Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Monday 29 September 2008

Eggplant pizza (Μελιτζανόπιτσα)

Not all the family liked eggplant. Some of us like it in traditional Greek dishes like papoutsakia or moussaka, others like it with stuffed rice in yemista, while some don't like it at all. I love roasted eggplant. We recently barbecued aubergine slices at a beach party, and I've been hooked on grilled oiled aubergine ever since.

bbq kalamaki hania chania

Although the summer garden is not as proliferate as it was a month ago, eggplant and pepper bushes seem to be the most tolerant to cooler weather, and they are still doing very well at this time of year, even though we were recently drenched in sunless rainy weather.

(Swallows making their way in the rain to warmer climates)

We've pickled the excess banana peppers in vinegar (with a topping of salt before the jar is sealed), but the aubergines are causing me strife. Last night, when I realised I could fit nothing else in the fridge, I cut the big round variety into thick slices, laid them in a baking tin, drizzled olive oil all over them, and threw them into the oven, in the hope that, when they came out of the oven, I will have decided on how to cook them. The result was aubergine pizza.

You need:
4 large round eggplants
2 large tomatoes
2 large onions
2 large green bell peppers
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil for drizzling
grated cheese (optional)

Slice the aubergine thickly, lay out on a baking tin (it doesn't matter if one slice is partly covering another one), drizzle olive oil all over them and place them in a moderate oven until they have taken on a golden cooked colour. Turn them over carefully so that they don't break up and do the same for the other side. They will need more olive oil, as aubergine soaks it up quickly (the same thing happens when they are fried).

Once they are cooked on both sides, layer them in such a way that they cover the whole tin, placing some on top of each other to plug gaps. The base of the tin will now be covered in the same way that a piece of pizza dough covers the base of a tin. Chop the onions into thin slices and spread them all over the aubergines. Do the same with the peppers. Season everything with salt and pepper. Now grate the tomatoes all over the vegetables. Sprinkle the grated cheese all over the tin. (I didn't add the grated cheese until the end of the cooking time for the 'pizza'; for a vegan/lenten option, this can be omitted entirely). Cook in a moderate oven until all the vegetables are cooked (no more than half an hour).

aubergine eggplant pizza

This is a fantastic way to serve aubergine, especially when accompanied by roast meat, which we usually cook on for the Sunday lunch.

And if you want to make this in the winter, the aubergine slices can be frozen individually when cool, and then packed in a plastic bag to maintain storage space in the freezer.

This is my entry for Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging hosted this week by Valentina from Trembom.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Greek comfort food (Γεύμα παρηγoριάς)

Just look at our weather today:

rainy day in hania

There were signs warning of the ominous weather yesterday, despite the sunshine; that was just a ploy to keep the tourist activity alive. People were still walking around in their summer clothes, and we even managed to go to the beach. But the rain couldn't stay away for too long and by all means, it's more than welcome. We've had more than the average rainfall for this time of year.

Of course, I love it. It's cooling, refreshing, cleansing, invigorating, like a battery recharger, unlike the summer's stifling heat, which saps the energy out of you, leaving you with a feeling of suffocation, as if the heat is drowning you. It's still humid, but at least we've cooled down by a few degrees. And we don't need to water the garden any more; the rain does a great job. Maybe it slows down the growth rate, but the coffers are full anyway; there's little more room in the deep freeze. The perfect weather to stay at home. The best weather to cook a hearty meal and still have the stamina to eat it in the midday sun, which was well hidden today amongst the puffy rainclouds.


I found a rather large piece of beef at the butcher's the other day. If you like your meat, then you may have experienced this feeling some time in your own life: its colour (dark red) seemed to be screaming out to me: "I'm fresh, I'm tender, EAT ME!" There were very few marblings in this cut, which means very little fat; a very lean cut of beef, all meat. Greek beef tends to be rather tough to cook and eat, which is why we don't often buy or cook it in our own home (except for minced beef). It was my lucky day. This recipe - beef in tomato sauce with peas and carrots: μοσχάρι κοκκινιστό με αρακά και καρότα - is very popular right around the country, especially in this weather.

You need:
lean beef, approximately 800-1000g, cut in small chunks
1/2 cup oil
4 large onions, cut in medium slices
2 large cloves of garlic (optional), chopped finely
1/2 glass of red wine
4 large tomatoes, pureed (I used my own preserved summer tomato sauce)
1 teaspoon of tomato paste
salt and pepper
500g frozen peas (something we might try growing this winter)
2 large carrots, cut into chunks or sliced into rounds

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onions and garlic, and coat till they are well oiled. Cook for a few minutes (do not burn), then add the beef chunks. Let them cook till there is no red colour on the meat, turning them over to make sure all sides are coated and cooked in the oil, over a moderate heat. Add the wine, and let the meat cook for another five minutes to soak up the flavour. Then add the tomatoes and seasonings. Turn the heat to very low, place a lid on the pot, and don't open it for at least an hour; if this is Greek beef, it will need at least two hours to cook thoroughly (which is why we often buy French beef from the Carrefour supermarket, or locally raised beef from a nearby village; they are fed and slaughtered differently, creating tastier beef).

After the first hour has passed, take the lid of the pot (everything should be looking creamy and saucy), add the peas and carrots, place the lid on the pot and let the vegetables cook away, until the beef is also tender, according to your taste spectrum. I cooked this beef for two hours; we like it to fall away from the knife. This recipe is an adaptation of stifado; beef can also be cooked in that way, the main difference being the addition of spices and whole onions. Instead of the carrots and peas, a local alternative to vegetables is a handful of green olives, in which case, this red sauce is called kapama (καπαμά).

The traditional way to serve this meal is with fried potatoes and a green salad. A healthier alternative is to present it on a bed of plain steamed rice.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Friday 26 September 2008

Our kitchen (Η κουζίνα μας)

A lot of people showed great interest in my response to the NY Times article on the Mediterranean diet. Thanks for the positive feedback. Here's my kitchen (on a good day):


And here's what we keep posted on our kitchen wall:

(a map of Europe dated 1897; a map of modern Europe; the school calendar; the many wonders of the world - not just the ancient seven; the food pyramid)

I'm sure this is just a normal way to educate children in the Western world. In Greece, you will often be asked if the paint comes off the walls when you take the posters down, and how easy it is to wipe away the sellotape or gum tack marks.

"How should I know?" I reply. "I've never taken them down!"

We welcome all donations of educational posters...

Wednesday 24 September 2008

A Diet Succumbs (Η Μεσογειακή διατροφή υποκύπτει)

Here's an article two friends passed onto me just today, from the New York Times (reprinted here for convenience; do take a look at the original article here and here to see the photos). The bold paragraphs are my responses to the article.

Fast Food Hits Mediterranean; a Diet Succumbs By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL September 24, 2008
KASTELI, Hania, Crete, Greece Dr. Michalis Stagourakis has seen a transformation of his pediatric practice here over the past three years. The usual sniffles and stomachaches of childhood are now interspersed with far more serious conditions: diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. A changing diet, he says, has produced an epidemic of obesity and related maladies.

Greek people have a tendency to be fat, but obesity is a clinical term. It is easy to call someone fat, but it is also subjective. Saying that, I also feel myself that there is a preponderance of fat-looking children and adults in the town, as this photo indicates. We probably also suffer from illnesses that were not so common in the past, but this is probably not only due only to diet.

Small towns like this one in western Crete, considered the birthplace of the famously healthful Mediterranean diet emphasizing olive oil, fresh produce and fish are now overflowing with chocolate shops, pizza places, ice cream parlors, soda machines and fast-food joints.

They certainly are. Even without tourism, the globalised nature of these kinds of leisure stores means that they would have eventually become a part of the landscape. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to eat there on a regular basis, however...

The fact is that the Mediterranean diet, which has been associated with longer life spans and lower rates of heart disease an cancer, is in retreat in its home region. Today it is more likely to be found in the upscale restaurants of London and New York than among the young generation in places like Greece, where two-thirds of children are now overweight and the health effects are mounting, health officials say.

Again, 'overweight' is a clinical term, while appearance is a subjective factor. In my opinion, the primary school my children attend has children who look 'slim', 'healthy', 'slender', 'thin', 'active'; there are only a few children of the 120 who look 'fat', 'chubby', or 'obese'.

“This is a place where you’d see people who lived to 100, where people were all fit and trim,” Dr. Stagourakis said. “Now you see kids whose longevity is less than their parents’. That’s really scaring people.” (So it should!) That concern has been echoed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, which said in a report this summer that the region’s diet had “decayed into a moribund state.” “It is almost a perfect diet, but when we looked at what people were eating we noticed that much of the highly praised diet didn’t exist any more,” said the report’s author, Josef Schmidhuber, a senior economist at the food organization. “It has become just a notion.” Greece, Italy, Spain and Morocco have even asked Unesco to designate the diet as an “intangible piece of cultural heritage,” a testament to its essential value as well as its potential extinction.

An intangible piece of cultural heritage is going a bit far, as Crete is not the only island to claim the Mediterranean diet as part of their culture; Sicilians and Tunisians were also considered to follow the same kind of diet patterns. Longevity can still be reached in Crete, but the Japanese live far longer than anyone in the world, and their diet is completely different to the traditional Cretan one. Again, it is not just diet that accounts for longevity; medical care (relatively inadequate in Greece, extremely high in Japan) also plays a role.

The most serious effects of its steady disappearance are on people’s health and waistlines. Alarmed by the trends, the Greek government has been swooping into schools in villages like Kasteli annually for the past few years to weigh children and lecture them on nutrition. The lessons include a food pyramid focused on the Mediterranean diet. It is an uphill battle, though. This spring, a majority of children who were tested at the elementary school of this sleepy port town of 3,000, also known as Kissamos, were found to have high cholesterol. “It was the talk of the school,” said Stella Kazazakou, 44. “Instead of grades, the moms were comparing cholesterol levels.”

