Crete

Fascinated by all stories Greek and very happy at the thought of a long, hot summer, I first visited Greece as a student. No studying, however, had prepared me for the wonderful moment I first glimpsed the magnificent Acropolis, nor for the occasion I pulled out of the Cretan soil a large piece of clay pot, its octopus motif as exquisitely pretty in 1965 as it had been when painted by an unknown Minoan artist more than 3500 years earlier.

Fifteen years later, I went back to Crete to set up a cookery school, Kandra Kitchen Crete. A second school, in the village of Oia, on Santorini, followed. In the early 1980s both places were still quite difficult to reach, and 'the unexpected' was a frequent occurrence. Greece is very different now: Santorini is one of the most fashionable of the Mediterranean islands and, until the present difficulties, Crete was one of the wealthier regions of Europe. However, the good tastes and rich cultural experiences of an alluring and complex food story are still there for us to find.

Kandra Kitchen Crete 1980-86

A cookery school

Kandra Kitchen Crete was a labour of love and a bit of gamble. For, in the early 1980s, Greek food was little considered outside its homeland or the cities of the United States, Canada and Australia where Greek immigrants had settled, and olive oil had yet to be widely recognised as the wonderful food that it is.

Kandra Kitchen Crete was based in a 450-year old village house that had, over the years, been renovated with materials close by: steps were supported by remnants of elegant antique columns, and a gloriously shiny and worn flagstone floor, rescued from a ruined monastery, led through to the terrace. Its wood-burning oven still worked, and the stone wine press remained intact. Against this backdrop, my students and I enjoyed Greek and Cretan foods and wines within the daily, seasonal, and festive rhythms of village life. For practical reasons, I made one contribution to this otherwise idyllic state of affairs – I installed a state-of-the-art professional kitchen range which, at that time, was the only one on Crete. This was both my classroom and test kitchen, where I could re-create for our tables at home the wonderful Cretan foods and flavours I'd discovered in the many months I spent exploring the island.

Enormous changes had taken place on Crete since my first visit fifteen years earlier. There was an airport now, many more usable roads, and a little-regulated tourist industry developing along the northern shore. However, the traditions of a food culture that had thrived for centuries still existed, and this was the Crete we would experience.

We were fortunate that Kandra Kitchen was next door to an interesting and generous family. Anoula, the lady of the house, was a fine cook, and produced daily amazing quantities of food equipped with little more than a small kitchen knife, a couple of table-top gas burners, and some battered pans. Manolis, her father, looked after the wood-burning oven and the meats, vegetables, breads and pies that were baked in it, and her husband, Georgios, a quiet and friendly man, took care of the grill, the spit, and the wine. Each weekday, the four grown sons would visit for lunch, even though they lived with their families in villages close by; at weekends the local priest invariably timed his visit to coincide with the meal about to be served. During the days leading up to a feast, the house and courtyard became very busy; blackened tripods supported cauldrons of stew over open fires, neighbours helped prepare cakes, pies and sweetmeats (glyka) at large tables set under the vine, and Manoli’s donkey, heavily-laden with firewood, appeared more frequently on the path outside my front door. At Easter, life became quite frantic. Geogios and Manolis would slaughter the lamb or kid and prepare it for spit-roasting, build a shallow pit at the edge of the orchard, and bring in a barrel of the new retsina from the store. The oven never ceased to deliver the most wonderful aromas of baking breads and cakes.

I was able to return some of the generosity shown me by the villagers, for I had one of the only two phones in the village and a supply of willing volunteers (my visiting students and friends) to help out when there was a problem. Ownership of the phone was a mixed blessing – my neighbours never quite understood that there was no need to shout into it in order to be heard on another island. Village problems varied from those that were easy and fun to remedy – extra feet for foot-stomping a glut of grapes, for instance, or for chasing a wayward goat - and those that were trickier. When a child went missing, his mother demanded the group of us preparing pies immediately stop and form a search party (the child was stuck up a tree in the family orchard and had stayed quiet out of fear of retribution, which he duly received from his mother). Our pies were ruined, but the boy’s father made sure we had plenty of wine for rest of the week.

