October 20, 2004

In Europe, accent is on wine and food

"Of course, we’ll have to get some food,” Mark said as we sat in the bar, seemingly forgetful of the fact that we’d just finished dinner and it was 12 a.m. I looked at him quizzically, and he explained, “We can’t just drink.”

Oh. Right. We were in Greece, where, as in most of Europe, wine lubricates not just the tongue but the social fabric of the place.

It’s a different mind-set than in the States, where no one blinks when glasses of wine or spirits are ordered on their own. Often, we gulp our before-dinner wine during a quick pit stop on the way home from work or while preparing dinner: the accent is on the relaxation that alcohol itself provides. But it can get better than a glass of white sipped while standing over the stove, stealing bits of food that fall off the cutting board.

In most of Europe, drinking for its own sake is anathema: a drink requires a friend with whom to share the pleasure, and some food to keep the appetite up and absorb the alcohol. That way, conversation won't stray into the pink-elephant mode.

Think of Spain's tapas: the word itself derives from an old tradition of placing a piece of cheese or bread on top of a copita of sherry to snack on as you sip. Italy has cichetti, little bites of foods like meat-stuffed, deep-fried olives, so involved they take bar food to another level. The Greeks have spent so much time thinking about eating and drinking that they've broken mezedes into ouzo mezedes (those with lots of garlic and spice, and seafood) and wine mezedes (less piquant dishes, often starring meat).

Over our midnight mezedes, the point of having a little food with our wine made sense like never before. We were drinking Fountis Naoussa, a red wine from northern Greece that tastes a bit like Barolo. The meze was rich chunks of pork simmered in a tomato sauce until they fell apart at the thought of a fork. We sat, slowly sipping the wine, forking bits of meat, talking, laughing, letting time fall away.

The wine, like good Barolo, got better and better in the glass, shedding its initially gripping texture to reveal velvety fruit studded with exotic spices. By the time we dueled over the last shreds of pork, two hours had ticked by, yet we weren't tired, drunk or overstuffed. The wine had helped keep the appetite up; the food had helped keep the thirst up; and the time it took to enjoy the wine, food and company allowed us to feel comfortably sated, not like we had downed a slice of pizza and a beer at midnight. When I woke up the next morning (Monday), I was ready to go to work.

In Greece, it's not only wine that's treated with time and food. Constantina, a 22-year-old recently back from a semester abroad in Italy, confessed to me her frustration with Italians and their espresso. "They just stand at the bar and down their coffee!" she said, incredulous. "To me, going out for coffee means we sit, talk, laugh." Even coffee is served with a little bite of something in Greece - the traditional "spoon sweets," fruits preserved in syrup, or a cookie or chocolate. It doesn't matter if you're hungry - the idea is to sweeten and draw out your time.

Every time I'm in Europe I wonder why finding time to relax and enjoy a glass of wine seems so much harder back home. When I'm overseas, I'm typically working like crazy, trying to absorb a country's worth of knowledge in a short week while maneuvering through unfamiliar languages and streets. The people I meet are busy too. Yet somehow, there's always room to meet friends (or, more likely for me, near-strangers) for a drink and a bite to eat.

In the States, everyone I know leads a busy life, as I'm sure you do. Who has time for lingering over drinks? I wonder that myself, though I hope to figure out how to find the time when I get home. Maybe ordering a little food with that next glass of wine will help.

This article orginally appeared in the Denver Post.

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