Cretan Holiday

Saganaki with Sautéed Grapes 

So I’m home safe and sound after a wonderful trip to the Pacific Northwest, and in an attempt to combat my jet lag with mindless tasks, I found myself cleaning out the drafts folder on one of my older email accounts a couple of days ago. That was where I ran across the following story, which I apparently wrote and then promptly forgot about, oh, eight years ago. It describes an experience Manuel and I had while traveling in Greece in September 1999, and while at first I didn’t think it had much relevance to a food blog, lurking at the very end was a passing reference to one of my all-time favorite Greek dishes – salty, crusty cheese saganaki. Of course I had to run off and make some as soon as I had finished reading; if the mere mention of fried cheese gets your stomach growling as much as it does mine, I would suggest you do the same.

When we stepped out into the street that morning, a chilly breeze was blowing the scent of salt in from the sea. It was so early that the harbor lay silent and empty as we trudged past, the fishermen still at work and the tourists still asleep, the dockside restaurants dozing between the last of the nighttime revelers and the first of the morning patrons. Rubbing our arms against the chill, we checked our watches and hurried up to the bus station against the slow lightening of a perfectly clear sky.

We were well toward the end of a month-long stay in the Greek Islands, and the time had come to do what every tourist brochure insisted we must: hike the famous Samaria Gorge on the island of Crete. The hike had in fact been recommended to us well before we ever browsed a tourist brochure – a friend of my mother’s had waxed so nostalgic about hiking the gorge in her youth that we were afraid she would invite herself to come along. But even without the personal recommendation we would have found it hard to resist undertaking one of the most celebrated of Greek tourist activities. It seemed that every tourist agency south of Athens heralded the same large posters of scantily-clad hikers lounging casually beneath spectacularly towering cliffs. Luckily three weeks of feasting on moussaka and retsina hadn’t overly dampened our athletic vigor, and the prospect of a relaxing, mildly challenging stroll through beautiful countryside seemed the perfect antidote to our holiday hedonism.

The Samaria Gorge is famous both for its history and its dramatic landscapes. It has the distinction of being Europe’s largest gorge and is Crete’s only national park. Its enormous striated cliffs, we had read, were formed over the course of fourteen million years not by snowmelt, but by rainwater which only flows a few months out of the year. It is home a wide variety of microclimates unique to the Greek Islands that range from lush forests to parched semi-desert, and if we were lucky, we might see some of the rare fauna that has sought refuge in the gorge from the habitat destruction and rampant overdevelopment on other parts of Crete.

We were not too surprised to find the bus station packed to the hilt with prospective hikers. As our guidebook had said, the only way to complete the hike and arrive in enough time to catch the bus back to Hania was to leave as early as possible, and not wanting to pressure our hike we opted for the first bus leaving at six-fifteen. From the looks of it, everyone had the same idea.

If we had learned anything about Greece in September it was to dress for the heat. Today we had donned our usual shorts and t-shirts, but on the advice of our guidebook that the hike was ‘rougher than you expect’, we bagged our sandals at the last minute and strapped on hiking boots. Though maybe we overreacted, I worried, as I caught sight of others in sarongs and rubber flip-flops. Probably our sandals would have been fine.

Two hours later the bus spilled us out at the top of the gorge along with the contents of several dozen other buses, most of them chartered by tour groups. People were still wrapped up in sweaters, but already it was apparent the day was going to be a scorcher. As we dug out our sunglasses and strapped on our packs, my eye was drawn to a well-muscled, middle-aged hiker in animated conversation with a group near the trail head. It took me a second of feeling very unfit by comparison before I realized he was a park ranger, and his bulging leg muscles no doubt attested to his daily familiarity with this trail.

From the parking lot, the trail began with a steep series of switchbacks through a cool pine forest down to the riverbed. Although we were mired in a continuous parade of people, we were convinced that as soon as everyone settled into their pace things would clear up a bit. We even stopped for a drink when we reached the river, thinking that if we let the initial rush of people pass, we would have the trail for ourselves.  We glanced back up at the three thousand knee-jarring feet we had just descended. "I guess they don’t give you much option of turning back!" Manuel remarked wearily.

