Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Saturday 23 April 2011

Easter 2011 (Πάσχα)

When calendar Easter and Orthodox Easter both fall on the same day, it's always busy in Crete. Both Greeks and non-Greeks converge on the island at the same time, but for different reasons: Greeks from the mainland get together with their families at Easter, while our non-Greek tourists usually come because of their preference for the milder weather as opposed to our scorching summer climate.

These three items unify Greeks at Easter, wherever they come from or live: koulourakia (Greek Easter biscuits), tsoureki (Greek Easter sweet bread) and dyed 'red' eggs (which are 'cracked' on Easter Day). Nowadays the busy Greek home can enjoy these traditions without having to make them themselves. Apart from the store-bought cheat's versions shown above, there are also women's cooperatives that make them, so they come out looking as if they were made at home; those that operate in rural areas often use ingredients from home-grown or home-raised produce.

Easter is the most important religious festival in Greece (unlike Christmas in Greece, which is pretty much quiet). The action all takes place at the midnight service on Saturday night. In the past, everything used to stay closed on Sunday but this has changed dramatically - when Easter falls during the tourist period in Crete (as it invariably does), most places will be open to serve the needs of tourists. If you're here on holiday on Easter Sunday and you'd like to take part in a cultural experience today, those of you who have hired a car will be in a better position: wander off the motorway, drive around the countryside, and use your nose to guide you. Although Easter is a family holiday, and most locals will spend it at home in family groups, most (if not all) tavernas will be open today, catering for our tourists and visitors.

Lamb on the spit, being cooked at a Greek festival in Anchorage, Alaska (courtesy of Laurie Constantino). I recall a few of my NZ Greek friends cooking lamb on the spit, but it still felt foreign to me even when I lived in NZ, because it wasn't part of my own home's tradition at Easter. My Cretan mother would be making lettuce avgolemono lamb stew (top right), kalitsounia (bottom left) and Cretan meat pie (bottom right) instead. And right to this day, that's what I make, too.

Most Greeks will tell you that lamb on the spit is traditional on Easter Sunday. Yes, it is... but not exactly. Whole lamb on the spit is actually a Northern/Central Greek tradition, not a Cretan tradition. In a sense, it's an imported tradition from the mainland to Crete. We see the equipment used to cook it being sold here too, because lamb on the spit has now passed into the general Greek tradition, but if you speak to older Cretans, they will tell you that they remember seeing lamb on the spit for the first time in Northern Greece, among 'other' Greeks, and in the army, like for example my husband. He first remembers seeing it while he was doing his military service: by then, he was in his early twenties. On Easter Day, it was (and I suppose it still is) a tradition to roast lamb on the spit at the barracks. A row of spits would be set up by the soldiers, each one holding a lamb, and the villagers in the area where the barracks were located were all invited to join in the festivities. 

Cooking lamb on the spit involves a lot of work (although electric spits now help to ease the burden of turning it) and it also involves a lot of eaters - if you have a small family, then this is not a feasible way to cook it. This is the main reason why my own family has never celebrated Easter in this way: in fact, the only time I have celebrated Easter with lamb on the spit is once in Athens and another time in Hania when a friend from Thessaloniki organised the event. Most people in and around Hania cook Easter lamb in the oven, in avgolemono sauce, on the BBQ, and in a traditional Cretan meat pie. Restaurants and tavernas probably won't offer lamb on the spit in Crete on Easter Day for two reasons: Easter is a family celebration, so most people will get together in each other's house for this feast, and tourists may not be familiar with the tradition themselves, so they won't be looking to order lamb on the spit. 

antikristo upright bbq argiroupoli hania-rethimno fragma taverna antikristo
Antikristo: a tradition of Eastern Crete; lamb on the bone is cooked on an upright grill. It needs to be turned to cook evenly, which is why the electrified version (on the right) is simpler to use. These photos were taken in villages in Rethimno.

The Cretan tradition in roasting meat over an open fire is known as 'antikristO' (with the emphasis on the 'O'). This unusual kind of BBQ consists of an upright grill, surrounding an open charcoal fire in the middle. An electrified version of this also exists, where the meat turn around in a circular fashion, like a clock; this is different to the lamb on the spit, where the lamb goes round and round like a ferris wheel. To add to the confusion, antikristo is a tradition of Eastern Crete, which explains why you'll probably never see it in Hania (you will see it in Rethimnno and Iraklio).

