Long and quirky, Crete is an island that has been gifted with breath-taking beauty. From high mountains and hidden villages to long gorges and unimaginable blue seas it is a place fit for the gods.
This diverse landscape has played the main part and set the foundations for the Cretan food culture, which changes as dramatically when moving from the low to the high lands.
The sea offers incredible food but also carries a certain way of life in its breeze.
Daily banter, sharing food and drink is a daily occurrence and the tavernas and small kafenia (traditional cafes that also serve meze) are constantly bustling. Loud voices, colourful clothes and sun kissed faces give life to the small cobbled streets.
It cant get much better than sitting a few meters away from the sea and eating some freshly caught fish with a plate of sea urchins, a sun dried octopus and a cold beer.
Our house was down a small alley and we lived above Thio Niko and Thia Koula. They were not my real uncles but we always called them that. Surrounded by olive trees and gardens with lemon, pomegranate and almond trees it felt like miles away from everything else. They had their own olive oil, made their own honey, wine and in the fall they would make raki where everyone in the area would come along and massive gatherings would take place. I remember the distillation room was dark with high ceilings with the big old-fashioned raki making construction on one side and a long wooden table for feasting on the other. On the very top it had rows of wooden pigeonholes where the birds would come and go all day long.
During the summer months when schools were shut, I would wake up in the morning and go downstairs to Thia Koula’s house. She always started her cooking in the morning. We would sit on her large wooden table covered with a plastic tablecloth with fake lace in the kitchen and sip on Greek coffee with sweet sesame biscuits. Thinking about it I was definitely too young to be drinking coffee.
She would then put her apron on, take the small bucket of leftovers by the sink for the chickens and we would head up to the animals. We would feed them and head back down to the house via the vegetable garden. We would harvest whatever she needed for the day’s cooking and then back to the kitchen to start. Her food was delicious and she made the best rabbit stew I have ever tried. She made her own goat’s curd, called mizithra and she would hang it in cloths on the almond tree just outside her kitchen. She would cure her own olives and we would sit together for hours cracking green olives with a stone in the back garden. When the time was right we would go and collect vine leaves and lay them carefully on her kitchen table and make massive trays of stuffed vegetables and leaves. The aromas are indescribable.
She cooked the purest food I have ever seen anyone cook.
Everything on her kitchen table was hers and that is pure luxury.
She taught me how to make dolmades, how to keep greens greener by rubbing them with salt when washing them, how to search for snails in the wild, how to eat carobs straight from the tree and how to love artichokes.
Cooking and eating at home with family and friends is a gift. Not done enough these days as our lifestyles interrupt these pleasures.
The cooking can be simple and effortless; its all about the people. I remember the day I moved into my house in Hackney, it was unfurnished and my only request was “I need a table that can sit 10”.
What I love about these memories is that they are not so much images but smells. I remember smelling the goat’s milk boiling, the tripe cooking, which I really disliked, and the rabbit with orange peel slow cooking. I remember the smell of her house, the smell of the store room where the oil and wine where kept and the smell of the pile of fermenting grape remains stacked in the corner outside the raki distillation room. With time this big pile would turn into compost for all her amazing geraniums and gardenias.
When smells are more engrained in memory than pictures I feel they will never escape and that’s what I want.
This is where I took my first steps in cooking. I would spend time with the neighbourhood grannies and ask them all the questions I had. I would cook very elaborate dishes for my age but with their guidance and my blue notebook notes I would do a good enough job. My mum would return from her daily shopping for the restaurant and I would be on a chair over the cooker having completely taken over her kitchen. She allowed me to do this every time as long as I tidied up afterwards.
The real experience regarding cooking and hospitality though came from my family and our seafood restaurant. We had the best and most honest seafood taverna in town. It was in Agia Kiriaki; a neighbourhood “under” Halepa towards the sea. My dad being the fisherman he is, caught the freshest fish possible every single day. He would go fishing during the night alone in his small boat and come back in the morning with his fish packed in ice like little soldiers. Whatever could not be sold in the restaurant he would bring home. All the small ones, long ones, spiky ones, wonky ones, bitten ones, were our meals six days a week. At the time we did not know how lucky we were to be eating fish so often and constantly hassled my mum for meat or other things.
I treasure this experience I had like nothing else. We would go to the restaurant every evening and help with anything and everything. I would serve tables with enormous trays full on food I could hardly carry, scale fish, peel potatoes, wash dishes. I would be called for duty wherever there was a gap; and that experience is invaluable.
So after my drive through Halepa, and my old house, my car automatically takes a right turn towards Agia Kiriaki; towards our old restaurant spot.
When I arrive at Agia kiriaki I feel calm and protected in a strange way. I feel that this is the place where so much happened as I was growing up and it is my dream to live or have a restaurant in this area again sometime.
Driving down the narrow road that leads to the small fisherman’s harbour and the beautiful white and blue church of Agia Kiriaki I always stop the car at the fig tree. It is the biggest one I have ever seen. The smell of it is incredible and it’s fruit is simply the best. You rummage the car for a small bag or any type of vessel really and fill it with the amazing honey dripping figs. I now know how to pick them so their milky juice doesn’t touch my skin but got caught many times as a kid and ended up with very itchy forearms. My godfather used to always warn me never to fall sleep under a fig tree, as I would not wake up. I never really understood why he said this but these days I think that it may had been linked to the large low leaves these trees have and possibly their increased absorption of oxygen. Whatever the reason was I made sure I never fell asleep under one.
You continue on the same road for a couple more hundred meters and you arrive at the small harbour. I love this place. Tiny small fishing boats dotted around the water. Local cats being playful by the rocks and the same people present day after day. Some come to check on their boats, others come to check the weather and most of them come to have a coffee and a gossip on the bench.
My dad had his boat here for years and I would ride my small white bicycle back and forth from the restaurant endlessly every day. My dad and the local fishermen would tease me and make me laugh so my visits were worth it. I would run up and down the beach in search of treasures and dangerously jump around the slippery rocks on the edge to find crabs and limpets and octopi. I would often find myself running back to my dad screaming with pain as I had accidently stepped on a not so friendly sea urchin. The advice was always the same; “Marianna just go behind the rock and pee on your foot, go on!” regardless to say this method always worked and a few hours later the horrible long black spikes would simply pop out from the sole of my foot.