Crete holds us hostage. Not too bad...
Morning comes beaming in to our top-floor, seafront room in Sitia town centre.
First stop is Toplou monastery, on a peninsula on the North-eastern edge of Crete and a national park blissfully devoid of concrete. The monastery has only four resident monks but their activities far outweigh their modest number with a sizeable olive oil production, winery and distillery, largely down to their enterprising patriarch. Past the monastery you find the Vai palm tree forest, fed from a freshwater spring.
Toplou Monastery, Sitia, North-eastern Crete
Vai Palm tree forest
Monastery wines don’t predispose you well but Toplou is a pleasant surprise. The winemaker is the suitably softly-spoken Manthos, whose aim is to produce terroir-driven wines. At 35oN and practically sea-level, this means a lot of sun and heat bearing down on the 30ha of organic monastery vineyards planted with local varieties such as Thrapsathiri, Vilana, Assyrtiko and Liatiko, as well as Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, producing punchy, high-alcohol wines. The results are a set of great food-pairing wines, with real development showing with each vintage of his Liatiko.
Liatiko is an old Cretan red variety, the name, so the story goes, deriving from Iouliatiko (i.e. of July) suggesting it ripens early. However everyone we speak to dismisses this. It has a very pale colour and turns a dull orange with age so is often blended with Mandilari for a deeper red hue. Liatiko produces gentle wines with soft tannins and aromas of sweet red fruit and spices. It is used in the PDO appellations of Dafnes and Sitia. Traditionally Liatiko was used in sweet wines and is still used to produce naturally high-alcohol sweet wines.
Liatiko produces wonderfully delicate light red wines, that
turn browny-orange with age.
From Toplou we drive south through rolling countryside with olive groves, vineyards, streams and cypress trees and up through small villages to reach Domaine Economou, on the Ziros plateau, run by Giannis Economou.
Giannis is a collector and fixer of all manner of farm equipment - rusty old tractors, hand ploughs and a French bottling machine from the 50s - and has a similarly hands-on and adept touch with his vines and natural wines.
The production focuses on two labels, a blend of Thrapsathiri and Vilana and a Liatiko, from old, ungrafted, bush vines.
40+ year-old ungrafted bush vines of Cretan Liatiko. Plough looks a bit older.
Giannis has made his name releasing wines only when he thinks they are ready so the 2009 might follow the 2012. He demonstrates the new vintages by scrambling around barrels and tanks to blend them in our glass with the aim of matching the style of the previous vintages he’s opened for us to try (2006, 1999 and 1998). Sublime.
Old vintages tasting
From here we drive along the Southern coast of Crete through acres of greenhouses growing tomatoes, oranges and bananas and then vast plains of olive trees where the air is still heavy with the smell of ripe olives long after the harvest.
The limestone soils of Dafnes
Our destination is the village of Dafnes, nestled in the hills above Heraklio, the chaotic capital of Crete. The last winery of the day is Douloufakis, run by Nikos Douloufakis and his wife Katerina, who produce the local PDO wine from 100% Liatiko, handling the delicate grape by aging 60% in mostly old barrels and the rest in tank. The sister wine to the Dafnios Liatiko is the Dafnios white, which is made from the new star of Cretan white varieties – Vidiano. The variety has good acidity, a full body and complex aromas of apricot, peach, herbs and minerality. Nikos is also famous for his single-vineyard, barrel aged Vidiano ‘Aspros Lagos’. The new vintage will be with us soon.
Βarrels for Vidiano
Nikos trained at the prestigious Alba wine-making school in Italy, which, combined with a fortuitous local planting of Sangiovese, produces his winemaker’s favourite - a wonderfully deep and complex Sangiovese-Cabernet blend. He puts the great concentration of his wines down to the area’s limestone soils.
Dafnes is where Stef’s grandmother was from so we are enveloped again by the generous hospitality of friends and neighbours and fed a home-cooked meal with local rabbit braised and chicken soup.
The next morning we waited at Heraklion departures for the plane to take us back to Athens but Crete has other ideas. Strong winds had been blowing from the South all night and though they had died down, conditions at the airport, which is particularly vulnerable to gusts from the South, were still treacherous. An hour late, the plane from Athens comes into land but after one failed attempt turns straight back to Athens…
Tuesday 22 March 2016
Arrived the night before in Herakleio and drove across to Rethymno where we turn inland to cross to the south of the island through the narrow Kotsifou gorge. Stayed overnight at Plakias with Stef’s brother and his wife who whip up a delicious supper at very short notice. In the morning the locals prostrate themselves.
