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Crete's Culinary Sanctuaries

Articles by Nikki Rose
Copyright © 2004 Nikki Rose. All rights reserved

My first trip to Anogia was on a very hot August day. My partner, Panos, and I piled
into the car with our friend, Nikos, and his family too early one Sunday morning for
our long-anticipated visit to his home village. From the coastal city of Iraklio, we
headed southwest toward the center of Crete and her highest mountain (Mt. Psiloritis
at 2456m in the Idi range), where Anogia lies cradled in the foothills. The rural area
above Iraklio was peaceful with gorgeous views of the sea.  The road steadily climbs
and curves through vineyards, olive groves and orchards with huge fig trees
hovering over the path.

The landscape changed once we entered a deep, rocky gorge where only the goats
can manage the terrain.  The road was chiseled out midway through the range with
scarcely enough space for two-way traffic -- the sheer drop below was a good
substitute for the coffee jolt I was craving. My friends who live here thought nothing of
it, chattering away about rabbit hunting while I was holding my breath.

As we followed the sharp contours of the mountain, I wondered how on earth people
could survive in such an isolated area, especially before automobiles and paved
roadways. People have inhabited in this area for at least four thousand years,
retreating further and further inland from the long list of invaders throughout history.
Traveling on foot or donkey would have been a Herculean journey, and the thought
of how the ancients constructed stone temples and cities on a sheer precipice was
daunting. Not only was/is Crete a beautiful island and agricultural-trade center but it
is also a strategic point between Europe, Africa and Asia. Hence, the desire to
occupy the island was great.

There are several ancient sites in this area that have been discovered to date in
Axos, Gonies, Idian Cave and Tylissos to name a few, and somehow you can feel it -
passing the caves and crumbling rock structures, imagining what life was like with
people tending to their farms, much as they do today. The sites and stories are
infinite in this area and a visit to Knossos just scratches the surface. At the edge of
the gorge, little pockets of civilization began to appear again with villages suspended
on cliffs and crops descending the slopes. Climbing further above the clouds, we
reached Anogia.

We arrived to the sound of the village priests, chanting from the church altar into a
modern PA system, which echoed throughout the village. The main square was
empty, except for a few shopkeepers, tourists and rebellious grandfathers sipping a
little something to get them going. We took a stroll around the village, passing
houses with beautiful aromas wafting through the kitchen windows; comforting scents
of chicken broth, roast lamb, pork or fish. The humble abodes along the edge of the
village have rooftops level with the road - tricky construction. Some rooftops are
good for chickens to loiter on, others were resting areas for goats. I nearly tripped
over a goat hoof in the road - you won't see that kind of litter in Manhattan.

Anogia is not a small village with a current population of about 3,000, although it
feels cozy tucked into the mountain's arm with narrow, twisting streets which lessens
the chance of unnerving motorbikes speeding past. It's also a very stylish village with
some swank restaurants and cafes, giving it a cosmopolitan feel on certain corners.
You could easily lose track of time in one of the tavernas overlooking the tranquil
valley and slopes. As this is a farming community, the food is fantastic. Everything
you eat is raised and produced in the village and anyone who makes it has had
generations of instruction. There's no need to explain on taverna menus that your
lamb or chicken is "free range" or that your salad is made with fresh-picked "field"
greens. The olive oil, olives, vinegar, wine, cheeses and breads served are quite
possibly produced by the taverna owners. This concept is a tad different from the
term "house made" liberally used on big-city menus.

We stopped off for ice coffee at the home of one of the many great musicians from
Anogia, Nikos Xylouris, who passed away 20 years ago. The first floor of his family's
tiny house is adorned with concert posters and memorabilia. Nikos' brother, Andonis,
is also a popular musician today and some say he's the best lyre player in Crete. His
sisters run the museum/café and they were a delight, reminiscing while playing a few
requests of beautiful songs. We had conflicting surround-sound with the church
chanting in the background.

Cretan music is distinctly different from the rest of Greece, the lyre being the
prominent strings and foreign influences minimal, they say. A style called rizitika, is
like interactive theater or poetry-music with a strong-voiced storyteller accompanied
by a steady background rhythm and what seems to be casual comments thrown in by
nearby villagers. The Blues existed long before American recording studios. The
music topics range from the popular subject of love lost, found or hiding to
celebrations, but the songs about life's struggle, farming and fighting for freedom are
very telling and an important part of the oral archives of the history of Crete.

We sat outside Xylouris' house in the shade facing the square and watched the
farmers deliver their produce to the shopkeepers in pickup trucks brimming with
melons, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and onions. Heated discussions ensued
over the quality and price of the day. Other shops had whimsical textiles hanging
from their awnings; weaving is a noted trade here.

