Gourmet excursion in Oakleigh

The food-savvy VICTORIA KYRIAKOPOULOS finds a special food trail with The Sweet Greek.

The aromas of butchers’ barbeques waft through Oakleigh’s bustling market strip as Vicki Peppos leads a curious group of foodies through the customary Saturday morning crowds.

Ducking trolley-wielding elderly shoppers, Peppos points out a truck unloading Easter tsourekia, swings past her favourite butcher, who makes organic loukanika, and pops in to Cosmos deli for some cheese tasting. “Is it always this busy here?” asks one member of the tour group, most of whom have come from the likes of South Yarra, Brighton and Ormond to explore Oakleigh’s gourmet delights.

“Today’s actually quiet,” Peppos replies. “Just wait until Easter when everyone is out and you see men everywhere with whole lambs strapped on their shoulders.”

Peppos, 36, grew up in Oakleigh, so it was a natural location for her new venture, The Sweet Greek, launched as part of last month’s Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

“It’s fun for people to see Oakleigh because you get that atmosphere, especially on a Saturday when everyone is out shopping,” she says. “It’s the closest thing to Greece that we’re ever going to get in a concentrated hot spot.”

This is the second week of The Sweet Greek’s tours and cooking classes. Peppos says more than 60 people have participated in events held over two weeks. The tours sold out the first week.

“It’s been a real blast. Being part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival was a great way to get people in the door,” she says.

“It’s been a mixed group of participants. There was a Greek guy and his Australian fiance who wanted to learn Greek dishes but the majority have been older and come from the inner more affluent suburbs.

“They are very obviously into food culture and very well travelled, with great travel stories.

“Today’s group of 10 includes Joanne Stephens and her husband Deryk, a retired investment banker from South Yarra.

They travelled to Greece in 1965 on the Patris and have fond memories of the place and the food – they even brought back a rotary spit from Athens on that trip.

“We never come to Oakleigh but now we will because all these shops look wonderful and we love to find new places,” she says.

Our group makes its way back across the railway line to The Sweet Greek kitchen, a sleek and inviting space with polished concrete floors, a 14-seater dining table in a front room lined with colourful shelves of Greek produce and cook books.

Out back in the demonstration kitchen, Peppos works her way through the day’s menu, a culinary journey which begins with Chios-style mousaka, followed by taramokeftedes from Komotini, wild green salad from Agrinio and halva from Crete.

The ingredients are from closer to home – the vlita freshly picked from her mother’s garden and the nettles gathered from the side of the Monash freeway (which she assures one alarmed participant, are perfectly safe to eat).

Peppos has a casual, conversational style and her passion and flair for home-style cooking shines through.

She jokes about being heavy handed with oil and salt, and encourages personal modifications to recipes.

Tips and questions are exchanged during the cooking demonstration, after which the group sits down to a hearty lunch. “Greek cooking is something close to my heart,” says Peppos, who honed her Greek language skills reading Vefa Alexiadou’s Greek recipe books and her cooking skills learning from her aunts, grandmother and mother-in-law.

After doing a course at William Angliss about 13 years ago, Peppos teamed up with husband, Bill, doing catering for events. She also has a background in science and accounting, but says she always kept coming back to food.

For the past couple of years Peppos has run Greek cooking classes at the Council of Adult Education and Holmesglen TAFE.

“After doing the courses I thought what if I had my own kitchen and had a place where people could sit and eat properly afterwards, that felt like an extension of my home,” she explains.

The couple have spent the last few months creating such a space and are fine-tuning the year’s program, which includes special Easter classes and filo making lessons.

“I’m still getting my head around what people like doing and what sort of recipes they want, so it will evolve.”

As Megan Peck, 36, a mother-of-two from Brighton, leaves with Greek cookbook in hand in search of a drum of Cretan Olive oil, it seems so will the popularity of Greek food.

The Sweet Greek is at 18a Haughton Road. Oakleigh (www.thesweetgreek.com.au).