“There you go!” – The Greek Origins of Everyday Words

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words by Mihalis Boutaris

In the sequel of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, one of the grandsons of Gus, the stereotypical Greek-American patriarch, has fully adopted the habit of deriving the origins of any conceivable word of American English directly from ancient Greek. Upon explaining (in a most incredulous way) the etymology of a random word, he echoes his grandfather’s exclamation: “There you go!”

This exaggeration is one of the key triggers of laughter in both the original film and its sequel. It is also the reason my foreign friends often tease me… But there is some truth to it: More than 50,000 English words are transliterations of Greek words. Some are used mainly in scientific terminology, but many are used every day.

For the sake of continuing the fun, I picked out a few that are related to the world of food and wine. Here are some geeky ones that come to mind:

  • Ampelography: the science of identifying and classifying different vines and grape varieties. It stems from the words “ampelos” (άμπελος) [vine in Greek] and “graphy” (γραφή) [writing, record-keeping]
  • Microclimate: “micro” (μικρό) [little] + “climate” (κλίμα) [climate]. It is the divergence from the average climatic conditions of an area that apply only to one of its sub-regions because of localized weather phenomena, that only occur there due to some special land formation. Microclimates are particularly important for winemaking. Especially in Greece due to the prevalence of mountains and islands on a highly variegated terrain, one can be surprised by how cool a north-facing plateau could be in South Greece during a hot summer day or how humid a valley could be in an overall arid place. Grapevines do generally thrive anywhere in the world, but every microclimate gives rise to different grape and wine characteristics. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Greek word for climate (κλίμα) is so close to the word for grapevine (κλήμα)… They are both pronounced as “klima”, but written in a slightly different way for the “i” sound – climate sounding more like “klima” and grapevine more like “kleema”
  • Biodynamic: “bios” (βίος) [life] + «dynami” (δύναμη) [force]. Biodynamic wines are becoming more and more known. The theory behind them is based on the aspiration of a biodynamic winemaker to become a mere steward of the life force of a vineyard and winery with all the micro and macro factors that come into play, to produce a product that is as free from artificial interventions as possible.

Furthermore, there are some ordinary cases that are not readily recognizable as words that come from the wine culture of ancient Greeks. For instance:

  • Symposium: < symposio (συμπόσιο) < “syn” (συν) [plus, together, jointly, added] + “pinw” (πίνω) [to drink] = literally “to drink together”. Today the meaning of the word symposium is used almost exclusively for scientific conferences. In ancient Greece, but sometimes still in modern Greece, drinking wine together was not an end in itself, but a means of gaining knowledge. The subject was invariably philosophical, but at the time, philosophy was all about science and politics and any subject of discussion for that matter to find the best way to live. So a wine gathering was really a way to expand the horizons of the mind and through discussion come up with better ideas about which way of life was better, how one could solve a technical problem and so on and so forth. The role of the symposia was to promote the intellectual curiosity and emotional maturity of free-born citizens.
  • Gastronomy: gastronomia (γαστρονομία) < “gastra” (γάστρα) [belly] + “nomos” [law] = the rules of what and how one should eat and drink wine, since for Greeks wines have been always been considered part of food – not an alcoholic beverage. Wine styles in different parts of Greece are markedly different from each other and they all seem to be an ideal match to the local cuisine.
  • Tragedy: tragodia (τραγωδία) < “tragos” (τράγος) [male goat] + “ode” (ωδή) [ode, song, oration] = literally and metaphorically “tragedy”. Tragic poetry in classical times originates from prehistoric rituals associated with wine drinking. Goatskins were used in ancient times to store wine, as well as to make bagpipes. The combination of ecstatic music, wine-induced inebriety, and feasts was central to these “tragic” rituals – all related to goats. Goat milk was also a liquid of living force like wine governed by the force of Dionysus, the wine deity worshipped by ancient Greeks to assign meaning to the seemingly miraculous phenomenon of winemaking and its psychotropic effects.
  • Crater: “kratir” (κρατήρ) = ornate jug to mix water with wine. It was not until the Age of Enlightenment in West Europe that sulfites at very low concentrations started being used in wine to stop bacteria from turning wine into vinegar. Until then, the main method of preserving wine was to keep it sweet. Antique wines like the Greek Vinsanto, medieval wines like the Italian Vinsanto and Madeira were examples of how wine could keep its fruit and weather through highly oxidative conditions. A combination of high residual sugar and alcohol would mean that the symposia would end up being too short to reach the goal set for learning, so ancient Greeks used a “kratir” to dilute the potent wines of the time with water. The other side of the same coin was that wine was used to actually disinfect water and make it potable – they had realized that stagnant water which was the norm would most likely kill them, unless they mixed it with wine. A kratir could be quite big depending on the size of the drinking party. Some really big “kratires” must have inspired the first geologists to call craters by this name…

