Mezedes (pl. for mezes) are savoury appetizers offered in small helpings in the traditional cafés (kafeneia) of Greece as an accompaniment to an alcoholic drink. Mezedes, an integral part of Greek cuisine, hold a prominent place in Greek culture, incorporating a deeply rooted tradition, that of sharing food and drink with friends in a no-frills environment.
The word meze comes from the East; it is a Turkish word. In Greece, mezedes are served to accompany ouzo (an aniseed-flavored distilled spirit, the famous drink that turns white when water or ice is added to it), tsipouro (a strong distilled spirit with an alcohol content of 45% made from the residue of crushed grapes) and sometimes, wine, retsina (wine with a delicate aroma of pine on the nose and a pale to golden-yellow colour) and beer. The best place to savour a meze is at the kafeneia. There, mezedes are always served in small plates, since they are not meant to satisfy one’s hunger but rather to prevent the side-effects of drinking on an empty stomach.
In Crete, mezedes accompany raki.
Raki, the fire-water of Crete, is a spirit that comes from the distillation of grape pomace. Tsipouro and raki are quite the same; their difference however lies in the processing and the distillation method followed that varies from region to region.
Sitting around the small tables of the kafeneio, over a few raki shots, Cretans talk about the day they had, their daily routine, the city’s news and politics.
If you happen to pass by and make a question to one of the habitués, together with your answer, you’ll surely get an invitation: “Come sit with us, come have a raki with us”.
In the kafeneia of Crete where these lovely places abound, you’ll rarely be offered a ready-made meze. Most of these appetizers are prepared using raw ingredients grown on the orchard of the kafeneio owner.
Now, what is the typical meze you would expect to be served in Crete? Instead of a few slices of bread cut so small like the holy bread offered after Holy Communion in the Greek Orthodox churches, in Crete you’ll be offered yellow roasted chickpeas, peanuts, almonds, rusks with olives, fresh beans, snake cucumber, pickles, savoury cheeses, artichokes and fruits! Sometimes customers go to the kafeneio carrying with them such mezedes to treat the rest of the gang!
If you are really hungry and the kafeneio owner wants to accommodate you, instead of a small helping, your meze for raki will be offered a bigger plate with many more appetizers, you will be getting a filling meal!
Other times, the kafeneio owners, who are not only preparing coffee and food silently behind their counter but also hold animated conversations with their customers, stop being that talkative and instead of offering a bigger meze platter, prepare fried eggs finished with lemon juice, scrambled eggs with tomato sauce, omelet with fried potatoes. If you are lucky, you could be served “the day’s special”, i.e. what the kafeneio owner would eat for lunch; snails in the skillet with olive oil, vinegar and rosemary (hohlioi boubouristoi), zucchini flowers stuffed with rice and vegetables, beans on the stove. Thus, the kafeneio is turned into a local eating house where food is cooked from anything available at the moment.