Ouzo and Mezedes, the Traditional Taste Sensation

Photo by EUROKINISSI/ΤΑΤΙΑΝΑ BOLARI.

Of the many authentically Greek experiences, one of the most enjoyable, and delicious, is drinking ouzo and eating mezedes with friends at a seaside spot anywhere in Greece. Images of the water gently lapping at your feet while you taste the fresh local flavors and the warm hospitality the Greeks are famous for, has enticed many a visitor to return again and again.

Since 2006, ouzo is an exclusively Greek product, with a European Union Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), so the name ouzo, along with tsipouro and tsikoudia, can only be used by makers from Greece and Cyprus. There are many popular brands of ouzo from various regions, but perhaps most famous is Plomari on the island of Lesvos, where the Ouzo Museum is located.

The island’s festival for the Greek “national drink” also takes place every year in mid-July in Mytilene and Plomari, with over 40 ouzo labels to taste, while the Second Annual Lesvos Food Festival takes place July 5-15 this year. Among the most popular brands are the intense yet smooth Plomari- considered one of the best, along with Barbayianni, and the lighter Mini. Chios is also known for ouzo with many fine brands including Psichi, Stoupakis, and Apallarina.

Ouzo can be served on the rocks, straight with a cold glass of water, or as a shot, chilled until very cold. Adding water to ouzo will turn it cloudy due to the essential oil of anise, the licorice-flavor in ouzo, which is completely soluble in alcohol at 38 percent alcohol by volume or higher, but is not soluble in water. The droplets of the essential oil get caught in the water and create the cloudy or milky “ouzo effect.”

Drinking ouzo xerosfyri (literally “dry hammer” which means drinking on an empty stomach) is frowned upon according to Greek custom and tradition. Eating mezedes (appetizers) with ouzo adds to the enjoyment of the flavors, but there is also a practical reason as well. Eating food while sipping ouzo lessens the intoxicating effect of the drink, so the alcohol doesn’t hit the drinker all at once. The foods often served with ouzo can be as simple as some feta, olives and a salad, or other classic Greek appetizers like keftedes, grilled octopus, sardines, calamari, fried eggplant and zucchini. Enjoy the following recipe with ouzo.

Grilled Octopus

1 (2 lb.) octopus, fresh or frozen and thawed

2 bay leaves

10 peppercorns

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup water

Greek extra virgin olive oil

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

Freshly ground pepper

Dried oregano

Rinse the octopus in cool water. Using a sharp knife, cut the octopus just below the eyes to remove the hood. Squeeze or cut out the beak and the cartilage on the other side of the beak. Rinse the octopus again, drain it, and place in a large saucepan or dutch oven. Add the bay leaves, peppercorns, vinegar, and the water. Cover and cook over medium heat until softened, 30 to 35 minutes.

While the octopus is cooking, light a gas or charcoal grill to medium-high. Cut the octopus tentacles from the head. Brush with olive oil, place on the grill, and cook for 2-3 minutes on each side. Cut the tentacles into bite-sized pieces, drizzle with olive oil and fresh lemon juice, add freshly ground pepper and oregano to taste, and serve immediately. Enjoy with your favorite ouzo.