Crete: Island of herbs and honey

Cretans are masters at taking a few simple ingredients and turning them into something magical, says Fiona Faulkner.

This is a journey inspired by a host of conversations – with food bloggers, a chef and a master of wine – each of which convinced me to seek out the gastronomic appeal of an island I'd never considered to be much of a gourmet haven.

In search of inspiration for my new cookbook, I was online. And, while navigating the culinary triumphs of Spain and deciphering the merits of Scandi-cool, I landed (in an internet sort of way) in Crete. Daniel Noll, a nomadic writer who blogs at uncorneredmarket.com, told me that Crete is an island for epicureans seeking new kicks. He and his wife, Audrey, first visited a year ago – and what they noticed was a distinct difference between Cretan food and the archetypal Mediterranean diet. Basically, if you're a vegetarian, you've struck lucky.

"Traditional Cretan cuisine is based on cheese, grains, fruits and vegetables – the freshness and quality of which is incredible," he said. "Therefore even a traditional rustic dish such as dakos (Cretan dried bread with mashed tomatoes, olive oil, oregano and crumbled cheese) tastes utterly decadent. And the olive oil is among the best we've ever tasted."

As it turned out, my own road to Damasta, among other towns and villages, was also an education in Greek wine, which according to some is a sleeping giant. I was curious to know more.

Alun Griffiths, wine director at Berry Bros and Rudd, has selected a small number of Cretan wines to champion. "People need to get used to the idea that there is some seriously good wine coming out of Crete. They've been making it for over 2,000 years using native and historic varieties. It may seem to be an unusual choice – but I recall years ago there being a great deal of snobbery against Australian wines."

Tim Maddams, the former head chef at River Cottage who now runs the cookery school and catering business Green Sauce, honeymooned on Crete. He credits this trip as providing ongoing recipe inspiration. "The people of Crete have a talent for taking a few fine ingredients and doing very little with them [and] that somehow improves them beyond measure; it's a trick many British chefs would do well to learn."

I wanted to stay nearer the west of the island, where the coast is pockmarked by small coves as opposed to dense stretches of beach. Here, my research told me, there is also a thriving micro-culture of foodies. I based myself at Villa Kontis in the hilltop village of Maza, 90 minutes' drive west of Heraklion. The owner, Georgos, rescued the building from ruin, converting it into the spacious four-bedroomed traditional stone villa it now is, replete with modern amenities including Wi-Fi, a dishwasher and a large swimming pool in the pretty landscaped garden with views that unfold towards the White Mountains. It is both peaceful and private. Georgos, who lives nearby, also regularly shares with guests the spoils of his organic vegetable plot along with any number of eggs from his hens.

In Maza, the air is steeped with the aroma of the wild herbs that are integral to Cretan cuisine, with more than 1,000 indigenous varieties. A five-minute walk into the village proper, past warm vines and orange groves, led me to Costas Caferion, a traditional taverna run by three generations of the same family. There's no menu and no set prices. I ate what had been prepared that day – five courses including stuffed grape leaves picked by Costas's elderly mother. Twice I was asked if I felt the estimated bill was reasonable. (It was about €8, including deliciously ice-cold raki and generous quantities of wine.)

Beyond the quiet charms of Maza are a number of attractions for the hungry traveller. Head to the Kali Kardia taverna in the village of Kournas, five miles away, for an impressive serving of galaktoboureko, a traditional baked custard known here as "cake". (Imagine a fragrant crème caramel wrapped in filo.) Meanwhile, the riverside village of Vrysses is an ideal pit stop for lunch, with ancient plane trees providing ample shade. I was keen to visit the "cheese factory" shop to sample the mizithra, a deliciously sweet and creamy lamb's milk cheese, perfect with either salad for dinner or honey as dessert.

I was also looking forward to my visit to Vamos, a small town with an intriguing back story. As younger generations moved away, the town's buildings and livelihoods had fallen into disrepair. In 1995, however, the Vamos Preservation Society was set up to revive the community, its architecture and traditions. This town is now thriving, with a local art scene and great food. I'd highly recommend Bloumosifis, a pretty taverna at the foot of the hilly main street, with a traditional wood-fired oven. The pork served here is tender and infused with woody herbs; the chestnut stew with mushrooms is delicious.