As well as the demands of village life and the workshops and meals at the house, our days were taken up with visits to Minoan antiquities – the palaces of Knossos and Malia; Gournia, an artisan's town, where one could squeeze along paved streets and stoop into stone houses built for a people who appeared to have been little more than four-foot tall; intriguing and mysterious Lato – and by experiencing as much of this enchanting island as possible. Sometimes this entailed devouring plates of wonderful Cretan yogurt on a terrace in Kritsa or Vrisses, or sitting on dangerously wobbly chairs at a table just a few yards from the sea relishing octopus, calamaria and sea creatures we’d never seen before. We enjoyed meals in tavernas that specialized in one particular type of food – game, fish, kid, smoked meats – and even one that served only unmentionables (parts of an animal it’s best not to enquire about), snails and khorta (wild greens) with their barrel wine. Other tavernas used only one cooking method – a grill or oven – or served only mezedes. We were treated to vegetables from monastery gardens; sweetmeats (glyka) and fruit liqueurs in convents; an especially handsome chicken one of us had stopped to admire (its owner immediately strangled it, and insisted we stayed and enjoyed his wine and olives while he cooked it for us); and unsurpassably delicious grilled fish, given to us in gratitude for diving for sea urchins for some villagers – a treat they appreciated for, in those days, fishermen on Crete rarely swam.

A few miles from the house was the small town of Thrapsano, where pots had been made since Neolithic times. We drank tsigouthia (a distilled liquor made after the crush, from the remnants of the grapes and vines) with the men who sat in narrow trenches and worked the potters’ wheels with their feet while their partners formed the five-feet-high pithoi (clay pots), and chatted to the children in the school. Their teachers told us that they made pots from the time they began playing, and that they never copied designs or shapes – they just seemed to know what to do. I asked the potters if they would make for Kandra Kitchen pots similar in design and function to those that Minoans would have used in their kitchens – small clay table grills, and oven dishes that could only be used once, as they had to be smashed open to break the seal created during baking. I described what I wanted by describing the pots I’d seen in the island’s museums. When I asked if they would like photographs too they told me there was no need of them, for they were very familiar with the design of these pots even though they didn’t make them; they were the designs they had, as children, enjoyed creating in their play.

A year later, EU law took effect. The potters' trenches that had been in constant use for over 3000 years were filled in and turned into a vegetable garden, and a small factory was opened, to cater for the growing demand for pots to decorate hotel and restaurant terraces in the burgeoning tourist business along the nearby coast. Welcome as this was for the local economy, it meant that the 'old' knowledge would soon be lost, together with the skills that supported it. The Cretan food world has faced similar dangers.

Kandra Kitchen attracted enormous interest in the United States (where I was living at the time) and Canada. European politics, however, have never been simple, and recent Greek politics had been more complex than most. Within living memory, there had been a world war, a civil war and a, thankfully short, fascist dictatorship. To me, a fellow European, though from a very different background, this recent history was still apparent in every village. Nearby, Turkey, an old foe, had recently invaded Cyprus and a civil war was about to break out in Lebanon. Reverberations were being felt throughout Greece. The hijack of a TWA flight in Athens meant that, for a while, Greece became a country considered dangerous for (American) tourists, and the cookery school came to an end.

For me, Kandra Kitchen didn’t end there. I wrote my first book, Flavors of Greece, because of the experiences I’d had and the people I’d met. Not only Cretans and Greeks, but those too who joined me from abroad and shared in the adventures. Five years after Kandra Kitchen finished, my book was published and my (US) editor arranged a 15-city publicity tour. At each stop, I had the great pleasure of meeting again many of my old student-friends – in New York, Chicago, Texas, Arizona, California and elsewhere. Without exception, at some point in our reminiscences someone would say that the experience had changed his or her life. As indeed it had mine.

