I was one of the volunteers at Terra Madre and one of my tasks, amongst many others, was to accompany the Greek and Irish delegations.
Those were five unforgettable, wonderful days with just a few organizational problems.
Terra Madre gave me the chance to meet some very special people, and one of these was Kostas Bouyouris, a Cretan agronomist.
Kostas does a vast number of things: he plans and creates the gardens of Grecotel, the largest Greek four and five star hotel chain (with more than thirty resorts throughout Greece) ane he is also a consultant for organic products that range from wine to olive oil and vegetables. Over the last four years he has set up school gardens and holds courses for teachers on all the above. www.edaphon.com.
The owner of Grecotel is a self-made Cretan who, a few years ago and with the support of Kostas, created an entirely organic farm, Agreco, inland from Rethymno. The farmer, Vaggelis, is a unique, indigenous character who, as an ex-bank manager with two degrees under his belt, has chosen to do what he likes best.
With the collaboration of Kostas, I organized a ‘Back to the Authentic’ trip and, at the end of May, thirteen members – ten from Liguria (even though my wife and I have only lived there for three years), two Venetians and a French woman – set out for six days. The itinerary was planned to be as far as possible from the mass tourism invasions (especially northern Europeans on the north coast), but how could we fail to visit the wonderful towns of clearly Venetian influence, such as Rethymno, Chania and the capital Heraklion?
Talking in ‘Slow Food’ language, all the culinary experiences were of very good quality and characterized by a real sense of authenticity. Vegetables prevailed, from tomatoes to the inevitable aubergines, from courgettes to okra (they look like green quadrangular chilli peppers and taste a bit like green beans).
Wild vegetables such as chicory and chards cooked and dressed with good Cretan oil were a must without mentioning the ubiquitous Greek salad (tomatoes, cucumber, onions, olives and feta).
These all accompany the main dishes and are served all together – the tables are filled with an astounding number of dishes. There is a joyful sense of confusion that, nonetheless, helps to overcome the difficulties of different languages: you see it, you taste it, you enjoy it.
Our trip was mainly around the hills and the mountains but, despite this, we didn’t miss out on the fish. The ‘humble’ baked sardines were excellent as were the prawns, the bream and the slices of a sort of tuna that swims off the coasts in this period of the year. And we also found fried salt-cod just as in every other Mediterranean country.
Snails are typical of Crete. They are not very big and we ate them stewed and, on another occasion, submerged in a kind of couscous – very tasty. On a previous visit I had eaten them with rosemary – another excellent version.
Moving on to the quality of the wine: in the taverns and restaurants, a house-wine prevails often reminiscent of the Ligurian ‘nostralino’, vinegary with a bit of an obnoxious smell. Ordering bottles, however, we managed to happily bypass this inconvenience.
In Crete there is an astounding consumption of olive oil of more than 30 liters per head each year and this is double the average in the rest of Greece. Scientific research has highlighted that there is also an almost total absence of cardio-vascular disease!
The majority of the oil is mass produced with the classic defects deriving from a lack of respect for the rules of production: too many days between the collection and the pressing, transportation of the olives in sacks rather than crates, a lack of cleanliness in the presses, excessive temperatures etc.
Stelios, one of Kostas’ friends, is making a huge effort to obtain a quality oil.
We organized a ‘mini-laboratory’ with three Cretan oils and two brought from Italy (one a famous Ligurian label and one from a small oil mill in Liguria). We carried out a blind tasting to evaluate the respective merits and defects. Stelios’s three oils came out as first, second and fifth!
At the Agreco farm, another mini-laboratory was organized with two different honeys. One the famous thyme honey which is typical of Crete (it is effectively in late May/early June when the thyme is in flower), and a pine honey. In the farm we dined and, as often happens, the greater amount you spend doesn’t always correspond to the greatest performance, particularly with regard to wine.
At the place of Andreas Durakis in Alikampos, we tasted the excellent wines from the liatikos, carignan and grenache grapes. These tastings always seem to happen with your feet under the table and accompanied by a variety of a little bit of this and a little bit of that to eat. The stewed lamb liver, heart and lungs were memorable.
At Skalani, a few kilometers from the labyrinth of Knossos, Boutari, a famous Greek firm, has a modern production centre all stainless steel and barriques with tasting rooms looking out over the vineyards.
The white Kretitos is made with vilana grapes whilst the red from kotsifali and mandilaria. During the trip we were also seduced by another white wine – Moscofilero of the Peloponnese.
The most significant experience of this journey was definitely the stay at the village of Milia at the extreme western point of the island. Leaving the coast, we travelled upwards through typical villages with the old men sipping raki in the shade of the plane trees. We then took a daring road along frightening precipices without any guard-rails. At about 500-600 meters above sea level we crossed fields of flowering thyme.
At long last, a little green at the gills, we arrived at this group of houses immersed in the chestnut trees with only the sound of a small stream and innumerable birds. The village is almost self-sufficient and everything is produced organically. The electricity is wind-powered and photovoltaic.
There were thirteen very comfortable rooms awaiting us, even down to the fireplaces, in the style of Greek mountain cabins. In my room there was a wall of bare rock.
The dinner was a real happening of authenticity: dakos (which recalls a large frisella from Apulia covered in cheese and tomatoes), suckling pig and lamb accompanied by numerous vegetables cooked in a number of ways, snails, goats’ and sheep cheeses all revive memories of long lost flavors in the palate.
Here, the high season is the autumn when the menu is filled with chestnuts and game. The much praised Romakos wine, a vine brought by the Venetians hundreds of years ago, was quickly exchanged by a more reassuring bottled Cretan wine. You can take a virtual journey on www.Milia.gr
Raki, the bland ubiquitous Cretan grappa is a good before dinner aperitif and a good after dinner digestive liqueur – and for many Cretans it is also a ‘during dinner’ drink as well.
So Terra Madre has struck again, putting together a lover of the earth with an obstinate Slow Food delegate and thus allowing thirteen members to live a series of experiences I hope will never be forgotten.
Alessandro Scarpa is the leader of the Slow Food Convivium in northern Italy
Adapted by Nicola Rudge-Iannelli