In Vamos I'd enrolled on Koula Barydakis' cookery workshop located in the Old Fabrica, a former olive press. During the day I picked herbs to make tea, gorged on pungent thyme honey and assisted in recreating rooster with herbs, courgette fritters, a spiced semolina cake, plus perfect stuffed vine leaves. I also learnt the Cretan tradition of grating veg. (Even tomatoes and onions are prepared this way.) At dusk, we ate what we had made.

I asked Koula what makes Cretan food so special. The answer? Olive oil. "People don't realise that we consume more olive oil per person here than any other country in the Mediterranean – three times more than Italy, for example. Here it's considered as nutritious as a mother's milk. Because of the economic crisis, there is less money. But nearly everyone owns some land, so we are a self-sufficient culture – for the basics at least. But the basics include olive oil, the freshest of vegetables, and wine. The economy has made us appreciate what we have even more."

The next day I headed to the family-run Dourakis Winery in Alikambos. Here, tastings were free and plentiful: I stocked up on vibrant, fruity reds and aromatic, full bodied whites, each costing little more than €5 a bottle. However, my favourite stop was in Rethymno, on the north coast, 30 minutes from Maza. The island's revolving-door policy of occupation – first by Arab pirates in the eighth century, then the Venetians, then the Ottomans – is reflected in Rethymno's opulent architectural legacy.

The Avli Lounge Apartments in Rethymno is a small and romantic seven-room hotel which occupies three buildings that zigzag across a cobbled street. It draws in the crowds for its extremely pretty garden restaurant. I can almost still taste the apakia-smoked pork, with balsamic mushrooms and a buttery broth.

Avli is also the setting for chef-proprietor Katerina Xekalou to demonstrate her cookery lessons, which run intermittently and are open to non-residents, although booking is essential. Unlike Koula's class, this is "watch and learn" as opposed to "get up and do". But with delicious samplers being handed out – courgette flowers with goat's cheese and mint, a fragrant yoghurt mousse – it's well worth attending. "In Crete eating with family and friends is almost a holy act," said Katerina. "We eat together because we want to share – stories as well as our food. The Greek word for boyfriend or girlfriend translates as 'the one I'm eating with'. That for me sums it up."

She confirmed that authentic Cretan cuisine is quite different from other Mediterranean fare. "Not only is meat reserved for special occasions but fish is mainly consumed if you live near the coast. Each local dish teaches us about the physical landscape, and climate, it's come from."

Back home, I asked Susan Low, deputy editor of Delicious magazine, if "real" Cretan food will raise its profile. She was hopeful. "It would be fantastic if Greek food as a whole could be better defined by regional differences," she said. "Will it happen in the UK? Only under the right circumstances – Brits waving goodbye to greasy tavernas and Cretan and Greek chefs having the interest and impetus to bring about change."

"25 Foods Kids Hate ... and How to Get Them Eating 24" by Fiona Faulkner is published by New Holland, £12.99.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Heraklion and Chania are served by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet .com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Monarch (08719 40 50 40; flymonarch.com), Thomson (0871 231 4787; thomson.com) and Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; flythomascook.com).

Staying there

Villa Kontis can be booked through GIC The Villa Collection (020-8232 9780; gicthevillacollection.com). A week's stay, from 25 Sept, costs £792pp (four sharing), with car hire and flights from Gatwick. The Avli Lounge Apartments, part of the Yades Greek Historic Hotels Group, can be booked through Sunvil (020-8758 4758; sunvil.co.uk). A week from 25 Sept costs £1,125pp, (two sharing), with breakfast, transfers and Gatwick flights. Add-ons include a gourmet Cretan three-course dinner for £38pp, a two-hour Cretan cookery lesson for £113pp, and a wine tasting (five wines) for £56pp.

Eating and drinking there

Koula Barydakis's four-hour cookery course is €55pp including dinner (00 30 28 2502 2190; vamosvillage.gr). Katerina Xekalou's two-hour class is €120pp with lunch or dinner (00 30 28 3105 8250; avli.gr). Dourakis Winery (00 30 28250 51761;dourakiswinery.gr).

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