*** *** ***

If you're offered a chance to participate, make sure you know what to say to your hosts. Greek 'Happy Easter' wishes follow the timeline of the events of the first Easter 2000 years ago:
As Easter approaches, people farewelling each other may wish their friends Καλό Πάσχα (ka-lO pAs-ha): "I wish you a good Easter" (NB: they only say this before Easter).
During the Holy Week, as Easter Day approaches, they may say Καλή Ανάσταση (ka-lI anAstasi): "I wish you a good Resurrection" (to remind us of the reasoning behind Easter).
After the midnight Easter Saturday service, they will then greet each other with Χριστός Ανέστη! (hristOs anEsti!): "Christ has Risen!" This greeting is used the first time you see someone after Easter for the next 50 days, until Pentecost, instead of the usual 'Hello' (Γειά σας) .

And finally, to reply to someone who has just said told you that Χριστός Ανέστη, you answer: Αληθώς Ανέστη! (alithOs anEsti!): Truly He has Risen!, which originated as a way to distinguish the believers from the non-believers. 

If it's all confusing for you to remember each of the different greetings, then there's also the generic 'umbrella' greeting: Χρόνια Πολλά! ((hrOnia pollA), which covers just about any happy event, and you can say it pretty much throughout the Easter period.

For all of us, whether we are religiously inclined or not, may Easter be a happy one, wherever you are. 

©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 18 April 2011

Urban mini-break (Διακοπές στην πόλη)

Hania wouldn't spring to mind for a 24-hour mini-break. Most of our tourists come to Hania for a two-week holiday, which gives them plenty of time to tour the area. A fortnight is a good amount of time to spend in either Western Crete or Eastern Crete, but not really enough if you want to experience the whole island; you'll need about 3-4 weeks to do that successfully. Most tourists hire a car which is necessary if you don't want to spend all your time in one place; most of our tourists do not stay in the town at any rate, for obvious reasons - Hania is a summer resort town with very good beaches, so some form of transport is needed.

Hania is most well-known for this kind of holiday...
... but there is also an urban side to Hania that too.

Transport is a major obstacle facing the 24-hour traveller to any island destination. Hania can only be reached directly by air from Athens (and some limited flights from Thessaloniki) or with an overnight ferry boat. Most of our 24-hour visitors are from the mainland here on business; they may fly in and out of Hania on the same day, usually a weekday. But there is also another class of frequent short-term visitors to Hania: many mainlanders come to Hania for the weekend to attend scheduled memorial services for a loved one. During such a weekend, Saturdays are usually devoted to urban forms of entertainment before Sunday's memorial service where the visitor will also catch up with their extended family at church and most probably have a (usually home-cooked) meal with them.

the ferry boat

Here's a typical program followed by our urban Greek 24-hour visitors to Hania (which, coincidentally, was the second town in Greece's modern history to become urbanised after Syros). Through this guide, you will get a good idea of how life flows in the town centre. The best season for this kind of trip is when it isn't too warm (October-May), because it involves a lot of walking in the urban part of Hania. The area is generally flat and undemanding. Wear cotton layers that can be removed easily; Hania is hot throughout the year, but in the cooler seasons, it can feel very cold, especially in the early morning, after the sun has gone down, and when you're sitting in the shade.

As soon as you arrive in Hania: Either you've just jumped off the ship or you've arrived at the airport. Either way, don't linger at your arrival points any more than you need to - the town may look like it's asleep at this time, but there is a special morning ritual followed by most visitors to Hania. Get yourself into the town for your first taste of Hania: bougatsa. You will be surprised at how busy Iordanis is so early in the morning; your cheese pie breakfast will come with a good dose of people-watching for entertainment. Don't go looking for variety in the menu of a bougatsadiko: it serves exactly what its name suggests - only bougatsa! Have it with just a glass of water; bougatsadika do serve coffee too, but don't be tempted to have one here because ---


