The second part of my little story about Cretan cooking takes on a different flavour. Rather than the modern version of cooking on a stove, with all the utensils and devices we use, we’re going to look back on some of the basics . . . how they have been doing some things for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.
I mentioned that during our visit to Crete, we signed up for Koula’s cooking class, and also some of the other ‘adventure’ tours they offered. One was called ‘In the heart of the mountains’, a taste of the local industries . . . a bakery, an olive oil factory, a winery/wine tasting, a bee-keeper/honey producer, and finally, a visit to some mountain shepherds for a look at Cretan cooking ‘al fresco’, or in the rough.
The mountains they referred to are the beautiful snow-capped “White Mountains” visible all around Vamos, mountains inhabited by ‘real’ Cretans, shepherds we would visit later on this adventure.
On our scheduled day, we showed up at the tourist office and met our guide for the day, George Xatzidakis. A local Cretan, very knowledgeable, a native of the area. For those who read Greek – ΓΕΩΡΓΙΩΣ ΧΑΤΖΗΔΑΚΗΖ. Half of the group joined George in his car, the other half drove with one of the other tourists. We were glad to be in George’s car, as he was a very interesting man, and we picked up a little more local information as we headed out on our rounds.
The first part of our tour took us to a bakery, where George bought some bread, some of which we used at the next stop, soaking up fresh honey which the beekeeper harvested from the hives while we watched. Then on to an olive oil factory, no olives were being pressed at that time of year, but we all had a chance to taste and buy some of the previous year’s harvest. Then on to the winery for a wine tasting, and another chance to spend money.
I am skipping through this part of the tour quite rapidly, as the most important part of the day was coming up. As we drove further up on some narrow roads, higher into the mountains, we approached areas where there were lots of goats grazing the local vegetation. To my mind, those goats had a difficult time finding enough to eat, as they had to be satisfied with small plants, tufts of grass periodically visible in the rocky area, definitely no open pasture land. George had timed our tour to arrive at the goat’s milking time, so eventually, we stopped where a couple of shepherds (Goat-herds?) were rounding up a large herd with the help of some very clever and fast dogs. George parked the car and we all got out were introduced to three very interesting and tough looking men. The oldest, the father apparently had been looking after these goats for years, milking them in a back-breaking, bent-over stance, as he milked over a hundred goats at a time.
The son, a slim, wiry looking individual, had developed a ‘high tech’ approach to this task, and had devised a padded sling that would support him from a tree, slung around his stomach so he could just hang there and milk the goats as they filed past him . . . all this with the help of that very smart dog that kept shuffling the herd around, not allowing anyone to stray, and setting them up in single file to pass through the son’s legs to be milked. We were fascinated with the rapidity with which he worked, spending only seconds on each goat, some with very little milk, some with quite a bit. He managed to do all this while suspended in his sling, with a large milk bucket between his legs, grabbing each goat as it passed, a quick squirt, squirt, squirt, and it was all over. He milked over a hundred goats in such a short time, we were amazed.
Then things got more interesting. He then took the large pail of milk over to the campfire the others had built, and poured the milk through some cheese-cloth into a large pot on the fire to remove any debris that might have fallen into the pail.
In the meantime, they had set up a large table under a tree, spread out a long paper tablecloth and plates, ready for our al fresco meal. As all this was going on, our guide, George, appeared to be directing it all, or at least keeping track of the activities to advise us.
George, a true Cretan, kept a running conversation going with the shepherds in the local dialect, most of which even another Greek would find difficult to understand.
They had also prepared some lamb portions in another pot, which had been boiling for some time. The juices from this were added to a pot of rice for extra flavour.
Pretty soon, as they watched the pot of milk closely while it came up to temperature, they agreed it must be sterilized by now . . . so they poured a small bottle of wine vinegar into the pot of milk to curdle the milk. We learned that another way of doing this is to add the juice of a lemon for the same results. As they kept stirring the pot, it curdled more, eventually they had a large pot of a soft cheese, much like a cottage cheese. This was the campfire version of Myzithra cheese, a soft cheese common throughout Greece.
As this was being finished and served to the table, one of the shepherds, Spyros, had brought out some of his home-made wine for us to try. I can only say it was almost drinkable, at least I didn’t have to chew it, which I’ve had to do with some home-made wines over the years.
We all took our seats around the long table while they served us plates of boiled lamb, rice cooked in a lamb ‘gravy’, fresh Myzithra cheese and the rest of the bread George had bought earlier. Some of our crowd were not fans of some of the food, but I enjoyed every bit, although it could have used more of Koula’s herbs or spices. This lack of herbs in the meal surprised me, as we were surrounded by wild herbs, covering the mountain-side. Most of us drank water, trying not to insult Spyros about his ‘wine’.
The ambience, our Cretan hosts, the rustic methods and the thousands of years of culture behind the meal made the entire adventure a priceless experience.
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