Cretan Cuisine: The missing star in a cloudless culinary sky!

Crete is a world renounced, glorious island with incredible flavors and a superb local cuisine that is shockingly lacking a real ambassador of its flavors in the international food scene. Despite the well known, scientifically supported health benefits of the Cretan diet, the beauty of the Cretan dishes are nowhere to be found next to popular cuisines, such as the Italian, the French or the Japanese. Not even in as a small scale recognition to its fundamental role on the creation of the model of the Mediterranean diet.

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Where the difficulty begins is on the effort to try and find these flavors on professional establishments on the island that are reflective of the flavors one comes across once one thinks of Crete. The level of difficulty rises even more when one is called to suggest places that a guest can eat very tasty clean and unquestionable, 100% Cretan Cuisine Places that salute the flavors springing from the Cretan land and that are not mixed with the rest of Greece, NOR are they a crossbreed creation of European cuisines that came out of the imagination of the hosting Chef. And then there is the hardest part of it all. Try and find a professional setting that will approach the Cretan cuisine and its flavors in a way that can equally, proudly and pompously stand next to any cuisines, from any chef, from any awarded restaurant around the world!

Surely such an introduction might sound harsh and unfair. Indeed there are several settings and locations on the island that one can find splendid and delicious food. There is no doubt that everywhere you go you will manage to find dishes that are both tasty and indeed interesting. From sea food, to lamb, to the use of vegetables, there are places you can definitely enjoy good food.  The best part for the traveler is that these places are particularly affordable, especially in comparison to the prices you can find in the rest of the Western world. My argument here is however that there are very few places, if any, that one can find dishes that once you close your eyes you know this is Cretan cuisine by smell, flavor and texture alone. At the same time there is no establishment that actually took Cretan diet to another level. Surely Cretan diet is simple food, but so is cucina povera italiana, or Japanese cuisine, that now enjoy their places among the best cuisines in the world.

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Undoubtedly Cretan diet is the strong card of Greek cuisine when it comes to flavors with a name of Origin. Cretan cuisine stands a very high ground among Greeks themselves and this is a superb privilege and an excellent yeast for the idea to grow. This does not mean that the road will not be hard. Nor that the challenges will not rise, especially if you try to disturb the known patterns of eating in the mind of the locals. Especially if one can imagine that there is a large portion of the local population that thinks that a steak medium done is a stake dangerous.

Again at this point we need to make some clarifications. There are certainly efforts from individuals to promote the Cretan Diet and cuisine. However they do it without direction. In my opinion a cooking class in Crete that has Briam as a prep dish is seriously lacking orientation. The fact that a lot of cooking classes from non-professional chefs include gemista (a Greek food), or some variation of it, because it is an easy way to keep more than one person busy is lacking imagination. From the private sector we are dealing with contradictions that should not exist anymore. For example the brilliant case of the Wines of Crete highlights that Cretan products can stand tall in the culinary world, with unique and special flavors, when awareness springs out of collective effort. Yet they stand alone. Where is the Olive Oil ambassador for example? Where the Cretan Cheese or Honey ambassador? How much do people know about all these magnificent local products. The even harder question is how much do LOCAL people know about these products and does it matter? But this is food for thought that can start a PhD thesis.

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From a governmental and state point of view there are some efforts to approach the local cuisine, but they lack consistency and aim. Making videos and websites that promote the local cuisine as part of the total package of the brand name Crete as a travel destination is good, however there is no use of the Cretan Diet as a single entity that has numerous reasons to be among the cuisines of choice of the people around the world. At the same time other countries excel with the promotion of their cuisines (Scotland, Sweden, Portugal) even if they are not as healthy, seasonal and easy as the Cretan Cuisine.

