Monday, March 01, 2010


I ascribe my love of the Varvakeios Market in central Athens to my unworldly fascination with meat in its original raw form. To see prime cuts of meat, resplendent with real marbling, unshorn and unsullied by the ravages of the healthy heart fascists is to return to mankind’s felicitous, primeval state. In the Varvakeios, there are none of the contrived and artificial window displays that blight boucheries in this country with pseudaesthetics that divorce cows from their constituent parts. Instead, meat is displayed as it is meant to be, hanging unapologetically raw and in vast chunks, upon hooks that provide convenient landing pads for flies. The Varvakeios, with its labyrinth of stores, proprietors calling out their wares and inobtrusive kitchens, the oinomageiria, specialising in the preparation of mouth-watering morsels of offal certainly comes close to my idea of Paradise, or at least its exonarthex. I remember having a particularly heated discussion about the relative merits of eating sturgeon caviar with a ceramic spoon as opposed to a metal one with a particularly aggressive nano-Russian that was only quelled when two steaming bowl of patsa were produced from the bowels of the kitchen. Life is too short to argue culinaria when your olfactory nerves are being assaulted in such an inexorable manner.
The Varvakeion gets its name from a school built close to the site by one of the great benefactors of the Greek nation, Ioannis Varvakis, who was determined that underprivileged children should have the opportunity to have be best education. Typically, the school was gutted during the Greek Civil War and was finally pulled down in 1956. Nonetheless, Ioannis Varvakis remains, not only a successful businessman and philanthropist, but also a freedom-fighter and founder of the Russian caviar industry, and thus, a culinary giant in his own right.
Varvakis was born on the island of Psara, as Ioannis Leontides, adopting the name Varvakis as a nom de guerre after joining the Filiki Etaireia. His mother later cloistered herself in a monastery in Khios, where she died during the Khios Genocide of 1822.
The exuberance and precocity of Varvakis was evident from his youth. By the age of seventeen, he had already become a skilful sailor and built a ship, the St. Andrew, which he later offered with his crew to the Russian forces during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774. He spent his entire fortune to equip the ship and to arm it with cannons and showed extraordinary courage during the Battle of Çeşme in July 1770. As one of the first bourlotierides, he transformed his vessel into a fire ship, packing it with combustibles, setting it on fire and steering it into a large Turkish ship. The Russo-Turkish war did not give independence to Greece, as the Ottomans signed the Treaty of Kuçuk Kainarji in 1774, which granted Russia the northern part of the Black Sea and the right to intercede on behalf of the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire. The repression of Greeks who had supported the Russians in the aftermath of the war, caused a mass exodus of Greeks to Russia.
Totally penniless, Ioannis Varvakis decided to seek an audience with Empress Catherine the Great. Travelling to Saint Petersburg, he met with Grigori Potemkin, Russian general-field marshal, statesman,favorite of Catherine, and noted philhellene, who arranged the audience with the Empress of Russia. After waxing enthusiastically about the commercial potential of the Caspian Sea, a Sea that had only recently been wrested from Ottoman and Tartar armies, Catherine the Great proved particularly generous giving Varvakis 1,000 golden roubles as a gift and an authourisation for unlimited and duty-free fishery in the Caspian Sea and the right to choose a place to settle in Russia. He also received an official patent signed by Catherine the Great, proving that Ivan Andreevich Varvatsi (his new Russian name) was named first lieutenant of the Russian Navy on October 21, 1772.
From Saint Petersburg, Varvakis, like a Veritable Odysseus, left for Astrakhan to develop a fishery, despite the fact he had no prior experience in this field. In the northern Caspian Sea his fishery enterprise soon made him a millionaire. The boats of Varvakis caught vast quantities sturgeon, white salmon and other valuable fish. Knowing the passion of Greeks for caviar, he pioneered the exporting of caviar to Europe. Ingeniously, Varvakis invented a solution to preserve the freshness of the caviar eggs through watertight packaging. Varvakis shipped caviar from Astrakhan to Greece by camel or by boat through the Volga river. By 1788, his business employed more than 3,000 workers.
In 1810, Varvakis was granted the title of hereditary nobleman with a family coat of arms by Alexander I of Russia, who also made him Court Counsel and decorated with a diamond Order of St. Anne awarded for exceptional services and the Order of St. Vladimir. In 1812, he moved to the city of Taganrog, populated by Greek colonists who, like the Greeks of classical times, took refuge from poverty or tyranny in townships around the northern Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, a particular pet project of Potemkin’s. In 1813, Varvaki spent 600,000 rubles for construction of Greek Jerusalem Monastery in Taganrog. Such was his prestige that when Alexander I died, his funeral service was chanted in this monastery.
Upon the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Ioannis Varvakis actively assisted the cause, especially his home island of Psara. After the destruction of the island by the Turkish Fleet, he returned to Greece himself in 1824 to aid the refugees, and died on Zakynthos on 10 January 10 1825. Varvakis desired to promote education for the new Greek state, and in his will he left 1 million rubles for the building of the Varvakeion high school, designed by leading neo-classical architect Panagiotis Kalkos. Varvakis also financed the building of my place of nirvana, the Varvakeios Agora.
The descendance of Varvakis' noble name throughout the ages was continued through the female line. His first daughter, Maria Varvakis who was born in 1770, married Greek merchant Nikolay Ivanovich Komnino Since he had no sons, and willing to honor the name for the future generations, Ioannis Varvakis addressed to his patron, Catherine the Great, a request to permit his daughter Maria have a double name, that is the family name of Varvakis, her father, and that of her husband, Komnino. Catherine II granted his appeal, creating the noble family of Komnino-Varvatsi. All sons of Maria and Nikolay Komnino-Varvatsi (Ivan, Yegor, Mark, Kozma and Andrey) were granted noble titles by the Yekaterinoslav Government decree of April 25, 1821, paying tribute to achievements and contributions made by their grandfather, Ioannis Varvakis. The family was to continue the caviar trade until it became synonymous with grand Russian luxury.
The gilded salons of Holy Mother Russia are a far cry from the dingy and worn down corridors of the Varvakeios. Nonetheless, far too little homage is paid to those sensitive few who, self-effacingly aggrandize themselves while at the same time, generously providing for the kitchen tables of all. Varvakis was such a man and if we do not all partake of caviar, mindful of the alteration of its chemical composition when in contact with metal, if the streets of Athens no longer flow with largess in the form of the spawn of the sturgeon, he cannot be blamed. Noel Coward once opined that wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar, not spread around like marmalade. Eisenhower observed that some people ate caviar when all they deserved were hot dogs. It is unknown whether this was a prophetic utterance in the light of Greece’s parlous financial situation. One thing is certain however. The way forward if there is one, lies through fish roe. Varvakis proves this. If indeed «τα κάναμε σαλάτα,» then is it not axiomatic that we convert it to one of the tarama variety?


First published in NKEE on 1 March 2010