A TASTE OF IMMORTALITY

Seduced by the promise of eternal youth, Peter Cunningham packs his saucepans and embarks on a quest to discover the culinary secrets of Crete
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IT IS NEAR mid-winter in a Dublin restaurant. Our party, having eaten and drank for five hours, turns its attention to matters of philosophy. Of mortality, to be exact. Nothing reminds us more of mortality than winter. A fact is floated out, like an exotic fruit: people in Crete regularly live to 100 and beyond. Pull the other one, we say. One hundred is a number I expect only to see on the door of a house. No, no, the bearer of this news insists. Hippocrates himself recommended Crete as the place to convalesce. Look at the statistics from the International Health Organisation. Crete has the lowest rate of death from coronary thrombosis in the Western world. I have a vision from the depths of the Irish mid-winter: of olive groves, of eternal youth. I make myself a promise. Months later I am on my way to Crete.

Crete is an island 162 miles long, 37 miles across at its widest point and is dominated by three serious mountain ranges. Lying nearly 200 miles south of Athens in the Sea of Crete, roughly between Greece and Turkey, it was the setting in 3000BC for the flowering of the great Minoan civilisation. Part of the Roman Empire up to the 8th cen-tury, Crete was sold to the Republic of Venice in 1204, fell to Turkey in 1669 and became part of the Greek state, its current position, in 1913.

My dive into Cretan longevity is in the hands of Katerina Hamilaki, a delightful 40-something mother of three and tireless proponent of the Cretan way of life in which she grew up.

"What do you want to do?" she asks.

In London it was 12 degrees; here in Sissi, it's 27 degrees outside the kitchen and the ice in my pina- colada is in meltdown, although it's only 10 in the morning. I reply: "Katerina, I want you to plunge me into the cauldron of your kitchen, so that I can forge in the smithy of my soul the unrecorded recipes of your race."

Katerina fixes me with a worried look. We get into the car and drive towards Knossos.

Greek mythology is very much part of people's daily lives here. Zeus was born and is buried on Crete, according to legend. Away from the coastal tourist strips, the countryside into which we're heading is a tapestry of bleached fields and olive groves - largely unchanged from how it would have looked 5,000 years ago. Knossos crawls with red-faced tourists and shifty-eyed hawkers. The central archaeological site of the Minoan civilisation, Knossos, was discovered in 1900 by English archaeologist Arthur Evans, who promptly decided to rebuild and repaint the place. Before they stopped him, Evans had managed to reconstruct the Knossos of today using modern materials. We pass by. Too crowded. Maybe we'll drop in later when the riff-raff has gone home.

It's as if there's an active fault-line just south of Knossos: five minutes later we're driving on empty roads through the kind of countryside you expect when you read the Greek classics. At 11.30am, we're in the town of Archanes, roughly 10km into the mountains south of Heraklion. Katerina was at school here and reckons we deserve a rest at a shaded table in Miriofito, a cafe in the main square. We're the only customers, and are served sage tea by the owner, Giorgio Eleferagis. His family name means "liberty".

He tells me that in 1885 the future King Edward VII came here and was served by his grandfather. George's son Minas brings out two dishes, each with a glazed fig in syrup, and teaspoons, and two glasses of iced water. We're paying for the tea, but the fig dish is a gift, part of an ancient tradition of hospitality in which visitors are served a sweet fruit like this in syrup. Giorgio is interested in the English word "fig" - it's like the German, feige, which he remembers from the war. We eat as Giorgio and Minas sit like two owls, watching us.

TEA OF FASCOMILIA LEAVES

SAGE TEA

Pick half a dozen leaves of sage. Run them under a cold tap. Put them in a teapot. Fill with boiling water.

GLIKO TOU KOUTALIOU

FIGS IN SYRUP

Make a thick syrup with sugar, lemon and vanilla powder. Bottle figs in the syrup for at least two days. Serve on a small plate with a teaspoon and a glass of iced water, in a shaded garden.

KATERINA'S parents live higher in the mountains, in the village of Katalagari. Her love of cooking comes from Joanna, her mother. Her father, Dimitris, is a farmer of olives and vines - more than four hectares in all, a big farm. Dimitris also keeps pigs, rabbits and hens. It goes without saying that he makes his own olive oil, wine and raki, the clear, ubiquitous spirit made from whole grapes.

Katerina's mother has a snack laid on. Dolmodakia, vine leaves stuffed with rice, ladovrechto, brown bread softened with olive oil, served with tomatoes and feta cheese with oregano, and anthotyros, dry goat's cheese of the area. Dimitris' wine is a pale rose in colour, sharp on the palate at first.

