Wednesday, June 2, 2010

First Int'l Stage: Crete.

aaannnd we're back from our second staaage. i feel like we have just had a week's holiday rather than a study trip.
crete, the largest of the greek islands, is considered to be the heart of the mediterranean, the heart of the world. land of the minotaurs, home to el greco (and possibly some hobbits) we were there to eat and to study the cretan diet.

along with the elvis, paolo conte, and the whitest boy alive albums, i would like to dedicate these two songs as the trip's soundtrack. they will always remind me of a 9 person-carrying white van with a broken stick shift, windows down and warm wind blowing in our hair, driving along windy-sharp-cornered roads in the cascading mountains or along the fantastically bright blue seaside, the sun shining, and all of us tapping, snapping, clapping and singing along.

yassas. yamas. yamas. yassas.

 in the 1950's ancel keys conducted the "seven countries study" which compared the diet, risk and disease factors of crete, corfu, japan, yugoslavia, italy, netherlands, usa, and finland revealing that the cretan diet and lifestyle demonstrated the lowest mortality rates and cardiovascular diseases.  according to our lecture from the Cretan Quality Agreement, a non-profit organization founded 2 years ago, their goal is to promote the cretan diet through a network of certified restaurants that adhere to the realistic requirements of cretan cuisine. the seacoast and most of the town of rethymno were filled with touristy restaurants, so i liked the idea that having a label, like a zagat sticker, will set the standard for restaurants to produce good quality foods for all by adhering to the following: 2/3 of the menu must be traditional cretan cuisine, only virgin olive oil can be used, cretan wines offered, and exclusive use of local cretan products.  throughout the week in crete, we ate in a variety of different types of places that really offered us a wide-ranging experience and opportunity to divulge in cretan cuisine. 

the first night we ate in a classic tourist restaurant, othonas (certified by the Greek Academy of Taste) in the heart of rethymno, where the streets are lined with waiters standing outside the restaurant's patio trying to welcome you in and invite you to look at the menu decorated with photographs of "typical" greek food. it was quite amusing walking next to popi since she could understand them.  one guy swore in disappointment as our large group continued walking past his restaurant and as we arrived at othonas, one waiter asked “what do they want?” while the other waiter quickly hushed him, telling him that she was greek. 
kaliopi, my favourite greek and tour guide/translator extraordinaire. 
the trip wouldn't have been the same without her.

the chef came out to greet us and introduced us to what we would be eating. we ate the traditional way, mezze, where there are many dishes in the middle of the table that are shared. we had twelve different dishes: dakos, rusks soaked in florescent olive oil topped with squashed tomato, oregano, and creamy feta; greek salad with tomatoes, white onion, green peppers, black olives, oregano topped feta sans lettuce; tzatziki, which made us breathe garlic; saganaki graviera, fried cheese; (out of season) aubergine with a moldy-cheese and tomato sauce; mpriam (in greek) - oven roasted vegs; zucchini balls, yum; dolmades, stuffed grape leaves; apaki, smoked pork meat and meatballs; lamb and artichoke, and then for dessert, cutaletis - fried dough with orange zest on top. it was a good first introduction to greek cuisine and i think even popi was impressed with the quality, assortment, and preparation.