Although we waited for more than twenty minutes, the people didn’t thin out. In fact, they seemed to be increasing in density. So we packed up our water bottles and rejoined the parade.

The trail was beautiful, passing from lush forests into barren moonlike plains, but all the time keeping its bearing along the trickling waters of the river. The river is generally dry for most of the summer, but can increase to a raging torrent in winter, during which time the gorge is closed to hikers.  I had briefly skimmed an account in our guidebook of a flash-flood that swept several hikers out to sea a few years before. "Do you think we should check the weather forecast for tomorrow?" I had asked Manuel the night before. "Are you joking?" he scoffed, "have you seen a cloud in the sky during the last three weeks?" I hadn’t, actually.

So we plodded on under the intense morning sun, chatting a bit with fellow hikers and looking forward to our lunch. Every so often a fast hiker or two would pass us on the trail, but at a certain point I realized that one particular person kept passing us in both directions. It was the park ranger we’d seen at the top. His lean legs moving like pistons, he was constantly racing back and forth along the trail, presumably on the lookout for injured hikers. Every time he passed us he would grin and wave and shout a few words of encouragement.

At some point I became aware that the sun was no longer fiercely burning the top of my head.  I took off my sunglasses and glanced up at the sky. "Is it my imagination or is the sky gray?" I asked Manuel.  He too glanced up. "Hmmm… I think it’s just hazy," he said so confidently I almost believed him. It didn’t really look like haze to me, but since it didn’t look threatening either, I decided not to worry. We were coming to our designated rest spot soon, and there was the more pressing matter of lunch.

Our rest spot, the remains of an abandoned village tucked away in a bend in the river, was swarming with picnickers. We found a spot on a crumbling stone wall and eased ourselves down, and I pulled out the guidebook to read more about flash floods. And then, without warning, as Manuel handed me my sandwich, it began to rain. 

Simultaneously several hundred conversations stopped, and several hundred faces turned to the sky. It was so quiet that you could hear the drops hitting the dusty ground. People looked at each other uneasily for a long moment, as if trying to assess whether this was something they should be concerned about, but with a shrug of their shoulders went back to th
eir conversations and their lunches. I, however, hurriedly scanned the paragraph in the guidebook, which began "Flash floods are a real possibility in the Samaria Gorge, both early and late in the season, and are not to be taken lightly. In 1993 several hikers were killed when a flash flood swept down the gorge and carried them out to sea. Prospective hikers are advised to contact the gorge information hotline for current weather information." We really should have called, I chided myself, but surely if there was trouble in the forecast they would have closed the gorge, wouldn’t they? I calmed myself with the thought that it was most likely just a passing shower.

Just as my heart rate returned to normal, a figure appeared at the entrance to the rest area, gesticulating wildly and whistling for attention. It was the ranger again, now clad in a yellow rain slicker.  We moved closer to hear what he was saying. "You must not rest here any longer," he called out in heavily-accented English. "At the bottom of the gorge it is raining heavily. The walls are very narrow and rocks can slip down. It is very dangerous! Please finish the hike as quickly as you can. Do not stop again." He repeated his message in Greek and then to illustrate his point to the non-English speakers, he indicated the narrowness of the cliff walls at the end of the gorge, and mimed out the process of a large rock hitting him on the head. Gasps went around. A flurry of hikers gathered around him asking more questions, but we didn’t stick around long enough to hear his replies.

Like lightning we repacked our untouched sandwiches and hurried back to the trail.  How much longer was the hike?  We had been hiking for nearly three hours, and guessed that we were near the halfway point of the 18-km (11-mile) trail.  That meant we still had a long way to go.  As the rain increased I kept glancing over my shoulder towards the direction from which we’d come – was it my imagination or were the clouds over the top of the gorge blacker than everything else?  I shuddered in fear. "I don’t want to die in a flood." "Forget about floods," Manuel called over his shoulder, "and watch out for falling rocks. They’re a lot more likely to end your life today." How comforting.