Katerina wants to start a cookery school here for people wishing to learn the secrets of Cretan cooking. A week here in the twisting streets and hills of Katalagari, soft, breezes, delicious hours spent sampling the local concoctions ... school was never like this.

DOLMODAKIA

24 washed vine leaves

olive oil

225g/8oz white rice

half a cooked onion, chopped

parsley, to taste, chopped

pinch of cinnamon

Marinate the vine leaves in olive oil.

Take the vine leaves from the marinade, fold them out and drape them on the rim of a bowl. Cook the rice, then add the onion, parsley and cinnamon. Mix. Hold open the vine leaf, ribs up, add a good pinch of flavoured rice.

Parcel by folding first right hand side of the leaf, then left hand side, then roll closed. Place stuffed vine leaf on a dish.

LADOVRECHTO

1 loaf of wholemeal bread

virgin olive oil

225g/8oz tomatoes, sliced

225g/8oz feta cheese

oregano

Cut the loaf of bread into slices. Cook the slices in the oven, set at the lowest heat, for six hours.

Take a shallow dish and cover the bottom with virgin olive oil. Place the bread in the dish and soak until the oil is all absorbed. Mix together the sliced tomatoes and feta cheese. Add a pinch or two of oregano. Spread the tomato and feta over the bread. Both the above are good as starters, especially with little shots of raki.

IT'S THE third day of this great adventure into immortality - and all I've done so far is eat and drink. Katerina decides that she and I should go to the market and buy the ingredients for a meal, then prepare and cook it.

Neapoli is a town in the foothills of the Dikti mountains, 15 minutes west of the port of Agios Nikolaos. A market takes place every Thursday morning.

I like Neapoli instantly. Fierce-looking Greek Orthodox priests swish along the pavements. Men sprawl in the chairs of cafes over thimbles of Turkish coffee. Across the street in a bakery, the baker and his assistant are arranging pencil-thin lines of dough in deep baking trays.

The market stalls are set out early to avoid the heat. I'm told to select only the small, wild cucumber (aguratia ipethria), only pale and spotted courgettes (kolokithia), and the smaller and stronger bunches of garlic that are particular to Crete. I can't resist the urge to handle greying, waxen hives of mountain goat cheese (anthotyros). Katerina spends five minutes buying a chicken (kotopoulo) complete with head and feet, and 10 minutes in conversation with the vendor of artichokes (aginares). This last transaction is punctuated by bellows of mirth and draws a little circle of men and women from the other stalls.

What's going on, I inquire?

"He says that the women are like aginares," Katerina explains. "Everywhere you touch you get hurt."

And what are the men like? I ask. Katerina relays the question.

"As soft and as sweet as vasilicos (basil)," the artichoke farmer replies, his brown eyes twinkling.

An ancient van is driving up and down the road, its driver bawling from a loudspeaker. This is the standard way in which fish is sold in Crete. Katerina purchases about half a kilo of soupies (squid). Neapoli is at the foot of the legendary Lasithi Plateau, once the granary of the Venetians, so I can't resist suggesting that we take a spin up there. Katerina is unfussed. No one I've met in Crete is in a hurry.

The trip takes one and a half hours, up into the deep, mountainous interior. A never-ending series of hairpin bends and corkscrew roads rising through scoured, barren mountains. No life beyond the odd stray goat, outcast crows and the eagles, of course, that soar over their peak-top eyries, their eyes X-raying the terrain for shrews and rabbits. We climb. In some villages it might be November, such is the chill from the low cloud. We put up the windows and turn the heating on. Then at 5,600ft we breast yet another rise and behold a scene that would have warmed Moses's heart as he fled from Egypt. A vast plain stretches beneath us, lush and green, cultivated in every last square metre, a vernal cornucopia, irrigated over millennia by the melting snowcaps. We get out. Birdsong and the chiming bells of goats float upwards like a song of thanksgiving. Everywhere must have a heaven, even the land of immortality; this is Crete's.

We roll down into the hamlet of Mesa Lasithi and get out to stretch our legs. An old man is sitting in the shade of his doorway. He beckons us over. His name is Dimitrio, he tells us, and he's 96. Dimitrio's handshake is firm, his hands nut-brown, his eyes bright. Nathalie, Dimitrio's wife, is only 78. She brings us out chairs, then returns with dakos, dried bread the colour of Dimitrio's hands, and a plate of small, black, sweet olives, and a small decanter of raki. Dimitrio pours glasses of raki. It's my first of the day, his third. Nathalie makes the bread, picks the olives. Dimitrio made the raki.

