Blog 48 13/05/2017 Crete: History and a Feast Fit for the Gods in Rethymno.
Crete: History and a Feast Fit for the Gods in Rethymno.
One of the joys of research is to find a place filled with history and tantalizing food at the same time. Whilst researching for The Embroiderer I spent a few weeks in Crete. The final two weeks were in Rethymno and then Hania. Unforgettable experiences and I vowed to go back but as yet never have. Food plays an important part in The Embroiderer and at the back I give a recipe – Sevkiye’s Pilav. This is the first time I have written a blog and included a full recipe – one based on the ancient traditions of cooking with only the ingredients that would have been available at the time. The following is an extract from notes made at the time.
Mysterious and evocative, the old quarter of Rethymno is a place of light and colour. Its labyrinthine narrow streets are an exotic fusion of ornate Venetian loggias and graceful Ottoman houses interspersed with fountains and minarets. In the heat of the afternoon sun, the dappled light dances against stone walls cascading with vibrant orange, purple and mauve bougainvillea and lush green vines creating shade for outdoor tables that nestle discreetly along the pathways. When the sun sets, the mood changes again. This time the quiet streets become veiled in delicate and transparent colours. Bathed in a warm glow, the interplay of light on the crumbling stucco walls creates an abstract patchwork of water-coloured tints giving the area a dreamlike quality which brings to mind the seductive painting of Orientalist painters. Delicate, paper-thin bougainvillea petals have fallen silently onto the pathways and the white linen tablecloths. Picking up a handful of freshly fallen petals, I am amazed at how fine and transparent each one is yet how startling their colour becomes when clustered together.
I am in the final days of my trip around Crete and have splashed out to stay in a wonderful hotel with all the atmosphere I seek on this trip. The Hotel Veneto does not disappoint. I fell in love with its arched stone doorway and as soon as I stepped inside, I could see it was a place with an appealing past. Tall, dark and strikingly dramatic, the owner, Kyria Maria, exudes warmth and passion. In another time she could have been another Bouboulina or Hariklia Daskalaki, the Cretan heroine of the fateful event which took place at Moni Arkadi during the times the Turks ruled the island. Today she is my host and proudly talks to me about the history of the hotel and her family.
The oldest section of the hotel dates back seven hundred years when it was the Monastery of Santa Maria. Extensive changes were made during the mid 15th c and early 16th c when the Venetians extended the building as a club for their officers. The great military architect, Sammicheli, who designed the thick outer walls against invasions from the Turks, was responsible for the extensions at the time. During the 19th c it was bought by the Turk, Bey Risvan, for his sister. Bey Risvan was reputed to be one of the richest men in Crete at the time. Kyria Maria leads me through a low narrow door to what is now the wine cellar.
“This fountain and well were once used by the ladies of the harem. It was here that the women would wash before being escorted by a slave or eunuch to the Pasha. They would also use this room as their hammam,“ she said, pointing to a stone trough. The thick stone walls throw off a cool chill, ideal for the fine wines that are now housed there. She takes me back to the old dining room where she shows me a black and white photograph in an aged gilt frame on the wall and continues her story.
“This is my grandfather,” she says proudly. “After the Turks left, he was given this house in recognition for services to Greece.”
I study the handsome man in the photograph. He sits, hands on his thighs and at the same time gathering the end of his thick cape, proudly looking into the lens of the camera. He wears his typically Cretan baggy, knee-length trousers and sturdy knee-high black boots. An opened waistcoat reveals a hand-made shirt and the characteristic black sash is wrapped around his waist. On his head is the Cretan flat hat that clings and drapes over his short dark hair. His skin is wonderful: smooth and flawless, typical of so many Cretan men, and great care has been taken with his finely manicured moustache which shapes upwards ending in a point. His eyes are penetrating, warm and sensitive. These are not the eyes of a man that has experienced the horrors of war. They are the eyes of a poet or a balladeer; of someone that sees the happiness in life, not the tragedy
“My grandfather participated alongside other Cretans in the Macedonian rebellion of 1903-1908 against the Turks,” Kyria Maria continues. “They were terrible times.”
We talk about other Cretan heroes and the brave palikaria of Sfakia, whose courage and determination for freedom and independence was relentless. I look at her eyes and then at her grandfathers. They are similar. Both portray strength and softness, and like him, it is hard to judge her age. Being brought up to believe that death is preferable to a life of slavery is so deeply embedded in the Cretan psyche that it ceases to harden them. These are tragedies that life throws and they have learnt to rise above them.
As is always the case in Greece, the conversation inevitably turns to food and over the next few days, I sample her delicacies. She is famous for her home-cooked breakfast buffets and I indulge myself with gusto.
“Cooking is one of our passions,” she say as she adds a freshly fried zucchini fritter onto my already over-flowing plate. “I cook the breakfast and my son takes care of the wine and the restaurant”
Someone else calls out “Have you tried her special Cretan omelette? “ Another guest adds. “It’s the best here.”
“And her loukoumathes are to die for,” says another, just as a platter of piping hot loukoumathes head my way served with mountain honey and perfumed with a sprinkling of cinnamon. As always, my notebook is with me and I make a note of what I am eating – a liitle rigani here, extra cinnamon or cumin there and anything else which will help me recreate this banquet when I return to Australia. Over the next few days, I explore the area around Rethymno, lured back each evening to the tasty food of The Veneto. It is on the last night that I taste what has since become a part of my own food repertoire at home. I have come to learn that Kyria Maria’s son is well known for cooking authentic dishes based on ancient recipes. His Cretan Lamb is one of them. Rolled around a filling of cheese, honey, pinenuts and sultanas, it has been wrapped in vine leaves and cooked until it is mouth-wateringly tender. This ancient combination of sweet and sour bursts in my mouth, a symphony of flavours, each one complimenting the other. It is a masterpiece, complimented to perfection with a bold Cretan red wine. I comment on the excellent dish.
“The lamb comes from Sfakia,” the waiter says, his chest bursting with pride. ‘It’s the best in Crete.”
I wonder to myself if there is anything that doesn’t come from Sfakia that is not memorable. The waiter brings me a complimentary bowl of watermelon spoon-fruit and a small carafe of tsikoudia – Cretan raki. Served in a cut-glass crystal bowl, the tiny transparent white and rose-tinted jewels of watermelon are a fragrant palette cleanser after my rich meal.
Thoroughly satisfied, I retire to my room and collapse onto the bed. The silence of the night is broken only by the sound of water as it trickles from the Venetian fountain in the garden.
My version of Cretan Lamb a la Veneto.
1 shoulder or loin of lamb as for rolled lamb
1/2 cup of raisins soaked in warm water
Salt and pepper.
- Combine ricotta and drained raisins with honey to combine.
- Open lamb out. Season with salt and pepper.
- Spread spinach leaves over the lamb, making sure that lamb is covered.
- Spread the cheese filling along the centre of the lamb.
- Roll lamb, making sure that filling is secure.
- Cover rolled lamb in drained and washed preserved vine leaves, covering completely.
- Tie securely with string making sure the vine leaves will not fall away.
- Cook for 10 mins at 200c and then at 175c until cooked. This takes approximately two hours but depends on the size of the roll. Use the weight for time ratio for roast lamb.
Serve accompanied with sautéed potatoes and a fragrant sauce made from rendered fat with a hint of mustard.
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.
You can order from all good bookshops and online retailers.
Purchase directly from the publisher here: www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk
Published by SilverWood Books Ltd.