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Cooking Lamp and Sweets

People here call lamb lamp, and it’s pretty funny. Today we started with wedding pilafe, a lemony rice dish served to coat the stomach before the big wedding feast. Adding a bit of yoghurt softens the tartness. While we ate that we prepared lamb stew with greens (fricassee) and chops cooked on top of the stove with just olive oil and water.

Maria’s sous-chef had made some delicious chickpeas that we enjoyed on the side.

Our final class focused on desserts: semolina cake and orange pie, both dead easy to make.

So we would have more to eat than just dessert, Maria baked fish with potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and onions.

And we posed with our favorite waiter, Felipe.

After our last class we took an excursion to Knossos, Crete’s most famous landmark and the hub of the Minoan civilization 4000 years ago. The excavation is enormous, and much of it was shored up by cement walls, so you’re not walking exclusively on 4000 year old stones. But it’s still fascinating to see the advanced nature of the Minoans, with their pipes, sewers and toilets. The distinctive red pillars, however, are original.

According to myth, King Minos prayed for and was given a white bull by the god Poseidon that the king was to sacrifice in return for Poseidon’s favor. Owing to the bull’s beauty, however, Minos kept it; so Poseidon made Minos’ wife, Pasiphaë, fall in love with it and conceive a fierce beast, a creature half-human, half-bull, which was named Minotaur. Many brave young men died trying to slay the beast, which was contained in an underground maze under the palace, until Theseus managed to kill it with his bare hands and secure the throne of Athens.

For our final dinner we opted to go to Maria’s newer restaurant in Heraklion, which was just a delight. Having some issues uploading images, so I’ll stop for now. Back to Athens tomorrow!

Cooking with Maria

Maria is the head of a small restaurant empire here and in Heraklion, and we repaired to a terrace connected to her small kitchen for our first lesson: everything stuffed, from eggplant to zucchini, to tomatoes, to peppers, all locally sourced. Crete has an amazing bounty of produce, fish and meat, particularly lamb, so they don’t import much. I think I forgot to mention that Sharon and I are Maria’s only students this week, which makes us feel part of her family.

After hollowing out the vegetables, we grated all the pulp into a bowl and added short-grained rice, parsley and seasonings, then stuffed each one. With the leftover filling we stuffed grape leaves for dolmas, then covered the baking pan with grape leaves and put into the oven.

Then it was time to make phyllo from scratch, some to fill with spinach, others with sweetened cheese.

It was so pleasant to cook with lovely views of the sea and cool breezes wafting in. Also fun to view the restaurant from backstage.

This evening another fine dinner at the restaurant, including a salad of red and green cabbage, carrots, olives and yoghurt dressing I dubbed Cretan cole slaw. The sweet and sour chicken reminded us of a dish from a good Chinese restaurant, and the beef with lemon and mashed potatoes was a Cretan riff on pot roast.

From Heraklion to the Countryside

It seems that all the people we have met here are part of a family business, including our kind driver for today, Kari, who, along with her husband, owns the transportation company responsible for our airport transfers and excursions. Danish by birth, she has lived in Crete for over thirty years; and a couple of their children are also in the business.

We are about thirty minutes from Heraklion, the largest city on the the island and perched on the northeast coast. Massive battlements, walls and ancient fountains remain as reminders of its occupation by the Venetians from the early 1200s to the 1600s, when the Ottoman Turks invaded and laid siege for 21 years. It was during this latter period that the volcano in Santorini erupted, devastating the island. Heraklion only became part of Greece in 1913.

Kari took us on a brief spin around the city and dropped us to walk down the market street, which starts at the top of the town and ends at the harbor.

Then deep into the countryside, down impossibly narrow lanes winding through small villages, we went to the Stilianou Winery, another family-owned enterprise founded 100 years ago. I expanded my repertoire of Greek wines from the Assyrtiko we enjoyed in Santorini to Vidiano, Vilana, Thrapsatheri, Kotsifeli and Mandilleria, tasting six wines including a dessert wine made from sun-dried grapes. These were paired with cheeses (feta, manora and goat), along with sun-dried tomatoes, sweet cherry tomatoes and bread.

