Driving all the way to Roanoke for food and festivities may seem inconvenient, but when the experience brings about childhood memories, good fellowship and nostalgia, the long drive becomes a meaningless side note.
Growing up attending the annual Greek Festival at St. Katherine’s Greek Orthodox Church in Arlington, Va., I had long awaited the opportunity to return to the Mediterranean cultural scene. In the spring, when I found out about the Roanoke Greek Festival — voted Best Food Festival in Southwest Virginia by “Virginia Living” — I could hardly wait for fall to come.
The Roanoke Greek Festival took place this year, September 14, 15 and 16, at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. The event offered games and activities for kids, live entertainment, music, dancing, vendors, and of course, food. The authentic Greek cuisine is undoubtedly the staple of Greek festivals, and this one did not deviate from expectations.
With classic dishes like gyros and souvlaki, and more exotic ones like moussaka and spanakopita, there was a wide range of options for any appetite. I split a variety of dishes with my group of friends, so we could capture the diverse range of flavors.
I started with a Greek salad, a classic appetizer blending a savory Greek dressing with iceberg lettuce, onion, tomato and feta cheese. Then, I had two famous pastries — spanakopita and tiropita — which pack a blend of cheeses (and spinach for the spanakopita) into a thin, crispy outer shell.
For the main dish, we split a gyro; you cannot go to a Greek festival and not get a gyro — which, by the way, is pronounced “hiro” — and a slice of moussaka. A gyro is a warm pita filled with lettuce, tomato, onion, “tzatziki” (a special Greek sauce made with cucumber base) and the choice meat, which, in this case, was lamb — a staple often used in Greek cuisine, as well as my favorite meat.
As I sampled bites of my friend’s gyro, my taste buds were satisfied with a layering of flavors: crunchy and soft, warm and cool, and savory and salty.
The moussaka — a lasagna-type dish with noodles, cheese, eggplant and beef — was also a pleasant surprise. While I was all too familiar with the gyro, I'd never had moussaka, which is surprising considering my Greek background.
Very similar to lasagna, this dish offered a balanced meal with grains, vegetables, meat and dairy with a taste that did not disappoint.
We complemented our meal with a side of dolmades, a grain blend wrapped in grape leaves, which balanced the soft, chewy grain texture with the crunchy, outer leaves.
Finally, we finished off the meal with loukoumades: small, fried dough balls dipped in a sweet syrup and covered with cinnamon and brown sugar. Despite being extremely unhealthy, the loukoumades are worth a try and it only takes a few to satisfy. Each bite is filled with warm, gooey dough with a hint of sweetness.
The food was great, taking me back to childhood memories of attending these festivals with my grandparents, who grew up in Greece. I suspect if they were there with me, they would have granted their stamp of approval.
When we finished our meal, we explored the “agora,” or in other words, the marketplace. We were pleasantly surprised with the diverse selection, offering a variety of goods such as coffee, olive oil, handcrafted jewelry, oil paintings and Greek Orthodox books.
The vendors were nice and were actually Greek, unlike waiters at Olive Garden who claim to be Italian. From the delicious food, genuine vendors, and plentiful marketplace, this was an authentic Greek festival through and through.
We ended the evening listening to Greek music and watching various dance ensembles, featuring giddy children showing off their unique talents.
With the high expectations I put on this event, it was extremely enjoyable and succeeded in creating an atmosphere reminiscent of my youth and of Greek culture. The food was great, the volunteers were nice and the atmosphere was pleasant. I have my calendar marked for next year’s event, and my expectations will be mounting as the year goes on.