Yiorgos’ plot of farmland is further inland near the village of Neapolis, between a mountain pass and semi-protected from the gusting sea winds. Olive trees dominate the area as the earth is stone-dry and not much else survives in this climate without extracting the rocks, importing fertile soil, and installing expensive irrigation systems. Yiorgos is one of the few who maintains a sizable vegetable garden in this area, simply because it’s family-owned property. He also has small stables near his house for various farm animals.
On our first visit he said, “Welcome to my supermarket, the only place I shop”. He uses cryptic one-liners to indicate he’s adamant about his food sources. I try to play the game by saying, “If I were secretly fed my own species, I’d be mad too—especially if I were an herbivore.”
In between his olive, apricot and pear trees, Yiorgos grows several different heirloom varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, corn, onions, string beans, honeydew and watermelon, combining traditional and modern organic cultivation methods. Along the path to his cultivated garden are also wild edible plants like fennel, purslane and thyme. His crops are not exempt from the wrath of meltemi, the strong northwest winds, and this year the apricots and string beans failed to survive. The new potatoes and leaf lettuce were the first successful bounties of the season. Yiorgos is very generous with his treasures and gave us giant bags of each. How many ways can you cook potatoes?
On nearly every mountain peak in Greece is a small church, often replacing an ancient temple of the gods. In early May, on the Feast of Zoe (meaning “life”), the faithful villagers climb the peak of Mt. Oxa for the annual pilgrimage. Standing at the base of the mountain, it occurred to me that this trek was a true test of faith and endurance. We followed Yiorgos up the perilously narrow, winding, rocky path overgrown with wild sage, trampled fennel, artichokes (which were noticeably gone on our return trip), bright red poppies and delicate purple irises. We kept our distance from the old man and the donkey ahead of us, a good excuse since I could climb no faster. They just sighed when I asked, “Are you sure we don’t need a rope and a pick for this climb?”
At the top of the peak stood the small Byzantine church of Zoodohos Piyi, font of life. Along the perimeter are crumbling ancient cisterns, remnants of the once thriving cities of the Minoan Period. From this vantage point is a spectacular view of the Mirabello Bay and the villages tucked along its shoreline. Three priests were inside the church chanting, their sweet chorus echoing across the mountain tops, surrounded by as many of the congregation as the church could accommodate while hundreds more gathered outside. Many near-centenarians made the trek in their Sunday best, the ladies’ fancy black stockings scratched to bits by thistles. I felt like a wimp…they probably would have passed me on the path if they had the chance.
When the services concluded, giant slices of sweet holy bread were distributed and everyone sprang into action for the feast. At the long stone courtyard table, Yiorgos unloaded his cooler-backpack filled with big chunks of roast pork, fried liver, homemade bread, cheeses, wine and raki. Who’s been here before us… perhaps the great king Minos? The priests came to our table for a visit and a sip of Yiorgos’ smooth raki—quite an honor for him, I think. A woman next to us, clearly a professional at mountain picnics, whipped out a crisp tablecloth and neatly packed containers of dolmades, grilled lamb chops and sweet cheese pastries. The feast was brief simply because it’s a dangerous descent after too much raki. The big party continued midway down on Oxa’s shoulder, with young men playing their lyre and bouzouki to pop songs and rizitika, raspy Cretan folk songs “of the people living in the roots of the mountains”. That’s appropriate. We couldn’t keep up with Yiorgos; he was just gearing up for a night of dancing when we left.
Yiorgos’ house in the village of Lenika (pop. 100), is tucked into the mountain range between Elounda and Ayios Nikolaos, overlooking the tranquil Mirabello Bay and the majestic mountain range of northeastern Crete. The peak of Mount Oxa looms above. The narrow path leading to his place is a tunnel of plants. Fig, apricot and lemon trees guide us to a big concrete table, surrounded by Anna’s gorgeous roses and lilies, fragrant five-foot basil plants, and seedling projects, all covered by a massive grapevine awning. Yiorgos and his charming wife have two teenage boys, both blessed with that bright-eyed smile of their father and gracious demeanor of their mother. We huddle together on cool marble-topped benches like the ancients, enjoying the tranquility and starlight, talking, eating, and drinking. The villagers are a tight-knit group, most of whom are Yiorgos’ relatives, so if they hear a party going on, they stop by to investigate and join in the festivities. This is where standard Greek lessons become useless. I’m still revising my special Cretan dialect glossary with construction and agricultural terminology, otherwise, I’d be out of the loop. I realize how hard this can be for my friends when the tables are turned and I have to translate something they’ve heard in an old western movie: “Well, if you hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute, I’ll tell ya what run-of-the-mill means”.
There’s always a culinary work-in-progress in and around the house. Anna’s kitchen is filled with seasonal projects: drying and storing herbs, heirloom seeds, red hot peppers or bright yellow wild chamomile flowers for tea, shelling walnuts, almonds or fresh beans, cleaning giant bags of wild greens, pickling vegetables or preserving fruits and salt-curing fish. A few times per year, Anna also bakes traditional Cretan rusk-bread (dakos, kouloura or paximadi) in the communal outdoor wood-burning oven at the kafeneon up the road. Her version of this rich textured brown bread is the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. Dakos is a mainstay on the Cretian table, made with whole wheat and/or barley flour (occasionally oat, rye or chick-pea flour). It’s twice-baked for a long shelf-life just like Italian friselle, then reconstituted with water and/or olive oil at the dinner table. Sometimes dakos is topped with oregano, grated tomatoes and mizithra (fresh goat cheese) or dropped into sauces and soups. An ancient crouton designed for people on the move…nomadic shepherds, freedom fighters. It’s also the tasting spoon for olive oil straight from the press.
TO BE CONTINUED
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.