It was 12 years ago this spring that my husband and I went to Greece on our honeymoon, and I’ve had a love affair with Greece and Greek food ever since.
We spent a large part of our trip on the island of Crete, where the wildflowers and wild thyme were in bloom, and where many endemic plant and animal species and subspecies are not to be found anywhere else in the world. It’s a truly magnificent and diverse island in its terrain, culture and in the food. The inhabitants of Crete are especially known for their healthy lifestyles, and for food dishes featuring what’s locally available—and some of the world’s best foragers of wild plants live there. To this day, I will never forget my first taste of Horta, wild greens cooked in garlic, olive oil and lemon, and what a revelation it was to me to realize that I could love greens. There was also Horiatiki, a refreshing salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, kalamata olives and feta. And oh, those Cretan hot pots—stews of meat, herbs and vegetables, topped with grated hard local cheese and then cooked in small covered clay pots—something I would love to taste again and cannot replicate.
While staying in the western town of Chania, we were taken under the wing of a local, well-known and well-loved weaver named Mihalis Manousakis, the owner of Roka Carpets (http://www.cretegazette.com/2008-05/chania-carpets.php). This charming and fascinating man invited us into his 600-year-old Venetian building to sit and watch while he weaved his magic on a 400-year-old loom with the assistance of his cat—sharing with us some of his own homemade Raki from his vineyard in nearby Rethymno, regaling us with stories of his life, the history of weaving and the meaning of the traditional patterns in the rugs. He also shared all of his favorite restaurants and haunts in the city, and told us about not-to-miss sites and lovely drives we could take into the mountains and surrounding countryside.
This was how we found ourselves in the White Mountains on the way to the Samaria Gorge, and where I first tasted Souvlaki, marinated pork, skewered and simply grilled, and served with the Greek cucumber-yogurt sauce known as Tzatziki, which is also served as a mezze (appetizer). Every time I eat this, it transports me back to that small taverna on a mountainside, smelling the fragrance of pork, thyme and garlic, eating Al fresco, and drinking locally made Retsina wine from a pop bottle, and all the while watching the shepherds herding their Kri-Kri (Cretan goats) across the peaceful mountain terrain. In fact, I believe the name of the taverna was the Kri-Kri!
When we returned to the states after our trip to Greece, I wanted to recreate some of the flavors we experienced there—tzatziki in particular, but alas, there was no true Greek yogurt to be found in the U.S at the time. Fortunately, a few short years later FAGE showed up in our local farmer’s market, and now you can buy it in many grocery stores nationwide. It’s the real deal, and reminiscent of the yogurt we had all over Greece.
Yesterday, while I was perusing a friend’s fun little blog about life on their family farm in Alabama (Our Green Acres), I was inspired by a photo she had posted showing a basket of beautiful fresh cucumbers. It reminded me of all the cooling summer dishes and drinks you can make featuring cucumbers, and of the time we spent in Greece, eating horiatiki and tzatziki.
After much experimentation and searching for Greek-inspired recipes over the years, I’ve found some that are terrific—and many of them come from a southerner, Cat Cora, the famous Iron Chef, who is a Greek gal born in Mississippi. Her version of the souvlaki is wonderful, and the tzatziki is a perfect replica of what I remember from Greece. And since I was feeling cucumber-inspired, I made the tzatziki to go with souvlaki and we had it for dinner last evening.
This probably won’t be my only post about Greek food and Greece. It’s an amazing place and if you ever go, please don’t miss out on visiting Crete, you won’t be disappointed. If you already like Greek food, or if you think you’d like to try it, I highly recommend this cookbook, Cat Cora’s Kitchen: Favorite Meals for Family and Friends. The recipes are easy to follow and all that I’ve tried have been good.
To all my cucumber growing friends out there, this post is for you, and may your cucumbers always be fruitful and multiply…and made into good things like tzatziki! To Mihalis Manousakis, efharisto…I hope you are well, flourishing and still weaving those magical carpets of yours, and I do hope we see you again. And last but not least, to my husband Dave: S’Agapo, and thank you for sharing life’s adventures with me.