Cretans hold the secret to longevity . . . and their hospitality is the stuff of legends, as Justine Tyerman discovers
Our Greek friend Nikolas was horrified when I asked if we could contribute to the dinner party he was hosting for us at the villa next to ours in Crete.
“It’s just as well I am Athenian,” said the charming six-foot Greek with a mane of shoulder-length curly hair.
“If you said that to a Cretan, he would probably shoot you.”
I tried to explain it was a polite Kiwi custom to bring a plate, but he was appalled at my suggestion.
“Just come as our friends,” he said.
Cretan hospitality is legendary. The dinner Nikolas organised for us at Solfez Villas in Elounda where our Kiwi trio were staying featured every Greek delicacy imaginable.
There were seven of us for dinner – three Kiwis and four Greeks – but the feast could have fed 30. From slow-cooked lamb and pork to stuffed zucchini flowers and vine leaves, snails and Greek salads with feta, lettuce, olives, tomatoes, cucumber, onion and oregano, the dishes kept appearing on the table set up outside by the infinity pool.
The chef, Ypapandi, a lovely Cretan lady who spoke no English, had spent the entire day preparing the 12 traditional dishes for us.
We thanked her with the international language of many smiles and hugs.
She shrugged it off in that wonderful, self-effacing Greek fashion I have been trying to perfect ever since. Nikolas explained that Ypapandi was accustomed to cooking for Greek weddings where 800 is a small wedding and the guest list often exceeds 1000.
To accompany the feast, Nikolas’s friend, oenologist Emmanouela presented a selection of magnificent organic Cretan wines grown in the semi-mountainous area in Heraklion prefecture.
Like many Cretan enterprises, the grape-growing and wine-making operation is a family affair which dates back four generations. Emmanouela’s father George, a civil engineer, swapped roles with his vineyard-owning brother when he was 40, and now runs Domaine Paterianakis along with the four talented women of the family – his wife, a lawyer, and three daughters, a chemical engineer, a civil engineer and oenologist Emmanouela who is in charge of the winemaking.
The crop is all hand harvested due to the steep terrain, and varieties and production are controlled by an appellation system similar to France. They produce 60 percent red and 40 percent white wine, all proudly organically grown.
Beautiful and effervescent, Emmanouela is a traditionalist, adhering to the philosophy of the cork rather than modern screw cap bottle seal now prevalent in New Zealand.
The company is doing very well and has begun exporting to the United States.
We sampled a Melissinos dry white made from Cretan thrapsathiri grapes and sauvignon blanc, followed by a Melissinos dry rosé from Cretan kotsifali and French syrah varieties, finishing with a Melissokipos dry red from kotsifali and mandilari grapes.
After a chorus of “kaliorexsi,” the Greek equivalent of bon appetit, and “giamas,” good health, we tucked in. The food was simply presented but hugely flavoursome, all cooked in the finest Cretan olive oil.
A few glasses of Emmanouela’s excellent red later, the conversation turned to the vast tourism potential of the island and inevitably to Greek tragedy – the economy.
Nikolas made references to the German occupation during WW2, saying that Greece was again under domination from Berlin’s authorities, this time economic control.
Villa manager Hippocrates, whose father owns the construction company that built Solfez Villas, and his wife Elli, a swimming instructor, have been married for 12 years and would like to have a baby but they cannot afford for Elli to give up her three jobs.
They are all warm, generous, industrious people caught up in a nightmare not of their making with no apparent end in sight.
Nikolas, e-marketing manager for the Solfez complex, said the seven self-contained villas were built in 2009 originally for sale, but are now rented to mainly overseas families. Perched on the hill above dazzling Mirabello Bay on the north east coast of Crete, the luxury villas are three-storeyed with balconies on each floor. They accommodate six people in three double bedrooms with two bathrooms, a full kitchen and laundry.
The villas are completely private, separated by massive feature walls, made from the local orange and grey stone excavated during construction. Each villa has its own infinity pool overlooking the bay, a huge tiled outdoor entertainment patio with table, chairs and loungers, a built-in BBQ and a garden growing Greek vegetables, which are delivered daily to guests, free of charge.
We arrived late in the evening after driving from the airport in the Cretan capital, Heraklion, to find Nikolas had stocked the fridge with fresh fruit, Cretan wine, cheese, bread, terrine, honey, nuts and other delicacies.
On his recommendation, the next evening we dined at a modest-looking taverna in Elounda, just a short drive away. From the outside, Taverna Akrohoria presents as a humble, family-run restaurant with a few rooms to rent upstairs, but the view over the Aegean Sea and Mirabello Bay from the dining area is divine.
And we soon realised we were in the presence of another gifted Cretan chef, Emmanuel.
