Tasting the wonderful flavours of Crete

Marion Ainge enjoys a gastronomy-themed week at the Mistral Hotel, Western Crete

Under the hot Cretan sun, we gather richly-coloured vegetables and fruit from the hotel garden for our lunch. Huge sweet tomatoes plus fat yellow and green peppers to be stuffed with herb-flavoured rice, courgettes for local dish, Boureka; plump, purple aubergines and vivid yellow lemons go into each basket.

Marion picking vegetables at The Mistral

I’m at The Mistral Hotel’s Flavours of Crete week which celebrates the island’s healthy Mediterranean diet, considered to be ‘one of the healthiest in the world’. The gastronomy week features a feast of local, culinary treasures and provides an opportunity for guests to learn the basics of Cretan cuisine.

Clad in apron and hat (not my best look) in the hotel kitchen I mix, I stir, I roll, I fold – under the watchful eye of chef, Kiki and Mama Katerina (joint hotel owner Adonis’ mother, 84 and going strong) who smile encouragement at my valiant efforts to make signature cheese pies and Boureks. Extra virgin olive oil is added by the cupful into almost every dish. Most families take olives from their own trees to local producers and then collect and use the oil for themselves. Although I say it myself, our lunch is delicious.

Marion at the ancient Olive Tree of Vouves

One day, our host, Adonis, drives us to see the olive tree of Vouves, estimated to be around 2000 years old and to visit the Olive Tree Museum. Located within a 19th century house, the museum displays the traditional tools and process of olive oil cultivation. Extra virgin olive oil is an antioxidant, can lower cholesterol and improve several aspects of heart health. Studies show that olive oil may reduce blood pressure and inflammation. Branches of the ancient tree were used to weave wreaths for the winners’ of the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics.

To Faragi taverna

At the delightful To Faragi family taverna we sit at a long, tree-shaded table where sharing plates of authentic Cretan cuisine keep coming – crisp salads, home-made bread, tzatziki, dolmades, battered, fried courgette flowers; artichokes, fresh fish and roast lamb washed down with local red and white wine. Then the small bottles of raki, traditionally served in friendship, arrive. Old Cretan grandmothers believed raki was a cure for most ailments. This alcoholic spirit was rubbed on the chest of a wheezy child, boiled with sugar to treat a cold and used to soothe a teething baby’s gums. No such ailments in our group, but we down the raki anyway. It would have been impolite not to.

Mistral Hotel

Guests at The Mistral also soak up the generous hospitality and goodwill which overflows at this relaxed hotel for single travellers, situated in Maleme on the western coast of Crete. A bus stop just outside runs a service to the glorious old town of Chania with its Venetian harbour and in the other direction to Platanias and other small beach resorts. I love it here. It’s so easy to make friends and ideal for solos, aimed at the over 50s, but some are in their 60s to 70s on my visit. Adonis and his team of ever-smiling staff do all they can to make guests happy and comfortable. Every one of the 35 double bedrooms has a balcony or terrace and there’s a swimming pool at the front and at the back of this small, very friendly hotel. Because of some traffic noise at the front, I ask for a room at the back where it’s quieter. 

People meet for a pre-dinner drink at the circular bar. Then at a long table, outside weather permitting, home-cooked Cretan sharing plates and copious amounts of wine (included in the price of the stay) are served.  Often there’s a DJ with music and dancing in the evening and fun Greek Nights as well. I share some moves with expert dancer, Panos who leans me over backwards (Strictly Come Dancing style)  Ooh I liked that! Then I partner Adonis until Athena, his two-year old daughter, sees us and starts crying for Baba/ Daddy. 

There’s a burst of colour and flavours galore at the Kolymbari farmers’ market where stallholders display their wonderful selection of cheeses, meats, vegetables, fruit and herbs. At the nearby Pnevmatikakis winery, we taste so many different, award-winning wines that we’re glad to partake of the meze bites offered to keep us steady. The Kolymbari harbour cafe is a welcome coffee stop.

Pic of Botanical Park and Gardens of Crete

Botanical Park and Gardens of Crete

Around 165 metres above sea level, over 20 hectare the Botanical Park and Gardens of Crete showcase fruit trees from all over the world, plus medicinal and ornamental specimens where the land’s formation and the region’s microclimate make it a paradise for thousands of specimens and animals. An adventure walk in nature of between one to two hours, follows paths of unique natural beauty. Inside the building we learn how to make mountain herb tea and wholesome vegetable soup.

At the entrance to the Maracaibo Taverna in Kissamos, we see the spit-roasted lamb turning within a glass structure. The rustic-style restaurant is buzzing with lively chatter. Dish after dish of tasty appetizers arrive until the platter of mouth-watering lamb is delivered – not neatly sliced, but roughly chopped Cretan-style.

The highlight of the week must be our visit to the family-owned Sunset Restaurant, almost set on the beautiful beach at Sfinari. Daughter, Marilena, 25, holds up the grouper and the cuttlefish, caught that morning by brother Nicos, 42, one of the island’s best spear fishers. Father, Yannis grows and tends the vegetables and goats. Their own Myzithra cheese is made from the goats’ milk.

Son, Tria, 40, brings a veritable feast of delights to our table. The cuttlefish, prepared by Mama Elena, 62, is stuffed with onion, cheese, sea salt and parsley. The crowning glory of our wonderful lunch is, of course, the grouper, again roughly chopped on a platter, handed round the table.

Cuttlefish on the outdoor grill

Nothing is wasted here. Adonis finds the fisheye on his plate and, without hesitation, pops it into his mouth.

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Marion Ainge

Freelance travel writer & member of the International Travel Writers’ Alliance

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