There are several bronze statues of war heroes and memorials in Anogia, reminders
of the many battles fought for freedom at various periods in time. In fact, throughout
history, the people of this village have fought off unwelcome visitors with great
courage and ingenuity.  In 1944, the entire village was destroyed by the Germans
due to the dauntless resistance tactics of the villagers yet there were few casualties.
Villagers found refuge in the caves of their great mountain, and managed to survive
off the land. Many Cretans were killed during the occupation but some heroes
survive to this day. You can see a special glint of strength and pride in the bright
eyes of the older villagers.

Once the church services concluded, people filed out onto the square to take their
usual seats at the kafenia for the traditional Sunday visit while others disappeared
through one of the pathways - we went to the taverna up the hill to join Nikos’ his
family. There were plenty of refreshing cold vegetable plates lining our buffet-table,
plus a little grilled lamb and pork, potatoes, cheeses and bread. Our feast lasted
many hours and we had a wonderful time chatting about family, food, farming and
music -- all the things that are important in life.

Few of the younger generation are interested in farming, and their parents are proud
that they were able to send them to university to study computer science and other
modern-world trades. However, people are concerned for the future of their
communities, as well as the quality of life and the food their children will be eating in
the big cities. The concept of chemicals in foods, hormones and tainted animal feed
is illogical and frightening to these traditional farmers. They wonder how people can
be so complacent – I could offer no explanation. Unfortunately, we had to drive home
that evening but promised to return for a long visit - which we did on New Year's Eve.

The winter season in Crete this past year was uncommonly rainy, windy and cold with
plenty of snowfall in the mountains. On the trip up the mountain road the landscape
had changed to lush green and threatening deep purple storm clouds engulfed the
peaks. From this altitude you can see the storm system moving through the area,
sparing one village then bombarding another with hail and giant bolts of lightening.
Luckily, we missed the action.

Once we reached Anogia and the home of our friends, all was warm and festive.
Nikos’ parents are sweet people and big jokesters. The children have inherited their
sense of humor and the house was filled with joy and laughter. I took a little stroll with
the children down their narrow street overlooking the valley and stopped to watch a
baby black goat jumping around its' mother in an adorable high jack-knife leap. The
children looked at me with cocked heads, "What do you find so interesting about that
goat?  Haven’t you ever seen one before?"  

When we got back to the house, they had transformed the small sitting room into a
taverna. A round table appeared in the center of the room packed with plates of food
- olives, fresh-picked wild greens, mizithra cheese (my absolute favorite, how'd they
guess?) which is a delicious soft, mild fresh sheep's milk cheese that can be eaten
straight with a sprinkling of salt as was here, or used interchangeably in savory or
sweet pies (a little like ricotta, but better). Center-stage was the loukanika (cured
sausage), which is produced all over Greece, but the recipe and curing method
varies depending on the region and climate. Cretan loukanika has a strong bite of
vinegar (no need for mustard with this sausage) and the spiced pork stuffing is
cubed, rather than ground, great in small doses.

We each went through at least half a loaf of beautiful sesame-crusted stone-oven
baked bread and washed it all down with many toasts of rich homemade rosé wine.
This was just a welcome snack, we were due back before midnight for the real
millennium feast.

On our food break (or break from food) we went to the main strip for a coffee at
Andonis kafeneo, which was an interesting mixture of traditional (habits) and modern
decor for the younger crowd. I noticed that a lot of men from Anogia are much taller
and burlier than the average Greek. It could be all that wholesome food and hard
work, as this is primarily shepherd’s country. All of the 20-something men were clad
in black jeans and shirts, smoking Marlboros, drinking Greek coffee and fiddling with
their worry beads. They were staring at a big-screen TV, the controls manned by the
owner’s son. Flashes of soccer games, millennium celebrations around the world and
traffic news raced across the flat box, causing not a single reaction or skip in the
worry bead rotation.

There were few women in sight - either Anogia is still a very traditional village in that
it's unacceptable for women to socialize in bars, or they were home for this occasion
to help with the cooking, or they couldn't be bothered with this sort of scene. I bid #3.
I was one of few women there, struggling to stay awake. If it weren’t for the iridescent
mountain spring water served alongside my strong frappe, I may have lost interest in
the soccer conversation altogether. Iced coffee has been served during the summer
months for as long as anyone can remember; as hot as it gets in Crete, drinking cold
coffee makes sense and few people around here have ever heard of Starbucks.

Outside, people were hurrying home for the feast. Young women were carrying on
with fun conversations while walking in small groups in the middle of the street, as if it
was perfectly normal and safe. I discovered that this is the traditional way for single
women to show off, as it were. They can’t go into the bars, but they’re allowed to walk
in the middle of the road. If you’ve ever seen Greek traffic, this would not be
advisable, but in this village, the tradition is upheld to some extent.

