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Saturday, 26 June 2010

Cretan odyssey

I think Mr F and I chose the perfect time to venture to Crete for the first time to see our dear friend and photographer extraordinaire, Thanasis.  The tourist season hadn't really started in earnest and there was room on the beach for us.  Plus, the fruit and vegetables, especially the peaches and nectarines and tomatoes, were at the peak of ripeness and abundance.  We've also been fortunate enough to return to the UK on the one weekend this year when summer has chosen to make a prolonged appearance.

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, we ate some fantastic food in Crete.  Oddly given that it is an island, Crete is not the place to which to travel if you are looking to gorge on seafood - which was something of a disappointment for Mr. F.  Cretans are big on meat, and aren't ashamed to proclaim it from the (almost) rooftops:

Of course, Thanasis knew where to take us for a fishy feast, which was straight to the Amateur Fisherman's Association Restaurant in Heraklion.  It was there that we ate some of the best fried calamari I've ever had.  The cuttlefish in its own ink was deeply dark and savoury; the batches of tiny fried fish were crisp and salty.  We ate all this outside, with a view of an enormous yacht that one of our party valued at 50 million euros, with the sound of a World Cup game/vuvuzelas in the background.

Grilled octopus at the Amateur Fisherman's Association Restaurant

I don't think it's unfair to say that the town of Malia has been ruined by the hoards of young tourists who go there each year to take full advantage of bargain all-inclusive package deals.  The main street is populated by shops selling hideous souvenirs and massive bottles of Bacardi at heavily discounted prices.  The old town retains some of its charm, but we knew that round any corner we could happen upon a group of marauding shirtless (and unfeasibly pale/sunburned) Brits.  Some enterprising bright spark has also decided that supplying the aforementioned hoards with quad bikes is a great idea, which means that the streets roar with the sound of revving engines and whooping passengers riding pillion.

We went to Malia with the intention of going for lunch at Kalesma, a taverna recommended on several blogs.  But when we arrived we discovered that it doesn't open until 4pm, a fact which all of our sources neglected to mention.  The menu focuses on food from Northern Greece, and looked promising.  Unfortunately, we were too hungry to hold out so decided to walk to a taverna that Mr. F and Thanasis had sampled a couple of days earlier. It's called The Blue Sea and you will find it at the easternmost end of the beach, close to the archaeological site.  The taverna has a standard menu (boasting the usual Greek salad, souvlaki and taramasalata) and a shorter list of daily specials.  Our stand out dish, from the daily menu, was a plate of courgette flowers filled with a mixture of rice, artichokes, onions and lemon juice and served with a big dollop of tzatziki on the side.  It was a perfectly balanced plate of food.

Another Cretan friend took us to O Kafenes tou Kayabi, an atmospheric restaurant with the friendliest and most hospitable of proprietors and staff.  The walls are covered with an eclectic mix of theatre posters and photographs of famous communists, and one gets the feeling that the decor has remained unchanged since at least 1968.  We ate there a traditional omelette of courgettes and potatoes.  There is something special about the potatoes that they grow on Crete (I wonder if they give them massages and feed them beer in the manner of Wagyu cattle?); they are more flavoursome and potato-y than any others I have tasted and they make perfect chips.  This omelette was a fine showcase for them in fried format.

In addition to our meals out, we were also invited to our friends' home for some wonderful sushi, and were even allowed to participate in the rolling of some vegetable maki.


Mr F and I decided to (try to) repay our hosts' hospitality by cooking a vegetarian Indian meal.  Given the Greeks' fondness for meat and scepticism of heavily spiced food we weren't too sure how this would go down, but we were up for the challenge.  Cooking Indian food with great vegetables, especially with the fantastically ripe and flavourful tomatoes, produced its rewards, but I have to confess that finding fresh ginger and canned chickpeas in Heraklion was a test of my patience until, that is, we happened upon a small supermarket run by a Bengali man.  The meal went down well I think, and the evening marked a fittingly fun and raki-fuelled end to our stay.


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