We Greeks are thrilled that recently there seems to be a trend leading people back to the honest, no-frills, unadorned dishes that our grandmothers used to cook. Foreign visitors, especially those who are genuinely interested in food, often go to great lengths trying to find the long-forgotten, plain, everyday home cooking; and this is what we demonstrated at the Worlds of Flavor conference held last November in the renovated, wonderful Copia, in Napa Valley.
It was a foggy, bitingly cold morning as we stood at the back garden of Copia, in Napa. With chefs Yiannis Tsivourakis and Dimitrios Mavrakis we had come for this fall’s Worlds of Flavor to present dishes from Crete to food professionals and chefs from all over the world. That morning we were giving our last workshop and tasting and had prepared a few more dishes in an open fire. As we were grilling and plating the stuffed calamari, the sunflower-seed-crusted cheese, and the smoky eggplant-pepper salad we almost forgot the humid cold, experiencing such warmth and genuine interest from the twenty or so participants. They tasted, expressed their gratitude, and asked relevant questions, making us proud and somewhat puzzled that the peasant-inspired, simple foods we learned from our ancestors were so enthusiastically received by savvy professionals.
The previous day at eight in the morning we were scheduled to deliver our big cooking demonstration at the Ecolab –the large, state-of-the-art amphitheater of Copia. We were somewhat afraid that very few if anybody would wake up at the crack of dawn to come see us. As we were being ‘wired’ with our microphones in the back room, all three of us were stressed and trying to concentrate and do exactly what we were supposed to do –show the slides, cook and plate our dishes, and especially keep the timing as it was planned. We had the feeling that we were fussy and nervous for no particular reason; besides the cameras that recorded the presentations, we didn’t expect more than a handful of people in the audience. Anne Mc Bride started to introduce me and as I stepped toward the podium and faced the audience I almost screamed seeing the vast amphitheater completely packed! Every single seat was occupied; there were even people standing in the back.
Chef Yiannis started the demo cooking the delicious olive-oil-fried snails with rosemary and vinegar. Then he prepared my favorite tomato-braised chestnuts with pearl onions and mushrooms, a dish originally cooked in the villages high up in the rugged mountains above Chanea, on western Crete.
Chef Dimitrios followed making his amazing sympetherio –mashed dried legumes’ purée: fava, lentils, and yellow split peas– which he served on toasted pita, drizzled with freshly-pressed olive oil, chopped scallions and his signature pickled kritamo (rock samphire). Kritamo, the elusive herb that gave its name to chef Dimitrios Mavrakis’ restaurant in Archanes, in eastern Crete, grows next to the sea.
The demonstration included xynohondros the tangy-crumbly ‘pasta’ of Crete, prepared in the summer by simmering the freshly harvested cracked wheat-berries in sour milk or yogurt, then drying the mixture in the sun to get a nourishing staple. It is used year-round for soups, and braised with vegetables, greens and occasionally with pieces of meat. Chef Dimitrios used xynohondro to make meze fritters, which he stuffed with feta and served on a bed of fresh tomato sauce, scented with fresh mint.
Chef Yiannis baked kalitsounia, the little pies with the unusual, homemade phyllo of Crete that besides flour, water, and olive oil, is ‘tipsy’ with tsikoudia –the local strong, grappa-like drink of the island. Alcohol gives the crust that encloses a deliciously simple filling of wild greens, fennel, and fresh cheese, a lovely crunch.
Traditionally cooked in the fall and winter in Crete, the dishes we chose to cook at the conference illustrate beautifully the ingenuity of the island’s frugal cuisine: cooks create scrumptious, healthy, and wholesome dishes using a handful of home-grown or foraged ingredients.
We Greeks are thrilled that recently there seems to be a trend leading people back to the honest, unadorned dishes that our grandmothers and mothers used to cook. Foreign visitors, especially those who are genuinely interested in food, often go to great lengths trying to find the long-forgotten, no-frills, everyday home cooking; and this is what we demonstrated at the Worlds of Flavor conference which was held at the wonderfully renovated Copia, in Napa.