“In Crete, the stranger is still the unknown god. Before him all doors and all hearts are opened.”
– Nikos Kazantzakis, “Report to Greco”
I knock hesitantly on the door of a house on a back street in Hania. A gray-haired woman opens it and looks at me with questioning eyes. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you,” I say in my American-accented Greek, “Your neighbor says that you make the best pites [pies, often savory] in town. I’m writing a cookbook and would love to talk to you, if you have time…”
Almost before I can finish the sentence, the woman – we’ll call her Ioanna, and add a Kyria, or Mrs., in front, to show her respect – has whisked me through the door and into her kitchen and sat me down at the table. She opens her freezer and pulls out a bagful of doughy squares about twice the size of raviolis, explaining that she always makes more than her family can eat at one sitting and freezes the rest.
She pops them into a frying pan with a bit of her own olive oil, makes me a tiny cup of Greek coffee at the same time and, in less than ten minutes, I’m biting through honey-drizzled, crunchy pastry from which tongue-burning white cheese oozes. (After a few weeks of research, I would find out that Cretan women serve their guests little pies as a routine welcome, in the same way that housewives in other parts of Greece present them with a saucer of spoon sweets, iced water and a cup of coffee.)
As I eat, I’m also trying to take notes, while Kyria Ioanna is talking, telling stories and giving me recipes as well as stirring a pot that’s sending out lovely aromas. After a while, some family members begin to wander in and out, and all of a sudden it seems to be lunchtime. Embarrassed, I get up to leave but am urged so warmly to stay that I feel leaving would be rude.
Amazingly, this scene was re-enacted countless times as I returned to Crete again and again in the late ‘90s for research on the book that would eventually be published as “Feasting & Fasting in Crete.” It didn’t seem to matter in which part of the island I found myself; the hospitality and generosity was unfailing, though perhaps even more unstinting in the villages than the cities.
I shouldn’t have been too surprised. My Athenian husband had told me of a camping trip in western Crete in the ‘60s, where, once they were discovered by locals, he and his first wife were not allowed to eat on their own. They were invited to dinner in homes every evening, and after a few days became so overwhelmed (and overfed) they took to slinking away at dusk to avoid the local generosity.
Nevertheless, I am still dumbstruck by the temerity I showed in setting out in my Fiat Panda, alone, to unearth the secrets of Cretan cuisine. Of course, friends and friends of friends had doled out names of good cooks (and good eaters) before I left Athens, but once in Crete, each contact invariably produced several more – the project was received with such enthusiasm.
After following up some recommendations in Irakleio, where I stayed with my husband’s nephew and his wife, I set off to explore the eastern half of the island. It was October, 1997, and I spent my first few days in unaccustomed luxury, as the guest of Elianna Kokotou at the Elounda Mare hotel complex, in my own private bungalow. Elianna had promised her sister-in-law, my friend Anne, that she would put the hotel and its staff at my disposal.
The very next afternoon, after lunch was served and cleared and before preparations for dinner were due to start, the spacious kitchen at the Porto Elounda next door became the scene for a one-woman cooking demonstration just for my benefit. Ypapandi Velivasaki, round face beaming with pleasure, round body bouncing, speedily transformed the vegetables, zucchini flowers and vine leaves picked from her own garden into mini dolmadakia, stuffed leaves or flowers. Stirring with a plump hand, she chattered all the while, and soon had a little audience of kitchen staff. The lesson turned into an impromptu meal, as we all tucked in when the food was cooked.
That evening, one of the hotel maids took me 30 minutes – and seemingly light years – away to meet her mother and grandmother at their home in the inland village of Krousta. They welcomed me into a cozy living room/kitchen and began to teach me the trick of using a souvlaki skewer to transform sheets of homemade pasta into twirls of double macaroni about as long and as thick as my pinkie.
When they were done, Maria Pangalou boiled some of them for our supper. Ignoring the stove, she squatted on a low stool in front of the fireplace, where she’d placed a two-burner gas cooker, surrounded by jam jars filled with seasonings and a bottle of their own olive oil. Besides the oil, Maria also produced her own cheese, bread, and wine, and she brought those out, too, as she told me how she’d woven her daughter’s dowry – sheets, curtains and tablecloths – from wool and silk threads. “But the curtains are sitting in a trunk, because her husband wanted store-bought ones.”
I left with a warm glow and a Coke bottle filled with dried vine leaves for dolmades. Maria had tried to give me some cheese and pasta, too, but I convinced her they would spoil before I got home.
