Here in Elounda, Crete, the pace of life is far from what Alexis Zorbas enjoyed. Tour buses barrel down the only narrow road leading to the port, playing chicken with impatient taxi drivers, waiters with trays of beer, children on bicycles, and the last defiant old woman on her donkey. Just 30 years ago, Elounda was a quiet farming and fishing community … perhaps the very reason why travelers were drawn to it. Today, only small pockets of traditional village life remain. Tourism has been a blessing for struggling farmers, but it has changed the face of Crete forever. The simple things in life are the most important—as the older villagers like Yiorgos will remind you.
Yiorgos represents this society in transition—somewhere between then and now. He maintains his own small farm in between his full-time job in construction. He refuses to buy food from outside sources and even collects salt from a rocky beach nearby. “The chicken I eat must first dine at my house,” he says.
I first met Yiorgos at a kafeneon (cafe) in the old village of Pano Elounda, my favorite sanctuary holding steady in traditional-time run by Zambia, a delightful women in her eighties and a marvelous cook. Yiorgos and my partner, Panayiotis, work together and we were celebrating the completion of a construction project, which calls for a great feast. The atmosphere and clientele of kafenia varies these days, depending on the owners and the community structure, especially if they are near tourist resorts or want to attract a younger crowd. In remote villages they act as community centers and/or men’s clubs. Some are absolute dives, an effective deterrent for women even if they were welcome. Since kafenia serve only meze, or little snacks of olives, cheese or fresh vegetables, if you want to eat something heartier or host a special event, you clear it with the owner and bring your own food.
Zambia has run her place for over 50 years. It’s clean, cozy and family-oriented when need be: big backgammon matches are postponed and the blaring television is turned off. The seasonal fare can range from pungent and moist new almonds pried out of their furry green shells, to fresh giant bean pods to just peel and eat, or perhaps a dangerously prickly sage-scented wild artichoke, trimmed and eaten raw with a splash of lemon. Fava, a purée of yellow split peas, baked potatoes, omelets or dolmades, seasoned rice wrapped in fresh vine leaves or zucchini flowers, are usually in Zambia’s stock. Shepherds always seem have a block of cheese in their pockets or a sack of mountain snails collected during their daily treks. More elaborate offerings might be a couple of kilos of fresh mussels, fish or octopus, depending on the season, who’s visiting, and whether the kafeneon owner is up to task of preparing them. There are only a few people who know how to dive for mussels or how to find and successfully spear an octopus—they tend to be very popular!
That night, we indulged in nearly everything Elounda has to offer. Yiorgos walked in with a sack of wild oyster mushrooms and a pot of cumin-scented braised goat prepared by his wife, Anna. He extended a welcoming coarse-sandpaper hand, his bright amber eyes, framed by deeply carved laugh lines, indicating decades of exposure to the harsh Cretan sunlight. Once all the guests were present, the usual pandemonium of maneuvering chairs, glasses and little plates to fit the shrinking table began. Arms extended in every direction to pour libations, make numerous toasts and sample the fare. No individual plates or tall glasses allowed. If you want to taste the cheese across the table, you reach for a chunk with your fork. The favored drink is locally-made raki, or tsikoudia—distilled grape must firewater similar to Italian grappa. Every family at this table makes their own raki, prompting a critique of the house version—a bold move since it was made by the boss. I opted for the neutral, deceivingly potent, sherry-like house rosé with a splash of water to delay the impact. “Would you like a stemmed wine glass?” Panayiotis asked jokingly.
Yiorgos was more demure than his co-workers, speaking quietly about the bounties of the upcoming spring season, while surrounded by rapid, high decibel shop talk. Like others in the over-5 age group who knew Crete before industrial farming, shipping and supermarkets, for him gardening is not a hobby but a necessary daily chore. You eat what you grow or raise, whether you’re farmers by trade or not. Yiorgos’s personal control of family food sources could not be more important than today. Two full-time jobs and Mother Nature can take their toll. In March, we had record-high temperatures and severe dust storms from Africa. For two days, the skies were an eerie tint of rust and the winds carried a heavy load of thick clay that blanketed the entire country like a terra cotta seal. Certain crops and orchards were destroyed and others will produce a significantly lower yield this season. Also, water supplies are lower in volume and higher in price every year. He stopped in mid-sentence, picked up his raki glass…with a wide smile said “Ella, Yia mas!” (Cheers everyone!) That’s the nature of nature: no use fretting, it’s time to celebrate.
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.