The Greek breakfast experience
Breakfast might just be one of Greece’s best-kept secrets. Everything you know and love about Mediterranean cuisine is there… colour, seasonality and never-ending generosity. So a traditional Greek breakfast isn’t just a delicious start to the day. It’s healthy and nutritious … and sustainable, too. Ingredients are sourced straight from local farms and producers that you’ll be supporting in the process. And best of all, no two Greek breakfasts are alike as they’re all based on the culinary traditions and unique products of each destination.
* Look for the ‘Greek breakfast’ certification when you book a hotel in Greece, ensuring the quality and authenticity of the breakfast offered.
What do Greeks eat for breakfast?
Greek pies that taste like home
Pittes (as pies are known in Greece) have a way of locking in everything Greeks value most about food. The homely aromas of the first cut trigger memories of a grandmother rolling out wafer-thin filo pastry in a village home and the simple yet delicious ingredients (cheese, vegetables or meat) celebrate seasonality. So it’s not surprising that Greek pies are designed to be snacked on at literally any time of the day. The trusty tiropita (cheese pie) and spanakopita (spinach pie) barely scratch the surface when it comes to Greek pies, with just about every region having its own twist (literally when it comes to the spiral varieties).
In Epirus (Ioannina and the Zagorohoria villages), pies are mouth-wateringly thin and made with a wide range of seasonal ingredients, with zimaropita or kasopita (with feta) being local specialities. And in Macedonia (Thessaloniki, Olympus, Kavala, Halkidiki etc), bougatsa is a custard-cream pie that can be sweet or savoury (don’t think about leaving Thessaloniki without trying one) and kihi pie is a spiral-shaped cheesy treat. Meanwhile in Pelion, batzina is a traditional vegetable pie made without pastry.
On islands, pies are often smaller, such as the poungia of Astypalea (made with chlori, a local cheese), the kremidopita (onion pie) of Mykonos, the twisted kalathaki (cheese-based pies) of Lemnos, the tiropita of Skopelos and the kreatopita (meat pie) of Kefalonia.
In Crete, kalitsounia (or pittarakia) are made with spinach and wild greens or with mizithra cheese and honey (mizithropitakia), while marathopites (fennel pie), pancake-thin Sfakianes pittes and lichnarakia (with mizithra and anthotiro cheese) aren’t to be missed. Finally, mizithra and feta tiropita, tsaitia (fried cheese pies) and galatopita (milk pie) are standouts in the Peloponnese.
Bakery goods that make every day the weekend
Bread has always been part of the Greek breakfast table. Something similar probably happened in antiquity, given the descriptions of bread offerings to Demeter (the goddess of cereals and agriculture), although bread back then was made from barley and zea flour (which has made a comeback). And while the image of the village grandmother kneading and baking bread before dawn may be a rarity these days, a visit to the bakery for a traditional loaf and pastries is still the ideal start to the day in Greece, especially at weekends and on festival days.
You can tell just from the variety of breads on offer. Horgiatiko (with or without sesame seeds) is the staple, usually made from hard (yellow) wheat flour and with a crispy crust and solid crumb, while prozimi is a sourdough loaf often with the destination in the name (Metsovitiko, Ioanniotiko, Pindou etc) and polisporo loafs are typically a wholegrain mix of wheat, barley, rye, oat, corn or rice flour. Sikaleos breads, on the other hand, are made with sesame flour. All are perfectly complemented by local marmalades and honey, or a drizzle of olive oil and cheeses and cold cuts.
Other Greek breads are enriched with raisins (stafidopsomo), cheese (tiropsomo) or olives (eliopsomo). And rusks (paximadia) are common, especially in Crete where they star in dakos salads and come as five distinct Protected Geographic Indication varieties (differing in flour and baking technique) and in the Aegean islands (where they are largely barley-based).