Kandra Kitchen on Crete & Santorini 1983-86

When I first visited Santorini, in the 1960s, archaeologists had yet to discover the full glory of the Minoan city of Akrotiri. But now, in 1983, its three-storey town-houses, some with exquisite wall paintings and storage rooms still containing magnificent two metre-high pithoi – clay pots for wine and olive oil – were exposed for us all to admire. In Minoan times, before Santorini's cataclysmic volcanic eruption (around 1600 BC), there had been a great deal of trade between the two islands; for us, there was a twice-weekly ferry. This was enough for me to be able to to include a stay on the island in Kandra Kitchen's programme.

There were problems ... The island's water table was sinking, and in danger of contamination by sea-water*; to conserve water the supply was frequently switched off, often without warning. This, along with an electricity supply that was mostly wishful thinking, caused chaos for us in our kitchen. There were very few cars so we used donkeys to carry our luggage; occasionally they rebelled and would take our bags to a place of their choice instead of to our destination. Fresh vegetables were sometimes hard to find – their availability dependent upon the infrequent, and often unreliable, Cretan ferry – so we became expert at discovering the best spots to collect khorta (wild greens) and at serving all sorts of fish with capers and fava (a dried pea unique to this part of the Cyclades). The island's summer heat could be a problem too as, in those days, unlike today, there were no swimming pools. To cool off, we had to negotiate steep paths down volcanic cliffs to the black-sand beaches below. The scenery was – and still is – spectacular, but appreciated only while on the way down; walking back up was hard work.

However, without these problems, we would not have had the life-enhancing experience of finding, cooking and sharing our food – in ways very similar to those practised by the islanders for thousands of years – in one of the most beautiful places in the world. There were no restaurants on the island then, but we feasted like kings in tavernas and in the islanders' homes. Wine was plentiful and, occasionally, very good, though little of it was bottled. And entertainment was never far from our table – music, dancing, poetry, and the brilliant stars which, without today's interference from thousands of light bulbs, seemed within reach, just above our heads.

* This has now happened, the result of just a few years of modern-style tourism. For thousands of years, until the 1970s, Santorini's climatic quirks and poor water supply had been successfully harnessed to support human life.

Reviews

'In keeping with our view of food as an integral part of the world’s rich cultural heritage, Neiman-Marcus is pleased to offer an opportunity for connoisseurs of food and travel to expand both of these horizons – within one exciting experience. Your culinary adventure begins with six days and seven nights on Crete, the largest of the Greek islands and home of the ancient Minoan culture. Here you will be introduced to the remarkable pleasure and variety of this legendary island’s native cuisine. The medium: a unique series of cooking classes conducted by Rosemary Barron – food authority, author, food historian, entrepreneur and, since 1980, founder and director of Kandra Kitchen Crete cooking school. Next, is a luxurious six-night cruise aboard the completely refurbished yacht ‘Christina’....'

Neiman-Marcus, Epicurean Delights: A Food Catalog

'Cretans are a proud people, perhaps best known for their hospitality. Never refuse a Cretan’s offer to share his table – to do so would be a great insult, as well as a missed opportunity to enjoy what is probably the most exciting cuisine of Greece. With Rosemary Barron as your guide, you will receive many offers, and each one will be an experience you won’t forget.'

Cuisine (US)

'Another particularly fun afternoon was spent at a small roadside ‘diner’. As we arrived, the old cook proudly displayed the whole lamb on a spit he had cooked for us. After the huge dinner he delighted us all by dancing for us and with us to traditional Greek folk music. We had one moment of apprehension when he ran after us with a shotgun as we were leaving and as we all cringed he pointed the gun skyward, laughed, and pulled off two resounding shots. I imagine it was some sort of a tribute to us Americans (or a statement on our Greek dancing!!)'

Benicia Herald

'It's ironic that the beehive oven works so well that it turns the house into a bloody furnace”, Barron said in the sort of English accent that Americans find irresistible. “The solution is to take the class next door to watch 80-year old Manolis light his bread oven ...'

