“Ya gotta give the guy credit,” I said around midnight, as Rich’s new friend led yet another 20-something woman onto the dance floor. “He’s got a lot of energy for eighty-four.”
One of the locals laughed. “Eighty-four? He’s ninety-three.”
I regarded the dancer with even greater respect. Not only was he the life of the panygyri, one of the traditional all-night parties with which Ikaria celebrates saints’ name days, but he was a living example of the locals’ legendary longevity. Designated as one of the handful of Blue Zones in the world, the island is full of people living remarkably long, healthy lives. I’d read articles on the subject aloud to Rich, adding, “We have to go there. Maybe it will rub off on us.”
We arrived on the Sunday afternoon ferry and asked Dimitri, our hotel’s ever-helpful desk clerk, where to go for a late lunch. “Popi’s,” he said promptly. “The best food on the island, possibly all of Greece. Ten minutes’ walk up the coast road.” Twenty minutes later, as we staggered up yet another rise, we began to wonder if somehow we’d missed the place. Pulling out his phone, Rich discovered that Google had actually heard of Popi’s and informed us that it was just around the next bend, adding helpfully, “Closed. Opens again 1:00 AM.”
“That can’t be right,” he said.
We’d been told Ikarians refused to live by the clock, lightheartedly referring to any time of day as “late-thirty.” One young man I’d read about set off to buy coffee for his mother and didn’t return for three months. He’d run into friends en route to a panygyri, partied all night, gone to Athens, and gotten a temporary job. Presumably at some point he called home to suggest someone else should fetch Mom’s coffee. Obviously things were a bit looser around here. Still, opening at 1:00 AM?
We soldiered on.
Popi’s was just around the next bend, open, and serving some of the best food we’ve ever eaten.
As we settled in the shade of the overhead vines, looking out over the tranquil Aegean Sea, we chatted with Zisis, whose mother had operated the place as a bar until he was born in 1993, at which point she converted it into a restaurant. I asked if he’d lived here all his life.
“I went to work in Crete for a time,” Zisis told us. “Too much stress. It’s better here.”
A relaxed lifestyle is one of the reasons ten times more Ikarians than Americans reach their eighties and nineties — and why their old age is rarely plagued with cancer, depression, or dementia. Another major factor is a diet based on the island’s wild greens, nutrient-rich herbs, seasonal vegetables, smaller amounts of food in general, and protein that’s mostly homemade cheese, fish, and goat. Goat is a surprisingly healthy option, far leaner than lamb or beef, with 40% less saturated fat than skinless chicken. And wild goat, it turns out, was the specialty of the house at Popi’s.
Now I know what some of you are thinking: How could I consider eating one of those cute little goats that had bleated a greeting as we passed, peering curiously at us from the hillside next to the restaurant? Well, right now, Ikaria is hideously overrun with goats, thanks to EU subsidies rewarding larger herds. On an island with just 8423 residents, there are currently 35,000 goats, most roaming free and wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. Islanders are desperate to cull the herds to keep their island’s vegetation healthy. I decided to do my bit to help.
“Want to try some wild goat?” I asked Rich. “Will you show me how you make it?” I asked Zisis. To my delight, they both said yes.
Zisis explained the meat was super fresh, having been butchered that very morning. They raise their own goats and get more from relatives and friends. “Some goats are kept in pens, but many are free. And then the people must go hunting.”
Asked to pin down quantities for the recipe, Zisis estimated he starts with about 2.25 kilos of meat. Because it’s so lean, formal cuts such as loin and shoulder aren’t practical; instead you make “village cuts,” dividing the meat any way you can, so long as it winds up a size that’s roughly suitable for cooking. You add lots of salt, pepper, and about three quarters of a cup of olive oil. You cook the meat in a ceramic pot at 200 degrees Celsius (400 degrees Fahrenheit) for an hour and a half to two hours. The cooking brings out the meat’s natural juices, but check it a few times and if it seems dry, add a little vegetable broth.
When the meat is tender and the smaller bones practically liquified, you take it out of the oven and sprinkle it with fresh herbs. Often this includes oregano, which is full of vitamins, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, digestive aids, and much more. A study showed the variety grown on the island is three times more nutrient-rich and aromatic than the kinds in other parts of Greece. (I hate to even think how our American corporate version might compare.)
But the most important thing we learned is that wild goat cooked in its own juices and garnished with wild herbs tastes simply marvelous — succulent, rich, and comforting.
Learning how to cook goat was just one small part of our effort to live as “Ikarianly” as possible while we’re here. We’ve eaten local foods, sampled the local wines, and danced at the panygyri. Letting go of our sense of time, we’ve been easing around town at our best approximation of the locals’ relaxed pace, stopping often to linger in cafés and on our favorite wharf-side bench.
Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t an island of slackers. People get plenty done. They just do it their own way. Errands, for instance, often involve leaving their car in the middle of the street, their motorcycle at the curb with the keys in it, or their bicycle propped unsecured against a lamppost. Ikarians don’t sweat the small stuff … or the large stuff either. My goal in life is to find more ways to be like them. And of course, to eat more wild goat.
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“I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder,” said travel writer Bill Bryson, “than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.” Few countries offer more golden opportunities for feeling utterly ignorant than Greece. The written language alone makes you feel like a toddler, staring at random shapes of letters that seem to be dancing before your eyes. The wonderment goes up exponentially when you take an overnight ferry from the mainland to arrive on a distant island shortly after dawn and before coffee.
"Τώρα φθάνουμε στη Λέσβο,” announced the loudspeaker. We are arriving in Lesbos.
Rich and I grabbed our bags and headed down the gangplank to the port city of Mytilene. The air was sweet and balmy, the light luminous. Was I thinking of Aristotle, Sappho, and all the brilliant minds who’d passed this way before me? Nope, I was seeking coffee. Fortunately, as the Greeks are as deeply attached to their καφές as the most passionate Starbucks addict, it took less than a minute to find a café.
When the caffeine enabled me to gather my wits sufficiently, I asked, “How far is the hotel?”
“About a half hour’s walk.” It was closer to 45 minutes, with the last bit uphill followed by three sets of stairs. But it was a wonderful walk, along the vast curve of the harbor where fishing boats bobbed, whistling young men pushed carts of supplies, ancient Vespas puttered by, women readied tables at wharf-side restaurants, and old men sat nursing thick ceramic mugs and hand-rolled cigarettes. Just about every café seemed to have an old dog sleeping at the threshold. The buildings were a jumble of styles: Mediterranean, old stone, Western European, ornamental Byzantine, and of course, a few boxy, 1960s-style concrete buildings because hey, this is the real world. Our hotel was a converted 1916 mansion, and I was charmed to discover we were in a tower room, one that was perfectly round, like something in a fairy tale. We deposited our bags and set out to explore the town.
