When we walked down the narrow port strip to Vasilis Taverna, people surrounded us, trying to get their faces or tavernas on film. During Peta’s interview with Vasilis, I had to block off the taverna patio with chairs to keep tourists from walking onto the set. We all accidentally disrupted the sound at one point or another – but hopefully we learned the system fast. Clunky cars, boat motors, children playing – the sounds of village life suddenly seemed magnified. John, the soundman, never flinched. Steve had a delicate way of appearing invisible — giant camera, tripod and all, which made the interviewees and villagers very calm.
It was siesta time when we reached Anogia, a village in the mountains. We have friends here, but decided not to tell them we were coming, since it would be rude to just pass through without making time for a long visit. Most shops were closed and a few guys were sipping coffee at the old kafeneo on the square. The crew decided to film Peta enjoying yogurt and honey at this great location. But kafenia don’t usually serve yogurt and this one was no exception. We ran around the village for a while, asking for yogurt and getting curious stares. If we told them why, we would have been there all day. ‘Just go to the supermarket,’ they said, pointing down a winding road. But one woman said the market was closed. I asked a taverna owner for yogurt ‘to go’ and he thought I was crazy. ‘You don’t have time to sit down and eat a little yogurt?’
Thankfully, I saw a commercial fridge outside a textile shop. Two little ladies were guarding the door, demonstrating their needlework. Good thing Greeks still sell healthy snacks. We saw the yogurt and grabbed it. Then we asked for honey. ‘No honey here … buy this tablecloth, it’s very nice,’ they said. We froze for a minute with only half the mission accomplished. One lady disappeared for a while and returned with a big jar of her house stash of amber honey. She knew we were relieved and said the price was 20 Euros, which is double the retail price. I told the sweet little grandmothers that I was not a rich woman. ‘Of course you are!’ they said. When they started to walk away with that jar and I handed over the cash. An hour of crew time probably costs more. Tastes great too. The next time I’m in Anogia, I’ll never hear the end of it.
Covering 4,000 years of olive oil and wine production in Crete is hard to squeeze into three minutes. I don’t envy the editors who have to cut the hours of footage. Our star olive grower, Stelios Kaliouris, produces excellent organic olive oil, is working on an olive museum, and is battling with local politicians to implement pesticide-free production. He’s also working with us on a plan to protect the old indigenous olive tree called the Rethymnotiki (meaning it’s from Rethymno, Crete), also known as the Chondrolia (the fat and juicy olive). The Chondrolia is rapidly being replaced by the more popular but not necessarily tastier or healthier cabernet of olives, the Koronaiki, which is probably from the village of Koroni in the Peloponnisos. The story will probably be that Stelios produces great, organic olive oil.
My favorite recce was the winemaking story. Andreas Dourakis has a beautiful winery in the central foothills. For every old rock structure on his property – the wine shed and the threshing pits, he had a humorous story to tell. He is also a collector of antique farming equipment, much of which looks more practical than today’s machinery. Geese wandered around the vineyards and fragrant citrus trees, rose bushes and wildflowers softened the stone walkways.
Andreas was a principal winemaker for a major Greek winery, Tzantalis, for 20 years before realizing his dream of opening his own boutique winery in Crete. Many Greek wine exports have gotten a bad rap and one reason is the politics of the past. Within the last few decades, several well-educated Greek winemakers have taken the plunge into small-scale, high-quality production. People are noticing.
Andreas’ knowledge and passion for winemaking showed loud and clear the moment we tasted his wines. He also creates a lovely balance between indigenous grape varieties and more popular international varieties, most of which are organically cultivated. His ‘wine made by God,’ was subliminal but it’s not for sale. His daughter, Evie, acted as translator and it was a beautiful interview. We sat quietly on the set, watching Andreas and Peta taste his wines. It was torture. We enjoyed his wines afterwards with meze and wanted to stay for a couple of days. The family also makes their own cheese, yogurt, breads and olive oil. A quiet retirement.
Setting up the phyllo-making demo was challenging. Yiorgos and his wife, Maria, have run their small production shop in Rethymno since 1956. They know what they’re doing and we wanted to see everything. Yiorgos handled the dough like precious silk. As a former baker myself, tears welled up in my eyes at the sight of such care and perfection. Yiorgos stretched a round of phyllo like a pizza, and tossed it onto the table to form a big dome-balloon without a break in sight. What a showman. We had to coordinate filming around their intense production schedule – the phyllo, kataifi or the string phyllo, baklavas, bird nests, and other sweets. We visited his shop three times and each time we left with several pounds of production. It was a dangerous assignment.
We arranged for one-stop-filming at Agreco farm, a project of the Grecotel group. Agreco is a re-creation of a 17th century Cretan farm. Kostas Bouyouris designed and oversees the operations, combining past and present sustainable organic farming methods. Agreco has it all – vegetable gardens, fruit trees, vineyards, olive groves, flour mills, threshing pits, livestock, innovative water recycling, outdoor ovens, a taverna … there’s more.
With a few hours’ notice from us, due to the usual schedule changes, Agreco’s Chef Nikos was ready for his cooking demo with Peta. They made dolmades – stuffed grape leaves and beautiful stuffed zucchini flowers, braised snails with rosemary and vinegar…delicious! Eva Maravelaki, Agreco’s manager, was our gracious host. When the crew needed a break, she and Nikos presented a huge meze of house-made fresh cheeses, marinated artichoke hearts, dakos bread, olives and wine. There is no such thing as ‘grabbing a bite to eat’ in the Cretan world of hospitality.
One of the most important components of Cretan cuisine is dakos, aka paximadi, among other regional names. It’s a traditional Cretan rusk bread, baked in the outdoor oven…an ancient cracker. Not many people make dakos on a small scale anymore. Thankfully we got this on film at Agreco farm, but it had to be a sunny day. The baker did not initially agree to have separate sets of dough ready in different stages of development – to speed things up for the cameras. He did not want to waste the dough, which is understandable. Asking people to waste food for the cameras is not a good idea.
There’s more to this one-week project that seemed to last two months. Everyone was flexible and calm … outwardly, at least. And we made time for fun. We take so many things for granted in Crete – the simple act of collecting lemons from our neighbor’s trees (preferably when they’re out of town), making fresh cheese and phyllo dough, or turning an octopus on the grill. When you see it on film, it suddenly looks fantastic.
In every little village and around every hairpin curve, people have stories to tell. There’s so much more we wanted to share with the film crew but we were lucky to enjoy this short adventure together and hope that others will too.
The day after we finished the project, Panos and I traveled to the southern coast for a three-day vacation. My vision was one great taverna on the sea, with rooms to let, in the middle of nowhere, with no other people. We found it! My first thought was, ‘NZTV would have loved this place!’ On second thought, some secrets of Crete need to be kept.
Nikki Rose is a professional chef, writer and founder of ‘Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries, travel programs to preserve our culinary history’. She works directly with local chefs, farmers and scientists in Crete to support traditional trades and sustainable organic agriculture. Her published articles and upcoming book focus on these issues and have appeared in Slow Food publications, Athens News and Stigmes Magazine (Crete), among others.