Crete's Culinary Sanctuaries donates tickets to National Public Radio
Culture Shock at the Supermarket
Seasonal Activities in Crete
Crete's Culinary Sanctuaries

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Copyright © 2004 Nikki Rose. All rights reserved

by Nikki Rose
first printed by Slow Food, 2000

Here in Elounda, Crete, the pace of life is far from what Alexis Zorbas enjoyed.  Tour buses barrel
down the only narrow road leading to the port, playing chicken with impatient taxi drivers, waiters
with trays of beer, children on bicycles, and the last defiant old woman on her donkey.  Just 30
years ago, Elounda was a quiet farming and fishing community...perhaps the very reason why
travelers were drawn to her.  Today, only small pockets of traditional village life remain.  Tourism
has been a blessing for struggling farmers; however, it has changed the face of Crete forever.  The
simple things in life are the most important -- as the older villagers like Yiorgos will remind you.

Yiorgos represents this society in transition -- somewhere between then and now.  He maintains
his own small farm in between his full-time job in construction.  He refuses to buy food from
outside sources and even collects salt from a rocky beach nearby.  "The chicken I eat must first
dine at my house," he says.  

I first met Yiorgos at a kafeneo (café) in the old village of Pano Elounda, my favorite sanctuary
holding steady in traditional-time run by Zambia, a delightful women in her 80's and a marvelous
cook.  Yiorgos and my partner, Panayiotis, work together and we were celebrating the completion
of a construction project, which calls for a great feast.  The atmosphere and clientele of kafenia
varies these days, depending on the owners and the community structure, especially if they are
near tourist resorts or want to attract a younger crowd.  In remote villages they act as community
centers and/or men's clubs.  Some are absolute dives -- an effective deterrent of women even if
they were welcome.  Since kafenia serve only meze, or little snacks of olives, cheese or fresh
vegetables, if you want to eat something heartier or host a special event, you clear it with the owner
and bring your own food.  

Zambia has run her place for over fifty years.  It is clean, cozy and family-oriented when need be --
big backgammon matches are postponed and the blaring television is turned off.  The seasonal
fare can range from pungent and moist new almonds pried out of their furry green shells, to fresh
giant bean pods to just peel and eat, or perhaps a dangerously prickly sage-scented wild
artichoke, trimmed and eaten raw with a splash of lemon. Fava, a purée of yellow split peas, baked
potatoes, omelets or dolmades, seasoned rice wrapped in fresh grape leaves or zucchini flowers,
are usually in Zambia's stock.  Shepherds always seem have a block of cheese in their pockets or
a sack of mountain snails collected during their daily treks.  More elaborate offerings might be a
couple of kilos of fresh mussels, fish or octopus depending on the season, who's visiting and
whether the kafeneo owner is up to task of preparing them.  There are only a few people,
Panayiotis being one of them, who know how to dive for mussels or how to find and successfully
spear an octopus -- they tend to be very popular dinner guests.

That night, we indulged in nearly everything Elounda has to offer.  Yiorgos walked in with a sack of
wild oyster mushrooms and a pot of cumin-scented braised goat prepared by his wife, Anna.  He
extended a welcoming coarse-sandpaper hand -- his bright amber eyes framed by deeply carved
laugh lines indicated decades of exposure to the harsh Cretan sunlight.  Once all the guests were
present, the usual pandemonium of maneuvering chairs, glasses and little plates to fit the
shrinking table began.  Arms extended in every direction to pour libations, make numerous toasts
and sample the fare.  No individual plates or tall glasses allowed.  If you want to taste the cheese
across the table, reach for a chunk with your fork.  The favored libation is locally made raki or
tsikoudia -- distilled grape must fire water similar to Italian grappa.  Every family at this table
makes their own raki, prompting a critique of the house version -- a bold move since the boss
made it.  I opted for the neutral, deceivingly potent, sherry-like house rosé with a splash of water to
delay the impact.  "Would you like a stemmed wine glass?"  Panayiotis asked jokingly.

Yiorgos was more demure than his co-workers, speaking quietly about the bounties of the
upcoming spring season, while surrounded by rapid, high decibel shoptalk.  Like others in the
over-fifty age group who knew Crete before industrial farming, shipping and supermarkets,
gardening is not a hobby but a necessary daily chore.  You eat what you grow or raise, whether
you're farmers by trade or not.  His personal control of family food sources could not be more
important than today.  Two full-time jobs and Mother Nature can take their toll.  In March, we had
record-high temperatures and severe dust storms from Africa.  For two days, the skies were an
eerie tint of rust and the winds carried a heavy load of thick clay, which blanketed the entire country
like a terra cotta seal.  Certain crops and orchards were destroyed and others will produce a
significantly lower yield this season.  Also, water supplies are lower in volume and higher in price
every year.  He stopped in mid-sentence, picked up his raki glass…with a wide smile said "Ella,
Yia mas!" (Cheers everyone!)  That's the nature of use fretting, it's time to celebrate.