It's not that people haven't noticed what children are eating at school. It's worse seeing what they're not eating: when both parents are working, some children do not even bring lunch to school. This embarrassing fact was revealed at a parent-teacher meeting held recently at my children's primary school, when some parents discussed the problem of a communal dining area, as the school does not have a separate dining room, so that the children are eating off the desks that they end up doing their school work on. The headmaster also gave a stern warning to parents, boldly telling them that a chocolate-filled puff pastry for morning break followed by another chocolate-filled puff pastry for lunch would only lead their children to an early death. Sadly, not everyone heeds his words. Thankfully, there is no school canteen at this school, so parents have the responsibility to prepare their children's school meals.

In Greece, three-quarters of the adult population is overweight or obese, the worst rate in Europe “by far,” according to the United Nations. The rates of overweight 12-year-old boys rose more than 200 percent from 1982 to 2002 and have been rising even faster since. Italy and Spain are not far behind, with more than 50 percent of adults overweight. That compares with about 45 percent in France and the Netherlands. In the United States, 66 percent of adults older than 20 were overweight in 2004, and 31.9 percent of children 2 through 19 were overweight in 2006, although childhood statistics are compiled somewhat differently in different countries.

In my reading, I have often come across this statement (that Greeks are the fattest Europeans), but I have also read that Great Britain has the fattest Europeans. In Crete, people do have a tendency to look fat, as stated above, but it's difficult to compare levels of obesity if different methods of measuring it are used in each country. But I've also read that Greeks (with a record rate of smokers) are also some of the Europeans with the longest lifespan. Obesity clearly isn't the only factor involved in longevity, and neither should food and diet be the main factor involved in rising obesity. A typical Greek child spends about five-six hours a day at school, most of the time sitting at a desk. (Take my children as an example: they have two 40-minute Phys.Ed. classes a week on their schedule; what are they doing in all the other classes?) After school, there is homework to be written, English classes to go to, as well as (in the case of most children) other school-related lessons at private institutes. There is a general lack of physical activity, in some cases coupled with bad diet (aside from sedentary hobbies imported from the globalised universe, such as television, DVD and computer usage).

In Greece, the increase in the number of fat children has been particularly striking, parents and doctors say. “Their diet is totally different than ours was,” said Soula Sfakianakis, 40, recalling breakfasts of goat milk, bread and honey. Her son, Vassilis, a husky 9-year-old who had a chocolate mustache from a recently conquered ice cream cone, said he preferred cornflakes in the morning and steak or macaroni and cheese for dinner.

OK, Vassilis, are you allowed to eat what you like whenever you like, or do your parents also prefer steak and cheesy macaroni on a daily basis? It all depends on who cooks, what cooking habits they follow, and whether there is a conscious effort made on the part of the main food provider in a household as to what a child will eat on a daily basis.

Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Athens Medical School, said the problem had grown acute with the spread of supermarkets and, especially, convenience foods. “In the last five years it’s become really bad,” she said. “The children are all quite heavy. The market is pushing a lot, and parents and schools seem unable to resist.” Advertising geared toward children has invaded Greece full force, stretching into the countryside. On television there are commercials for chips; at supermarkets there are stands of candy. Last year, Coca-Cola sponsored a play about healthful eating. But facing both aggressive convenience food marketing and obesity for the first time, many rural residents here have little resistance to or knowledge of the dangers.

Fast food has invaded all parts of the world, but Cretan rural residents have plenty of knowledge on what is good or not good to eat. People make food choices that they talk about in public; you often hear parents claiming that they don't keep soft drinks or crisps in the house, for instance. But it is also true that cheap mass-produced hi-fat hi-carb snacks have invaded the supermarkets, and they are an easy long-life shelf-storable solution for convenience food. Some people could do with a few lessons in food and time management. A little more organisation and more conscious food-buying decisions are probably all it takes to make a significant change in the way one copes with feeding their family.

Dr. Trichopoulou said that some older people might have been tolerant of childhood chubbiness because Greece had for so long been a poor nation where hunger was a recurrent problem. Outside one of Kasteli’s several ice cream parlors, Argyro Koromylla said, “You don’t want your child complaining or feeling left out, so you give him what he wants.” Her son Manolis, 12, was finishing a cone, a large T-shirt draped over his stocky frame.

Hunger was not exactly a problem in the sense that people sourced their own food in more natural ways. It was simply harder to store it for long periods of time, and it was necessary to continually source food in order to have it. The more members in a family (as in the past), the less food that was available to share out, not because it wasn't available, but because it wasn't easy to harvest as much as was needed. The bounty of nature was always used as the primary source of food in Crete, which is not necessarily the case anymore since the invention and widespread use of refrigerators and supermarkets, but a lot of good-quality Cretan food still comes from nature itself. It's just that it is easier to get access to it, hence less physical activity is needed to source food, hence people are fatter.

Dimitris Loukakis, 44, said he was so concerned about changing eating habits that he had bought a farm to grow traditional crops himself.

There's no doubt about the health benefits of maintaining a garden and growing your own produce. Most people where I live do in fact grow their own everything and are very proud of it. But you can't grow your own ice-cream and puff pastry, so it's just a case of being food-wise and health-conscious if you want your children to be healthy.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe by the beach, he and his wife drank iced coffee while their chunky 9-year-old daughter, Maria, nibbled on spinach pie and glumly drank water. “I’m on a diet; I have to eat less,” Maria piped up, noting that the local school had recently started to teach students about nutrition.

Should we be feeling sorry for Maria nibbling on spinach pie and glumly drinking water? Some children gulp both down ravenously: we continually tell ours how good these are for them, and they now believe us, even catching on to news items that contain food words we have discussed round the kitchen table. They know the food pyramid off by heart - I've had it stuck on the kitchen wall for over a year...

“Some diet,” interjected her father. “We’re trying to keep her off sugar now. If we continue like this, we’re going to become like Americans, and no one wants that.

This is what we hear on the news all the time, that Americans are fat and eat junk food all the time. We should look at ourselves before we make such claims. But if we 'know' what makes us fat ('junk food', 'American food'), why do we still eat it? Greeks are very image-conscious: it's important to be seen in the right places, doing the right things, wearing the right clothes, sporting the right accessories, eating the right food. We eat badly as part of the show to impress, to show off, to support local businesses, to be 'in', to feel good - and junk food has a tendency to make us feel really really good in many ways...

The traditional diet, low in saturated fats and high in nutrients like flavonoids, was based on vegetables, fruit, unrefined grains, olive oil for cooking and for flavoring, and a bit of wine all consumed on a daily basis.

And it still can be if you want it to be. It isn't hard to be seasonally inclined in one's food habits in Crete.

Fish, nuts, poultry, eggs, cheese and sweets were weekly additions. Red meat, refined sugar or flour, butter and other oils or fats were consumed rarely, if at all. Research on the diet took off in the 1990s, as scientists noted that people in Mediterranean countries lived longer and had low rates of serious disease despite a penchant for patently unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking. But that protection is now seen as rapidly eroding.

Nothing lasts forever, but we can make changes to our diet and physical activity patterns; it's in our own interest.

A generation ago, the typical diet in all Mediterranean countries complied with nutritional recommendations by the WHO that less than 10 percent of calories come from saturated fats and that less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol be consumed per day. Today, the typical diet in all of the countries exceeds those limits significantly, Dr. Schmidhuber said. In Greece, average daily cholesterol consumption has risen to 400 milligrams from 190 in 1963. Germany’s is similar. In Portugal, consumption went to 460 milligrams from 155. In 2002, a British study found that 31 percent to 34 percent of 12-year-olds in Greece were overweight a 212 percent increase since 1982 and “it has gotten worse, much worse, since then,” Dr. Stagourakis said. One-quarter of all children on Crete have cholesterol problems, he said, and seeing children with diabetes and high blood pressure is no longer uncommon. Unlike in the United States, where obesity is more pronounced in adults than in children, in the Mediterranean region the rise in weight problems has been more common among the young. Parents’ taste buds still tend to hew to a more traditional diet.

So it's clearly up to the parents to make conscious food choices in the household, which was stated above.

A survey by the World Health Organization last year of statistics from various countries found that among children in the first half of primary school, 35.2 percent in Spain were overweight the worst rate and 31.5 percent in Portugal. The lowest rates were in Slovakia (15.2 percent), France (18.1 percent) and Switzerland (18.3 percent). Greece was not included. Being overweight, particularly being obese, is associated with a wide variety of medical problems, like diabetes and liver disease. While heavy children may not suffer immediate health effects, they are statistically far more likely to grow into obese adults than their trimmer classmates. And in adulthood the conditions can be lethal.

I've also noticed another trend, based on my contact with children and young people in private language schools. Children tend to look fit and healthy, especially when parents make conscious food decisions. Young people tend to look slim, but they have developed a podgy stomach, evident from the way they sit at a desk. These children are clearly not getting enuch exercise, and are probably spending too much time sitting on a chair behind a desk, doing something else Greek parents just love seeing their kids do: studying for school. It's no wonder that the young will have a problem as they get older.

On traditional Crete, there was no need for calorie counting or food pyramids. People were poorer then, so their food was mostly homegrown, and producing it required more physical activity. “We ate what we grew and what we could make from it,” said Eleni Klouvidaki, 46, who lives in Kalidonia, a mountain village outside Kasteli, and describes her preferred diet as “whatever’s green.” On a recent day she prepared a meal of her staple mix of zucchini, tomatoes and other vegetables, and tossed it all in homemade olive oil. Now and again, she augments this dish with beans, or meat from her chickens or rabbits.

