This post started as the sort of ramble I loved writing when I always carried a journal to capture thoughts and stories. I shaped into this week’s blog. It’s centred on the best part of every day. Dinner (at any time of the day).
The Food Issue.
A wonderful old (very old) friend talks of food in the most animalistic terms. I’m sometimes embarrassed. Eating out is her great love, although she is painfully critical of almost everything she is served. She explains that as sex became a fading memory so food became her sensual delight.
Yes. Of course she’s French.
There was a time when we had an interest in the curious fad that is fine dining.
We paid a lot of money for meals that were exquisitely presented. Meals that were small. Oh so small. But always enough. Food with tastes that justified the expression of exploding in your mouth.
But then the richness of it all started to make Minty ill.
In retrospect we were delighted.
We went back to eating real food. Food that we could make should we choose.
And life was good.
Here in Greece food is generally basic. It’s well priced. That means that most people can afford to eat out, and they do. On a Sunday everyone eats out. Every taverna worth its salt will be full. In the afternoon you have to assume that every driver has had a few.
The simple food tastes amazing. Almost everything is cooked to order. It doesn’t arrive in courses, but as it becomes ready.
There’s the opportunity to eat a healthy diet.
Alternatively you could easily go on a calorie bonanza that would have a UK doctor questioning her statistics.
The Greek Bakery.
If there are two food areas where Greece excels it’s coffee, and bakeries.
The two are often combined.
The Greek bakery is a varied thing. There are truly exciting back street hole-in-the wall places serving a few different loaves from early in the morning until they’ve run out. Then they shut and go drink tsiporo.
Then there are places like Savoidakis at Knossos. A local bakery that challenges the world’s finest patisseries, but at a price that make it a realistic everyday destination.
Prior to our Knossos Palace visit we wandered to the messy hotch-potch that is its new town. We were hungry and would have been happy with anything. But we happened across Savoidakis.
On a street that was messy enough to have been Moroccan this bakery was an oasis. Thoughtfully designed. Huge. Seating outside, inside, and in between. Perfect lighting. Soft background illumination, but super bright on the intricately decorated cakes.
We ate pies and a sandwich. Minty chose a fluffy light, but crispy crusted, Hungarian Swiss roll affair. We drank deep mugs of excellent coffee. Water was served in an Absolute Vodka shaped carafe. All was served with a smile. The whole cost less than some coffees in Athens. We were sent away with a couple of pies to enjoy, on the house.
There’s even a Greek chain. And you’ll love what it’s called. I was delighted/horrified when I finally managed to translate its logo to read “Gregory’s” (for all our non-British readers, our island has been taken over by a low-rate bakery chain called Greggs. We deserve it).
The Fruit and Veg stall.
Along the roadside, in town, or country, you’re likely to come across colourful fruit and veg stalls.
The countryside ones sell what they’ve grown around the back. Food miles? Food yards more like. Right now there are stacks of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, cabbage and broccoli (cauliflower to the non-Cornish).
In town expectations are higher, and they deliver.
Up the road from our Knossos baker the F&V offered so many varieties of apple, pear, even medlars and quince. Their orange selection would put any UK supermarket to shame. Then there were the pulses. Huge sacks of beans and legumes with a kilo costing less than the 200g bags we buy at home.
The preserves were baffling – I have no idea what was on offer, other than the salt fish that I recognised.
They roast coffee. As you like it.
Most impressive was the knowledge of the teams. Ask. They know. And they know it in English, French, German, Russian and Greek.
Be humble – we are small.
Off a Heraklion street we stumbled into a bakery to buy a hunk of bread (you tell them how much you want) and the lady offered a sample of nuts. We bought almonds, still warm from the roaster. Raw or roasted. Salted, or as they grow. They’re the best I can remember. And I eat a lot of nuts.
Arkadi Monastery supports itself with sales of its produce. There are all kinds of vegetables, wines, soap and honey. We bought the monks’ Raki. It’s hardcore. Yet just €10 a litre. Can Holy spirit be anything but good?
The complimentary treat.
Today when we sat at our table in Orthos, Rethimno, we were immediately served little cups of sharp, tangy tomato soup. Delicious.