Finally, there is one more case I’d like to point out: the etymology of the word sommelier. It’s not Greek in any way, although the profession of the sommelier is as ancient as Greece. The job of the sommelier in ancient Greece was to know the origins of the wine, source it and store it much like today.

In addition, the job entailed blending the selected wine with water in a kratir at a dilution rate that would keep all the guests at the same pace of sobriety and extend the wine drinking gathering as late as possible. Part of the job was to keep the guests sober, but tipsy enough to keep the symposium going.

Inspiration and eloquence were the objectives of the symposium members and the sommeliers “oinochooi” had the responsibility to unleash the magical powers of wine to this end. The Greek word for sommelier is “oinochoos” < “oinos” (οίνος) [wine] + “heo” (χέω) [to pour]. If I were to ask Gus or his grandson to derive the word from Greek, they would probably come up with something as far-fetched as this: “sommelier” < “soma” (σώμα) [body] + “elia” (ελιά) [olive, olive tree] = young wine waiter as slender as the divine olive tree, the gift of Goddess Athena, pouring her wisdom into my wine cup!

There you go!

Wine Regions of Greece: Naoussa

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Naoussa, in the hills of Macedonia, is another wine region. It’s most famous for producing Xinomavro… the King of Greek grapes. We asked sommelier and consultant Kavita Faiella to tell us what she knows about this lovely place.

1. The wine region of Naoussa is located in the north of Greece in the greater area known as Macedonia

Macedonia is both a region in northern Greece, a country in south-east Europe (Republic of Macedonia) and an ancient kingdom (Alexander the Great). 

2. Naoussa is also famous for its stone fruits.

In summer you will find orchards full of peaches, plums and the most delicious cherries! Hence the jam brand Naousa is also famous across Greece.

3. The weather of Naoussa is largely influenced by Mount Vermion (2000m)

The Vermio Mountains are the home of Greece’s ski resorts. That’s right – you can can ski in Greece!

4. Naoussa is the home of Xinomavro

Xinomavro, a tannic red varietal, is thought of as the King of Greek grapes, whose Queen is most certainly Assyrtiko. 

5. Wines of Naoussa are often referred to as ‘Greek Burgundy’.

The region produces some of the country’s most elegant and age-worthy wines made from Xinomavro, which are also lighter in colour.

6. Xinomavro literally translates to acid (xino) black (mavro) or black acid…

Sounds more like a heavy metal band, but also gives you an indication of the high acid levels of this wine. 

7. Just like oysters and Chablis or hot chips and Champagne…

The perfect pairing for Xinomavro is lamb. Bring on the souvlaki!

Wine Regions of Greece: Santorini

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One of the best-known wine producing regions in Greece (and one of the best-known regions in Greece in general) is Santorini. We asked Kavita Faiella, sommelier and consultant at Voyageur Selections, to tell us what she knows about this beautiful island.

1. Santorini is an island located in the Aegean Sea

Greece has 6000 islands scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian Seas…of which only 227 are inhabited. 

2. The ancient name for Santorini is Thera.

There are indications that wine has been produced on the island for over 3500 years!

3. Santorini is a volcanic island that is still active…

In 1630 BC the volcano on the island erupted, revealing its core – the caldera. The whole island was covered ash and pumice 40 meters deep!

4. The soil of Santorini is made up of the same volcanic pumice you use to scrub your feet with in the shower!

Kind of gross… but actually really important. The island is super dry, so when it rains the pumice acts like a sponge soaking up all of the moisture and slowly releases it back to the vines when they need it throughout the year.