My biggest problem though is the lack of an establishment that anyone can enjoy Cretan cuisine from a fine dinning, international level, haute cuisine. I am deeply saddened when I see inspiring professionals from all around the world using every available resource they have in order to create monumental dishes based on THEIR LOCAL CUISINE AND INGREDIENTS. Insane establishments such as Osteria Franchiscana in Modena, Italy, Central in Lima, Peru, or D.O.M. in Sao Paolo, Brazil take their knowledge and genius to create inspiring, mouth dropping, drooling dishes that underline the cuisine and flavors of their countries. Crete on the other hand is consumed in food menus for the masses and low cost materials because of the all inclusive patterns of hospitality. Even the well respected restaurants of the island, whether in high end hotels or private establishments do not offer the flavors of Crete in a way that would stand easily within lists of 50 Best Restaurants, Michelin etc.

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I am of course well aware of the fact that in an economic setting such as the one in Crete you cannot expect a restaurant that will cost an arm and a leg for an 8 course menu. Nowadays even the Athenian restaurants suffer from trying to survive the crises that has hit all of us. However my question is this. Is it truly so difficult for a chef or a restaurant owner to create or demand dishes that will stand right next to these innovators and pioneers of the international culinary scene that will take Cretan diet to the next level? Isn’t there the possibility for both private and state initiatives to take Crete where it deserves to be in the international culinary map? The ingredients are there. The the cuisine is there. The respect is there and to a very large extend the human resources are there. So is it just the glue that is missing or is there more?

Since this is a private blog I can say this. My heart and soul will always be in the depth of  the culinary culture of Crete that offers such a variety of flavors that can shock any pallet. With this post I do not mean to lessen the existing efforts. On the contrary I salute all those initiatives that aim in truly bringing the Cretan diet outside its shell. At the same time though I wish all the culinary professionals of the island, and by that I mean all that are involved in the food sector whether it is a restaurant or an artisan food maker of any kind, to look on the ways Crete can give a perfect playground for foodies from all around the world. It is seriously missing nothing from world famous culinary destinations. This is one more opportunity we should not let go amiss.

 

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Olive Oil Survival Guide

How To Chose Olive Oil

As we have seen in previous articles Olive Oil is the basis the Cretan diet is built upon and to a large extent the basis upon which the Mediterranean diet has been evolved.  Despite the fact that the relationship between olive oil and the people of Crete can be characterized as “a love affair lost in time”, every year there is a growing international interest in this amazing food product. Its health benefits and its taste that allows it to be used on various different occasions in our daily lives attracts more and more attention from people all around the world.  Every year a new brand comes on the market shelves, a new olive oil is awarded and a new olive oil scam is revealed. For the everyday consumer, especially the one that is not trained to use olive oil, choosing the right oil might be a headache.  So the big Q is “How can I distinguish good Olive Oil?”
Let us provide you with a few guidelines that will help you identify quality olive oil when you see it. However, there is one clarification we need to make here. The guidelines we are about to give you will not determine if you will like the olive oil or not. Nor will they help you determine the flavorful characteristics of the oil. They are merely signs and indications that can help you as consumers to identify if the quality of the oil you are about to purchase meets the standards of a quality product.

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Labels Exist For a Reason

All the information you are after in order to discover the quality of the product must be on the label. Just like with any product there are several details on that tiny space that will help you differentiate quality olive oil from just anything out there. Labels exist for a reason while the effort and head bumping that one has to go through before deciding how a label should look in order to contain all these necessary information are beyond belief. Every bit that is in there exists in order to assist the consumer to ensure that the quality of the product that enters a home is in accordance with the quality laws and standards of the market. Truth be said there are cases where for marketing reasons some labels seem “noisy”. For example, the acidity levels written on the label might seem very low. However, if one looks closer at the smaller letters at the back, or the nutritional table the truth will be revealed.

The Three Signs to Look At

  • Olive oil MUST be EXTRA VIRGIN.  The label must write Extra Virgin Olive Oil, often abbreviated as EVOO, which is a classification of quality. This is a term we hear more and more often and it is always confusing as to what does it mean. There are many factors that determine the quality of the olive oil and whether it is going to be classified as Extra Virgin, Virgin or anything else. Olive oil is the only food product that in order to be categorized we need an organoleptic as well as a chemical analysis. This means that we need both the taste and the chemical composition of the Olive Oil to be on the top level before we grade it. In other words, if an oil does not taste EVOO it is not EVOO.

