Ouzo and Greece
Not many alcoholic drinks are more distinctively Greek than Ouzo. Its name’s origin is as interesting as it is disputed. There are three speculations from the Turkish “üzüm”-grape, or, from the expression “uso Massalia”, with its related lore tied to Tyrnavos, or the byzantine “ούζος”-juice. A strong punch comes from the high-sugar alcohol of the renowned anis drink, which turns immediately to a milky cloud with the distinctive sweet taste and scent the moment you add a bit of water It accompanies the sunlit Greek setting perfectly by the mellowing and numbing of the senses that are perhaps affected a bit too much by the strong sun. The western author here describes a characteristic Greek scene of ouzo drinking in Spetses during the ’60s:
A cool evening breeze brings a whiff of the sea.… A blue smell of youth and hope. One is not serious at seventeen.… They sit down under a blue awning and order ouzo with a plate of black olives.… Late afternoon … a few bathers linger on the beach. Boys in swimming trunks walk by laughing, talking.… Old men sit on benches along the esplanade, hands on their canes, looking out to sea.W.S. Burroughs , The Place of Dead Roads
Another scene of ouzo drinking we can find In Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi where he gives us a hasty description of Hydra and of his activities there that also includes his drinking habits and drunken memories of the encounter:
H. Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi
I stayed at Hydra a few days during which time I ran up and down thousands of steps, visited the home of several admirals, made votive offerings to the saints who protect the island, said prayers for the dead, the halt and the blind in the little chapel attached to Ghika’s house, played ping pong, drank champagne, cognac, ouzo and rezina at the Old Curiosity Shop, sat up with a bottle of whiskey talking to Ghika about the monks in Tibet, began the log of the Immaculate Conception which I finished for Seferiades at Delphi—and listened to Katsimbalis, to the Ninth Symphony of his travails and transgressions. Madame Hadji-Kyriakos, Ghika’s wife, laid a wonderful table; we rose from the table like wine casks without legs. From the terrace, which was distinctly Oriental in flavor, we could look out on the sea in drunken stupefaction.
Ouzo is a favorite accompaniment for fish and seafood, especially during the summer, although, as an exception, it is also sometimes accompanied with cured meats, or fried meatballs. But the dishes–the mezedes, that accompany the typical karafaki of ouzo, the little 200 ml bottle, are a matter of both art and science. And although ouzo is considered a milder drink than rum or whiskey, in fact, ouzo comes out in a great variety with regard to alcohol volume, ranging from 38%-48%, making an ideal companion for a great variety of dishes, from many varieties of legumes to all sorts of fish and seafood.
The Geography of Ouzo
Ouzo belongs to the greater family of anisated alcoholic drinks that includes drinks like absinthe, sambuca, and pastis. Traditionally it is made all around Greece, although Plomari, a small village in Lesvos island, is considered the capital of ouzo, and also considered to produce the highest quality. Ouzo is distinct from raki or tsipouro, which are basically the same kind of alcohol but without any added anis. It is also distinct from the Chios’ suma, which is actually ouzo that is made from figs instead of grapes. This sort of ouzo used to be produced also in Lesvos in the past years. Indeed, I have personally heard old people describing how they used to make ouzo from figs, while in Chios until recently it was illegal for residents to distil and sell their suma, unless for their own consumption, so it was a product that remained a local secret by law!
Unfortunately, in Corfu, there are no ouzeries nor any significant ouzo drinking culture. As a result, it is also quite difficult to find some good ouzo in the market of Corfu. I mean, most ouzos should be ok, and a few known ones like Ouzo12 and Tsantali are of standard quality. Still, the rumor on the island of Lesvos has it that most mass-produced ouzo relies for its taste and the known milky color on industrial-grade anis essence, whereas the good local brands of Plomari and Mytilene have access to locally grown raw material–anis from the neighboring village of Lisvori or its surroundings. Some distilleries are even known to soak the anis overnight in seawater, for their unique recipe for ouzo. This anis is a material which is locally popular not only for making ouzo but also for baking, where apart from the pristine materials, ‘magic’ ingredients are also added in the bakery goods, such as…. holy water sanctified by the local church!
Plomari, with its 56 brands, although it has a great tradition in ouzo making, remained unknown for a long time until it was rediscovered a few decades ago. Among the lovers of ouzo, there are a few brands from Plomari that hold legendary status, but even to this day, because of poor distribution, most of these brands are still not available in Corfu. The only bright exception is that of the Green and Blue labels of Varvayanni ouzo, which can be fortunately found in many liquor stores, supermarkets, and restaurants and which I cannot recommend more.
A typical ouzo shelf of a convenience store in Mytilene, from the top left, we can see Pitsiladis, Gianatsis, Varvayiannis, Arvanitou, Fimi, and Smyrnio. On the lower shelf from the left, we can see Varvayianni’s Aphrodite, a bottle of Mastica from Chios, ouzo Mini, the excellent Matis, Matareli, Veto, Kefi, and Lesvos. On the lower shelf, you can see Castanelli, a unique liqueur made from ouzo Gianatsis with chestnuts and honey from the nearby mountain village of Agiasos, which is as amazing as it is -unfortunately- nearly impossible to find in Corfu.
