During the tourist season on a normal, quiet night at Manolis’s, we try to reserve a table outside where it’s cooler. Our friend Dimitris usually arranges this because he arrives earlier to chill out after a long day at the construction site. The tourists stream by and gawk at our food and us, which is either amusing or invasive, depending on their approach and my mood.
One night, Manolis had copped a couple of kilos of wild quail. I absolutely love little birds and laughed about the price we paid for them that night compared to the last time I dined on quail in the States. Manolis just put the olive oil and oregano-marinated birds on his grill in the back alley and let them go. He piled them up on huge platters and we attacked them with vigor. Tourists walked by and looked at us like we were heathens—eating animals with our bare hands. I guess, to qualify as civilized human beings, we should be eating mystery-meat Wiener Schnitzel at the tourist tavernas instead. The same thing happens every time we eat fresh whole fish, mussels, sea or mountain snails, octopus—virtually anything but Weiner Schnitzel and assorted frozen vegetables, which are never served at a kafeneo. Many visitors are missing the big picture; just so long as the sun is shining and everything is cheaper than at home, this could be Miami for all they care.
One night, a group who have visited Elounda every season for the past 15 years stopped to visit and have a beer. We offered them our delicious fresh fish, and only the son-in-law bravely nibbled on a fillet as if it was some primary school initiation, like eating a whole live goldfish. I asked him if he ever ate fish before and he said, “Of course, I’m British … fish and chips you know.” I tried to understand, and said, “So, let me get this straight, you prefer frozen, breaded fillet of mystery-fish from the murky waters of the English Channel to sole straight from the crystal clear Elounda Gulf”. He said, “Well this looks like a fish, which is quite unappetizing. I prefer the head and bones removed”.
Once our visitors had moved on to the pizza parlor, I said to the gang, “That’s it. Never give the fish away again” (although I secretly liked the idea that I could pass the half-eaten remains onto the stray cats loitering in the alley). Panos had spent hours fishing and we would reserve his catch for those who appreciate its value. But that’s not how hospitality works here. You’ve got to share your meal with visitors. Besides, my local buddies find this initiation quite entertaining and would repeat it time and again. They’ve done it to me, come to think of it. The first incident was with cuttlefish boiled in its own ink; it looked like a bicycle wheel soaked in petrol to me. Dimitris offered me a bite, not knowing or telling me it was the jaw. I spit little teeth out one by one, into my cupped hand like any lady would do with an olive pit, trying not to choke while I was laughing right along with them. I like cuttlefish now that I’ve sampled more than its teeth and have overcome the petrol thing. But I still won’t eat a fish head, so I’m just as snobby as that pizza fan.
Kafenia usually close round midnight or earlier in little villages, unless the owner is having a good time and there are still a few cheerful customers with disposable income around. Manolis stays open, joining parties with his Nescafé (iced coffee) and cigarettes. Good thing for him, he doesn’t drink too much.
One balmy night, a couple of fishermen came by to share their catch and have a drink. The verandah seating was booked so they took a table inside. Later, a party on the verandah left and Manolis eventually cleaned their table. He had made it halfway inside before the two fishermen had exchanged the clean table with their own by picking the whole thing up and carrying it outside, teetering with half-filled glasses and plates, without a single crash. This is one way to change tables at Manolis’s.
During the winter months, Manolis’s place reverts back to the boys’ club. I’m accustomed to hanging out with the guys because I have two older brothers, but this is definitely different. I don’t fish for a living, hunt, operate a taverna or olive press. My interest in Cretan music and Greek soccer might keep me from being barred from the place. Or perhaps it’s my limited knowledge of Cretan slang—so they think I’m a nice quiet girl. They tolerate me, perhaps because I’m a Greek-American (a foreigner regardless of my heritage) chaperoned by Panayiotis and his buddies and therefore not a threat to their happy homes, and/or because I have no opinion of their lifestyle and hope they have none of mine. They probably wonder why I even want to leave my knitting or miss an expat girls’ night out to come here instead. I can be a source of amusement if a big moth lands on my head and I silently scream. I also act as entertainment for Dimitris’ grandchildren, Big Diablo and Little Diablo, who accompany grandfather to the kafeneo when their parents and grandmother are working. Big Diablo loves to dance and it’s quite a workout for me. Little Diablo likes to explore the forbidden territory of the great outdoors; another workout.
The highlight of Manolis’ winter entertainment is his prized collection of hunting videos. We’ve seen the French hunt for wild boar; dramatic documentaries of Cretan hunters setting out at dawn with their pack of dogs to chase wild hare; and various winged species being plucked from the skies. The good news is that it’s clearly a food sport, and not simply a macho killing spree. In fact, I’ve savored the bounties of the wild thanks to Manolis and his sharpshooters. Aside from the little birds, his wild hare stifado is a fabulous braised dish slathered in caramelized onions.
In the winter months, locals organize feasts centered around what’s on offer, whether it is acquired by search and destroy skills or simply escorted out of the stables. Yes, that’s where burgers and hot dogs come from; they are just ground up with other questionable, often toxic substances so that civilized people can distance themselves from their food sources. That’s why we’re in such a quandary today. If we shopped for food the way we shop for a car or cell phone (checking on the manufacturer’s reputation for quality and dependability), our food sources would be safer and our connection to the source would be stronger and healthier in more ways than one. If we ignore the needs of our farmers, such as adequate compensation and training in more sustainable farming practices, we’ll always be vulnerable consumers, just waiting for the next food safety scare. Worst of all, great places like Manolis’s may cease to exist because it ain’t cool to eat fresh fish anymore.
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.