The maritime journey to Chania, a Venetian gem of a town, and Crete’s secondary port, was a forgotten yet still glimmering, zombie, disco at dawn. All of the 70’s sea faring, lost glamour (an abundance of fake flowers planted into mirrored beds that frame royal blue carpets, hot pink velvet swivel chairs, and white leather in the captain’s quarter) was found; under fluorescent lights in a pre dawn glow aboard a Cretan Sea ferry. The fading glama-rama was tamed by the aged crew that wore tattered and soiled butler uniforms, smoked black tobacco, and sported a ghoulish pallor The completely outlandish boat ride from a Greek island to Chania was cherished, but no gauge of what we would find on Crete. Crete is a massive island hovering above Africa with simply the most exciting and natural food. There are no waves of trendiness crashing on these shores, what’s savored here has been perfected over hundreds and hundreds of years of eating.
Once In Chania, you must allow yourself the luxury of lunching for hours upon a pristine, portside, white tablecloth. There are three rules. The first rule is of course octopus, the second being sea urchin, and thirdly spoon sweets, but it wouldn’t be disastrous if you were to switch rule one for rule two. Octopus is hung with clothespins on laundry lines all over town. The cheerful meat sprinkled with wild oregano hangs in the strong island sun, and is tenderized beneath the rays. The meat needs nothing more than a little heat and flavor from the wood burning grill, herbs, salt, and olive oil. The Tentacles are left long, and they coil on your plate. The meat is so tender it requires only a butter knife, and you wonder whether this divine texture came from the sea or was a gift from the sun. I realize this simple mezze so heavenly due to the collaboration of the Cretan Sea, Hellenic sun, and the Greek octopus. The octopus delicately enhanced by red wine vinegar and chopped parsley will let you consider nothing other than the sensation of that moment until your plate is cleared. Knowing the amount of tedious work that goes into cleaning urchin roe from its spiny shell, makes rule number two, a glass bowl filled with the roe, a lavish treat. The bowl of urchin, olive oil, and lemon comes with a teaspoon, and a basket of bread. Each teaspoon lifted out of the bowl is a patchwork of urchin colors, ranging from pumpkin to a pale pink, kittenish lipstick. After all the roe has been eaten, you are left with the best bite: vinaigrette of lemon, olive oil, and urchin essence- perfect for soaking up with the last crust of bread. The only thing to do at this point is sit with your chair facing the boats on the harbor and watch the light on the sea from where these delicacies came. The afternoon sun is blinding as it reflects off the starched white tablecloth, and as you close your eyes you don’t lose your sense of place. Chania’s leisurely port is filled with the din of cutlery on flatware and Greek chatter. Just as you suspect it couldn’t get better, cool, tangy, thick yogurt, and small glass bowls of colorful incandescent jewels are brought to the table, as show of hospitality. In a moment of amazement it’s realized the jewels are for you, and they are whole kumquats, young figs, lemon rinds, rose petals, grapes, green walnuts, and bitter oranges. There is no disappointment, spoon sweets with a cool glass of water, are one of life’s treats that exceed your greatest expectations. The sweets are a Greek tradition, made with whole, under ripe fruits, occasionally flower petals, herbs, vegetables and nuts are used. They are made by gently simmering the fruit, sugar, and small amounts of water for many hours or days. This is the simplest and most natural procedure. The transformation of sour fruit, into chewy, aromatic sweetness, with its shape and color preserved in beautifully tinted syrup, is a frank reminder of why I love to cook. This is a ritual that as of late has been carried on by monks and artisanal producers who have the kind of time on their hands that Island women used to have. The hard green figs’ journey to a syrupy jewel is like that of a caterpillar into butterfly. I in turn am like a moth, and the spoon sweet is my burning flame; their sweet glowing glory sent me compulsively flying. I mean I was really flying, feeling really euphoric, strangely so. I happened to be eating with a diabetic and thought this might be a good time to test my blood sugar. A normal post meal blood sugar should be around 120, mine was 430. I believe that’s why they call them spoon sweets, one should not exceed an ample spoonful in a sitting, but in my moth like excitement I turned them into 3 bowl sweets, not a spoon sweet. With a new frantic bounce in my step we jumped from the table along the water, and ducked into the narrow winding stone streets of Chania. The sugar worked it’s self off while I explored the alleyways steeped in byzantine, Venetian, and ottoman design. Chania with it’s dramatic entrance, sea fare hanging from laundry lines, and obscenely delectable simple sweets, is the perfect jump off for the wilds of Crete.