The Malta Independent 23 February 2020, Sunday

With Crete in my blood

Victor Calleja Tuesday, 25 June 2019, 10:32 Last update: about 9 months ago

I never thought I would ever milk sheep or even find out how it's done. But that's exactly what I did during a few days of magic in the mountains of Crete. I was there to see and write about what chefs who gather from all over Greece do on an immersion course to exchange, learn and collaborate on all things gastronomic.

Harry, my Greek host, promised me I would be amazed by this latest of his courses. He runs the company Gastronomy Essentials and this particular event was organised in collaboration with INSETE, the Greek Tourism Federation which aims to develop and improve Greek tourism.


Top god born here

I was based at the Delina Mountain Resort, just outside Anogia, at an altitude of 910 metres. It is so ideally positioned that legend has it that the great star of the Greek Gods, Zeus himself, was born close by in a cave in the Cretan mountains.

I never feel very easy about Greek mythology and the way their gods and goddesses played about with humans, taking on human form to cavort, tease and impregnate whoever took their fancy. Following my stay in Crete, what I have no doubt about is that the Greek gods had good taste. Their ways with food and drink which they passed on to the Greeks of today are heavenly.

Like the gods of old, the Greeks I met in Crete-who were not all from Crete-worked hard at what they know how to do best. In this case it is food, its preparation and all sorts of twists to ingredients and mixtures of tastes. And just like the gods they know how to have a good time in their holy of holies.


High on food

In this case the holy of holies was the centre of all activity at the course-the kitchen where the chefs laboured, showed off their skills, discussed and shared all the fine fare. I was on a food high from morning to night-and, as the Greeks love their drink, they drank wine and Raki, their sweetened alcoholic drink, at all times of the day and night.

I was invited not for my culinary experience-which is close to basest zero-but to immerse myself in what is regularly organised to extend the knowledge of leading chefs. About 18 chefs came from leading restaurants and hotels. Two chefs, Yiannis Baxevanis and his assistant Michalis Chasikos, led the whole operation.


Secrets no more

It is so encouraging to see how the world of food has changed. In the past knowledge was kept secret, chefs' ways were not discussed. Now all is talked about and everybody acknowledges that this ensures a better future for chefs and all diners of the world. When chefs share their own secrets they invite and entice others to do the same-and the camaraderie in the Cretan kitchen was a joy to watch.

It might be true that, like the gods of old, chefs, especially the top ones, are primadonnas. Gods, after all, are expected to prance and be theatrical: otherwise their miracles and deeds will lack the wow-factor necessary to make everyone believe in them and give them homage. So too, chefs need to prepare dishes that are uplifting and make us say wow to what we eat.

Amazingly this multitude of chefs-all with their own ego, all with their own style-worked easily together, helping, assisting, passing on notes, advice and even forks and knives to the ones left without. Maybe it's because I was there or Greeks do it differently but there was no friction or animosity.


The Greeks love life

In and out of the kitchen the Greeks talk and joke at all times. I was the odd one out, the only non-Greek, so sometimes it was all Greek to me. But, when they saw me looking lost, they would stop and explain in English what I was missing. They would give me the first and juiciest piece of the goat or lamb. Or the first plateful of snails cooked to perfection out in the open. 

I went, I immersed myself, I learnt, I saw, I laughed, I sang, I danced and I realised that these courses are god-sends. They teach the participants not just new ways and inventive uses of ingredients but also how to discuss, how to collaborate and how to follow and lead as the need arises.

I was in Crete in winter and it was a joy to experience, even if it usually considered more of a summer destination. That made my discovery of Crete even more interesting. In the few days I was there I had a taste of all seasons-brilliant days with sunshine and heat followed by slightly breezy, cold wintry days with rain, and finally having everywhere covered in snow.


Natural highlight

There were many highlights during these days in Crete but one day stood out: a whole day of immersion in all things beyond food.  We discovered how snails are bred, and assisted in preparing a snail-feast.