Extra NOTE: What on Earth is Acidity then? Acidity is one of those characteristics that will determine the quality of the oil and refers to the amount of Oleic Acid within 100 grams of Olive Oil. In other words, it determines whether the percentage as grams of free fatty acids (expressed as oleic acid, the main fatty acid present in olive oil) is below 0.8 grams in 100 grams of oil. Extra virgin Olive Oil has its Acidity level between 0.1 and 0.8%. Super important: ACIDITY CANNOT BE DETECTED IN TASTE.

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  • Cold Extraction/Cold Press labeled. Well here is another problematic story about olive oil. Olive Oil marketers have managed to convince consumers that First Cold Pressed Olive Oils are the best! The term “first cold pressed” is problematic to begin with. There is NO First Pressed or Second, or Third Pressed Olive Oils when it comes to EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL. There is only Cold Pressed or Cold Extracted Olive Oil production methods. Cold Pressed is very unique and interesting, however, there are VERY FEW mills that can manage to keep up with market demand on a large scale since there is a lot of olive oil loss in the process. Boutique Mills are those that would mostly use Cold Press method. When we have larger volume production, then the conversation is on Cold Extracted Olive Oil. This means that the malaxation of the olives took place in temperatures that never exceeded 27 degrees Centigrade.
  • The variety or type of Olive that has been used in order to produce the specific Olive Oil. Different varieties of olives will give you different sets of characteristics based on their flavor. Some are sweeter, while others more bitter. Some have a fattier flavor while others are much lighter. It is all a matter of taste. There is no right or wrong here. Discover which flavor you prefer the most and then compare between different producers in order to discover how different regions give different flavors.  A Koroneiki from Crete for example is different than one from the Peloponnese.

Once you feel comfortable with the above you can start looking at the small details that will ensure the quality. The dates for example on the bottle should mention the bottling date and/or the expiry date. Acidity should always be below 0.8%. You should choose a glass bottle or a white iron package. Plastic is never a good idea.

Finally, keep in mind a couple of things for after you buy your olive oil. It is a fruit juice and it should be treated as such. It hates sunlight, it does not like heat or cold and it does not want to be exposed on air. So a dark cupboard should do the job for the next few months you are going to use it.

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To sum up, Olive Oil is pretty much like choosing wine. You do not know how much you will like it, but you know there is a way to learn to trust a brand and/or a region that it will deliver something good. Olive oil should be an inseparable part of our everyday life whether it is our culture or not. It is uniquely beneficial for the human body and a very interesting and tasty product. So next time you go to your local grocery story be courageous and chose based on these guidelines in your mind.

Crete and Olive Oil: An Affair Lost in Time

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It is this time of the year where, Olive Oil, one of the most important (if not THE most important) products of Crete is being produced. A walk around the outskirts of any urban area of the island has evidence of recent or immediate agricultural activity in land covered with olive groves. Cars parked on the side of the road and harvest nets spread as far as the middle of the road witness the activity in the olive groves now. The closer we get to Christmas Holidays the more intense the activity is. People take a few days off from their day jobs in order to gather with the rest of the family and pick up the olives so they can produce the olive oil for their yearly consumption, and if it is a good season, even make an extra income.

Regardless of the weather conditions, families with gather up the necessary equipment and head to the groves in order to produce the olives. It does not matter how remote you travel one is at this time in Crete, in the silence of a car free environment one can always hear the sound of the small motor engine that powers the harvest sticks, the distant shouts of men trying to communicate over the noise of the little power generator and the sound of the leafs taping each other as the branches get shaken, almost beaten so the olives can drop.