"He was a strong man," nods Theseo, their son, a mere 61. He places his hand on the biceps of his right arm and flexes his forearm. "Still is."

This old man had already left school when Emperor Franz Josef was assassinated. Nathalie doesn't sit with us, but continues to work in the kitchen - from which she now emerges carrying a plate of sweet homemade biscuits. This is exactly what I dreamt of last winter, this very moment. But Katerina is getting worried about her chicken in the heat. Nathalie puts the remainder of the biscuits into a paper bag and kisses me goodbye.

PAXIMADAKIA GLICA

SWEET BISCUITS

250ml/8fl oz olive oil

225g/8oz sugar

250ml/8fl oz fresh orange juice

1 teaspoon of baking soda

1 soupspoon of baking powder

1kg/2lb 4oz of white flour

Mix the oil and the sugar together well. Then mix the orange juice with the soda powder, and add them to the oil and sugar. Add the baking powder to the flour, then slowly add the oil until the whole is a hardish paste.

Make sticks of the paste each a few inches long. Place in a pan and bake in the hot oven (400F/200C/Gas 6) for half an hour - until brown. Reduce the heat and bake for a further hour until dry.

Serve with coffee or as a biscuit to go with ice-cream.

IT'S A SHAME to spend a week in Crete and not to go to the seaside, so it's been arranged that we do our cooking in Elounda. This is, in fact, an upmarket tourist destination 10 minutes north of Agios Nikolaos, a favoured haunt of Greek cabinet ministers and power brokers. We're headed for the Hotel Ilion, a family hotel in Elounda, run by Christos Nicholeau, or Mr Nicholeau as we will call him; this is still a very formal country, you don't call people Christy or Nick until invited to do so.

The Hotel Ilion is on a steep hillside overlooking the bay of Mirambelou. Amazing views are the norm. The chef is a great big, cuddly man named Vardas, whose ability to dice onions at speed is hypnotising. He has acquired a pot of brown snails that Atsalakis, his assistant, is rinsing in a colander.

We're going to concentrate on three dishes: the squid, the chicken and the snails. I'm fascinated by the last named of these projects, Salingaria, Crete's most popular dish. Vardas has bought the snails from a man who collected them this morning from the nearby fields. They must be boiled alive to persuade them out from their shells. You can use garlic, but today we're going to cook these little chaps in tomato puree.

SALINGARIA

SNAILS

450g/1lb snails

125ml/4fl oz olive oil

tomato puree

salt and pepper

Wash the snails and boil them in water for around 20 minutes. Take a deep pan and add the olive oil, tomato puree and salt and pepper to taste. Strain the water off the snails and decant them into the pan. Stir them around for a bit. Serve as a main course to friends with a proven sense of humour.

MEANWHILE, I've been browning the dissected chicken in a hot pan with olive oil and chopped onions. Katerina is slicing up the okra, ladies fingers.

KOTOPOULO ME BAMIES

CHICKEN WITH OKRA (LADIES FINGERS)

1 medium chicken

250ml/8fl oz olive oil

1 onion

900g/2lb ripe tomatoes

450g/1lb okra

salt and pepper

Cut the chicken into pieces, brown them in the oil with the chopped onion. Add the tomatoes after skinning and chopping them. Add salt and pepper to taste, and a little water.

When cooked and tender, remove the chicken pieces with a ladle.

In the meantime, prepare the ladies fingers as follows: wash them thoroughly under running water, then rinse them in a cup of lemon juice. Boil them in water for 15 minutes.

Combine the chicken pieces with the ladies fingers. Serve to applause.

OUTSIDE, above the sea, we sit and drink our way to be 100.

And the squid? This turns out to be my favourite - both tender and chewy.

SOUPIES ME MARATHO

SQUID WITH FENNEL

900g/2lb squid

225g/8oz fennel

250ml/8fl oz olive oil

1 sliced onion

500ml/16fl oz water

salt and pepper

Clean the squid and cut into pieces. Place in a pan with the water and cook on a gentle heat until the water is gone. Add the oil and onion. Mix well. Leave for two minutes. Add fennel and one more cup of water. Add salt and pepper. Cook in a medium oven for 30 minutes.

Serve immediately. Preferably to background music of balalaikas.

! Katerina Hamilaki runs traditional cooking holidays in Crete. To find out more, contact her, c/o Crete Property Consultants on 0171 328 1829 or fax 0171 328 8209. The Ilion Hotel in Elounda, Crete: 00 30 841 41 769, fax 00 30 841 41 781

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