We soon found ourselves on Ermou Street, which was much like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley — a blast-from-the-past jumble of fishmongers, cobblers, confectioners, and shops selling old books, Kodak film, DVDs, and “curiosities.” Presiding over one end of the street was the magnificent church of Saint Therapon the Wonderworker, a 7th century Palestinian refugee who had such a knack for curing the sick that his miracles are still much in demand today.
At the other end of Ermou Street was the old harbor and some fish restaurants; lunch instantly moved to the top of our agenda. We settled at a wooden table covered with a blue checked cloth and studied the menu. Grilled sardines, we decided, and at the waiter’s urging, a fish I’d never tried before: red mullet.
Less romantically known by its common name — the bottom-feeding goatfish — red mullet is a tender, tasty fish that in ancient times rose to an extraordinary trendiness among wealthy Romans. Top specimens were sold for their weight in silver, kept in ponds, and caressed by their owner, who would brag to friends about teaching the fish to come to the sound of his voice. (Having owned goldfish, I can tell you that most fish will come to signals associated with food, so this doesn’t imply special brilliance on the part of red mullets. Or their owners.) Great thinkers of the day — Seneca, Pliny, Cicero —discoursed on the red mullet’s charms, and artists were commissioned to include their image in mosaics. But for us, they were simply lunch. The recipe is ridiculously simple: dust the red mullet with flour and salt, fry in oil, serve with lemon.
It’s possible that the island’s most famous resident — the poet Sappho — wrote odes to the red mullet, but we’ll likely never know, as nearly all her work has been lost since her death around 570 BC. Sappho was born to a wealthy Lesbos family and her talent took the ancient world by storm. Many of her poems speak eloquently of love and desire between women, which naturally led to assumptions about Sappho’s own sexuality, giving rise to the term lesbian.
This has driven some conservative residents of Lesbos absolutely bonkers, especially with the rise of the LGBTQ movement in the 20th century. In 2008 a group of Lesbos islanders tried to get a legal injunction banning groups from using the world lesbian in their names, claiming it violated their human rights by associating the island with “disgraceful” practices. As you can imagine, they were laughed out of court and have had to satisfy themselves with making sure everyone spells it Lesvos, a more accurate transliteration of the Greek Λέσβο. Despite their best efforts, there’s a modest but growing LGBTQ tourism trade, supported by agencies such as Sappho Travel in Skala Eressos, Sappho’s birthplace.
Today, the island’s most famous export isn’t poetry but ouzo, a dry anise-flavored aperitif. Lesbos boasts 17 ouzo factories, some quite large, others no bigger than a kitchen; together they produce half the nation’s supply. We’d heard it was traditional to drink ouzo around sunset and that a good place for this was Kastro Tavern, owned by a magician named Georgios.
We arrived at dusk to find Georgios playing backgammon with friends, his dog asleep in the kitchen, and no other customers in sight.
“We’d like some ouzo,” I said. “Do you have Kefi?” This popular brand is named for the state of sublime, transformative contentment when everything in the world seems right.
“No,” said George. “It is turned off.” He mimed closing a tap. “Two brothers made it, and they …” He made fists and pantomimed punched them together. “No more Kefi.” Well, that’s one for the irony department, I thought.
We chose another brand at random. “Ice?” asked George. “Of course,” I said. I’d read that ouzo, which we’d been taking neat, should always be served over ice or with a little cold water, which turns the clear liquid cloudy. Why is this important? I have no idea, but I’m not about to fly in the face of tradition. It’s also meant to be taken with a meze (snack) or two; at 37% to 50% alcohol content, it’s nothing to be trifled with.
We ordered white beans and red mullet, and sat sipping, nibbling, and listening to the clatter of dice and the low hum of talk and laughter. Occasionally George’s dog wandered over so Rich could scratch behind its ears. When we eventually bestirred ourselves to ask for the bill, George said, “Would you like to see magic?” He dazzled us with nifty bits of sleight of hand. “The bag is empty, yes? And now…” he flipped cards out of the bag onto our table; we gasped and applauded. And I reflected that the true magic of Greece is this: its ability to make strangers feel they belong, that they are among friends, even when they are very far from home.
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Here's our path from Kalamata, Greece to Mytiline, Lesbos, Greece
via bus and ferry.
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“This isn’t coffee,” Rich said, glaring into his cup. “It’s gasoline.”
“No, there’s definitely some coffee in it because I have grounds stuck in my teeth.”
We set down the cups of revolting brew and stared around us at Kalamata, Greece: gloomy sky, empty street, silent men hunched over scattered tables under two giant trees. I could almost hear the blood from Rich’s leg wound dripping onto the paving stones underfoot. It was a low point in a day that had started with a setback and gone downhill from there.
We’d awakened that morning 50 kilometers to the south in Agios Dimitrios to discover the village was in the grip of a power outage and a sirocco. Fierce, sand-laden winds that blow up from the Sahara, siroccos turn the Mediterranean sky a gritty gray and (they say) drive people mad. During the Ottoman era, if you murdered someone during a sirocco, you got a lesser sentence due to extenuating circumstances. Rich and I managed not to go berserk, even when we realized without electricity we couldn’t make coffee.
The landlord of our rental apartment gave us a lift to the bus stop, conveniently located in front of the café run by Freda, widely known as the village’s most resourceful resident. She didn’t fail us now. Working with a car battery and a gas-powered burner, she produced French-press coffee for us and our friends, Jackie and Joel. Many of you know Jackie from TravelnWrite, her lively blog about expat life in Greece. After corresponding for years, we finally met IRL (in real life), and not only had she and Joel generously spent days showing us around, they came to see us off on the bus — a bright spot in the morning.
“Does the sirocco always knock out the electricity?” Rich asked.
“Oh no, this is a planned outage,” said Jackie. “They must be fixing something.”
The outage and the sirocco extended all the way up the coast to our next stopping point, the city of Kalamata. After the picturesque charms of Crete and the rugged magnificence of the Mani Peninsula, our first glimpses — and frankly, our second and third glimpses as well — suggested that Kalamata was a soulless wasteland of shabby, crumbling concrete.
We were too early to check in, so our Airbnb hosts kindly directed us to their favorite café, just around the corner under a pair of huge trees. Stepping into the deeper gloom below the branches, Rich immediately walked into a low metal table, gashing his shin. As he hobbled to a chair and began sopping up the blood with his handkerchief, I ordered coffee — the only item on offer. They were likely heating the water with kerosene, which could account for the taste.
“I gotta tell you,” said Rich. “I am not warming to this town.”