Then, like teddy bears at their picnic, we set out for one of my most memorable expeditions-foraging. Yiannis Baxevanis is an expert forager. He knows all about herbs, weeds and anything growing in the wild. He was taught all this by his grandmother who was extremely knowledgeable and made him aware of the importance of going out in the countryside to pick fresh produce and taste ingredients as they are found and harvested.

I was shown many edible plants and ate-out there in the countryside-a lot of them. This was truly as nature had intended. As the chef pointed out, some of these weeds growing abundantly are often bought from importers who make a killing in their mark-ups.

The chefs proceeded to turn these herbs and weeds into salads or as condiments with different cuts of meat, added to snails or even in sandwiches. It was quite a feat for all of us-even the chefs-to know that what we had picked was now part of the meals available.

At a certain point one of the chefs said something that sounded like ħarrub-and I asked if that was carob. It was, and they use carob-which they call harrubi-extensively. Here in Malta we seem to have given up using it, while they make a delicious carob bread and add it to anything, including vanilla ice-cream which, with some carob syrup, becomes exquisite.

The harvesting was all done by us but the meat was brought to us and cooked by these chefs out in the open. Zeus kept his pact with us and allowed the sun to shine on while we were out for the day close to nature. We ate and danced-yes, even while cooking the Greeks sing and dance-away. They do the work professionally but enjoy themselves at the same time.


Let's go milking

Then came one of the funniest things I've ever done in my life which also taught me, and all of us there, a beautiful lesson.

I milked a sheep, and the shouts by all as I squeezed and pulled till the milk squirted away still ring like celestial music. It was a triumph for me and my hands.

The lesson? Not just mine, a non-chef, but for most of us there, was that, when we have anything on our plates or in our kitchens, we often forget the whole process it has gone through before reaching us. It does not arrive there by magic.

We take things for granted, without thinking of the people who put in their own hard work at farms to milk and look after the sheep, goats and all other animals. Modern farms make use of machines but this has no poetry-and the huge industrial farms have killed many of the small independent enterprises.

The small producers are more dedicated to what they produce and look less at the bottom line in all they do. Looking after the smaller producer will ensure better quality and better taste on our plates.

I had never thought of the hard work the shepherd, who was showing us how to milk the sheep, has to endure. They do it constantly with their backs bent and their muscles working overtime. It's their job of course but without them we would not have the milk or cheese we love. Or we would have it in a most commercialised way which diminishes the real taste, the real product.


My own contribution

The milk was made into cheese at the Delina kitchen, the place we were staying at. Seeing this cheese which was partly-even if infinitesimally-made from the milk I had squeezed, was an achievement that will remain as a valuable memory for a long time.

It was five days of good fun, learning, immersing myself together with experts who laughed, and who love life. During our farewell dinner, they broke plates to the accompaniment of music which was another of my dreams come true. I thought this only happened in films.

Before I left, Michael, Delina's owner and his partner, Vasiliki hugged me tightly. They told me that I must have Greek blood because I was like them and loved their way of living and laughing. I never thought I had any Greek blood but it was a real honour to be accepted and seen as truly Cretan. They know how to enjoy life: I will surely go back. 


Here are some of the herbs we foraged for and which were used for the food prepared in the Cretan mountains. The idea that out there in the wild lies a treasure of hidden tastes is alluring. And it's all free and natural. If only we would do the same in Malta with all there is in nature to find and enjoy.

Stamnagathi is a wild Cretan herb. Allegedly it has antiseptic and antirheumatic properties and seems to be one of the Cretan secrets for wellbeing and longevity.

Kafkalithres (Mediterranean hartwort), is an aromatic Greek herb used raw in salads and other dishes.

Myronia or chervil is an aromatic herb of the parsley family.

Tordylium apulum is a herb from the carrot family. The leaves of the plant are edible and are used as a potherb and salad vegetable.

Origanum dictamnus (hop marjoram) is a healing, therapeutic and aromatic plant that only grows wild on the mountains of Crete. It is widely used for food flavouring and medicinal purposes. 

Oxalis is a large genus of flowering plants in the wood-sorrel family. Many of the species are known as wood sorrels as they have an acidic taste. 


Photo credits: The focuspocus photography, Crete

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