Some time after you have bougatsa: --- you will want to experience the new outdoor cafe scene in Hania. Coffee was once a long drawn-out affair at an expensive (but not necessarily luxurious) cafe, where the cost of the coffee felt almost like paying rent to hire the best seat near the old Venetian harbour. The economic crisis was not the only thing to put a stop to that; coupled with the smoking ban imposed on all public indoor places including those that serve food, and the rising rental costs of properties on prime sites, the locals have started to move away from their past haunts and now often sit outdoors, Parisian-style, in one of the many businesses that have sprung up to provide this need. You'll be surprised at how many bar stools you encounter on the footpath. In this way, the smoking ban is avoided; secondly, because of the outdoor (covered) location and the (uncomfortable) bar stool, you will spend just enough time having your coffee, before you move on, ensuring the business owner that there will be a good turnover of customers. These fantastic outdoor cafes have livened up the town in their own way - they are open most of the working day, including some that are open after-hours, they keep people moving about in the less touristy parts of the town, and they add their own cultural dimension to urban life in Hania. Don't worry about the weather keeping you indoors - it's never really too cold to sit outdoors in Hania (and if it is too cold or wet, let's just say it was your bad luck to choose that particular 24-hour period, a bit like the weather at the moment, which rang in the start of Holy Week)

Morning walk: The bougatsa and coffee will keep you going for a little longer before you need to rest or 'stock up' again. Since you will already be in the town centre, make your way to the eastern part of town for some more people-watching which will be combined with some brilliant sightseeing: walk eastwards from the Agora (down go in there just yet; everything in its own time!) and make your way to Minoos St, the place where Saturday's street market* (λαϊκή - la-ee-ki) is held. Foodies will delight in seeing the range of fresh local seasonal fruit, vegetables and dairy products, mostly sold by the producers themselves. Greek street markets are not limited to farmers' markets: traders of all kinds sell a wide range of goods at the laiki where clothes bargains are to be found. The prices are low and the atmosphere lively, making the laiki a perfect place to round off your morning's entertainment. Buy a koulouri from Hania's famous bagel lady (who is usually to be found across the Agora, as well as the laiki) to munch on while you browse the stalls; save your appetite for a more substantial meal, which you will remember well after your return home.

My favorite place to eat out is the Agora. Old-fashioned food, served in the old-fashioned way, with no menu card - even if you don't know what it's called, you can just point to your favorite dish on the display. For tourist who want an itty-bitty something to remember Hania by, there are plenty of offerings to choose from.

Lunch at the mall: The laiki will probably take up all your morning (and a good part of your money, if you're into knick-knacks and bargains, so it's a good idea to budget both your time and money because you want to save both for a leisurely browse through the Agora, Hania's central market. It's located in the heart of the town and is actually where all distances in and out of Hania are measured. The Agora is where you'll find some of the permanent stalls of Cretan food producers, as well as the most popular souvenirs and other tourist trappings, which we all need to provide us with tangible reminders of our holidays. The Agora is also a popular place for locals to buy meat and fish. You will get a good idea of how the locals shop for their food by looking at the fresh products available here. By the end of your tour, you will also probably be hungry, so now is the time to stop and rest at a mayirio in the Agora, which serves solid traditional instantly recognisable Greek fare at very good prices (much cheaper than a taverna). Refresh yourself here with something to eat and drink, because the day isn't quite over yet.. 

The old Venetian harbour of Hania - no doubt, it's one of the most romantic corners of the Mediterranean.

The Venetian port and the old town: Once you realised how good - and cheap - the food was at the mayirio, you probably ordered a lot of food and now feel as though you overate. Don't worry, you're about to work that off all those extra virgin olive-oil calories you just gained. Exit the Agora through the back entrance (ie facing north), and you will find yourself on a narrow commercial street. Turn left and keep crossing the road to continue walking north, so that eventually you will arrive at the old romantic Venetian port. This is where the rest of your afternoon will be spent, walking along the cobbled paved streets to admire the view and the cosmopolitan atmosphere that the port conveys. Both locals and tourists alike sit at the many bars, cafes and tavernas that line the promenade, simply taking in the glorious sight of the lighthouse as it stands in the middle of the harbour. You won't do that until you have explored all the side streets on the western side of the port, which tell the history of the gentrified origins of the old town of Hania. Then you'll move onto the eastern side which looks shabbier than where you just came from - but it is also the most multicultural part of the town, a particular characteristic it retains throughout its urban history, well before the Ottomans occupied it: look out for the two minarets in the area which are still standing. If you can't be bothered walking, you can take a short cruise (from 30 minutes to 2 hours long) round the harbour - the pleasure crafts are docked on the west side.

koum kapi kazimi hania chania
After an evening out at Koum Kapi, you'll never want to leave Hania.

