Cretan Cooking – Part 1

Vamos Village

Vamos Village?  Where’s that you say?  Well, before we continue with my subject of Cretan Cooking, I’ll expand a little on where we are. 

First, Crete is the largest island in Greece, blessed with an incredible richness of sunshine, history, culture and fantastic food.  Inhabited by the Minoans for centuries, preceded and followed by many other civilizations, resulting in an interesting background for any kind of vacation you’d like.  It is the only place I know where you can kick over a rock on the ground and discover another Minoan ruin!

 The Cretans are a lovely people, but very tough and resilient, proud of their heritage and culture.  Even the Greeks themselves think of Crete as being a ‘different’ country.  It is a subject I could talk about for hours . . . and who knows, maybe some more stories?

The Main Square, Vamos
The Main Square, Vamos

“Vamos Traditional Village” is a small village on the western end of Crete, fairly close to the more popular Chania, the largest city on the west end.  The local tourist office refers to themselves as the ‘Traditional Village’, because of the way they operate  Tourism in Vamos is unique, a destination, and an incredible example of what can be achieved when a few people get together to try something different.  From what I have learned, it all started years ago, like many Greek villages, where the young people left the village to move to Athens or some other big city in the world to find work, advance their education, or whatever reason.  The problem this creates is first, many do not return, their houses deteriorate because the old folks cannot maintain them, and generally the entire village descends into a spiral of decay.

Ready for the class
Ready for the class

I’m not sure how it happened, but I think one day, someone said “Wait a minute!  We have all these empty houses, old but solid, a taverna down the street, some shops going broke . . . why don’t we fix up that old house and invite some tourists to visit our village and experience some traditional Greek life?  The village already had lots of raw materials, stone, wood, plaster . . . and also had some of the best builders and crafts people in the business.  So these old shells . . . solid shells of houses experienced a resurrection, a phoenix-like rising from the ashes to become beautiful houses, apartments, and stand-alone villas very desirable to almost any tourist.  They installed new kitchens, plumbing, water, showers, toilets, and sewer systems.  Some went all the way and installed swimming pools, others had two floors, many had wonderful outdoor patios decked with furniture and plants.  The interiors were decorated in traditional style, either with antique furniture, or traditional furniture made by local craftsmen.

When I first read about his project before we first visited Vamos, I thought that this must be the best idea ever!  What better way to attract the young people back to the village and develop a sustainable tourist business?  Some young people we met at the tourist office had left to go to the UK or some other location to study tourism.  Some returned with university degrees in tourism or ecology or some other related field.  Of course they returned to their family village to run the now thriving tourism business.  The Vamos Village Tourist Office operates under the mantra of ‘Sustainable Tourism’, as dictated in the Cape Town Declaration of 2002.

When we decided to try it a few years go, we talked my long-lost niece Jackie and her husband Martyn into joining us from the UK for the experience.  We met them at Gatwick and continued on to Iraklion in the middle of Crete.  After a few days decompression in that area, Martyn drove us out to Vamos, where we checked into the tourist office and were shown our lovely accommodation for the next week. We also signed up for some of the additional traditional  experiences they offered.  One was a Cretan Cooking class, run by a native Cretan from that area, who was also a Canadian who had cooked in Toronto for a few years. 

Our Chef, Koula
Our Chef, Koula

Her name was Koula Barydakis, an expert on the cuisine, history and botany of Cretan Cooking.  A wonderful woman, always smiling, very much at home in the kitchen!  I mention botany, because that was how she started her classes, showing us all the herbs they used in their cooking . . . not in little plastic envelopes, but on their original stalks, large branches of rosemary, dill, mint, oregano (rigani in Greek), parsley, Greek mountain tea and a selection of other wild herbs found in Crete.  As she passed the herbs around, she told us the names, the health benefits of each and where it is normally found.  She expounded to great lengths the benefits of olive oil in all its forms, on food, cooking, as a skin cream and how good it was for your heart.  We were about to learn more about the use of these herbs during the course.  Koula also uses Raki in her cooking!

Jackie and Martyn Young, our two UK pastry chefs
Jackie and Martyn Young, our two UK pastry chefs

Our cooking class consisted of nine people, two from Canada (Diana & I), two from the UK (my niece, Jackie and Martyn), three from Denmark, and two from Florida in the USA.  The class was great, with just enough involvement and preparation to make us feel like we’d actually accomplished something. 

Lamb simmering in the pot
Lamb simmering in the pot

 While some chunks of lamb legs braised in some olive oil in a large pot, one of us cut up some green beans, one shredded carrots, others chopped onions, tomatoes, egg plants.  Jackie dove in to mix the dough for the ‘Kalitsounia pies’.  Kalitsounia (Καλιτσούνια) are small pastry pies, similar to the ubiquitous Tiropita or cheese pies all over Greece.  These are the Cretan version, smaller, with a filling of a soft cheese (Mysithra) and mint, sometimes a sweeter version is made with honey in the filling.  Of course, Raki was used in this pastry, and wine was served throughout the class, an important ingredient!. 

Another delicious item were the Zucchini fritters, delicious patties of grated zucchini mixed with most of the grated veggies I just mentioned.  We’ve tried this at home with great success, especially if you have a mechanical grater (a lot easier), zucchini, onions, carrots, garlic (of course!), fresh dill, mint, parsley, sometimes with a little feta, and eggs to hold it all together.

Zucchini fritters
Κολοκνθοκεφφτέδες  (kolokithokeftedes) – Zucchini fritters

For the dolmades, we became instant experts at folding grape leaves into little packages filled with filled with a mixture of rice, onions, dill, parsley, and mint.  Our zucchini fritters, garlic beets and sour cream added to the meal.  The lamb in the pot was simmered with tomatoes and tomato sauce for about one and one-half hours.

Dig in and ejoy!
Dig in and enjoy!

Eventually, the cooking was over, and we were rewarded with a fantastic meal served on a long table, while we all told the others where we were from and what we did for a living – a good discussion all around as we enjoyed the fruits of our labour!


Stay tuned for Part 2 – “Cretan Cooking – in the White Mountains”

See how it’s done in the mountains, by the Cretan Shepherds,

as they’ve been doing it for thousands of years!

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