April 26, 2011
Culinary Tourism

Crete’s Olive Culture

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Adventures on the olive oil trail in Greece . . . .

The island of Crete is home to many of the healthiest people in the world. Their secret? Olive oil – the more, the better. In December, with olive harvest season underway, I toured mills, restaurants and resorts, learning from the experts about oil production, purchasing and consumption. (Also see: Olive Oil Primer.)

In Crete, a splotch of olive oil on your shirt is a fine souvenir.

“It is a sign that you have dined well,” chef Stelios Trilirakis says in translation outside his restaurant, Dounias Slow Food.

We have just eaten there on a patio built by nature – a rocky outcropping overlooking a curve in the steep road. Thick potato sticks fried in olive oil took the edge off our hunger. Then we dipped brown bread, just pulled from a fiery wood oven, into olive oil. We picked at a bountiful salad of greens, cabbage, beets, tomatoes, walnuts and soft, fresh feta – dressed in olive oil, of course. We gnawed at tender wild goat braised in olive oil. Underneath the table, kittens wrestled for the bones.

      Slow food chef and patriot Stelios Trilirakis. Photo Credits: Susan Sampson
      Our locavore salad at Dounias Slow Food.

Dounias is in the mountain village of Drakona. A dramatic drive through the Theriso Gorge leads there – past weekend athletes rock-climbing and caving, past roadside shrines marking crash sites, past flocks of sheep bleating their disapproval at the traffic.

Trilirakis is both patriot and locavore. He dubs his restaurant a “traditional gastronomic centre of Cretan diet.” Full of nervous energy, Trilirakis seems to be everywhere – cooking only Cretan dishes, only over wood fires in the kitchen and outdoors, and serving only what he and the locals grow, raise or shoot. (A villager bagged the wild goat.) Everything is organic, including the wine. And everything is bathed in olive oil, the liquid gold of the Cretan diet.

In Crete, chefs, historians and scientists alike boast of their “olive culture.” From tree to table, it is at the heart of an effort to increase culinary tourism on Greece’s largest island, particularly during the green winter months.

“The economical and cultural history (of Crete) has been very closely associated with olive oil,” says Kostas Chartzoulakis , director of the Institute for Olive Tree and Subtropical Plants of Chania.

Here, olive oil is like mother’s milk. Dinner starts and finishes with it. Bread is dipped in it. Pies are fried in it. Salads swim in it. Olive oil is even added to cookie dough, instead of butter. It is used in soaps, body lotions and cosmetics. It is an offering in church services.

Olive oil is credited for everything from the Cretans’ scientifically documented longevity to their self-avowed sexual prowess. The latter is celebrated in the crudely translated quote: “Eat olive oil and come at night, eat butter and sleep tight.”

The Cretans claim both the lowest levels of heart disease and the highest consumption of olive oil in the world. Annual use, according to the International Olive Council, is 34.6 litres per person, more than twice as much as the Greeks overall and three times as much as the Italians. In Canada, the general figure is 0.6 litres (but likely higher in multicultural Toronto).

“Our dogma is less medicine, more olive oil,” says Dr. Michael Bonatakis, a cardiologist in Crete.

      The ancient olive tree of Vouves, a national monument.

It comes as no surprise then that an olive tree would be declared a national natural monument. The ancient olive tree of Vouves is no ordinary specimen, however. It is reputedly the oldest in the world, dated between 2,000 and 4,000 years. The tree still bears olives, which lie scattered around the base – 4.53 metres in diameter – of its twisted trunk.

The tree grows in the village of Ano Vouves in northwest Crete. Over a snack of olive oil cookies, thick Greek coffee and shots of raki, host Katerina Karapataki says the tree is in what was once the yard of her 200-year-old family home. The property now houses an olive museum, including giant clay oil storage jars dating back to 1700 A.D.

      The stone exterior of the historic olive museum at Ano Vouves.
       Olives on display at the museum at Ano Vouves.

The Vouves specimen is not the only monumental tree on Crete. Nor is the olive museum the only one on the island.

