In looking back over the past year, I have found myself reliving more than a few outrageous food memories, which run the gamut from shucking oysters at a gin tasting party to standing in line with the guys from Naughty by Nature to get pulled pork sliders at Rachael Ray’s annual SXSW house party. If there’s a common thread running through all, it is that each involved sharing time with friends old and new.
The most spectacular event of all was one that I wasn’t originally supposed to be at.
I had been staying on Crete with my friend, Carol, at a resort high above the northern coastal town of Chersonissos. Every day we would hit the road, driving across the island, watching the landscape change every few moments as we passed olive orchards on one side of the road and vineyards on another with mountains stretching straight up from beaches. Windmills in the Lasithi Plateau made way for rockier climes echoing with the sound of goat bells. Oranges, apples, persimmons and walnuts all seemed to grow within reach of each other while wild herbs were easily scavenged if not trampled under foot.
Whenever we started to hanker for something to eat, we were suddenly on the lookout for an open taverna or cafe. We weren’t always in luck, as we were visiting in early November, which is after the tourist season has come to an end and many places were closed. But we knew this would be our largest meal of the day, and wherever we landed, we enjoyed sampling as much as we thought we could eat, which sometimes amounted to six or seven dishes.
Early in our trip, we passed through the tiny village of Zenia, and we made a beeline for the Moutsounas Cafe, a massive tourist shop, restaurant and museum that was shaded with an arbor of grapevines extending the length of the building. We parked on the other side of the highway, in an area festooned with a lively assortment of signs and tableaux designed to catch your eye and invite you in. A small patio looked out over a dramatic gorge that swept between mountains on the way to the sea at the southern side of the island.
Before we sat down, we met Manolis Farsaris, the owner and jack of all trades around the place, which seemed to become more baroque and diverse every moment. Every way you looked, there was something new to catch your eye. It could be a shelf of icons with a Pieta of Mary cradling the post-crucified body of Jesus, a naked Hercules or the mother goddess of Crete all occupying the same shelf. In the largest space, you could find olive wood dishes next to barrels of homemade wine and raki, the local firewater.
At one of the few indoor tables, Carol and I found ourselves feasting on warm dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with rice, and tzaziki sauce, yogurt and cucumber with plenty of garlic, when Manolis returned to our table with a surprise, a dish of the eggplant and potato stew that his mother had brought to him for his lunch that day.
He didn’t seem to have time to eat with his family as a few other customers appeared on the scene, but he did take the time to explain one of the more intriguing signs in the room, which was taped to a barrel: “Raki with honey no doctor.” It seems that his grandfather lived to the ripe old age of 107 without having to see a doctor because, according to family legend, he drank his homemade raki mixed with honey every day of his life. (That honey, by the way, came from bees living in boxes on the mountainside above the cafe.)
It’s a tradition on Crete to make guests feel at home by offering them a little something, like Manolis did with his mother’s stew. But he didn’t stop there. He also brought out the shot glasses and poured us a taste of his raki, which I discovered had nothing to do with the Turkish liqueur of the same name. The Turks make something that is akin to ouzo and is marked by its strong licorice flavor, while Cretan raki is more like vodka in that the clear liquid is flavorless but has a potent effect.
How does he make his own raki? When does he do this? How much of his honey does he use?
Rather than provide us with answers directly, Manolis simply invited us to join him the following week when he made his annual supply. He didn’t know the date, but he said we could always contact him to find out. So phone numbers were exchanged and a new friend was made on Facebook. We were all set.
Word came in the following week that the raki making was going to be held on Saturday at a house nearby. That was the day I was supposed to fly back home, leaving Carol and her friend, Clairy, visiting from Athens, with the chance to go to the party by themselves. Then my flight home got canceled. After days of wrangling with airlines and ticket companies that didn’t care where I was or when I was flying out — at least until I shelled out a few hundred more dollars — I finally got things worked out so I wouldn’t leave until Sunday. And that meant I could attend the raki making, too!
We returned to Zenia early Saturday afternoon and were directed to a house that sloped up the side of a mountain. We scaled the steep driveway to a patio entrance on the side that let us know we were in the right place, thanks to the sight of an enormous double-columned copper still with a raging fire underneath the larger unit. The still was so close to the steps that you had to watch your step climbing onto the patio.
But there was Manolis with a host of friends and family tending to the fire as the alcohol from the mash was apparently siphoned from the main chamber through an overhead coil into the neighboring column still, out of which came the raki. The precious liquid was filtered through a mass of cotton before ending in a pot below. Firewater, indeed.
The mash had been made using potatoes as well as the leftovers from the previous weeks’ wine-making efforts. Skins, seeds and stems hadn’t been wasted; they all made their way into the mash for the elixir. Who knows if they had another use for them after the raki making? They didn’t merely discard the used mash. It was tossed the back of a truck, possibly for use as compost. Nothing on the island went to waste.
Whenever the fire burned down a little, one of Manolis’ friends would take a shovel and move the burning coals to one of several nearby grills where food was being prepared for all to enjoy while the hours passed. Marinated lamb, thin slabs of potatoes and thick cuts of bread all made it to the grill, where Manolis and his sister tended the food. When the potatoes were done, they were drizzled with the family’s own olive oil and lemon juice before being finished off with a sprinkling of salt. Other potatoes were buried whole in the coals to roast until they were finished.
A plate of olives, picked from a nearby tree no doubt before brining, appeared. So did a basket of apples from the year’s harvest, which our host peeled and cut up into pieces that he handed out. Everyone was soon handed a shot glass so that we could toast this year’s raki with some of last year’s. Our glasses were refilled several more times, and I was glad I wasn’t driving.
Not much English was spoken, except by Manolis and a friend who had once lived in London. Clairy translated a few questions that we had, but even that wasn’t always necessary. The hospitality transcended language, so did the raki.
At last it came time to head back to reality and let these people continue their work, which would likely last into the night. We thanked them for their hospitality, which had helped make the day perfect for three visiting food lovers.
I had taken more than 150 photos over the two hours or so that we were there, images that captured the scope of the enterprise, the serious nature of their work and the joy they derived from it. I also brought back a bottle of that handmade raki, which I plan to share with friends in the same spirit that Manolis and his family showered on us during our visit.