03 Sep 2004

The winter season in Crete this past year was uncommonly rainy, windy and cold with plenty of snowfall in the mountains. On the trip up the mountain road the landscape had changed to lush green and threatening deep purple storm clouds engulfed the peaks. From this altitude you can see the storm system moving through the area, sparing one village then bombarding another with hail and giant bolts of lightening. Luckily, we missed the action.

Once we reached Anogia and the home of our friends, all was warm and festive. Nikos’ parents are sweet people and big jokesters. The children have inherited their sense of humor and the house was filled with joy and laughter. I took a little stroll with the children down their narrow street overlooking the valley and stopped to watch a baby black goat jumping around its mother in an adorable high jack-knife leap. The children looked at me with cocked heads, “What do you find so interesting about that goat? Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

When we got back to the house, they had transformed the small sitting room into a taverna. A round table appeared in the center of the room packed with plates of food – olives, fresh-picked wild greens, mizithra cheese (my absolute favorite, how’d they guess?) which is a delicious soft, mild fresh sheep’s milk cheese that can be eaten straight with a sprinkling of salt as was here, or used interchangeably in savory or sweet pies (a little like ricotta, but better). Center-stage was the loukanika (cured sausage), which is produced all over Greece, but the recipe and curing method varies depending on the region and climate. Cretan loukanika has a strong bite of vinegar (no need for mustard with this sausage) and the spiced pork stuffing is cubed, rather than ground. Great in small doses.

We each went through at least half a loaf of beautiful sesame-crusted stone-oven baked bread and washed it all down with many toasts of rich homemade rosé wine. This was just a welcome snack, we were due back before midnight for the real feast.
On our food break (or break from food) we went to the main strip for a coffee at Andonis kafeneo, which was an interesting mixture of traditional (habits) and modern decor for the younger crowd. I noticed that a lot of men from Anogia are much taller and burlier than the average Greek. It could be all that wholesome food and hard work, as this is primarily shepherds’ country. All of the 20-something men were clad in black jeans and shirts, smoking Marlboros, drinking Greek coffee and fiddling with their worry beads. They were staring at a big-screen TV, the controls manned by the owner’s son. Flashes of soccer games, celebrations around the world and traffic news raced across the flat box, causing not a single reaction or skip in the worry bead rotation.

There were few women in sight – either Anogia is still a very traditional village in that it’s unacceptable for women to socialize in bars, or they were home for this occasion to help with the cooking, or they couldn’t be bothered with this sort of scene. I was one of the few women there, struggling to stay awake. If it weren’t for the iridescent mountain spring water served alongside my strong frappé, I may have lost interest in the soccer conversation altogether. Iced coffee has been served during the summer months for as long as anyone can remember; as hot as it gets in Crete, drinking cold coffee makes sense and few people around here have ever heard of Starbucks.

Outside, people were hurrying home for the feast. Young women were carrying on with fun conversations while walking in small groups in the middle of the street, as if it was perfectly normal and safe. I discovered that this is the traditional way for single women to show off, as it were. They can’t go into the bars, but they’re allowed to walk in the middle of the road. If you’ve ever seen Greek traffic, this would not be advisable, but in this village, the tradition is upheld to some extent.

Later, I met some of these young women and discovered that most of them are university students in Athens or Thessaloniki and have no intention of moving back home to become a shepherd’s wife. Their parents are doing everything they can to help them to become independent career women. This is a rather new development as just a few decades ago, before Greece became a member of the European Union, these opportunities were rarely available to rural women. Now I understand why those handsome guys at Andonis café looked so worried with their beads. They’re carrying on the family tradition and the world around them is rapidly changing. Rural women are now allowed, if not encouraged by any family with the means, to make their own living and farming is not on the list of careers.

