Thursday, 2 April 2009

Cretan Diet

4 months ago I took a life changing step, leaving my old life behind to pursue my passion. Today, my daily routine is a constant amazement as are the challenges I am faced with; an anthropology paper on the consumption of ice cream, or a week in Crete, for an in depth account of the 'Mediterranean diet' are recent examples...
Every day presents challenges that test and reinforce my commitment, dedication and passion.
I would not survive otherwise. I never thought I could eat so much in one week: wild green, freshly baked breads, cheese, fried cheese, fried potatoes, fried anything, yogurt dripping souvlaki, grilled meats, lamb, pork, chicken and beef, octopus, calamari, fish, baklava, semolina, fried dough balls, to name a few. The daily eating fests began early with freshly baked pastries that can or should be had, followed by large, rich, multiple course meals.
A testing of my digestion system, perhaps, but my eyes are always hungry, and so I wouldn’t miss a bite of anything. One of the more difficult challenges caught us all by surprise at an organic pig farm following a usually large lunch. Suspecting nothing we entered the visitors' reception room only to find a long table dressed in a white table cloth all set up with stewed, braised and fried pork, some potato chips, more bread and a wild herb and nuts salad.
The sound of jaws dropping and hitting the floor was quickly replaced with internal stress bells from within.
This initial shock reaction/ reflex soon passed and then we all sat down, ate, drank, and enjoyed the food. It was a good meal that was unfortunate enough to find itself between two other large meals.
This is my job now. My profession. I no longer eat simply when 'I'm hungry'. That’s not good enough. when next will I be in Crete, offered 4 meals a day of the best Cretan food has to offer, not needing to deal with choices or confusion, and have it all set against the sublime Cretan backdrop?
good food will always find a home in me.
The only thing is, I am not sure that what we ate in the space of a week can qualify as the healthy, balanced Cretan diet.
On arrival I was surprised at how it all felt familiar; the climate, the daylight and the food reminded me of home.
It seems that 4 months of hardcore conditioning deep into Italian gastronomy had taken their toll, and the sight of raw, wild greens, fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, tender meat of happy lambs and free range piglets, grilled chicken soaked in yogurt, dishes drenched in olive oil, small pockets of fried cheese, fried phyllo pastry decorated with nuts and cinnamon, coated in a honey, sticky syrup, made me oh so happy.
Some highlights: Olive oil mill- At last a visit to an olive oil mill!
A first hand account of an olive turning to oil was long overdue. This was celebrated on the mill ground with bread dipped into warm (not too warm, this is cold press) olive oil straight from the press, Raki and those small, cinnamony fried pockets of home made cheese.

Marianna's workshop- Marianna collects aromatic, medical herbs from the mountains, from which she prepares teas, oils and tinctures based on traditional knowledge. All the products are natural extracts with no s#@$ in them.
She also decorates each shopping bag with dried flowers, herbs, pebbles and shells, and comments that 'they are simply another expression of her'.
I wanted to buy the entire place, but settled for half…

Crete is like nature's supermarket; wild herbs grow everywhere, the sound of ringing goats' bells echoing and the passing herds of sheep on the road are common reoccurrences. For a minute or two I forgot why I insist on living in a city… Crammed in a small room somewhere in the old city of Rethymno to observe a traditional pastry maker make Kadaif and phyllo I noticed the pictures of him on the wall as a young man standing at the exact same spot, doing the same thing; his life spent on a dot mastering his craft.
The device for making Kadaif is basically the integration of a pancake pan and a Gramophone; a large, hot copper disc is constantly rotating, and an arm with several holes releases thin strands of batter onto the disc, cooked immediately and collected. Architecture.

I experienced an accurate souvlaki an hours' drive from Rethymno, on the shore of the Libyan sea, South of Crete.
Post souvlaki pensing: I should have ordered the 'extra yogurt' one…

During a dinner at Manolis taverna in Astipopoulu I had the softest, most tender lamb, every attempt to capture a piece on the fork caused the meat to further fall apart. That’s how soft it was!
The meal was followed by a concert of Cretan music played to us by Nikos Papalexakis, a Lyra musician and a local celebrity. Naturally, this ended with Greek dancing and a visit to his Lyra workshop the following day for yet another musical session.

There is a Cretan method for preparing an octopus. It's not a pretty sight and involves the constant bashing of one onto rocks followed by a smearing action for about 10 minutes, which supposedly relaxes its muscles resulting in tender meat. Of course, the octopus should not be bashed too hard, as that will blow its head out, resulting in a rather gooey, slimy residue on the rocks as demonstrated by Hainer. When Elisa did this the head stayed intact, but slimy residues did find themselves on people's clothes.
The appetizing demonstrations were followed by a fish and seafood meal at Maistros inn I enjoyed so much I had to mention (except for the pasta dish. lose the pasta…).
On our last day in Crete we drove to Anogeia (Crete's highest village) and its surroundings.
In the middle of somewhere we met 2 local shepherds that awaited us by a stone hut. We were greeted with a tasting of a steaming fresh cheese prepared traditionally. The cold air of the dry rocky landscape enhanced the warm, lactic pleasure and a sip of the warm whey was equally soothing, tasting of a milky broth. I would have loved to cook rice in it and perhaps even poach an egg, carefully place it on top and break its delicate skin, releasing the free flow of yolk.
a 'cheese themed' day, we had a bit too many cheese tastings in a short time, what with cheesy pastries for breakfast, a cheese factory visit, and a lunch of pasta with cheese.
There is definitely a thing such as too much cheese.

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