If we weren’t so scared, our situation probably would have seemed humorous. The mass of dripping people plodding through mud and water could have been actors cast in a scene of the biblical Exodus, if it weren’t for all the Gore-tex and nylon. The rain had become a steady downpour and the river was already gaining volume. People with twisted ankles huddled by the side of the trail waiting for help (mostly the flip-flop wearers, we noticed), while others leaned on friends for support as they attempted to navigate the slippery boulders and steep descents. Plank bridges that had been laid out to cross the trickling river were now submerged in swirling water. Manuel gripped my hand tightly as we stumbled along, exhausted and hungry, but too wary of the guide’s warning to stop.  One thing we could feel good about was that at least we had chosen to wear hiking boots – if we hadn’t, we probably would have counted ourselves among the injured.  At one point, the people behind us parted to make way for a yellow-clad figure that was overtaking everyone at a near run.  His brows furrowed in concentration, he brushed past us without even a glance. It was the ranger – and that was the last time we ever saw him.

After a couple of hours the gorge narrowed abruptly and the flow of people came to a bottleneck at a large wooden sign. "Danger: Falling Rocks Next 2km. Do not stop," it read. We had reached the beginning of the famous ‘Iron Gates’ – the section of the gorge in which massive rock walls rise sheer to a thousand feet, yet the canyon is so narrow that someone standing at their base can almost touch both sides at once. It was spectacular, and as though possessed not by common sense but by tourist instinct, people started to dig into their saturated bags to find their cameras.

As people trickled into the Iron Gates, the chatter died out. It was like entering a cathedral, silent and watchful – even the rain had diminished. People crept along a wooden walkway that had been suspended above the swirling waters, one eye on their next step and one eye on the walls above. Every few seconds the smack of rock on rock would reverberate throughout the canyon and everyone would freeze in midstep until the sound had died away. Carefully, painfully – at this point we had been hiking without a real break for more than five hours – we made our way through this crack in the mountains, our breaths held in unison, well aware that every step forward was a step out of the reach of danger. To divert my focus from the throbbing pain in my legs, I lost myself in pondering the restaurant possibilities for celebrating our survival that night.

And just like that, the canyon widened, the walls fell away, and a valley of parched sunshine opened up before us. We passed the last kilometer marker and a brusque attendant collected our entry passes from us.  Some people stopped and cheered, others just continued on as if their legs would never stop moving. We had made it, walking for close to six hours straight, and basking in the warm sunshine now beating down on us we could barely believe we’d just been racing for our lives against a tempest inside.

That night, the furthest we could make it to celebrate was the little taverna two doors down from our hotel. We hobbled in and ordered the biggest glasses of beer they had, and then slowly began to dissect the events of the day. We, like probably everyone everyone on that trail, had assumed that any activity undertaken by thousands of tourists must be risk-free. Ironically, though, that very assumption had probably put us in danger, as we hadn’t even taken common-sense precautions like checking the weather forecast; others had been more foolish by not even dressing appropriately. Luckily no one had been seriously hurt that day (at least as far as we knew), but what would happen next time it rained? 

Just then the waiter appeared to deliver our plates of cheese saganaki and grilled fish.  He cleared his throat and grinned. "So," he began in a well-rehearsed pitch, "we have many beautiful things on Crete. Can I recommend a visit to the Samaria Gorge?"