As we came to the end of our meal we commented on the treat that often precedes the bill (clever), and how it has been a couple of weeks since we have seen such.
We need not have worried.
We were presented with perfect little squares of cheesecake. AND a flask of raki. The flask was 100ml, or more (two doubles at home), and it kicked arse.
Try this they said…
Cheese as a sweet thing.
I’ve already mentioned cheesecake.
On Crete they take it further.
Salty feta is served wrapped in filo, drizzled in fig syrup, sprinkled in sesame.
It’s close to a meal.
You’ll need a Greek salad to cut through the cloy. Crispy green pepper, the big tomatoes, red onion, olives, cucumber. It’s approaching a healthy diet.
I read today that on Crete the average consumption of olive (as fruit and oil) is 25 kg a year. No wonder they buy it in such huge pots. Slippery.
Most English kids probably aren’t aware of the wheel of cheese.
Most Greeks likewise.
Not because their cheese comes in a sanitised block like the cheddar that we’re used to, but because feta is generally sold in a huge tin, swimming in salty oil.
The pita gyros/souvlaki.
We’re vegetarians who enjoy a little grilled Greek meat now and then.
OK. We haven’t suggested that we’re vegetarians (where did the term “plant based” appear from? All my meals start with chopping onions and garlic, so surely all are plant based).
And we don’t eat much meat.
But we do love what comes off a Greek grill.
In the last few years they’ve taken to wrapping a small meal in a toasted pita. And it’s fabulous.
Take a grilled pita, a good one, and slaver it in tzaziki. Throw in some tomato, sliced green pepper, and then top with gyros or souvlaki meat. It’s a meal in your hand. And it’s less than €3. For Minty it’s almost as good as a pizza.
Horta seems to be a generic for wild picked greens. They’re in season now and across the countryside folk are at it with their little knives, bums in the air, head down cutting dandelions. Boiled, then served with lemon juice it’s pretty good.
The more I read about fishing practices the more likely I am to stop eating anything that I haven’t seen landed on someone’s rod.
Fish are incredible. They repopulate reserve areas extremely quickly. Reserves also massively benefit the wider area around them. But reserves are few and far between.
Nonetheless I love fish. The simpler the better. A plate of grilled sardines. Eaten whole, bones and all. Magnificent. Washed down with a half kilo of village white at €4 for 500ml. What more can you ask of lunch?
I can’t do it.
I know it can be delicious.
But once you’ve seen a fisherman happily giving an octopus its 100 thrashings and 10 rinsings your appetite to eat the beast diminishes.
Leave them in the sea. Please.
Dinner. Arkadi Monastery.
We had our first good night’s sleep in ages at the port of Heraklion. It was warm. No blanket required.
So what did we do next day? Climb to 500m where the overnight temperature dropped to a flat zero and the ice needed scraping on the inside of the van.
I cooked a feast of puy lentils with seven veg, topped by fried eggs (a last minute addition after the egg box leapt from its high cupboard).
In the morning the monastery offered distant views of snowy mountains, with a history of rebellion and a stand against Turkish invaders. In 1866 the abbot torched a few barrels of gunpowder sending his Christian parishioners to their heaven and the Muslim attackers elsewhere, reminding us of the rich and varied history of this island in the middle of the Mediterranean.
St Just on Crete.
Porto Kalyves has a great beach. But it’s a scruffy place.
Along the sea front buildings bear the strain of the last earthquake. Great cracks run from roof to garden.
Cars show the reality of life on the beach as the abandoned, and even the used used, rust in a race to return to the earth.
I’d already suggested that this was a Greek St Just when suddenly all the men in our bar rushed out, grabbing chairs as weapons, to confront a fellow who’d pulled up outside. After they’d seen off their aggressor all settled back to their Sunday lunch with their kids.
We snacked on hot stuffed vine leaves with ouzo and beer.
Sing song and the Cretan Runner.
My man Patrick Leigh Fermour had a great friend on Crete. George Psychoundakis was known as the Cretan Runner. He ran messages from the British and the resistance during the island’s brutal German occupation.
His book describes an impossible life of hunger, huge distances covered on foot behind enemy lines, a beautiful but harsh landscape, fear, danger and duplicity.
Today we met his son.