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But let us take things one step at the time. In order to understand olive oil and what is the fuzz all about one must understand the product and its importance in time and space for the people of Greece in general and Crete in particular.

Where Does It Come From

There is a very long history and mythology around the olive. Some say it has been harvested in Crete between 9 and 12.000 years BC, while others argue that it came to Crete from Minor Asia and Syria  around 6000 BC.  Despite the fact that there is no clear cut evidence as where the tree is really coming from, it is certain that the production of olive oil on the island has been an ancient practice. Minoan frescoes portray the harvesting of the olive with sticks, while chemical analysis from residues collected from clay pots of the time witness the use and storage of olive oil.

The Significance Then..

Olives and olive oil have been central in the daily life of Greek people. It was always considered one of the most premium products to have. It was closely linked with the holy and the divine. Athens, for example, took its name after the goddess Athena presented the Athenians with an olive tree for a present. Once the great city of Athens was build there was a battle as to which God will be the city dedicated to and named after. The competitors were Athena and Poseidon. On the holy rock of Acropolis Poseidon stroke his trident and water sprang. Athena on the other hand hit her spear on the rock and an olive tree came out. The Athenians thought that the olive tree was an incredible gift to receive and the rest is history….

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The importance of the olive is also evident in the Olympic games where the ultimate reward for the champion of any sport other than the olive wreath (kotinos) was very large amount of olive oil.  In many cases Olympic Champions would leave with ships full of amphorae with olive oil in them making them very rich men.

Another example that signifies the importance of the olive was that men that did not take care of their olive groves were looked upon almost as criminals. If a man would burn or destroyed or burn an olive tree, he was sentenced to life in prison.

The Significance Not so Long ago..

Outside the mythological and historic significance of the olive and its products, olive oil was a product that played a vital role in the everyday life of the Cretan.

First and foremost we cannot discuss about the Cretan cuisine without olive oil. It is used in every dish. It is consumed in every possible way. Fried, baked, boiled, oven cooked, just name it! Olive oil is the crown jewel of the Cretan Diet and a house without it is a poor house. An urban legend suggests that in the late 1950’s an American researcher visited the island in order to examine the dietary habits of the people of Crete. After spending some time with the locals he came to the conclusion that the Cretan Diet is beneficial due to the amount of olive oil used, since as he mentioned, their food swims in olive oil.

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The importance of olive oil is evident everywhere in the life of the Cretan. Other than the nutritious aspect of it in terms of food, it is also the beneficial elements with regards to  the human body. It was very commonly used in beauty products, as well as, remedies for the cure or prevention of unwanted body effects.  For example it is believed until today that a spoon of olive oil before a night out will prevent one from getting drunk. Olive Oil mixed with laurel was particularly good for keeping a dark shiny color on woman’s hair. Olive Oil with walnut shells exposed on the sun for 7 to 10 days and then applied on the skin is believed to assist in gaining a nice chocolate color on your skin during the summer. There are various examples of olive oil usage in similar ways which made it vital in every day practices.

Olive Oil’s divine and religious character did not alter despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the population of Crete are Christian Orthodox. It is used in major rituals by the Church including Baptism. In this case the godparent of the child is placing olive oil all over the child in order to pass the mercy and blessing of God. Another example is the Olive oil used for the light candles in front of sacred icons. It is considered that applying a small amount of this oil on ones face is a divine blessing. A visit in cemeteries demonstrates the sacred role of Olive Oil as well. The candles burning in memory (or rather for the blessing) of the deceased, is composed from 3 parts water and 1 part olive oil in order to keep the memory flame on. This is why small bottles of Olive Oil are always placed around the graves. Many argue that the use of olive oil in such rituals is the continuation of ancient practices due to the importance of Olive Oil as a product and its immediate connection with the light.

