Monks are grossly misrepresented by popular culture. Most will associate ‘convent’ with prayer, toil, humility and a life dedicated to a higher power. History begs to differ, as it’s monks in convents who invented Belgian ales, most forms of hard liquor known to man, several gambling systems still in use today, and the basic principles of genetics, the latter likely on a slow day while they watched all the booze mature.
Not surprisingly, it’s the Orthodox monks from Mount Athos, the holiest mountain in the holiest peninsula in Greece who brought us Tsipouro, a powerful distilled spirit made from what’s left of grapes after they are pressed for wine. Tsipouro came in two versions: pure, aniseed flavored. You may know the aniseed variant of Tsipouro as ‘Ouzo’.
There is a place in Greece in which all this is more than ancient history. There is a wonderful place in Greece in which Ouzo is for silly city boys, and real men still drink Tsipouro, pure, as god and carburetor engineers intended.
The place is Thessaly, where the cult of tsipouro is still very much alive, and associated with most peculiar little tavernas called ‘tsipouradikos’, which literally means ‘tsipouro places’.
On the Eastern coast of Greece, roughly halfway between Athens and Thessaloniki, one can find Larisa and Volos. One is a stolid business place run by level-headed farmers and industrious types; the latter is a seaside resort in the shadow of Pelion, the mountain that gave rise to the legend of centaurs, which should tell you everything you need to know about the local boys.
These neighboring cities could not be any more different, but share a love for Tsipouro served in a truly unique way. Tsipouradikos abound in both cities and along gorgeous windswept Aegean seaside. Volos alone had over 300 on the latest count in 2009.
Strolling down the waterfront in Volos presents one with an impressive array of the trendiest, flashiest tsipouradikos. Dotted amongst them are normal tavernas and bars, but ignore those and focus on the lively places with long rows of rough wooden tables, covered in simple white paper tablecloths.
Finding a place that suits your fancy and sitting down at a free table is about as far as your knowledge of restaurants will take you, here. You see, this is a taverna where you don’t order food. In a tsipouradiko, you order rounds of Tsipouro only.
Tsipouro is served in traditional 25cl bottles, or straight from a jar if you elect to try the “local” stuff, alongside a bottle of cold water, a bucket of ice and, as a treat, two to four plates of starters. Hardened drinkers can stomach it, but most sane people use water to dilute the tsipouro. The water fills the glass with gracious milky clouds that many Ouzo drinkers may recognize.
Tsipouro is a strong, 40 proof spirit, and the aniseed gives it a sweet, fresh edge that is a pure godsend on hot summer days. Maybe that’s what inspired the monks, but I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. For some of us who were raised on aniseed candy in the seventies, each glass sip a powerful reminder of childhood, as well as enough alcohol to fell an ox.