I don't like starting from a defensive position, but since (a) I have been attacked for my lack of conscience after nearly every travel piece I have written, and (b) horrendous ads have appeared in vegetarian magazines about the ill-treatment of animals in Greece, I think I had better. I do not doubt that the allegations about cruelty to donkeys are true (though unlike North Africa where the medieval treatment of animals is painful to witness, one rarely sees such things in Greece), but given the scale of factory farming here, it seems to me like pot calling kettle black; as long as I live in Britain and encourage others to visit the country, I can't see any rationale in avoiding a country like Greece. Especially since during a fortnight's travel around the Peloponnese I never had the slightest trouble getting a vegan meal.
The Greek word for vegetarian is 'hortophagos' (according to my dictionary 'phytophagos' is a plant-eating animal, while 'hortophagos' is a plant eating human), but the English word 'vegetarian' is understood wherever there are tourists - especially back-packers. In Olympia and Nafplio, restaurants had signs proclaiming that vegetarian food was on offer. They didn't have special dishes on the menu, they had simply realised that various dishes were suitable for those who didn't eat meat and should be promoted for those in search of such dishes. I don't think that any of them contained dairy products.
In Athens there is a proper vegetarian restaurant, but ironically dairy products were much more in evidence. Mainly, the restaurant was trying to imitate Greek meaty dishes, using tvp in place of meat, and the food we had there was nothing special, though it was a pleasant place.
Horiatiki - the so-called Greek salad - is made up of tomatoes, cucumber, olives, a few slices of green pepper, and sliced onion in an olive oil dressing; a square of feta cheese is plonked on top, so it is the easiest thing in the world to ask for it to be left off. This salad does get a bit boring after a short while, but there are plenty of other vegan things on any menu. One of the nicest is Melizanasalata - mashed roasted aubergines. Potato salad is prepared with a vinaigrette dressing.
Relax Greek Style
The pleasantest thing about Greece is how laid-back everyone is. You could spend all afternoon at a taverna without being hassled, and if you want to order just a vegetable dish, then why not? A seasonal vegetable, like green beans or okra while I was there, is cooked Greek-style with tomatoes and onions in olive oil and is very pleasant with bread or chips (also cooked in oil). 'Gigantes' are fava beans prepared in the same way and a good source of protein. A composite vegetable dish is Briam, a mixture of aubergine, courgette, tomato and potato. Stuffed tomatoes (and, very occasionally, peppers,) appear on many menus and are nearly always meatless (though obviously one has to ask). Imam byaldi, aubergines stuffed with a tomato and onion mixture, has been taken over from the Turks and is also readily available.
It's no good pretending that Greek food is particularly flavourful. My best meal was near the end of the holiday at an Italian restaurant near Athens, where I had a delicious spaghetti prepared with olive oil, garlic and mushrooms. We also had a salad with lettuce and grated raw carrots - bliss after all those Greek salads! My worst meal was a supposedly Italian dish served at a Greek restaurant.
Snacks and Afters
There is not a great deal of protein in most Greek vegan dishes, but nuts and dried roasted chick peas are sold on many street corners, and at kiosks fresh peanut and/or sesame brittle for those (like me) with a sweet tooth. Although sweet pastries like baklava will contain butter, rahat lokum (Turkish Delight, but of course not known as that in Greece) is vegan as is halva. Of course, the best dessert is lovely ripe fresh fruit, and I am also fond of granita, which is sorbet (or sometimes a drink with crushed ice). It's worth looking at ingredients of biscuits in shops (which do appear in English and other languages) as I found one Greek speciality that was vegan (made with olive oil and orange juice!).
No Trouble for Vegans
Travelling around a country with lots to see, beautiful beaches, and a perfect climate, knowing that wherever we rolled up I would have no trouble at all getting a vegan meal, made for a smashing holiday.
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