Believe it or not, a lot of people still eat like this, but they may still be overweight. The typical image of the 1960s Greek grandmother was a matronly figure dressed in black. She was probably standing by the stove, constantly wearing an apron. That was considered a normal image. Why are the rounded curvy bodies now looked down on? Probably something to do with fashion desingers and thier models. It isn't just the food that is changing people's health for the worse; physical activity, stress levels, the growing demands of modern society, pollution, occupational changes, they all have a part to play.

But she said that as more women worked and shops had moved in, the food culture had changed. “We’ve entered an era of convenience,” she said. “Even in this rural village, the diet is very different than it used to be.” She, too, occasionally grabs dinner in town, and four nights a week her son, who works in a car repair shop, drives to a fast-food restaurant. “They don’t deliver here yet,” she explained.

I know why her son can't limit his fast-food intake: in Crete, the going-out culture all has to do with eating out at the local grillhouse (taverna). Back in the good old days, people were unlikely to own a car; now, most households have at least two parked in their driveways. In time, that young man will realise that he shouldn't be eating so much junk; most young people do eventually learn not to eat so much junk food - it's never too late.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Monday 22 September 2008

Fried zucchini flowers (Κολοκυθοανθούς α λα ιταλικά)

The weather has cooled down in Hania so much that I find I have more energy to get things done around the house and garden. It is now not so much of a chore to work with the brown soil under my feet, even if it is a little muddy.

(a very confused sky)

We planted a new group of zucchini plants about a month ago. They have been producing on a regular basis, but I now nip them in the bud rather than letting them become giant marrows. At the same time, I'm collecting more and more zucchini flowers on the stem (not the ones attached to the zucchini themselves), the so-called male flowers, probably because I'm in the garden so frequently and I can see them.

zucchini flowers storing zucchini pumpkin vine flowers

I've also seen these flowers growing over-profusely elsewhere too, in my neighbour's garden, but not on zucchini plants; he grows pumpkin, a not so popular vegetable for human consumption in Greece, but it does apparently make good animal feed, as well as the vine providing shade for other summer garden produce which is growing in an overexposed location.

The variety of squash that my neighbour's planted grows in the same way as do courgette plants, except that pumpkins are always vines, whereas our zucchini plants are more like lateral bushes, much shorter than a vine-growing plant. The flowers they produce are more plentiful, but smaller than those of courgette plants. They look exactly the same as zucchini flowers, and they can be cooked in the same way. It is difficult to tell them apart once they've been cut away from the plants.

pumpkin vine flowers pumpkin vine flowers
(I picked some flowers from this pumpkin vine today and left a few on it to pick later - alas, by the time I returned, the flowers had all closed up again, as they do when the sun stops shining, or it is late in the morning; believe it or not, I had picked all the blossoms the day before! In any case, they'll open up tomorrow...)

The flowers look fragile, but they are actually very resilient. Pick them from the stalk, cut away the (usually five) spiky bits at the base of the flower, and remove the dusty yellow pistil. Wash them well (well-camouflaged insects are probably hiding inside them). Once they are dry, they can be stored for up to a fortnight, one flower inside the other, in a plastic bag or air-tight container (take care not to squash them), or used in a meal.

The Italians use zucchini flowers in a variety of ways. In Crete, they are mainly turned into dolmadakia rice parcels, but as I have a lot of these flowers at my disposal at the moment, I've decided to use them Italian-style, as a simple fritter.

fried zucchini pumpkin vine flowers

For the batter, you need:
1 egg
3-4 tablespoons of flour
1/2 cup water
salt and pepper to season

Mix the batter ingredients until the mixture is smooth and runny. This mixture will be enough to fry about 15-18 flowers. Heat some (preferably) olive oil in a saucepan. Make sure it's really hot, then dip the flowers in the batter, one-by-one, drain off the excess batter, and toss them into the very hot oil. Cook them in two batches rather than one, because the temperature of the oil will decrease if you add them altogether, making them oil-soaked rather than dry and crispy. Turn them over once to brown on both sides, then use a slotted spoon to drain them out of the pan. Transfer them to a plate lined with a paper towel to soak up the excess oil. They are best served hot.

fried zucchini pumpkin vine flowers

These flowers tasted very much like their parents: fried zucchini. They were accompanied by fried rabbit and an aromatic Greek salad to which I had added some rocket leaves; my summer purslane weed has now given way to autumn rocket in the cooler weather (though I did need to sow it, whereas purslane grows without any help at all).

For a more dramatic look, keep the stalks when frying them, as Laurie did, so that they can be picked up by the stem when eating them. I simply don't have enough room in my fridge to do this.

This post is dedicated to Priscilla, who still found the time to blog and update us on what happened to her home when Ike visited; spare a thought for others like her who have lost their kitchens from the havoc wreaked by nature itself.

This is my entry for Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging hosted this week by Haalo from Cook (almost) Anything At Least Once.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Friday 19 September 2008

Moustokouloura - grape must cookies (Μουστοκούλουρα)

It finally came. Yesterday. And when it came, it darkened the sky with its thickness, turning the lucid blue of summer into the bruised hues of autumn. The rain dutifully stayed away from Hania for four months without a drop falling from the sky. Umbrellas were stored away, raincoats hung up under summer jackets, boots stashed away in the darkest corners. The days were filled with sunlight. Our tourists were thrilled to enjoy rainless days on their summer vacation, without the worrying thought that in the middle of their holiday, they may have to head for a covered passage or a large tree to avoid a sudden downpour, soaking them to the skin and dampening their happy memories of a Mediterranean holiday under the sun.

(the washed out look of Hania after a slight drizzle in the afternoon)

In the meantime, dust particles piled upon more dust, the earth dried up, our skins became parched, and everything had become as dehydrated as a sun-dried tomato. The arrival of the rain refreshes us, it washes away the dust and dirt, it cleans up the atmosphere, it moistens our skin, it fills up our reservoirs, it relieves us from garden irrigation duty. We wear our raincoats, we search for our umbrellas, we close our doors and watch it falling from our windows. Drivers beware: the first rains are always more dangerous than subsequent showers, especially in dry climates like Crete. The water falls on dirty roads laden with dust, making them extremely slippery.

grapevine in the rain grapes
(another dozen or so tubs like this one hang on the vines waiting to be picked)

The first rain in my town is like a breath of fresh air, but it always seems to come on a day when I'm not able to stay at home to enjoy watching it fall from the window. The first rain is also a promise of more to come: one good rain shower and the grapes will have had it. They begin to rot, making them useless for any purpose except animal feed. They need to be picked now (which is why everyone who owns grapevines in Hania was making grape must last weekend) and turned into anything that uses grapes: there is only so much fresh fruit that you can eat...

All over the town and especially in the villages (as these tasks require the luxury of a spacious yard, people can be seen making grape must, syrup (petimezi - one of the most ancient recipes known in Greece), wine and tsikoudia. Some people also dry grapes and turn them into raisins, while most noikokires (housewives) add grapes and must to many sweets: moustokouloura (cookies), spoon sweets and moustalevria (jelly).

(must dripping into a bucket, grape must, petimezi, moustalevria)
grape must ramni hania chania grape must ramni hania chania petimezi ramni hania chania moustalevria grape products
(grape spoon sweet, tsikoudia, wine, raisins)

The grape spoon sweet was made using Nancy's recipes, who recommends adding some pelargonium leaves to add more aroma to the sweet; thanks to Mariana's garden for this. Imagine giving a dinner party and producing one of these spoon sweets (my favorites are fig and quince) at the end of the meal; your guests will praise you for creating this ambrosia. It is a like a sorbet in a way, cleansing the palate form the meat and sauces sarved in the main meal. Serve this spoon sweet with some tsikoudia and lots of water (syrupy sweets tend to clog your throat).

Grape must biscuits (moustokouloura) are also a wonderfully aromatic cold weather treat. They taste and smell a little like gingerbread, but they are cooked as a biscuit, even though they remain soft after being cooked; they are more like a crusted bun with a soft centre. They are very easy to make, but require quick work once the flour is added. The dough becomes stiff quite quickly, so it must be kneaded to a soft and pliable consistency, difficult when it contains no butter or margarine (my dough was a little stiff, which is why my cookies didn't turn out so smooth). These biscuits are made with olive oil, and they are classically used during a fasting period. They keep up to three weeks in an airtight container.


My recipe comes from Psilakis' Cretan cookbook.

You need
1 cup of grape must
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of oil
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of ground cloves
1 shot glass of brandy
3/4 cup of natural orange juice
2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons of baking soda
1 kilo of all-purpose flour
Mix all the liquids together. Add all the remaining ingredients, except the flour, and mix well. Add the flour and mix it in quickly to get a soft pliable dough. The classic shape of the cookie is a round one with a hole in the middle (kind of like a doughnut), but you can also make finger-shaped cookies. The baking sheet does not need to be greased. Cook in a moderate oven for about 25 minutes; the cookies will turn golden brown, depending on the colour of the grape must, but they should not be overcooked.

As I was making these cookies, it started raining again. It was a strong reminder of the changing of the seasons. It suited the mood in my kitchen; the cinammon-clove smell emanating from the oven matched the rain and grey skies, and so did the autumn colours of the ingredients used to make these cookies. A similar recipe can be used for making a grape syrup cake (petimezopita), once again similar to gingerbread. Both are perfect with a cup of strong coffee.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

The grape harvest (Ο τρύγος)

The baptismal sacrament in the Greek Orthodox church is probably the most joyous one, the one that does not involve a great change in one's life, nor dealing with sadness, afflictions and confusion. It is a lasting one, so it is said, unlike the sacrament of marriage whose status can change over the course of time. Achileas had been instructed by his parents never to turn down an offer of becoming a godfather, which is how he ended up with four godsons, all of whose parents were distant relatives of his parents. The family of the last child he christened was quite a case in point, the one that made him realise he could not keep accepting godparenting offers in the future.