We have Thessaloniki to thank for the koulouri (sesame seed-covered bread rings) and the Peloponnese for lalangia (twisted hoops of fried dough, traditionally eaten at festivals). Tsourekia are sweet Easter breads that are always popular at Greek breakfasts, especially in Corfu where they are known as fogatses and enjoyed all year round. Final bakery treats are moustoukouloura (grape must) and ladokouloura (olive) biscuits.
Greek yogurt that sets the standard
There’s yogurt and then there’s Greek yogurt, which isn’t just deliciously silky and smooth to eat but also inextricably linked to the centuries-old livestock farming tradition of Greece. It’s rich in nutrients, easily digestible, high in protein and an excellent source of calcium and other minerals like phosphorus, magnesium and potassium.
Traditionally, making yogurt was a way of preserving sheep’s and goat’s milk in Greece – although today cow's and goat's milk are more common (the mix of livestock in the region will determine whichever it is). If you’re in a mountain village, you may find your yogurt served in a clay pot, covered in a thick skin, and your Greek breakfast table might offer yogurts with different fat contents (in shops, you’ll find 0-10%, with lactose-free options also available). Dish yourself up a serving of Greek yogurt and choose whatever topping mix you want from honey, spoon sweets, cereals and fruit & nuts and you’re good to go.
Honey that’s guaranteed to sweeten your day
Greek honey is so often the difference … not just in yogurt but in sweets and other dishes, too. Greeks have had a lot of practice, of course, given the accounts of honey-making in ancient times. Homer and Hesiod wrote of wild bees in caves and trees and excavations at Knossos and Phaistos in Crete have uncovered Minoan-era gold jewellery decorated with bees holding a honeycomb and clay hives dating to 3400 BC. Today, honey is found in every Greek kitchen and is a key export, with up to 16,000 tons produced around the country every year.
There are two main types of honey in Greece – flower honey (lighter in colour and texture) from bees feeding on flowers or herbs like thyme and orange blossom and forest honey (darker, thicker and not as sweet) from fir, pine, chestnut or oak trees.
Honey is still mostly made by small producers whose bees feed on indigenous plants and trees – 60-65% from pine trees (especially Thassos, Halkidiki, Evia and Crete), 5-10% from fir trees (Central Greece, central Peloponnese) and 15% from thyme (Aegean and Ionian islands, Central Greece and the Peloponnese). But you’ll find honey produced in other regions too (such as Attica, on the outskirts of Athens) and from bees feeding on other trees and plants, so enjoy finding your favourite. Once you do, you know what you’ll be taking home with you.
Cheeses linked to the land
Cheese-making is another dairy tradition going back thousands of years. We know as much from Homer’s description of the cyclops Polyphemus as a cheese-maker in the Odyssey. And today, Greeks are one of the biggest consumers of cheese per capita in the world. And naturally enough, it’s a mainstay of the traditional Greek breakfast table, whether as a pie filling or eaten on its own or with bread.
The best-known Greek cheese is, of course, feta (they say that the cheese that Odysseus found in Prometheus’ cave was a primitive form of feta), accounting for roughly 10% of local exports and with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. But no two fetas are alike, with the taste depending on the herbs and plants that the sheep and goats feed on and the double-ripening process (at 18°C and 2-4°C) in brine.
But that’s just the start of the story of Greek cheeses, most of them still made in small and medium-sized production units with a close relationship with the livestock farmers in their region. Anthotiro, mizithra, manouri and katiki (soft and made from a mixture of whey and fresh sheep’s or goat’s milk) are preferred white cheeses, while kefalotiri, kaseri, graviera (a kind of gruyere) and kefalograviera are star yellow cheeses.
In all, there are more than 20 PDO cheeses in Greece and location is everything when it comes to which you’ll be offered at breakfast. There is no end to the Greek cheeses whose names have become synonymous with their place of origin: Graviera from Crete or Naxos (also famous for Arseniko), Metsovone from Metsovo, Kalathaki from Lemnos, San Michali from Syros, Kopanisti from the Cyclades, Ladotiri from Mytilene, Krasotiri from Kos, Formaella from Parnassos, Hlori from Astypalea, Manoura from Sifnos, Kaseri from Thessaly, Galotiri from Epirus and Feta with multiple destinations (Kalavryta, Tripoli, Kefalonia, Olympus…).