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One can talk about olive oil for ages and spend thousand of words trying to describe both its practical, as well as, symbolic importance. Olive Oil is part of the daily life of the people of Greece in general in all its facets. Whether part of food, or part of rituals, or part of the daily life in forms of cosmetics and other products, it is omnipresent. In later stages we will try to understand olive oil as a product in terms of its nutritious elements, however, the place it held in the perception of people is of vital significance. This way we can better understand the love affair and dedication of the people of Greece in general and Crete in particular regarding olive oil that is lost in time.

 

Top 4+1 Cretan Wine Varieties!

Wines of Crete continues to win more territory in international wine markets. The collective effort of the modern, organized wine makers of the island has brought local wines into wine lovers markets around the globe. Slowly but steadily, the different wine varieties from the Crete get to the position they deserve. As explained in previous articles, wine making in Crete is special for both its long tradition, as well as, the special geo-climatic conditions of the island. Because of the later a series of amazing varieties of grapes make Cretan wine hard to ignore.

What follows is a list of the top 5 must try wines based on the criteria of how rare it is and how different it is from other wines one can have. At this point it is important to note that I am writing this not as a wine specialist, but as a connoisseur. In the text that follows you will not find any wine specialist terminology or advice. Instead you will read the opinion of a person in search of flavors that are special in different ways. So here we go:

1. Dafni- Δαφνί

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This is a type of wine everyone agrees is a special as a white wine can be. Dafni is a white grape variety that offers an amazing combination of herbal flavors. The name derives from the plant Δάφνη-Dafni which in Greek is the laurel or bay leaf. This is because the initial nose, as well as, flavor is that of a bay leaf. My personal view is that it could easily be called rosemary as well, since after a few seconds from the first sip a bouquet of rosemary flavor appears. Perhaps this is the one wine that encapsulates Cretan landscapes in the best possible way. Dafni was almost extinct until a local family initiative brought it back to the wine making scene of the island. You can taste it fresh or aged (yes it is a white that can be aged) and it is the perfect wine to combine with cheese, raw or cooked vegetables, and white meat.

2. Moschato of Spina- Μοσχάτο Σπίνας

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Moschato from Spina is a white wine with a huge surprise. It is among the few wines that tastes completely different than what it smells. The initial nose is creating the expectation of a sweet wine. However the taste is something completely different. Dry, fruity yet buttery and mellow are the first impressions when it comes to taste. The vine itself is a clone from the global known Moschato, however the original birthplace of the Cretan variety is a location called Spina somewhere between Rethimnon and Chania in Western Crete, hence the name. An ideal refreshing summer white wine, or in my opinion, the perfect first date wine. Not strong, easy drinking, fruity flavor, a lot of promise….

3. Vidinano- Βιδιανό

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Another white wine with an exceptional character. Vidiano is a variety that according to a lot of wine makers is the future of wine making in Crete and Greece. In the original webpage of the wines of Crete it is characterized as the next Diva of Cretan wine making due its apricot, creamy flavor. Another important characteristic of this special wine is that it can be aged into barrels. Modern wine makers spend are doing a lot of experimentation in order to highlight this special ability of Vidiano. Combine it with pasta, fish, or white meat with lemony sauces.

4. Mandilari- Μανδηλάρι

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From the reds the one MUST try wine in Crete is Mandilari. This is a love it or hate it type of wine. Strong, with a lot of tannin this thick red wine will not disappoint regardless if you hate it or love it. The brutality of its character makes wine makers blend it with other varieties in order to make it more applicable to the markets. If you try it on its own keep in mind that it is among the type of wines that grabs your tongue aggressively and does not let go. However, whether you have it is a blend, or on its own, it is the perfect wine to escort a nice beef steak or a soft piece of lamb.

5. Syrah

1211761790062Surprise surprise. Here is a Frenchman or woman. This is a proposal for more universal flavors. Lets say you have tried every local variety in Crete and you want to taste something familiar. Syrah is your choice. This wine, although well known around the world from the French winemakers, is doing fantastic in the climatic and geographic conditions of Crete. Actually it is doing so well it is developing a character which differentiates a little from the original. The slightly fruitier flavor and more gentle character have created the perfect alternative from foreign varieties, as well as, a great companion for blends with the local heavier and more tannik wines. Enjoy it with red sauces, and casserole dishes.