Stavros was Achileas' third cousin; this fact was disputable, as no one could quite remember the names of the great-great-grandparents, all long gone now, involved in forging this relationship. Before his parents' deaths, Achileas had only met Stavros, ten years his junior, once, at a funeral. Stavros had not made a favorable impression on Achileas at the time: a thirteen-year old black-shirted lad driving his father's pick-up truck. A mother managed to pull her child off the road before Stavros zoomed past the main square of the village which was filled with mourners. Horiati, he thought to himself. Just over a decade later, his parents received a wedding invitation to Stavros' wedding, from Stavros' parents, as custom dictates: invite all the relatives, even if they don't know you.

"Stavros?" Achileas racked his brain to see if could remember who Stavro was. "Stavros who?"

"And he's marrying Persephone's daughter, Stavroula. Amazing how both sides of our family managed to get it together one more time!"

Achileas had little to do with either of the relatives concerned. Once he graduated from high school, he left Hania for Scotland, where he completed a Master's degree in Business Management. His marks were too low to pass into the school of his choice in Greece, so he preferred to leave the country and study abroad where he had a sure chance of being able to continue the studies of his choice, rather than play hit-and-miss again in Greece by sitting the university entrance exams again. He now preferred to keep company with the relatives he had more in common with, the ones who'd left rural life and become more urbanised. Not that he disliked the agricultural communities of his forefathers; it simply wasn't feasible to maintain both a life in the town working all hours of the day as an accountant, and then play the role of farmer-shepherd-horticulturalist-winemaker in his free time. By choosing the relatives he associated with, he felt a sense of content in that he was trying to fit the old adage "you can pick your friends, but not your relatives" more appropriately into his lifestyle. Therefore, he did not bother to attend Stavros' wedding.

ramni hania chania

The second time he saw Stavros was at his parents' funeral. They had both died tragically in a car crash. The congregation at the village church was far too large to accommodate the mourners; some of them he knew, others he didn't. A Greek funeral was like a wedding or a baptism: first you meet the couple, then you meet their children, then you say goodbye to them. Stavros had been living a comfortable life in the town, away from the familial bonds for so long, that he had neglected the oft-forgotten duty of remembering and honouring one's ancestors. The funeral had brought this fact home to him in the cruellest way. He felt out of touch with his own people.

Being an only child, he was very grateful to God - he wasn't sure who God was, but he did believe there was a superpower controlling the fate of mankind - that at least his parents had met his fiance, Korina. She was from the town, and shared his desire for a regularised urban lifestyle, away from the muck and bother of rural life. A pharmacist by trade, she worked shifts. When they had first met, she made it clear to him that she would not give up her job once she had children, something Stavros agreed to. He knew that this relationship of his could not be compared to his parents', where his father worked at the state electric company and worked the fields in his every spare hour, while his mother was a housewife, and turned the fruits of her husband's labours into various comestibles. His was a relationship based on equality, something he had got accustomed to during his six years in Scotland among the campus community. His wife was not able to continue Achileas' mother's constant adoration of him. The new woman in his life expected him to be strong and independent, like herself. Korina had helped to wean him off this kind of devotion. But he had never stopped loving his mother, who always had his favorite meal cooking in the oven, and had a stream of tupperware ready for him to take home with him after each of his visits. So when his parents left him together, he broke down. He had no idea how to start planning a funeral.

Korina's parents were very helpful in this respect. They contacted the head of the community in the village, who put Achileas in touch with Stavros. Stavros called the priest and made arrangements for the funeral, the opening of the family tomb - his father's family were all buried there right up to his father's grandparents - the trimera, the enniamera and the koliva for all the memorial services ending in the 12-month mnimosino. At the funeral, Achileas met Stavros' wife Stavroula for the first time; she seemed timid, quiet, reticent, more a young girl than a woman, carrying her first-born as if it were a piece of porcelain that she hadn't got the hang of holding correctly. It was after the trimina memorial service that Stavros asked Achileas if he would oblige to his request to become the godfather of his son Manousos.

With the renewal of his family ties, Achileas and Stavros had now forged a dual relationship: they were both cousins and koumbari. Achileas could not have turned his offer down, even if he had expalined to him that he had already become a godfather, after all the help that Stavros had offered and continued to offer to Achileas, even after the funeral and memorial services. He had taken him round the village and showed him the location and borders of every single field his father had been tending, including his mother's family's fields, which her siblings had been secretly hoping Achileas would never bother to find out about, so that they could trespass, with the hope that they could eventually claim it for themselves.

*** *** ***
Now that Achileas had a family of his own, Stavros' three children were the perfect playmates for his own two. They were similar in ages, and whenever they visited Stavros in the village, which was not often due to the pace of modern life and the various activities both families were involved in, seven-year-old Maria and nine-year-old Dionisis found an outlet to the expend pent-up energy that could not be used in the tightly enclosed space of a city apartment, no matter how large it was. Achileas had seconded the job to Stavros of caretaker of his fields, something that he now realised was essential if he were to maintain his father's olive fields in a tidy state, even if it meant that he produced just enough olive oil for his family's needs and did not make any profit from them. This was done without too much face-to-face contact with Stavros, as his cousin lived in the area himself. He preferred this situation to having to make regular journeys up narrow roads carved out from the mountains, with precarious driving conditions in the winter.

Whenever the families did meet, it was usually - nearly always - at Stavros' house. "Apartments aren't for me, koumbare," he explained to Achileas. "I want to run like a goat, I need my space. I'd be hitting my head against one of the the walls if I was ever cooped up inside one." Stavros folded his arms under his armpits and moved them up and down like chickens' wings. "Dunno how you manage it yourself, koumbare," he would tell him every time they met.

A favorite pastime of Maria and Dionisis when they visited the village was to check out the animals with the youngest of Stavros' three sons, Yiannis, who was the same age as Dionisis. Achileas was thankful for the contact his children had in this way with nature, but there was also the other side of the coin. The last time they had visited Stavros was at Easter, just when he had killed a sheep and had left it hanging to dry under the grapevine. He had felt a slight revulsion on first sight, as it had been a long time since he last remembered his father bringing home freshly salughtered meat. He knew his mother handled the chickens, but she had never let him watch her kill one, her way of protecting her one and only from all the bad on the world. His children did not seem perturbed in the slightest; perhaps it was Yiannis' mock taunting of the carcass that negated the psychological effects of such a sight and turned it into a game. In any case, he felt a slight sense of relief that he did not have to explain the process himself to his offspring.

butcher's chopping board ramni hania chania wine press ramni hania chania

Some time in the summer, just as they were ready to leave Stavros' house, Stavroula came out with a plastic supermarket bag containing a freshly slaughtered hen. She smiled as she held out the bag; she was a woman of few words. Achileas was used to his wife's dominating voice and he wondered, as he watched Stavroula, whether this simple woman who had never been to high school would have been a suitable companion for him; would it suffice to have food on the table and a clean house, as this was the whole of Stavroula's world. She did not work outside the home, she did not drive, nor did she accompany the children around to and from their schools and extra-curricular activities. Could the comfort and solace she offered replace Korina's organised mind? "Here," she said to Achileas, and gave him the bag. Then she disappeared into the kitchen, as if she had a good excuse to escape the farewell formalities.

Just at that moment, a shot was heard being fired, and there was a quick movement in amongst the vlita bushes in the garden. Maria started screaming and crying. As he tried to comfort her, Stavros walked by carrying a shotgun. Moments before, he had seen a cat entering the garden and had surreptitiously gone into the storeroom without anyone catching on to what he was doing. "Their blasted piss spoils the taste," he spat out as he made his way tot he storeroom to put the gun back in its place. He kept his rifle loaded at all times. "You never know who's lurking, koumbare; one day it's an Albanian, the next, it might be a Turk." He sounded serious, as though he really believed what he said.

*** *** ***

In mid-September, Achileas found himself at the village once again, uninvited this time. It was Stavros' - and Stavroula's - nameday, and it is common practice never to invite guests to lunch. if they couldn't come, it was up to them to inform the celebrant. If their nameday fell during the week, Achileas would have called them and apologised for not being able to visit, citing the usual school-work-homework excuse. But today was Sunday. His wife happened to be working all day at the emergency pharmacy, so she would not be able to accompany him to the village. he would have to go alone; there was no excuse not to turn up. Korina had laid out the children's clothes for him so that he would not have to rummage around the wardrobes and drawers to find them himself, and had reminded him via an SMS to buy some cakes and to give Manousos some money ("fakelakia top right-hand drawer of dresser") in lieu of a new-school-year present; now that Manousos had entered high school, it was difficult to choose a present for him anyway.

On leaving the motorway, they passed the greener lower-lying villages with their tree-lined streets and fountains surrounded by cafeterias, where some tourists were having a pit-stop as their coach was parked on the side of the rather inadequate road, given the increase in its traffic. Achileas pulled up near the coach to buy some sweets from the zaharoplasteio in the area.

apokoronas hania chania

"I wish this was the village," Maria said. In some ways, so did Achileas, but he knew how cold and damp it could feel in the winter. Stavros' village - and Achileas' too, if only he could convince himself that he was no different from Stavros as they both shared the same family lineage - was located on a steep incline, which meant that flooding and damp conditions were not a worry to him. The main problem was the remote access; few people ventured up the narrow windy road that led to the village, and the residents there were all old, mainly women, one decrepit black-attired wrinkled bag of bones per five houses. Stavros had been very bold to renovate his parents' house and live here with his family.

apokoronas hania chania apokoronas hania chania

"It's only half an hour from the town," Stavros would say to anyone who complained about the time he spent on the road. He dropped the children off to school on his way to work, and picked them up at the end of the day. He was a state employee, having gotten a position as an orderly in the hospital, and he had enough pull to bend the rules so that he could work the hours that suited him.