the next day, we drove to the valley of amari, a central high plateau completely surrounded by mountains, where we munched on cherries we picked from the tree's spring blossoms. we smelled pots filled with barbarosa, chamomile, mint, marjoram, oregano and dictamus on the terrace of the small tavern and inn of Aravanes. we added salt, oil,  and then warm water to 4 packets of flour to make fresh bread. while the dough was left to rise, we went on a walk around the tiny village of Thronos, that was hosting us for the day. the church, panayia, was covered with beautiful paintings inside that were still incredibly intact with little restoration and nothing preserving them - one of the walls dated the painting to 1491. our tour guide and owner of the taverna, Mr Lambros, said he was here with us instead of at another church where they were celebrating the day of the holy spirit where he would be singing so arina, so brave yet politely, asked him if he would sing for us. he sang a song for the virgin mary. it was the most beautiful, touching moment. his voice was smooth and the expression in his eyes as he looked at the fresco was full of sincere love and passion and peace. it brought tears to my eyes and i had to look away as i felt as though i might be violating and undeserving of sharing this moment with him. definitely an unforgettable mental-photographed-captured moment. 
we met an old man with a fantastic beard and weathered greek face who happened to be the maker of the lyra's we had just seen in the restaurant. he invited us into his one room house, filled with old photographs of him and his wife, his grandchildren's drawings on the fridge, the bed in the corner and as we filled the room around the large table in the center, he played the lyra for us. i was expecting a strappingly good looking young greek man, but instead, i wanted to put this sweet old man into arina's large suitcase and bring him home. precious. we then went foraging.  sage, thyme, walnut trees, rosemary, cactus, almond trees, and picrodafni flowers sprung up everywhere you looked, quince on vines exploded when touched, pomegranate trees were blossoming red flowers, wild asparagus, mint, spring garlic bulbs, zucchini with bright orange blossoms were in abudance, and we ate freshly picked apricots straight from the tree. our tour guide could have walked us around the entire island of crete and never run out of plants to talk about or show us. in the streets, in the field, in pots on stairs, decorating every house - it is full of wildlife. i wanted a pillow made out of the soft fuzzy sage and perfume from the wild thyme. and rosemary. 
it was funny that we were surrounded by all of this and yet everyone was hungry and anticipating lunch. when the bread was ready, we ate it hot from the stone oven with melt-in-your-mouth salty olives and small shots of raki. lunch was delicious: fava bean puree with sweet white onions, runny lentil stew, herby mixed green salad with lemony artichokes, white beans with stewed pork, beans with spring vegs, scrumptious meatballs with addicting potato fries, cheesey omlette, mixed olives and home made red wine and greek coffee. we lay in the sun afterwards to digest and enjoy the warm mountain air.
“nobody cares about this guy and his rubbish music.”
after a swim in the sea and some hot, awkward rolling in the sand, we had dinner at a typical cretan taverna. it was similar to the touristy restaurant as it offered the traditional dishes, but with its own variations. all of us barely squeezed in. we had home made red wine, mezithra cheese which is like ricotta, wild greens with courgette, mixed veggies, snails with rosemary and vinegar, lamb with artichokes, white beans with runner beans in a light tomato sauce, traditional rice pilaf made with chicken broth, roasted coin potatoes, eat-with-your-hands-rabbit with onions and liver, scrambled eggs with tomato and cheese and cherries for dessert. it was a very impressive taste of crete and very homemade - it all came from a tiny open kitchen made by one woman, her husband, and her two sons serving us. it was a lot to try, because you want to try it all and because you don't know what's coming next, if at all. it's nice sharing with everyone and having little spoonfuls of every dish but the overabundance was not very typical greek nor was the term “moderation” in effect. we did have three beautiful greek men, Nikos, Lefteres and Giorgios, come and play the lyra and sing for us. as lindsay said, not quite the same as the other lyra maker. i think i blushed at the sight of them for a good 5 minutes. it is a typical custom to play the lyra at social functions and to make up the lyrics on the spot, singing about love and life, depending on the situation and the company. dancing outside in the town square to the live music, then more live music in an open air was a beautiful night.

"i'm enchoosciastchitic about the atentchichity of this place."
"we lost you already since awhile. wait for us."
the next day we had a visit to dourakis winery where we had a tour of the vineyard and the wine cellar. they make biodynamic wine from ancient and modern cretan grape varieties. we had a wine tasting with a small platter of feta topped with oregano, crisp cucumber, juicy tomatoes, and carrots and a perfectly-cooked oozy egg omelet from the farm with some flavorful sausage. dinner was back in town, at a vegetarian restaurant. well, almost. we had a nicely dressed salad with tomato, cucumber and onion, gigande beans in tomato sauce, scrambled eggs with courgette, aubergine with a moldy-almost-spicy kinda cheese, the best dolmades we've had (the grape leaves were so fresh and soft they looked like they were just picked and hand-rolled around the perfect-mouthful-textured-amount of rice) served with a creme fresh dip, moussaka made with yogurt instead of b├ęchamel sauce with boiled potatoes instead of fried - deliciously non-vegetarian. it was a beautiful night and some of us went back to the outdoor patio in the back of a pottery workshop that had benches with cushions, tables under covering trees, and glass jars filled with white lights softly illuminating the clear night sky. 