Yiorgos' plot of farmland is further inland near the village of Neapolis between a mountain pass
and semi-protected from the gusting sea winds.  Olive trees dominate the area as the earth is
stone dry and not much else survives in this climate without extracting the rocks, importing fertile
soil and installing expensive irrigation systems.  Yiorgos is one of the few who maintains a sizable
vegetable garden in this area, simply because it's family-owned property.  He also has small
stables near his house for various farm animals.  On our first visit he said, "Welcome to my
supermarket...the only place I shop."  He uses cryptic one-liners to indicate he's adamant about
his food sources.  I try to play the game by saying, "If I were secretly fed my own species, I'd be
mad too…especially if I were an herbivore."  

In between his olive, apricot and pear trees, Yiorgos grows several different heirloom varieties of
tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, corn, onions, string beans, honeydew and watermelon,
combining traditional and modern organic cultivation methods.  Sprays concocted of stinging
nettles, garlic or onions steeped in water can ward off a whole host of pests.  Spring onions act as
force fields for delicate squash varieties; basil plants protect tomato plants, making a great duo in
and out of the earth. Along the path to his cultivated garden are also wild edible plants like fennel,
purslane and thyme.  His crops are not exempt from the wrath of meltemi, the strong northwest
winds – this year the apricots and string beans did not survive.  The new potatoes and leaf lettuce
were the first successful bounties of the season.  Yiorgos is very generous with his treasures and
gave us giant bags of each.  How many ways can you cook potatoes?  We’d soon find out.

On nearly every mountain peak in Greece is a small church, often replacing an ancient temple of
the gods.  In early May, on the feast of Zoe ("life"), the faithful villagers climb the peak of Mt. Oxa for
the annual pilgrimage.  Standing at the base of the mountain, it occurred to me that this trek was a
true test of faith and endurance.  We followed Yiorgos up the perilously narrow, winding, rocky path
overgrown with wild sage, trampled fennel, artichokes (which were noticeably gone on our return
trip), bright red poppies and delicate purple irises.  We kept our distance from the old man and the
donkey ahead of us -- a good excuse since I could climb no faster.  They just sighed when I asked,
"Are you sure we don't need a rope and a pick for this climb?"

At the top of the peak stood the small Byzantine church of Zoodohos Piyi, font of life.  Along the
perimeter are crumbling ancient cisterns, remnants of the once thriving cities of the Minoan
Period.  From this vantage point is a spectacular view of the Mirabello Bay and the villages tucked
along its shoreline.  Three priests were inside the church chanting, their sweet chorus echoing
across the mountain tops, surrounded by as many of the congregation as the church could
accommodate while hundreds more gathered outside.  Many devotees had made this trek for eight
decades or more in their Sunday best, the great-grandmothers' fancy black stockings were
scratched to bits by thistles.  I felt like a wimp…they probably would have passed me on the path if
they had the chance.

When the services concluded, giant slices of sweet holy bread were distributed and everyone
sprang into action for the feast.  At the long stone courtyard table, Yiorgos unloaded his cooler-
backpack, a sack lined with bottles of frozen water, filled with big chunks of roast pork, fried liver,
homemade bread, cheeses, wine and raki.  Who's been here before us… perhaps the great king
Minos?  The priests came to our table for a visit and a sip of Yiorgos' smooth raki, which was quite
an honor for him, I think.  A woman next to us whipped out a crisp tablecloth and neatly packed
containers of dolmades, grilled lamb chops and sweet cheese pastries -- clearly a professional at
mountain picnics.  The feast was brief simply because it's a dangerous descent after too much
raki.  The big party continued midway down on Oxa's shoulder, with young men playing their lyre
and bouzouki to pop songs and rizitika, raspy Cretan folk songs "of the people living in the roots of
the mountains."  That's appropriate.  We couldn't keep up with Yiorgos, he was just gearing up for
a night of dancing when we left.  

Yiorgos' house in a small village (population 100), overlooking the tranquil Mirabello Bay and the
majestic mountain range of northeastern Crete.  The peak of Mount Oxa looms above.  The narrow
path leading to his place is a tunnel of plants.  Fig, apricot and lemon trees guide us to a big stone
table, surrounded by Anna's gorgeous roses and lilies, fragrant five-foot basil plants, and seedling
projects -- all covered by a massive grapevine awning.  

Yiorgos and his charming wife have two teenage boys, both blessed with that bright-eyed smile of
their father and gracious demeanor of their mother.  We huddle together on cool marble-topped
benches like the ancients, enjoying the tranquility and starlight -- talking, eating, drinking.  The
villagers are a tight-knit group, most of whom are Yiorgos' relatives, so if they hear a party going on,
they stop by to investigate and join in the festivities.  This is where standard Greek lessons
become useless.  I'm still revising my special Cretan dialect glossary with construction and
agricultural terminology; otherwise, I'd be out of the loop.  I realize how hard this can be for my
friends when the tables are turned and I have to translate something they've heard in an old
cowboy movie:  "Well, if you hold on a cotton-pickin' minute, I'll tell ya what run-of-the-mill means."

