“What can I say about cinnamon? I could spend hours talking about this passion potion. Just close your eyes and taste it. It’s sweet and sour, like all women,” said the vendor on Evripidou Street. Traders and customers seem to share the same intensity here: When they talk spices it’s as if they’re discussing poetry. But the real ritual begins when they actually start tasting them.
On a recent Saturday morning, despite the fact that the city center was closed to traffic due to a demonstration, customers were queuing outside Bachar (est. 1940). No one appeared to be in a rush. They were happy rubbing between their fingers and smelling a few of the 2,500 herbs and spices from around the world, exchanging views over potions and spices and, when they finally reached the till, asking for more than they had written down on their shopping list. “Crisis or no crisis, the best buys are those made based on the palate, the nose and the soul, not the wallet,” said Evanthia, a resident of Korydallos, a northern suburb of Piraeus, who spent more than 50 euros on herbs and spices.
In the meantime, little Olga was playing with the peppers in a sack, as if shoveling sand on the beach.
“I was just like her when I was that age. Every festive meal would begin with my grandfather, who had a great nose, and me visiting the market to buy spices. I live in Elefsina now, but I still bring my daughter here once a week so that she too can have memories filled with the aroma of mahlab,” said another customer, Lenio.
Images of crowds on Evripidou Street are nothing new. Ever since 1886, the year the city’s municipal market opened its doors, the Ermou-Stadiou-Athinas street triangle along with the broader Monastiraki area have maintained close links with the food trade. The portion of Evripidou stretching from Aeolou to Menandrou streets, for instance, hosts 15 spice and 12 food stores. In between these are artisan’s shops selling equipment (barrels, sacks) for the distribution of the market’s wares. How these highly specialized stores selling everything from lamp hats to zippers, baskets, corks, essential oils, sieves and fishing and hunting gear survive is a mystery. Also open for business in the same spot for a number of years is To Magazaki tis Amorgou (The Little Store of Amorgos), with straw goods, while nearby there is a Byzantine icons store and a shoe shop for the elderly.
The Katos family has been specializing in professional (restaurant, cafes, pastry shops) and home wares over the last two decades. From glasses to cutlery, china and electrical appliances, there is plenty to choose from. Despite the crisis, people are still interested in quality and opt for items that “resist time and won’t wear out easily,” said Rania, a family member.
Meanwhile, the Chinese community comprise a large portion of the neighborhood’s residents. Most of the thousands of Chinese who immigrated to Athens conduct business in Metaxourgeio, the capital’s so-called Chinatown, but a lot have set up shop showcasing low-cost imports in the Evripidou area. Every family member is employed in the business and although hard to to talk to – they tend to keep a very low profile, according to a passer-by – I will not forget a smiling Chinese woman who suggested, in impeccable English, a 5-euro haircut.
Every day, except Sundays, many Athenians leave their suburban malls behind and come to visit this multicultural environment full of hidden treasures. Established in 1959, Elixirion is all about herbal therapies. “A pinch of spice a day keeps the doctor away,” said Maria, the owner, who in the space of just a few minutes informed me that cloves help with indigestion, oregano fights osteoporosis, sage improves memory, curry slows down the aging process, thyme is used as an antiseptic, marjoram is soothing for headaches, rosemary prevents strokes and coriander is good for the soul. While I was browsing through the huge glass bowls filled with dried aromatic plants from Peru, an athlete came in looking for a superfood powder mix, a housewife presented a homeopathic recipe for intestinal pains, while an elderly gentleman asked whether “these goji berries I read about in magazines will help me live until the age of 120.” Maria noted that customers often visit the store to avoid taking conventional medicines or visiting a psychiatrist, as most of them suffer from insomnia, stress and depression.
A group of six French visitors in town for a gastronomy tour were standing outside Miran, one of the street’s oldest stores. With stewed meatball batons and cured camel meat hanging on hooks above their heads and while beef sausages were being prepared, they decided to stay, sip some tsipouro (a local spirit with a hearty kick) and taste some cheese and cold meat platters. “In the last few years people have been wanting to buy goodies combining quality and affordable prices. You won’t come across these products at supermarkets, and here, besides everything else, we take real pleasure in our close contact with customers and have developed relationships based on mutual trust. This gives us a timeless quality. Before you buy, you try,” said the store’s owner, Miran Kourounlian, a third-generation charcuterie specialist.
Arapian opened for business on Evripidou in 1935. Owner Fanis Theodoropoulos and Paraskevas Saribogias, co-owner of the award-winning Sary cold meats business in Drama, northern Greece, recently opened Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani, a mezedes restaurant in a neoclassical building on the corner of 1 Socratous and 52 Evripidou streets. The idea was to revive the Byzantine kitchen culture of cured meat and also serve gluten-free delicacies (these have proved very popular already) as well as Cappadocian recipes.
The mood changes toward Aeolou Street, where Evripidou seems to get divided into two sections: on the one hand the more traditional part, heading down to Pireos Street from Athinas, and the more hip side, toward the city center. The former Stamatopoulos shoe store nowadays houses Harvest Coffee & Wine, where groups of young folk savor brunch against a jazz backdrop. A new all-day hangout, SQ, recently opened its doors on the junction of Praxitelous and Aghiou Markou, while near the Klaoudatos store (a Greek housewives’ haven), you’ll come across a travel agency, a toy store, a souvlaki restaurant, an engravings store, an espresso bar and a tea shop – where patrons can savor one of the latest global trends, cold bubble tea.
Ampazour was established at 1 Evripidou Street 60 years ago. The store specializes in handmade hats for floor and ceiling lamps, with prices ranging from 10 to 500 euros. Olympia Pervolaraki, current owner and daughter of the store’s founder, describes this traditional professional as “haute couture,” given that long hours are required for the confection of each item, from color and fabric selection (Italian and French silk and taffeta, among others) to designing, sewing, decorating and putting the finishing touches. “Lamp hats are not a priority for consumers, but we have survived nevertheless,” said Pervolaraki, who counts the Hotel Grande Bretagne among her clients. “I was afraid that large-scale industrial design chain stores would damage our business, but it turns out that people still prefer to decorate their homes with something special.”
Most of the neighborhood’s 19th-century buildings, once signature specimens of Athenian neoclassicism, are now dilapidated. What concerns local store owners more than shut-down businesses and out-of-use buildings though is crime. In an effort to maintain the street’s character, the state declared it a “traditional commerce” area in 2012, effectively removing all elements altering the market’s features. The traders’ vision, however, is not for the street to turn into an outdoor spice market showcasing gourmet products and operating daily as a tourist attraction.
“Five years ago, as soon as it got dark, people were afraid to walk around with all the drug addicts and bag snatchers,” said Panayiota, owner of a wholesale nut business. “Things are not that dangerous these days, but what we meant by a city center revamp was improved policing, as opposed to sweep operations conducted just to keep up appearances.”
* This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s Sunday ‘K’ supplement on November 9, 2014.