By Allan Reid
Touring Europe is mind opening whether one sticks to the major sites or sets out in search of some local culture. I’m of the latter sort. I do the former, but I prefer to immerse myself in the local culture. I like to avoid the crowds and the chain hotels, choosing to stay in bed-and-breakfasts or small boutique hotels and to become lost amid the unfamiliar tangle of a city’s streets while marvelling at unfamiliar architecture, noting when it is laundry day, discovering interesting shops, and trying to negotiate the language barrier at street-side cafés (I am hopelessly monolingual.). Wandering through a residential districts on a warm morning, I might imagine myself stepping out of doors, jumping on my bicycle and peddling to the local bakery for fresh a fresh baguette, to the open air market for fresh olives, quality cheese, and perhaps a few slices of a particularly well-aged and cured prosciutto. With the handlebar basket overflowing, I fantasize a picnic at a local park, my checkered blanket spread beneath a high leafy canopy washing my market finds down with a cheap but satisfying local red wine.
The flavour of Europe, despite all the metaphors, is in the food. I pity tourists who fail to venture beyond the crowds, and thus condemn themselves to overcrowded, over-priced bistros offering often over-Americanized or overly traditional tourists’ fare. I find Europe in the little bistros and cafés hidden on quiet residential corners, across from small forgotten chapels, where flavourful, aromatic, simple cuisine is served to a mostly local clientele. These are places where the language barrier is part of the fun, and the restaurateur knows it. I inevitably return to Victoria dreaming of adopting fresh tomato chutneys, vats of olives and anything but cheddar into my diet. It was time for me to visit the Fig Deli.
Fig Deli is a Mediterranean grocery store with nine wooden tables for two, and one round one for four, clustered between a wall of forty-seven varieties of olive oil, the fresh cheese counter and the pastry counter. Perhaps the idea of dining in the middle of a supermarket seems a little odd. It isn’t my idea of a romantic date spot (especially as the place closes at 7pm). It does not offer a comfortable and quiet ambiance. One dines amidst shoppers, listening to Greek music muffled by the hum of refrigerated display counters. Half of the deli is packed with tight aisles between shelves of imported olives, pastas, mustards and horseradishes, couscous and grains, biscuits, various tomato and vegetable sauces, fruits spreads, European coffees, fresh figs (of course), pickled garlic, dried fruits, vinegars and all that olive oil. Very few of the Fig’s labels grace Thrifty’s shelves. One can also buy fresh artisan breads and the cheese counter features a various Fetas by the block, including a local variety, as well as packages of Halloumi and huge wheels of Parmesan and other hard cheeses.
The menu offers hot meals of roast lamb with Greek lemon roasted potatoes, moussaka, pastitsio and calamari. There are three types of pizza prepared forno style. There is a hot case filled with all sorts of large phyllo triangles: spanakopita, samosas, cheese pies and more. Another counter has Greek Salad, Tabouli and Fatoush.
I ordered the Moussaka with a Greek Salad, my dining partner ordered the Roast Lamb and a triangle of Spanakopita. The moussaka was a generous portion thick with juicy herbed ground beef set upon thinly sliced strips of eggplant and topped with whipped potatoes almost as soft as whipped cream. The Greek salad boasted large chunks of tomato, cucumber and bell peppers with ribbons of purple onion and whole, unpitted, black olives in a light herbal dressing and with generous finely crumbled feta. My partner’s lamb was a knuckle, slow-roasted, lemony-moist and fall-off-the-bone tender. The lemon roasted potatoes were a flavour sensation, and the spanakopita boasted a flaky crust and generous spinach-feta filling. The presentation is a bit too cafeteria-like but the flavours, portions and quality are not lacking. Everything is house made.
We happened to sit right before the case of sweets offering baklava, strudel and other pastries, Nanaimo and fudge bars, and long roles of Turkish Delight: thick, chewy, sweet and speckled with chopped pistachios. The last time I enjoyed good Turkish delight I was meandering away from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, escaping the crowd. I turned down an intriguing alleyway that twisted between old buildings grimy with age and found a small fantasy-in-sparkling-white coffee shop that was clearly a local favourite. The Turkish delight was mildly sweet and nutty, the Turkish coffee was blisteringly strong, and now I need not return to Istanbul to enjoy it again.