“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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4/24/2019 07:15:46 pm
I love hearing about your time in Heraklion. That meal at Mare sounded divine. Be sure you try the eggplant fritters, too.
4/25/2019 08:11:17 am
Catherine, we came by bus, arriving last night. What a charming city Chiana is! Last night we ate at a tiny place called Perperas, so tucked away we almost missed it altogether. Marvelous food! Best tzatziki ever. Haven't had the eggplant fritters yet; will keep an eye out for them. Thanks for that tip!
4/25/2019 02:21:56 pm
Do not forget to check the meat pie (kreatopita). Chania is famous for this.... And if you want one famous restaurant, this is Diogenis in Platanias (very near Chania, though outside)
4/25/2019 04:14:24 pm
Haris, I am hot on the trail of some delicious snails, as you suggested. I will certainly check out the kreatopita. Sounds wonderful! Thanks again for all your help in planning our time in Crete. We are loving every minute of it.
4/25/2019 05:12:00 pm
At least we are in NOLA for Jazz Fest and had my favorite duck wings last night . Loved the scary fish, really all the food and the candle photo with the reflection in the picture. What a trip and you have just started. We have a tornado warning on our first day.
4/25/2019 05:21:29 pm
Good lord, Kitty — tornado warnings!?! That's no way to start a vacation. May the weather channels be wrong about that one! Have fun at Jazz Fest. And glad you liked the photos; this is an incredibly photogenic part of the world. More to come.
4/25/2019 05:17:50 pm
4/25/2019 05:26:11 pm
We go tonight to meet with a local chef who is prepared to share his recipe for cooking snails. He says it is very simple; we'll see. Snails are traditional tonight, Holy Thursday, so I am very pleased about this.
4/25/2019 05:39:44 pm
We will be there in 2 weeks and have a day in Heraklion. We might try and find one of your restaurants. Probably Mare will be easier :-).
4/26/2019 08:28:24 am
Have a wonderful time in Crete, Teri. And yes, be sure to try Mare for some fabulous food and lovely views of the sea. If you can, visit the Archeology Museum in Heraklion — it's fascinating, even for those who don't ordinarily like such stuff. Enjoy your journey!
4/25/2019 05:44:24 pm
Great post Karen. I love when you add Rich's remarks. They are so witty hahaha. I am wondering if you and Rich weight yourselves before the trip. I will be curious to know how much you will weight after this trip ;) You are a great storyteller and photographer. Can't wait to read the next post! Thanks for sharing your adventures!
4/26/2019 08:32:08 am
Pia, I decided some years ago to stop weighing myself altogether. If my jeans start getting tight, I cut back a little on richer fare, but otherwise I refuse to worry about it. So much more relaxing this way! As for Rich's remarks, yes, he is a very funny fellow and such good company on a trip like this. Also, he is willing to try anything on the menu. ¡Tiene una buena boca!
4/25/2019 06:57:53 pm
Great Post Karen. I love how you describe things. Feels like I am right there. The photos are wonderful and now I am very hungry.
4/26/2019 08:34:30 am
Glad you like the post, Andrea. It's so much fun being able to share the trip with you this way. Wait till you see the video Rich shot last night of me in the kitchen with the guy cooking snails!
4/25/2019 11:17:15 pm
Great start to the trip, you two! Looks fun, delicious, and comforting, in the best sense of the word. And what's more of an adventure than venturing into a hair salon in a foreign country--and emerging well coiffed! And your food pix are luscious!
4/26/2019 05:58:23 pm
So true, Tobey, it's always a leap of faith trying an unknown hair salon in a foreign country. There weren't even other customers around to check out to see how the work was! But I was lucky and it turned out great. And I'm glad you like the food pix. Everything here is so photogenic; even a casual meal looks like a still life painting.
4/26/2019 03:34:49 am
O yum to all these food pics! And right after eating my boring salmon(which dont really like but trying to stay healthy) and green salad! It all looks soooooo good! And healthy too, except for dessert. Scary looking fish though!haha!
4/26/2019 06:00:12 pm
Being in Crete has given me even greater appreciation with what cooks can do with basic ingredients. Last night we had snails that were superb! More on that in the next post. And yes it is pretty healthy; a serving of snails has just 78 calories and one gram of fat. Maybe it will catch on as a diet food.
4/26/2019 06:01:48 am
Oh the memories. . .sounds like you are having a great time and glad you are experiencing xenia!
4/26/2019 06:00:42 pm
It has been amazing, Jackie. We are looking forward to telling you all about it soon!
4/26/2019 01:12:29 pm
Darn it, you are killing me with the descriptions of that wonderful food.
4/26/2019 06:02:17 pm
I'm finally getting some recipes to post, so you can try replicating the meals at home. More about that soon. And thanks, I really lucked out on that hair salon!
5/20/2019 05:55:31 pm
Crete is just an amazing place - the food, the people, all the wonderful places! I'm going there as much as I can.
5/27/2019 07:53:17 am
You are so lucky to be able to make repeat visits, Amber. Crete is a wonderful island, with such special character. Enjoy your time there!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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