My initiation in a Cretan kitchen

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BY CORA GREENHILL

meat with potato chips

‘The guests are supplying their own sheeps, thank God!’

Marguerite was struggling to procure sufficient staff for the wedding – or was it a baptism – momentarily she wasn’t sure – on Saturday, and I had offered to help in the kitchen. There would be 300 guests. At least the meat would arrive dead. Her relief was understandable. She’d accepted my offer of help, eyeing me rather dubiously, I thought, while warning me again that it was hard work. I’m not really insulted. If anyone knows the meaning of these words, she does. The wedding season in late August and September overlaps with the end of the tourist season and with the grape harvest and wine-making. It’s probably the most stressful time of the year at Akrimios…

Last year when we arrived, there had been a drama. A particular middle- aged ram was needed for a slow cooking dish that the wedding guests had requested. The privilege of being chosen for the delicacy escaped the ram, one of the elders of the flock, and he inconsiderately escaped the ambush set up for him. He had to be pursued by the menfolk all over the thorny mountain around the ancient ruins of Aptera where an overgrown Temple to Demeter calmly bears witness to the fertility of this land for thousands of years. People and sheep have probably co-existed here since the first stones were lifted to make shelters, and when the vanished Minoan town or temple stood here, long before the Greeks honoured its farmers with a sanctuary to the Goddess Demeter, to whom grain was sacred, or the massive Roman cisterns were built to store water for the city and its agriculture. Still local people flock here with their plastic bags on Sundays to collect horta, wild herbs much prized as food as well as their medicinal properties.

The sheep are said to be at least in part descended from wild island sheep (Lat. ovis musimon) which survived in Crete until the Venetian occupation of the middle ages. They seem as well-adapted as goats to the cruel terrain, the flocks gliding like underground streams along the paths invisible to the human eye that thread the viciously thorny maquis. The same terrain makes them so desirable to wedding guests: it is the pungently aromatic leaves and flowers of the spiny impenetrable plants that reputedly make the meat particularly delicious.

The dish the renegade ram was destined for required that the animal was bled 24 hours before cooking, so by Friday there was panic on the ranch. Georgios the chef has a near legendary ability to cook meat dishes single handed for the hundreds of guests of weddings and baptiisms. It was no mean task. Even when the animals arrived dead, they had to be butchered. He wasn’t fit enough to be part of the chase, but perspired and swore all day as his culinary schedule got compressed.

I’d come here as a visitor several times at this season. Usually, I woke quietly and blissfully to marigolds blazing on the white verandah wall against the classic blue sky, lazily planning breakfast with the grapes and figs of late summer, perfect with the tangy local graviera cheese and bread and honey. And those grubby little greeny oranges that deliver palette-bursting sweet juice, marigold bright.

But on this Saturday, I’m aware of a mysterious percussion vibrating dully through the building before I’m fully awake. As if by the underground bull roar that warned the ancients of earthquakes here in ancient times, I am shaken awake. And there was an earthquake in Crete this year, it occurs to me, no longer in the least sleepy. I sit up and listen.Then I remember. Georgios is up chopping the sheeps.

I report for duty after my afternoon on the beach. The rows of long tables in the cavernous dining room are already adorned with flowers and balloons. Bread from big paper sacks on the floor was being cut. I offered to help. My attempts were watched with concern. ‘Don’t cut all the way through!’ I was reprimanded, the first time I accidentally did. The conservatism of Crete is evident in the details. Half a loaf of bread in each basket must be held together at the bottom by a crust. The first of many basic culinary rules I would have to master. There’s no room for innovation.

Then I was set to making chips. Big chips richly browned in olive oil to be served with the stewed ram. I’m handed a razor sharp potato peeler and pointed towards the sacks. I think of those fairy stories where the princess is set endless tasks on the completion of which her life, or her marriage, or her virginity depends. My fate didn’t depend on my accomplishment with the peeler, but my pride was invested in my finishing what I’d started. We were four women in the scullery during the afternoon, none of us Cretan or even Greek. We had a dozen languages between us but none in common, but we managed to share jokes and tips through a kind of linguistic Chinese whispers.

The focus of activity moved from the intimacy of the scullery to the front kitchen as dinner time approached. There, the experts had moved in. I left the mountain of chips which would be refried later and helped the whole family hastily piling three hundred plates with hors’d’oeuvres: each needs a piece of liver, a sausage, bits of cucumber and tomato, a cheese pie, feta cheese, and hard barley bread. The guests had arrived early. The whole family was working at full throttle, while the hired lads balanced the vast trays piled with plates with great bravado and nerves between the tables. From then on for a couple of hours there was no letting up, and I didn’t get to see beyond the kitchen door. The chef sat on a stool in front of his cauldrons of meat, ladling piles of deliciously fragrant flesh and bone with a huge slotted spoon onto oval plates to which chips were added. My willingness to muck in with everything was tolerated, due to my keeping my sense of humour. Too many chips, one voice would chide. More chips on these plates, someone else would tut.

But the trays of plates eventually disappeared, and the main task for us women was washing up ready for the next courses. For an hour or so I enjoyed being part of a rapid and efficient conveyor belt, rinsing, stacking, heaving trays of plates into the industrial dishwasher, heaving them out, re-stacking them while still hot ready for the servers to take back, avoiding colliding with the tray bearers. I received constant and often contradictory directions from all and sundry, but I knew I was doing OK for a beginner.

The cauldrons were dragged outside and I momentarily wondered what would happen to the gallons of gravy. Later I was enlightened by the arrival of delicious smelling plates of savoury ‘pilaff’. By this time the lamb stew course had been followed by salads, grilled chops with roast potatoes pork with celery,. I hadn’t an idea where the chef was conjuring all this from as it seemed to appear from outside the back door. In the morning, looking for somewhwere to tip rubbish, I saw the ashes of two open fires under metal grills, and guessed the vast pots must have been simmering on those. The refurbished stainless steel kitchen was impressive, but it seemed traditional food needed cooking in the traditional way.

Meanwhile, between plate-stacking crises, I took my place at the family table by the kitchen door, and got to try some of the dishes – and do some people watching.

There were three main sets of guests here: the Athenians (among whom were even a few Americans), the well-to-do families from Hania, and the people from the mountains where the family originated. The men in the latter group wore black, of course, some in full traditional regalia: high boots, belts, knives and net head dresses. The three groups occupied different long tables and I picked the nearest to borrow an empty chair from and it was the wrong one. This must have been my major faux pas of the evening. My one hand on the chair set off such a roar of disapproval I dropped it as if it were hot.

I looked along the table of black shirted, black haired, bearded and moustachioed men – pure unadulterated machismo – rather thrilling – but for a moment felt I’d entered the world of Zorba the Greek…where women could be stoned… I was tired of course, and a good deal of the famous wine of Megala Horafia had been quaffed by all. The guy whose chair I’d tried to nick was a lovely looking lad with traditional high boots and spiky gelled hair. His proud and accomplished dancing distinguished him as an alpha male, I thought. If you’re going to make a social gaff, do it in style…

An interesting thing about this tripartite gathering, I reflected, is that the peasants are the aristocracy. Which sort of makes everyone equal. Except of course the foreign women who work in the kitchen.

Akrimios family run hotel and taverna is on the New National Road at the turnoff for Aptera. Traditional Cretan music evenings most weekends.

Read more by Cora Greenhill:

The Roots of the Traditional Diet in Ancient Crete

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