Disinclined to linger at the café, Rich tied his handkerchief around the wound and we set off to reconnoiter. Hours of walking took us past closed shops, lightless windows, and a few shadowy restaurants serving coffee. Suddenly Rich’s sniffer went on high alert.
“Do I smell food cooking?” he said.
We followed our noses into the steamy warmth of a café, where a gas cooker had produced an array of hearty dishes. In a matter of moments we were seated before heaping portions of moussaka, green beans, and chicken "mincemeat." We sighed with pleasure and tucked in.
Ten minutes later the lights came on and the sun came out. Leaving the restaurant, we found ourselves surrounded by bright, inviting shops and cafés with abundant charm and originality. Our apartment turned out to be even pleasanter than it looked in the photos. Rich grudgingly agreed the town might have some redeeming features.
The next morning we took a food tour, and our guide, Fotini, introduced us to local characters as well as local cuisine. Tourists are relatively rare creatures in Kalamata, and everyone seemed delighted to spend time with us. The Economakos family gave us slivers of their famous salted pork and cups of homemade wine as they showed us a picture of the sausage plate that won first prize the 1999 trade fair. We nibbled and sipped our way through the morning, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, promising to come back one day.
Kalmata’s world-famous olives were mentioned only in passing, and I asked Fotini why there wasn’t more fuss about them. She shrugged. “When you’ve been eating something since ancient times, it is just a part of everyday life.” I asked if there were any special dishes we should try while we were in town.
“Gourounopoula,” she said. “Roast pork with plenty of skin and fat. Back in the days of the Ottoman empire, we used it to plan a revolution. When we had feasts, we of course had to invite our Ottoman neighbors. But being Muslims, they didn’t eat pork, so when we served gourounopoula, they stayed away. And we could plan our revolution, right under their noses.” Thanks to gourounopoula — and a few other factors, of course — the Greeks gained independence in 1829 after 400 years of Ottoman occupation.
Where we should try this famous pork? Fotini led me to the corner and pointed. “There. That café with the two giant trees.”
“No way,” said Rich.
“Oh, man up,” I said. “Let’s see if that little table is ready for a rematch.”
“I want a second opinion.”
When we asked at the tourist office, the woman at the desk sighed ecstatically.“Ah, gourounopoula,” she said. “Yes, you must try it. The best is here.” She pointed at the map. “At Barbayiannis.”
We set off, hampered only by the fact most streets weren't marked, and the few that were didn't seem to match any of the names on our map. Eventually I noticed a window displaying the remains of a pig, with a severed head and a meat cleaver. We had found Barbayiannis!
I did a doubletake. "Hey, this is the place we had lunch the first day!" What are the odds?
Gourounopoula was comfort food at its finest: a crispy outer layer of roasted fat covering meat tender enough to cut with a fork. I didn’t even try to talk my way into the tiny kitchen during the lunchtime rush, but I did the next best thing and looked online for a recipe. Ideally you roast the pig whole on a spit, but when that's impractical, this video shows how to create the same effect with a pork shoulder roast and a few other simple ingredients in your home oven.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Rich told me. “But I actually think Kalamata is my favorite stop so far.”
“You’re just saying that because you’ve stopped bleeding and have a belly full of roast pork.”
“I rest my case.”
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If I’d blinked, I would have missed the snails completely. We were passing a dusty parking lot in an unfashionable section of Chania, Crete when out of the very corner of my eye I caught the flash of a yellow chair under a tree beyond the cars. Someone’s private dining spot? No, wait; turning, I saw more chairs and a scattering of tables. A battered sign said helpfully, ΠΕΡΠΕΡΑΣ. Rich and I strolled in to take a closer look.
And that’s how we met Yannis, chief cook and proprietor of Perperas. He gave us a warm welcome and presented us with a handwritten English menu that was short on descriptions and long on intriguing possibilities. The meal was a delight: tzatziki made from thick Greek yogurt, garlic, and cucumber; grated zucchini patties sautéed in olive oil; a pie that might have been quiche’s Cretan cousin.
Snails are everyday fare in Crete, the local equivalent of American burgers or British fish and chips. During the 40-day Lenten fast, when people are expected to refrain from eating meat, fish, even dairy, it’s OK to consume snails and shellfish; they’re exempt on the technicality of not having a backbone. It's customary to eat snails on the Thursday before Easter, and Yannis very kindly agreed to let me come into his kitchen last week, on Orthodox Holy Thursday, so I could be initiated into the mysteries of hohli bourbouristi.
Brace yourself, because the process is a gruesome one. More so for the snails, obviously, but fairly distressing for humans of tender sensibilities as well. Captured when spring rain forces them out of their underground dens, the snails are sequestered in a mesh cage or simply a circle of salt, which they can’t cross because salt is lethal to snails. For at least three days, often a week or more, the captives are fed a bland diet of flour or dry pasta, which is said to make them excrete all their toxins. Then they are thrown live into a pot of boiling water which is soon covered with a white froth of snail saliva. Cookbooks advise keeping an eye out for those trying to escape so you can catch them and toss them back in.
As you can imagine, the creepy backstory did nothing to enhance my appetite. “I’m calling this post ‘Snails from the Crypt,’” I whispered to Rich. Fortunately I was spared the grim necessity of witnessing these atrocities in the flesh. Yannis explained a family of snail collectors in the nearby village handled all that, delivering the snails to his kitchen clean and ready to cook.
Yannis rinsed 30 large snails in water, then dusted them with a third of a cup of flour. (He never measured, so all quantities are very approximate.) Then he poured a quarter of a cup of olive oil into a frying pan and set it on the burner. He pressed the fleshy foot of each snail into salt then set it in the pan. “They go in ‘face down,’ as we say,” he told me. “The name bourbouristi comes from the Cretan abouboura, which means ‘face down.’” When the snails were sizzling, he pulled leaves off of two sprigs fresh rosemary and sprinkled them on top, adding a pinch of pepper. Pouring half a cup of strong red wine vinegar over everything, he let it cook for about three minutes until the liquid reduced to a thick sauce. "Done!" he said.
He took them outside to our table and set them down with a flourish.
It was love at first bite. “Oh my God,” I kept gasping. “Wow!”
Using the outermost tine of his fork to pry out a morsel, Rich slurped it down. He kissed the shell he held his fingers. “These snails,” he said, “were not sacrificed in vain.”
Lenten observances in Greece are big on sacrifice, starting with 40 days of fasting and culminating on the eve of Easter when Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, is burned in effigy in towns all across the island. We witnessed the ritual in Loutro, a village on the southern coast of Crete.