Saganaki with Sautéed Grapes

I’ll be honest: I don’t think I let a single meal go by in Greece without ordering saganaki. Technically a meze (and thus often part of a large spread), I always ate it on its own as an appetizer; I mean really, what better than fried cheese to get the digestive juices flowing? When I make it myself I usually use feta since that’s what I have available here; if you can find kasseri or kefalotyri, though, they’re actually much more authentic. As for the grapes, well, that’s my innovation – I think their tart sweetness perfectly compliments the rich salty cheese. Serve it as an appetizer, a party snack (in which case you can cut the cheese into smaller pices before dredging, and skewer each piece with a grape on a toothpick), or even as a light meal with some salad and bread.
Serves: 2 (or more)

7 oz (200g) sheep’s milk feta, kasseri or kefalotyri cheese, in one piece
freshly-ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 lb. (225g) red or black seedless table grapes
lemon wedges 

Cut the cheese into approximately 1/2-inch (1cm) slices (if using a 7 oz. block of packaged feta, split the block down the middle so you have two slices half the thickness of the original block). On a plate, combine some cornstarch (about 1/3 cup maybe) with a generous amount of freshly-ground black pepper
. Set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat one tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the grapes and sauté, stirring occasionally, until completely soft, about 7-8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl. Add the remaining three tablespoons of oil to the skillet and place back on the heat.

Run one piece of cheese under the tap and shake off the excess water (be gentle though so as not to break the cheese). Dredge it on all sides in the cornstarch, then quickly place it in the hot pan. Let it develop a nice brown crust on the bottom side, about 2-3 minutes, then flip and fry it on the other side. Using a spatula, transfer it to a clean plate. Repeat with the other piece(s) of cheese (or do them simultaneously, if your pan is big enough).

To serve, top each piece of cheese with some sautéed grapes and a lemon wedge. Serve immediately.

Bits and Bites

Oops, wasn’t I supposed to be on vacation? Well I am, but I was feeling so guilty for abandoning you for so long that I decided to stop by and share a few bites to tide you over. And, well, it could possibly be that two weeks of uninterrupted relaxation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…but you didn’t hear that from me!


Ever wished you could see what really goes on behind the scenes of a professional food photo shoot? Well, this ain’t it, but it is awfully funny.


1402012047_8c567e3125.jpg Thanks to British Airways and their new ‘entertainment on demand’ system, I had a choice of over twenty movies to watch at my leisure on my flight over, which almost made the nine hours in a sardine can bearable. While I’m usually happy watching anything on planes as long as it takes my mind off the tedium, rarely do I see something I enjoy so much I’d almost consider staying on the plane for the return flight just to see it again. Waitress was one of those movies. In case you missed this wonderfully poignant indie film about love, pies, and pregnancy go ahead and place a big red circle around November 27 on your calendar because that’s when it’ll be out on DVD. The movie is funny, witty and wise with superb acting and first-rate pie porn, but what makes it so heartbreakingly compelling is actually knowing the tragedy that happened behind the scenes. Sweet, sad and highly recommended.

And since we’re on the topic, what are some of your favorite food-centric flicks?


There’s been some heated debate making the rounds recently about what to call food-focused people. I must be living under a rock, because I had no idea that the consensus for many people is that the term foodie is as passé as cucumber foam, implying culinary elitism and a slavish devotion to trends. It’s not exactly clear to me which term is poised to take its place – chowhound? epicure? food freak? – but whether you agree with it or not, it would seem that self-designation as a foodie is now verging on a political statement.

Let me just say that when I was first discovering food, none of these terms yet existed. When my parents wanted to tell their friends how into food I was, they called me a ‘gourmet cook’. In fact, they still do. The funny thing is that nothing makes me cringe as much as this term; aside from the fact that my interest in food extends far beyond cooking, I’ve always interpreted it as implying that I’m the kind of person who insists on sticking sundried tomatoes in everything and would sooner cut off my arm than serve my guests supermarket-quality balsamic vinegar (neither of which, incidentally, could be further from the truth). At any rate, after years of silently rebelling against gourmet cook, I welcomed the term foodie when it came along, despite the fact that it sounded kind of funny, since here at last was a term that simply conveyed a passion for food, whatever type of food and in whatever capacity that may be. Little did I suspect that within a few short years even this term would carry its own connotations of culinary snobbery, but as linguists are so fond of saying (okay, maybe they’re not, but they should be), the only guarantees in life are death, taxes and semantic shift.

