Oh travel – is there anything more liberating? Discovering places you never knew were there and seeing a world that never before existed in your memory is one of the best experiences you can have in life. But, who ever said you need to travel outside of your own city for such a journey? Certainly not Maeve O’Meara - TV food presenter and best-selling author.
Maeve began Gourmet Safaris - an award-winning food tour group – over a decade ago, the popularity of which has grown consistently ever since. In prepping their 2014 schedule, Gourmet Safaris kindly invited me to tag along on their Greek Gourmet food tour around the appropriate inner-west suburb of Marrickville. Not only was I treated to an authentic Greek feast over the eight stops, but the comprehensive history lesson the tour guide gave along the way unfolded Greek culture in Sydney and presented it as one of the most endearing communities in this multifaceted city.
Arriving bright and early at 9:30am, we all met upstairs at TIM Products, a business that has been around since 1967. After recalling their humble beginnings as a small cake shop, the owner – Chris – let us taste cups of traditional Greek coffee and, of course, several sweets and pastries. While our tour guide – Liz – talked us through the unique way Greeks' make their coffee, Chris proudly detailed how his sweets and pastries are prepared. Cue the best Baklava I have ever tasted, which Chris said is made with absolutely no animal fat. We also got to try Galaktoboureko - an irresistible custard slice - Cheese & Ricotta and Spinach & Cheese pastries, Almond shortbread, and others.
While starting the day with sweets is not something I do often, it made sense that this was our first stop; introducing us to Greek cuisine via their unique desserts and snacks got us all excited about the seven stops ahead.
We all made our way to Illawara Road afterwards, and being the main street in Marrickville, the remaining stops were all along this long stretch.
A quick pop-in to the eye-catching Hellenic Bakery was a breath of deliciously freshly-baked bread, with the addictive scent wafting around the inside and outside of the homely store. Liz explained that in Greek culture, a bakery would function very much like the cultural epicentre of a village, where everybody would meet and catch up on happenings in their community. We got to try a variety of distinctive breads, learning the islands the specific ingredients are found on. I was surprised – and very delighted – to hear that the bakery also cooks up entire lambs for purchase (A hot tip for all you picnic-planners out there).
Onto the Illawara Meat Market - one of the highlights – where we got to try top-notch lean chorizo and listened to the head butcher as he reminisced on the business’ journey. We watched in awe as he butterflied a whole leg of lamb and stuffed the chorizo in the middle before rolling it up and using some super cool netting equipment to bag it for purchase. My friend jumped at the opportunity to buy it for around $30 [we had it for dinner the following night, it was exceptional]. The butcher explained why so little was on display in the shop – it’s because everything is made-to-order; the meat cut right in front of you so you know exactly what you are getting and how much. I need to go back as soon as possible to try some of his lamb stuffed with feta cheese!
Another business that has been around since the 1960’s, Danas Fine Food Deli, was our fourth stop, offering us an array of cheese and olives to try. A very large range of olives were neatly displayed along with a comprehensive list of cheeses. The authentic Greek feta was a revelation; very rich and creamy, not as tarty as standard feta.
A “local institution” was our next visit - The Yeeros Shop. Popularly known as Gyros, Yeeros are the takeaway item of choice in Greece, and they rely heavily on the quality of meat, much like Kebabs. The Yeeros Shop is popular for this reason; their meat is the type you don’t usually find in similar shops, all three of the meats used – lamb, beef, and chicken – are all very tender and flavourful. We got to try plates of all three types of meat, and while I personally enjoyed the chicken the most, the whole group was soon begging for more and more pieces of the rich lamb – alas, we were still saving room for the final stop.
Crazy Coffee & Nuts was a bit different – it isn’t primarily a Greek venue. The Lebanese supermarket has been around for 30 years and is packed wall to wall of stock that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Their olive selection is overwhelming, but we were here for the dips and bread. Walking in to a table up the back prepared with dip plates, breads, and desserts, was a joy; the Baba ghanoush was particularly special. We took a breather to shop around the packed shelves for items I never even knew existed.
The excellent Lamia Super Deli was our final stop before lunch; a very colourful display of everything Greek, including a large range of artisan cheeses and prepared meats. Fish-based dips, thinly-sliced prosciutto (sliced before our eyes), haloumi, and olives were all passed around the small shop, gradually filling us up before our final stop.
The Corinthian Rotisserie was our long-awaited chance to sit down and relax over a banquet of authentic Greek food. The staff here really know how to complement everything we’ve tried beforehand, handing us giant slabs of Haloumi, stuffed Grape leaves, and salads (with some seriously awesome eggplant) to start with. Creamy potato and massive plates of lamb then made up our mains. While the lamb could have used a bit more spice, the feast gave excellent value and offered you as much food as you could handle; unfortunately, with a total of eight stops it’s hard to fit everything in.
I went along thinking that the food will be the highlight of the tour, but, while it was all excellent food, the detailed and vivid history lesson was the definite highlight. Gourmet Safaris gives you the scope by which to view an entire community that would otherwise be less noticeable given we have an overwhelming amount of things to do in Sydney. Peeling back the layers to reveal a rich history, this tour drew out the vibrant and festive community in Marrickville to give us an unfettered look into Sydney’s Greek culture.
New classes for 2014 include an introduction to Lao cuisine in Sydney, a 'Cypriot Safari on Wheels' and 'World in a Day - Salsa' boasting some of the best South American cuisine. In Melbourne, a walking safari of the vibrant Greek suburb of Oakleigh, and the 'French on Wheels' and 'Italian on Wheels' tours have been added to the line-up. There are also overseas tours and regional tours around Australia.
Details of the full schedule for 2014 tours, and the remaining tours for 2013, can be found on Gourmet Safaris' website here