The evening began with the traditional Orthodox liturgy held in a church so small people took turns going inside to pay their respects then gathered outside chatting quietly. Eventually the priest emerged and sang into a microphone held by an altar boy, reading the lyrics off a cell phone tucked into a hymnal. Men and boys took turns ringing the church bell. After the kiss of peace, everyone lit their candles; some kids carried fancy ones decorated with unicorns, Barbie, or Spiderman. Then the bonfire was ablaze on the beach, and altar boys, bell ringers, and Spiderman fans began throwing fire crackers into the blaze, making everyone jump. As flames consumed the effigy, fireworks exploded overhead. Once again, sin had been vanquished.
Easter Sunday was a quieter affair as families released from fasting gathered to feast on lamb, the traditional symbol of sacrifice and salvation. In Greece, the practice of animal sacrifice dates back to Neolithic times; more recently it appears as the Passover lamb, first offered during the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt, and in New Testament passages where John the Baptist refers to his cousin as “Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” For us, more prosaically, lamb was simply lunch.
For this meal, Rich and I had chosen a family-run restaurant on the hill just above the church, and during the morning we dropped by to see how the roasting was coming along. The lamb was turning slowly on the spit, looking all too much like a human sacrifice. There was aluminum foil draped over its loins, like the white cloths strategically placed on naked figures in old church art.
“Boy, these guys really know how to work a theme,” I said to Rich.
The snails, bonfire, and lamb of Easter — as well as the island of Crete itself — are now just fond memories. Yesterday we took a ferry north to Greece's Mani Peninsula, a rural area on the southern tip of the Peloponnese. Our modest hotel overlooks the island of Gytheio, where Paris of Troy and Helen of Sparta spent their first night together, having the sex that launched a thousand ships, culminating in the Trojan War. Rich and I don't expect our further adventures in Greece to be quite that exciting, but we are looking forward to more good food and fun times. Stay with us on the journey!
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“I have learned my lesson,” I said to Rich. “I am never, ever going to tell another person that I’m a travel writer and we’re on a food tour.”
Three hours earlier, we’d arrived in Heraklion, Crete, and as soon as they’d handed over the keys, our Airbnb hosts, Marina and Alex, suggested we all go out for dinner. Twenty minutes later we were ensconced at a table in a busy taverna, and Alex began ordering: fried zucchini, mashed fava beans, salad, wine, and then the seafood for which the city is famous: grilled dorado, fried calamari, and tiny breaded sardines. And of course more wine.
Near midnight, as the customary complementary desserts and raki (brandy) hit the table, Alex leaned forward and said, “But if you are writing about food you must try our lamb. I know a village…” He rolled his eyes heavenward in appreciation of the extraordinary — legendary — culinary magic performed in this humble hamlet. “We will all go tomorrow.”
In a haze of wine-induced bonhomie, we accepted with alacrity. But later, as we climbed heavily into bed, Rich said, “If we keep eating like this, I’m going to have a heart attack before we get to Athens.”
“Don’t be silly. Tomorrow won’t be like this. We were eating low on the food chain tonight. In the village, they will be serving lamb like there’s no tomorrow. Because starting Monday, nobody’s getting any meat for a week.”
Here in Greece, where Easter is celebrated a week later in accord with the Orthodox calendar, fasting is meant to run the full 40 days of Lent. But many don’t start until the final week before Easter, when olive oil joins the prohibited list. On the eve of such profound privation, we could only imagine what kind of excesses the village chefs might get up to.
Rich just groaned and got up to find the Pepto Bismol.
Luckily for our arteries, our livers, and our Pepto Bismol supply, the village lamb-eating expedition was scuttled by logistical complications. But we soon learned that everyone we met was as hospitable as Alex and equally as determined to assist us in our quest.
For instance, on Monday we had the interesting cultural experience of going to a local clinic. Just before leaving Seville, Rich had undergone a very minor medical procedure and was advised to have the dressing changed daily by a professional. After corresponding for days with Heraklion’s best private clinic, Rich was greeted on arrival as an old friend and told to bypass the reception line and go directly to the office of Renia, head of the International Patient Department. Renia spent nearly half an hour with us, personally supervising the work of the physician, who turned out to be a neurosurgeon. During breaks in the action Renia asked about our plans while in Crete. We got all the way to the cashier before I let it slip that we were on a Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour.
“But I know where you must go for the best fish in the city!” she exclaimed and ran upstairs to her office to fetch the card, blithely ignoring the fact this was holding up the payment process not only for us, but for everyone behind us in line. “I like her priorities,” said Rich.
We could not have been treated more kindly or more professionally, but still, upon leaving the clinic, Rich and I felt in need of a restorative. We repaired to the first coffee house we saw, an old-school establishment run by a blonde woman with the kind of gravelly voice I always associate with actress Melina Mercouri. Our kind hostess fed us a snack of the ultimate comfort food of my childhood: grilled cheese sandwiches. Yum.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: did these people ever do anything in Heraklion besides eat? Yes, we did manage to squeeze in a visit to the world-renowned Archeological Museum, filled with astonishing treasures. Many were from ancient Knossos, “Europe’s first city,” founded around 9000 years ago and said to contain the underground labyrinth King Minos built to corral his son, the Minotaur, who was half man, half bull. Naturally we visited the ruins of palace but could not discover a labyrinth, unless you count the convoluted network of pathways used to move visitors through the site.
Everywhere we’ve gone, locals have treated us with true Greek xenia, the traditional generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home. On our second day in the city, noticing my hair had passed from frumpy to frightful, I stopped, more or less at random, at a small salon in the neighborhood. Niko and his sons, Vasili and Alex, took me under their collective wing for the next three hours. As Alex went to work on my color and performed miracles with conditioner, he asked me questions about America and Hollywood movies. When I mentioned the Exorcist, his father (who spoke no English but had seen the film) was drawn into the discussion. After I’d pantomimed Linda Blair’s head spinning around, Niko did the floating-above-the-bed scene, proving once again that horror — and laughter — really are universal languages.
We headed directly from the salon to Mare, the restaurant Renia recommended. It turned out to be a large, upscale establishment on the waterfront, filled with beautiful people and instrumental interpretations of 1970s pop music. Not our usual scene, but hey, we were there, we were hungry, and we’d promised Renia to give it a try. “Thank God I just had my hair done,” I murmured to Rich as we sat down.
I ordered shrimp and mussels with feta cheese and light mustard sauce. Rich opted for the grilled octopus with caramelized onions and locust bean cream. We both felt a small carafe of house white would round out the meal nicely.
What arrived was one of the most astonishingly delicious meals in recent memory. Everything was perfectly prepared; the octopus was succulent, the shellfish fresh from the sea, the blend of feta cheese and mustard in the sauce was divine. Thick-cut rustic bread was thoughtfully provided for sopping up every last drop of sauce.