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Let’s Talk About Wine in Crete!!! Part 2- Why Is It Special?

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As we saw in Part 1 wine is among the most ancient alcoholic products that have accompanied human development for centuries. Greece always had a special connection with wine and its production. The Greeks even believed in a God among the Greek pantheon that was protecting and blessing wine production in the country, the world famous Dionysus. The importance of wine and its presence in the every day life of the people of Greece is highlighted even in the Christian Era with Jesus blessing the three most important products, bread, olive oil and wine! Wine in Crete, being among the most prominent viticulture areas in the Mediterranean,was considered among the most celebrated and important products in the everyday life of the people of the island. This importance together with the special character of the Cretan wine makes local wine production a must see for every visitor of the island. Having looked at the historical context of wine making in Crete, let us now examine other characteristics that make the Cretan wine so interesting for the traveler in search of flavors.

Geography and Climate

The case of wine presents an excellent example of the importance of the location of Crete in the Mediterranean for the special climate of the island and its relation to  the biodiversity of Crete. Some scientists argue that Crete has such a diverse environment that for environmentalists and nature scientists it could be considered a continent it self. However this can be observed even if a visitor is not a scientist. The aggressive red stones of the South East meet the black sand of the South, that change into the forest of the Selakano forest as you head to the sandy North shores through the mountains. Herbal low vegetation areas alter to cypress hill forests and maple trees in the rocky mountain tops. The wine areas of the rolling hills of central central Crete meet a completely different environment than the wine areas of the West that are more exposed to rain and lower temperatures.

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Perhaps an indicator of the importance this terrain and conditions offer to the viticulture of Crete is that in a geographical space of  8,303 km2 (3,206 sq mi) there are 10 different endemic grape varieties. These are Dafni, Plyto, Vilana, Thrapsathiri, Vidiano, and Moschato Spinas for the white wines and Kotsifali, Mandilari, Liatiko and Romeiko for the red. Each and every variety has its own special, unique flavorful characteristics that will surely surprise every wine lover. In addition to these varieties a lot of wine makers brought different vines from other parts of the world for experimentation in two levels. First in order see how these vines will do in the Cretan terroir. The results actually were very good. Varieties such as the Syrah, Grena and Cabernet Sauvignon did rather well. The second reason was to combine these international flavors with the local special flavor in order to make it more applicable to international markets. Let us not forget that local market is not an easy one for the Cretan wine makers.

The climatic conditions of the island have a very important role on the flavors these amazing varieties give and the experience every wine maker has during the making of the wines. The climate of Crete is characterized by extensive dry periods during summer, and heavy rain periods during winter. The rain periods are not consistent like northern European countries, but are short and heavy. In order to put this in perspective the amount of rain we receive in Crete is the same as in Bordeaux, which means around 700ml a year. The difference is that this rain is between the months November to March. Add to this that Crete is an island that has approximately 250 sunny days and it becomes easy to imagine the effect these climatic conditions have on the flavors of the wines. Of course there are always surprises like this year (2015) where the whether, just like the economic and political situation in Greece, have been unpredictable.

The Culture of Harvest

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The Cretan moto “trigos, theros, polemos- τρύγος, θέρος, πόλεμος”  which loosely translates as, wine harvest, wheat harvest-reaping, and war is an indicative of the belief that these are the three toughest and most unpredictable situations. They are hard work and you never know what you are going to get. Trigos, the wine harvest, is a hard laboring job. Traditionally wine harvest was a family job. Towards the end of August the family would go from vineyard to vineyard in order to collect the grapes. Some grapes would go for raisins, others were table grapes, and the best would go for wine. Jobs were distributed among the family. The eldest and most experienced, together with the women and children would cut the grapes. The youngest and strongest men would carry the heavy boxes with extra care to a location where they could be easily transferred to the wine press. Now draw picture in your mind. This job is done under a 30C degrees heat minimum. The juices from the grapes that are freshly cut attract wasps and bees that enjoy their juices as much as we do and your feet are constantly mixing with the vine branches and leaves that are long and tough to go through. Not an easy job.