Farther up mountain roads we arrived at a cheese factory owned by a man who spoke zero English but made us feel welcome anyway, serving us a snack of two of his cheeses accompanied by glasses of raki, then sending us home with two packages of cheese to enjoy with the wines we bought from Stilianou. This family business dates from 1920. In 2018 Prince (now King) Charles and Camilla visited the factory and partook of his cheeses!

Our final stop today was at the Omalia Olive Press, where we took a tour featuring vintage olive pressing and filtering machines and tasted the oils.

Back to Hersonissos for a little rest before dinner at our favorite restaurant. Tonight we met Mrs. Maria, the owner and our cooking teacher for the next three days. Tonight’s menu began with cheese saganaki, which I describe as a grilled cheese sandwich without the bread; then our favorite salad so far with tomatoes, crumbly cheese, pligouri (like tiny couscous) and pomegranate arils. A dish of creamy fava followed, then cold grilled octopus in vinaigrette, shrimp saganaki and cuttlefish with fennel fronds.

As usual, our dessert was accompanied by raki. This traditional Cretan digestif is similar to Italy’s grappa or France’s marc, and is made from the seeds, stems, skins and other leavings from the winemaking process. The first sip packs a jolt, but you quickly enjoy the smooth icy liquor and look forward to it at the end of a meal (or with cheese in the middle of the afternoon). It’s a Cretan social convention to serve raki to guests and it is considered rude not to offer it.

Ice cold raki

Eating in Crete

So it’s Monday, and Sharon and I reunited without incident on Saturday for our culinary adventure. Since then we’ve mostly been eating. Our little hotel, Villa Diktynna, is in a village called Hersonissos, a bit east of Heraklion. The village has a surprising number of restaurants and shops, and is a lively place to stroll through during the evening.

According to our itinerary, we’re to eat dinner each evening at Restaurant Rouga tou Mpaoula, a family-owned establishment run by Mrs. Maria, who will be our cooking teacher this week. I could never imagine eating in the same restaurant for six straight days; but the first two nights put the lie to that. One of her sons crafts a special menu for us each night, with different dishes.

On Saturday he brought out black olive tapenade and fresh yoghurt with bread, then a Cretan salad including hard-boiled eggs bathed in balsamic vinegar till they took on a lovely dark purple hue, followed by cheese baked in phyllo pastry and drizzled with honey, goat stew with French fries and Cretan carbonara (broad pasta noodles with Cretan cheese and smoked pork). The dessert tray held a variety of delights including baklava, crème brûlée, panna cotta and about eight other choices.

After breakfast Sunday we walked to the bigger town down the hill, Koutouloufari, to get a hat for Sharon and see what charms this metropolis had to offer. We found a café overlooking the beach for a relaxing lunch, then trekked back up to Hersonissos, deciding we much preferred the intimacy of village life.

For Sunday’s meal we began with a mountain salad, followed by zucchini fritters and saganaki (fried cheese), then grilled beef liver that was absolutely delicious, caramelized on the outside, tender on the inside. If I had seen beef liver on the menu I would have passed it right by, as I’m not a fan; but I’ll tell you I was glad I didn’t have a choice. This was followed by a stew called kleftiko, or “stolen lamb,” with zucchini, carrots and potatoes and topped with a cheese that had become crunchy when they passed it under the broiler. Again a panoply of desserts: I chose crème caramel.

Beef liver

Some images from the pool courtyard at Villa Diktynna, where the bougainvillea is a riot of hot pink.

Petra Kouzina and Sailing

I think we’d all agree that our cooking class at Petra Kouzina was the highlight of the week. Our chef, Georgios, worked and studied in the US before meeting his Chilean wife, having three children and converting an old family home into a fabulous cooking school outside of town. Family photos and artifacts grace the walls and tables, adding to the warm feeling of being in someone’s home. His able assistant, Dina, began pouring Assyrtiko as soon as we arrived, and the wine kept flowing for the next several hours. We prepared another version of tzatziki, tomato fritters, moussaka and Santorini salad, and enjoyed our lunch on the shaded patio. In addition to the recipes, Georgio gave us some valuable tips: about selecting eggplants (who knew there were males and females? And that the females are more bitter?); correct chopping techniques; preserving minced garlic in oil; the right kind of yoghurt to buy, not just for tzatziki, but to eat; and the beauty of Himalayan pink salt.