As we leaned back, replete, and began thinking seriously about a siesta, the complementary desserts appeared on the table: red velvet cake with Argentinean cacao and a Cretan pie called sfakiani, a sort of cross between flan and cheesecake. They kindly provided a small carafe of ouzo, just to make sure we walked out in a blissful haze.
The Greeks have the perfect word for this state: kefi, which refers to a state of contentment and joy that arises when a moment is so overwhelmingly enjoyable you are completely transported by it. They say it most often happens when the company is good and the conversation is engaging; I would add when the food is spectacularly comforting. It’s about a confluence of fulfilling pleasures. Kind of like our time in Heraklion.
This morning we left Heraklion and headed west along the Cretan coast to the city of Chiana. I’m hot on the trail of a dish of the snails served during the last week of Lent. Apparently snails are not classified as meat and can be consumed this week without committing any kind of sin. I say amen to that!
We have much to look forward to, in other parts of the island and beyond. Thanks for joining us on these first steps in the long journey that lies ahead.
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“Good grief, what happened here?!?”
I stared aghast at what remained of my gray cardigan, recently purchased for our upcoming trip and washed for the first — and last — time. I’d scrupulously followed the instructions on the label, yet the once-long, flowing garment was now short and boxy, with arms that would be snug on a ten-year-old. As directed, I attempted to “reshape and dry flat,” but after every tug, the cardigan simply sprang back into its preferred chunky-child size. I could almost hear it snickering at my futile efforts.
When you’re living out of a single small suitcase for months at a time, every garment has to pull its weight, fitting over and under various other layers. Tight clothes are impractical, and that goes double for us at the moment, when we’re about to depart on Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour. Serious eating will be taking place, and while I’m hoping my weight won’t skyrocket, I doubt that my arms are going to shrink back to the size they were in fourth grade. RIP gray sweater.
Whenever Rich and I set out on one of our big journeys, such as the one that inspired my book Adventures of a Railway Nomad, our Luggage-Free experiment, or Our Most Unplanned, Disorganized Trip Ever, people ask me all sorts of questions about what we're taking along. So let me start by saying that we’re not going luggage-free this time; for months on the road, I like a few more creature comforts than I can fit in my pockets. But I am keeping baggage to a minimum: just a single small roll-aboard, plus a roomy shoulder purse, mainly for sweaters, maps, and water bottles. I keep valuables zipped safely inside my travel vest.
Rich and I take the same amount of luggage whether we’re going away for the weekend or many months. We pack a few changes of clothes, a spare pair of shoes, a rain jacket, loose trousers for sleeping and yoga, basic toiletries, and essential electronics. We’ll do laundry frequently (although not every night, as we do with luggage-free travel) so we don't need tons of clothes. Comfort is the top priority, although we maintain what we hope is a reasonable level of stylishness as well.
For Rich, this always means choosing a signature hat for the trip. Fedoras and Panamas are an integral part of his personal style, and a month ago, he began scouring Seville’s hat shops in search of something new.
As we strolled around from shop to shop, Rich and I discussed a riveting show we’d just watched called Minimalism: A Documentary on the Important Things. “So much of our lives are lived in a fog of habitual behavior,” says author Dan Harris in the film, against a background of Black Friday madness. “We spend so much time on the hunt, and nothing really does it for us.” Later Shannon Whitehead comments, “The status quo in the fashion industry right now is driven by fast fashion. Maybe when our moms were shopping for clothes, or our grandmothers, there were four season a year…Now we work in a cycle of 52 seasons per year. They want you to feel like you’re out of trend after one week so that you will buy something new.”
“Can you believe it?” I said. “They’re trying to manipulate us into buying stuff we don’t really need.”
And then the irony struck us.
“What would you think if I took my old coffee-colored straw hat?” Rich asked.
“Works for me.”
So the question of Rich’s hat has been settled.
As for me, the most vital issue is always, “What's going on my feet?”
As for my clothing, I am bringing a variety of garments in neutral blacks, grays, and whites, with some summery blues and greens, and a pair of wine-colored trousers for a pop of color.
By far the heaviest things I carry are my electronics, toiletries, and prescription meds.
Beyond that, I will be tucking in miscellanies, such as a sleep mask, spare eyeglasses, socks, and underwear, but I suspect that you are already familiar with such items and don’t need detailed instructions from me regarding how to pack them. If you do want to get down into the deep details, I have a Packing page on this website, where you’ll find such articles as Packing Extra Light, How to Choose Great Travel Clothes, Rich’s World Famous First Aid Kit, and much more.
The best way to pack light is to remember that you don’t have to prepare for every single contingency that might conceivably arise. If the president of Albania invites us to a black tie gala, or we get tickets to a Rolling Stones concert and feel edgier attire is required, we’ll have the fun of shopping for it on the spot. I’ve learned that just when I start thinking I should have packed a sun hat, some enterprising local is standing there offering an armload of Panama knockoffs.
Yes, I’m still bitter about the gray cardigan, and when I get back to the States a major department store has some ‘splanin’ to do. But I have no doubt that somewhere along the route, a perfect replacement is just waiting for me. I look forward to making its acquaintance, and have vowed not to wash it until the trip is over.
Do you have any great packing tips or luggage disasters to share? I'd love to hear them!
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Every once in a while, my husband has an idea so brilliant it’s breathtaking. “Let’s move to Spain for a year,” was one; and 14 years later we’re still here in Seville. “Why not try travel without any luggage at all?” was another, and although it took him 20 years to convince me to give it a go, he was right, it was amazing. And last April, he did it again.
We were sitting in a café, floating possibilities for our next multi-month railway journey. Our short list included Greece, the Balkans, and various regions along the Adriatic coast we had yet to explore.
Out of nowhere Rich said, “Have you noticed that every time you write about food, your readers love it? What if we made that the theme of the trip? Everybody likes Mediterranean food, right?”
And just like that, the trip took shape in my mind. “We’ll call it the Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour,” I said. “Travel by train and ferry around the Mediterranean rim, sampling some of the world’s best cooking in its native habitat.”
“We’ll explore local culture through the cuisine,” I went on. “Food always has an interesting backstory, one that tells you a lot about the people who eat it.”
“You had me at comfort food,” said Rich.
As you can imagine, just about everyone we know has suggestions about the itinerary. “You’ll be going to Istria, of course,” a friend said to me. “Where?” She looked at me pityingly. “Northern Croatia’s truffle country.” Did I even know they had truffles in Croatia? She went on, “There’s a little restaurant, it’s not easy to get to, but the food ….” She trailed off, rolling her eyes heavenward in blissful memory. Rich said, “Make a note of that one!”
Lots of people ask what we mean by comfort food. To me — and to Miriam-Webster’s dictionary — it’s “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” It’s the stuff that makes you feel warm and cozy, well-fed and nurtured: your mom’s chicken soup, the homemade cookies grandpa always brought to holiday dinners, your favorite take-out for stay-home movie nights.
