Crete, Greece

From Santorini, we took the ferry over to Crete. The plan was to spend our three mornings in a private cooking class, then visit a few nearby towns by bus in the afternoons, but that didn’t work out. During the first “cooking” class, we made a salad and some tomato-topped bread. No joke. For the second, the teacher was half an hour late; we were on the verge of leaving when she finally arrived, but after expressing our unhappiness with the state of things, we went ahead and did the second class, and made a few things like stuffed veggies and three different arrangements of spanakopita – though all with pie crust rather than phyllo!? While it was much better than the first class, overall we were still pretty unhappy, so we canceled the third.

Crete

We spent that afternoon driving around much of the eastern half of the island, and the next morning we did some wine and olive oil tasting. Again, the wine was excellent and extremely reasonably priced; it’s a shame that Greek vignerons haven’t yet joined together in order to do more on the foreign market. Everyone knows Greek olive oil, but ask most people about Greek wine and they’ll shudder: “Retsina, yuck!” In fact, there are fantastic whites, reds, and rosés everywhere you turn. We went to several excellent wineries, but our favorite was the organic winery Stilianou, where we chatted with three generations of the family before the father had to go out into the fields. We enjoyed every minute of his 12-year-old son’s explanations (in heavily accented English), while the boy’s beaming grandfather (who spoke no English) looked on proudly. The olive oil and the rosé were among the best we’ve ever tasted.

The coolest thing we did on Crete was visit a shepherd. After canceling the last cooking class, we met a Cretan who was delighted to have the opportunity to show us around the island. Once we mentioned cheese, he suggested that we visit his friend, one of the island’s last remaining shepherds and traditional cheese makers. We piled in our rental car and drove way up into the mountains.

Cretan cheese
Fresh anthotiros (in back)
and packed/dated cheese curds

When we arrived, the shepherd was yet further up in the mountains collecting his flock, so we waited for an hour before we even met him. He brought his several dozen sheep down, milked them, and then proceeded to make cheese curds in a giant pot over a gas flame. After letting us taste the curds (squeaky!), he packed them into rounds, “embossed” them with plastic numbers representing the date, coated them with salt, and then put them to rest in his cave, where they’ll age for a year or so. Then he reheated the whey to make a ricotta-type cheese, which I believe he called anthotiros. We ate small bowls of this incredibly creamy cheese in warm whey, and I would have happily bought the whole batch on the spot if it hadn’t already been promised to someone else.

Cretan cheese
Aged cheese

He then brought out a round of last year’s hard cheese and cut it up – it was like a very sharp and spicy parmesan. Definitely something to grate over pasta, rather than eat by the cube.

All told, we were up on that mountain for six hours, and we were bored senseless half the time. This place is not a tourist attraction; the shepherd is a friend of the guy who took us, and we were just there observing him perform his daily tasks on his own schedule. He spoke no English, so our guide – who spoke broken English – interpreted as best he could. But the “active” half was well worth it.

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