Glorious Greek olives and olive oil
On to other key ingredients of the Mediterranean diet that thrived in ancient Greece – not just the olives and olive oil themselves but the olive branch as a symbol of peace, wisdom and victory and a therapeutic ingredient in the medicines of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. As far as today’s Greek breakfast table is concerned, οlives feature as extra-virgin olive oil for bread-dunking and frying eggs with and as olives to accompany cheese and cold cuts. The olive oil you enjoy will almost certainly be locally made, as there are an estimated 130 million olive trees cultivated around the country, accounting for around 300,000 tons of Greek olive oil (more than 80% of it extra-virgin). That makes Greece the third-largest producer of olive oil (after Italy and Spain), with 32 PDO and PGI olive oils and 11 PDO table olives.
Around two-thirds of all that extra-virgin Greek olive oil is from the Peloponnese, but Crete, Halkidiki, Lesvos, Thassos and the Ionian Islands are other olive-rich destinations. And the differences between the olive oils they produce are partly due to changes in soil and climate but also to different olive varieties. The small but oil-rich koroneiki olive dominates when it comes to olive oil (originally from the Peloponnese but now grown nationwide), while the kalamon olive (from Messinia and Laconia in the Peloponnese, Lamia and elsewhere) make excellent table olives. Other notable varieties are hondrolia in Halkidiki, throumba in Thassos, lianolia in Corfu, konservolia in Pelion and manaki in Delphi.
Fruit that loves the Greek sun
Another key ingredient of the Mediterranean diet, fruit abounds in Greece, helped by the mild climate and plentiful sunshine. Not just the watermelon and melon you’ll know from your summer holidays but apples, pears, oranges, tangerines, apricots, cherries, pomegranates, grapes, quinces, figs, nectarines, kiwis and other fruit that ripen at different times of the year. And when they’re no longer in season, they’re preserved in jams and marmalades and in spoon sweets or sun-dried like the figs of Kimi and the Ionian Islands (known as sikomaides) and the world-famous PDO Corinthian raisins.
So fruit is bound to feature in your Greek breakfast, in whole or in a fruit salad or yogurt. And as with everything in Greece, location is everything (with many being PDO or PGI-protected): Apples from Zagora in Pelion, oranges from Laconia and Argolida in the Peloponnese, peaches from Naoussa and pomegranates from Ermioni (both in the Peloponnese), mandarins from Chios and kiwis from Pieria (Central Macedonia).
Nuts that fuelled the ancient Greeks
Nuts are what ancient Greeks turned to for a snack in the belief that they were a key source of strength and wisdom and a general health booster. And we now know that Greek nuts aren’t just delicious but are typically packed with vitamins and antioxidants. So as well as being a key ingredient in many sweets (think of baklava and pistachio ice cream) they also have their place at the Greek breakfast table, in cereals and in yogurt.
Walnuts, almonds, raisins, pistachios and hazelnuts are all produced in big numbers in Greece and there are entire destinations famous for specific nuts (Aegina for pistachios, Larissa for almonds, North Evia for walnuts …).
And speaking of walnuts, an estimated 1,200 tons of walnuts are produced in Greece each year. In fact, they say that Zeus ate walnuts when he came down from his throne on Mt Olympus to rule over all other gods and humans. Think of that next time you’re contemplating what to add to your Greek yogurt.
Sweets you can eat (virtually) guilt free
With all that fruit and honey to tempt them, Greeks love sweetening up their breakfast. And best of all, it’s often pretty healthy. Tahini and halva are made from ground sesame seeds (ideally from Macedonia) and mostly sweetened with honey. Pastelia are honeyed sesame seed bars (don’t leave Kalamata or Rhodes – where they’re known as melekounia – without trying one). And no childhood in Greece is complete with regular helpings of rice pudding.