Two evenings later, I’d be given another lesson in pastry – savory and sweet pies being central to Cretan cuisine – by Kyria Georgia in Piskokefalo, a large village south of Siteia. I must have gotten her name from someone at the hotel and made our appointment by phone. Again, this was no ordinary lesson. Before we started, she served me a huge piece of honey-drenched walnut cake that I knew would leave no room for sampling pies. But my protests were futile. And once the lesson and the evening news were over, Georgia’s husband Iosif joined us in the kitchen for a night of storytelling and lots of homemade wine.
We sat till midnight, and while it would never occur to me to base a dinner party on five types of pie preceded by cake, it certainly was a night to remember. When it was over, they bundled me into my car with bags of their own raisins (Siteia is the raisin capital of Crete), pies, some cake and a bottle of homemade raki, the local strong spirit, “for your husband.” (As it turned out, by the time I headed back to Athens at the end of the whole trip, the car was so full that I could have opened a Cretan grocery store.)
The most extraordinary example of Cretan hospitality, however, was still to come. I pushed eastwards from Siteia to Kato Zakros, a crescent beach with a smattering of tavernas and modest hotels and the ruins of a Minoan palace behind them. An archaeologist friend had told me about Mary Daskalaki, who, he said, owned a taverna there. At the eatery, her son told me she’d retired; we arranged to meet at her home in Zakros the next day.
Passing through the “Gorge of the Dead” that lay beyond the ancient site, I walked up the hill to the larger village where Mary greeted me. She spent the morning sharing recipes with me, filled my arms with bags of dried marjoram and thyme she’d picked from the hillsides, and then took me to the communal kitchen, a shack on the outskirts of town, where five men and women were preparing food for a baptism feast that evening. One woman was stuffing tiny sausages while others chopped vegetables for the salad and the men made broth – from yearling goat – in two big cauldrons for the customary celebratory pasta (in western Crete, it would have been pilaf). Mary contributed a large pan of dolmades. We talked for a while, they invited me to the baptism party, and then Mary sent me to her sister’s place “just up the road apiece,” telling me that they were baking bread in their outdoor oven.
I shyly peered into the courtyard where three people were gathered round a large soot-blackened oven; a set of five tall wooden paddles and rakes stood against the white wall next to it. I announced myself, explaining that “Mary sent me,” and was immediately invited to join them. Mary’s sister, Alexandra Nerolidou, told me it was a pity I hadn’t come a bit earlier. She had just finished kneading 30 kilos of flour which, combined with her sourdough starter, would make 40 loaves of bread. Most of the loaves would be turned into paximadia (rusks), which would last the extended family two months.
I was sorry to have missed this spectacle but enjoyed the chitchat while she and her co-in-laws, Irini and Yannis, waited for the bread to bake. And then watched, amazed, when they transferred the bread onto wooden slats on the courtyard floor and 77-year-old Irini squatted down to break the scored loaves into thick slices with asbestos hands. As they finished putting the bread back in the oven where it would remain until the next day, I attempted to say goodbye and thank them. But Alexandra grabbed my arm and we all set off to Irini’s for lunch with the hostess’ children and grandchildren.
Irini must have been slaving over a hot stove while Alexandra was kneading the dough, because the table was already set for seven and the meal was plentiful – fried anchovies, roast chicken with okra and potatoes, salad and the new bread, in addition to ample amounts of raki and wine. As we ate, Yannis began to tell stories: about hardships during the war, his barefoot hikes to Siteia with mules to bring supplies for the Germans and Italians, and then the triumph of romance over parental opposition when Yannis “stole” Irini.
“This was in the early ‘50s. We were on foot, of course, and when we came to a river, I picked her up and carried her piggyback across it. We spent the night in a cave and when we came back, no one could argue anymore, so we got married.”
By this time, I felt like one of the family myself. Eventually, and with a loaf of fresh bread as a gift, of course, I dragged myself away. After all, there was that baptism later.
The next day, I dropped by to say farewell to Alexandra, who was hard at work on the next event; it turned out she was also the most popular maker of xerotigana – delicate pastry spirals that are served at Cretan weddings – in Zakros. She was longing for the wedding season to end, since a thousand guests are routine at these affairs, and she was, she confided, exhausted. As we continued to talk, I asked if there were other specialties for which she was in demand, and she explained that, as it happened, she was also an expert at casting out the evil eye. I said I was happy to report that I certainly didn’t need her services in that area. I felt blessed, and could have stayed in Zakros forever.
Hospitality exists all over Greece, of course, but to get the full experience, you really have to go to Crete.