the next day was an interesting mix of tasting cretan cuisine. first we visited marianna's herbal store where she basically told us what every herb could cure whatever ails us. i believe in natural remedies and like the fact that all of the herbs she gathered herself in the local surrounding area, but it was a little overwhelming. there were different herbs to help my asthma and eczema. the teas and the oils were expensive. i couldn’t decide if she was trying to help us, realistically, or get us to buy into her herbal remedy philosophy and make purchases. with the help of asher's expertise, arina and i are going to try to make our own natural oils. 

we then went to the union of rethymnon agricultural association where we saw cheese and olive oil production facilities in action. we had to gown ourselves in plastic cloaks, stretchy hair nets, and blue shoe-covering slippers. we followed the different steps of the cheese making from where the milk is brought from the farms to where they store and age the cheeses. we saw the different machines used to bottle the olive oil, from 14,000 members in the area, depending on what size of container, while two men put the little plastic bit into the tin caps, one by one. we had an olive oil tasting to taste the difference between theirs and a bad one and then feasted on an elaborate display of cheeses - gaviera, dry anthotyros, myzinthra, and salted feta -  and different types of rusks soaked in olive oil. olive oil tasting always leaves me smacking my greasy lips slightly unpleasantly. 

later, we visited a 5 star grecotel, the creta palace, where we had a lecture from francesco due, dimitris, about how their hotel was a pioneer in connecting the environment with a luxury hotel that promotes the cretan diet and lifestyle by using local products and offering activities to its guests such as wine tours and a trip to the farm. "lots of time at the table, eating and drinking little by little while talking everything under the sun" is their philosophy. having traveled a lot and spent a lot of time in different hotels around the world, i found the presentation to be intriguing - learning how the hotel caters to the tourists' needs by offering them food that they are accustomed to but also having a "local corner" with local cretan products to choose from, pointing out the meatless dishes not only for the vegetarians but because meat is so rarely eaten in the cretan diet, and creating stories to encourage people to try the local products (for example, calling black olive tapenade "cretan caviar" as an alternative to spreading imported butter on bread). as it is a five star hotel, dimitri was very proud in the way the traditional cuisine was evolutionalized to be more refined with elegant presentations. having been to hotels similar to the creta palace, i understand what it's like to want to have a holiday sitting by the pool or on the beach in a nice setting with good food. but.  but. the fact that he was trying to promote how well they represent the cretan lifestyle and diet was so fake to me. everything in the hotel was self sustained, no one would ever have to leave. i asked him if that's the environment they were trying to create or if they encouraged the guests to go into the town and countryside and see the real crete and his answer was yes, so that they know what the horrible places are like and make them want to come back to the hotel and see how great it was. WHAT?! infuriating. 
which brings us to the next completely different experience in this copious cretan culinary adventure.

we had a free afternoon in the schedule and a nap or a swim in the ocean sounded really nice and relaxing. but popi had talked to our tour guide and was taking one of the vans to a little town in the mountains. i knew this was something i'd want to take advantage of the opportunity so i chugged two mugs of coffee and rallied. the village was tiny and adorable. exactly what you’d want to imagine as an “authentic” greek village. the little restaurant we went to was just a small room, with signed notes and poems from previous visitors hand-written on the wall. most of it was in greek and i only saw 2 in english. the walls were decorated with old pictures, antique guns (we learned about the mafia culture), mirrors, agricultural tools, a giant saw, and ceramic pots and vases lined up along dollied-shelves. it was cozy. after the owner lay down sheets of white plastic table clothes, we were served glass bottles of raki and then waited and waited. none of us knew what to expect - the two greek women with us ordered what sounded like everything (there was no menu) and popi agreeing at the other end of the table "neh. neh. neh. neh." the waiting was totally worth it though and for a reason - the wife cooked all the food for us by herself, and the husband served it to us. i had thought the greek food was good so far, but this was superb. fantastically flavourful. it was one of those times when you want to keep eating because its so good and have to try it all and food keeps coming out but you're stuffed and happy and want to keep eating and its ok. we were served a little red tin of home made red wine and little glasses as we learned "dolumazo" - drink to taste it, to have it, not to get drunk. first, we had greek salad with juicy tomatoes, white onions, crisp cucumbers, crunchy green peppers and oregano topped feta dressed in olive oil. 