Getting more indulgent, amygdalota are almond-based sweets famous on Saronic Gulf islands as well as the likes of Mykonos and Rhodes – although here the sweetener is icing sugar rather than honey. And the Ionian Islands are famous for mandoles (glazed almonds) and mantolata (nougat made with honey, sugar and whisked egg whites). Meanwhile, spoon sweets (fruit in sugar syrup) are found everywhere in Greece as a way to preserve sour cherries, grapes, bitter oranges, quince, figs etc … whatever’s in season.
Finally, Aegean islanders aren’t scared of really sweetening up the breakfast table with a slice of rich, syrupy portokalopita (orange pie) or karpouzopita (watermelon pie). Just like no one should ever feel bad about reaching for a milopita (apple pie) or loukoumades (deep-friend dough balls, dripping with honey and chopped nuts) at any time of day.
Eggs with a Greek twist
Eggs have a place at every good breakfast and Greeks will readily tell you of their childhood memories of their grandmother boiling, frying and poaching eggs for them. Where Greek eggs come into their own, however, is when you eat them on an island or in a village and they’ve been sourced from a local, small-scale producer. That and the fact that your omelette or scrambled eggs often have an unmistakably Greek flavour to them.
Sptrapatsada is scrambled eggs with chopped tomatoes and feta, cooked with olive oil and seasoned with herbs and often a pinch of cumin or paprika. In the Peloponnese, this becomes kagianas with the addition of a cold cut like singlino (cured pork, boiled in wine with oranges) or country sausage. In Macedonia, they add Florina red peppers and in Crete, the cold cut of choice is apaki (smoked pork tenderloin, marinated in mountain herbs, olive oil and vinegar). Yet another variation in Crete is eggs cooked with staka (a kind of clarified butter mixed with flour). And in Andros and Tinos, frutalia is a thick, slow-cooked omelette with potatoes and local sausage.
Cold cuts that preserve local traditions
Preserving food was traditionally how isolated communities lasted the winter and shepherds made it through the day in the mountains, which is why the more you travel in Greece, the more you are rewarded when it comes to cold cuts. You’ve already had a taste for singlino and apaki in the omelettes of the Peloponnese (especially Mani) and Crete and both ingredients are also enjoyed on their own. But did you know that they make prosciutto in Drama and Evritania (northern and central Greece)?
In Corfu, noumboulo is whole pork tenderloin marinated in wine and the salami of Lefkada is distinctive for its aromas of spices and whole peppercorns, while country sausages are scented with orange in Messinia, aromatic herbs and spices in the Cyclades and aniseed in Andros.
Also in the Cyclades (especially Mykonos), loutza are smoked pork sausages marinated in red wine and in northern Greece (Thrace in particular) kavourmas is a cold cut delicacy traditionally made with beef but also occasionally with pork or lamb. Meanwhile, spice-rich pastourmas (cumin, paprika, allspice etc) betrays its eastern origins by being popular in Thrace and the North Aegean Islands.
What do Greeks drink for breakfast?
While coffee is king for Greeks at breakfast, you won't be surprised to learn that here, too, Greeks have made the world’s most common morning drink their own. The traditional way, of course, is to ask for a Greek coffee – slowly brewed on ashes (or a gas flame) and sipped until a satisfying sludge of ground coffee beans has revealed itself at the bottom of the cup. But popular culture demands that you also discover the frappé – instant coffee whizzed up with water, milk and sugar that was once a breakfast staple. The more common go-to morning coffee for Greeks today (not just in the summer) is an iced freddo espresso or freddo cappuccino. As for your sugar preference, ask for sketo (plain), metrio (medium) or gliko (sweet). If you are more of a tea person, brews of peppermint, linden, chamomile, sage, lovage or other mountain herbs are often on offer. And for the last item of your Greek breakfast menu … a freshly squeezed orange juice, of course.
The Greek breakfast experience
After all those pies, cheeses, yogurts and cold cuts (and don’t forget the bread with jam or dunked in olive oil and definitely something sweet) how does it feel to eat breakfast like a Greek?
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