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From Heraklion to the Countryside

September 20, 2022

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

  1. Cheri Anderson permalink

    cheese, cheese and more cheese! Were they as yummy as what we had in Provence? How was the wine? And those beautiful red tomatoes! I’m so envious!

  2. John Merrill permalink

    I need the grilled cheese without the bread, recipe, Diana

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