Two recipes inspired by Crete’s tavernas

The Guardian/ Marianna Leivaditaki — I was brought up in Halepa, a small neighbourhood on the outskirts of Chania, Crete. Right beside the sea, it is one of the most beautiful little gems surrounding the city.

By the age of six, I was pretty independent. I’d walk to school 200 metres down the road, play hide and seek in the grounds of the nearby church, and ride my BMX until the early evening. On my bicycle, I could be anywhere within minutes. I’d go swimming in the morning and then visit my giagia (granny) for a little sweet treat – usually a spoonful of a thick, chewy, sugary paste flavoured with gum mastic, dunked in a glass of ice water. We called this a submarine. Giagia was the best storyteller I have ever met. Me and my cousin Athina would sit listening to her for hours in her small kitchen, our legs dangling from two chairs, mesmerised.

I would then head down to the little harbour where my dad or one of my uncles would be working on their boats or just staring into the horizon and contemplating whether the weather conditions were right for fishing.

The whole area around the harbour is surrounded by the most incredible buildings – factories for treating leather – some derelict and others still in use. Every time I return home, I go for a walk around the harbour and sneakily try to enter one of those abandoned factories. I would love to make one of them my home one day.

The tiny road that continues further along from there leads to a handful of houses and our old family restaurant. That’s why my parents called it Akrolimano, ‘the end of the harbour’. After that, it’s a dead end.

Eating out in other restaurants was not something that my family really did – we were always in our own. We were open seven days a week for dinner but, occasionally, after all the shopping was done, mum would take me and my brother for a quick souvlaki lunch: freshly made pitta, lots of thinly sliced pork, tomato, red onion and lots of thick yoghurt.

These days, we love going into town for lunch. There are many amazing tavernas. You can go by the sea for seafood or stay in the centre for more traditional dishes. The main indoor market, the agora, is packed with small eateries serving offal, mostly. Some open around 5am and feed everyone from the night workers needing a good meal before sleep to the party goers craving a plate of hot meaty soup to line their tummies.

For me, lunch has become an opportunity to catch up with all the people I miss when I’m in London. It starts with a group of four, and ends, several hours later, with a group of 10. Usually there is no menu. Drinks and bread arrive, then you place your order from memory. Food comes as and when it is ready. Everything is shared and everyone tucks in. You always over-order and feel so full by the end that when the lovely shot of tsikoudia (raki) is offered – to aid digestion of course – you down it happily.

The kitchens are usually full of cooks (mostly women), rather than chefs, working wonders. I always admire the ladies that can hollow enough courgettes to make a few massive trays without breaking even one. It took me a long time to perfect my technique for hollowing vegetables destined for stuffing. Every kitchen has a slightly different way of making this dish. Some use rice, others bulgur; some use meat, others keep it vegetarian. Usually vine leaves, peppers and tomatoes are stuffed as well as courgettes and everything is cooked together in a big tray in the oven. When the tray comes out, everyone knows – the smell is simply irresistible.

These are summertime flavours, and with summer in Crete comes watermelons. They are enormous and they weigh about the same as a small child. The farmers sell them directly from the back of their vans all over the city. The scene is amazing. An overloaded trunk, a pair of scales, and a piece of cardboard with the price per kilo written in bad handwriting.

I was introduced to feta and watermelon about 17 years ago when a very good friend of mine, Nina, used to eat the two together with a slice of fresh bread. I still remember thinking: “You are absolutely mad.” I couldn’t fathom how on earth those three ingredients could be eaten together. Who would have imagined that, many years after that initial exposure, I would come to think that a fresh watermelon and feta salad is actually the best summer snack ever?

The Recipes 

Watermelon, charred feta and bread salad with mint

Stuffed courgettes with lemon sauce

Marianna Leivaditaki is head chef at London mezze restaurant Morito Hackney Road. @moritotapas