Crown of the Mediterranean: Getting Hands-On with Cretan Food at Agreco Farm
“Drink this. Is medicine.” Dimitris hands me the shot glass; it looks like a thumbtack in his hands. The medicine in question is tsikoudia or raki for short — a clear spirit from twice distilled grapes. Looking at it, I know there’s a sharp, masochistic burn in my immediate future.
You may know its cousins grappa or ouzo. You may also know that when a Greek — scratch that — a Cretan hands you drink or food, you accept, happily, and then you brace for more like a fighter in the ring who knows they’ve met their match. Except instead of getting your face pummeled, it’s your senses that are in for the ride. The aroma of smoked goat cheese, the sweet surprise of thyme honey, and tomatoes erupting with flavor fresh off the vine — all backed by the crisp, fresh air of Crete.
The medicine, also something of a digestif, couldn’t come at a better time. We’re nearing the end of Grecotel’s ‘Be a Farmer for a Day’ experience at Agreco Farm up a narrow, winding road from Rethymno in the idyllic Cretan island countryside where you can hear the slightest breeze. Crops of grapes and tomatoes cut neat rows along the rolling green hillsides with the occasional narrow, winding road slicing through. The Mediterranean, as blue as the Greek flag itself, is always visible on the horizon.
Crown of the Mediterranean
I’m here to learn about Cretan food and culture from the farmers who’ve made this their life’s work. Cretan food isn’t merely another category or genre of food awaiting its flash of foodie popularity. It’s life — quite literally. The Cretan diet — local plant-based foods, breads, cheeses, fruits, and of course, olive oil — is believed to contribute to the longevity of the island’s inhabitants and is revered like religion. I hear more about tomatoes and olive trees than God or the church.
As Dimitris, a Cretan through and through, puts it: “The Cretan diet is the crown of the Mediterranean.”
"Where it all began"
Why Grecotel? Why a chain? Chain hotels aren’t cool anymore, right? Traveling these days is all about finding the most off the beaten path destination where you can connect with a local in order to have the most authentic, enriched experience possible — an experience you and you alone will ever have. When you return, friends and family will bow before your traveler prowess for you are as savvy as they get.
A reality check says that’s impossible, but you can get pretty damn close at Grecotel Creta Palace. Except instead of one local who, let’s be real, best case scenario gives you some nearby recommendations after dropping off the key and collecting your nightly rate, you’ve got 300 locals who are excited to share stories about their life and their culture with you.
“Creta Palace is the capital,” hotel manager Georgios Perantonakis tells me poolside over fruity welcome cocktails. “This is where it all began.” The brand has since extended to 30-plus properties throughout Greece, eight of which are on the island of Crete itself.
The man who started it all is Nikos Daskalandonakis, who launched Creta Palace — the first five-star property in all of Greece — in 1989. “Politicians were sending VIP visitors here because there wasn’t anywhere else,” notes communications manager Katerina Axarli during a walk around the hotel, her blue eyes beaming with constant excitement despite the demanding hours of her job. A laugh is never far away when chatting with Katerina, who can rattle off stories of the personal connections she’s made with guests with the ease of a blackjack dealer tossing out cards.
“Crete means everything to me”
Despite the chain’s growth over the past 30 years, everyone still lovingly refers to Grecotel as a family business. That’s because Mr. Daskalandonakis was no foreign venture capitalist, eyeing the utopic Cretan coastline for his own financial gain. He’s a local, from Rethymno, just like nearly everyone else I spoke with over my three-day stay who were either from the city or at the very least, Crete. Most everyone I asked, from reception to restaurant staff, answered “Rethymno” or “Crete” with the kind of obviousness you might use with a child who should know better. (One server called Thessaloniki home, laughing as she admitted her rarity among the staff.)
But for the staff at either Grecotel or Agreco Farm, there’s nothing surprising about this. They’re (mostly) Cretan. Why would they live anywhere else? Crete is home. Some people leave home. Some people want to leave home but can’t. Cretans can, but won’t. It’s not a possibility they can imagine. To them, this is paradise, and not because they’re unimaginative in their vocabulary. Where else can you listen to music with roots steeped in tradition that intrinsically brings a smile to your face while being surrounded by a sea that’s pulled from a postcard, enjoying copious amounts of food that will help you outlive your friends abroad?
“People who live here can’t imagine themselves going someplace else […] because I would say Crete offers you everything you might need,” says Katerina. “You have beach, good weather, and in the winter you have even snow and mountains.”
She’s practically taking the words right out of Georgios Pavlidakis’ mouth. A 14-year veteran of Creta Palace who calls himself a “second-generation employee,” tells me in no uncertain terms, “Crete means everything to me. It was the place I was born, the place I was raised.” He sometimes imagines trying to live in another place in the same way most of us indulge our own fantasies and ponder “what if.” But in the end, Girios wouldn’t change a thing. “Honestly, it’s the place I would choose to live all the days of my life.” As an American mutt living in Germany, I would leave Crete envious of the certainty Cretans have about who they are.
