Our first full day in Chania, the second largest city on the island of Crete, we found ourselves at Restaurant Gramboussa, a lovely restaurant in the town of Kaliviani in the northwest corner of this slender 160-mile long island. We sat on the patio on a cool sunny afternoon and perused the menu.
Ann and I had come to Crete—on the advise of an enthusiastic, Crete-loving, Athenian cabbie on our previous visit—to celebrate our fifth anniversary. Even before her first adult job as a flight attendant for TWA, Ann has had unquenchable wanderlust, to my great good fortune. We both love to travel and to eat, and one of the great parts of travel for us is tasting new foods and tasting traditional dishes as prepared in their native lands.
New food came first that afternoon: Artichokes slathered in staka. Staka is the water and whey left over from clarifying butter made from goats’ milk, thickened with flour to the consistency of a hollandaise. Rich, mild and delicious on the artichokes, staka is a great example of culinary practicality. I’ve clarified a lot of butter, but I never used the water and whey to make a sauce nor heard of anyone doing so. In Crete’s culinary tradition, nothing is wasted.
Ann is a huge fan of moussaka, the layered casserole featuring eggplant and ground beef or lamb, often likened to Italy’s lasagna. When she dug into her moussaka, she found potatoes at the bottom of the baking dish.
“There are potatoes in here,” she said, surprised. “I’ve never had it with potatoes.” It was fabulous: a layer of thinly sliced potatoes on the bottom, a layer of a Bolognese-like ground meat elegantly seasoned with cinnamon; a thick layer of soft, flavorful eggplant; and an equally thick layer of béchamel sauce, browned and crisp on top.
It was the kind of dish that, when you realize you’re still talking about it the following morning in bed, you know you’re going to try to recreate it.
Ann did a quick internet search and realized why she’d been surprised by the potatoes: half the recipes here, like Bobby Flay’s, make no mention of potatoes, or suggest they are optional. Later that day, speaking with Maria at the front desk of our fabulous hotel, Casa Delfino, we asked her about moussaka, which she loved. When we noted that many recipes in the US don’t include potatoes, she winced and shook her head as if we’d said something ridiculous.
“Of course moussaka has potatoes,” she said. I asked her if she made it and she said, yes, then launched into a step-by-step rendition of her version, of which I took careful note. (Untraditionally, she includes chopped mushrooms in the meat sauce and seasons it not with cinnamon, but with cumin.) We will surely be experimenting soon to create an “authentic” Greek moussaka (look for our recipe in the next newsletter).
The surprises of Crete …
It wasn’t only the dishes that were great finds here. There was the tiny market selling a range of artichokes, wild asparagus, bags of zucchini blossoms, and wild greens (our food tour guide told us 170 different edible greens, weeds, grow on the island).
Spanish Oyster plant: both greens and root are eaten:
Crete’s many varieties of artichokes:
Wild wild asparagus, looking as wind-whipped as mountain grasses:
Even “Greek” salads were beautiful and delicious. Below, Ann photographs ours from the Psarras Tavern in the Plaka below the Acropolis (in Athens):
Of course, you can’t visit Greece without tasting some of its octopi, here from restaurant Salis, on Crete’s promenade around the harbor:
Raki is a Cretan spirit made from the skins of wine grapes. It tastes like grappa but is considerably more smooth and mellow, owing presumably to a lower ABV. Almost every restaurant serves a small complimentary carafe of it to conclude the meal:
Crete is so close to Africa that when the wind blows from the south, surfaces are coated in dust from the Sahara Desert:
More surprises: That the dolma, stuffed grape leaves, are served warm and the leaves are not vinegary, but fresh and tender (blanched and shocked only). And we’d never seen so many olive tree—30 million of them on this island. And the olive oil is the best I’ve ever had. Such a lovely trip.
What we’re drinking …
We both had gorgeous Aviations at Hotel Electra Palace in Athens. Some bartenders say the creme de violette is optional, but it really makes the drink.