The warm, fuzzy, feel-good sensation is universal, but the specifics vary wildly. For instance, in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, marmite (a sticky, dark brown, salty food paste) is happily smeared on toast in millions of homes, a fact that’s incomprehensible to those of us not raised on the stuff. Elvis Presley lived on grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Sofia Loren attributed her famous figure to spaghetti, noting it “can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner.”
Some take a darker view of comfort food, defining it as harmful substances we binge on when life becomes so unbearable the only way we can cope is to abuse our bodies. As one Huffington Post article put it, in what I consider the most revolting metaphor of the year, “it’s a dietary bandage we’ve all used.” Yuck, no! The author goes on to say, “In the U.S. we understand that when someone is stuffing their face with French fries and doughnuts it’s a signifier for, ‘I’m overwhelmed, please avoid eye contact.’” And this, I think, underscores the difference between American and European attitudes toward food. Just last night I was with European friends, and we all dived happily into a plate of perfectly prepared fried potatoes, commenting with pleasure on the delightful flavor and texture. Living in Spain, I have learned to regard food as a friend, not an enemy, a science experiment, or a test of my willpower.
“I assume all the clothes you’re packing will have elastic waistbands,” a friend commented.
Rich said cheerfully, “We expect to double our body weight.”
“And we’ll be so contented we won’t care,” I added. But the fact is, I don’t really expect I’ll gain much weight. Our plan is not to eat more food than usual, just to choose different kinds based on their meaning in the local culture.
And of course, not all traditional comfort food is fattening. We recently had lunch with a friend who hails from Crete, not far from the remains of Knossos, “Europe’s oldest city,” which we'd decided was the logical jumping-off place for our trip. As he spread a map of Crete on the table, I asked him, “What comfort foods are popular around there?”
A smile lit up his face. “Hohli bourbouristi.” Huh? “Snails cooked in rosemary,” he explained. “Look, there is a recipe on the back of the map.” He flipped it over to show a photo of glistening snails, three recipes, and general culinary advice for visitors.
“Great map,” I commented. “Where did you get it?”
He grinned. “At McDonald’s.”
I like a plate of snails now and then, and while I can safely say that I won’t eat enough of them to double my body weight, I am happy to have the recipe. In fact, one of my goals for the trip is to post recipes for as many comfort foods as possible. I’ve been making lists of local specialties I'll seek out: Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, those Croatian truffles, tiramisu, prosciutto, Prosecco, croissants…
And while I would love to promise I’ll be sharing closely guarded culinary secrets learned directly from master chefs and ancient grandmothers, I suspect many recipes I post will be from online resources. I’ve set up a page on this website called “Comfort Recipes” where I’ll post recipes of foods we try on the journey, plus Comfort Food to Cook on the Road, dishes whose preparation requires few ingredients and the kind of basic utensils you'd find in a rental apartment kitchen. If there's an oven in our Airbnb, I'll likely be making Three-Ingredient Brownies. Can you guess what’s in them? Nope, that’s not it. Not that, either. OK, I’ll spill: bananas, crunchy almond butter (I use crunchy peanut butter instead), and unsweetened cocoa. It's the perfect finish to a meal of Smoked Salmon Pasta Cooked in a Skillet, especially on nights we want to kick back in our home away from home.
Rich and I keep rearranging the itinerary as we discover intriguing new fare: North Macedonia’s tavče gravče, Croatia’s crni rizot, and Slovenia’s potatoes, said to be so good that locals indicate you’re lucky by commenting, “Well, you really have some potatoes!”
One restaurant that Rich has been talking about for years is Albania’s Ali Kali, where the owner brings your grilled fish to the table riding on the back of a trick horse.
Yes, presentation really is everything! I’ve mentioned Ali Kali to many people, and not all of them share Rich’s enthusiasm. Some consider it dubious on many levels, starting with taste, hygiene, and whether it’s OK to teach animals to perform tricks. But I have learned to trust Rich’s “sniffer,” his nose for special experiences, especially those involving food. So while we expect our route to change many times as our whimsy takes us through Europe, the Ali Kali is a fixed star on our horizon.
We leave April 20 and expect to be back in Spain somewhere around August-ish.
Don't miss a single comfort food adventure!
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“I’m trying Airbnb for the first time,” a friend confided recently. “But I’m just not sure what it’ll be like staying in someone’s home, sharing their space — let’s be honest, sharing their bathroom with them.”
“You do know you can rent whole apartments,” I said. “Have the entire place to yourself. That’s what we always do.”
Newcomers to the Airbnb world sometimes arrive thinking the whole point is to bond with super-cool hosts. That’s wonderful when it happens (yes, I’m thinking of you, Erge and Martin), but to me, the major draw is the accommodations themselves. You can rent whole houses, boats, even (I've heard) castles. We don't aim that high, but the places we stay have character and creature comforts — sometimes delivered in unexpected ways.
Take our stay in Braşov, Transylvania.
The online photos looked inviting. Walking into it, I said to Rich, “Yikes! We’ve rented Harry Potter’s bedroom under the stairs.” Aside from a tiny lavatory, there were two rooms: one entirely filled by a double bed, the other a minuscule kitchen with a small table and two straight-backed chairs. However, it didn’t take long to appreciate the compact kitchen’s enormous advantages.
“Look at this,” I said to Rich. “I can sit right here and do everything — write blog posts, watch movies on the computer, get a glass of water from the tap, pull something from the fridge, even do dishes — all without leaving this chair. Cozy and efficient. Ya gotta love it.”
Over the years, we've stayed in 31 Airbnb apartments and have learned a lot about navigating the options. But we are total rookies compared to retirees Debbie and Michael Campbell, aka the Senior Nomads, who have been on the road since 2013 and are currently in their 212th Airbnb home. What was it like to be a nomad? I wondered. What had they learned? I decided to ask them.
Why did you become nomads?
Michael: Debbie had said for some time, “We have one more adventure in us!” And that is saying something, since we have been fortunate to have had a life full of interesting endeavors.
Debbie: Then our daughter Mary, who lives in Paris with her young family, asked us if we’d ever heard of Airbnb. We had not. She suggested it might be possible for us to travel full-time as a way of retired living. We were convinced she thought we had way more money than we did. But in fact, after doing some initial budgets based on selling absolutely everything we owned, we realized that yes, for about the same amount we’d spend if we’d retired in Seattle, we could live our daily lives in other people’s homes around the world! Within six months of Mary’s visit, we had sold our worldly goods (and eventually sold our home) and were heading to Paris.
How long have you been traveling?