On our last day, Jeri and I went on a catamaran cruise in the caldera, while Barb, Vickie and Ruth (none of who much like boats) rented a car and returned to Oia. The sun, as ever, was intense, but refreshing breezes kept us comfortable. We stopped a few times so people could swim (Jeri and I demurred, preferring to lounge onboard and sip our wine.) Lexi, one of our captains, was engaging and informative, as well as remarkably agile as she scampered across the decks despite the waves rocking the craft. Our Albanian driver, Marios, skillfully piloted the Anna Maria across the wake of a big ferry that passed us. And the chef, whose name I have forgotten, worked a miracle in the tiny galley, frying fish, sautéing chicken and giant shrimps, and crafting delicious spaghetti and Santorini salad.

From the water you can appreciate how massive the volcano was that gave the island its current shape. Originally a round island, the Minoan eruption in 1600 B.C. (the same one that buried Akrotiri) reshaped Santorini so that it now resembles a right arm bent at the elbow, with the remains of the volcano in the center. Pumice and marble are among the minerals that form dramatic striations along the cliff sides. The tsunami that accompanied the eruption devastated Crete, which is about 70 miles to the south, and ash was carried on the wind across the eastern Mediterranean. Some scholars posit that the eruption inspired Plato to create the story of the lost city of Atlantis; Lexi told us that some experts believe the next big eruption will occur in this decade! In any event, Santorini and the other Greek islands form a “ring of fire” similar to the ring of volcanic activity in the Pacific, and we are sitting in a highly active earthquake zone.

Back at the hotel, Jeri and I reunited with our friends for a last glass of wine to toast our adventure and talk about where we might go next. For me, the answer is Crete, where I’m meeting up with my friend Sharon for the cooking school postponed from 2020 by Covid. Can’t wait!

Out and About with an Irish Expat

The monastery Profitis Ilias commands the highest spot on Santorini, overlooking the city of Emporio and to the west taking in Akrotiri. Our guide for the day was Martina, an Irish expat who has lived here for twenty-five years and is a freelance photographer/guide. She assured us she wasn’t a professional photographer, but that she sees her role as taking us to spots where we can find great/unique things to shoot. We weren’t disappointed.

The small chapel at the monastery features some stunning portraits in gold leaf and brilliant paints.

We wandered the quiet streets of Emporio behind one of the cathedrals, discovering little vignettes and dramatic bell towers.

From Emporio we ventured deep into the countryside to a hidden church Martina discovered, she says, by pure happenstance. After a tortuous drive along impossibly narrow roads, our driver, George, could go no further, and we had to hike up a dry stony creek bed, the church façade finally revealing itself. The story goes that when the Muslim Ottoman Turks invaded Santorini (16th-18th c.), they forbade the locals from practicing their Christian religion. In order to preserve the knowledge, some priests spirited away a small group of children to this remote spot, where they lived and learned.

Our final destination for the day was Oia, and it was just as crowded as it had been a couple of days ago. People stand in line along the stone walls overlooking the sea to catch a glimpse and maybe a photo of the setting sun. It’s nuts — as if Oia is the only place on the island to see the famed sunset. Instead, Martina led us down some quieter streets, where I was able to capture this image of a windmill.

At the bottom of Oia, ringing the harbor, are maybe ten or so fish taverns, where you can get a good meal and watch the sun melt into the Aegean. Getting there is a real trick, though: like the rest of Oia, the street is jammed, with cars and tour vans jockeying for space. Our tapas/mezze meal was worth it, however.

Wine, Wine and More Wine!

Our driver for today’s wine tour, Strados, was simply charming and knowledgeable about his subject. After picking up a young honeymooning couple from Nebraska at another hotel, we started the tour in a vineyard to get an up-close look at the basket technique used here in Santorini — and according to Strados, only here.

Young vines are planted upright in the conventional way and irrigated for the first four years, after which irrigation is discontinued. Then the trunk is wound into a circle and the vine is trained that way so over the years it forms a basket. The cluster of leaves protects the grapes from the unrelenting sun. Harvesting happens in August, otherwise the grapes would turn into raisins.

We visited three wineries on this tour; the first was Hatzidakis, where the winemaker’s daughter has just taken over the reins.