Achileas entertained the children by telling them stories about how he remembered the road when he was young.

"It was much narrower, and the bridge was very badly in need of repair, because it was constantly being destroyed when it rained," he was telling them.

"But it doesn't rain much in Hania," Maria said.

"It used to rain much more when I was young, dear."

"But if it rained a lot," his son was now talking, "why aren't there more trees on the mountains?"

"Climate change, I suppose, son."

"Oh," said Dionisis, as though he understood the expression; no doubt, it was something that had been discussed in shcool. Children were much more environmentally aware now than they were at Dionisis' age in Achileas' time. Being an only child, Achileas could not get enough of talking to his children. He had become a father much later than his peers and he felt grateful that he could offer his wisdom to them at an early age. He felt his mortality when he realised the age difference between him and his children. Like his parents who left the world before their time was due, he wondered if he would ever become a grandfather.

"What's this, Baba?"

apokoronas hania chania apokoronas hania chania

A rocket-like instrument was lying on the ground next to what looked like a crater in the mountainside. Achileas explained to the children that in the past, the mountain, which was made of a grantite rock-like substance, was exploited for its use as a source for raw building materials. The hill next to the road was broken and the extracted rock was broken up into smaller pieces. It looked like a desecration of the countryside had taken place rather than any other useful exercise; the area had become an eyesore, and cretaed a ghoulish landscape where there should have been cypress trees, eucalyptus and mulberries.

*** *** ***
As they ascended into the thickness of the Apokoronas region, Achileas noticed a hive of activity in the fields. People were loading sacks onto 4x4 pick-up trucks. It was grape harvest time. At this point, he braked hard and the car came to a sudden halt. The children were admonishing him for making them crash into each other, but he wasn't listening to them. As he watched the workers haul up the sacks, he remembered his father bringing home the juice of the first pressing of the grapes of the season, and asking him, first, to put a glass of it to his ear to hear the fermentation process, then to smell it, and finally to taste it. He loved to drink it fresh with a couple of ice-cubes to cool it down, as it was always still very hot at that time of year, even though autumn was supposed to be setting in.

"What's wrong, Baba?" Dionisis was talking to him. He had been wrapped up in his own thoughts.

"Nothing son," he replied, as he set off again.

When they arrived at Stavros' house, all seemed quiet. Stavroula and her mother-in-law were sitting in the yard, which meant that Stavros and his sons were away at the fields, where he always spent his free time at the weekends, unless he was working one of the rare night shifts. He had converted an old store room in the house into a bedroom with an outhouse for his eighty-year-old mother; "two women can't cook in the same kitchen", he had once told Achileas.

"Χρόνια πολλά, κουμπάρα," he said to Stavroula as he gave her the box of sweets. "And here's something for Manousos," he added as he gave her 50 euro.

"Δεν έπρεπε, you really shouldn't," she insisted, even though they both knew that this was part of the custom of being a godfather.

"Come, come," Stavroula beckoned to them to sit down on one of the rickety woven chairs or the dried up cracked plastic ones in the yard. "Korina's at work, isn't she?" she asked, out of politeness perhaps. She could not understand why any woman would want to work, especially at weeekends. Her mother-in-law smiled and nodded her head. She was dressed head-to-toe in black, her grey hair swept into an untidy bun, a slight woman whose appearance had the look of weariness. Her fingers were short and knuckled, her cheeks bright red. She was wearing plastic slip on shoes over black nylon stockings, even though it was 30 degrees Celsius, and that was in the shade. She reminded Stavros of his own grandmothers. They had both died in the space of three years, the second one passing away only six months before his parents. "Better to bury your parents than your children," many people had said to him at the funeral in empathy.

"Stavros' at the trigo," Stavroula informed Achileas. He had gathered that that was what he was doing, as there was a can of grape must (used to make grape syrup) boiling away over a makeshift outdoor fireplace in the middle of the yard. It added to the heat of the day, creating a stifling atmosphere. There was plenty of shade, though; Stavros carefully tended the vine above the yard simply for that purpose. Stavroula had disappeared into the kitchen for a minute and returned carrying a serving tray with a bottle of tsikoudia and some shot glasses. She had also arranged the pastes Achileas had brought on a plate for everyone to help themselves.

apokoronas hania chania

The time passed slowly before Stavros' return. Achileas let the children run around in the yard, all the while worrying what Korina might say when she discovered that their clothes were dirty. Had she been here, she would have chastised them with her constant nagging; she was a cleansiness fanatic. Achileas was softer than his wife on the children. Being an only child, he had missed having company his own age when he was young, and this was why he wanted children - not just a child - as soon as ha and Korina married. They had decided that if their first born was a boy, he would choose the name, and if it was a girl, Korina would choose it. As it turned out, Dionisis was named after his paternal grandfather, as tradition dictates, while Maria was given her maternal grandmother's name.

Stavros and his sons - they had become fine strapping lads, all height and muscle - returned to the house after two hours. Yiannis was thrilled to see Maria and Dionisis. They scrambled off to the bedrooms - Achileas had forbidden them to go there in the absence of the occupants - to play with his toys.

"Ιντα κάνεις, κουμπάρε, σε χάσαμε!" Stavros greeted Achileas as if he hadn't seen him in years. He was sweating profusely, and there was still work to be done; Achileas helped him unload the truck with the sacks of grapes, ready to be poured into the wine press that he housed in a corner of his yard.

"Kopelakia!" Stavros cried out to the children. "Elate ne mpeite!" The five children trotted out into the yard, Achileas' children at first crious to see what was in store for them. He placed a white plastic chair near the tub and told them all to take off their shoes and socks. "Come and wash your feet before you get in," he instructed them as he carried a hosepipe to the chair and turned on the tap.

"Can we get in too?" Maria asked her father.

wine press ramni hania chania must production ramni hania chania

"Of course, honey, I'm going to get in myself!" Achileas rolled up his trousers, ignoring Korina's ranting face that was being played in fast forward motion in his mind. He helped the children out of their trousers and washed their feet. It was the middle of the day and boiling hot. This would end up being the best way to cool down in the sweltering mesimeri. Everyone stomped and stomped until the grapes had become slush. Maria jumped up and down as if she were on a trampoline; her brother was not all that keen on getting dirty, but Achileas insisted that he had to stay in the tub until all the other children got out.

When the pressing was over, Achileas helped to rake up the remnants of the stalks and squashed grapes and place them in separate containers, to be used later in the month to make tsikoudia. When he had finished, he looked around to find his daughter. She had gone to the tap on the other side of the vat from where the must was slowly dripping out, and sat under it with her mouth open.

grape must ramni hania chania grape remnants ramni hania chania

"Kalo?" her father asked her. He had taken her by surprise. She spun round and looked at him, waiting for his approval. They burst out laughing together.

meal ramni hania chania

Stavroula in the meantime was preparing a feast. Achileas was not as carnivorous as Stavros' family was, but today he had worked up an appetite. After everyone had cleaned up and the must was poured into the various containers that Stavros had set out for this purpose, the yard was cleaned up and everyone helped to set up the tables and chairs. Stavros' second son, Yiorgos, lay the table. Manousos brought out all the dishes laden with food: pilafi made with rooster, pork steaks, garden fresh salad, graviera produced from their own sheep's milk, and of course, a 5-litre bottilia full of last year's wine to help the food go down.

Achileas started to feel the tiredness of the day wash over his body; he expected that Stavros and his family were probably also feeling very tired themselves, as they had put in a great deal of effort into turning this day into a successful one. They farewelled each other and thanked one another for the company. Stavroula came out of the kitchen at this point, just like she two months ago when Achileas was last here, with a supermarket bag containing four bottles of grape must. She smiled as she passed the bag to Achileas.

grape must ramni hania chania

"Mousto?" He wasn't sure what Korina would think when he showed her the bottles.

"For making moustalevria," she replied. Korina wasn't going to like the sound of this. Achileas realised that he was going to have to make the moustalevria himself.

*** *** ***

Wine production in Hania is limited to self-consumption, despite the fact that the earliest evidence of wine production in Greece has been found on the island of Crete. There are cooperatives that collect wine must and turn it into a type of house wine that can be brought directly from them, but most wine production in Crete takes place in the region of Iraklio where there are also large companies that bottle and export wine to various parts of Greece, Europe and America. There are some vineyards in Hania that are involved in wine production on a larger scale, and there is some evidence that they will prosper, but that remains to be seen. It is generally the case that consumers are unaware of the wine production of Crete. The regions of Hania that do produce a lot of home made wine offer it for sale to tavernas and restaurants, as well as specialty stores for the general public. Apokoronas and Kastelli produce more wine than other regions in Hania, but it is possible to plant vines all over the island. Most of the houses in traditional wine-producing regions will have their own wine press tucked away in the yard, a vat-like tub made of cement; this is a sure sign that you will be able to find tasty barrel-aged wine (as well as tsikoudia) in that area.

tsikoudia ramni hania chania

There is no magic in making grape must, the first stage in making wine; it is a simple process seeped in ancient customs. Moustalevria dessert made from grape must is probably one of the most ancient cooked desserts known in Greece. It is made with two main ingredients: grape must and flour. The addition of nuts, sesame seeds and cinnamon came along over time, making a more attractive sweet. This sweet was very important in ancient times, as it is a sweet produced at the end of summer, and can be eaten freshly cooked, or sun-dried and stored appropriately as a dry sweet (like a hard jelly) for the winter. It is still made according to the original ancient recipe, which is an extremely simple one (there are plenty of web sites featuring moustalevria).

moustalevria moustalevria moustalevria moustalevria moustalevria moustalevria

Depending on the colour of the grapes used, moustalevria turns out in different shades of brown; green grapes produce lighter must than purple grapes, which in turn, produces lighter moustalevria. In all cases, the grape juice must be cleared of its residue. This was once done by throwing some wood ash into the mixture while it was boiling, or using asprohoma (white earth). Although these are strained out of the must, modern day cooks may not wish to use (or may have difficulty in finding) either of these substances. In this case, careful straining of the liquid is advised, and you can still make an excellent moustalevria (I skimmed it many times while it was boiling, finally straining it into another vessel once it had cooled down). Just make sure you have fresh grape must, which you can even make yourself with just a few bunches of grapes, pressed into a large bowl. Some modern cooks prefer to use semolina instead of flour (I used a half-half mixture) because it does not go lumpy, which makes it easier to deal with, especially among people who do not have the luxury of extra time on their hands.

