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Crete's Culinary Sanctuaries

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

Here in Elounda, Crete, a gorgeous little fishing village hosting thousands of
tourists each year, small taverna owners are at the mercy of the palates of their
foreign visitors. Many tourists come here only for sun, beer and cheap, familiar
looking food like fried potatoes and grilled meats – no vegetables, preferably for $10
or less. They're not on a mission to discover the wonders of the healthy Cretan diet.
So you won't encounter much of the finest food Crete has to offer at a tourist spot
unless you ask for it, which is perfectly acceptable and always a welcome change for
the chef.  

Worlds apart, in the hills above the bustling port is the original village of Pano
Elounda. The best time to visit is on the eve of a full moon, when the bright moonlight
casts abstract shadows along the narrow, stone paths. Silhouettes of cats patrolling
the territory flash into view. The bay below glows like liquid silver along the shoreline,
reflecting streams of light like precious gems.

There are no tavernas and very few tourists in Pano Elounda -- just a kafeneo (café)
for the villagers run by Zambia, a lovely women and a great chef. Zambia is a quiet,
angelic woman in her mid-70's, although I never would have guessed, judging from
her physical strength and the amount of food she manages to pump out of her tiny
kitchen. She's one of those subtle, hardworking Cretan women who never cease to
amaze me.

One evening, we went to Zambia's place at dusk, bringing our own meze -- 2 kilos of
very fresh mussels plucked from the sea just a few hours earlier. My partner, Panos,
went snorkeling for the mussels himself.  Mussels feed on rocks in deep waters and
must be individually removed with a knife and placed in a waist pouch, which
becomes quite heavy after collecting a kilo or two – an ancient form of diving weights.
These mussels are not like the average black-shelled variety served in Parisian
bistros. Their shells resemble the skin of a lizard -- prehistoric-looking. Their texture
is a cross between mussels and clams. Zambia steamed the mussels briefly and
served them with lemon juice – delicious. Most dishes here are made with very little
seasoning. The art of letting the food speak for itself.

We huddled around a little outdoor table as the party grew to eight people. Locals
dropped by to chat and share some of their homemade specialties. Zambia kept
bringing more and more food from her tiny kitchen and the table quickly became
piled high with little plates of this and that. There are no separate plates for diners
here – no room for them anyway! You just reach over and take a sample with your
fork (or fingers if you’re eating fish). This method of family-style dining wouldn't go
over too well in the States – but what's the difference between that and everyone's
hands in the chip bowl?

Our feast began with roasted and marinated red peppers and beets, fava -- yellow
split peas steamed and coarsely ground with a splash of olive oil, vinegar and onion,
and a few plates of tiny black and green olives that were unusually sweet. There's
always a tomato-something salad served during the season -- this one was the fancy
kind with boiled and quartered eggs, onions, cucumbers, green pepper and new
potatoes. A person of great authority at the table is entitled to dress the salad with
olive oil, vinegar (locally produced, of course) and salt. There's an art to this process
and we all stopped to observe.  

I had the prime spot next to a 5-foot tall basil bush that Zambia’s nephew, Kostas,
maniacally rattled to release its heavenly scent. Basil is not used in cooking too much
here, and this variety was more robust than the small plants used for cooking. It’s a
religious or romantic symbol that can grow several feet high if tended to carefully.  I
wanted to clip a bit to put into the tomato salad because I love the combination – but I
think I would have been escorted out of Elounda for such vandalism.  

My thoughts of exile diminished by the appearance of a gigantic plate of steamed
snails, collected from the hills by Zambia's neighbor. There's a knack to prying the
little delicacies from their protective tunnels, and my attempts to do so always
become the topic of conversation among the experts at the table. Snails can be
prepared in many different ways and they are definitely an acquired taste and
texture. This version was simply steamed.  

Another villager came by with "new" almonds, a favorite snack and good for the
digestion to an extent. We cracked the furry green shells open with a rock. All was
washed down with either raki (dangerous fire water made from grape must, like
grappa) or retsina with a splash of soda water to soften the bite. The younger
generation drinks retsina with cola, another acquired taste I’d prefer not to acquire,
and would not have been appreciated in Pano Elounda. It's hard to count your
drinks, as the moment your glass is half-full, someone at the table fills it. It's a good
thing we were eating all along, which is customary.  

Just when I thought we had no room left for another tier of food, a shepherd brought
a giant block of homemade kefalotiri cheese – a little like Romano. We sampled the
cheese with paximadi (rusk) bread made from coarse-ground barley -- excellent.  
Paximadi is a rustic brown bread that is baked twice for a long shelf life. At service, it
is moistened with a little water and/or olive oil and topped with fresh-grated tomatoes,
oregano and salt – the Greek version of Italian bruschetta. Variations of dried bread
or crackers have been made throughout the Mediterranean basin for centuries, to
take on journeys along the Silk Route or campaigns in faraway lands. It’s a great
comeback for an ancient staple.  

Five hours and many retsinas later, when I thought for certain it was time to go,
Zambia brought out the last tier -- mounds of sliced honeydew and watermelon. I
don't plan to conduct any scientific studies on the matter, but I've never tasted melon
so sweet. The sun is so intense here that everything develops the maximum flavor
and color – sugar in fruits like cherries, figs and oranges seems double in intensity
and tomatoes have a deep, rich color and flavor. The contrast between what taverna
owners must serve to tourists and what they serve to their friends and family is quite
drastic. Wow, I wonder what Zambia makes for special occasions!

Copyright © Nikki Rose. All rights reserved.
At Zambia's Kafeneo in Pano Elounda, Crete.  Zambia (left) and Company