The only drawback to emancipation, development and ever-changing subsidies, yield restrictions and trade regulations is that farming communities have literally ceased to exist. Living conditions became increasingly difficult and women’s rights, including State benefits as working farmers, were rarely addressed. Evidently, only men seriously tended to the land and women were just picking cotton for fun before they had to go home and tend to their real chores. From this outsider’s point of view, it seems a thankless job. Most women I know who are over 50-years-old have accepted their roles as farmers and homemakers and juggle a whole host of tasks that I could not fathom, with great pride and hopefully some appreciation. I remember the first time I came to Greece in 1972 as a child, my mother, a single parent with four children to support, was so upset to see Greek women toiling, she said, “They may live in this beautiful place but if we think we have a difficult life…we should count our blessings.”

Our celebration lasted until dawn. The entire family showed up for this event – the parents, their seven grown children, their spouses and their children. Everyone was warm, sensitive and fun-loving. Grandfather’s name is Leftaris and following tradition, each first-born grandson is also named Leftaris. With five men in the house spanning three generations, any mention of the name Leftaris caused pandemonium. There was much laughter, great jokes and stories told and much too much food. The ‘dining table of many leaves’ stretched the length of the living and dining rooms and everything in its path was moved aside. A huge salad of wild greens (“Eat your medicine,” they joked), more mizithra, lamb fricassee, a roast lamb (no typo here, a whole lamb portioned off for the crowd and roasted till red-crisp), wild rabbit stew with caramelized onions (from the guy’s morning hunt), more loukanika and…I can’t remember the rest because an endless supply of rosé was flowing. For dessert, we all dove for the big platter of sweet clementines and sliced apples and slowly nibbled on the sweet mizithra pastries drizzled with local aromatic thyme-honey, one of the priceless, organic delicacies of Crete.

We went back to our pension stuffed to the gills and slept till the sheep bells woke us up. The balcony off our comfortable rooms at ‘hotel’ Mitato (which means shepherd’s shelter) overlooked the mountain range and miles of serenity. Sheep dotted the slopes in every direction.

Later, we were off on a road trip up the mountain. Every other visitor or local in Anogia had cabin fever as well – we found ourselves in the middle of a caravan headed toward the snow-capped peaks, snow being a novelty in Crete, except in these high-mountain villages. Everyone was in a festive mood, yelling “Hronia Polla!” (many happy returns, literally ‘many years’) and stopping for breaks or to pick wild greens.

Along the way, there were strange round stone buildings with stone roofs – the real mitatos. We followed the signs and rocky road to the ski resort, which is just an abandoned lodge built by German occupying forces at the base of a steep ski jump. Beyond the ‘resort’ was an unusually lush-green plain of Nida. An oasis tourist pavilion overlooks the plain, which is where the road and caravan ended.

The resourceful Greeks in the group had picnics on the hoods of their cars or hiked up to the sacred Idian Cave, an Iron Age sanctuary. According to myth, the infant Zeus was hidden here from his father, Kronos, who had planned to swallow him to protect his throne, but was tricked by his wife, Europa, into swallowing a stone instead. Zeus safely escaped and was nursed on milk and honey by the goat-nymph Amaltheia. What a story. Many artifacts, on display at the Iraklio Museum, have been discovered here dating back to the 9th century BC. Votive offerings, cult objects and metal works depicting the story of Zeus bring to light some of the mysteries of the Minoan civilization and trade-exchange with faraway lands.

We followed the caravan back down the mountain and reluctantly bade a farewell to our wonderful hosts after another feast. We are expected back for visit in the spring, when the wild flowers dust the countryside. They say it’s a spectacular rainbow of colors and perfect weather for long hikes to the ancient sites. I love the seaside as much as anyone, but when I’m invited to a mountain village, I jump at the chance. Ironically, these communities have survived thousands of years of turmoil, yet now they are truly in danger of being abandoned forever. Farming is rarely easy, lucrative work and although people struggle to hang on to their cultural and culinary traditions, the modern world beckons with what appears to be a better life for their children. We can live without computers and cell phones, but can we live without wholesome food?

Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.

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