Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Breakfasts and a Birthday in Crete

Like many of our friends, we’ve been out of the Kingdom for a few weeks’ holiday over Ramadan.  Riyadh during Ramadan isn’t easy; without daytime food and drink, the driving gets worse – hard to believe but it does – job productivity declines and tempers become frayed.

So, in the better interests of our health and happiness, we decided to break away and head for Greece.

We started in Crete, staying in Panormos, a pretty much undiscovered little village, west of Heraklion. Our accommodation was a 19th century former merchant’s house with just five bedrooms, each converted into separate guest accommodation, a small pool and a pretty outdoor area for breakfast and evening coffees.

Here we met Alexia, who lived in the village and came in each day. She was the all-in-one receptionist, maid and provider of delicious home-cooked daily breakfasts: local fruit, thick Greek yoghurt, freshly baked bread and a choice of her homemade marmalade or local Cretan honey.  One morning there was cake, still warm from the oven. “Cake for breakfast?” my husband muttered as I helped myself to a slice. “On holiday,” I said, “cake for breakfast is just fine.” It was more than fine, as I told Alexia later when I asked her for the recipe.

The same evening we sat in the courtyard with our Greek coffee.  Beside us was a small pomegranate tree and a climbing jasmine. The scent in the darkening evening made me think of my garden at home and happy family times. Alexia chatted as she copied out my recipe. Tomorrow evening, she said, she’d make a traditional Greek cheese pie, and if I liked she’d show me how it was made.

And so I joined Alexia in the small galley kitchen. “You must use goat’s milk,” she told me and then added that the best hard cheese was the local Graviera cheese. I’d already tasted this and knew it was good.  I took photos and copied down her instructions.

Somewhere during the conversation I mentioned that today had been my husband’s birthday. She asked what we’d done to celebrate and I shook my head. My husband doesn't like fuss, I explained.

Minutes later she disappeared through the villa’s front gate leaving the cheese filo concoction still cooking in the oven. She returned very soon with a gaggle of small children rounded up from the square, her nieces and nephews, she said.   In her hand was a plate holding a traditional Greek pastry - kanafa – and on it was one candle.  For Andreas, she said smiling. The children sang, my husband blew out the candle and then shared the cake with the small singers.

As we headed up to our room later we agreed, it had been the very best of birthdays.

That was Crete, where we started our holiday, but yesterday we left Greece from our final stop, Mykonos, one of the Cycladic Islands.

No two places could be more dissimilar. Where Panormos had been quiet, Mykonos was seething with tourists. Our hotel pool was surrounded by  ‘beautiful people’, all with perfect bodies and tans, in neat tightly spaced rows of loungers, bodies slowly crisping in the sun. It was a temple to Aphrodite, or perhaps Narcissus.

We avoided the pool, and chose other things to do. Quiet morning strolls through the old port. 

A ferry to the island of Delos where archeologists are uncovering the entire fabric of an ancient cosmopolitan, Greek, Roman and Phoenician city. 

A brief visit through a quaint local museum.
A funeral amphora showing the Trojan horse and scenes from the Fall of Troy. Found in Mykonos early  7th century.

And now I write this from my Riyadh villa. In my suitcase, I have brought back a block of Cretan Graviera cheese, and this morning we visited our Tamimi supermarket where I bought some feta and filo pastry.

Tomorrow I’ll make Alexia’s Cheese Pie.

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