then we had sausages that make my mouth water just thinking about them now,

 a pile of hand cut potatoes that with a little extra salt were the crispest and tastiest we have had in greece,

 an eggy omelet with meat that reminded me of chinese spare ribs - like the ones that li's brother on a wooden stick and served in the tin foil bag. 

next was woody-smoked pork and wedges of fried cheese served with half a lemon to squeeze on top. then we had ribs and lamb chops 

and....fried snails! i had never heard of such a thing! 

everything was so simple and pure. just served with a lemon. so Delectably Scrumptious. yes, the environment of being in a tiny mountain village, the adventure of having traveled on our own to get there, being served by just a husband and wife, the company, the laughs and getting to know each other definitely helped, but i was undeniably wowed.  this is what we were all searching for on our trip. this was greek food.
“oh white jasmine and you evening star, take me back to crete and don’t ask me why.” - odysseus elytis
the next day, during our walking tour of rethymno guided by the guides association of rethymnon district, jules impressed me with teaching me how cinnamon is rolled, we saw how phyllo pastry was made to make baklava and kantaifi by this little movie-star-posing-cute-old-man. we drove to the seaside to have lunch on the beach, kindly offered to us by the hoteliers association of rethymnon. i think i laughed the entire time, but unfortunately the food wasn't memorable or worth even writing about. 

and now for something completely different. 

after driving through the highest village in mountainous crete, anogeia, we drove to this spectacular field surrounded by impressive mountains scattered with little dots of sheep. we jumped in the back of two trucks - how 27 of us fit i have no idea - and drove into the field as sheep ran amok in every which way away from us.  it seriously felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, far away from everything - which, well, was in fact true. i couldn't help but think of life in new york. my mind kept going back to the bustling sidewalks of fifth avenue where i used to have to dodge people to reach peace and quiet in central park where i would go running. i used to love that. now all we could hear was the constant jingle-jangle of the bells on the sheep’s necks and all i wanted to do was sleep under the stars in the field. how completely different life can be. 

in two groups, we ducked into a tiny doorway and piled into a little hut built entirely of stone, only stone. apparently only 2 people know how to make such a structure that even baffles architects. these huts have survived earthquakes and neither snow nor rain can get in. i was in the second group and immediately as we entered and sat on the incredibly soft sheep skins we were offered chunks of freshly made malaka - soft cheese curds which was made in front of the previous group. there were two men inside, one sitting and the other was making the cheese. the milk was from the sheep he milked that morning. (!) he puts the cheese into wicker baskets (a plastic one is more practical as it is easier to clean), squeezing out the whey back into the pot. i think that we were all in awe as we sat around the smokey hut, the only light coming from a hole that illuminated the misty billows coming from the burning dried sticks that was heating the milk to make the cheese. it burrrns the eyes. popi once again was our impressive translator and really made the experience that much more interesting. i asked her to ask him if we could taste the raw milk in the big red jug and with a little hesitation, the man agreed and poured it into little plastic cups for us to taste. it was warm and smooth. raw milk milked this morning! from years of experience, the man didn't need a thermometer to know when the milk was heated to 42 degrees, exactly 42 degrees - he knew by the sound the texture made as he stirred it with the idonis. not tak tak more doop doop. the idonis is a wooden spade and named after a sweet singing bird because the noise the cheese makes is similar to the bird singing. of course we tasted the creamy, rich cheese when it was done. of course it was wonderful. 
 raw milk!

to mix our meals and cretan culinary experience up again...for dinner, a michelin-star chef cooked for us. we went to Avli, which i think we all fell in love with during our walking tour the previous day. everywhere you looked, the attention to detail was creatively inspiring - arina and i took notes to decorate our apartment with jugs filled will preserved veggies and dried legumes and tables with glass covering to showcase dried beans, pasta and flowers. we had a free night for dinner so we had all made reservations. 5 of us had asked if we could have the chef create a tasting menu for us, but the restaurant put our reservation with the other students. a little bit of confusion, but it worked out and we made up our own tasting menu off of the a la carte menu rather than the pre-fixe one that the others had asked for when they made their reservation. i wanted to order everything and luckily, everyone was up for ordering a lot and sharing everything. luckily, i was with 5 people who not only love to eat and drink, but are incredibly knowledge about cooking, restaurant life, all types of food products, and wine. i am constantly impressed by them and learning from them. warning: we splurged, spoiled ourselves, and ordered a lot. first, we started with the appetizers: fresh mushrooms and apakia/smoked pork in anthogalo sauce and balsamic vinegar, 