Fresh moustalevria is a jelly-like sweet that hardens a little over time. It does not keep well; the fermentation process becomes evident on its surface if it is not kept in appropriate conditions. But when it is left in the sun, cut up in small pieces, it goes as hard as a caramel. In this case, it does not grow mould, and can be kept in sealed jars and eaten as a sweet with tea or coffee. It looks quite unusual as a sweet; once you taste it, you can't stop yourself from eating too much. It is laden with the nutritious anti-oxidant properties of grapes, but it is also calorie-loaded...

Grape must is also used in making moustokouloura, large soft biscuits, good for dunking in tea or coffee. Moustalevria and moustokouloura are very important during fasting periods in the Greek Orthodox church, as they are made without butter, eggs and milk; they are some of the few sweets that can be eaten during this period, along with halva.

This post is dedicated to my late father, who passed away five years ago, leaving behind four barrels full of home-brew; we have yet to get through it...

This is my entry for Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging hosted this week by Zorra from Kochtopf.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Sunday 14 September 2008

Cretan salad in Paleohora (Κρητική σαλάτα στη Παλαιόχωρα)

When I first came to Greece, my monthly salary in Athens was 200,000 drachmas (approximately 680 euro, a little more than a starter's wage these days). This was supplemented with private lessons and editing work which were bringing in about as much as the salary, all at a time when a decent salary was considered to be about 150,000 drachma. Admittedly, I was working between 50 and 60 hours a week, but when you are young, you're remunerated well, you don't have other family responsibilities and you can enjoy your money, you are more willing to work long hours: you never get tired, you are full of energy, you don't even realise that you are working. My paycheck would go straight into a bank account; I never used it. All my expenses were met by the extra work: rent, electricity, telephone, utilities, food, bi-monthly weekend hiking trips to the Peloponese and monthly trips to Crete, my parents' homeland.

Despite being born and raised in a city, Athens was not the kind of city that could replace Wellington, the 12th best city to live in, according to a recent Mercer study of the top 50 cities in the world. It bears no resemblance to it in any way, despite the fact that both cities are capitals; they are as alike as a pineapple resembles a walnut. Both are intrinsically tempting fruits, but ultimately, you have to decide which one you would prefer to eat on a more regular basis.

Mercer rankings are based on conditions that are difficult to measure in every part of the world in the same way. Wellington is a progressive modern city that has been in existence for less than 200 years, located in the last country of the New World to be colonised. In Athens, with its thousands of years of ancient foundations, every time someone digs a hole in the ground to lay pipes and chances on antiquities, ‘progress’ must be stopped in the name of ‘culture’.

(A building site where ancient tombs were excavated; drainage works in the old town) one day in hania
Life in a capital city of 400,000 where most people live in detached houses with lawn gardens simply cannot compare with life in a city like Athens of 4 million where most people live in boxes stacked on top of each other. Athens is a rat race, while Wellington feels like a huge field where its citizens live the life of grazing sheep.

*** *** ***
Whenever I was in Hania, I felt as if I were in Wellington. Wellington is bound by sea and mountains - just like Hania; the city centre is more compact - just like Hania; life has a slower pace - just like Hania. Crete may be an island (the biggest in Greece), but it doesn't have that air of island life that you find in the very small summer-only isles of the Aegean. For a start, most of the more populated areas are located on the north coast of Crete, which is bordered from the more agricultural part of the island by a small (but over-used) motorway. You never feel very far away from town life in Hania, even if you live in a village. It's no surprise that I eventually decided to give up my well-paid Athens job for a life away from the big smoke. I could only find piecemeal work in various English language institutes. Even though I was working in two institutes only a few hours a day, I still couldn't reach my Athenian starter's salary.

I accepted more work in a small town located on the south coast of Hania. At the time, Paleohora was a two-hour drive southwest of Hania (improved road conditions have now shortened the journey by half an hour).

libykon hotel paleohora hania chania paleohora hania chania
(The first hotel in Paleohora - the Livykon, whose name is taken from the Libyan Sea - has a history of its own; it is now an earthquake risk and is slowly being renovated when funds permit; the main road in Paleohora is a hive of activity right throughout the summer, but not one of these chairs will be seen after October.)

Having been to Paleohora on a few occasions to visit friends, I knew what I was in for: dry sunny weather for most of the year (the south coast is warmer and drier than the north with less rain), beautiful nature walks, the cleanest beaches, and all-night weekend partying; once the summer season ended, the restaurants and bars would open from Friday afternoon and work through the weekend, serving the town's growing population, and helping its citizens dispense with their accumulated wealth.

pahia ammos paleohora hania chania yianiscari paleohora hania chania
(Pahia Ammos Beach; Yianiscari Beach)
yianiscari paleohora hania chania grammeno paleohora hania chania
(The enticing waters of the Libyan sea: Yianiscari and Grammenos beaches)

Every Friday morning, I would take a KTEL bus from the dingy outskirts of Hania where the long-distance buses are housed (always make sure you've been to bathroom before you come to the bus station) to one of the most picturesque towns in the whole province. Paleohora bears no resemblance to Hania.

grammenos paleohora hania chania paleohora hania chania
(Nature spot at Grammenos Beach; the view from the hotel)

It's one of the places on the island that clearly reminds you that you are on an island and not an urban centre. It is located on a slightly remote peninsula that is bound by hills high enough to act as a natural border, giving the whole area an island feel. I taught English from the early hours of the afternoon to the early evening. My students were primary and secondary school children in the area, who were always more lively than their counterparts in Hania. They weren't as bookish as the children in the town, but they were more street-wise. They warned me that when the weather turns really bad, the only channels that would play clearly were the Arabic ones from North Africa (not all main Greek channels were able to send out their signal to Paleohora, anyway, so I suppose some television was better than none). When they made a mistake in their response to one of my questions, one of the better-informed would call out: "Hey, are you from the highlands?"; if they responded incorrectly for a second time, they'd get asked: "Did you take a KTEL bus to come here?"

to kima paleohora hania chania hotel room paleohora hania chania
(I remember sitting on the border of this tree having a sandwich in the middle of winter. Not a table or chair in sight, an empty beach, not even a car; just me and the sounds nature; I often stayed at this hotel: I felt as if I were in van Gogh's bedsit)

For lunch, I sometimes ate at a traditional mageirio or a friend's house; sometimes I even ate a packed lunch al fresco by the beach, with not a sound to be heard but the wind and waves. In the evening, I chose something from the menu of one of the grillhouses in the area.

votsala beach paleohora hania chania
(Votsala Beach)

Before the school term ended, I usually spent a three-day weekend in Paleohora sometime in May when the cold weather had abandoned the area, before the harsh summer heat overtook the whole area for nearly a third of the year. My favorite walk was to take the road right around the peninsula that forms Paleohora, walking up the steep rise of the small hill in the centre of the peninsula, housing the ruins of a former fortress, dated to the 13th century, which was used to guard against incursions.

paleohora fortezza hania chania

paleohora fortezza hania chania paleohora below fortezza hania chania
(Views from Fortezza, also known as Selino Castle)

The infamous Barbarossa destroyed it, and its ruins were recently restored to a level that makes it safe for even young visitors to explore and pretend to be looking for pirates and lost treasure.

Another of my favorite haunts to explore was Gavdiotika. People from Gavdos island, the most southern point of Greece (in fact, it's the southernmost point of Europe), were some of the earliest permanent residents of Paleohora. The first houses that they built are found near the port area. Gavdos Island is clearly discerned from here when there is no mist surrounding it.

gavdiotika paleohora hania chania gavdiotika paleohora hania chania
gavdos paleohora hania chania

Despite its more recent settlement - it was never a traditional Cretan village - Paleohora has suffered the brunt of all the wars that have influenced Greece and Europe, with its share of losses.

*** *** ***

Paleohora is a great family destination, well-known for good chill-out beaches, a relaxed atmosphere, car-free evenings in the central part of the town and very good food at low prices. The peninsula it is located on is small enough to give you the feeling that you are on an island; if you stand in the middle of the main road, you can see the sea from both sides of the street.

paleohora hania chania
(Paleohora peninsula viewed from Fortezza; Pahia Ammos is barely discernible on the left, but Votsala and the port on the right are not visible)

paleohora hania chania

paleohora hania chania paleohora hania chania
(The centre of the town; the port area next to Votsala beach; Pahia Ammos beach)

Paleohora has an open-air nightlife that will suit everyone's tastes, and some kinky arts and crafts shops to add a touch of the alternative, catering especially for people who want to get away from the main town without getting too far off the beaten track. Some of the best Cretan New Zealanders are now living in Paleohora; if you aren't from Wellington, it's a little difficult to understand why a hotel-cum-restaurant by the sea is called 'Oriental Bay'.

oriental bay paleohora hania chania umbrella clothesline paleohora hania chania

Stitched Oriental Bay wellington
(Oriental Bay, Paleohora; an Antipodean umbrella clothesline at the hotel; Oriental Bay, Wellington)

paleohora hania chania paleohora hania chania
(Beach gear; wooden hand-made items crafted by a senior citizen)

To get to Paleohora is quite a hike, despite the considerable road improvements. The road leading away from the north coast looks very fertile with its patchwork mosaic of olive fields.

mosaic of fields hania chania kakopetros hania chania
(Fields of olive trees; a villager prepares for the winter)

The soil is reddish-brown, the land is flat, and the area is covered in trees. On the side of the road, instead of rocks and stones as one sees when travelling to Vathi, there are piles of chopped branches; somebody is getting the fireplace well-stocked for the winter. The fertile red earth on the flat fields is perfect for cultivating olive trees.