Nevertheless, it kind of puts me in a quandary. I’m not ready to go back to being a ‘gourmet cook’, and none of the other current options quite tickles my fancy either. Thanks to Tea and her grandfather, though, I think I’ve found the solution. Next time anybody even starts to debate food monikers around me, I’ll whip this out of my hat:

"You can call me whatever you want, just don’t call me late for dinner."

Tarator, Bulgarian for Summer

Bulgarian Tarator (Cold Yogurt Soup)

The beginning of September in Edinburgh always takes me by surprise. After a month of chaos and crowds and revelry the streets are strangely quiet, the nights descend with an unfamiliar chill, and the shaft of sunlight that floods our bedroom every evening vanishes almost before it arrives. I guess it stands to reason that summer has been on its way out for a while, but somehow that fact tends to get lost in all the commotion so that when September does arrive it just feels so abrupt, like someone has flipped the big seasonal switch in the sky. Although I appreciate the delights of fall as much as the next person, and realize that it promises much to look forward to in the food department, try as I might I just can’t shake the nagging thought that I should have made more of summer while it was here, since at these latitudes, it’s only a matter of weeks until we’ll be lugging out the stewpots and casserole dishes and firing up the oven in preparation for another long, dark winter.

Luckily, over the past few days we’ve been given a reprieve. In fact, we’ve had more warm sunny days in a row than we’ve had since, oh, April. It couldn’t have come at a better time, actually, desperate as I am to cling to summer for just a little bit longer, and realizing it may be the season’s swan song I seized the chance to attack some of the backlog of warm-weather recipes I never got around to making. The cold soups in particular were tempting me, and over the past week we’ve enjoyed Ximena’s fantastic gazpacho, a pungent ajo blanco that I’m fairly certain everyone I talked to the next day knew I had eaten (if only I had seen this version first!), and a lovely puree of corn and basil that would have been even lovelier if the corn I bought actually had some flavor. We also had a soup that I’ve been meaning to write about here for ages – probably since starting this blog, in fact – which is so simple and so refreshing and thus so perfect for summer that it’s really criminal I never have until now.

And telling you about this soup, in fact, is really the excuse I needed to say a few words about Bulgaria. Although you’ve all politely refrained from prying, for two and half years I have been mum on the whole issue of how Bulgaria came to be listed among the places Manuel and I have called home over the years. You’ve heard more than you probably ever wanted to about Spain, Ireland, Germany, California, Seattle and New Orleans, while poor Bulgaria has been sitting forgotten in the corner like the crazy old uncle everyone avoids at family reunions. In all fairness, though, I tend to write about what I know, and in fact I don’t know that much about Bulgaria since it wasn’t me who lived there, it was the other half of my household.

Manuel moved to Bulgaria in 1988, when he was twelve. At that age it obviously wasn’t his decision; it happened because his mother married a Bulgarian she met through her job in Germany, and he took them back with him to live in Sofia. It was, I am told, a rocky time to be there, what with the downfall of communism and food shortages and all, and the fact that the marriage was soon on the rocks didn’t really help matters either. They did manage to make it work for four years, though, during which time Manuel integrated himself pretty well in his strange new surroundings, learning important things like the language, that Bulgarian girls were just as mysterious as their German counterparts, and that bribery was an art all but necessary to live in any kind of comfort.

He also, of course, learned quite a bit about Bulgarian food. In fact, although those four years were, as he says, some of the most challenging, confusing and difficult of his life, the one thing that seems to have left an imprint on his psyche greater than all the hardship was what he ate. Now, I have to stop for a minute and explain that this is a man who has always amazed me by how unattached he is to the foods of his childhood. While there are a couple of exceptions, namely a spaghetti Bolognese recipe from his mother that features curry powder (!) and a strange packaged dessert from Dr. Oetker called Rotweincreme (a mousse-like substance made with red wine he has been bugging me to duplicate for years, so if anyone has a recipe, please do speak up), for the most part, when he waxes lyrical about food it concerns things he’s developed a taste for as an adult; e.g. nachos, jerk, tiramisu and anything with peanut sauce.

