An Epicurean Lesson in Cretean History

  • A picture-perfect
view across Mirabello bay
toward Elounda.

    A picture-perfect view across Mirabello bay toward Elounda.

  • Olive-oil maker Manolis Vassilakis at his family’s olive grove, sitting against the base of a tree that he says is 1,000 years old.

    Olive-oil maker Manolis Vassilakis at his family’s olive grove, sitting against the base of a tree that he says is 1,000 years old.

  • On the road to Neapoli in northeastern Crete.

    On the road to Neapoli in northeastern Crete.

  • Overlooking olive groves at the foot of Mount Kadistos in the rugged countryside northeast of Neapoli.

    Overlooking olive groves at the foot of Mount Kadistos in the rugged countryside northeast of Neapoli.

  • A seafood-laden table at Delphini, where views extend to the former Venetian island fortress of Spinalonga.

    A seafood-laden table at Delphini, where views extend to the former Venetian island fortress of Spinalonga.

  • Sharing a lunch under the shade of a plane tree at Platanos, a
traditional taverna in the village of Fourni.

    Sharing a lunch under the shade of a plane tree at Platanos, a traditional taverna in the village of Fourni.

  • A traditional taverna's exterior.

    A traditional taverna's exterior.

  • Delphini restaurant owner Giorgos Mathaiakis and his son Kostas gathering vegetables at their family farm near Plaka.

    Delphini restaurant owner Giorgos Mathaiakis and his son Kostas gathering vegetables at their family farm near Plaka.

  • A seafood-laden table at Delphini, where views extend to the former Venetian island fortress of Spinalonga.

    A seafood-laden table at Delphini, where views extend to the former Venetian island fortress of Spinalonga.

  • Restaurant manager Haris Alexis at the resort’s Blue Door taverna, with a spread of Cretan classics including fava, grilled
octopus in red-wine vinegar and olive oil, and steamed mussels.

    Restaurant manager Haris Alexis at the resort’s Blue Door taverna, with a spread of Cretan classics including fava, grilled octopus in red-wine vinegar and olive oil, and steamed mussels.

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With the red still lingering in my mouth, I returned to the Blue Palace, a serene, low-rise resort terraced into hills above a pretty cove. There, I caught up with executive chef Alexis Lefkaditis, a native of the Peloponnese who moved to Crete 30 years ago and never looked back.

“The quality of produce here is amazing —tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant,” he enthused. “I call up local farmers, ask them what they have, and they deliver it themselves. And there’s such variety from season to season. In the winter, the air is moister, and the herbs become more flavorful. When the mountains are covered in snow, all the goats come down to the seashore to eat, so the meat is saltier. Without a doubt, the best ingredients in Greece grow in Crete.”

That evening, the folks from Minoan Tastes were staging a dinner at the Blue Palace. On a patch of grass behind the beach loungers, they had set up what looked like an impromptu archaeological display. Tri-foot clay pots arced around a central pit filled with hunks of burning woods, behind which was a row of horseshoe-shaped ovens made of stacked stone. A pride of Greek glitterati and some puzzled Eastern European guests looked on as Morrison, Chlouveraki, and Alyounis hustled between hearth and pots and stoves and prep table like stage hands setting up for opening night. Alyounis, the team’s Jordanian chef, had been cooking lamb in ceramic pots buried in a pit oven for five hours. “It’s a lottery, really,” he told me. “We put the meat in and close the lid and hope it all turns out. But we don’t push the flavors—we don’t need to. The land gives us all the flavor we need; it’s very simple and natural.”

Servers delivered the finished dishes to the resort’s Blue Door restaurant, an affectionate reproduction of a Greek taverna with checkered tablecloths and blue-painted chairs. The stone-baked hortopita (wild-greens pie) had a firm, charred, dense whole-wheat crust, but the greens inside remained crispy, accented with flashes of caraway. Slow-cooked lentils were prepared with leeks, crushed coriander, and thyme, and splashed with vinegar, olive oil, and sea salt. The crumbly grilled tuna had a gentle smoky taste, and the lamb was delicate, dressed only in sage and honey. The meal, an intensely laborious undertaking, was lovingly received, a sure sign that ancient cooking methods still have a place in modern Crete.

I finally did get my meal at a traditional taverna, in a small village called Fourni, 30 minutes from the Blue Palace along roads that curled up parched hills. Situated on a square bordered by three churches, the place was called Platanos, and it had wooden chairs with woven straw seats set around tables under a mammoth plane tree. Joining me for the late afternoon lunch were a couple of journalists from Athens and one of their mothers, who’d come from her home in Paliochora, a village in southwest Crete.

The food was every bit as exquisite as I’d envisioned. Baskets of bread sprinkled with wild sage and oregano preceded a plate of salted cucumbers and tomatoes swimming in olive oil. A small bowl of mouth-numbingly bitter Koroneiki olives made its way around the table, followed by charcoal-grilled oyster mushrooms speckled with sea salt. Deep purple beetroots came clad in oil, vinegar, and salt. A staka-cheese omelet was firm and supple, while herbs picked before sunrise that morning scented the stuffed zucchini flowers. Dolmades were redolent of mint and parsley. Braised local rabbit with peppers and cheese in a stew of fresh tomatoes was tender, as was the melt-in-the-mouth veal. And for dessert, a simple plate of grapes and watermelon.

We feasted for more than two hours, plate after plate appearing and disappearing as its contents emptied, the sounds of clinking silverware and wine glasses punctuated by a melody of “oohs” and “ahhs” and “mmms” following the first mouthfuls of each new dish. Save for the shrill din of crickets, we sat in silence at the end of the meal—a silence that comes of a pleasurable meal leisurely consumed.

That evening, as I packed to leave the Blue Palace, I belatedly remembered Kostas Mathaiakis and his boast about cooking the island’s best zucchini croquettes. I never did go back to try them. But I know that one day I will.

THE DETAILS

Getting There
Nonstop Aegean Airlines (aegeanair .com) flights from Athens serve Crete’s capital, Heraklion, throughout the year. Ferries connect Crete with Piraeus (an overnight crossing) and other Greek islands, particularly those in the Cyclades and Dodecanese groups.

When to go
Spring and autumn visits—on either side of Crete’s busy summer season—are preferable; also note that from late October through mid-April, many resorts and restaurants shut down for the winter.

Where to Stay
Overlooking the island of Spinalonga from its hillside perch near Elounda, the Blue Palace Resort & Spa (30-2841/065-500; bluepalace.gr; doubles from US$295) offers a picture-perfect Greek isle setting. Part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, it features an imposing stone-arched lobby; 251 elegantly furnished rooms, suites, and  bungalows (many with their own pools); and several good dining outlets, including the taverna-style Blue Door.

Where to Eat
There’s no lack of charming restaurants and tavernas in northeastern Crete; those visited (and highly recommended) by the author include Plaka village’s Delphini (30-2841/041-489) and Platanos (30-2841/ 300-525) in Fourni.

What to Do
Just south of Heraklion, the ruins of Knossos are a must-see; the Bronze Age Minoan city was destroyed by fire or earthquake circa 1700 B.C. and is now among the world’s most visited archeological sites.

For a taste of what Knossos’ residents dined on, keep tabs on the Minoan Tastes (minoitongefseis.com) website for upcoming cooking events. Wine-lovers will want to consider joining Vintage Routes Crete (vintageroutescrete.com) for a guided tour of three local wineries, including co-founder Nikos Miliarakis’s Minos Wines (minoswines.gr).

 This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Craving for Crete”).

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