The point where the rocks start is also the where the long and winding road begins: I still get an upset stomach on those bends. A few stops are sometimes needed to catch a breath of fresh air before continuing to climb up the bends to the highest village - Floria, where it usually snows in the winter, cutting off the road connecting the north to the south - before descending the mountain on its other side, and heading for the south coast.

The first rocky hillside comes into view at the village of Kakopetros, a name meaning 'bad stone'. Rocks and trees intermingle, each one struggling to conquer the area. A long stretch of road after this point is constantly under construction. Ever since I started frequenting the area (over a decade), one or another part of that windy road is always under construction. Excavation machines, rock crushers and heavy rollers make it seem like child's play; the original road was carved out by men with pick-axes. It is amazing to think that from those rocks grow olive trees that produce some of the highest quality olive oil in Crete. Oil from the Selino mountain ranges is considered the best in the world.

road works hania chania road works hania chania

One tree-lined village after another, all sporting a kafeneio and maybe a church near the main square; two or three old men holding onto their self-fashioned walking sticks, arms resting on table, legs outstretched; not a woman in sight. Have they just come from the fields? Aren't they too old to still be working the soil? Where have all the young men gone?

And so it goes on, until the Libyan sea comes into view on the south coast; you are now not far from the narrow tree-lined road that leads into the peninsula that forms Paleohora, almost an island itself, bound by the craggy mountains and the clear blue deep waters of Paleohora's coastline.

libyan sea just sighted hania chania paleohora hania chania
(When the coast comes into view, you are five minutes away from Paleohora; the road leading into the centre of the town)

*** *** ***
Paleohora is a summer lover's paradise. Bay after bay of clear blue water with the sun sparkling on it as if someone has thrown diamonds on a baby blue satin sheet, secluded beaches for that off-the-beaten-track feeling, an outdoor nightlife suited to the coastal location coupled with the hot dry climate. Crete offers one of the highest numbers of 'blue flag' beaches in the whole country. Don't come to Paleohora in July and August without having previously booked a room, as all the hotels are running on a no-vacancy basis, usually filled with Northern Europeans and mainland Greeks yearning to chill out and darken their skin a shade or two before going back to their air-conditioned offices or the mouldy climate of their homelands. September is always cooler, enticing the retired, the aged, the backpack-cum-walking-booters, coming to explore the lunar landscape of the rugged coast, braving the scorching sun and dirt-blown paths. There is very little natural shade; a few carob and tamarisk trees are of great assistance but they do not suffice. Sun hats are a basic essential, while umbrellas are a welcome sight on the beaches, some of which are stony, others sandy.

yianiscari paleohora hania chania yianiscari paleohora hania chania
(The road to Yianiscari beach on the east side of the Paleohora peninsula; the road had to be excavated to provide access to the area - rock and sand dominate the landscape.)

beach art beach art yianiscari paleohora hania chania
(Painting rocks at Yianiscari beach - an artist's view of the area behind the beach)yianiscari paleohora hania chania yianiscari paleohora hania chania
(More views of Yianiscari)

September is also bird-hunting season, adding another element to Paleohora's mixed society of visitors. Hunters can be seen sitting at the kafeneia, wearing their camouflage gear, boasting about how many birds they caught that morning, discussing the best spots to wait for passing migratory birds making their way to Africa; ortiki (ορτύκι) - quail - and trigoni (τριγώνι) - turtledove - are the ones sought after by hunters this month. If the direction of the wind is in their face, it's a good flying day, but not a good hunting one; if the wind blows onto their tails, then the hunters are going to have a field day, as these weather conditions make it difficult for birds to fly smoothly. When it's not windy at all - this is rarely the case in southern Crete, with winds high enough to send all the outdoor furniture to the other side of the peninsula - birds are slowed down in their passage, and may sometimes hide in a tree, waiting for more suitable climatic conditions.

trigoni game hunting trigoni game huntingtrigoni
(A lucky day for one particular hunter - trigonia: turtledoves)

These birds' stomachs were filled with black sunflower seeds, which shows were their last dinner came from: Bulgaria, where the fields are covered in sunflower plants.

*** *** ***

Paleohora is also a place to enjoy Greek cuisine at very low prices. Wherever you look, the food promoted in the menus and display cases of the restaurants, takeaway shops, bars, cafes, anything connected with the food industry, looks enticing. There are few empty seats by the tables of most of the eateries throughout most of the day. In the evening, the foreign tourists, used to eating an early evening meal, eat first, followed by the Greeks, who eat their evening meals much later. Most pensions and hotels contain self-catering facilities, but why stay indoors to eat, when you can sit outside and eat an excellent (and cheap) meal, in the traditional Greek flavours, prepared by someone else, so that you can breathe the fresh air, take in the magnificent scenery and enjoy the splendid view of the sparkling Libyan Sea?

paleohora hania chania
(Almost fully booked - the whole night)

What astounded me most about the food served in the restaurants of Paleohora was its price. The cost per day for our food needs (a family of four) is approximately the same amount of money needed for one meal out in Hania. How do they manage to keep their prices so low? For a start, most restaurants are owner-operated on personal property, so most people do not pay rental costs to use the land. They just have their business and maintenance costs. But the rest does not add up: the harsh sunlight and the dry conditions - there is a constant water shortage in the area - could not possibly harbour verdant fields and a flourishing agriculture in the summer, as it does in the northern area of the province of Hania...

Many people think of Paleohora as a tourist town. In the winter, it suffers from the great winter closedown: the only thing moving on the street in the afternoon in the middle of winter by the sea-front are the moulting leaves from the trees. Tables and chairs are stacked up in front of the restaurant doors; the locked-up look settles in the air, rendering the whole place a ghost town. Where does a population of 2000-strong (and constantly growing) go in the winter when none of the hotels are working, when the bars, cafes and restaurants have closed down after the last charter flight out of Crete, and the sea starts to roll in the waves that crash onto the main road? Not to mention the treacherous road conditions when the weather turns nasty, and snow cuts off the main road to Hania. What do people do here after the summer?

panorama paleohora hania chania yianiscari paleohora hania chania
(The newest suburb of Paleohora, Panorama, as seen from Koundoura; the rugged coastline of Yianiscari)

Many Paleohorites often take their vacation in November and December, if family responsibilities permit. In January, they work in the olive fields: the area surrounding Paleohora contains olive trees producing high-grade olive oil. Most people in Paleohora are not from the town itself; they settled here for work reasons, while their home base is some village close to Paleohora, where their parents and grandparents are from, and where they own ancestral land, cultivating olive trees that are already a century old. It is very tough work, but it also provides a good source of income. But not everyone in Paleohora owns ancestral land. Most of the seasonal employees are economic migrants from Eastern Europe: they cannot afford to sit around waiting for the next summer season to start (usually in April), nor is it viable to leave the town and settle elsewhere looking for work; they have already migrated once. Paleohora was settled in recent times since the opening of its port in the late 1800s, so it cannot be said to have had an established pattern of agricultural activity or other regular sources of income. So what do the locals do in the winter?

*** *** ***

We had been swimming at Pahia Ammos ('thick sand'), a wonderful child-friendly beach on the west side of the Paleohora peninsula; the refreshing waters of the Libyan Sea whet our appetite and food was on our mind.

pahia ammos paleohora hania chania pahia ammos paleohora hania chania
(Pahia Ammos beach; the suburb of Panorama overlooking Pahia Ammos)

I offered to walk to the burger joint not far away from the beach and get some junk food for lunch. I returned to find the rest of the family drying off, waiting to be fed. We decided to leave the beach (we hadn't hired an umbrella or deckchairs) and search for a picnic spot. This is how we ended up in Koundoura.

Not many people know about Koundoura, a satellite village just 2 kilometres west of Paleohora; activity is transferred from the summer resort town to this agricultural winter village in the last month of the summer season, when the charter-flight package tourism that Paleohora subsists from slows down, coming to an eventual halt at the end of October. Koundoura is a greenhouse centre - there are quite a few of these on the southern coast of Crete - which provides many parts of Crete and the rest of Greece with out-of-season produce during the colder months of the year. The greenhouses can be seen from the coast, lending an alternative view to an otherwise rocky landscape mixed with lush foliage from the olive trees. The greenhouses look so orderly and uniform, just like the terraced houses in the London suburbs, one attached to the wall of the other, their triangular roofs forming a zig zag design along the hillsides, the white plastic sheeting reflecting the sun's rays on the clear blue skyline; their gleam dazzles the onlooker's vision.

koundoura hania chania grammeno paleohora hania chania
(Greenhouses in Koundoura)

Driving through Koundoura, I was not surprised to find the greenhouses empty: the weather was scorching (there is always a temperature difference of 4 degrees Celsius between Paleohora and Hania), the grass and weeds on the side of the road looked sun-dried, with arid desert-like conditions prevailing. Nothing can grow easily in this heat: even the spearmint that was planted in the flowerbed of the hotel looked like dry nettle leaves, spearing forth from the ground which had been covered in small stones to stop weeds from sprouting; they would have a hard time surviving even if they did.

