A great bazaar with the freshest fish

The Keratsini Fishing Port in Piraeus – the biggest in Greece – works something like the stock market. The price of sea bass, for instance, can change 20 times in the course of a few hours. But the port is also a bazaar, an auction, and a place where people who love fish can get the best and freshest. In an area of some 3,000 square meters, about 2,000 people go through 8,000 crates of fish a day. Since they work the overnight shift, they labor in darkness. All Greek and imported fish go through the port just after they have been caught and just before they hit the market. The smell of fish is strong, almost like a physical presence. If the weather is good, the place is full. Fishermen, fish farmers and importers work one side of the room, wholesalers the other. Boats dock and the displays of fish go up – swordfish, tunnies, sea bream. Imported fish comes in plastic crates, while the other crates hold the local Mediterranean catch. There is also lots of ice – as much as possible, since no one knows how many crates of fish will come in on any given day. Hard, wet work As the night wears on, the deals double, triple. It’s a difficult job. People work in wet conditions and through the dark night to do what has become routine – load, unload, sell, inventory. The workers yell out to each other in a coded language – «Get one!» «Get two!» «Kilos?» «Crates?» «Who knows?» The old-timers say the work once used to be sweet and simple, but now the business has added layers of bureaucracy. The same amount of fish seems to go through far more hands. The competition has gotten stiff and ugly. «As soon as you turn your back, they attack you,» says Giorgos, who has been working with fish since he was a lad. The work is hard. Every day, everyone is wet with seawater and melting ice, hauling crates of fish over and over again. In the event of a good catch, the mood brightens. If the swordfish catch is meager that day, then those lucky fishermen who reel in good ones see their prices rise dramatically – and you will sell them, too. But the success is often fleeting. You think you will be the only one selling the finest sea bream and then another sea bream distributor sets up shop next to you, sinking your prices. Giorgos Haralambides, who has worked at the fish port for a long time, ponders the port’s customers, who he says have changed over the years. «In the old days, we had an eager clientele,» he says. Today, there is only stagnation. Orders have dwindled. In the darkness, the trucks wait for orders of fish to be shipped. A few of the truckdrivers smoke cigarettes before leaving on their journeys. On the left, the fishing boats dock at the pier. Supply and demand Vassilis, who is 76 and has been fishing most of his life, arrives with his vessel at 2 a.m. He has been out at sea since 8 p.m. and hauls out about 80 kilos of bogue he caught near Vouliagmeni. But Vassilis complains that wholesalers today would rather buy imported, cheap fish. Other fishermen say privately that Greek fish alone cannot cover the demands of the market. Inside, another worker – young Panayiotis, who is 17 years old – helps his father, who is busy ringing up customers. Nearby is the port’s lone female customer, Elisavet. She works in one of the Athenian open-air markets and must also hit Halandri this morning. But she likes picking out fish here and also likes the people-watching. «This place has its charm,» she says. There are piles of fish everywhere. What happens to them if they don’t sell? It’s hard to get an answer. Michalis Liosi, leader of the wholesalers at the fishing port, is supposed to deal with the leftover fish. Though no one really likes talking about what happens to the unsold fish, the truth is that most of them are thrown onto the rubbish dump every day. There are months during the year when the supply at the port far outweighs the demand. In April, May and October, fishing vessels plumb the depths of the ocean and bring in so many fish that the crates at the port number 10,000. The port’s regular buyers include those who work at restaurants offering top-grade fish, such as those in the northern suburbs. Those restaurants want the freshest fish of the day and intend to buy only that. But, Giorgos Haralambides says, there really are only a handful of such restaurants. So the rest of the fish gets sold very cheaply at markets or just gets thrown away. «There are some jewels of fish, really high-quality ones akin to Armani suits, which are sold on the second day really cheap in street markets,» Haralambides says. Imported vs local A discussion about high-quality fresh fish cannot leave out these questions: Is local or imported better? And if everyone prefers local fish, why are so many people buying imported fish? Manolis answers by saying he only sells locally caught fish. «I see imported fish and my hair stands on end,» he says. But others consider the questions silly and irrelevant, since most of the crates contain imported fish. «Here is the whole secret,» the port workers say and explain: Throughout its waters, the Mediterranean Sea offers similar fish. A good fish from Morocco arrives in two hours – in less time than a fish from the Aegean island of Chios – and the quality of catch from both Morocco and Chios is often the same. But, they continue, fish caught off Senegal, for instance, doesn’t taste as good. That’s not because the fish is of poor quality, but because the seas off the African country are not as salty as the Mediterranean. Anyway, the port fish merchants say, all the fish at Keratsini are inspected, fresh and tagged by origin. The night passes and slowly Piraeus awakens. The port continues its work in the rising dawn. The ice has melted, pooling water everywhere. Elisavet has finished her shopping. She sits at a bench and watches the crowd. Some co-workers stop young Panayiotis on the road and ask him, in whispered voices, if he has any more of that sea bass from yesterday. Manolis sells his locally caught fish. He yells, «SAVE US!» to the customers. The dock workers load and unload, again and again. Next to a plastic crate filled with sole, a man offers low prices. On a small board hanging on a wall near him, there is a message: «Don’t eat. Don’t smoke. Don’t spit.» It’s apparently a citation from civil law. Nevertheless, an old man carts in his portable canteen and divides his forbidden merchandise – sandwiches, small bottles of water, soft drinks and cups of coffee. Hungry people from the port buy their breakfast. And day finally breaks. This article first appeared in the January 29 issue of Kathimerini’s magazine supplement, K.

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