Late afternoon: It's time for another drink - a coffee, or maybe something stronger. Although you may be tempted to take it on the harbour front with a view to the lighthouse, why not try one of those bars/cafes you saw on the side-streets during your stroll? The coastline of Koum Kapi is also one of the most vibrant places in the town most of the day; it's Hania's upbeat spot that the tourists don't know very well, located on the eastern side away from the port. Hania is now a smoke-free zone in public places, so choose where you sit wisely; if you want to sit outside to smoke, that jacket you were carrying round with you all day might now come in handy, although most places will have outdoor seating available in covered areas, and during the cooler months, they also provide outdoor heating.

The food shown here does not look spectacular; it could be served anywhere in Hania. The difference is the atmosphere: Galatas is a pictuesque village not far from the town centre. Locals equally distribute themselves among the few shops (a kafeneion, a taverna and a cafe) located on the main square next to the village church, in a very ambient environment.  Village tavernas (like the one below in Omalos) often contain a sense of charm about them, even if it borders on the tacky. But the food is usually never tacky.
koutroulis omalos

Early evening: Lunch was filling, but we are accustomed to eating three meals a day. It's probably time for that third meal, and the choice is huge. Feel like something simple? Try an ouzerie (tsikoudadiko, as we prefer to call them in Hania) at the harbour (near the former mosque), for a small selection of simple mezedes and a nip of the local firewater, tsikoudia (aka raki). Another simple meal is to be found in souvlaki (at the town's newest souvlatzidiko, Thraka, in the town centre), Greece's national street-food, a very transparent kind of junk food. Most tavernas do the famous Greek calamari, which is reasonably priced (try some at Bakaliarakia, located within walking distance south just out of the town on Zimbrakakidon St), which go well with fried potatoes and a salad. If you're feeling like something more special, the choices are endless, and so are the locations, as long as you are prepared to drive out to some of them: why not go to a taverna in a nearby village (like Galatas) for a feel of life in Smallsville? Most village eateries also serve souvlaki as well as more substantial dishes, but be prepared for a more limited menu.

cretan lyra player lemonia hiliomoudou hania chania
Cretan music has a distinct regional twang to it, and it's well-known and fairly popular all over the country.

Evening: You're here for 24 hours, so if you aren't about to jump back on a ship or plane to return to Athens (and you don't have a memorial service to attend the next day, which means that you really need to sleep and rest before sprucing yourself up early in the morning to attend church), find out (through billboards in the town or the local newspaper, Haniotika Nea) where a Cretan singer or band is playing for a bit of locally grown music. They play not only at weekends, but also at festivals, saint's namedays, and during the week if they are here for a special occasion. The Cretan lyra mesmerises even those who aren't fans of Greek country music, simply because it is unique and unforgettable. That kind of entertainment will last until the wee hours, so make sure you get yourself back to your port of departure safe and sound, which will most likely be the airport, leaving with the first morning flight out of town.

red sky at night sailor's delight
This surreal sky was photographed in the town centre at the stadium.

But you'll probably be back soon, because you know you just did it all too quickly...

*The location of the laiki changes according to the day: Monday-Ai-Yiani suburb, Wednesday-Pahiana suburb, Thursday-Nea Hora suburb (they are all within walking distance, but if you have only 24 hours to spend in Hania, you're better off catching a cab), Saturday-Minoos St (near the city centre); on Tuesday and Sunday, there is no laiki. To get back to the Agora after the laiki from the different locations, you'll need to catch a cab from Ai-Yiani and Nea Hora; from Pahiania, it's quite easy (just walk north), while Minoos St is located very close to the Agora.  

©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 12 April 2011

Marmaritsakis mayirio (Μαγειρείο Μαρμαριτσάκης)

I don't find myself going into the town so often these days, because my daily business takes me to other places in the wider area of Hania. When I recently found myself on one of those rare occasions in the centre, I decided to have a meal at a place I often tell you about, but have never dined at myself.

marmaritsakis restaurant
The original sign for the Marmaritsakis mayirio, establiched in 1950 by Mr Stamatis Marmaritsakis Snr. In place of a telephone number, because not everyone had a telephone in those days, addresses were used instead.

The Agora contains a few μαγειρεία (mayiria), places where you can have a home-cooked meal at a very cheap price. The food served in them is similar to taverna meals, with less emphasis on grilled meat. Mayiria are usually open for lunch rather than dinner, and never on Sundays, as the song says. These are the reasons that make it hard for me to go out for a meal of this type, since I would generally go out at the weekend, and during the week, I cook similar meals to that of mayiria at home for my own family.

mr marmaritsakis
Mr Stavros Marmaritsakis has been working in the Agora for 61 years, from the time his father started the business. Over those years, he has seen many people passing by his shop. "There's a lot of sadness in the world," he told me, "but there's also a lot of good. Even when things are bad, they eventually get better."

