There’s no question that traditional farming communities in Crete are becoming ghost towns – the first to go being the furthest from tourist resorts. The remaining survivors of big agribusiness have become very versatile in overcoming the obstacles of modern society. Andonis is a fisherman by trade. At forty, he’s a rare combination of traditional tradesman and modern well-educated Greek. His parents are farmers who wisely predicted that their trade was becoming too burdensome to carry on.
With the advent of tourism in Elounda, their village in the North-Eastern Crete, — it was either sink or swim – a blessing and a curse. New hotels and roads were being built straight through what was once grazing land for sheep and small orchards and olive groves. The once bountiful sea offers a scant catch due to massive over-collection to supply demand in the resort restaurants. Bright blue and white fishing boats piled high with yellow nets reflect a tranquil glimmer on the tiny port, but now fishing is a coveted hobby, rather than a career. One positive aspect is that the waters are crystal clear, simply because of the lack of industrial development in the area, although that may change if precautions are not taken.
Andonis’s parents scrimped and saved and sold off much of their farmland to build a little apartment complex for visitors on the edge of the sea with an outstanding taverna, “Despina”. They balance the old with the new – working double time during the tourist season. In the winter months, they tend to their farm and maintain a moderate local fisheries trade. In the summer they juggle it all – the apartments and taverna, farming and fishing.
Not everyone in their village is so lucky. Many families who once survived in the agricultural business must now rely on the tourist trade as taxi drivers, waiters, cooks, dishwashers and housekeepers – some have formed cooperative olive groves, producing enough oil for each family’s annual supply and possibly more for sale depending on their share and the harvest. Shortly after the exhausting tourist season ends, the harvest season begins. The highest priority of most villagers is to send their children to university so that they have a chance for financial stability in the urban jungle – not a better lifestyle, but a more predictable future. Very few children return to the village to utilize their new skills as the options are limited.
Andonis’s wife, Penelope, is the chef at their taverna Despina. Unlike many tourist-tavernas in the village serving frozen french fries and souflaki, Penelope spends all day in the kitchen carefully compiling traditional dishes with fresh ingredients straight from their own property. Grapevine leaves, eggplant, tomatoes or zucchini are stuffed with rice and fresh herbs. Fresh steamed spinach and wild mountain greens, which are a rare find in most restaurants now, are always
available, as are tomatoes, cucumbers, beet, roasted and marinated red peppers and other seasonal vegetables. Of course, the fresh fish depends on Andonis’s catch of the day, plus there’s an outdoor grill for meats.
Foreign visitors should take note of the Greek diners’ selections, but they rarely do, although their souflaki and potatoes are fresh and delicious, tourists don’t sample much more—and even drink bottled beer instead of the delicious house-made wine. The villagers cannot comprehend why most visitors prefer – or manage to survive on meat, potatoes and beer, but it’s certainly easy and inexpensive for the chefs to prepare. This lack of demand for local produce affects everyone down the chain, but luckily there are still plenty of local customers. So long as the villagers work together and support local businesses, they can maintain much of their traditional lifestyle. A few decades from now, this tranquil village will still be a thriving tourist resort – the square will look the same with the well-maintained church and the clock tower, bustling cafes and shops. Yet the food will not be from the farmer or fishermen down the road – it will be shipped in from surviving cooperatives on the island or unknown sources in the mainland and beyond. The connection to the land here will be but a mere tale of generations gone by.
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.