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Ouzo Stories
(from IN SEARCH OF SARDELES PASTES)

Uncle Panayotis What Lesvos is most known for is it's ouzo. It's common knowledge that the best ouzo comes from the island and while you could say the same about olive oil and several other of the Lesvos exports, there are few in Greece who would disagree when it comes to the quality of the ouzo. There are several commercial brands that are sold all over Greece such as Ouzo Mini with it's logo of a girl in a mini-skirt, or Ouzo Veto, Andrea's favorite, a red label with what looks like the same stamp that US presidents use to exercise their power. There are some smaller companies that are unknown outside of Lesvos and there is the xima, homemade or nameless, as good or better then the commercial brands. Then there is Barbayannis from the village of Plomari where it is said that all the inhabitants are insane. Whether it's from the ouzo I don't know but Barbayannis is generally considered to be the strongest ouzo which some translate as the best. To me ouzo is only as good as the mezedes that are being served with it.
 

Unlike most nationalities, the Greeks don't drink to get drunk. They drink to enjoy life and drinking ouzo is an art form. Never taken alone it is served with snacks called mezedes. My favorites are of course the sardeles pastes, octopus, and the simple tomato, feta and olive combo. In the fancy ouzeries of Athens and the more exploited islands the meze is ordered separately for about a thousand drachma a plate. In the remote villages of Lesvos they are served when one orders a glass or carafe of ouzo. The food, and some say particularly the olive oil, help the drinker to maintain an even keel and instead of becoming obnoxiously drunk they become profoundly appreciative of life in the moment. The villages are filled with glassy eyed old men with contented smiles. Friendly towards foreigners, they ask questions and laugh easily or they can sit in zen-like silence until a falling leaf or passing caterpillar captures their attention and illicit a comment. This is the life that awaits me as we drive up the pine covered mountain roads, across the plain of Kaloni and over the next mountain range where the pines have changed to olive groves and the terrain is noticeably more rocky.

In the cafeneon we order a couple ouzos from Thanasis. He serves it with a small Greek salad and some fried potatoes with a dab of ketchup. It's a strange meze but Amarandi eats them all and then two more plates full. I ask him what kind of ouzo we are drinking.
"The cheapest" he tells me.
I tell him that by the end of the month I want to be able to sit at a table with twenty identical looking glasses of different ouzos, and be able to identify the brand of each one, by taste.
He laughs. "Many people say I like this kind of ouzo or I like that kind, but if I pour Ouzo Kefi into an Ouzo Mini bottle they don't know the difference." . 


Ted and I resume our conversation. He asks if he should order another ouzo. I'm thinking no but I hear myself say yes. The magical power of the drink. Then he tells me something that shatters my entire romanticized perception of the wonderful healing properties of Mytilini ouzo.
"It's not really made here", he tells me. "It's just assembled."
He explains that the island which in ancient times was famous for it's grapes because it is such an ideal climate, suffered a blight from which its grape crop never recovered. It is only now that they have discovered a method of grafting that can make the plants resistant to this disease. In the absence of any grapes, all the raw ingredients are bought from other places. The distilled alcohol may come from other islands, the main land or Bulgaria. Then it is flavored and bottled. The famous Mattis Ouzo all comes from a little shop in Mytilini town. With the exception of
Plomari (see the section on Ouzo Giannatsi) there are no real distilleries and you don't need a lot of space to pour alcohol, sugar, anise and another herb or two into bottles.

This is stunning news and I don't know whether to believe him or not. The whole world believes that this is the home of ouzo and I'm finding out that all the ingredients are imported. The world famous Mytilini ouzo could just as easily come from Carrboro, North Carolina.

In shock I stumble into the restaurant to see what there is to eat with this new bottle of Ouzo Kefi that the waiter has brought to our table. Who knows where it's ingredients come from? They could be the finest grapes from Santorini or some rotten potatoes from Romania. Who knew? But one thing could not be argued or dismissed. I felt pretty damn good from drinking it and it certainly made everything else taste better. Even sardeles pastes. I asked if they had any. They didn't but they did have some fried anchovies that looked great. I ordered some and some potatoes too. I asked the owner, a wild eyed man with flaming red hair that stood on end if he remembered me from last year.
"Yes. You are the American with the wife and child!" He actually seems excited or else that's just how he always looks.
When the fish comes the waiter brings another bottle of ouzo.
"It's from him," he points in the direction of a large table by the sea where the owner has taken a seat at the head of an enormous family which does not appear to be his own though he has certainly taken over the roll of master of ceremonies. There is no way that we can drink this next bottle and we don't even attempt to open it, so we toast him with the dregs of our last. He waves back at us as I hide the bottle in my pocket and wander home to ponder the meaning of Ted's shocking news. 

For more on ouzo and cafeneons buy Jelly Hadjidimitriou's book "39 Coffeehouses and a Barber Shop" available at Glaros Gift shop in the harbor of Molyvos or at Greece In Print

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