Flavours of Crete

Sarah Hardy heads to Crete for a week of cooking – and eating!


The Cretan Diet is generally regarded as the healthiest in the world, with islanders regularly living to more than 100 years old. The secret to this longevity is put down, in part, to their diet. Think masses of olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables, local goats’ cheeses, locally caught fish, cups of herbal mountain tea (malotira) and the odd glass of wine.

Now one hotel, the Mistral, in the west of the island, is running a week’s retreat        dedicated to the island’s rich larder, offering a real mixture of experiences, trips and foodie adventures.

Called Flavours of Crete, the next week runs in May (then one in October) and is for both keen and amateur cooks – and those who just enjoy food. It’s all very laid back – there are no Bake Off technical challenges or anything stressful – and there’s plenty of time to relax by one of the hotel’s two pools, stroll to the nearby beach or explore the village of Maleme with its great artisan shops.

It is an all inclusive package and there is an organised programme of events, with something every day, and, interestingly, after your day’s excursions, you all eat together in the evening. Dinner is served at communal tables at 8pm, with a bell summoning you all to take your place. It is very much authentic, home-cooked food with many Greek favourites on offer. Ingredients are all seasonal and local, with much of the fruit and veg coming from the hotel’s own market garden. Dishes come – and keep on coming – on enormous platters, and you just dive in as the wine flows, too. Be warned, you will put on weight as everything is simply delicious.

The week’s programme has been designed to show off the island’s food heritage and share some traditional recipes. You are whizzed about the island in a couple of minibuses, driven by the hotel owner, Adonis, and his great friend, Panos, with traditional Greek music blaring out and a very giggly atmosphere inside!

The first trip saw us drive into the hills and visit the world’s oldest olive tree in Vouves which is said to be between 3000 and 5000 years old, and it still produces a good crop of olives. Then we visited the Biolea Astrikas Estate, an olive oil processing factory where we learnt that cold pressed, single estate extra virgin olive oil is the only type to use. Greece produces the most olive oil in the world, often selling it to Spain and Italy, and we sampled oils infused with lemon, orange and bergamot, which were delicious.

As we soon discovered, lunch was an important part of the trip and we tucked into quite a feast at To Faragi (The Gorge) in nearby Deliana.

The following day we headed into the hotel’s own garden, picking aubergines, peppers, chillis, tomatoes and more – we were too late for the melons and soft fruits – and then it was into the kitchen to prepare a scrumptious lunch. Adonis’ mother, Katerina, a very spritely 84-year-old, was our teacher and she demonstrated some of her family’s recipes and we did our best not to ruin them. We tackled everything from tzatziki to stuffed peppers and tomatoes, boureki (layers of courgettes, goats’ cheese and potatoes), marathopites (dill pies) and kalitsounia (sweet cheese pastries). The family has produced a cookbook, Cretan Cuisine, with more than 100 recipes for you to try at home. You won’t have quite the same first class ingredients but it’s fun to try and recreate your favourite dishes.

Day four we visited a farmers’ market in Kolymbari, a nearby seaside village, where stalls brimmed over with mountain greens and wild herbs plus thyme infused honey, all sorts of olives, cheeses and another local delicacy – snails – which are gently fried with plenty of garlic.

And then we enjoyed a generous tasting session at Pnevmatikakis Winery, which produces red, white and rose wines at a 30-acre vineyard, and has marvellous views of the Bay of Kissamos. Certainly Greek wines have improved a lot in recent times – I remember sipping Domestica back in the 1980s which was a sure way of getting an impressive headache!

The following day was my highlight – a trip to the island’s Botanical Park and Gardens. Set over 20 hectares, three different climate zones – Mediterranean, Alpine and Tropical – offer an incredible range of fruit trees, herbs, medicinal plants, ornamental shrubs and more. It’s about a two mile walk around the park, which clings to the hillside, so do wear appropriate footwear.

The restaurant serves organic food, with much coming from the park itself, and it was beautifully presented, with the citrus fruits of particular note.

We also enjoyed a day in Chania, a charming Venetian harbour city, packed with restaurants, bars and shops. It’s the perfect spot to just stroll, stop for coffee and stroll some more, especially through the myriad of narrow back streets where you’ll stumble upon pretty courtyards and very atmospheric bars.

Our final trip was to Falassarna, a wild and expansive beach, often voted one of the best in Crete, with the remains of a Hellenistic harbour to explore. We then drove to Sfinari, a remote little coastal village set amongst the olive groves, where we saw the famous fish soup, kakavia, being made, which we sampled along with a range of shellfish and fish, washed down with plenty of wine the family-run Sunset Fish Restaurant.

While the itinerary is fascinating, perhaps what makes the trip so special is the family that runs it. They have an incredibly high percentage of repeat visitors, who are really treated like family members themselves, and lovingly wrapped in a very warm embrace. Adonis is a proud Cretan who simply bubbles over with enthusiasm for his island, while his wife, Aura, and all the staff, are all very friendly, kind and considerate.