Better than that, at the small museum to George’s heroism a group of eight local singers had gathered to record some songs.
As we watched them nipping shots of Raki between each song we realised that the Cape Singers just aren’t drinking enough.
The drinking was the only thing that stopped them arguing.
The museum included many great photos of George Psychoundakis, as well as his invite to Buckingham Palace, medals, and honorary memberships of associations of heros.
These few words could easily have been a whole post. We felt honoured to have stumbled across the group. And to enjoy a few nips of fire with them.
Stavros. The beach shack.
I’ve already said how Crete is scruffy.
At Stavros on the little peninsula north of Chania our home faces a tiny inlet that’s calm despite the white horses racing across the sea.
Here the beach shack holds strong. Thrown up over a few hard working weekends, these simple shelters give endless joy to generations and turn their noses up to the oversized, underused villas that destroy so much of the landscape that attracted their owners to build them.
I edited out my rant on yesterday’s embarrassing event and the empty toss that’s engraved on the new 50P coin to commemorate our sadness.
I wanted to include this instead…
The Akrotiri peninsula has the island’s second airport. There’s a NATO base too.
The morning air is frequently rent by military jets flying low, showing power, rolling, looping, playing Top Gun, with real jets.
North of all this there’s an unlikely tranquillity.
A habit of monasteries cling to a life that’s connected to the skies, but otherwise so different from that of their pilot neighbours.
The monastery of Agia Triada Zangarol dominates the view along its Cyprus lined drive. Climb the steps; pass through the massive gates and the beautiful Renaissance (?) church fills the cloistered courtyard. This house of god has witnessed horrors at the hands of the Turks and the Germans, but today its sense of peace calms troubled souls.
It’s Orthodox. Despite the simplicity of everything outside, the interior has more glitter than Beyoncé’s dressing table. The central candelabra shines golden, hung not on chains but on linked gold plates. It’s 3 metres wide, and its glory is built up to by the lesser but still dramatic others that precede it.
Kumquats and myrrh.
From the garden we eat sun warm kumquats.
From the icon shop I buy a bottle of myrrh. For a couple of euros the van is transformed by the most ancient perfume and brings us closer to god.
There’s no one in the shop, so I leave my coins.
In fact we saw no one at the monastery, just a number of black cassocks drying on a line.
A few kilometres up the road through the tough scrub landscape the road ends at Gouverneto where we arrive as a monk calls all to prayer He bangs out a rhythm on semantron, a long stick, beat with a hammer. This the most gentle of his instruments. The second is a long strip of iron, fashioned into an open ended hoop that’s struck with a hammer, this is sometimes called a semantron as well. To summon the faithful from further afield he’ll resort to the bells. These are not high in some tower, but lined along the cloister. They must set up a deafening clangour when rung in the enclosed space.
Petitioners have been waiting for their moment with God. They move through the little church, kissing the images of the saints, the floor, the holy books. They sit with the monks as prayers are issued to the sky. It feels filmic, and at the same time so real. In the western church silence is a mark of respect. Here in the east there’s a chatter that none seem to mind.
I fantasise that it’s all a front for some super sophisticated global policing operation, but I suspect that the image of a handful of young monks carrying on a hard life little changed over centuries, without electricity, with only their cats for comfort is reality.
We forget to read the no camping signs and camp in the Gouvernto car park. The still of the night is complete. When I walk the dog in the dark I can hear my pulse, but little else.
The final of three monasteries was abandoned many years ago. It’s a near one hour hike down through a steep limestone gorge to reach Katholiko where finally you reach the remains of an audacious building project. In 900AD monks spanned the gorge to build Katholiko. Many lived in cells cut into the cliff sides that were only accessible by rope.
Considering the lives of men so devout leaves us unsurprised that we search fruitlessly for meaning today.
The valley was silent, but for the tinkle of sheep and goat bells. At the bottom a pure, clean blue sea is tempting, but swimming is strictly banned by the religious order.
This place is special. If I believed in God I know I’d find her here.
I’ve tried to capture the harsh environment where these monks scratch their living. There is very little soil. Most of the plants that survive the ravages of the heat, and the goats, are thorny scrub. Thorny, but often wonderfully fragrant with lots of thyme, sage and other strong smelling plants.