Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The good life: Greek island bliss

Above: Knossos Palace, Crete.

Sometimes we don't need to go very far to have the best vacation ever.  We don't need to overload our activity plan with millions of ambitious trips, we don't need to have a check-list of highly recommended must-do's, we don't have to want it all and want it now.  Eating good food, drinking local wine and simply enjoying the sun and the sea breeze is, frankly, all you need.  
Because when you're in paradise, a little goes a long way...

Below: the lovely village of Loutro, Crete (close to the Samaria Gorge).
Above: restaurant Okeanis in Elounda, Crete -- spicy meatballs, tzatziki, Mum's Aubergines, Cretan bread, lamb in wine stew, fava.

During our summer holidays, we usually go somewhere way more exotic than Europe, move from hotel to hotel every day, plan ambitious trips and explore-explore-explore!  Or actually, should I say "deplore, deplore, deplore"?  Yep, the result is often that we come back more exhausted than we were before leaving, and that we need another week of vacation to rest after our vacation. 
Well, not this time.  This summer we went to the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini, adamant to do justice to our newly adopted resolution "this time we R E S T".  And boy - did we have the time of our lives...

Below: breathtaking village of Oia, Santorini
Above: a selection of mezze: dolmadakia, olive & feta pancakes, zucchini pancakes, and tyrokafteri.
People living in the Mediterranean have an incredible knack (unfathomable to us, People of the North) of truly living the moment: unwinding, making the small worldly pleasures count, taking the time to enjoy a glass of good wine in even better company -- be it of a good friend, or of a good book (or of good cheese ;-) ).  
Food is strikingly simple, but mind-blowingly delicious.  Some signature local products - such as bread, cheese, olive oil, honey - are paired with the unquestionable stars of the meals: sun-fed fruit and vegetables.  And so the dance begins: ** fragrant juicy tomatoes with salty goat's cheese, fruity olives, red onions and herbs ** tangy vine leaves wrapped around soft rice, and dipped in a fresh cucumber-lemon tzatziki ** thick, velvety yoghurt with lightly roasted almonds, sweet figs and golden honey **  A dance I could dance whole day...
Below: the breakfast of Kings: Horiatiki salad, a selection of olives and cheeses, fresh vegetables.
Above: the breakfast of Kings: spanakopita, tyropita, baked tomato with salty cheese and basil, sesame bread stick.

I completely rediscovered Greek food while in Greece.  Obviously I have had it before in Greek restaurants located in other parts of the world, but it was not the real deal.  That's why I generally preferred Italian or Spanish cuisine when going for Mediterranean food. 
The trip to Greece was an epiphany: Greek food is absolutely amazing!  Of course the freshness and flavorfulness of the local ingredients contributed to this epiphany: a Greek salad in Greece and a Greek salad outside of Greece are two different stories...
Below and middle: the breakfast of Kings: thick, Greek sheep's milk yoghurt, dried fruit, roasted nuts, preserves, honey.  Local coffee and sweets.
Above: huge watermelons, fresh figs - torn in half and growing on trees.

During the trip we tasted quite a few local specialties.  At Okeanis, a traditional restaurant near Elounda, Crete, we started our evening with a selection of mezze - small appetizers.  The set included the locally famous "Mum's Aubergines" - aubergines slowly baked in a clay pot, with tomatoes and herbs, sprinkled with salty cheese (no wonder the dish was praised by local newspapers: the flavors were simply divine!); fava - a rich, earthy puree of yellow split peas sprinkled with spring onions; tzatziki - a wonderfully fresh cucumber and garlic yoghurt dip; spicy mint meatballs; and a Cretan specialty called "Cretan bread" - slightly stale, hard bread, topped with diced garlic tomatoes (moistening and softening the bread), grated salty cheese, olives and herbs - giving a very original, yet tasty, flavor combination.  As a main course, we ordered lamb, slowly cooked in a sweet red wine sauce -- the meat was simply divine, super tender and spicy.  Before we left, the owners surprised us with a free dessert - a great finish of a delicious meal.

We also tried other mezze on Santorini and Crete.  Among our favorites were the classic dolmadakia (dolmas in Turkey) - marinated vine leaves stuffed with rice, served with a fresh lemony tzatziki; tyrokafteri - a spicy feta & hot pepper spread, one of our favorite things during the trip; as well as various little pancakes -- with olives, zucchini, feta, spinach etc.

What is also amazing in Greece is the seafood.  Different kinds of seafood are incorporated in mezze (e.g., fish roe paste taramosalata), but to me there is nothing better than fresh fish from the grill.  The lovely, romantic little restaurant Taverna Giorgos in Plaka, Crete, serves the best grilled fish I ever had.  The jovial and extremely friendly owner welcomes you to choose a specimen from his catch of the day -- fish he freshly caught in his fishing boat earlier that day.  I tried a red sea bream, which was divine -- meaty and flavorful -- you could really taste the freshness of the fish.  Pair that with a glass of good wine and a sea-view-to-die-for, and your evening is perfect.

Above: Taverna Giorgos, Plaka, Crete: a selection of mezze; grilled freshly caught red sea bream.

I can hardly imagine a better place to relax and enjoy the good life than Crete.  I'm sure we will go back some day, and, who knows, maybe even buy a little summer house there (there is no harm in dreaming, right?).  I can already see myself sitting on the terrace, watching the sun set, sipping good Cretan wine and munching on some local pistachios. 

So why not repeat after the Greek philosopher Epicurus: "Pleasure is the beginning and the end of living happily"...? 

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