oven overnight and simply melts. I have to use all my willpower to stop eating the heavenly potatoes. After we finish our meal and say our goodbyes, we linger a little longer to talk with Maria. She shares with us the handwritten menu, in beautiful cursive Greek script for an upcoming feast and we vow to return soon. I really can't wait for my next trip to Melbourne - I'll be on that train to Oakleigh before you can say opa!

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  1. Seriously Mrs M...get me to Melbourne! So much Greek goodness in this post. I have not eaten sea urchin before...what are they like? I love the warmth in your photos! Have a great weekend.

    1. Hi Jane, the sea urchins were incredibly ozone-y, the fishmonger described them as being like Greek Vegemite in their intensity - we had these plain, I would normally add a big squeeze of lemon and a dash of olive oil when eating them. Thanks for your lovely words xx

  2. Melbourne has the most wonderful Greek food. I'm in heaven when I go down there.

    1. It's the best Maureen - and much quicker than a 24hr plane trip to Greece!! ; )

  3. What a super food tour!!! I think the seafood demo is great.

    Gourmet Getaways

    1. The fishmonger was an absolute highlight Julie, so much knowledge!!

  4. Mrs M! You've brought back sweet memories to me, an old-time resident of Kifissia. Though I must say, we Greek-Australians have more appreciation of the authentic home-cooked style sweets served in Varsos than the Kifissiotes do! If you ever happen to walk in at Christmas time or Easter, you definitely MUST buy a Vasilopita or Tsoureki -simply the BEST in Athens!!! By the way, when you are next in Greece with Mr K, you MUST try the heavenly Vinsanto - the velvetydessert wine from Santorini- and tell everyone what you think (???)Once upon-a-time, Earlwood Wines stocked it, and I considered it as one of the finest imports from Greece.When you're next in Santorini, enjoying the sunset over Oia, be sure to sip this heavenly nectar.....Stin Ygeia Sas! Katpan23

    1. Hi Katerina, thank you so much for the tips!! We will be returning to Greece this summer for a holiday and I hope to get back to Varsos for another visit and we may have a stop at Santorini to try the vinsanto! Hopefully you will have some more tips for me on where to visit in Athens? Kathy tells me you were a long time resident there xx xx xx


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Maira Gall