Debbie: We’ve been on the road as Senior Nomads (as we call ourselves) for almost six years! Since we left in July of 2013, we’ve visited 6 continents, 82 countries and 275 cities, and we don’t see ourselves stopping any time soon.
Michael: In fact, when we are asked how long we will continue this lifestyle, our answer is “As long as we are learning every day, having fun, close to our budget, healthy, and still in love, we’ll keep going.” So far, so good!
How many Airbnbs have you stayed in?
Michael: We are currently in Santiago, Chile in our 212th Airbnb. When we are not in an Airbnb we stay with friends or family, and have found a reliable house-sitting situation we use when we return “home” to Seattle each year for the holidays.
What are the biggest challenges of the lifestyle?
Debbie: Travel fatigue. Sometimes we spend an entire day, and I am talking 20 hours, getting from one place to another on multiple forms of transportation. That means managing our luggage on-and-off and in-and-out of various vehicles, and once we arrive either hauling it up more stairs than we anticipated, or taking two trips in tiny elevators. But once we are settled in, it all becomes worth it. And, since we are not on vacation, we have the luxury of not being in a hurry the next day.
How much luggage do you take?
Michael: Our mantra is “If you can’t eat it, drink it, get somewhere on it, or attend it, don’t spend money on it.”
Debbie: We lug two large rolling-duffle suitcases and we fill them to the brim at 23 kilos each — which is usually the weight limit on the airlines we use. I am sure we overpack, but since we are on the road for almost a year at a time we include some creature comforts including our personal bed pillows. We try to never be over the weight limit — so if we buy new shoes, an old pair has to go! Besides our two workhorse suitcases, we each carry a day pack, and I have a “Mary Poppins” style purse that expands to hold whatever still needs tucking away.
Do you miss family and friends?
Debbie: Of course, but we are constantly making new friends as we go. That’s why, for us it is important to meet our Airbnb hosts. We consider them our “friend in the next city”. We count on them to help us live as locally as possible — and we usually end up socializing with them as well.
Michael: We have four grown children and five grandchildren, and we are frequently in touch via Facetime or Skype. We also visit Mary and her family in France often and see the others when we are in the US.
What are some tips for traveling with your spouse?
Debbie: First of all, don’t try this with anyone but your best friend! After that, patience, flexibility and a willingness to “let the little things go” become the keys to success. That, and some alone time that might include being apart for a day.
Michael: We have been married for 40 years, so we know each other pretty well. But as it is for most married couples, we were busy with careers and raising kids and didn’t spend every minute together, and sometimes we were at cross purposes. But since we began this journey, I think we are “rowing the boat in the same direction— like an Olympic crew team, we are in sync with a common goal in mind.
What life lessons have you learned from being on the road so long?
Michael: We’ve exchanged things for experiences. So as long as we are safe and sheltered, we can say we are “home” wherever we are. That allows us to live in the moment and become more tolerant, open-minded, curious and — maybe best of all — empathic. By that I mean we acknowledge there are many ways of approaching life, and especially as Americans, we don’t have all the answers to what is the right way.
Debbie: I have learned the freedom that comes with owning next to nothing, and the joy of slowing down.
Do you enjoy traveling with next to nothing? Have you stayed in a memorable Airbnb — or other rental? Tell me about your experiences. Any tips to pass along?
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“This place has the worst food in all of Seville,” I told a new acquaintance, as we sat down at a small outdoor table. “And the staff is downright hostile. We eat here every week.”
The restaurant (which shall remain nameless) is strictly old school with dark wood, tile floors, a long bar, and a giant espresso machine. It happens to be the only eatery within shouting distance of the yoga studio I go to on Saturday mornings, and as everyone’s weekends are busy, we opt for the convenience. Over the years, the quality of the ham (a mainstay of breakfast in Seville) has deteriorated from passable to leathery to ghastly. And don’t even think about asking for any newfangled nonsense like whole wheat bread or avocado because it’s simply not happening.
But it’s the hostility that’s truly astonishing. Maybe it’s because we arrive just before noon, the traditional cut-off for serving breakfast, forcing them to toast bread and make coffee for an extra fifteen minutes. “But isn’t that what they’re in business to do?” newcomers always ask in bewilderment. One would think. Maybe it’s because our yoga class is taught by an Englishwoman and attracts foreign students; they might feel we’re lowering the tone of the establishment. Who knows?
Whatever sparked the conflict, they’ve taken the battle to the bathrooms. The Ladies’ lost its toilet seat ages ago, and a rag is now duct-taped in the opening that once held the doorknob. The automatic light shuts off so rapidly that even the most efficient user finds herself plunged into darkness at various awkward moments during the proceedings, requiring her to leap up and flap her hands in the air to restore illumination. Each week as we arrive, the tile floor around the rest rooms is mopped, creating a slippery hazard. Just this Saturday they upped the ante by pouring eye-watering caustic chemicals — I’m guessing bleach mixed with radioactive waste — into the toilet; the bartender walked out of the Ladies’, holding the bucket and grinning, as I headed in.
Yet all week I look forward to spending time in that restaurant. Because much as I dislike the food, the attitude, and the lavatory, I love hanging out with my yoga friends. In Seville, choosing a place to eat is as much about tribal identity as it is about the particulars. As I sipped my coffee there last Saturday, I got to thinking about the three main food tribes in this city.
The Traditional Tribe
When I first arrived in Seville, just about every eatery served the same classic tapas, such as carrillada (pork cheeks), tortilla de España (Spanish omelet), and solomillo al whisky (braised pork with whisky sauce). Traditional bars tend to have gorgeous old tiles, ham legs hanging from the ceiling, and somebody’s abuela (grandmother) in the kitchen, making food the way her abuela taught her back in the days of Franco and food shortages. These dishes are simple, practical, and thrifty. Innovation and spices have no place on the menu.
The Foodie Tribe
The city’s recent foodie revolution couldn’t have been more shocking to local sensibilities if it had arrived in the city by flying saucer. Seemingly overnight we had Thai food, Peruvian-Japanese restaurants, Mexican taquerias, and impossible-to-define fusion places with amusing light fixtures and bewildering menus. If you’re heading to Seville, here are some you might want to check out.
Bar Castizo, Calle Zaragoza, 6. They define their cuisine as old-school, and many dishes are, but they’re produced with artistic flourishes that demonstrate cutting-edge foodie sensibilities. The setting is charmingly hip. Don’t miss the rest rooms walls covered with domino tiles.
Contenedor, San Luis, 50. Here you’ll find eclectic decor and some of the best eats in the city. On your way out, you’ll want to use the self-operated antique printing machine to print up a card so you can find your way back.
