|Crete's Culinary Sanctuaries
CL: Why Crete?
NR: There are two industries in Crete: tourism and agriculture. At least 70% of the population
is still involved in agriculture on a part-time basis after long days at other jobs. Now that's
dedication. Crete is a sanctuary for food lovers like me. There are still people who take the time
to produce their own olive oil, cheese, wine, honey, yogurt, breads – you name it. It’s an
incredible experience for visitors to spend time with dedicated producers and participate in
these everyday rural activities. We work with so many small-scale farmers to create strength in
numbers and promote their work. By rekindling interest in traditional trades, it is beneficial for
visitors and residents alike.
CL: What is agrotourism and how has this idea grown in the past few years?
NR: Agrotourism is a great way for visitors to really get to know the people of their host country
while simultaneously helping to preserve rural communities and culinary traditions. Food is the
window into other cultures. You can learn so much about people when you learn about their
culinary traditions. Those are the memories visitors cherish forever –meze with a local family in
a mountain village.
CL: Why is it important to you to preserve culinary traditions? Is it possible to do so without
focusing on the sustainable development piece?
NR: It’s pretty simple. Resort hotels pave over farmland, and farmers have to work in hotels.
Hotels don’t make a place special: the residents and natural beauty do. The Minoans had the
right idea: they had a great respect for Gaia (the goddess Earth) and her culinary bounties.
Food and water logically meant everything. Now, the future of Crete is unknown with haphazard
development and little thought for the future of her natural resources. Preserving culinary
traditions also preserves cultural traditions and the environment.
CL: You once wrote that people treat the water shortage like a “Greek myth.” Do you think
your work has helped put the agriculture of Crete on the map, so to speak? If so, how? And
if not yet, why not?
NR: Crete suffers from a seasonal drought, and her water resources are tapped to the limit.
New systems to reserve the winter rainwater need to be considered – the Minoans did that, but
their simple and effective methods are overlooked now! This is a fact that conservationists
(WWF-Hellas, Greenpeace-Greece, et al.) have been warning us about for eons. No one in a
decision-making position seems to be listening. Waterparks, swimming pools and golf
courses are still being built. Sustainable organic agriculture is a water-conserving system. The
more farmers there are using this method, the more water we will save.
CL: Does sustainable development lead to healthy diet? If so, how?
NR: Sustainable organic agriculture can only be achieved in a clean environment, so it all
works together. If the land, water and air are polluted, the plants that we eat are also polluted.
How does that affect us?
CL: When did you first become interested in sustainable agriculture and organic farming?
NR: I worked for Food & Drug lawyers when I was a kid back in the 1980s. I learned of the
darker side of agriculture and food production then. No one wanted to hear my horror stories of
slaughterhouse “incidents” or cases of fatal reactions to nitrates...As a professional chef, you’re
only as good as your ingredients. If you don’t do the research and get to know your farmers and
check out their operations, you’ll be stuck with average products. But it was not until I moved to
Crete and met farmers involved in sustainable organic farming, that I learned more about the
business from the ground up. There’s a lot more to it than pesticide-free cultivation: farmers
are creating harmony between the plants, the land and us.
CL: Tell me about the Slow Food movement. How does that play into your work in Crete?
NR: Ah, when Slow Food first contacted me back in 1999 to write a profile of a fisherman in
Crete, I thought, ‘Finally!’ A group that thinks the way I do – that small-scale farmers and high-
quality artisan producers are rapidly disappearing in the sea of low-quality, terrible tasting fast
food. Not only that, but the whole concept of enjoying food and family together was something
people had to remind other people to do!
I’ve written dozens of articles for Slow Food thus far. There’s a story around every corner. In
every small pocket of the globe, there’s a farmer, fisherman, cheesemaker, beekeeper who is
dedicated to making decent, clean food and always struggling to do it. Why? Because people
are so far removed from their food sources, it’s scary. We don’t know the people who provide
us with our daily bread, and we don’t know how bad things really are in industrial agriculture.
We are only vaguely aware of the effects that pesticides, GMO’s and growth hormones have on
our bodies and our environment.
