Cuisine vacationing on the Greek island of Crete
Nikki Rose and Panos Moldovanidis above Elounda Bay with Spinalonga Island, an ancient fortress, in the background.
Learn about the culture and history of Crete
Greek American professional chef, writer and documentary filmmaker, Nikki Rose, takes us on a road trip into the mountains of central Crete, a rugged, deeply historic, and culturally distinctive Mediterranean island, her adopted home for the past twelve years.
Check out Nikki’s programs for food culture enthusiasts, taking participants to different island regions while focusing on culture, sustainable organic cuisine, olive oil and local wines!
Elounda harbor embraces history with its sunken city of Olous, the Venetian salt flats, and 2nd C. Byzantine chapel. Nikki Rose
On a very hot August day, I made my first trip to Anogia. My partner, Panos, and I piled into the car with our friend, Nikos, and his family early one Sunday morning for our long-anticipated visit to his home village. From the coastal city of Iraklio, we headed southwest toward the center of Crete. Our destination, Anogia, lies cradled in the foothills of Mount Psiloritis, Crete’s tallest peak at 2,456 meters (8,058 feet). With gorgeous views of the sea, the road climbed steadily and curved through vineyards and olive groves bordered by huge fig trees.
The landscape changed once we entered a rocky gorge where goats seemed best suited to manage the terrain. As we followed the sharp contours of the mountain, I wondered how on earth people could survive in such an isolated area, before automobiles and paved roadways. People have inhabited in this area for at least 4,000 years, retreating further and further inland from a long list of invaders who viewed the island as a strategic crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia. Traveling on foot or donkey would have been a Herculean journey, never mind constructing stone temples and cities on such sheer precipices.
Samaria Gorge is a picturesque challenge for hikers. Victor Hardbattle
Crete is Greece’s largest and most southerly island, with a population of nearly 600,000. It is 260 km (160 miles) long and 56 km (35 miles) at its widest point. Agriculture and tourism (more “invaders”) dominate the economy.
The island was first inhabited about 6000 BC. The best-known period is the Bronze Age (2600-1100 BC) Minoan Civilization, well represented today by some spectacular archaeological sites including the famous palaces of Knossos, Festos and Zakros. Minoan ships traveled and traded around the Mediterranean Sea in this early period, giving birth to the earliest civilizations in Europe.
Samaria Gorge in the White Mountains. The gorge is 18 km (11 miles) long and very narrow with a spectacular height of 600 meters (2,000 feet) in some places.
Map used by permission. Copyright CreteTravel.com 2005
A village of Feet in Two Worlds
For any celebration villagers gather to make music and feast. Panos Moldovanidis
We arrived to the sound of the village priests, chanting from the church altar into a modern PA system that echoed through the village. The main square was empty, except for a few shopkeepers, tourists and rebellious grandfathers sipping a little raki. We took a stroll around the village, passing houses with beautiful aromas wafting through kitchen windows: comforting scents of chicken broth, roast lamb, pork or fish. The humble abodes along the edge of the village have rooftops level with the road – tricky construction where chickens or goats naturally seem to gravitate.
With a current population of about 3,000, Anogia is not a small village, although it feels cozy with narrow, twisting streets that slow the unnerving motorbikes speeding past. It’s also a very stylish village with some swank restaurants and cafés, giving it a cosmopolitan feel on certain corners. You could easily lose track of time in one of the tavernas overlooking the tranquil valley and slopes.
Being a farming community, the food is fantastic. Everything you eat is raised and produced around the village and anyone who makes it has had generations of instruction. There’s no need to explain on taverna menus that your lamb or chicken is “free range” or that your salad is made with fresh-picked “field” greens. Indeed, the taverna owners quite possibly produce the olive oil, olives, vinegar, wine, cheeses and breads they serve.
This traditional dish is called Koukouvaya (owl) because it looks like an owl’s eye when topped with tomatoes cheese and an olive. Nikki Rose
We stopped off for ice coffee at the home of one of many great musicians from Anogia, Nikos Xylouris, who passed away in 1980. His family’s tiny house is adorned with concert posters and memorabilia. Nikos’ brother, Andonis, is also a popular musician today and some say he is the best lyre player in Crete. His sisters are a delight, running the museum/café, reminiscing while playing a few requests for beautiful songs.
Cretan music is different from the rest of Greece, the lyre being the prominent stringed instrument and foreign influences minimal, they say. A style called rizitika, is like interactive theater or poetry-music with a strong-voiced storyteller accompanied by a steady background rhythm and what seems to be casual comments thrown in by nearby villagers. Songs about life’s struggle, farming, and fighting for freedom generate a passion that can be felt even when the words are not understood.