The opening hours and food choices at the mayiria mark these places out as a kind of worker's diner, a place where you can get a home-cooked meal, or something nourishing if you are a labourer who starts work early in the morning. They are open from quite early, and the first meal they serve in the day is usually offal soup, known all over Greece as πατσά (patsa). Meals in mayiria are always a sit-down affair - there is no rush to eat your lunch here; it's not a place where you just 'grab a bite to eat'.

mr marmaritsakis in his youth
Mr Stavros in his youth.

The typical customer of a mayirio in Hania these days is usually male, men in their late 30s or older. They may come on their own, or in a small παρέα (parea), in groups of 2-4. Women come in to mayiria too, but not as often as men. This is not surprising, since most women cook the same food at home as the mayiria. This kind of eaterie is frequented by a great variety of people: those who don't cook for themselves or have no one to cook for them, outdoor workers whose job involves heavy duties, out-of-towners who won't have time to cook a meal when they get back home (many people come into the town of Hania from villages, for all sorts of 'urban' jobs ranging from doctor's appointments to banking to shopping), and people who find themselves in town and feel like eating some thing homely.

marmaritsakis kefalaki marmaritsakis kefalaki
Mr Stamatis Marmaritsakis Jnr now works in the mayirio with his father. Here he is preparing roast lamb's head.
marmaritsakis kefalaki
The truth is that mayiria are not often frequented by the younger generation. There are special reasons for this, but the decline of the mayirio is not included among them. It's more a question of what young people are more likely to be doing during the opening hours of a mayirio. At the moment, Greece has a high rate of unemployment (urban centres are sufferng by as much 22%), consisting mainly of young people aged 25 or under, hence this age group is less likely to be going out for a meal during those hours. People leave their home environment and begin living independently after the age of 25 in Greece. It's part of the Greel way of life in Greece to remain at the family home until at least the age of 25. These days, the leaving age of unmarried children is probably higher; the economic crisis doesn't give them much choice.

 broad beans and artichokes in dill sauce, with dolmadakia
Simple food in a simple environment

The meals served in the mayiria are most likely what the younger generation is eating at home in any case. And when people land jobs in this day and age, they are more likely to start working on a 'global' basis, which usually means that there is no leisurely lunch break (or siesta, for that matter). Following similar trends in the west, Greeks are likely to bring or buy a sandwich kind of lunch - maybe a piece of pie or a 'wrap' like a souvlaki - something to keep them going until they go home much later in the day to eat their main meal in the late afternoon (which in Greece refers to any part of the day after 3pm and ends at about 6-7pm depending on when the sun goes down). In the recent past of Greece, the typical office worker's day used to stop at about 3 o'clock, which is why the main meal of the day was often 'lunch' and took place between 1-4pm. That has now changed too; most office workers finish work at 4pm or later.

For these reasons, the mayirio's customers are changing, but there is no sign that these places are becoming obsolete. The food they serve is usually of a very high quality, at a very good price (the same meal served at a taverna would cost twice as much as at a mayirio), just the kind of thing you'd expect a caring home-based mama to make on an everyday basis. Although the number of mayiria around town has decreased over the years, they will not disappear altogether due to the increased interest in healthier meal options out of the home.

marmaritsakis soups marmaritsakis meal selection
The kitchen of the mayirio: soup pots (the largest contains patsa) and roasting tins.
marmaritsakis kitchen

The mayiria are also serving more than the function of providing good healthy tasty meals at cheap prices. Their food is timeless - the mayiria are unknowingly acting as the guardians of traditional Greek cuisine, by serving well-known Greek dishes that everyone can recognise instantly. Everyone needs to eat, and more and more people are becoming more and more conscious of what they are eating. The mayiria don't serve 'specialities' in the way that a taverna might claim: the food at mayiria is standard fare, recognisable to all Greeks. Because many mayiria are located close to a central market, they also have access to the freshest ingredients, which is especially necessary if they intend to serve Greece's infamous offal soup, patsa, made of tripe, intestines and various other unmentionables, and 'delicacies' like lamb's head.

broad beans and artichokes in dill sauce, with dolmadakia
Dolmadakia and agginarokoukia - 6 euro; on the day I visited Marmaritsakis mayirio, the menu choices also included: eggplant imam baldi, soutzoukakia, yemista, beef kokkinisto, fasolada, intestines soup, youvarlakia, boiled meat, gigandes, kefalaki (lambs head - a specialty of the house), horta, beets, fava, and bakaliaro.