Yannos dazzles a fan
Black goats contemplating life
Started on the South coast and went across to Sfakia, dodging endless herds of sheep and goats roaming the roads of the Wild West of Crete. From there we turn up to reach a high plateau in the Leyka Ori to find the cheesemaker Manousos, who showed us the production of his galomyzithra, graviera (coming soon) and fresh anthotyro.
Production, which started at 5am, takes up the rest of the morning, after which it’s down to the kafeneio for a coffee, followed by homemade pitas stuffed with fresh anthotiro and drizzled with honey, and a couple of glasses of raki…
Cheesemaker Manousos and his team in Lefka Ori
This is high-altitude cheese making with temperatures around freezing in winter. Most herds are still down near the cost and come up during the hot summers. An oasis of calm on the island that feels completely untouched.
Manousos Graviera having a rest
We have a rest
Next stop is Michael – one of the very few organic pig farmers in the whole of Greece. It has taken a lot of determination. He was refused permission by his neighbours in the low plains, by his olive groves, to set up a free-range pig farm so had to reach a remote spot, high in the mountains, where he and his pigs could find the freedom they need.
The pigs are rotated on small pastures, seeded with a mix of grass, grains and beans where they can rout around all day under the Cretan sun. Reared to at least 6 or 7 months, they are then slaughtered locally and processed into prime cuts, delicious organic sausages with wild herbs and greens, smoked with thyme and sage or into traditional Cretan apaki by Michael and his son.
Organic pig farming in Oropedio Tavris
We round off the day by visiting uncle Spiros, found lounging in an armchair by the fire, engrossed in a history of Crete, before crossing the rest of the island (500km today) to spend the night in Sitia, right on the Eastern edge.
More unconditional hospitality from Christina’s family (Christina can be found every weekend at Maltby St Market demonstrating much of the same) with a feast of (mostly) Lent dishes – broad beans, unshelled, xigalo (a soured milk cream-cheese) great with the rusks the family is famous for, snails in vinegar and rosemary, raw artichokes, oh and more of that raki..
(to be continued)
As you might suspect, Greeks don’t actually call it ‘Greek yoghurt’, they call it straggisto, which just means strained. And that is the key to what makes this yoghurt special – the straining removes some of the whey (mostly water and sugar) leaving behind that concentrated, thick, creamy-yet-tart centre, full of proteins, nutrients and fat (not the daemon after all). The horrifying thing is that a lot of the Greek or ‘Greek-style’ yoghurt you find in the supermarket has skipped the step of straining (which defines it as Greek yoghurt) and instead various thickeners have been added to plain yoghurt in an attempt to emulate the consistency, while saving money (all that weight lost through straining...).
A herd roaming the hillsides of southern Evia – Courtesy of West Essex Ramblers
Another, almost universal, fact is that commercial Greek yoghurts are made from cow’s milk. Cows aren’t very common in Greece and there are very few pastures for dairy herds to roam. What you do find is herds and herds of sheep and goats roaming the rough, mountainous terrain, chewing on the grasses, flowers, herbs and bushes growing amongst the rocks. So a real Greek yoghurt is going to be made from sheep’s milk or goat’s milk, or some combination of the two (like most Greek cheeses, including feta). As you would expect, apart from the various health benefits over cow’s milk, all that wild pasture will come out in the milk.
Goat food – Courtesy of West Essex Ramblers
We have been lucky enough to find a cheese and yoghurt-maker in Greece who really cares about quality, traditional methods and the provenance of his produce. Apart from their incredible barrel-aged feta (more on which another day), they produce real Greek sheep and goat’s milk yoghurts.
The milk all comes from the island of Evia and specifically from the south, in the area around Karystos. It is a remote and wild region, with very little human intervention. The flocks are made up of indigenous breeds, which are adapted to the rugged terrain and are, therefore, small-bodied and low-yielding, but produce far-superior quality milk, full of the flavours of the Greek countryside on which they roam. All the flocks are free range and are organic in practice and in the process of certification. The milk is then completely hand-made into strained yoghurt using traditional methods and absolutely no additives or preservatives. The result is an almost overwhelming range and depth of flavour and a non-homogenous consistency that will keep you coming back for more.
The local Karystos goat – Courtesy of West Essex Ramblers
The only place to try the yoghurt currently is at the Hungry Donkey in Spitalfields, who are serving it for breakfast or pudding with delicious Cretan honey, fruit and nuts. Or you can buy it directly from our website, every Tuesday (when it arrives fresh from Greece).