But it’s not just the land, the convenient location on the planet that makes Cretans count themselves lucky. It’s just as much as the people. “Everyone is family even though you might not know even them,” says Katerina over a Greek coffee. “So you feel comfortable and home from the first moment, and I think that’s the first thing guests even tell me when they come.”
Girios goes a step further. “It’s in our DNA to welcome people, even if they are strangers, we try to treat them like friends or family.” Dressed in his white button up and skinny dark blue tie, Girios can’t help but smile as clarifies his point. “Some people think that it’s their job, but it’s not about this, it’s because we were raised like this.” He encourages guests to go into town or the surrounding villages to “find this same spirit outside of the hotels,” showing travelers that this essence of hospitality really is innate in the Cretan people.
Becoming The Farmer
“Crete, it’s a very special place,” starts Dimitris Kalaitzidakis, a towering, barrel of a Greek man sitting on a stone patio, a view of the lush Cretan countryside stretching behind him to the Mediterranean. “It’s blessed by God for its location, its climate, its soil.”
I’m about to start my ‘Be A Farmer For A Day’ experience at Agreco with Dimitris playing host.
“Behind Agreco, you see the highest mountain complex of Crete which is called Psiloreitis,” says Dimitris. “This is the place where Zeus, the god of gods and the god of hospitality was born and raised. That’s why the people of Crete, they have this hospitality sense within their soul.”
Suddenly all the talk of hospitality clicks.
I start off with the bread, shuffling into something like a wooden shed where I’m met by a woman dressed in white from head to toe. White tee shirt, white apron, white bandana. Dimitris hangs around to translate her Greek instructions to English because my “Kalimera” (good morning) and “Efkahristo” (thank you) with a cheesy smile and thumbs up will only get me so far.
I’m told to dive in, hands first, into a brown clay pot full of water, yeast, and flour, balancing the bowl against my lower thigh for better leverage. We’re making the dough, mashing everything together with our hands until the mixture starts to condense into a gooey solid. I’m reminded of the hours I’d spend as a kid working with Play-Doh, except this time I’ll finally be encouraged to eat my creations.
Following orders, I start to pull clumps out of the bowl and drop them onto a white sheet covered in more flour. This is where we need to press the dough into what looks like a traditional loaf. An ignorant person wandering in might think I’m delivering CPR the way I’m giving compressions. Then, we move the dough, looking miraculously more like the end product than it did minutes earlier, onto a white cloth covered in flour, where I cut notches into the bread. (This makes it easier to rip a clean piece off when passing it around the dinner table.)
With about a dozen loaves of bread laid out neatly side-by-side on the wooden board covered with the white cloth, I lift it up, balancing it on my shoulder like a waiter working the dinner rush, and head back out across the short wooden bridge to the wood-fired brick oven. Finally, it’s my chance to act like I know what I’m doing with one of those long-handle wooden pizza spatulas as I scoop three loaves at a time and slide them into the oven. Not before, of course, throwing some flour inside to gauge the temperature. (If it turns black, it needs to cool off a bit more.)
I’ve got 20 minutes to kill before the bread will be ready, which is plenty of time to head over to the vegetable garden, pluck a couple of tomatoes off the vine, give them a quick rinse, and slice away. And what’s that? The fine folks at Agreco Farm have already laid out a table for me to work on, complete with a small bowl of sea salt straight from the Mediterranean.
Now here’s what makes Cretan cuisine utterly fantastic — the simplicity. I do not exaggerate when I say that few things have ever been as delicious, as thrilling to my humble palate, as those tomatoes with a splash of sea salt. With readily available goodies like these, it’s no wonder Dimitris called Crete a “self-sufficient island,” unable to feign surprise at stories of Cretans living past 100 years old. If tomatoes are your snack food, you’re in pretty damn good shape.
Maria Christoulaki meets me when I’m slicing tomatoes and escorts me around a bit more of the farm as the bread continues to bake. There’s the barn where donkeys used to walk in circles to crush olives (modern technology takes care of that these days) and yet another table prepared with treats, this time black and green olives. Then, we trot up a small, dusty hill to a table covered in jars of honey.
“Try this, our thyme honey,” Maria encourages me.
I might be revealing a bit of ignorance here, but I had always thought honey is honey like ketchup is ketchup. Little did I know that the flavor can change depending on the nectar the bees digest. Thyme honey, a specialty of the farm, adds a tasty, earthy flavor to the sweetness you’d expect from honey.
“It costs a bit more, but I have to have it with my bread in the morning,” Maria confesses with that constant Cretan smile.
The detour allows enough time for the bread to rise and I can wield my long-handled spatula once more to retrieve the first of my many creations to come. Granted, there are some aspects of the meal that are kept away from my novice hands, like the open-fire roasting of the lamb ribs. I am, however, permitted to ooh and aah in a gluttonous, reverential fit as I watch the fat drip onto the ash below.
“See that?” Mr. Lyronis points out as another drop slides down the ribs. “That makes it healthier.”
Make Your Doctor Proud
My hands are needed again after a quick taste test, a succulent masterpiece of lamb meat sliding off the bone. I head back to the center of the farm, a re-creation of a traditional Cretan village. There’s the church, the market, and the restaurant all covered in off-white stone with a sprawling tree in the middle. Waiting for me next to the tree is a horned goat with an udder full of milk.
