Cretan Cooking Class

Who would’ve known a Cretan cooking class spent stuffing farm fresh tomatoes and rolling thick Cretan dough would make for one of my favorite nights ever spent in Greece? I knew it would be fun—but not so fun that I had to write about it fun. Best of all, the 20 fellow travelers with me would agree it was the highlight of our trip to Greece.

Our day started bright and early at our hotel in Heraklion, Crete. After quickly scoffing down the typical continental breakfast, we boarded a large charter bus and began our trek to Chania. Along the way, we made a pit stop in my family’s home village of Gavalachori. At the Aposperitis taverna (which is directly opposite of the house my great-grandfather was born) we were treated to a light snack of traditional Cretan fare, including kalitsounia, kolokithokeftedes, dakos, kefalotyri cheese, grapes, olives, and of course the two Cretan favorites of all time—snails barbonitsa washed down with delicious Cretan tsikoudia. Soon we were on the road again to our next destination, the Santa Marina Beach near the beautiful city of Chania. After the four and a half hour journey we arrived at 2:30.

At 4:30 on the dot, a small private bus rolled up to the hotel to pick up our group. Twenty-one of us, plus the driver, managed to cram into the 18-person bus for a scenic 30-minute bus ride to the Metochi farmhouse in Kissamos, Crete. As soon as we all piled out of the bus, we were immediately greeted by the beaming smile of our host, Eleni. We all knew we were in for an unforgettable night.

The class began with a short introduction on a lovely vine covered patio. Since 2013, Eleni has offered her cooking classes three days a week to guests from all over the world in the same home her great-grandfather built in 1926. With her mother Chrisoula by her side, Eleni continued on about Cretan hospitality, culture, food, and fun. At this point we already had our 40 Euros worth.

After washing up, everyone donned an embroidered apron and were led to our cooking stations. First up was our main dish, yemista (stuffed vegetables). We were each given a ripe tomato and pepper to carve and gut. Eleni instructed us to save all of the insides of the tomatoes to add to our filling along with one heaping teaspoon of rice per vegetable used.  A variety of herbs and plenty of extra virgin olive oil were added. We mixed all of that into our filling and began stuffing. As we were stuffing our vegetables, a loud shout of “MAMA!” came from Eleni, and out from the kitchen rushed Chrisoula.

“Mama, will you taste the filling to make sure it’s ok” Eleni asked of her mother in Greek. With just a small taste, Chrisoula shook her head in disapproval, grabbed some salt and more olive oil and mixed the filling around some more. One more taste and Chrisoula nodded her head in approval and we finished our stuffing task.

While the yemista was cooking we were given a tour of the property. Eleni showed off their free-range chickens and sheep, and walked us through an enormous vegetable garden surrounded by vast olive groves. Their olives produce all of the extra virgin olive oil Eleni and her family use. We were also treated to a session of wine tasting in their rustic wine cellar which caused the group spirit to really come alive. We could’ve spent the rest of the night sipping on that 20-year-old wine, but there was still more cooking to do.

Eleni demonstrated how to make tzatziki (Greek yogurt dip), xoriatiki salata (Greek village salad) and dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves and zucchini flowers). As we were stuffing dolmadakia, my Uncle Steve briefly went “live” on Facebook, per request from my Yiayia Saltas and Aunt Paula back in the states. Although I couldn’t see my Yiayia, I did get her classic “doing great Leni girl, sagapo” response in the comment section of the video. A poor Wi-Fi connection led to disconnecting from the “live” feature, much to my Yiayia’s dismay.

In the kitchen, everyone packed around the table to watch Chrisoula’s magic hands turn cups of flour and water into a huge batch of dough in a matter of minutes. Taking turns in groups of five or six at a time, we were each given a small portion of the dough to roll out into long thin sheets. Scoops of mizithra cheese were spooned and rolled on the dough, cut and laid aside. We were prepping kalitsounia (Cretan sweet cheese pies), which would later be fried for our dessert. Stomachs began to rumble.

Eleni either heard the noise in our bellies or her years of experience taught her at this point her guests typically get hungry. Soon Eleni and her mother brought out small plates of barley rusks. We topped the rusks with grated tomatoes, creamy mizithra cheese, and extra virgin olive oil and assembled my favorite Cretan dish—dakos. Dakos is easy to make and I do make it often, but it just tasted so much better in Crete, with the freshness of local mizithra cheese and smooth homemade olive oil.

After Dakos, it was time to enjoy the real fruits of our labor. The table was set and loaded with large plates of warm crusty bread and everything we made that day—yemista, dolmadakia, salata, and tzatziki. There was plenty of food to feed our large army and then some. But wait. Chrisoula then brought out a huge pan of stifado (beef stew). It was a pleasant and delicious surprise for us all. Like magic, bottles of homemade wine appeared and with a yamas! (cheers to us) from Eleni, we clinked our glasses, took a sip and dug in. Just when we thought we had enough, Eleni reminded us of our kalitsounia dessert. Everyone grabbed their bellies and laughed. But my heart sank. I love Greek dessert and can always make room for them, but it meant our night was coming to a close.


In typical Cretan fashion, just when you think it has to be over, more sweets—and tsikoudia appeared. Tsikoudia (aka tsipouro on the mainland) is a strong spirit distilled from grapes. After a meal, restaurant or home owners will serve the drink with a dessert as a sign of hospitality and gratitude (like we had back at Aposperitis). Eleni and Chrisoula joined us for our last bites of dessert and toasted our group to a great night and wished us to return in the future, and to always remember them. I will. We all said our final goodbyes and left the Metochi Farmhouse with more than just stuffed stomachs.

The long evening taught us more than how to cook fantastic Cretan dishes. It showed us what Crete is all about—simple and healthy food prepared with fresh ingredients, good drinks, even better parea (joyous spirited company). If you have an appreciation for Mediterranean cuisine, you should take a cooking class in Crete or anywhere in Greece. There’s no better way to learn about a different culture than through its cuisine. Thank you, Eleni and Chrisoula for such great hospitality.

 

For more information on this cooking class visit: http://balos-travel.com/en/alternative-tourism-crete-greece/cretan-traditional-cooking-lessons/

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