Around noon the family would sit under the shadow of an olive or walnut tree that were most commonly found in the vineyards. Lunch is usually simple. A Cretan Salad, with fresh tomatoes, atzouria (a type of cucumber), onions, olives, eggs, boiled potatoes, rusks, olive oil and vinegar would be served to share with some bread. After lunch the family would continue with the harvest until late afternoon.

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After the harvest is over and all the grapes would be collected it was time for the press. Each house had its own patitiri-πατητήρι, a wine press that was usually located either in an underground basement, or somewhere outside. The grapes would be emptied in the large confined areas and the family started the wine dance. Careful, rhythmic, heavy steps, with one foot close to the other were pressing the grapes in order to squeeze the juice out. In the bottom of the container where the dancing was taking place, there was a hole for the juice to come out and end into the barrels. Again this is not an easy and as fun as it looks like job. The grapes are pinching your feet, the wasps are partying on the juices, the dried juice sticks in your feet, and you must not stop until the job is finished otherwise the grapes will go sour. Once the pressing was done, the grapes that were pressed are collected in a corner of the patitiri, and heavy, flat pieces of wood were placed on top of them over night for the remaining juices to strain out.

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With so much work it is no wonder that people of Crete are proud of their own production. If the vineyards survived during the maturation period without any damage from the weather or other imponderable factors, there was the responsibility of collecting the grapes and creating the wine that made the end result even sweeter (even if it wasn’t).

Grapes and wine are inseparable for the life of the Cretan. The grape is an incredible fruit that offered so many things to the people of Crete and they in turn make sure they respect and continue their tradition around grapes and wine making. From the depths of history to the amazing, courageous, and very well educated wine makers of today Cretan wine and grape harvest lives on. Perhaps my wish is for the younger generations to continue these traditions and education. After all it is this combination that suckles them into being courageous and take the risks involved in modern wine making. The science of wine making suggests that today you must not step on the grape since it is the skin of the pulp that gives you the flavor, but it definitely does not suggest that enjoying the family moments of the hard labor of trigos does damage to the wine. It is these moments, as they combine with the amazing Cretan landscape that visitors must seek in order to make their experience on the island unique and UNFORGETTABLE.

Let’s Talk About Wine in Crete!!! Part 1-HISTORY

The celebrations and feasts of the first 15 days of August are now past which means that wine harvest is about to begin. The weather this year has been really strange and unusual but this means all the more interesting time for winemakers of the island and this years production. A year full of unexpected rain, late summer and no heat waves can only mean a new interesting product from the grapes of the island. Wine making and the people of Crete go hand in hand for centuries. It is this time of the year that it is just about right to talk about grape harvest, Cretan wine making and the importance of wine on one of the most interesting wine making regions of the world.

History

The majority of of wine making varieties that are cultivated on the island, as well as, Europe belong to the Vitis Vinifera, the vine that brings wine in a more lose translation. The Vitis Vinifera comes in Europe from Caucasus where the land and climatic conditions made it ideal for its development and growth.

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Wine making and viticulture develops during the agricultural revolution (5000 B.C.) with the Arians, the Persians and the Assyrians to be among the first people to cultivate vineyards. The Egyptians, the Phoenicians and the Greeks are said to have learned the art of wine making from them. For many years the Egyptians and the people of Mesopotamia were the best in wine production, but soon their glory was lost by the Greeks and Phoenicians because of the quality of grapes grown in their areas.