Eslava, Eslava, 3. This one's so popular you'll have to come early to have any chance of elbowing your way into the crowded bar and back room; avoid the more formal restaurant area, as it's not worth the extra cost.
Mamarracha Tapas y Brasas, Hernando Colon, 1 - 3. It describes itself as having urbanite conceptual character. Whatever that is. There’s a lovely vertical garden and offerings such as Thai salmon with seaweed; the food never disappoints.
Zalata, Doña Maria Coronel, 17. A cozy place with international dishes arranged so artistically they’re almost too gorgeous to dig into. And yet we do. Rich maintains their arroz negro (black rice) is the best in the city.
The Organic Tribe
With the profusion of Airbnb apartments in the city, eating in has become more popular with vacationers, especially foreigners used to organic produce and products. This is a boon to the city’s up-and-coming health food industry. Some friends and I recently attended the third annual BioCultura, “an ecological products and responsible consumerism fair.” We spent several happy hours nibbling and sipping our way through the free samples, chatting with cheerfully eccentric vendors who were delighted when we purchased their olive oil, wine, and chorizo. (How is chorizo a health food? Made from pigs raised on granola and tofu, perhaps? I never did learn for sure.)
I was delighted to run across some oatmeal, which is sold only in health food shops and not always easy to find. When I carried two large bags of rolled oats to the counter, the clerk shook her head. “We won’t sell you that.”
It took me some time to grasp what she was telling me: all the food in this, the largest booth in the entire fair, was for display purposes only.
“If we sold it to you,” she explained in a “well, duh!” tone of voice, “we wouldn’t have any to display!”
Ah, now I was on familiar ground. This store, like the restaurant I go to after yoga, exists for the convenience of the staff, not the customers. Perhaps the tribes aren’t that far apart after all.
Many of us are lucky enough to move back and forth from one tribe to another. I make my own granola, Rich cooks traditional paella, and we often go out with friends to trendy new hotspots and old-style café-bars where abuelas rule the kitchen. And despite all the recent changes, it’s clear that the Sevillanos have not lost their traditional attitude towards eating. They have taught me that food is one of the great pleasures of life, and even the simplest meal should be embraced as if it were a gift. Because it is.
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“Wait, don’t eat that yet, let me get a shot of it.”
When seriously gorgeous food hits the table, my husband knows there will be a short delay while I try to capture an image that does it justice. I’ve learned to work fast so our food doesn’t get too cold and Rich's hunger doesn’t get too acute. For most of us, a few quick clicks are enough and we’re ready to dive into the meal. But every once in a while I stumble across someone who takes food photography to a much higher level, crafting each shot like a classic painting. When I discovered the mouthwatering images shot by Croatian photographer Lili Basic on her Traveling Oven website, I kept saying to myself, “How does she do that?”
I decided to find out. So I wrote to Lili at her home in Zagreb and asked if she would share a few of her food photography secrets with us.
What is your earliest memory of photography?
My interest in photography started when I was about 14 or 15 years old and I got my first camera as a gift from my parents (no smartphones at that time!). It was nothing fancy but it was pink and it was a camera so I was the happiest girl. At that time I wasn’t interested in learning anything technical about photography; I simply enjoyed taking pictures.
You were born in Dubrovnik and lived in Scotland, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Switzerland before returning to Croatia and settling in Zagreb. Do you find that photographing an unknown city is a good way to get to know its character?
Oh definitely! I enjoy discovering new places with a camera in my hands. Because of it, I pay more attention to details and especially those areas that are not very touristy — the hidden alleys, narrow streets, and corners where you discover the true charm and character of the city. Having said that, sometimes it’s also nice to just walk around the new place without a camera, taking in the moment and not carrying heavy gear all the time.
What do you hope your photos say to others?
The most important thing for me is that my photos evoke emotions in viewers and that they tell a story. When somebody writes to me to say that my photo touched them in some way or made them remember a special moment — a smell or taste from their childhood or something like that — it makes me emotional every single time. And that is the main reason why I love photography so much.
When did you start doing professional photography?
In my mid 30s. All the time before that, I felt like something was missing in my life. Photography is so much more than a job to me, it’s the way I express myself and how I process a lot of my emotions and life challenges; it’s how I see and experience the world around me. I am forever grateful that I managed to get the courage I needed to start learning photography, building my business, and pursuing my dreams.
What drew you to food photography?
In 2014 I started taking my photography more seriously, learning and practicing every single day. I lived in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. It was winter at the time, and the winters there are very harsh and very, very cold — like -45 Celsius cold! So obviously, during the winter months you spend a lot of time inside. That meant that my usual subjects like travel, architecture, nature, etc. were all impossible to shoot; I had to come up with something interesting I could shoot at home. And that’s how I discovered the world of food photography and fell in love straight away!
You use only natural light. Why?
Light is what makes the photo beautiful and sometimes exceptional, and it helps in storytelling, too. I adore natural light, the play of light and shadows, the contrast it creates. For those learning to shoot food in natural light, I advise you to study the light in the area where you shoot — how it changes during the day, when it gets warmer and colder, when you get direct sunlight and when it’s softer light. The best light for food photography is the soft, diffused light we get on an overcast day; the worst is direct harsh sunlight. It’s best to have only one light source, such as a window, and to place your subject so that the light comes from the side ('sidelight') or from behind ('backlight'). Avoid placing the subject with light coming from the front, as that will result in a flat image with no contrast, and that is not visually pleasing.
You took your photography to the next level with the online Photography Institute. What are some of the lessons you learned there?
The Photography Institute gave me a great starting point in my photography journey. They taught me the technical side and some basic principles. For instance there’s the 'rule of thirds.' Imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that there are 9 parts. If we place our subject in the intersections or along the lines, the photo becomes more balanced without becoming static, enabling the viewer to interact with it more naturally. I also learned about negative space, the area around the main subject in a photo. Negative space defines and emphasizes the main subject, drawing our eyes to it. It gives our eyes somewhere to rest and prevents an image from appearing too cluttered.
Are there bad photography habits that people should let go of?
For one thing, over-editing a photo (it’s good to know when to stop!).
How do you know when you’ve taken a truly outstanding shot?
Well, that definitely doesn’t happen on every shoot, especially for a perfectionist like myself. But honestly, you just feel it. I get really excited like a little kid when I feel that everything is working so well together: light, subject, colors, textures, shapes, composition — and that’s when I know I’m getting ‘the shot’!
I’ll probably never produce masterpiece food photos like Lili’s, but she’s given me a lot to think about and play around with in my own work. To enjoy more of her mouthwatering images visit Lili's Instagram page and her Traveling Oven website.
And for those of my readers who enjoy photographing food, I’d love to hear your best tips and secrets of success. Of course, your disaster stories are always welcome as well!
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Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. Right now we're on our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture.
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