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Here's looking at you, Zorba!

A primer for Boise's Greek Food Festival


Boise's Greek Food Festival is one of the culinary high points of the year, and it inspires me before and afterward to modest efforts of my own, especially in the drinks department. With a little shopping in Boise-area stores, you too can enlarge upon what you'll enjoy Friday or Saturday at this year's festival. Here are some pointers.

Ouzo and retsina are the cliché beverages of Greece, but their intense flavors are perfectly suited to many Greek dishes. A thimbleful of ouzo goes down well with savory appetizers, or with dried figs and fresh fruit. And it's hard to imagine the famous Greek eggplant-based casserole mousaka without retsina.

I grew up loathing licorice, but I've acquired a taste for ouzo, that Greek aperitif flavored with such licorice taste-alikes as fennel, anise, and--an entirely different plant from Southeast Asia--badiane or star anise. Our state liquor stores stock ouzo produced by the Metaxa Company and its ingredients also include mastic, a resinous substance harvested from bushes on the island of Chios. I'm still equivocal about its flavor, but ouzo's aroma is so evocative of sun and sea and sand that it's a cheap ticket to points east.

Unless you're up for a headache, drink your ouzo sparingly, as it averages 40 to 46 percent alcohol. If you find you don't like it neat, serve it on the rocks or with water, treatments that turn it milky in color. Ouzo is traditionally served with a selection of mezedes, or appetizers, a custom that gives you the opportunity to set up your own cafeneon beneath the trees in your backyard and lay out a variety of savory snacks.

Olives, of course, are essential. Almost any type will do, but the stronger the better. About this humble fruit, Lawrence Durrell, that most articulate of writers waxed particularly eloquent: "The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palms, the gold beads, the bearded heroes, the wine, the ideas, the ships, the moonlight, the winged gorgons, the bronze men, the philosophers--all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent smell of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water."

In Greece mezedes might also include meatballs or grilled sardines, but I set out a simpler array, not all of it Greek: a loaf of crusty bread; slices of capicolla sausage; caper berries; stalks of pickled okra; dolmades, those pungent grapes leave stuffed with rice and herbs and sometimes meat; and chunks of Greek kasseri cheese. I'm lazy, and besides, I want to whet appetites, not sate them.

What I have in mind for our imaginary afternoon, which has now been overtaken by violet-fingered evening, is a pot of stifado, a stew of beef and pearl onions simmered in a pungent tomato sauce. And to go with it we'll need several bottles of ... retsina!

Depending on your viewpoint, this resin-flavored wine is either disgusting or a high point of Greek cuisine. Even mentioning it is a faux pas in some quarters. Retsina is white (or occasionally rosé) wine flavored with pine resin, a concoction that seems to have been enjoyed for thousands of years not only in Greece but in Persia and even China. But why?

Experts suggest several explanations. Pine resin was used to seal wineskins or clay vessels and maybe the ancients discovered it had preservative qualities or that it disguised the flavor of inferior wine or of those wineskins. Perhaps they liked it. Whatever the appeal, remember the example of the famous fantasy character Jurgen, who wisely declared, "I am willing to drink any drink once." Retsina should be chilled, but only lightly, as the resin in the wine produces a sensation of coolness. Let the resin do its work, and you'll be transported to that pine grove beside the sea you've been dreaming of.

And as you finish your stifado, join Jurgen and me for one last drink, one perhaps more familiar to you--the smooth, amber, aromatic Metaxa. Compounded of brandy, Muscat wine, herbs, and rose petals, Metaxa is aged from three to 30 years. For our party I've purchased the five-star (five-year) variety, which has a slightly lemony finish. We could have sampled Metaxa earlier on the rocks, but I find it most satisfying served room temperature after dinner.

Now for those of you who've emulated Jurgen to no avail, I have comforting news. I was once lucky enough to spend some time on a Greek freighter. The food was delightful, but Sunday, we were told, was a special day. Sure enough, Sunday's dinner was a steaming pan of pastitso, essentially a mousaka made with pasta rather than eggplant. Served with it, my companion and I were assured, would be the Greek luxury drink, the beverage reserved for just such occasions as this: beer.

Aural Retsina

As you immerse yourself in all things Greek, don't forget to treat your ears as well as your taste buds. Popular Greek bouzouki music is easy to find, but palls quickly. Leaven your musical program with rembetika (sometimes transliterated as rebetica), a forerunner of bouzouki and the Greek equivalent of the blues.

A fine CD called Greek-Oriental Rebetica is available on the Arhoolie label (7005). It collects songs recorded between 1911 and 1937 in the "Asia Minor style" as developed by Greeks residing in Turkey before they were driven out in the 1920s. The songs deal with passion, crime and hashish--you know, the usual suspects. And while the sound is what you'd expect of recordings nearly a hundred years old, the music itself is more heartfelt than today's mass-produced model, Greek or otherwise.

Better still treat yourself to the masterpiece of modern Greek music, Nikos Skalkottas's 36 Greek Dances. Skalkottas (1904-1949) usually composed in an atonal style unpopular with audiences, but here he tapped into the folk music of his fellow Greeks with exciting success. Scored for orchestral band, these dances are the soul of Greece distilled in sound. Look for them on Lyra 0052/53 or Bis 1333/4. The latter recording is a bit tame, but includes the one atonal piece by Skalkottas that has the potential for wider appeal, The Return of Ulysses.

2004 Annual Greek Food Festival

Friday and Saturday, June 4 and 5, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Suggested donation of $1, FREE for children under 12

St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, 2618 West Bannock

Enjoy church tours and Greek dancers as well as food and drink.