2 ounces gin
3/4 ounce maraschino liqueur
3/4 lemon juice
1/4 ounce créme de violette
garnish: violet leaf or brandied cherry or twist, as you wish.
Combine all but the garnish in a mixing glass, fill the glass with ice, stir to thoroughly chill, strain into a Nick & Nora glass and garnish.
[Substack says this newsletter is getting too long for email because of all the pix! Click the headline at the top of this email to continue to the full newsletter and this week’s reading and watching endorsements, and links we’ve been loving.]
What we’re reading…
I read a novella-length story Ann has already recommended, Small Things Like These, by the Irish writer, Claire Keegan, and recommend it even more highly than she did. The story of a working class Irishman in southwestern Ireland who discovers the truth about a Catholic laundry that forces him to examine how silence is complicity in a town controlled by the church. Ultimately, it’s Keegan’s masterful control of her spare sentences and detail that make this book such a mysterious pleasure to read that both Ann and I read it a second time immediately on finishing.
Ann, as always, is several books ahead of me:
Ah! The luxury of long flights when I can just sit and read has returned! On the way to Athens, I read The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier, a mind-blowing, genre-bending Sci-fi thriller recommended by my son Sam. I had to keep putting it down so I could collect myself. And it has a perfect ending.
On the way back from Athens, I dug into The Chuckling Fingers, a reissued 1941 mystery by Mabel Seeley, once known as the Mistress of Mystery. Seeley was famous for writing self-reliant, strong-willed female detectives. Descriptions like these have me smitten: “I guessed she could be a long legged imp” and “Only a girl who’s been pushed around is that unfriendly.”
What we’ve been watching …
Not much with all the travel! But a few movies from the past occupied us on the long flights to and from Athens deserve mentioning.
I had never seen Training Day (2001), a cop thriller starring Denzel Washington, who won a best actor Oscar for it, and Ethan Hawke, nominated for best supporting. An edge-of-your-seat, heart-in-your-throat story about a veteran LA narc and a rookie aspiring narc. It is not what you at first imagine.
Ann requested a re-viewing of Broadcast News (1987), the great James L. Brooks dramedy about television news people in the 1980s wrestling with questions of objectivity and entertainment, questions that feel fresh in this era of Fox and “fake” news.
While I re-watched the amazing Monster’s Ball with Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Barry, Ann went way back:
Delta offered so many old black and white movies that I thought I’d landed in heaven. I opted for the 1947 Best Picture Oscar winner A Gentlemen’s Agreement, starring so many great actors I can’t even list them all here. But I’ll save you the trouble of looking for who Dean Stockwell plays: he’s the little boy. Rather than explain the plot and go on about how wonderful this movie is, I’ll let The Guardian do a far better job.
Links we’re loving…
Sparked by a review of a new movie called To Olivia, about Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal grieving the loss of their daughter, we went for a deep dive into the fascinating life of the award-winning actress felled by a stroke and her marriage to an abusive, bigoted, brilliant man.
Our last night in Greece, on the Psaras Tavern rooftop, the maitre d’ pointed to a lone table in the corner, or a deuce squeezed between two many other tables. Ann pointed to the deuce, and said, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” The phrase endures. Read this excellent profile of the original Baby, Jennifer Grey, daughter of Cleveland homie Joel Grey and star of the 80s hit, Dirty Dancing, whose decision to “fix” her unique and exquisite nose, torpedoed her career.
A tiny town in Spain stakes its future on books.
The story of a Sicilian bee keeper who has saved the black bee.
Who wants a toiletries bag when you can have a Delft Blue House? Fly first class with KLM and one can be yours.
I leave you with a great speech delivered by Albert Brooks to Holly Hunter, damning the beautiful but dim news anchor (played by the late William Hurt), who is all style and zero substance. Holly Hunter, a substantial news producer has fallen in love with the anchor, and Brooks is in love with Holly Hunter. Famously, he buries the lede.
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