By Chef Nicholas Stefanelli
We arrived in Greece at the Heraklion airport on the central north coast of Crete. Crete is the largest and southernmost Greek island. It is known for it’s dry climate, beautiful coastlines, rugged terrain, and resilient people. To put ourselves in the right mindset, we visited the ancient bronze-age archeological site of Knossos, just outside of Heraklion. It was the center of the Minoan civilization and sometimes called King Minos’ palace. It dates almost 4,000 years and the red columns and almost intact frescos make it unmistakable, as well as the evidence of their trading economy, with beautiful vessels for storing wine and olive oil. You can see remnants of the famous labyrinth, designed by Daedalus where the mythical Minotaur was kept.
Dinner was something truly special. We dined at Peskesi, a farm to table restaurant in Heraklion whose owners spent a decade studying traditional Cretan food, growing and foraging for ingredients and meticulously creating menus that truly take you to another time and place. Crete is the epicenter of the healthy Mediterranean diet and there was no shortage of amazing greens, salads and dishes made with the incredible local olive oil. Stamagathi is a prickly dandelion-like green which is wonderful raw or cooked.
Very often lamb or goat is cooked in a wood oven with the greens - something we experienced in our travels outside of Sparta as well. Seafood is abundant, as are snails, one of my favorite dishes cooked with garlic, the local rosemary and olive oil. Authentic dishes like suckling pig with leeks and prunes, or beef slow cooked with greens and wild artichokes fill the menu. The cretan cheeses, from fresh to hard and aged, often served with the local honey are spectacular. Peskesi serves predominantly Cretan wines, and the best wines are Oikonomou’s. For those who know italian wine, he reminds me of the great biodynamic producers Paolo Bea and Quintarelli in Italy. They are easily the best wines in Greece and are truly exceptional. Little did I know I was going to visit Yianni Oikonomou at his winery the next day.
Towards the end of the evening we ordered sage tea, along with the locals. To say the aroma filled the room would be an understatement. The herbs and teas that grow in these rocks are intense and beautiful and that tea is unlike anything I have tried before - it’s called Faskomilo, for Sage in Greek.
Now that we had tried the cuisine of Crete, we were ready to explore where all these amazing ingredients came from. We drove east to the town of Sitia. The east coast seems less explored than the west and the tourists there were generally Cretans. The best olive oil in Crete is produced there. Ominously, we saw a tanker in the ocean waiting for the oil production. Italian ships often scoop up the majority production of this highly prized oil, blend it with their inferior, and sometime non-olive oil and sell it to consumers at high prices. 80% of Greece’s oil is exported this way. Ancient Foods is here to bring the best oil directly to the consumer and support the farmer so they don’t have to take part in this travesty.
One of those producers, Michali, is thrilled to be part of this effort, and he produces the Édafos olive oil. He and his wife run a family operation, hand picking the oil and cold pressing at the mill. We have spent time with him at the press, tasting the almost neon-colored fresh oil minutes after its production with grilled bread, smoked fish, and homemade wine. As they say, it doesn’t get any better than this.