A charming olive museum can be discovered deep inland, at the Kapsaliana Village-Hotel. This resort was built from the ruins of an olive mill, the workers’ houses, and their one-room church. The owner, an architect from Heraklion, began renovations 15 years ago and finally opened in the summer of 2009.

The result, as manager Brigitte Wauters describes it, is “rustic luxury” disguised as a hamlet, with 16 guest houses, a swimming pool, idyllic gardens and a restaurant utilizing organic local produce. One sunny December afternoon, we plucked tart oranges right off a tree and snacked while contemplating the vista of mountains and faraway sea.

Kapsaliana was founded in 1763 to mill olives from the nearby Arkadi monastery, southeast of Rethymnon. Once the mill closed in 1955, all the inhabitants died or dispersed, except for one old woman.

       Ancient olive mill at Kapsaliana Village-Hotel.

Following the olive oil trail in Crete is simple. The island is one giant olive grove. There are 35 million trees, wild and cultivated, amid a population of 600,000. That’s an average of 58 trees per man, woman or child.

“It seems everyone has their own olive trees. I don’t know anyone who buys their olive oil in the supermarket,” says Zoe Nowak, director of the Cretan Quality Agreement, a restaurant certification program. Nowak’s family has about 30 olive trees on their property.

It’s best to pay homage to the olive in winter. By then, most of Crete’s annual 3 million tourists have packed up their sunscreen and departed. Winter is olive harvest season, when rains are welcomed and daytime temperatures are in the Celsius teens. Picking and pressing runs from late November to February.

For top-quality extra virgin oil, olives must be pressed pronto – preferably within 24 hours. The olives are picked all day – or rather, thrashed lightly out of the trees so they fall onto net mats. Presses run all night, extracting the oil.

      Harvesters at Astrikas Estate coaxing olives off branches.

Stone grinders are usually but a quaint memory in the olive oil business. However, visitors can see them in action from an observation gallery at Astrikas Estate, near Kolymbari. They can also participate in tastings, purchase artisanal oils and stroll around the rocky, rolling grounds, in a valley cultivated since Neolithic times.

Owner Yiorgos Dimitriadis is the fifth generation to farm the estate. He sticks to the old ways while producing his Biolea brand oil – stone-milled, cold-pressed, single estate, single varietal (koroneiki olives) and eco-friendly.

“This is serious business,” he says on the balcony of his new tourist centre. “We see a movement (starting).”

Dimitriadis believes he is on the cutting edge of a growing culinary and agri-tourism movement in Crete. Last year, he began inviting tourists to visit, and says that from May to October, he attracted 4,000 of them.

“It was very impressive,” he says. “We didn’t expect to see that.”

Modern mills are equipped with shiny stainless steel pipelines, hammer crushers and centrifugal force extractors. They’re not much to look at in Kritsa, home base of an 84-year-old agricultural co-op that produces some of the world’s finest olive oils, judging by international awards.

The small groves in the area are among the oldest in Crete. The olives are trucked in and pressed the day they are picked. The public is not invited to traipse through the mill. However, the town drips with enough ambience to make up for that.

Houses and shops cling to the mountainside. Along the steep cobblestoned streets, stores sell local olive oils, as well as tourist-trap, olive-motif table linens (strangely, made in China, so check labels). The ladies of Kritsa have formed a collective to demonstrate and promote local cooking.

       In Kritsa, Irini Epitpopaki making greek fries in vats of olive oil.

Cooking demos are also on the menu at the new Panakron Estate in central Crete. A team of seasoned Greek ladies guides visitors as they prepare traditional foods such as artichoke hearts in olive oil and vinegar, festive Loukoumia cookies fried in olive oil, and Dakos (a Greek take on bruschetta, with barley rusks, shredded tomatoes and soft mizithra cheese, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with table olives). The ladies nod encouragingly, but can’t resist surreptitiously correcting any sloppy workmanship.

The secluded getaway – including five cottages, a swimming pool and a taverna – sprawls on 53 square kilometers in the lush Amari valley, where two mountains meet.

