Racing in an Olympic stadium beside another person who, like you, is intent on reaching the other end first, but who also is racing as much in the spirit of the games as in outright competition, is a singular joy. It is a brief moment to be experienced perhaps once, and savored for a lifetime. This is true even if the stadium is a marble relic that has been crumbling into sand for millennia and even when your opponent is a camera-laden journalist who came, like you, only to see where it all began.
Some years ago, I drove west out of Athens to Olympia, a sleepy village in western Peloponnesus where tortoises amble down the main street and nothing much is made of the tumbled down temples on the outskirts of town. When you enter the heritage site, you stroll through towering fluted columns where, if you let your imagination loose, you might hear shouts and laughter; smell smoke and burning fat from a dozen ritual sacrifices; and see a thousand, well-oiled muscled men, mostly naked, running and wrestling in between the graceful fruit trees as they practice for the games. Marble temples line the avenues of Olympia and in their day they were brilliantly painted vermilion, blue and gold, although today they gleam white where moss hasn’t reached their columns.
Glance to the left and you’ll see a low arching peristyle, still intact with a short stretch to enter the stadium. There it is, wide as a football field with long dirt mounds for seating on either side. “Race ya,” said the stranger on my right. I laughed, “Sure!” and we took off at full throttle, skittering across the dust and pebbles. He won, but not by much, and we collapsed giggling in the grass to the applause of scattered tourists. In Plato’s time, the winner was crowned with a laurel wreath to honor the god Apollo, but stripping the scenery seemed sacrilegious to a modern mind. We settled for libations and burnt offerings-a little wine, some mezze and grilled lamb. Opaa! Kali Orexi!
Serves about 40
Since ancient days, Greek hospitality has started with mezze-finger foods that go down easily with a swig of ouzo or a glass of Santorini white wine. The better-known Greek wine, retsina, is less palatable to most tastes, but the ancients never drank anything inferior. Retsina was an insurrection to Roman rule. At the time, Greeks crafted the world’s best wine and Romans coveted the vintages. To keep locals from drinking up meager supplies, Rome taxed oak barrels used for fermentation. The Greeks rebelled and began making barrels out of pine, insisting they preferred the taste. Of course, the acrid sap infused the brew and the Romans shopped elsewhere.
Dolmathes were common fare in Socrates’ day, although they used barley instead of rice. This classical recipe is adapted from Archestratus, leader of the Epicureans, who wrote of leaf-wrapped delicacies-“you can hardly spoil them … as long as you mix in lots of herbs” and, of wine, “drink an old one, bearing on its shoulders a head hoary indeed.”
1 jar vine leaves, or 80 fresh, young grape leaves
1/3 cup golden raisins or currants
10 Tbs. fruity olive oil
1 onion, minced
10 scallions, minced
Your choice of minced herbs
(2 Tbs. or 3 Tbs. each): parsley, dill, mint, fennel greens
3/4 cup long-grain rice
1/3 cup pine nuts
Pinch of cinnamon
Juice of 2 lemons
1 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper, to taste
Serve with plain yogurt or tsaziki, garlicky yogurt and cucumber salad
1. Plump raisins in white wine for 30 minutes.
2. Wilt grape leaves in boiling water, drain and cool.
3. Sauté onions and scallions in 2 Tbs. oil until soft. Stir in the herbs, raisins, cinnamon, rice and nuts and sauté 5 minutes. Season to taste. Set aside to cool.
4. Roll leaves: place a teaspoon of rice mixture at the broad-end of the leaf, fold the sides over and roll from the base to tip.
5. Find a large pot that holds half the dolmathes in a single layer. Line with extra grape leaves. Fill the pan as snugly as possible, sprinkling lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of oil over each layer. Pour stock, remaining oil and 1 cup of water on top. Cover with a heavy plate to hold the leaves in place.
6. Simmer 50 minutes. Test one-the rice should be fully cooked. Best served at room temperature the next day.