Dinner at Yiorgos’ house is a three-hour meze marathon. We nibble on seasonal vegetables and fruit, almonds or walnuts, blocks of Yiorgos’ kefalotiri cheese and Anna’s dakos. Additions to the staples may be dolmades, fried sardines, braised goat or steamed snails, the only purchased items being the tableware. Anna works seven days a week seven months a year at one of the resort hotels. The boys work in construction year-round and attend night classes covering this trade and foreign languages. They help with the farm chores, but hesitate to respond in front of Dad when I ask if they’ll continue this tradition when they have their own families. “I’m too young to think of marriage,” was an easy way out. I don’t know how they find the time to entertain us with all of their obligations, but their lifestyle is quite typical. Making time for socializing is mandatory.
One night we arrived just as Yiorgos was returning from his stables. He was carrying a white sack which he dropped just behind me. Poking out of a hole was a little black ear—a lamb which he and his sons then carried off to a nearby tree to clean and skin. They brought it back to the courtyard to hang overnight a few feet from our table. I did not have a single notion as to how I could assist in this natural, everyday occurrence, one of the many humorous occasions where this big-city native realizes how unfamiliar she is with the process by which delicious, fresh meat arrives at her table. The whole family works together on countless time-consuming chores which require great skill, such as cleaning and gutting a pig (they had to shoot it first, but I was unnoticeably absent from that phase), and share in the fabulous banquets that follow. When’s the best time to eat pork? When your pig is overdue on the rent.
Panayiotis asked, already knowing the answer, “Do you like Yiorgos’ wine? … Good, then we’ll help him make it this weekend”. Yiorgos makes his own wine and raki every year and he offered to teach us how to do the same, and of course, share in the benefits of the finished products. We bought the grapes from a friend, with a varietal preference ratio of white sultanina for its high sugar content, favored by raki makers, and red kotsifali for a happy medium in both wine and raki production. One thousand kilos of grapes yields approximately 150 kilos of wine and 150 kilos of raki.
The production was quite efficient compared to some rowdy, home-based tributes to Dionysos I’ve seen. But Yiorgos is a no-nonsense kind of guy. He parked the front tires of his pickup truck on a few rocks to create an angle and draped the back with a big plastic sheet, which led to a basin to collect the bubbling mud-purple juice. The grapes were placed in burlap sacks and the guys climbed up on the back of the truck to gently stomp on the juicy bundles. The ground crew separated the juice and must into barrels, one set for wine, the other for raki, and replenished the fresh grape supply the moment each sack was spent. Bees were swarming. Many relatives and friends showed up to pitch in or stand around socializing, which is common practice during such productions. Yiorgos’ sister came by for a liter of the strong juice to make the traditional gelatin-like sweet, moustalevria topped with walnuts, quite an unusual and intense dessert. Now, we anxiously await our first wine festival, and the grape must will be ready to distill into raki in a few months, which is a festival in and of itself.
In contrast to the hectic tourist season when we rarely see each other, the winter season is hectic with community activities and festivals revolving around the harvest and many religious holidays, a schedule we are happy to follow. Exceptions aside, instead of celebrating one’s date of birth, there are designated “name days” throughout the year coinciding with religious holidays, honoring a saint or martyr one is named after, such as the feast of Ayios Yiorgos, Saint George. This is a major event when many people in the community share the same name. Before Yiorgos’s name day, we agonize over gift ideas for him. But what can we give to the guy who has everything? .
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.