After yet another disappointing meal at a Greek restaurant in central London one evening, my good friend Sofia, a native Cretan, vowed that she would one day take me to her hometown to indulge in her “mitera’s” (mother’s) renowned Stifado, or beef stew.
Having never visited Greece before, I was excited by the idea of exploring the nooks and crannies of Crete’s coastline and immediately had the urge to head up to remote mountain villages in a quest to find a hidden restaurant gem.
An island with a history
I had almost forgotten about the promise by the following summer, but when Sofia suggested we book flights to Heraklion and travel to her place of birth – Aghios Nikolaos – I willingly agreed.
A small port town on the northern coast of the island, Aghios Nikolaos still retains much of its quaint charm despite an influx of tourists in recent years. According to Greek legend, the town is also the site of a bottomless lake, where the goddesses Athena and Artemis once bathed. Once Sofia had introduced me to her family, our first outing was to nearby Malia, the history of which goes back to Minoan times. Greek mythology tells that Malia was the kingdom of Sarpedon, one of Zeus’ sons. These days however, it is more widely known as a party destination for 18 to 30s holidays, which made me sceptical about the likelihood of finding an authentic Cretan restaurant there – how wrong I was.
After a quick stroll through the centre of the resort area, which was crammed with young revellers, we headed towards the old town to one of Sofia’s favourite restaurants – San Georgio’s. The eatery boasts an informal atmosphere with some of its seating actually situated on the other side of the street from the main restaurant. I couldn’t resist indulging in my first moussaka, which came served in a deep clay dish. After munching my way through only half the layers of steaming lamb ragu, fluffy potatoes and creamy béchamel sauce I was well and truly stuffed, and only just had room for the complimentary shot of icy lemon sorbet that was served after the meal.
On our second day exploring the island, Sofia coaxed her old Fiat Punto right into the heart of Crete’s mountains, where we stopped in the small mountain village of Kato Karouzanos. When Sofia dragged me into a tiny parlour off a dusty side street, I thought we must have been meeting someone from her family, but then an old man shuffled out from a back room with two shots of some rather strong smelling spirit to offer us. After convincing me that this drink, “Raki”, was the key to a long and healthy life, I enthusiastically consumed the aniseed flavoured drink before we made our way up the hill for a look round the splendid local Orthodox Church.
Enjoying the spoils
After snapping a few photographs of the old building, framed by the rays of the setting sun behind, we strolled back into the heart of Kato Karouzanas where Sofia had arranged (after my continued requests) that we would take in a night of traditional Cretan entertainment. First, however, we indulged in a multitude of home cooked Greek specialities including salads, tzatziki yoghurt dip and my new favourite – kleftiko.
Sofia informed me that the word “kleftiko” in Greek literally means stolen meat. Thieves would snatch a lamb from its flock and cook the meat in small hole in the ground, sealed with mud so that no smoke would give away the their crime. Nowadays, the delicacy is cooked in a small parcel with rosemary, oregano and often feta cheese, which is presented to the diner in their own miniature package to unwrap at the table. Needless to say, by the time the Cretan dancers made their way to the stage, the waistline on my shorts was already feeling uncomfortably tight.
Perhaps stereotypically, I had been expecting plate smashing after the meal, but Sofia informed me that smashing plates was more of a mainland tradition. The troupe of young male dancers executed a variety of Cretan folk dances, my favourite of which involved the perfect and very athletic execution of twisting, leaping and foot tapping. Once the more acrobatic dances were over, the troupe invited members of the audience onto the stage to try out some simpler steps. Thankfully, I was not one of those selected, but soon enough the entire audience was standing up, holding hands and side stepping briskly round the room in time to the music.
Home style hospitality
On our last evening in Crete, Sofia’s “mitera” prepared a huge mezze feast for me to sample some real Cretan home cooking. The dishes were spread out on the table in the family garden, and included Stifado beef stew, dolmades, kleftiko, tiropitakia mini cheese pies, green salads with feta and toasted pittas. Sofia’s grandfather sampled the dishes first, as per family custom, and when he was thoroughly satisfied that they were to his taste, everyone else dived in, eating straight from the communal plates.
As I tucked into a dolmades parcel (delicate parcels stuffed with rice, pine nuts and fresh Greek herbs) I wondered how Sofia’s mother had managed to prepare all these sumptuous dishes in the tiny family kitchen. One thing was for certain though, I would be begging Sofia to emulate her mother’s fabulous recipes for me when we got back to London rather than continuing the endless search for authentic Greek cuisine.
When you visit Crete, make sure you take the opportunity to explore and enjoy the local Greek cuisine – you won’t be disappointed.
- Ask the locals where to eat and avoid tourist traps along busy seafronts if you want to taste some authentic Cretan cuisine. Strolling along the picturesque lakeside harbour-front in Aghios Nikolas was somewhat ruined by the constant badgering of persistent restaurant hosts.
- Keep an open mind when it comes to unusual cuisine like snails, which are another popular Cretan dish. Just relax and try to appreciate the dish for what it is and the many rich flavours that are packed into the meal.
- If you can swing it, make friends with a local family to try and bag yourself an invite to a home cooked meal. Although my home cooked mezze feast was served on mis-matching plates on a slightly wobbly table in a friend’s back garden, it was undeniably some of the best food I have ever tasted, and the Cretan hospitality is second to none.
- Relax and enjoy eating your meal slowly. It is not the Greek custom to bolt down food as fast as you can, and even in busy restaurants you can take as much time as you like without feeling the pressure from a busy waiter who wants to clear your table.