In Crete wine making and viticulture have been essential for the growth of the Minoan civilization and the importance of the island in antiquity.  The archeological evidence of wine making dates to 4000 years ago, while Vathipetro is a location in central Crete where the oldest wine press is found and dates 3500 years ago. Homeric poems make special reference to the world famous wines from Crete. Large amphora, the discovery of underground storage facilities, as well as, Minoan fresco and artifacts demonstrate the importance of wine making in Minoan everyday life.

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The Minoans being conquerors of the seas and the largest naval force at their time have developed trade to a great extend with other countries. Besides, trade is what made the Minoans the force they came to be. Wine was among the chosen products for exportation and it did rather well judging from the archeological evidence. Wall paintings in Egypt depict Minoan ships arriving to the Egyptian ports, while the discovery of a ship wreck close to the coast of Turkey revealed an amphora filled with wine that dated 3000 years ago. Finally the Law Code of Gortyn is the oldest legal text in Europe makes special reference on wine making laws.

The Romans brought a new dimension to wine making on the island. Their need for large amounts forced the cultivation of vineyards all over the island, while at the same time helping people of Crete to advance their knowledge and specialization skills on wine making. This combination led to the exportation of Cretan wine to Rome.

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However with the arrival of Christianity and the division of the Roman Empire to Eastern and Western, as well as, the implication of Crete to different battles stalled and even damaged the wine production practices on the island. it was only until the taking over of the Venetians that the local wine making sees new developments. Cretans use the marketing connections of the Venetians and the safety they provided in the Mediterranean in order to start export again. Special Cretan varieties such as the Malvazia Di Candia the Malvazia of Crete become famous as far as England. Records of the time suggest that the king of England had to send an ambassador to Crete in order to regulate the prices and exportation. Annual reports of the year 1445 make reference of 20.000 barrels being exported from the ports of Crete.

The end of the Venetian Era meant the end of the Cretan wine in the rest of Europe too. Ottomans gave little attention to the continuation of this trade and kept most of the production within the shores of Crete. This turned the production into family oriented productions with each house producing their own wine for domestic consumption.

From the 19th Century to Today

The transitional periods in Cretan wine making have a significant importance if we want to understand the basis upon people understand and use wine in Crete today. The domestification of wine making and its sudden change from a “world commodity” to a local product brought a lot of changes to how people perceive it today. Even today, in the modern, western, open wine palleted world industrial wine making in Crete is owned by families that try hard to establish themselves in the world wine market.

Domestic wine making meant the shift of attention from the local market completely. In Venetian times perhaps there was also no local wine market but there was a local hub that was responsible for the exportation and distribution of the product in different markets. After the Ottoman empire each winemaker or vineyard owner was making wine for his own household. This meant that the wine experience as we know it today did not exist. The hard work wine harvesting involved, as well as, the delicate and sensitive work wine making is made each wine maker and producer very proud for the end result. A visit in any household was accompanied with the offering of the house wine. The guest was also the wine critic and the household marketing before the offering would be one to highlight how special and unique the house wine is. “You have never tried such wine. It is a plain blessing. If you will not like it i will be very surprised. It has no additional flavors like other put. Berries, apples, pears and the like. This is pure.” Even if the wine was close to vinegar the passion and sparkle in the eyes of the maker would oblige the visitor to agree.

Today similar perceptions exist and are very lively. Truth be told if anyone ever tries to make wine, one must be extremely objective in order to develop the flavors desired. It is very hard after so much time, effort and hard work to admit to failure when the result is something not bad. Wine is not like food. You cannot ditch it and make another. If it is bad, it is a years efforts going to waste. So it is not hard to imagine why these perceptions develop and exist. A region so rich in wine making and export can only develop passionate feelings about its products.

Modern wineries although they prize their products they are open to co-operations and teamwork for the promotion of their products. The result is not bad at all. In my humble, nevertheless Cretan oriented opinion, Cretan wines have nothing to be jealous of. They can stand on any competition or market with pride and highlight their specificity and uniqueness, which is the combination of both the terroir, as well as, the hard work and specialized knowledge of the local wine makers.