A Cretan mountain food experience

The Guardian — In Crete you get the best of both worlds: it only takes a short drive to go from silky blue seas to wild green mountains. As much as I love the sea and everything about it, I also love the mountains. And the thing I like most is driving towards them: everything changes so fast that it feels as though you have entered a different world.

The air becomes cooler, the trees become taller and older, and the roads begin to turn and twist and embrace the boulders. You inhale the fresh air and with it the incredible smells of the wild herbs and medicinal teas. Wherever you look you are surrounded by beauty – wild flowers, dramatic scenery – and, now and then, the sound of water cascading through the rocks. Drinking water straight from the spring takes your breath away.

The best thing about mountain food is the quality of ingredients: people are free to pick the wild greens and herbs that grow all around them, and the animals are free to roam and eat all the delicious foods that nature offers – which shows in the flavour of their meat. Eating in the mountains usually means a lot of meat.

There are small, family-run tavernas even in the smallest villages where everyone does their bit, from grandmothers to grandchildren. My old childhood friend opened a restaurant with her family in the mountain village of Therisso. It was a wise decision, as her father was a butcher in the city and reared all his own animals in the village. So he retired from his job and became the restaurant’s cook. Every time I enter their kitchen, I get the same feeling of happiness. It’s a large, rectangular space with a charcoal grill on one side, full of lamb cutlets and a thick cloud of smoke. Homemade pork sausages hang from every available spot – their recipe is a family secret. Everything is freshly prepared.

When I visit, Dad Manolis is there cooking every piece of meat that goes out. He is tall, well-built, with a big moustache and wears a traditional, black Cretan shirt. He smiles proudly. Next to him is his wife cooking rabbit and mutton in big pots. She is in charge of the more delicate preparations, such as mouth-watering staka – a buttery delicacy made from the top fatty layer of goat’s milk and cooked with a touch of flour and salt. It’s a dish that puts a smile on everyone’s face.

She also makes the filo pastry. In a large bowl, she mixes flour with lots of olive oil and water, then adds a bit of salt and a shot of raki (that’s the secret, she says). Her strong hands turn the ingredients into the softest, glossiest dough I have ever seen. She rests it for a while and then, with rapid movements, she opens it into a large sheet that looks perfect every time. She stuffs it with wild greens and herbs, and sometimes adds fresh goat’s cheese. As soon as the little half-moon parcels are sealed, they go into the frying pan. The aromas escape the kitchen and everyone wants a portion. I have mine standing in the kitchen.

Wild birds are another treat in Cretan mountain cuisine. When it’s the right time of year, the men go out hunting and often come back with a variety of small birds including, with luck, some quail. Preparing these has never been something I’ve enjoyed, however I am intrigued when I watch the process. I certainly love eating them, and using cutlery is not an option: the only way to enjoy them is by using your fingers and tucking in to get every bit of the delicious meat off the bones. Thrown on the charcoal or fried in olive oil with lots of red wine, they are irresistible. I love intensifying quail with some mature graviera (sheep’s cheese), which adds a savouriness I think the Cretan mountain cooks would approve of.

Recipes for filo pie and grilled quail with aubergine from Crete


The writer, Marianna Leivaditaki is head chef at London mezze restaurant Morito; @moritotapasI