“Get to work,” I’m told with a laugh. Smiling faces watch on, perhaps to see how I react. Though it’s been a while since I’ve grabbed an animal by the teet, I’m a firm believer of doing as the locals do. And the locals are telling me to milk the goat.
This isn’t done without some kind of instruction and there’s an experienced hand by my side at all times named Alexis. He gives me a quick demonstration, firing off milk into the tin pail like a hose, alternating left and right. I squeeze the nipple and barely achieve a drip. This pathetic display of farm experience (or lack thereof) ends mercifully as he wraps his hands around mine, physically showing me how to massage the milk down with the palm of my hand. (Admittedly not entirely unlike how a junior high boy might wrap his arms around his date to show her how to putt at the local mini-golf — but Alexis respectfully stuck with simply placing his hands around mine.)
Finally, I start to get the hang of it and I’m off to the races on my own. “Bravo!” Dimitris shouts, seated comfortably in the sun. I felt I had the hang of it until the Zeus to my Hera retook the reins and regained his rhythm in a splashing melody.
The pail heads inside as I wash my hands (all employees must wash hands and I am, for the day, an employee) and I hop over to my next task, slicing tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchinis for stuffing with a mix of diced onions, carrots, parsley, and rice. Remarkably, I’m tip-toeing into familiar territory having married into a Greek-American family. Stuffed tomatoes were one of the first meals my Yiayia-in-law made for me.
Another task complete, the goat’s milk is brought back out, already simmering to a boil. This raises the fat, and not 20 minutes after relieving the goat of its milk, I’m scooping deliciously gooey cheese out to fill the tiropitas — bite-sized cheese pies with buttered phyllo (also prepared by my hands) with a bit of thyme honey drizzled on top.
For my final task, Dimitris walks me through the culinary equivalent of a cool down. A simple task to wrap up the day — koukouvayia or dakos. Greek bruschetta. Take a few pieces of paksimadi (crusty bread with a crunch), spread them out on a plate, a light dash of olive oil, a sprinkling of diced tomatoes, some feta cheese, and another round of olive oil. Plate them on a clean dish for presentation points and you have a Super Bowl snack that’ll make your doctor proud.
Everything about the experience is immensely gratifying, every slice of tomato and bread, satisfying. Knowing that my hands were a vital aspect of the feast-to-come changed how I looked at cooking. I’m not just throwing some chicken onto a pan and waiting for it to cook. I’m physically giving the bread shape, I’m rolling the dough around the feta cheese for the tiropita, I’m milking the goat and turning it to cheese — and I’m doing it all faster than I can pick something out on Netflix.
It may be obvious, but I should point out in the spirit of full disclosure that my hands were held the entire time. There’s no wizardry involved in the experience. I did not enter as a novice and magically leave as an experienced farmhand. The experts, men and women who’ve been doing this their entire lives, who know the soil like a parent knows their child, were right next to me to make sure I didn’t screw anything up too badly. When I cut the top of the tomato completely off instead of leaving a little leftover as a cover for the stuffed veggies, there was a chuckle and a shrug. When I failed at balancing the rack of lamb ribs against the stones next to the open fire, dropping a side of it in the dirt, the brains and skilled hands of the operation ran to the rescue.
In the end, a feast is laid out before us, and even I’m taken aback by the visual representation of how much work I’ve put into the meal myself. There’s the stuffed veggies, the lamb, the dakos, tiropita, and a few generous extra dishes, like the Chochlii Boubouristi with snails. (Use the accompanying toothpick to pull the little bugger out and enjoy the squish, not unlike mussels.)
"I’m milking the goat and turning it to cheese -- and I’m doing it all faster than I can pick something out on Netflix."
Taking my first bites with a glass of Agreco rosé next to my plate, I start to sense what Katerina mentioned at lunch the other day just after our arrival.
“You can taste if something is made with love. If it’s not made with love, it won’t taste any good, even if you follow the recipe.”
I didn’t need to ask the farmhands at Agreco if they love what they do. I could taste it.
“See it for yourself”
A couple days later, I’m on a bus back to Heraklion, the primary entry and exit point of the island. I see my faint reflection in the window bouncing against the rocky green landscape. I notice a stain on my jeans, just above my knee, right where I was balancing the bowl when mixing the bread. I smile with appreciation for the time people like Alexis spend to share this piece of their culture with travelers from all over the world, even without a shared language. I think about how fortunate Maria, Dimitri, and Katerina are to have Agreco Farm as a neighbor. I understand why Girios can’t imagine living anyplace else.
“Even for me, Agreco Farm is a special place even though I’ve been a thousand times here,” Dimitris told me during the experience. “Every time I come here, especially after a hard day’s work in the office, I feel so relaxed and so calm just within five minutes. Sometimes when you want to describe, paradise and you use a lot of words, you lose the sense of it.”
Sometimes to get the sense of something, you need to see it for yourself.
This story and video were produced in collaboration with Grecotel Creta Palace.