When people ask me about where they can get a good meal if they lead very busy lives and work long hours away from home, I always direct them to a mayirio. Souvlaki is a great Greek food too, but it is regarded by Greeks as ξηροφαγεία - 'dry food', something more πρόχειρο (roughly made). After a while of eating too many souvlakia, the body will probably crave what is known in Greek as λαδερά, 'oily', or 'wet' food, the kind of meal served on a plate, not in the hand. You can bet that all meals served at mayiria in the Agora will contain plenty of runny oily sauces, and you'll think you were eating your meal in a homey environment. What's more, it won't burn holes in your pocket.

©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.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

The Cretan taverna (Ταβέρνα)

If certain discussion topics about Cretan cuisine are not pointed out to me, I would take them for granted. For instance, ordering a meal at a Cretan taverna (highlighted by a reader*) sounds like stating the obvious: you enter the taverna seating area, choose your table, sit down, take out the list you wrote back at home of your favorite meals from Organically cooked, find them on the menu card and order them. Then it occurred to me that whenever I go out for a meal at a taverna, I don't usually look at the menu card. So, the question is: how can you be sure of ordering a good meal in a Cretan taverna? My husband is the expert here, so I leave you in his trusted care...

Day and time: To enjoy a good meal, you need to have the appropriate weather. The best time of year to enjoy a meal out is when the weather is good but it isn't quite summer yet. That doesn't have anything to do with tourism; tourists usually go to places with a good view, so they don't usually go to the kinds of places I like to go to. If it's too hot, you don't really feel like eating; if it's too cold, you eat to warm up, so you may not really be enjoying your meal. I also hate going out for a meal on a public holiday. You need to get to the place early to grab a table, you need to wait for a long time till your order comes, the food won't be cooked to perfection because there are too many people wanting to eat at the same time, the ingredients won't be that good, either, for the same reasons, and there will be too much cacophony. I like going to a taverna at midday, not in the evening, because that's when I like to have the biggest meal of the day, at lunchtime, not dinnertime. I'd never go to a mountain taverna at the weekend after snow has fallen. It's every man and his dog then. All you'll remember of the trip is how long it took you to get back home because everyone blocked the road with their big cars.
ravdoucha waves on the rocks Summertime by the sea (Waves on the rocks at Ravdoucha), wintertime in the mountains (Drakoulakis at Omalos): Crete has something for everyone all year round. Tourists generally aren't catered for from November to March, but private groups and individuals come to Crete, and they are never disappointed - as long as it's not raining, autumn, late winter and early spring are the best times to visit to Crete if swimming isn't your main aim.

The seaside taverna: I'm not a seaside taverna kind of person. If you want to eat by the seaside, you've got to be prepared to pay for it. That's why you go to the seaside, for the view. You pay for the view, not the food. You might want to go to the seaside to eat out if you want to eat fresh fish. But to eat fresh fish, you've got to be prepared to pay for that, too, because fish is the most expensive meal you can buy at a taverna. I like to go to a seaside taverna in the summer, and preferably in the evening. Who wants to burn under the sun? Seaside tavernas are for tourists. They won't be asking if the calamari is frozen; they just want to eat calamari. If I have to go to the seaside for a meal out, I choose places that offer lots of shade. Most likely, I'll be on holiday by the sea, which is why I'll go to a seaside taverna. But I won't order fish because it's just too expensive. I'd probably order calamari which is reasonably well-priced, which we don't eat at home all the time, and a plate of αχινούς (ahinous - sea urchins), which we only eat when we go out. That's a special dish, which is why I'd order it at a seaside taverna.

