My first real experience as a consumer at a proper meat market was when we first settled in Oxford, nearly 20 yesrs ago now. Before that our meat came neatly packaged from the supermarket. The butchers in the Oxford Covered Market hung animal carcasses from huge hooks outside of the tiny shops in the roofed, but unheated space. Because these Oxford butchers often provided meat to the colleges (and probably still do), a variety could be found. I have seen ostrich (from a nearby ostrich farm), deer, boar, hare, grouse, pheasant, and duck hung – each depending on the season. At Christmas time, the place was decorated with garlands of turkey and goose. Of course, within each butchery, the cuts from the usual beef, lamb, pork and chicken were provisioned. In addition, they often produced their own charcuterie.
Now in Greece, we get much of our meat (and fish) from the Athens Central Market (Δημοτική Αγορά Αθηνών) located off Athinas Street, close to Monasteraki. It is also called the Varvakios Agora, named after a benefactor of the early Greek State – a hero of the revolution and an affluent caviar merchant. The Central Market may not have the diversity of the Oxford one, but it does have distinct and interesting cultural characteristics.
Half of the Athens Market – a soaring 19th century open basilica-like structure that takes up a city block – is dedicated to meat. The other half, the central part, is devoted to fish which I showed in a previous post, Fish Focus. The narrow corridors of the meat aisles are lined with glass fronted stalls with interior space behind for counters, weighing scales, cash tills and big meat freezers. Although the place was updated in the 1990s to modern health standards, it still has the vibe it once had when it was first constructed. There is a lot of milling about and a lot of noise which may look like chaos at first. It is primarily shoppers mingled with white coated vendors hawking their goods, extolling their provenance and qualities. Once you settle on which stall you wish to patronise, you first select your meat; it is then cut or minced to your specifications (often after much discussion and possibly even tips on cooking) to be whisked away into the interior space. Finally you enter the narrow doorway to pay and pick up your wrapped package.
[Note: Many of the images below are of raw meat and butchery, so if you are squeamish, quickly scroll through.]
Meat to most English speakers simply means any form of animal flesh, though some may distinguish farm-reared birds in a separate category referred to as poultry. Here in Greece, the word most commonly translated as meat is kreas (κρέας) which is derived from the ancient Greek meaning flesh. It is a word that I discussed in a previous post, The Protochronia Kreatopita (New Year’s Meat Pie), as a term associated with red meats. More specifically, it means lamb and beef (or veal). Poultry and pork (or similar “white” meats) are treated separately and do not fall into the category of kreas.
The Athens Central Market illustrates these categories. At first glance, it seems like corridors of endless slabs of meat (English definition) with butchers welding wicked looking cleavers and saber-sharp knives on round tree-trunk butcher blocks.
On close inspection of the Central Market stalls, however, there is a culturally defined order. Stalls usually restrict themselves to specific types of meat. Those selling birds have chicken and rooster, some turkey and rabbit. Rabbit is possibly sold with poultry because it has a similarly textured white flesh. Often the birds (and rabbit) will have feet (and sometimes heads) still attached, but these will be removed once you select the bird/rabbit you want. They are simply there to verify the identity of the animal. Pork gets its own line of stalls – selling meat and offal along with a variety of fresh sausages – utilising the whole animal. In the winter you may also see boar in these stalls. Round the corner are the stalls selling beef, veal, lamb, and sometimes water buffalo and goat. They usually sell nothing more than kreas, no pork, no poultry.
Prices also reflect status of these meats. Beef is at the top followed by lamb with pork and poultry much further below. Serving beef at a dinner party, therefore, is considered to be at the apex of social entertaining. Kima (κύμα) – ground or minced versions – are even lower on the status scale.
Many of the stallholders have roots in other parts of Greece and sell their local products – usually organic and certainly free range. It is taken as a given and not necessarily advertised.
Situated in tucked away nooks are snack places where you can sample the products. One such snack place or mezedopoulio (μεζέδοπωλέιο), situated between the meat corridors and the fish stalls, is an eatery that will provide you with grilled mini-meat morsels and perhaps a glass of tsipouro. Standing or perching on tall stools, you rub shoulders with other buyers, butchers and fish mongers for a snack after the rigours of shopping.
The market is usually crowded, something particularly noticeable at this time of year during Carnival when conspicuous amounts of meat are consumed. Tomorrow is Tsiknopempti (Τσικνοπέμπτη), a day during Carnival which is a special day of meat over-indulgence. It is the Thursday or Pempti (Πέμπτη) during the second week of Carnival when grilled meats are consumed. Everywhere you go you smell the aroma of sizzling meat, a smell defined as one word: Tsikno (Τσικνό).
It becomes a ghost market during Lent, but it picks back up again with Easter celebrations which often include roasting a whole lamb on a spit. We spotted lambs being prepared for upcoming celebrations.
Spring and Summer bring in tourists who have ventured this way. Business resumes as usual and then gears up for the end of year holidays. And, so the cycle goes on – the Athens Central Market is open for business.