Koundoura is the preferred hunter's ground for birds and hare. Hunters come here and set up their tents under the few trees providing shade by Krios beach.

krios beach koundoura hania chania krios beach koundoura hania chania
(Krios Beach; a camper marks his turf)

When I first visited Krios, I thought it was a wilderness haven. Even the trees looked savage: gnarled trunks, bare branches, lying on sandy brown soil carried from the beach to the hills by the high winds. Everything that grows on it - grass, weeds, leaves on low-lying branches of all the trees, even the bark of the trees themselves - gets eaten, torn or ravaged by the goats that the modern-day Cretan shepherds have left to graze in the area, feeding off pristine land that no one has ever laid their hands on.

koundoura paleohora greenhouses hania chania

koundoura hania chania yianiscari paleohora hania chania
(A carob tree, showing signs that it is used by goats; the sun playing games on the sea)

Then there are the illegal poachers who come to the area in the middle of the night with torches, shining a low light on every inch of the mountainside, in the hope of dazzling a hare (or three), which, upon seeing the light, stands in the same spot, dumbstruck, without realising that all it has to do is run for its life to stay alive. Instead it stands there, like a lamb being led to the slaughter. It suddenly struck me that the greenhouses that I had just passed as we drove through the village must be leaving pesticide residues that somehow run off into the water stream; they are right next to the sea, right above the most alluring coastline in the whole province...

grammeno greenhouses paleohora hania chania
(Grammenos beach)

Koundoura, for all its paradoxes, is the lifesaver of the region, providing agricultural winter work once Paleohora's summer tourist industry closes down. Each one complements the other, and this is what is helping the town to grow in population - and size. Paleohora now has a brand new suburb; new apartments have been built on a height overlooking Pahia Ammos beach - appropriately called "Panorama" - providing houses for the growing population, the offspring of the children of the older residents who decided to stay on the remote town, that they didn't need to leave their hometown after all, that there was a life worth living on the south coast of Hania, away from the bright lights of the old port and the urban sprawl of the main centre. Along with them, the economic migrants are probably happy to have work all year round, and to live in a small community where everyone knows the value of another person, socially, financially and spiritually; once the town closes down to visitors and retreats, the community keeps itself active with family responsibilities.

In amongst the double standards of the Koundoura habitat, we did find a place that provided us with a sense of inner peace. We had a hard time finding a shady spot to have our burger meal; all the coves and bays were exposed to the midday sun, Krios beach was overtaken by hunter campers, the greenhouse-lined roads were not at all alluring. My eyes caught sight of a dead end side-street, flanked by more greenhouses, which ended up at the sea; we could see it from the road we were driving on. We decided to investigate. The greenhouses were in a despicable state: dilapidated, abandoned; one of the walls of one had toppled over, and was beyond repair. Next to it was a house, plain and boring in appearance, the kind that would never attract the attention of a potential buyer, completely hidden from view, not a soul in sight. The iron fencework had been thatched with black nets, the kind used in olive picking (they are laid on the ground, the olives fall on them, either by being shaken or naturally, after which they are gathered and poured into a sack ready for crushing), so that the house looked barricaded against any intrusions. Tamarisk trees bordered the house from a gully which probably filled up with water during a heavy rainfall; despite the desert landscape of the area, it has suffered from flooding, in which a bridge was completely washed away a few years ago, breaking off communication between Paleohora and Koundoura.

shady meal koundoura hania chania fast food
(Lunch in a shady spot on the back of our pick-up truck)
koundoura beach hania chania
(Imagine this to be your back yard; our view directly in front of the truck)

A makeshift gate had been erected as a way to keep access to the beach directly in front of the gully private. Thankfully, it wasn't locked. We had our lunch on this path, serenaded by the wind rustling among the leaves of the trees that provided shade and the lapping waves on the shore. The beach was rocky and uncomfortable; it was bordered by rough slippery rock, unsuitable (and probably dangerous) for swimming. But the water was that unmistakable Mediterranean blue. It was a day to remember, the first time in a while that I had been away from any form of artificial sound whatsoever.

*** *** ***

Clearly, Paleohora is not able to supply its own food needs in the summer, even though it provides food for the whole of Greece in the winter. The hotelier explains:

"Restaurants are supplied by fresh produce from the market in Hania. We can't grow much in this heat. Some people maintain a garden on their home property, but most people are too busy to do that in the summer. In any case, we don't have any spare land to do this; we've built the whole lot up with rooms for tourists. Most people don't have much garden space in the town; every spare bit is used for tourist-related activities. Only the newly built houses in Panorama have gardens, not down here (the main town)..."

Is 'local food' an issue for these restaurant owners? Do they voice an opinion about where their fresh produce comes from? How far have those salad ingredients travelled to get to my Paleohoritiko plate?

The hotelier continues:

"My sister has planted greenhouse cabbages and lettuce twice in the past fortnight, and both times they have dried up (early September). Lack of water, dry conditions, hot weather, they all take their toll on fresh produce. You need to water them every day, maybe even twice a day to keep them going until the cooler weather comes. It's better when the wind blows, even if it's a strong one. Anything to cool us down here..."

And yet, the food is cheap. For the last two years that we have taken a mini-vacation in Paleohora, my family paid an average of 53 euro a day for two sit-down restaurant meals per day for the whole family (2 adults, 2 children), including dessert and breakfast snacks. Of the many restaurants we tried during our recent three-day stay (this is our summer vacation, even though it's only 70 kilometres away from home), I would say I have two favorites, but as the hotelier told me, "ALL the restaurants sell good food at a low price; there is nothing to choose among them, since they are competing against each other for the same business."

restaurant paleohora hania chania restaurant paleohora hania chania

restaurant paleohora hania chania

restaurant paleohora hania chania restaurant paleohora hania chania

The Wave (Το Κύμα - To Kima) is idyllically located by Votsala Beach, on the east side of the peninsula. It offers the closest seats to the sea, shaded by some carefully tended tamarisk trees. They are the key factor to attracting customers - unless you know how low their prices are. Their menu is compact with little fanfare: they serve standard Greek and Cretan food, the kind of meals most women will be cooking on an everyday basis around the town itself. The items on the menu will be familiar to the most ignorant tourist foodwise (the Brits are a classic example) and their menu does not change from year to year; they have a standard culinary repertoire and cook their food to suit the palate of even the fussiest eater who does not eat Greek food on a regular basis. Their menu is cleverly drawn up, including everything a tourist will expect to find at a Greek restaurant. But just look at their prices: the servings were too large for the average tourist.

to kima paleohora hania chania

Everything stated on the menu is available, a sure sign that they know their custom well and how much of each dish they need to have prepared each day. Our last meal there was a mince medley: a large serving of pastitsio (serves 2 children), soutzoukakia (3, accompanied by french fries), biftekia (3, also accompanied by french fries), a Greek salad, an extra order of french fries, 2 cold tap beers and 2 lemonades cost only 25 euro. We were eating a sit-down restaurant meal at a cost of 6 euro and 25 cents each. Perhaps the German couple who came and sat directly in front of us ordered a hot (Nescafe) coffee to go with the ice-cream sticks they had bought from a mini-market because they did not know how cheaply it would work out for them to eat here...

Admittedly, the potatoes were pre-cut frozen chips and the meat patties looked too uniform in size to be home-made (and from past experience, I know that the 'fresh' green beans are always frozen), but for the price, the view, the location, the shade, the friendly owners (one of my former English students), and the peaceful atmosphere, they are really quite unbeatable.

to kima paleohora hania chania

Porto Fino Pizzeria stands mid-way between the ferry port and Votsala Beach. Pizza and pasta are its main meals, as its name suggests, and it is a popular young people's food hangout, if they aren't snacking on souvlaki or burgers. It does a great job with spaghetti puttanesca, and we also enjoyed an oven-baked spaghetti bolognese which I'm dying to repeat at home some time in the future.

porto fino paleohora hania chania porto fino paleohora hania chania
(Porto Fino; cheers!)

paleohora hania chania

porto fino paleohora hania chania

Pizzas are unashamedly made in the standard Greek way (with canned mushroom segments; the risotto was probably made with par-boiled rice), but everything tasted so good, and the atmosphere could not be bought at any price. One pizza special (8 pieces), one spaghetti bolognese al forno (serves 2), a large tap beer, two lemonades: 20 euro, served with a free gimmicky sorbet (we've had lemon, blackberry and orange so far) in a shot glass at the end of the meal.

paleohora hania chania porto fino paleohora hania chania
(It's easy to tell the locals and the foreigners apart...)

A popular menu choice in most Cretan restaurants is a slight variation to Greek salad, known as Cretan salad. I ordered it at Captain Jim's taverna, situated across from the ferry port of Paleohora. Instead of feta cheese, mizithra is sprinkled over the salad, with a few tiny cubes of graviera cheese. Bread is unnecessary as an accompaniment to this salad, as it contains Cretan barley-rye rusks, broken into large chunks. Olives are not optional in this salad; they are deemed an integral part, for there are few meals a Cretan partakes without a bowl of olives accompanying them. When Cretan salad is made with heirloom tomatoes, garden fresh green banana peppers (not the hot variety) and cucumber, a tart and spicy onion, and Cretan olive oil, it is a sensation of senses: it looks, feels, smells and tastes heavenly. Listen to the sound it makes when you mix the olive oil into the other ingredients...

captain jim's paleohora hania chania
(Dakos rusk, oven cooked okra, Cretan salad)

*** *** ***

On the last day of our vacation, we decided to leave in the late afternoon and to enjoy a meal in one of the pretty villages we had driven past on our way to Paleohora. We drove for what seemed like a long time before we came across any light coming from inside one of the kafeneia and village restaurants by the roadside. The shop owners - they were still in their aprons - were usually the only people sitting outside enjoying the cool September breeze, chatting with the odd villager who had ventured out to buy something from the bakaliko (μπακάλικο - the general store); everyone else was at home, the lights of the houses attesting to this. We decided not to stop off anywhere after all; as soon as we entered the motorway, it was home sweet home on our minds.

Και του χρόνου (ke tou hronou), Paleohora, we'll see you next year, too.

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