Later, I met some of these young women and discovered that most of them are
university students in Athens or Thessaloniki and have no intention of moving back
home to become a shepherd’s wife. Their parents are doing everything they can to
help them to become independent career women. This is a rather new development
as just a few decades ago, before Greece became a member of the European Union,
these opportunities were rarely available to rural women. Now I understand why those
handsome guys at Andonis café looked so worried with their worry beads. They’re
carrying on the family tradition and the world around them is rapidly changing. Rural
women are now allowed, if not encouraged by any family with the means, to make
their own living and farming is not on the list of careers.

The only drawback to emancipation, development and ever-changing subsidies, yield
restrictions and trade regulations is that farming communities have literally ceased to
exist. Living conditions became increasingly difficult and women’s rights, including
State benefits as working farmers, were rarely addressed. Evidently, only men
seriously tended to the land and women were just picking olives for fun before they
had to go home and tend to their real chores.

From this outsider’s point of view, it seems a thankless job. Most women I know who
are over 50-years-old have accepted their roles as farmers and homemakers and
juggle a whole host of tasks that I could not fathom, with great pride and hopefully
some appreciation. I remember the first time I came to Greece in 1972 as a child, my
Mother, a single parent with four children to support, was so upset to see Greek
women toiling, she said, “They may live in this beautiful place but if we think we have
a difficult life…we should count our blessings.”

Our Millennium celebration lasted until dawn. The entire family showed up for this
event - the parents, their seven grown children, their spouses and their children.
Everyone was warm, sensitive and fun loving. Grandfather’s name is Leftaris and
following tradition, each first-born grandson is also named Leftaris. With five men in
the house spanning three generations, any mention of the name Leftaris caused
pandemonium. There was much laughter, great jokes and stories told and much too
much food. The “dining table of many leaves" stretched the length of the living and
dining rooms and everything in its path was moved aside.

A huge salad of wild greens, ("eat your medicine," they joked), more mizithra, lamb
fricassee, a roast lamb (no typo here, a whole lamb portioned off for the crowd and
roasted till red-crisp), wild rabbit stew with caramelized onions (from the guy’s
morning hunt), more loukanika and…I can't remember the rest because an endless
supply of rosé was flowing. For dessert, we all dove for the big platter of sweet
clementina and sliced apples and slowly nibbled on the sweet mizithra pastries
drizzled with local aromatic thyme-honey, one of the priceless, organic delicacies of

We went back to our pension stuffed to the gills and slept till the sheep bells woke us
up. The balcony off our comfortable rooms at "hotel" Mitato (which means shepherd’s
shelter) overlooked the mountain range and miles of serenity. Sheep dotted the
slopes in every direction.

Later, we were off on a road trip up the mountain. Every other visitor or local in
Anogia had cabin fever as well - we found ourselves in the middle of a caravan
headed toward the snow-capped peaks, snow being a novelty in Crete, except in
these high-mountain villages. Everyone was in a festive mood, yelling Hronia Polla!
(many happy returns, literally “many years”) and stopping for breaks or to pick wild

Along the way, there were strange round stone buildings with stone roofs  -- the real
mitatos. We followed the signs and rocky road to the ski resort, which is just an
abandoned lodge built by German occupying forces at the base of a steep ski jump.
Beyond the "resort" was an unusually lush-green plain of Nida. An oasis tourist
pavilion overlooks the plain, which is where the road and caravan ended.

The resourceful Greeks in the group had picnics on the hoods of their cars or hiked
up to the sacred Idian Cave, an Iron-Age sanctuary. According to myth, the infant
Zeus was hidden here from his father, Kronos, who had planned to swallow him to
protect his throne but was tricked by his wife, Europa, into swallowing a stone
instead. Zeus safely escaped and was nursed on milk and honey by the goat-nymph
Amaltheia. What a story. Many artifacts, on display at the Iraklio Museum, have been
discovered here dating back to the 9th century BC. Votive offerings, cult objects and
metal works depicting the story of Zeus bring to light some of the mysteries of the
Minoan civilization and trade-exchange with faraway lands.

We followed the caravan back down the mountain and reluctantly prepared to leave
– after our  3-hour farewell feast. We are expected back for visit in the spring, when
the wild flowers dust the countryside. They say it's a spectacular rainbow of colors
and perfect weather for long hikes to the ancient sites. I love the seaside as much as
anyone, but when I'm invited to a mountain village, I jump at the chance.

Copyright © Nikki Rose. All rights reserved.