High-quality, small-scale organic farmers are competing with these goliath producers that are
not concerned about soil health or the environment. “Conventionally grown” and heavily
subsidized food is less expensive, but consumers pay a bigger price in the long run with
contaminated land and food. Organic farmers have been telling us for decades that the price of
organic food is the real price of food. Slow has helped create the strength in numbers that
small-scale farmers need to carry on. They organize and support so many culinary preservation
and “slow living” projects, it’s daunting. I’m very much involved in these projects and have
linked small-scale Greek farmers to Slow’s educational seminars like Terra Madre. It was a
great experience for them to discover that 5,000 other farmers around the world shared the
same vision and obstacles.
CL: Did you begin your school with the idea to promote organic farming and protect the
natural resources of the island?
NR: Absolutely. But first and foremost is to promote the work of the people devoted to
traditional trades and cultivation techniques. The rest logically follows. People cultivated crops
without pesticides for thousands of years and had a great connection to the land and the value
of natural resources... We are in constant contact with conservation groups that have additional
resources to help make our programs as sustainable as they can possibly be. We are also
members of several responsible travel and conservation organizations and have received their
eco-stamps of approval for our work.
CL: Tell me about the program. How does it differ from traditional cooking classes offered
NR: Our programs cover the whole picture of Crete: culture, natural beauty, food and organic
gardening. Classes are taught exclusively by local experts who have a proven track record in
culinary-cultural preservation projects and sustainable tourism action programs. That includes
agronomists, members of local women’s agricultural cooperatives, musicians and local
outdoor adventure companies. Members of the academic community teach the subjects of
archeology, botany and nutrition. We are directly supporting the work of our local experts.
Our programs are designed to be informative, professional and fun. They are also tailored to
beginning and intermediate levels in both cooking and gardening. For professional chefs who
attend, our programs are approved by the American Culinary Federation for 30 continuing
education credit hours, which is significant.
CL: There are only 8 students per class. What is the benefit in keeping the number so low?
NR: Several reasons. We instinctively follow the concept of ecotourism. The population of the
villages we spend time in is so small that it would be ridiculous to bring a busload of visitors.
We want our students to be participants, rather than observers. For the type of classes we
teach, students greatly benefit from small, intimate groups and the exchange of ideas. Our
exclusive tours are meant for visitors who really want to know the people of Crete and all the
wonderful things the island has to offer.
CL: What types of meals are prepared? Does it depend on the season and what is available?
NR: Life truly revolves around the seasons. First we show our students how the food is grown
and produced. Then we show them how to prepare it. When you dine in the villages, the only
store-bought items are the tableware! Even the salt is collected from secret coves. Each
season in Crete holds something new...Because Crete is blessed with a long, dry cultivation
season, the produce has a chance to develop intense flavor and color. Our organic gardens
offer an incredible variety of fruits and vegetables to choose from. Local chefs teach us to eat
the way they do – let the true flavors shine on their own without much flash. There is nothing like
fresh mizithra cheese and olive oil straight from the spigot on a crunchy piece of homemade
dakos bread with a sprinkling of wild oregano. It’s even better when you participated in making
or collecting some of the ingredients. In the springtime, there’s lamb on the spit, snails and
horta (wild greens). Summer is for beekeeping and winemaking. During the winter, the island
becomes one huge olive oil production operation. Villagers work around the clock in their
CL: When did you start cooking?
When I could reach the stove. In the old holiday photos, I’m never just relaxing on the couch with
a nice glass of wine: I’ve got my hands in a bowl of spinach or I’m serving baklava. I took many
cooking classes in San Francisco and Paris just for fun during the time I worked at the law firm.
Then I took the plunge into professional cooking and left my seemingly cushy office job for the
Culinary Institute of America. After that, I did what every competing chef should do and studied
in France for a year. My family thought I was crazy. We are the typical Greek-Americans –
everyone was in the restaurant business and did not want their children to suffer through that
CL: What is your cookbook about? When and where (U.S. or Greece) will it be published?
NR: The book is a series of short of profiles of my friends in Crete – Yiorgos the farmer,
Andonis the fisherman, Manolis the cheesemaker. Some of the stories have been published in
Slow Food. I weave in visits to ancient sites, celebrations, food, wine and raki. I take my
readers to the village and the residents tell the stories. The book mirrors our seminars – it’s
good info for armchair travelers and visitors to Crete. I include recipes, but Cretan food is so
simple, some of the stuff is humorous to print: Cabbage salad, sliced tomatoes! It’s cultural-
culinary travel, which is what people do anyway; it has just never been defined that way.
[CCS thanks Greek Circle for permission to reprint this article. Greek Circle is based in
Chicago, Illinois, www.greekcircle.com]