There's always a culinary work-in-progress in and around the house.  Anna's kitchen is filled with
seasonal projects -- drying and storing herbs, heirloom seeds, red hot peppers or bright yellow
wild chamomile flowers for tea; shelling walnuts, almonds or fresh beans; cleaning giant bags of
wild greens; pickling vegetables or preserving fruits and salt-curing fish.  A few times per year,
Anna also bakes traditional Cretan rusk-bread (called dakos, kouloura or paximadi, depending on
the region) in the communal outdoor wood-burning oven at the kafeneo up the road.  Her version of
this rich textured brown bread is the most delicious I've ever tasted.  Dakos is a mainstay on the
Cretan table, made with hand-stone-ground wheat and/or barley flour (occasionally oat, rye or
chick-pea flour).  It's twice-baked for a long shelf-life then reconstituted with water and/or olive oil at
the dinner table.  Sometimes dakos is topped with oregano, grated tomatoes and mizithra (fresh
sheep’s milk cheese) or dropped into sauces and soups.  It’s an ancient crouton designed for
people on the move...nomadic shepherds, freedom fighters.  It's also the tasting spoon for olive oil
straight from the press.

Dinner at Yiorgos' house is a three-hour meze marathon.  We nibble on seasonal vegetables and
fruit, almonds or walnuts, blocks of Yiorgos' kefalotiri cheese and Anna's dakos.  Additions to the
staples may be dolmades, fried sardines, braised goat or steamed snails -- the only purchased
items being the tableware. Anna works seven days a week seven months out of the year at one of
the resort hotels.  The boys work in construction year-round and attend night classes covering this
trade and foreign languages.  They help with the farm chores, but hesitate to respond in front of
Dad when I ask if they'll continue this tradition when they have their own families.   "I'm too young to
think of marriage," was an easy out.  I don't know how they find the time to entertain us with all of
their obligations, but their lifestyle is quite typical.  Making time for socializing is mandatory.  

One night we arrived just as Yiorgos was returning from his stables.  He was carrying a white sack
that he dropped just behind me.  Poking out of a hole was a little black ear -- a lamb that he and
his sons then carried off to a nearby tree to clean and skin.  They brought it back to the courtyard to
hang overnight a few feet from our table.  I was determined to appear nonchalant in the presence
of our new visitor during this natural, everyday occurrence.  It was one of the many humorous
occasions where this big-city native realizes how unfamiliar she is with the process by which
delicious, fresh meat arrives at her table. The whole family works together on countless time-
consuming chores that require great skill, such as cleaning and gutting a pig (they had to shoot it
first, but I was unnoticeably absent from that phase), and share in the fabulous banquets that
follow.  When's the best time to eat pork?  When your pig is overdue on the rent.

Panayiotis asked, already knowing the answer, "Do you like Yiorgos' wine?....Good, then we'll help
him make it this weekend."  Yiorgos makes his own wine and raki every year and he offered to
teach us how to do the same, and of course, share in the benefits of the finished products.  We
bought the grapes from a friend, with a varietal preference ratio of white sultania for it's high sugar
content, favored by raki makers, and red kotsifali for a happy medium in both wine and raki
production.  One thousand kilos of grapes yields approximately 150 kilos wine, 150 kilos raki.  It’s
no small task with a short seasonal window to store up family supplies.

The production was quite efficient compared to some rowdy, home-based tributes to Dionysos I've
seen.  But Yiorgos is a no-nonsense kind of guy.  He parked the front tires of his pickup truck on a
few rocks to create an angle and draped the back with a big plastic sheet, which lead to a basin to
collect the bubbling mud-purple juice.  The grapes were placed in burlap sacks and the guys
climbed up on the back of the truck to gently stomp on the juicy bundles.  The ground crew
separated the juice and must into barrels -- one set for wine, the other for raki, and replenished the
fresh grape supply the moment each sack was spent.  Bees were swarming.  Many relatives and
friends showed up to pitch in or stand around socializing, which is common practice during such
productions.  Yiorgos' sister came by for a liter of the strong juice to make the traditional gelatin-
like sweet, moustalevria topped with walnuts, an unusual and intense dessert.  Now, we anxiously
await our first wine festival, and the grape must will be ready to distill into raki in a few months,
which is a festival in and of itself.  

In contrast to the hectic tourist season when we rarely see each other, the winter season is hectic
with community activities and festivals revolving around the harvest and many religious holidays --
a schedule we are happy to follow.  Exceptions aside, instead of celebrating one's date of birth,
there are designated "name days" throughout the year coinciding with religious holidays, honoring
a saint or martyr one is named after, such as the feast of Ayios Yiorgos -- Saint George.  This is a
major event when many people in the community share the same name.  Before Yiorgos' name
day, we agonize over gift ideas for him.  What can we give to the guy who has everything?