Spinalonga, Lasithi and Archanes
At Elounda Bay hotel, on the northern coast of Crete, the sea was warm and inviting in the late afternoon as the sun was setting. We reached this popular southeastern resort of Crete flying from Ioannina, Epirus, to Athens, then to Heraklion, and finally driving through areas I used to know well but found so much changed.
My biggest shock was to see Spinalonga. The islet, with its well-preserved Venetian fortress, housed a leper colony until the early twentieth century. When I first reached its shore in the early 1970ies it was not open to visitors.
Back then I was preparing my graduation work portfolio for the Polytechnic of Central London School of Photography and I included a series of the black and white photos I took of the haunting buildings in Spinalonga. I could never imagine back then that this desolate place would one day become such a huge popular attraction. Groups from Russia, Italy, the UK, and the US patiently awaited their turn, under the blazing sun at the port to be guided around the island.
Leaving the sea behind we drove up the long, winding road to the the village of Agios Konstantinos, in the Lasithi Plateau. At Vilaeti, a busy family tavern and store, Aliki, the blue-eyed owner, served us a delicious version of Cretan dolmades.
Zucchini blossoms filled with rice are simply called ‘dolmades’ in Crete; these were flavored with a wonderful combination of home-grown herbs and spices, and accompanied by thick, home-made sheep’s milk yogurt.
Succulent, spit-roasted lamb was the main course served with olive-oil-and-lemon-roasted potatoes; and for dessert a plate of delicate yogurt-lemon mousse with crumbled almond biscuits, and a piece of the sweetest watermelon I’ve ever tasted!
In Heraklion, I got my two favorite pastries from Savoidakis bakery. Both are stuffed with the local fresh myzithra: lemon-mastic-scented tartlets called lychnarakia, and kalitsounia anevata, brioche-like, mizithra-stuffed buns.
South of the city in Archanes, a village close to the Knossos archeological site, we lunched at Kritamon, the restaurant I came to consider one of the best I’ve been to recently –and not just on this trip. The pleasant and minimally decorated dining room and lovely patio as well as the logo and table mats were a promising first impression.
We appreciated the quiet and attentive service but above all we were enticed by the incredibly fresh, clear flavors of the various dishes we sampled; they brilliantly showcased the local, seasonal ingredients without fuss or unnecessary adornments. Everything chef Dimitris Mavrakis cooked for us was simply perfect!
The delicate whipped-cheese-spread was pleasantly spicy; a version of tyrokafteri taken to a different level with a combination of three local fresh goat cheeses instead of the usual feta.
The chunky fava (pureed fava beans, split peas, and lentils) had a deeply satisfying taste simply dressed with olive oil and topped with raw onions and pickled kritamon (rock samphire) the salty and slightly aromatic shoots of a plant that grows wild on seashores. The stuffed grape leaves and the tomato salad with paximadi (twice baked barley bread) were the best I ever had; and the slow-roasted pork with potatoes was perfectly spiced with smoked paprika.
But it was the fried smoked cheese in sunflower-seed-crust accompanied by petimezi (grape molasses), by far the best saganaki I ever had, that really blew us away. We were all smitten by the perfect combination of texture and flavor!
Chania and the western mountains
Leaving Heraklion and driving to Chania, on the western part of Crete, we settled at Domes Noruz, a very unusual new hotel. Fortunately, we stayed four nights and had time to get used to, appreciate, and even love some of its unfamiliar fixtures –the split-level rooms and open-air bathtubs on the balcony.
Wandering in the town’s small roads and alleys I visited the old Synagogue in a beautiful, fifteenth-century Venetian building, that my late friend Nikos Stavroulakis helped restore. But this was one of the rare exceptions; I was saddened to see the dramatic change all around the spectacular Venetian port. Just like in most popular islands, boutiques, loud fast-food taverns, and tourist shops have overtaken almost every door. Gone are the small workshops, the amazing bell foundry, and the old bakeries that offered excellent paximadia, fragrant breads, and sweets.
Even inside the old covered Food Market only a handful of stands still sold food —fish, olives, and cheeses. Knock-off imported leather goods, T-shirts, scarves, and a myriad of cheap souvenirs have overtaken the market stands. I guess this is the trade-off result from Chania’s success in attracting cruise ships and visitors from all over the world.
With tourists invading Chania, the locals are getting farther and farther away from the charming but tourist-flooded port. My old friend, photographer Manousos Daskaloyannis, a Chania native who is passionate about his city and the surrounding area, took me to Tabakika, a shabby seaside area where tanneries used to be.
