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The Greek vegetarian paradox

The Greek vegetarian paradox

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Eating with Eichholtz

I love meat, but it’s obvious that I will have to reduce my meat consumption. Given the excessive amount of nitrogen produced in the Netherlands, we have to decide whether to build less or to reduce the amount of livestock. Since the number of households is expected to increase by almost one million in the next three decades, and we don’t want these people to be homeless, the choice is clear: less livestock, and consequently less meat on the table.

So, I’ll try some vegetarian menus this academic year. The trouble is that there are no vegetarian restaurants in Maastricht. This is quite surprising for a city with a large academic community, and I have no doubt that this will change in the near future. For the time being, however, I have to make do with normal restaurants that provide good vegetarian options. Fortunately, there are plenty of those.

It may seem strange to choose a Greek restaurant for a vegetarian meal. Dutch people mostly go to Greek restaurants to eat the mixed grill, a dish that invariably includes a wide variety of cuts of all kinds of animals, grilled to oblivion. And main courses without meat or fish (never both) are indeed uncommon in Greece. However, in the mezedes, Greek cuisine does have a very strong tradition in vegetarian dishes. That’s why I’ll be trying a selection of vegetarian mezedes at Ouzeria Omega in the city park, which offers no less than 42 different vegetarian choices.

My dinner companions are Sofia Sideridou and Dimitria Tsintsifa. Sofia just arrived in Maastricht, and started the Master in Forensic Criminology in September. Dimitria is a second-year bachelor’s student of European Law. They both chose Maastricht University because of its international community and its excellent academic reputation. They’re happy with their choice, although they are sometimes a bit overawed by fellow students who have dual nationality, speak three languages fluently and have lived in four countries.

We decide to order ten mezedes, both hot and cold. That’s more than enough for a full meal for three people. We first receive a complimentary glass of ouzo. Dimitria tells me that a typical mezedes meal with friends at a Greek taverna is only accompanied by ouzo and water in just the right amounts to get everyone slightly tipsy, but not drunk. Wine is rare in these settings. Vegetables are another key ingredient of the perfect taverna meal: good tavernas serve super fresh greens from their own garden.

Of the dishes we get, four are very good, two are reasonable, and three quite poor. I’ll start with the good ones. The saganaki-feta is warm feta cheese, fried in a very thin crust and served in honey. In Greece it would be sprinkled with sesame seeds, but even served without these it’s an excellent dish. The salty cheese contrasts wonderfully with the honey, and the somewhat dry and crumbly texture of the cheese goes great with the honey’s smoothness.

The other feta-based dish we choose is kopanistis, a mousse of feta and peppers. This, too, is very tasty. It has exactly the right spiciness, and the mousse is wonderfully smooth.

Our next dish is known in Greece as “meat for the poor”: Gigandes. Back at home, Dimitria and Sofia often eat these as an easy lunch: large dried white beans, cooked and served in a bit of tomato sauce with lots of fresh herbs. This may not sound like a very exciting combination, but it’s really outstanding. The beans are perfectly cooked and the sauce is very tasty. My companions are both very happy.

The last very good dish we try is the fava, a hummus-like dip made from lentils. The first impression is a bit watery, and the flavour lacks the intensity that my dinner companions are used to. Despite this, we all agree that the taste is very pleasant. This dish is traditionally served plain in Greece, but the Omega variety comes with thinly sliced red onions. This combination works well.

We are far less happy with the spanakopita, which is supposed to be spinach in filo, but comes in a failed attempt at puff pastry. It’s so greasy you hardly notice the spinach. Bourekia are aubergine croquettes, which can be very tasty. While aubergine doesn’t have much taste of its own, it’s a great sponge for flavours that are added to it and has a beautiful texture when done well. Unfortunately, no flavours were added to these bourekia, and the aubergine feels a bit mushy.

Before the horta psita arrives, Sofia and Bimitria tell an enthusiastic story about the way their grandmothers make horta by gently simmering the leaves of plants found in the wild, like dandelion and wild spinach, with just some olive oil and lemon juice. Their enthusiasm vanishes when the Omega variety arrives. It consists of the boring grilled vegetables every self-styled trendy restaurant serves these days: bell peppers, aubergine, courgette. Neither wild greens nor flavours are anywhere to be found.

Overall, we were both lucky and unlucky with our choices. But a common question to ask non-vegetarians like me is whether or not we missed the meat, and the answer is no. The dishes we tried offered ample variety in terms of taste and texture, and although some of them were not so great, the overall experience was a positive one.

Piet Eichholtz

In this series Professor Piet Eichholtz (Professor of Finance at the School of Business and Economics) trawls the streets of Maastricht in search of good food with a student or colleague and reports on his findings here.

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