5. In winter, Santorini is CRAZY windy.

The winter winds that hit the island are so strong that the grape vines are trained in small baskets rather than the usual rows you might be accustomed to seeing in other wine regions. 

6. On the island of Santorini vines are grown in Koulores (rings) or Kakthia (baskets).

A traditional training technique that protects the vines from strong winds in the winter and intense sunlight in the summer. The upper part of the vine is usually replaced every 15-20 years, but the roots below the ground can be centuries old! It’s the only place in the world where vines are grown like this. 

7. The three main white grape varieties of Santorini all start with A.

Assyrtiko, Aidani, Athiri

8. Assyrtiko is the most planted variety in Santorini and arguably the most well known Greek grape.

It makes super delicious wine. The first planting of Assyrtiko outside of Greece can be found here in Australia’s own Clare Valley.

9. They also make sweet wine in Santorini – Vinsanto (Vino di Santorini)

Produced from sun-dried grapes that bake over summer – just like the tourists visiting the island!

Angie Giannakodakis on Greek Culture

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Angie Giannakodakis is Melburnian, but she’s also third-generation Cretan and has spent over a decade living in Athens. Her two restaurants, Carlton’s Epocha and Camberwell’s Elyros, are involved with Oinofilia, so who better to talk to us about Greek culture and its expression in Melbourne than her?

Melbourne has a huge Greek population. How similarly does Greek culture play out here to how it does in the motherland?

Family and duty is pretty huge on the Greek spectrum, so I think that sense is the same here and in Greece. Most Greek-Australians have a nostalgic attachment to the homeland, they’re very much into their meat and foraging, they still have their traditions and religion, they still go to church, they still dance like they used to dance, nothing’s changed as far as that’s concerned. They’ll fast right up until just before Easter. So that’s been kept up. I remember fasting and being really upset about it!

What’s changed?

I guess when we came here there was a need to work, there was a need to prosper, and a need to evolve and continue the race, really. We still have our spirit – the spirit of Greece is still strong in us. But I think we don’t always understand why. Some of the younger generation don’t understand why we celebrate the 25th March (Independence Day) or the 28th October (Oxi Day). So there’s a lot of information some of us have missed out on, a lot of history, a lot of culture unique to us.

There is this perception that because we still dance, we still eat souvlaki, we’re temperamental and we use our hands, that that’s all there is. But that’s just a basic way of looking at things. In Greece, students study Ancient Greek, they write in different languages, they’re educated to a point where it’s crazy. But they understand life better than we do, they understand how precious it us. We get caught up in the rat race here more than they do. They still find time to have a coffee in the morning with their friends, to take a holiday break around August. Their work ethic is intact, but their mental health is completely different. They’re thinkers, definitely.

What about Greek food?

The dishes are similar but the way we eat here is maybe a little different. If you went to someone’s house, they wouldn’t start off with bread and all the dips and fry some cheese up, it’s not sustainable for a Greek household. During the winter time you’d get a casserole dish, something quite hearty. In summer, maybe some stuffed tomatoes and peppers, your Greek salad or seafood, just really simple with olive oil. We still go through quite a lot of olive oil in Australia which is a good thing.

What do you want people to take away from Oinofilia?

I want people to think that Greece is something that’s part of them. If one of the first European cities was Knossos in Crete, and we are the original Europeans, and we are the beginning of Western civilization as we know it, there must be something that ties all of us together. The reason lots of what’s done in cuisine and wine is a direct link to the ancient world of Greece. And there are other similarities. If I went to a wine bar in Greece right now (and there’s shitloads of wine bars over there right now), there would be young people drinking glasses of wine and socialising and enjoying life, and they’d have the same viewpoints about the world as the Australians do.

Half the English language is based on Greek, too, so in a way, Australians actually speak Greek. So many words that we use… even the word ‘dialogue’ is Greek. My favourite is ‘symposium’ which means ‘a drinking party’ in Greece. The original sommeliers came from that drinking party. The symposiarch was in charge of keeping things in good spirits, he would source and serve wine and manage the whole process of the party. That’s your modern day somm.

Basically I don’t want anyone to think that Greece is a foreign world. I want everyone to feel like they’re part of it. They should feel like the modern Greeks. It’s a state of mind and not a citizenship.