The second winery, Santos, is the largest producer on the island. Our lovely tasting included cheeses, grapes, cold meats and a delicious chokeberry jam, and the tasting area was in the form of a restaurant with great views over the caldera.

Our final stop was back at Anhydrous, scene of our cooking class on Sunday, where we feasted on tapas. I begged for the recipe for the gyro/moussaka pita (below left) and was grudgingly given it. I think I’ll have to experiment with that a bit, since the chef provided neither quantities nor technique.

All in all, a great day of wine tasting with a gregarious and fun guide. guide and our new young friends from Nebraska!.

Ancient Akrotiri and Wine

This morning we headed to the far southwest part of the island to the excavations at Akrotiri, an ancient city some experts believe had a population of about 5000 souls before it was destroyed by a volcano in the 16th century B.C. Like Pompeii, thousands of artifacts were preserved by the ash, and as a result archaeologists have unearthed some 10,000 mostly intact clay urns and discovered frescoes and friezes perfectly preserved. The site, discovered only in 1967, is only about one-third exposed; and there are no current excavations ongoing due to the lack of funding associated with the Greek economic crisis in the years around 2010.

Evidence points to this being a prosperous community engaged in sea trade, as it lies along the route between Cyprus and Crete. Other discoveries reveal that the area was inhabited during the Neolithic period some 7000 years ago.. No human remains have been unearthed; our guide said one theory is that people fled by sea when the eruption was imminent.

The urns that were discovered intact are exquisite.

An undamaged toilet (truly a throne) occupies an upstairs corner in a house. In another area, you can see the many layers of ash that fell on the city.

From there we traveled to the northwest reaches of the island, to the town of Oil (pronounced Eeeya), where hordes of tourists crowded the shop-lined streets. We had but a short time, but lucked upon a cute restaurant called the Red Bicycle that was breezy, quiet and the perfect spot for a light lunch.

Our final stop of the day was the Art Space Winery, a combination wine cave and art gallery, where we tasted some truly delicious wines. The same family has owned the winery since the 1860s, and it is sort of a secret place.

A Week in Santorini

Santorini is an anhydrous place, which means “without water.” One of the Cyclades Island group of Greek Islands, it sits where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean Sea and is the remnant of a caldera left after a volcanic eruption 3600 years ago. We are in the village of Thera, where all the streets and roads are made of volcanic rock and concrete and the houses are whitewashed to a blinding white to deflect the sun, which is incredibly intense. Every morning the fog rolls in, providing needed moisture to plant life.

Our first cooking class, with Yannis, was at the chic winery/restaurant called Anhydrous. The menu included Santorinian salad (a more colorful version of Greek salad), Minoan pork stew and Fava. I assumed fava referred to the beans we all know, but the dish is actually made of yellow split peas, soaked, then chopped and sweated in olive oil, and combined with a confit of thinly sliced red onions. After cooking it’s buzzed up with an immersion blender.

Our reward was a delicious lunch, with wines paired with each course. Most of the wines contain the Assyrtiko grape; one was blended with Viognier.

We couldn’t bear to do anything more this afternoon except nap!

An Aegean Adventure Begins

It was still full-on summer in Athens when I arrived four days ago. I met up with my traveling pal Barb and her friend Ruth (who is now my new friend) for a glass of Assyrtiko at the rooftop bar of the Athens Gate Hotel, our meeting point before we set off on our culinary adventure in Santorini and Crete. Dinner was at a cute café just around the corner called Cactus7. We shared roasted octopus with fava purée, then I had a wonderful mushroom risotto, while Ruth and Barb had pasta and a gorgeous Greek salad, respectively. Complimentary chocolate cake rounded out the meal. Great start to our adventure!

The next day, while awaiting the arrival of the rest of our contingent, Vickie and Jeri, we trekked about 20 minutes to the Ancient Agora, founded in the 6th century B.C. The extremely well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus sits on a hilltop overlooking the marketplace, and the Stoa of Attalos (museum) contains a wealth of statuary and sculptures. A modern statue depicts an imaginary conversation between Socrates and Confucius. I had never realized that the two were actually contemporaries, although obviously they would never have met.

I never cease to be amazed at the artistry of these ancient sculptors; you can almost feel the fabric of the togas rippling.