Ouzo power/knowledge. Ouzo drinking ‘protocol’
“And you will drink. Everyone does. You have to.” He talked about retsina and aretsinato, raki and ouzo.J. Fowles, The Magus.
Ouzo is produced all around Greece, but its local production sometimes takes a special significance. The anthropological anecdote has it that the ouzo-drinking practices in the kafeneia of Lesvos are some sort of a ‘conspiracy’, a strategy among men who habituate the kafeneion in order to resist the power of their wives after they would return drunk or tipsy from the kafeneia to their homes-that are matrilocal, like in a number of other islands of the Aegean- and thus, belonging to their wives. This is a cultural practice that gives a radically different meaning to the popular Greek slogan of the 80s: “Ouzo Power”, which has also lent its name to Greek songs and music bands. The role that ouzo plays in these strategies is also a sign that it is a very serious drink that needs to be respected. In order to get the full range of the taste and the experience of ouzo, but also because the sweet taste and the high sugar content slows down the alcohol absorption, which can make it also a very “sly” drink which you will only feel when you have already drunk too much, it is usually helpful to know the protocol of ouzo drinking. This includes turning the usual 200ml bottle upside down (or to turn it upside down and slap its bottom), a gesture that is supposed to help the anis mix better but which also denotes a “hit-it-before-it-hits-me” sort of magic gesture, and for good reasons! Also, remember that contrary to the usual practice of serving it with ice, as in most tavernas and restaurants in Corfu, ouzo is much better when diluted with cold water, since the ice separates the anise oils from the mix by making an oil stain on the surface of the drink that is said to affect the taste and scent of ouzo, and some say that it can even give a headache. Ouzo is a beverage to combine with food. The different strengths of ouzo distillation mean that you can have the most appropriate ouzo accompanying different dishes, i.e., Varvayiannis’ mild, Green label is ideal with marides, the thin bartered and fried fish, while the stronger Blue label, or even the even stronger Euzonas or Aphrodite, can accompany best fatty fish, or even better, salted fatty fish, like lakerda. Respectively, Gianatsis’ distillery, offers a variety of alcohol strengths, from 40% to 45% of alcoholic volume, while most other brands usually offer one or two options.
On a side note: it is perhaps noteworthy that drinking alcohol in Greece has its own protocol, one that is distinct for non-alcoholic beverages like tea, coffee, or water. When people drink alcohol along with eating food, they will usually clink their glasses every time they are topping up, saying “Yeiamas”. When people drink water can say “Yeiamas”, but they are not supposed to clink their glasses, as this is a gesture reserved only for alcohol. This rule is somewhat more strict with coffee, perhaps because coffee in Greece is also related to funerary rites, as the “bitter coffee of consolation”.
Fig-pie with must and ouzo. The meeting of east and west in a classic Corfiot combination.
Although this short guide has been so far a bit disheartening for visitors of Coru who would like to enjoy a more genuine experience of ouzo drinking, Corfu does offer another approach to ouzo, and an exception to the ouzo drinking protocol: the fig pies! You might have seen around in the supermarkets or in the vegetable markets wrapped packages in fig or walnut tree leaves; these are the Corfiot fig-pies. Fig-pies are made either with mashed figs and must or with ouzo, or with both. In Corfu, a fig pie is considered a power food, ideal for breakfast, and a very interesting combination is for a fig pie to accompany the morning Greek coffee, in which a dash of ouzo has been added. We get from Elias Petropoulos’ history of the “Turkish Coffee in Greece”, that this practice has its roots in the way coffee was drunk in the Agion Oros, the Holy Mountain of Athos:
The tradition of Agios Oros imposes its own unique coffee; the monks are dripping in the coffee-pot two -three drops of ouzo. But, Pentzikis mentions it twice, with complacence. Papadiamantis in the short story “Τhe Εmbelished” (1909), he writes: a great cup of coffee, monasterial marvelous, was offered to me. Coffee from Agion Oros (scented with ouzo) reminds me, associatively, of the laboriously joyful little meatballs of Smyrna,, which in their dough (besides plenty of spices and aromatic greens) they also add a dash of raki.E. Petropoulos, The Turkish coffee in Greece
We have seen so far that the combination of figs and anis belongs to the now unknown history of ouzo making, although it has also found its way in many recipes, like pork with figs and ouzo, or even fig and ouzo marmalades. A little look further to the west of Greece, in Italy, is enough to show us that the combination of anis alcohol and coffee is also an established mix In Italy, “ghiaccio e mosche”-ice and flies-, is a drink of sambuca with three coffee beans.. Corfiot fig-pies as a morning accompaniment for Greek coffee with a bit of ouzo in it, combines the -by now almost subterranean and forgotten generative relation of ouzo and figs, which comes from the east, and the combination of strong anisated alcohol with coffee, which comes from the west and from the way the monks are making their coffee in mount Athos.
This is what I have gathered so far from my “research” on ouzo, it does not mean to be exhaustive in any way since small high-quality brands are born every day, but this is a general view of the classics. If you know of any other practices or customs related to ouzo I will be very happy to learn about it. Let’s hope that we will soon have access to all these cultural culinary treasures to the western side of Greece, as well, so all of us who are interested can, you know, continue our… ouzo studies.