Yes, we did use spirits while making small delicious cheese pies, called kalitsounia, in a traditional hillside village of western Crete, the largest of the islands of Greece. Raki – the famous Cretan alcohol, a potent local brew made from grape skins and stems left from the distillation of wine – adds flavour to the pastry. Lacing our cooking course with liberal glasses of village wine also helped produce happy cookers.
Koula Barydakis, our ebullient chef instructor, began our local cooking lessons by pouring a shot of raki for herself and her students as we toasted the traditional Cretan diet, one of the healthiest in the world, which is a quality Barydakis makes clear in her book, Foods of Crete: Traditional Recipes from the Healthiest People in the World.
Cretan Cuisine Through the Eyes of a Local
“We Cretans eat abundantly but simply, consuming much olive oil, olives, seasonal fruits and vegetables including wild mountain greens (horta), yogurt, cheese, lentils and beans,” Barydakis explained to us. “We eat meat once a week and on special occasions. We always drink a lot of mountain tea (malotera, good for the stomach) while eating bread and olives.” It doesn’t hurt that the food is routinely flavoured with native herbs like oregano, thyme and sage, and that red wine commonly accompanies lunch and dinner.
When it comes to food, Barydakis even proudly proclaims that Crete has practised sustainable living without using the name. Raki is derived from the residue of grape pressings. Most fruits and vegetables consumed are seasonal, not imported from faraway places. Crops are grown naturally without fertilisers and pesticides, just as they have been for generations. In Barydakis’s village, goats make short work of any scraps of food. Chickens are free range and their fresh eggs contain bright orange yolks. Even the scavenger street cats of Crete are part of the solution!
Modest Origins, Modest Practice
Barydakis recalls how her parents sent her to hairdressing school to learn how to earn a living unaware she also attended cooking school, where she refined the culinary skills learned from her mother and grandmother. At 16, she left Crete to travel abroad but spent most of her new life as a chef in Toronto, Canada’s Greektown before her “blessed island” lured her home again.
Now she conducts her cooking classes under a patch of cobalt blue sky in an old olive oil press building renovated 10 years ago in Vamos, a traditional Cretan village. In case of rare inclement weather, she moves to a house.
During our session, we chopped, grated, mixed, pressed, formed – and dined on – rooster with Cretan pasta, kalitsounia pies (a sweet cheese pastry), grape leaves with rice (dolmades), zucchini fritters, Greek salad and garlic beets with yogurt salad washed down with liberal amounts of village wine.
A Greek Island Full of Grace
Cretan cooking is not the only lesson Barydakis taught us. She is an exuberant ambassador for her island.
“Crete is a beautiful island filled with bountiful food.’ she enthused. “The wild, natural beauty of the mountains and the ocean make you think that when God created Crete, He created all the beauty the human mind can imagine. The land is so rich with olive, lemon and orange trees, and gardens, the smell alone can make you drunk. The wide variety of herbs and flowers from ancient times found on Crete is still used to cure pains and diseases. Writers, explorers, scientists and tourists all come to Crete to see it, study it, eat the tasty foods, drink the raki and get high on its immortal wines. The people of Crete live simply and always win your heart.”
Barydakis lives her philosophy. Following my lesson, our weekends in Crete soon featured Saturdays with Barydakis. Each week we met for coffee in a different place of Chania, the ancient city on the island’s western shore, after which she took us on a leisurely walking tour to show us excellent local restaurants, and markets, and pointed out where to purchase good local wines. She led us to special churches, monasteries and gave us a thumbnail sketch of Cretan feast holidays. Our education included the island’s Second World War history and how it affected her village and family.
A Dish to Savour: Cheese and Spinach Pie
4 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup raki (Barydakis says white wine or lemon juice can be used instead)
a pinch of salt
warm water (as much as needed)
½ cup olive oil
Mix the ingredients and knead them well. The pastry must be a little soft. Leave it to ‘rest’ for half an hour, covered with a towel.
The Cheese stuffing
Equal amounts of ricotta and feta cheese
chopped sprigs of fresh mint
Mix all the ingredients together and place on the pastry as below. Roll the dough until it is not more than 1-2 mm thick and then cut it into round shapes of about 8 cm in diameter. Put in a little stuffing and fold in a half moon shape. Seal the edges with a fork. Fry in hot olive oil. When they are browned on both sides, remove and serve.
Kali oreksi, enjoy your meal!