I just returned from a trip to Athens Greece, in which I ran across several interesting herbs, honeys and other healing wonders. I hiked the Acropolis as soon as I came into town, and was amazed and enthralled at the old ruins, the Parthenon and the panoramic view of the whole city laid out before me. I had come to Athens at the invitation of Matina Chronopoulou, a naturopathic doctor practicing in Athens, Greece, to check into the possibility of doing introductory workshops in Greek Medicine there. And the very evening after I made my descent from the Acropolis, and for the next few days, I poked around in, and visited, several stores selling healing herbs, honeys and other natural products.
On my first evening in Athens, I combed the back alleys around Monastiraki Square and ran across a couple of shops specializing in natural products. One such store showed me a bottle of Chestnut honey, which they said was good for the prostate. Other stores were selling various traditional Greek medicinal herbs, most notably the ever popular Tsai Tou Vou Nou, or Mountain Tea, as well as others, like the fabled Dittany of Crete, which has recently, for reasons I am not quite sure of, become quite difficult to find in American herb stores. The Greeks call this herb Diktamnos. Other familiar herbal friends also caught my eye: Achillea, or Yarrow (Achillea milfolium), associated with the great warrior Achilles; Kentauris, or Centaury (Erythria centaurium), which is associated with Chiron, the noble Centaur who was one of the legendary founding fathers of medicine. Meeting these familiar herbs in exotic Athens was like a trip down a kind of mythological memory lane. In addition, other herbs, imported into Greece from far-flung locales, like Yohimbe from Africa as an aphrodisiac, and Echinacea from North America as an herbal antimicrobial and immune tonic, were also being sold at a brisk pace, reminding me that there has always been a lively trade and commerce in herbs, spices, and other medicinal substances – and in this way, times haven’t changed that much.
Perhaps the best neighborhood of Athens to go to to find the best herb stores is located on both sides of Athinas street, right around the central meat market. This market is located about midway between Monastiraki square and Omonia square. Perhaps the most interesting herb and spice stores were located on the downhill side of Athinas street, off towards the Indian and Chinese section of town that is commonly dubbed “Little Asia”. I was hoping to even find some Chinese herb stores when I asked around in the various shops selling Chinese goods there, but alas there was nothing to be found in those stores, just cheap consumer goods from China. On one of my outings poking around in Little Asia, I did manage to drop in on a large English speaking tour group that was being introduced to Tsai Tou Vou Nou, or Mountain Tea, which could be called the Greek national health tonic herb, by a local tour guide. Not only is the tea made from this herb aromatic and delicious, but it is very good for colds and respiratory congestion and upper respiratory infections, as well as for muscular and rheumatic aches and pains, and for general health and immunity. More can be read about it in my website.
Coming to Athens from Bucharest Romania, where I have been staying, I was surprised to find a store that also sold several Romanian herbs – and it even had a Romanian speaking sales lady! I recognized Leustian, the dried leaves of a species of Lovage, related to Celery and smelling somewhat like Celery greens, except much more aromatic. In Romania, when the weather gets colder, fresh Leustian or Lovage greens are put into hot soups and broths, where they are helpful in warding off colds and respiratory infections as the weather changes. Needless to say, the spicy and aromatic Lovage greens are a gastronomic favorite of mine whenever I am in Romania. Sea Buckthorn Berries, which I wrote about in my previous blog posting, were also in the herb, fruit and nut shops of downtown Athens; a Greek friend of mine told me that the berries had had their heyday of popularity a couple of years back, but were no longer that much the rage in Greece.
Right near the Central Market, right on the same block, I was referred to a store selling honeys with remarkable healing virtues, including a honey that was – believe it or not – not sweet, but bitter! Needless to say, this was something I just had to check out for myself, and George, the sales person there, was only too happy to let me sample it. And – lo and behold, believe it or not – it actually was quite bitter; George’s touting of it had not been an exaggeration in the slightest. He told me it came from a plant called Koumaro, and he showed me a dried specimen of the Koumaro herb from which it came, which had fluff ball like fruit resembling those of the Sycamore tree, only dark brown. When I went to research this herb on the internet, all I could find was a certain kind of shiny bright red berry from a species of Arbutus, but this was obviously not the same Koumaro. What was even more amazing was that this Koumaro honey, as bitter as it was, and believe me, when I say something is bitter, it’s really bitter, was not pure as he sold it, but was actually mixed with a little honey from an herb whose Greek name was Reiki, to make it sweet enough to be palatable. Imagine – a honey that was so bitter in its pure state that even seasoned herbalists who are used to bitter herbs would have trouble stomaching it! George said that the Reiki herb and its honey was rich in iron, and was a great tonic for building bodily strength. But of course, my internet researches on this herb were similarly doomed to failure; for obvious reasons, all I could come up with in my internet searches were references to a Japanese system of spiritual healing! This honey store, with its incredibly bitter honey, that George told me was a tonic to lower blood sugar, was probably the most remarkable thing I found in my poking about in the herb markets. The store’s name is Aralus, and it is located at nr. 17 Sophokleus street, telephone number (0030)210-321-6863.
Poking around on the back streets of the Plaka district of downtown Athens, not far from Monastiraki square, I managed to find a store that specialized in herbal essential oils that was also quite remarkable. Not only did they have an incredible selection of natural herbal essential oils to choose from, from herbs that I had only read about, or species of herbs that I never knew even existed, but their essential oils were of exceptional purity and potency unlike anything I had ever seen before. Those who know their essential oils will know what I am talking about – you don’t want to even put a drop of pure, undiluted Thyme or Oregano oil on your tongue, much less the essential oil of the spicy Ajwain seed, because you’ll surely regret it, and go running for the fire extinguisher! I was hoping that I had saved the business card of this remarkable essential oil and aromatherapy store, but alas, I lost it. Anyway, seek and ye shall find, especially if you search the back streets of the Plaka district around a small square lined with restaurants, which it occupies a corner of.
The food that is generally available to tourists in such tourist hot spots as Athens is not only quite pricey, but it can also be not that great for your health, abandoning the principles of healthy, nutritious, wholesome cuisine for heavy sauces and exotic taste sensations that wow the taste buds, but leave you with indigestion and heartburn. Or, tourists visiting a city like Athens just grab a cheap, greasy Shawarma sandwich on the go, and then wonder why their stomach is tied in knots, and weighs them down like a ton of bricks! After a few days at the mercy of such gastronomic pirates, I was crying out for culinary mercy, and in came my naturopath friend, Matina, to my rescue. She took me to a charming little Taverna in the heart of the Psiri district, just a stone’s throw away from Monastiraki square, in the back streets below Athina street. Its name is simply Taverna Tou Psiri, or the Tavern of Psiri. Its telephone number is (0030)210-321-4923. We chowed down on tasty and healthy treats like stewed Dandelion greens doused in extra virgin olive oil, a green salad fresh from the garden, and grilled sardines. This was a great introduction to the real Greek cuisine for me, which, Matina explained, is not only tastily prepared with aromatic herbs and spices, but also healthy and fresh. As a naturopathic doctor, Matina firmly believes, as did Hippocrates, in the healing power of diet, and makes it the cornerstone of her healing practice. Just as the wrong kinds of food can make us sick, so can the right kinds of food make us well. Once Matina had shown me the Taverna’s location, I returned to it frequently, because I could count on it for a tasty, healthy, nutritious meal that was also reasonably priced.
If, by any chance or cause, be it culinary or otherwise, you should fall ill or prey to health problems while visiting Athens, be sure to give Matina Chronopulou a call, and she’ll set you back on the path to health and well being, starting with eating right. Her telephone number is (0030)210-640-0411.