It's relatively cheap to eat out at a place like this (Kalamaki taverna at Kalamaki beach), the perfect place to be on a summer's evening. But it's not something locals can do every day - thank goodness for good home cooking and a roomy balcony, like ours. If I really want to eat fish, I would eat it in the Agora in central Hania, where fish is cooked freshly on a daily basis when the market is open. It many not be next to the sea, but the people-watching entertainment is priceless.
The countryside taverna: I prefer to go to the countryside for a meal out, which invariably means good meat raised in the area where you choose to go out for a meal. It's likely to be cheap too, because the owner of the taverna is probably raising most of his ingredients himself. The countryside is usually quiet and peaceful, you're surrounded by natural landscape, most of the food will have been raised in the same area where you're eating it, and the chief cook will probably be from the area, probably a woman, so she'll know how to cook the traditional dishes very well. And that's what I want when I go out for a meal: traditional Cretan food, food that I know well, cooked with the best ingredients in the way I've come to know and love it. These sorts of places are really well priced. We never pay more than 11-12 euro a person when we go out, and we never feel hungry after our meal. The decor is unimportant at places like this; they're probably situated amongst beautiful landscape. Who needs indoor decor when you're surrounded by Cretan wilderness?

Getting a feel for what is cooking is always an educational experience in countryside tavernas in Crete: wood-fired ovens and barbecues are the norm. Left: Fragma taverna in Rethimno, which specialises in antikristo, an upright BBQ. Right: Botanical Garden Restaurant on the Fournes road past Omalos.

The choice of taverna: I hardly ever go to a taverna that I don't know well, or haven't been told about. Wherever I go, it's always συστημένος; a colleague will have been there and told me about the place. So I usually know what to expect from most places before I go there. Every now and then, when I find myself in the position of having to choose an unreviewed taverna, the first thing I do is park the car and tell the family to come with me to find out what the taverna's offering (the wife never wants to accompany me when I do this). I head towards the kitchen to see what's cooking. Decor,  location, bathrooms, tableware, none of that's going to tell you whether the food's good. You have to go into the kitchen and see what's in the pots or the ovens. If you don't get the chance to see what's in them, at least you'll be able to smell them. At this stage, you might end up talking to the frontpeople at the taverna. I ask them what's in the pots and pans. If it sounds like the food I want to eat, then I tell the wife and kids to choose a table (they're usually waiting for me in the car, anyway).

drakoulakis taverna omalosto kima paleohora hania chania
A fireplace in the winter (Drakoulakis at Omalos), a shady spot near the sea in the summer: Crete at its best.

Choice of table: Steer clear of fireplaces; even in the winter, it's usually too hot to sit very close to it. I only sit outdoors in July and August. Or during a heatwave. And always in the shade. Never near a door, because it'll open and close all the time and creates draughts.

to kima paleohora hania chania 1PC060002
 The typical Greek taverna menu is broken up into appetisers, salads, mains cooked in the oven and grilled dishes, what Greeks call 'της ώρας' because they're cooked on order (top left: To Kima, Paleohora). Specials may be written on a separate piece of paper (top right: Botanical Garden Restaurant), or they may be communicated to the guests (bottom left: Leventis, Therisso). Menus in tourist areas are invariably written in the global style on a chalkboard (bottom right: Paleohora).
DSC02872 restaurant paleohora hania chania

The menu card: I never look at a menu card. I always ask the waiter to tell us what's on offer. I grew up at a time when we listened more than we read. I'm used to getting the menu told to to me. Sometimes, the menu card lists dishes that aren't available, so what's the point of seeing a menu card? Tavernas sometimes have a specialty of the area that they don't always write on the menu. It's something that they'll tell discerning customers about, things that are only available in small quantities, which is why they'll only tell you about them if you ask them. Tavernas that use meat raised by the owners do things like fried liver and sweetbread from freshly slaughtered meat, but there's not enough to go round, so they might be keeping it for their regular customers. But they'll tell you if you ask for it. 

dakos koukouvayia owl's eyes
Cretan appetisers make up a complete meal of themselves. I prefer vegetarian meals, so I don't need much more to eat than a selection of these salads and dips.
best cretan appetisers greek salad meal with tzatziki and bread
The more carnivorous among us need not feel left out. Left: country-style sausages (loukanika) and smoked pork (apaki); right: grilled rabbit.