The San Francisco Chronicle

'My 8 days in Greece were spent at food orgies. When we were not eating we were discussing the next meal. Rosemary Barron, our cooking instructor, planned each meal so we would have a variety of Greek foods and regional flavors ...

... At one evening meal in a Cretan taverna with seating that surrounded a garden fountain, we were served grilled meats – pork chops, lamb chops, and meatballs. After the appetisers of snails and lamb brains, those chops were a real joy.'

Miami Herald

'Fresh food, well-prepared, in its season, was considered one of life’s pleasures 2,000 years ago when chefs not only had the same reputation as French chefs today, but were poets and philosophers as well. Barron’s recipes demonstrate perfectly the great flavors of this culinary past.'

Los Angeles Herald Examiner

'To say that we ate well on our tour is to say the obvious. What was not obvious was a bit slow in dawning on me. I was seeing Greece in a new light. It was not just the white and blue cubist villages that author Lawrence Durrell swooned over, or the quaint fishing towns or ... Greece came alive through its food ...

... Oddly enough, the best food we had in Greece was not made by a Greek. We had lunch in a Cretan village at Kandra Kitchen, the sole cooking school in all of Greece. The food cooked by owner Rosemary Barron was superb. Rosemary lives in San Francisco half the year and Crete the other half. Her quaint and expensive school is only two years old and already is included in the Neiman-Marcus food catalog – the only cooking school featured. I hadn’t thought I could rant over another moussaka or one more stuffed bell pepper, but Rosemary’s lunch was different.'

San Francisco Examiner

'After a week here at Kandra Kitchen Crete, a cooking school run by London-born Rosemary Barron, one cannot help but appreciate the culinary resourcefulness and creativity indigenous to natives of this island in particular and Greece in general. Each dish, exuding beauty and love, is fit for any Greek god or goddess ... Barron emphasized that since electricity is a relatively new and expensive luxury here – the first light bulb outside of the towns did not go on until the mid 50s – many persons in small villages such as this still do not have refrigeration ... Consequently, when it comes to cooking, Cretans eat what is available, what is in season, what is fresh. And they cook not in microwave ovens but in wood-burning ones.'

Boston Globe

'Because the villagers have taken such an active interest in her cooking course, Ms Barron is able to provide one of the traditional dishes rarely seen any more – pork cooked in a wood-burning oven. Manolis, the next-door neighbor, volunteers to start up his oven in the back yard, spending a day gathering olive tree branches to burn down to a smouldering ash. “When people in the village smell the oven going” said Barron, “they bring their food to cook. Manolis uses his oven on feast days always, but in the old days he would have started it up three days a week. Manolis grew up with this oven and likes food cooked in it.” The recipe presented below is adaptation of Manolis' way with pork, less the copious amounts of salt he threw on the dish when he thought no one was looking. “After all”, said Manolis, when challenged, “what is food without salt?'

Christian Science Monitor

'Her cooking is the best of the unique and ancient fare of this Greek island (Crete) and put together with the same flare that won her a following in San Francisco.'

Dallas Times Herald

'(The course) slowed me down, it changed my perception of food. I now yearn for those strong, sunny flavors.'

Newsday

'If you are still wondering what to give the cook who has just about everything, consider this very special present: a week-long cooking class on Crete with Rosemary Barron.'

Who’s Who and What’s New in the World of Wine and Food

Bon Appetit

'We’d never really appreciated eggplant before Rosemary Barron showed us some of her dozens of wonderful ways to serve it ... The eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas have culinary treasures for us all, and one way to reach them is through Rosemary Barron’s culinary tours.'

(Denver) Rocky Mountain News

'After 5 days on Crete, sampling dishes we’d never dreamed could taste so good, and having one adventure after another, we all promised Rosemary Barron we would be back to join her again as soon as possible.'

Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinal

'For visitors on their own it takes time to ferret out the great little tavernas from the common ones. But Barron shows visitors the true faces of Greece in a week.'