cold tomato soup with cubes made from olive paste with a slice of saganaki cheese in phyllo, 

marinated octopus on a bed of fava bean puree, capers and lime and balsamic glaze,

 beef carpacio with grapefruit, avocado, arugula and a poppyseed vinigrette. 

then we had scallops in the shell in a melissa and saffron sauce, 

next was fresh lobster from the libyan sea with pasta. the plates were emptied, cleared and we were brought a dish of warm water with a floating flower to wash our messy fingers. 

after our "spoon" of pureed strawberry and watermelon in a flute, came our main courses: boubouristi snails with rosemary and vinegar, 

sea bass fillet with olives, cherry tomatoes, pepper and white wine on a bed of arugula and spinach

 and grilled giant shrimp with garlic, fennel and courgettes. 

the wines were incredible - we were offered the book ( in which alvi has 460 different wine labels, one of the largest wine cellars in greece) to choose from and arina, so bravely tackled. we wanted to try something new, something greek and something that didn't taste like the puckery vinegary wines we had been served thus far on the trip. we started with a dry white wine from santorini, made with asyrtiko grapes. then we had a 2008 viognier. next a 2003 Nemea. the waiter was really sweet in his suggestions to pair with the food and came over with multiple bottles for us to choose from. he even steered us away from ordering popi's favorite recommendation as it cost nearly 200 euro! greek wines has a long history and is a big part of their culture. it is usual for everyone to have their own vineyard - however large or small - so it was natural for us to be tasting a lot of the home made kinds. the conditions in greece are perfect for grape growing, and crete produces 20% of greek wines, so i would highly recommend scoping out some greek wines during the next visit to the store (i have lots of pics of greek wine labels if anyone wants suggestions!)

i had a really good night with all the food, sitting outside in the courtyard on a warm night, and especially with the company. i think i expected a little more from a michelin rated chef, a little disappointed, but i liked the variety of the food, having the opportunity to choose what we wanted to eat, and the flavor combinations - the menu all sounded delicious. i liked introducing new flavors onto my palate - even though emily said that the pork and mushrooms tasted like a hot dog with bbq sauce, then yes, yes it did. and like the general manager said, mum's cooking is always the best, simple and made with love, my mum's gazpacho is better than this tomato soup. but it was still something i haven't tasted in a while. i also welcomed all the seafood into my belly. yummm. the general manager came and sat down with us after the meal and was very sweet, hospitable and was interested in talking with us. he ordered us a bottle of wine, which upon tasting, instantly reminded me of the wild berries we used to pick during the summer in donegal. 

on our last day, we had a free day and 9 of us took one of the vans and traveled a little over 2 hours - asher is an impressively skilled driver at manipulating the cretan roads - to the western coast of the island to a beaauuutiful greek beach called elafonisi. we stopped half way in a little town and bought freshly baked brown and white loaves of bread - still warm from the oven - from a bakery and then we bought tomatoes, cucumber, two types of cheeses, black olives and fresh fruit from a little grocer. all locally grown. we pulled pieces of bread apart and ate on the beach. grains of sand in the mouth were all part of the meal. it was so simple, and we could eat as much or as little as we liked. the "palate of the sea" was various shades of turquoise, as clear as you could see. it was ICY cold, but refreshing, and the saltiness stung my pale irish-white skin. 

we arrived back in time to quickly shower off the beach from our sun-toasted bodies and join the group for the hotel’s bbq. the owner’s mum and dad were behind the grill and serving us fresh food from their garden. the cretan music started and so did the dancing. it was a perfect way to end the trip. 

in conclusion, we definitely dappled in an array of cretan cuisine. bravo. grande, creta, grande. 

yes i take a lot of notes and a lot of pictures. i like it. i like it a lot. 

ps, world's longest post ever, yes? 

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