Bulgarian food, however, brings out something in him nothing else does. Whether he’s recalling the cheese-stuffed pastries he used to buy on his way home from school, the eggplant dip and walnut baklava his step-grandmother made, the simple country salads and spindly feta-stuffed peppers that were a staple of every meal, his eyes get all misty as if each one were triggering him to relive the experience all over again. Many of his best-ever food memories come from that time as well, and time and time again he’ll eat something – anything from yogurt to vegetables to desserts – and tell me that while good, it really can’t hold a candle to the way it tasted in Bulgaria. In fact, his connection to this food seems far deeper than four years should account for; the only thing I can figure is that the intensity of experience of those four years was so profound that it shaped not only his perception of the food at the time but the way he views it in his memory.

Bulgarian food is by and large simple, hearty stuff, and this soup, along with being one of Manuel’s (and my) favorite Bulgarian dishes, is one of the simplest. It’s called tarator, which you may recognize as sharing a name with this Turkish sauce, but trust me, the two are nothing alike. This tarator can be eaten thick (in which case it is considered a salad) or as a thin and highly refreshing soup, which is how Manuel learned it. It contains very few ingredients, just cucumber, yogurt, garlic, salt, and a handful of fresh herbs (dill, mint and parsley are all used but we prefer just mint); some recipes additionally call for ground walnuts but I prefer the slightly non-traditional embellishment of a crown of toasted almonds, which even Manuel (who tends to be quite the purist when it comes to Bulgarian food) agrees is an awfully fine innovation. In Bulgaria it’s a quintessential summer dish, eaten, I am told, nearly every day by most of the population as a prelude to meals. While we don’t eat it nearly that often around here, I do have to agree that very few things are better at reviving a flagging appetite on a warm summer day, if, like us, you’re lucky enough to still have a supply of those. If you’re not, well, I’m sure it’ll go down down just as
well as a prelude to stews and casseroles and all manner of rib-sticking fall fare too. In fact, give us a week or two and I’m sure I’ll be able to confirm that for you firsthand.

Bulgarian Tarator (Cold Yogurt Soup)

Serves: 4 as part of a larger meal

2 large cucumbers, peeled and diced
2 cups (500ml) thick Greek, Bulgarian or wholemilk yogurt
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 large handful fresh mint leaves (or use a combination of dill and mint)
about 1 cup (250ml) cold water
lemon juice, to taste
1/2 cup (50g) sliced or slivered almonds, lightly toasted, for garnish

In a blender combine about 2/3 of the diced cucumber, the yogurt, garlic, mint and water and blend until completely smooth. Add more water if necessary – the consistency should be like thin cream. Transfer to a lidded container and add salt and lemon juice to taste. Don’t be shy with either – the soup should be pleasantly tangy and salty. Stir in the reserved diced cucumber and chill, covered, for at least an hour to allow the flavors to blend. Divide among bowls for serving, and top each one with a garnish of toasted almond slices. Serve cold.

1346566391_cad5d3e7de.jpgGood news! The October issue of Food and Travel is now out, and inside you’ll find my full report on why Belgium should be your next food destination. In fact, this issue is nothing short of a food blogger extravaganza – the supplement on Singapore packaged with the magazine was written by none other than Chubby Hubby and his wife S (aka Aun Koh and Su-Lyn Tan)! If you’re in the UK you’ll find it on newsstand shelves now; U.S. and European availability should follow within a couple of weeks.

Oh, and I should probably warn you, later this week I’m headed to the US for a much-needed vacation, so don’t worry if I’m gone a little longer than usual. Rest assured that I’ll be eating well, and I’ll see you when I return!