Los Angeles Times

Garden of Eden

Olive oil, vegetables, pulses, fruit, fish, and cheese – the healthy foods enjoyed by Greeks, Italians, Spanish, and others who live in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea – are well known to us as the Mediterranean diet. If wild greens, shellfish, herbs, game, snails, honey, yogurt and other fermented foods, nuts, grains, and variety meats are added to these good foods, it becomes a diet that has been familiar to Cretan islanders for over four millenia. Studies have shown that Cretans following their traditional diet enjoy a standard of health unknown anywhere else in Europe – lower rates of heart disease, fewer serious cancers, less obesity, and increased longevity.

Until recently, the Greek island of Crete could be reached only by sea. A traveller would glimpse its mist-shrouded mountains hours before entering one of its beautiful Venetian harbors. Although it’s now easy to reach Crete by air, inland, and away from tourist paraphernalia, the charmed and mysterious island of antiquity still exists. Its landscape and traditional way of life are fundamentally unchanged since medieval times, and much of its culinary history can be traced back to the Minoan settlers of more than 4000 years ago.

Crete enjoys a wonderful climate of long, hot summers and short, fresh winters, and an amazingly diverse flora and fauna. Its mountains provide fresh water, and an ideal terrain for goats, sheep, and wild game. During spring and fall, the market in Hania, a medieval port in western Crete, is where you will find the best cheeses – fresh anthotyro (‘blossom’ cheese), hard-rind graviera, similar in flavor to gruyere, and soft mizythra, made from creamy whey. Stacked high on stalls alongside are the wild greens that appear like magic out of cracks in the rocky soil just hours after the rain, and baskets of the snails that feed on them.

Although the Cretan seas are fertile, tradition dictates that serious fishing is pursued only in May and October, the Mediterranean months of plenty. Other practices too ensure that there will always be a supply of food: My village neighbors would tut-tut ferociously if I gathered sea urchins at any time other than the full moon, for this is when (they say) the females contain the greatest number of eggs.

Any Cretan will tell you that there is something gloriously and fundamentally satisfying about gathering foods for yourself, and that Crete is the perfect place to do this. A long, rocky shoreline provides a rich harvest of shellfish and small sea creatures, and the island has the good fortune to be on the migratory path of many European birds. Fig, almond, and walnut trees of ancient lineage grow wild so too do artichokes, asparagus, and capers.

Inevitably, this rich land, where traders once bartered foods, wine, pottery, and jewelry with the ancient Egyptians, has attracted the attention of its more aggressive neighbors. Invasions and occupations have left a legacy of medieval fortresses, elegant Ottoman houses and, until recently, desperately poor islanders. But this turbulent history has also created a community with a strong tradition of self-help and appreciation of nature’s gifts. Village cooks waste no part of a plant or animal – the olive-mash remaining after pressing the olives for oil fertilizes the land; tender grape vine leaves make the perfect food-wrap (dolmathes), tough ones an effective cover for roasts or grills, and the vine remnants a fiery drink (raki). And I’ve learnt never to enquire about the ingredients in those delicious-smelling sausages or kephtedes (meat patties).

The church too has played a part in traditional food choices. Although people have fasted and feasted long before christianity, orthodox foods have been a strong symbol of community in troubled times, and periods of fasting followed by elaborate feasts is still the background rhythm to island life. Cretans continued to enjoy pork throughout the Ottoman (muslim) occupation and pork bakes from the clay oven – with quinces, arugula, or potatoes – are among my best food memories.

Although it’s easy to point to the foods in the island’s traditional diet there are other, less obvious, reasons for the islanders’ strong sense of well-being. They have an appreciation of what they call the good things in life – a perfectly-ripe fruit, rich, chestnut-brown honey, fermented barley bread, a just-caught fish bathed in fine olive oil and herbs and quickly grilled, custard-thick yogurt, and armfuls of wild greens. These foods and dishes – fresh, often wild, seasonal, simply prepared, and always with the island’s exquisite olive oil – contain the trace nutrients and minerals essential to good health and, when enjoyed the Cretan way – with friends and music – are the true Cretan diet.