Gastronomically-speaking, the Greek island of Crete is a place like no other. The Greek word gastronomia, the art and science of good eating and drinking, has its roots in Linear B, the language of the Minoans. With their knowledge of the natural world and their advanced farming and artistic skills, these early Cretans and their diet, or dÍaita (Greek, meaning ‘way of life’), became a source of myth and legend for the classical Greeks. Crete’s honeys, herbs, olive oil, fruits, cheeses and wines were renowned, and traded, throughout the empire – North Africa, Sicily, Asia Minor – in Byzantine and Ottoman Constantinople, and mediaeval Venice. Five hundred years later, Cretans are still celebrating their magnificent foods and we are beginning to understand the true meanings of gastronomy and diet.
Surrounded by coral seas rich in maritime life, and endowed with snow-capped mountains and natural springs, Crete has fabulous sea food and more indigenous plants than any other European island. Today, herb-covered foothills, olive groves and ancient terraced hillsides covered in vines define the landscape just as they did in the past. Carob trees offer summer shade (and ‘chocolate’ and syrup in the kitchen) and abundant almond blossom promises luscious, honey-soaked nut cakes and pastries.
There is no gentle pasture here, nor spare grain; livestock and Cretans alike forage for wild greens (horta), herbs and fruits. These nutrient-dense plants provide rich grazing for the sheep and goats whose milk, in turn, makes exquisite fresh cheeses – myzithra, anthotyro – aged graviera (mountain sheep cheese), the best yogurt made anywhere, fine-flavoured meats and game and memorable glyko tou koutaliou – ‘spoon sweets’ of cherries, citrus blossom, quince or tiny figs.
The supreme quality of Cretan olive oil is well-known to connoisseurs, so too is the sweet richness of the island’s thyme honey and sun-kissed sultanas and raisins. Curious wine-lovers are in for a treat. Grape varietals in Crete date back to antiquity, and we shall be tasting the finest. A new generation of wine-makers is bringing alive the old flavours, including Cretan malmsey, the favourite tipple of Shakespearean England.
As we travel from Heraklion south, through the central mountains, then west to Chania, we shall meet home-cooks, wine producers, bakers and olive farmers, visit street markets, kafenio (cafés serving coffee the traditional way), tavernas – dedicated to fish, meats, mezes or grills – and restaurants using local ingredients that would make any chef elsewhere envious. Meanwhile, the renowned sites of Knossos and Phaestos provide the focus for appreciating the significance and legacy of Minoan civilization. Immersion in Crete’s unique historical and modern traditions, brings home a deeper understanding of how and where history and gastronomy, diet and culture meet.
Heraklion. Fly at c.12.15pm from London Heathrow to Heraklion via Athens (Air Aegean). Arrive at the hotel in time for a meze supper. First of three nights in Heraklion.
Heraklion, Anogiea, Ideon Andron. After an introduction to Cretan gastronomy, we drive inland, ascending to Anogiea, in the northern foothills of Mount Ida. A short walk up onto the Nida Plateau to meet a shepherd (and his flock). Lunch is served in this beautiful mountain setting. Return to Heraklion and the Archaeology Museum, with its exceptional collection of Minoan artefacts.
Heraklion, Knossos. Early start to explore Heraklion market on foot. At its heart, a family bakery has deep roots in the Cretan baking tradition. The excavations and reconstructions at Knossos, capital of Minoan Crete and centre of the Bronze Age Aegean, enrich our understanding of early civilisation and Cretan dÍaita. An olive oil tasting precedes dinner at Peskesi, a restaurant specialising in modern Cretan cooking. Final night Heraklion.
Heraklion to Zaros. Heading south-west into the glorious rural hinterland, visit a sophisticated, family-owned winery cultivating island grape varietals. Pies, from tiny parcels to the magnificently huge, and stuffed with savoury or sweet fillings, are a feature of Cretan cuisine. A fine, local cook demonstrates her pie-making skills, before entertaining us to lunch on the terrace of her home. Gortyn, the Roman capital of Crete, is en route to the tranquil village of Zaros, where we spend the next two nights.
Zaros, Phaestos, Agia Triada. Phaestos is the second largest Minoan palace. Nearby villa remains at Agia Triada, in sight of the Bay of Mesara, are thought to have been its summer resort. Sample more native varietal wines and traditional drinks at a beautifully-sited winery on the rocky, calciferous slopes of Orthi Petri. Overlooking parts of ancient Gortyn, organically-cultivated grapes are grown here at an altitude of 500m. Overnight Zaros.
Zaros, Chania. Cross the Psiloritis mountains to Chania. In the Venetian harbour town, we bring together myriad threads of the Cretan food story while surrounded by a vibrant past. The Minoan remains of Kastelli lie under the Venetian walls embedded with re-used Greek columns. Down by the harbour are both the Turkish mosque and the synagogue. We focus on Crete’s gastronomic life in Venetian and Byzantine times and taste some of the dishes created in these eras. First of three nights in Chania.
Chania. Start with a visit to the market and an opportunity to explore the specialist foods shops and local delicacies that can be found in the small streets and alleys around the harbour. Free time to continue at leisure, or to visit one of the numerous museums (these include archaeology, Byzantine and Maritime histories). Dinner at one of the finest restaurants here.
Chania. Etz Hyyim Synagogue is a fitting location in which to discuss the history of Jews in Crete, as well as the Jewish/Cretan dishes for which its former spiritual director Nikos Stavroulakis was well known. A beach-side lunch of local specialities precedes a visit to a family-owned olive mill producing organic olive oil using millstones and presses. Our final appointment is dinner at Nykterida, Babis Mastoridis’ pioneering restaurant overlooking Souda Bay.
Fly to London Heathrow via Athens arriving c.3.30pm.
The opening of sites on Crete can be influenced by the politics at the time of the tour. This may mean that at short notice not all sites listed can be visited.
Food, wine and travel writer with a specialist knowledge of Greece. In the 1980s, she ran a pioneering, village-based cookery school on Crete and Santorini that focused on seasonal rhythm, local culinary skills and a rich food story. She has had papers published by the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, and features in the UK and international media. Her books include Flavours of Greece and Meze: Small Bites, Big Flavors from the Greek Table.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £3,240 or £2,900 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,440 or £3,100 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with Air Aegean; travel by private coach throughout; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 5 lunches, 7 dinners with wine; all admissions; all tastings; all tips for drivers, restaurant staff, guides; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer and a national guide.
Lato Boutique Hotel, Heraklion: family-run 3-star hotel with small but well-appointed rooms. Good location by the Venetian port. Hotel Keramos, Zaros: family-run country guest house, basic but clean with traditional decor, showers not baths. Kydon Hotel, Chania: 4-star hotel, spacious rooms, well situated close to the old town and port. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
There is a fair amount of standing and walking on this tour. Meals can be long and large and so expect some late nights. If you have dietary requirements it is advisable to contact us before booking. Average coach travel per day: 38 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.