Salads and appetisers: I love tomato salad, but tomato is only really good in summer; I never order a tomato salad once the tomato season is over. Even then, I still don't order tomato salad much at a taverna, because I - we, my whole family - loves horta. I grow vlita in the summer, but I can't get enough of them, so I'll still order them at a taverna. In the winter, I always order stamnagathi. I just want something to go with my meat, not to be eaten instead of them. Salads always require a lot of olive oil too, so you end up dipping your bread into the salad all the time. I don't like my salads to be too creative, otherwise they become a complete meal, and I'll have eaten too much before the main meat dishes arrive at the table, so I don't see the point of ordering too much salad. Besides, we eat a lot of salads and horta at home; most of the time, I've grown them myself. What's the point of paying for salad at a taverna? Same applies to all those mezedakia, like apaki and loukanika (sausages). I like kalitsounia and dakos, but I don't need to order them at a taverna; we eat all that at home on a regular basis! I let kids order what they want, but I know it's not the cleverest idea to allow them to have so many appetisers at a taverna, because they'll feel too stuffed to eat some of the mains dishes. They're kids; they'll learn. I'll make an exception for staka in the winter, which we never eat at home. Tzatziki is great in the summer, but only just enough to go with your meat. Too much of any of those, and I won't be able to enjoy my meat. I'll be eating bread instead. I make an exception to french fries, as long as they're not προ-κατ; they are usually freshly cut and freshly fried at good tavernas, and the taverna is most likely to be cooking their own harvest. But I'd much rather have fried courgette and aubergine chips in the summer.
tsigariasto kokoretsi ellanion fos argiroupoli hania-rethimno
Meat specialties abound in Crete: my photos don't do it justice; tsigariasto (goat cooked in oil), kokoretsi (roast intestines and offal on the spit), roast potatoes and pork cooked in blood, stuffed bifteki (hamburger).
stuffed bifteki ellanion fos argiroupoli hania-rethimno xidato xithato and lamb roast potatoes cooked in wood fired oven

The main course: A Cretan countryside taverna offers a standard menu. I already know what it will be offering. That's what I go for, I know what I want to eat: roast lamb with potatoes, tsigariasto (goat cooked in the tradition of Sfakia), avgolemono lamb or goat, roast pig, well-grilled pork steaks, rooster in wine sauce. Each taverna might offer a signature dish of their own, which I might try. I can remember eating grilled rabbit - it tasted like tender barbecued chicken, it was fantastic. So was the roast lamb stuffed with mizithra. It's all to do with the ingredients: if they aren't good to start with, then the food won't be. If I don't go to a countryside taverna or I'm less sure of the ingredients, then I choose general Greek cuisine. You can't go wrong with makaronada, bifteki or pastitsio, because these dishes are made fresh daily. I personally would never choose boureki and yemista, because I eat plenty of that at home. When I go out for a meal, I eat meat, not vegetables!

DSC03119 ravdoucha waves on the rocks
Dessert in a Cretan taverna is usually on the house: it can be traditional, like yoghurt with honey or a syrupy spoon sweet...
... or more complicated with Sfakianes pites (cheese and honey pies), which are menu choices, so they need to be ordered (and paid for. In the summer, fresh locally grown watermelon is usually served.
DSC03222 ab watermelon

Dessert: Dessert? You don't order that, do you? That comes at the end of the meal, on the house. At any rate, you'll be too full to eat dessert by then. If there's enough room, you can order Sfakianes
pites. But that's about all: dessert is unnecessary after a rich meal. All you need is a nip of tsikoudia.

 lemonia hiliomoudou hania chania FIX beer
This is pretty much what we drink when we go out. Cretan fare is simple in essence; we don't complicate it with bottled wines.

Drinks: I like wine, and it's usually good at tavernas, because, again, the owner is probably making his own. I never buy bottled wine. Apart from the prices of bottled wine, I don't like drinking wine which I know has additives to get the taste and colour right. Home-made wine, the kind that our tavernas here always serve, taste just like the wine I drink at home, which is older than a decade, and was allowed to ferment naturally in a wooden barrel. Bottled wine can be good, but I don't really feel the need to order it. Bottled wine is what raises the price of a meal. You can ask the owner to taste both the red and white house wine on offer at the taverna and choose which one you prefer. I like beer too, but it only really goes well with grilled meat, especially in the summer. We let the kids order a fizzy drink when we go out, as it's their occasional treat. But we always ask the waiter to bring the drinks with the food, because kids are kids, and they'll drink it before they even take their first bite.p

Crete in spring or at Easter is one of the best times to visit the island, but most people come in the summer. If you are coming to Crete during the hotter season, check out my summer food post specially written for tourists, Taste Crete.

*Because of the sheer volume of photographs I upload, it's easier to view them on my facebook page (if you have a facebook account, click 'Like'). My food photographs chronicle my husband's advice: these are my family's rules when we go out for (usually) lunch. Our taverna food choices (with a heavy bias towards meat) reflect the Cretan style of eating out, which differs from the summertime tourist's choices. Vegetarians need not fear - Greek cuisine fully caters for the non-carnivore!

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