“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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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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