I am sure that the rundown buildings will soon be rehabilitated; but, for the moment, barely lit by the faded light of dusk, they looked like the setting for a Medieval play. The fish tavern where we dined is a favorite of the local élite, the Chaniotes of the neighboring Chalepa district.
Manousos insisted that our group had to taste the authentic, deep-rooted Cretan foods that Stelios Tylirakis prepares. So, braving the long, winding, and often harrowing road —especially for our big bus— we drove to Drakona village up in the stunning Malaxa mountains.
There, at Dounias tavern, Stelios cooks on live fire everything he grows in his garden: potatoes were frying in bubbling olive oil in a deep clay pot over a charcoal stove; in another stove snails were being braised with plenty of onions. To my surprise, many from our group not only tasted, but devoured these unusual delicacies, an important source of protein during the old, frugal times.
Snails are still loved in Crete but are almost forgotten in other parts of the country. Lamb with zucchini and potatoes was roasted in the wood-fired oven, where also the heavy, whole-wheat bread was baked.
On the menu were a lot of delicious homey dishes: squash with carrots and chickpeas, stuffed vegetables, bulgur with eggplants, baked zucchini slices with fresh cheese; humble, yet irresistibly wholesome and delicious foods people of this area have been cooking for hundreds of years!
Another day, the brilliant chef Yannis Tsivourakis together with his cooks at Minoa Palace, prepared in front of us some more refined traditional Cretan pecialties: finger-shaped and square pitakia (turnovers) stuffed with cheese and greens, and an enticing version of the traditional gamopilafo, the soupy risotto cooked in lamb’s broth laced with goat’s milk butter; this dish is a staple at Cretan wedding banquets. Tsivourakis also served an impressive selection of the most important sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses from all over the island.
Later, he brought to our table his light and airy kserotigana –extra-thin spirals of fried phyllo ribbons, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with nuts. He also offered us deep-flavored little cakes, baked with carob flour. Carob trees thrive between the arid rocks, all over the mountains in Crete.
From the hard carob pods, besides flour, a syrup is extracted. It used to be an ancient sweetener and now is considered a healthy ‘super-food.’
Rethymno and Kolymbari
In Rethymno, Crete’s third largest city, I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of the beautiful Venetian and Ottoman buildings have been beautifully restored, and although boutiques and gift-shops abound, there are still a few old workshops in the maze of the old city.
Octogenarian phyllo-master Giorgos Hatziparaskos rolls paper-thin sheets of phyllo dough every day. His wife uses the freshly-rolled sheets to make bite-size baklava and other sweets, big hits among the many visitors. His son who helps him at the store plans to continue the family tradition.
In Rethymno, we had lunch at the charming garden of Avli restaurant. The chef here seemed to hesitate between ultra modern, molecular-cuisine-like bites, and some of the popular regional meze dishes.
Fortunately, he was more successful with the latter: his cheese-and-greens pitarakia (small fried pies) were excellent, as was the bulgur and mixed-grain-pilaf with zucchini, mushrooms, and shavings of local aged graviera cheese.
Our trip to Crete wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t get to taste olive oil, the island’s main product, and experience its production.
At Astrikas, a spectacular region near Kolymbari village, we visited the award-winning Biolea estate. The young and passionate Chloe Dimitriadis —a fifth generation olive producer— explained the process of grinding the local koroneiki olives in the traditional stone mill, and then pressing the pulp between mats to get the precious liquid.
Giorgos Dimitriadis, Chloe’s father, has meticulously worked for years to update this age-old process: the mill and press that were for centuries operated by mule, donkey and human power, are now powered by electricity.
‘We get less oil by using the traditional pressing method instead of a centrifugal machine, like most people do,” said Chloe, adding that olive oil produced with millstones and presses retains all its nutritive benefits, and is distinguished by the mild, sweet taste we Greeks appreciate. No wonder Saveur magazine included Biolea in its list of the world’s 10 best olive oils!
At Astrikas the landscape around Biolea is stunning: olive-tree-covered hills, like a rippling valley of silver and green leaves, framed by imposing rocks and in the background, beyond the olive groves, the blue Mediterranean Sea.
The comforting beauty at this southernmost part of the country brought to my mind the rolling hills at the Kir-Yianni vineyards, way up north, in the slopes of mount Vermion, almost at the other end of Greece. In such breathtakingly beautiful surroundings, it is not by chance, I thought, that hard working passionate people following their family traditions with love and care, produce truly exquisite products: wonderful wine and delicious olive oil!