Traditional cooking combined with breathtaking views is attracting 8,000 visitors a year to the Botanical Park of Crete, according to Kostas Marinauis. The agri-tourist paradise in Fournes, southwest of Chania, opened in 2009. Marinauis is one of six brothers who own the park and its huge restaurant. The property used to be their family farm.

       Stunning view from the restaurant patio at the Botanical Park of Crete.
       Exotic produce grown in the Botanical Park of Crete.

Marinauis, chef at his side, demonstrates how to make Boureki, laying sliced zucchini, potatoes and cheese in a casserole dish, and dousing the lot with olive oil. They bake it a wood-fired oven, then serve it for lunch with a series of small plates made with organic ingredients.

Afterwards, we work off the meal with a meander through the gardens. Herbs, shrubs and fruit trees, plain and exotic, ranging from lavender to Buddha’s hand citrus, line the winding paths.

Marinauis says most of the food on the menu is grown in the park. “Our philosophy is to have, first, something from this park; second, from the area; third, from Crete.”

No ketchup here. When kids ask for it, he says, they get tomatoes mixed with herbs and, of course, olive oil.

The Botanical Park eatery is certified under the Cretan Quality Agreement. This program was created over two years ago to promote the Cretan diet and culinary tourism. To be certified, restaurants must use only local products and Cretan virgin olive oil (even for frying), plus two-thirds of the menu must be traditional Cretan dishes.

Islanders boast that their diet is the healthiest incarnation of the much publicized Mediterranean diet. Its only sin may be monotony, but visitors don’t stay long enough for culinary boredom to kick in.

Along with their immoderate devotion to olive oil, Cretans are the world’s largest consumers of greens, lumped under the generic term “horta.” From spinach, to mustard and beet greens, to weeds such as purslane and nettles, horta are served raw, steamed or sautéed.

       Horta served with cheese and olives.

Also on the menu: plenty of legumes, cheeses, citrus fruit and table olives. Alongside you may find coarse brown bread (often made with barley) or skioufichta (pasta scrolls sometimes sold under the name makaronia).

Islanders skimp on meat and fish. Sweets are also eaten sparingly and on special occasions. They include fruit conserves (“spoon sweets”) and cookies made with mountain honey, nuts and olive oil, instead of saturated fat and refined sugar.

In the coastal town of Chania, diners can see (and taste) the Cretan diet in action at a locavore taverna called Oinopoieio.

The eatery is in a charming maze of alleys near the Central Market. The taverna building dates back to the island’s Venetian occupation in the 1400s. Only recently, the owner discovered a hidden room and turned into a dining nook.

       The hidden room discovered at Oinopoieio taverna.
       The taverna in Chania dates back to the 1400s.

On our table is Chestnut Stifado, a brilliant variation on a signature Greek meat and onion stew. The sweet creaminess of the chestnuts, a local variety, is balanced by fragrant vinegar and cinnamon.

Appreciated for its simple beauty is a salad with greens (including arugula and purslane) and tidbits of fig and smoky pork, all tossed with a dressing of Cretan balsamico, olive oil and honey.

The wine is rough and rustic. Then three shots of Greek raki make for a shudder-ific finish. Across Crete, raki is often chilled and presented in generic glass bottles with stoppers. More than one thirsty diner has gulped it, mistaking it for water and yelping with surprise. Sometimes, raki is mixed with honey, which prevents such mistakes. Raki is said to aid digestion. Maybe honey makes the medicine go down, so to speak.

Greeks eat late, and at 11 p.m., the restaurant is packed with diners digging into the local dishes they never seem to tire of – doused liberally with olive oil, of course.

Nikos Psilakis, a cookbook author and expert on the history of Cretan cuisine, admits that the modern world’s fast foods are intruding on the eating habits of the islanders – but very slowly. He says Crete is the cradle of olive tree cultivation and “olive culture,” and islanders remain proud of their culinary traditions.

“We grew up in the shade of olive trees,” Psilakis says.

       Sunlight piercing gnarled base of the ancient olive tree of Vouves.