A fisherman at Georgiopolis, a village on the northern coast. Glenda Kapsalis
There are several bronze statues of war heroes and memorials in Anogia, reminders of the many battles fought for freedom at various periods in time. Throughout history, the people of this village have fought off unwelcome visitors with great courage and ingenuity. Anogia was heavily bombed during the German occupation, as punishment for the resistance tactics of the residents. Some found refuge in the caves of their great mountain, and managed to survive off the land. Many Cretans were killed during the occupation but some heroes survive to this day. You can see a special glint of pride in the bright eyes of those older villagers.
It is all about Food and Family
Once the church services concluded, people filed out onto the square to take their usual seats at the kafenia, while others disappeared along pathways heading home. Our feast at Nikos’ parents’ house lasted many hours and we had a wonderful time chatting about family, food, farming and music — all the things that have traditionally been important.
The younger generation is not interested in farming. It’s rarely lucrative or glamorous work. Their parents are proud to send them to university to study modern-world trades and work in the cities. However, people are concerned for the future of their communities, as well as the quality of life and the food their children will be eating in the big cities. The concept of chemicals in foods, hormones and tainted animal feed is illogical and frightening to these traditional farmers. Many villages will simply be abandoned.
Church of the Panayia at Akrotiri.Carol Palioudaki
Preveli Monastery. Paul den Besten
Nikos’ parents are sweet people and great jokesters. The children have inherited their sense of humor and the house was filled with joy and laughter. I took a little stroll with the children down their narrow street overlooking the valley and stopped to watch a baby black goat jumping around its mother in adorable jack-knife leaps. The children looked at me with cocked heads, “What is so interesting about that goat?” they asked. “Haven’t you ever seen one before?”
We went back to our pension Mitato stuffed to the gills and slept till the sheep bells woke us. The balcony overlooked the mountain range and miles of serenity, with sheep dotting the slopes in every direction. Reluctantly we prepared to leave – after another three-hour farewell feast! We promised to return in the spring, when the wild flowers dust the countryside. They say it is a spectacular rainbow of color and perfect weather for visiting the ancient sites. I love the seaside as much as anyone, but when I’m invited to a mountain village on Crete, I jump at every chance.
Archaeological excavations of Knossos Palace, the centerpiece of Minoan civilization, are open to the public year round. Carol Palioudaki
Contributor Nikki Rose offers cultural-culinary tours around the island under the title of Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries (CCS), www.cookingincrete.com. Participants discover the secrets of Crete’s wild nature, culture, and cuisine during visits to historic sites, organic farms, villages off the map, tranquil beaches, and walks in the majestic countryside. Journeys change with the seasons. An all-local network of dedicated chefs, sustainable organic farmers, botanists, and archaeologists work together to present a memorable experience for visiting guests from around the world.
CCS is a sustainable tourism-in-action program whose aim is to promote and protect Crete’s cultural heritage and natural beauty by supporting residents actively working toward that goal. CCS programs have been featured in National Geographic Adventure, Lonely Planet, The Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, The Guardian (UK), Greece Magazine (UK), and Greek Circle Magazine, among many other publications.
For more about Anogia, visit www.cretetravel.com/Anogia/Anogia.htm.
Crete Island travel information: visit www.cretetravel.com, www.explorecrete.com and www.livingincrete.net.
In our own permanent library collection, other richly-illustrated feature articles on travel in Greece: Greek Islands, including Crete, and Meteora on the Greek mainland.
Colorful fishing boats in the harbor at Elounda, adopted home of Nikki Rose. Glenda Kapsalis
Our writer: A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Nikki Rose, Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries Founder & Director, is a Greek American professional chef and writer. She has lived on Crete for four years and traveled extensively in Greece. Her articles focus on culture, agriculture and environmental issues, and have been featured in Slow Food, among many other publications. Nikki is working on a book and documentary that mirror her projects in Crete. CCS recently worked with Television New Zealand on their culinary series, “Taste Takes Off,” aired for the first time in 2006. www.cookingincrete.com.
Special guest photographer: Glenda Hawley Kapsalis divides her time between Fine Art, Commercial and Documentary photography. She is deeply involved in exploring the loss of connection to the land brought on by urbanization and agribusiness, its implications for our lives, and the ways in which we are reaching out to regain our reverence for and interdependence on the earth. 10% of profits are donated to documenting sustainability and food security initiatives. www.glendakapsalis.com.
Photo: A guided CCS tour may take you to a remote beach taverna at Ligres for seafood making demos, dining and overnight R&R. Nikki Rose