The Search for the Perfect Souvlaki/Giros/Kebab
We all have one - a holy grail dining experience upon which all other dining experiences are consciously (or subconsciously) compared to. If you don't, then count your lucky stars because each and every meal you consume is not judged against some unreasonably high benchmark set by an idyllic culinary moment, forever immortalised in your memory. For the rest of us, however, we suffer from the knowledge of what could be. No matter how fresh the ingredients or how meticulously prepared your next meal will be, it will likely never measure up to this one meal frozen in time - the dictionary definition of perfection.
The meal itself might not have been spectacular by any definition. Sometimes it's about the simple pleasures of fresh ingredients and balance. My most memorable dish is not remarkable ...except that it was. It was a simple panini in Assisi, Italy. I was on a tour of Italy with my year 12 Italian class. We were on our way to Florence and we had stopped in this small Tuscan village for some sightseeing and to break up the long bus ride. It was a sunny day, I remember that well. The group has assembled in a square, we were given instructions to go buy some lunch and meet back in the middle. I found a small sandwich shop and made my selection. A ciabatta panini with tomato, mozzarella and basil. Nothing was ever the same again. Every one of those four elements was perfect. From first bite to last, I was convinced that I'd never had a more satisfying meal in my life. And as time has passed (10 years to be exact), I've yet to find anything that compares. I've never been back to Assisi but even if I did, I'm certain I would never find that sandwich shop again.
My partner Sean has his own holy grail - a souvlaki in Athens. The freshest ingredients, the exact balance of flavours - perfection in every bite. I've heard it recounted many times, the insurmountable perfection of this one particular souvlaki, often after consumption of a different souvlaki, 'It’s good, but I've had better'.
And when we started to plan our trip to Athens, it was not long before he had located the area of his beloved souvlaki on google maps, and estimated the travel time to it from our accommodation - the holy grail almost within his grasp once more. It must be said that his experience with this souvlaki was less fleeting than with my beloved panini. On his previous trip he had tasted many other souvlakis before being pointed in the direction of this particular souvlaki shop. After that point, it was the only souvlaki he ate. You can't top perfection, after all. Time and time again, the souvlaki failed to disappoint.
We arrived in Athens. On our way to our first tourist site, the Acropolis Museum, we made one quick stop. But not at THE souvlaki shop. One pork souvlaki later and I was filled with joy by the freshness of the tomato, the softness of the pita, the generous heaping of chopped parsley. Sean's verdict, 'It's really good, but wait until you try THE souvlaki'.
We explored the museum for a few hours (a must-see if you visit Athens) and then headed towards the marketplace. We stopped on the way for a coffee before plotting our next move - to THE souvlaki place. We arrived at the square. We walked down and then up (he could only identify it from one direction) and once he'd settled on having found it, we ordered pork gyros. Not a souvlaki, you ask? Well, there was some confusion over what is a souvlaki, a gyros and a kebab (you can get the break down here) and Sean had found himself at a loss for what he'd actually eaten five years ago but from our first souvlaki earlier in the day, he had decided that it was not skewered meat as found in souvlaki. Back to the gyros.
It was prepared at lightning speed to Sean's disappointment. We took our gyros to the square, sat down and had our first bites. The bread was crispy on the outside and chewy in the inside - just the way you want it. There was a generous lathering of cucumbery tzatziki and tasty shaved pork. Add to that a touch of tomato and rings of red onion and you had one tasty gyros. Sean's verdict? 'It's not the one'. Convinced we'd found the right shop, he settled that the method of making the gyros had changed, it was too quick, there was no even distribution of tomato, it lacked the paprika chips that he remembered so well. He was perfectly satisfied but in equal measure, completely unsatisfied. 'Maybe it was the wrong shop?', I suggested. 'Maybe the shop across the street?'. No, he assured me, it had to have been the right one.
But, a new day in Athens, a new souvlaki/gyros. In one last solid attempt to reclaim the holy grail, we endeavoured to try the shop across from the street. Apparently voted third best in Athens, it would surely not disappoint, even if it wasn't THE one.
We sat down and were about to order a souvlaki when our waiter informed us that they were famous for kebabs. So, two kebabs please! They arrived, we took our first mouthful. Our resident Greek wrap connoisseur's verdict? 'This is it.'
But not quite. While satisfied that this was exactly the right place, with the right meat, the recipe had changed. No paprika chips and no tzatziki. Satisfying, but not entirely. But the question remains, even prepared in exactly in the same way, could the reality ever truly live up to the memory?
The short answer? Probably not. I'm not sure that any meal, no matter the quality, can ever live up to the impenetrable memory of holiday perfection. But even so, he looks pretty happy with this close second.