He didn’t speak a lot of English so we ended up in the kitchen where Emmanuel dolloped spoonfuls from each pot on to plates for us to try.
Within 10 minutes of ordering, Emmanuel’s two angel-faced sons were eagerly bringing us a succession of dishes including vine leaves stuffed with a vegetarian mixture, lamb meatballs, cheese puffs, sautéed aubergines, capsicums, onions, sweet peppers, spinach pies, zucchini flowers stuffed with rice and herbs, tzatziki and tomato, feta and cucumber salad.
Once Emmanuel and his wife Helen knew we were from New Zealand, they showered us with extra dishes on the house in honour of the Kiwi contribution to the Battle of Crete – baklava, terrine, a plate of fat grapes literally exploding with flavour and juice, and his homemade raki, the local firewater.
The next night, we discussed whether we should dine elsewhere but ended up back at Akrohoria. We just had to try Emmanuel’s pork with fresh herbs and the zucchini patties. After the main courses, he brought us divine crystallised melon, baklava . . . and more raki.
The dishes were wholesome and full of intense flavour rather than prettily arranged like French cuisine. No frills. Just authentic, Cretan cuisine prepared by a lovely, hard-working humble man who grows and makes everything he serves in his taverna, from the pork, lambs and goats to the feta, olive oil, vegetables, wine and raki.
Nikolas later informed us that Cretans hold the distinction of being the longest living people on earth, a factor they attribute to their diet, olive oil … and the raki. So the longer you stay in Crete, the younger you get!
After 24 hours at Solfez Villas, we realised our Nikolas was an exceptional door-opener with invaluable local contacts. No sooner had my husband Chris expressed an interest in golf and daughter Sophie and I inquired about spa treatments, we were whisked next door to the five-star Porto Elounda Golf and Spa Resort where our wishes were granted.
Nikolas introduced an incredulous Chris to the golf pro at one of the top courses in Crete while wide-eyed mother and daughter met Elli, manager at Six Senses Spa, ranked one of the world’s leading spas by Conde Naste.
Chris toughed it out on the golf course in the 36-degree heat of the Cretan sun, while Sophie and I luxuriated in the cool, pure hedonistic heaven of the exquisite spa with its soothing fountains, soft lighting and luminous pools. Masseuse Christina worked such Swedish magic on my shoulders and neck, I was smiling serenely for days.
Elounda’s development began in the 1970s when the first 5-star hotels were established. Built on the hillside around a picturesque fishing village and beaches with emerald waters, Elounda is now frequented by celebrities, royalty and film makers. Restaurants and high-end jewellery and fashion shops abound but the village has maintained its slow-paced, rustic charm.
The region is rich in legends and history with the magnificent Minoan palace at Knossos, the birthplace of Zeus in the Dikteon Cave and the Lasithi Plateau with its ancient windmills, within an hour’s drive of Elounda. There are even rumours of German treasure buried in barren, rugged mountains beyond the villas.
The enchanting Spinalonga Island – with its 16th century Venetian fortress, 18th century Ottoman houses and abandoned 20th century leper colony – is just a short ferry ride from Elounda. The TV series The Island, based on the 2005-best seller novel by Victoria Hislop was filmed on Spinalonga.
Within two or three hour’s drive, are some of the world’s finest pink and white sand beaches, the spectacular White Mountains, Imbros and Samaria gorges and Battle of Crete memorial sites.
For Kiwis accustomed to fickle weather even at the height of summer, day after day of cloudless skies were a novelty. And the light in Crete is soft compared with the sharpness of summer days in New Zealand. In the heat of the day – immersed to our noses in the gorgeous infinity pool at Solfez – the horizon was smudged. There was nothing between the pool, the sea and the sky.
Crete is truly blessed … climate, history, beauty, food, wine, beaches, but ultimately it is about people, ideas exchanged, laughter shared, friends made. In Elounda, we met some of the warmest, friendliest people on the planet . . . all thanks to Nikolas.
• Staying: eloundasolfezvillas.com
• Eating: Taverna Akrohoria, Elounda; Ypapandi’s “feast” at Solfez Villas.
• Treating: portoelounda.com
• Golfing: portoelounda.com
• Shopping: Elounda has everything from exquisite jewellery and furs to quaint local shell handicrafts.
• Sightseeeing: Spinalonga Island is a must
• Getting there: Elounda is an hour’s easy drive from Heraklion Airport (Anna Cars Rentals provided an excellent service and a complimentary upgrade). Crete is a 50-minute flight from Athens on Olympic or Aegean Air.
• Travel bookings: Graham Elliott, Elliott Travel.
Justine stayed courtesy of Solfez Villas. Spa and golf courtesy of Porto Elounda Golf and Spa Resort.
By Justine Tyerman