Mariana Kavroulaki is experimental archaeologist- food historian & founder of
Greek Culinary History and Cooking Adventures. GCH&CA explores the evolution of Greek cuisine throughout the centuries and the relationship between food and art as participatory performance with socio-historical focus. Her work takes many forms, including pop-up dinners, experiments, lectures, historic cooking courses, edible installations, and food walking tours. On the walking tours, the participants do not only eat but also explore the tales behind the foods and the preparation of each food item. She is the author of a Gourmand award-winning cookbook (The Language of Taste) and the founder and organizer of the biennial Symposia of Greek Gastronomy (conference).
1. What foods is your region known for?
The edible wild greens (horta) and the edilbe weeds play a vital role in the Cretan diet. Chania boast many varieties of them. According to the season, they are eaten raw or boiled, put in pies or stewed with meat or fish. Don’t miss askolimbrous (Scolymus Hispanicus) and stamnagathi (Chicorium Spinosum). Blanched or raw, with extra virgin olive oil and a few drops of lemon juice, they can make your salad a luxury item. Cooked with lamb or octopus and egg-lemon sauce, they make delicious dishes. With a bitter flavor, the young shoots of avronies (black byrony) pairs very well with octopus or eggs. Horta Yahni, a stew of wild greens with chopped onions, wild fennel and lemon juice is another tasty dish based on greens. Octopus and cuttlefish fresh from the Cretan sea are incredibly tasty, boiled or grilled and drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice or cooked with wild fennel and green olives.
Askordoulakoi or vrovioi are actually the bulb of a tassel hyacinth, the muscari comosum. They are boiled and then pickled or preserved in olive oil. They are thought to stimulate the appetite.
The ever-popular dakos is known by regional names throughout Crete. What is it? Barley rusks lightly soaked in water to soften them and topped with grated fresh tomato, black olives and mizithra, the local creamy sheep or/and goat’s milk cheese. They are drizzled with virgin olive oil and dusted with salt and oregano. The highly aromatic bitter orange is a favorite of Chania’s cuisine. Its peel can be candied, is used in sweets, pies and salads and is turned into a typical spoon sweet (neratzaki glyko). Its juice is used as preservation for olives and gives a unique flavor to one of most popular legume dishes: chickpeas cooked with onion, olive oil and bitter orange juice.
Snails have been eaten since ancient times. In Chania they are cooked in many different ways but you definitely have to try the hohlioi boubouristoi which means snails with their heads looking down. They are sauteed in olive oil with sea salt, rosemary, garlic and are simmered down with wine vinegar.
Apaki is an excellent salt, vinegar, and smoke –cured pork meat. The final product tastes of the fresh herbs which were used to smoke it. As the name ‘gamopilafo’ hints (gamos means ‘wedding’ in Greek) this rice dish is traditionally offered in many regions of Chania as the main dish of the wedding feast. Nowadays you will find it also in many tavernas of Chania. It is a pilaf prepared in a rich broth that you make from simmering goat and hen or rooster. Lemon juice and local butter are added before the pilafi is completely done. Its taste relies especially on the high quality of the local meat and on the aroma of the local butter used (stakovoutyro).
Staka comes from the separation of butter (stakovoutyro) from the milk solids by adding a little flour during heating the creamy skin that forms on the top of the fresh goat’s or/and sheep’s milk. It is eaten still warm, sprinkled with lemon juice.
Chania is well known for its pies. Tourta is a very rich pie used to be eaten only at Easter although now you can find it all year round. Tourta has pieces of lamb – or a whole lamb- between layers of local cheeses and phyllo.
Boureki is also a pie. The word derives from Turkish but the Chaniotiko Boureki is a speciality of Chania. There are many variations of it so it can consist of layers of zuchini or pumpkin, mizithra (local fresh cheese) and mint. It can be made with or without tomatoes, with or without a layer of phyllo dough.
Kalitsounia are small pies. They can be round, semicircular, rectangular or triangular; they are made up of phyllo and are filled with local soft cheese or greens or a mixture of them. They can be sweet or savory and are fried, oven baked or baked on “satsi” which is a domed metal piece that sits over the fire.
One type of pie, the Sfakiani pita, isn’t found only around Sfakia but even in the city of Chania. It looks like a pancake with soft cheese kneaded into the dough and is served with thyme honey.
Wild fennel pie, Marathopita, also looks like a pancake filled with chopped fennel and onions. Bougatsa is the iconic food symbol of Chania. It is made with crusty phyllo pastry and filled with fresh soft cheese. It is served cut up into small pieces, sprinkled with sugar and optionally, cinnamon.
Chania is famous for its cheeses. Graviera is made with sheep’s milk and resembles Swiss gruyere; its best quality is aged in caves in the White Mountains for at least six months. You can have it as a snack with a piece of bread or paximadi (rusk), in salads, fried, with fruits (especially with fresh figs and grapes) or sprinkled with good quality honey. Mizithra is a soft, creamy, white cheese. It is made with sheep’s and/or goat’s milk. It is consumed on the table, as a spread on bread and rusk, in salads, over pasta, in sweet and savory pie fillings, as a filling in rabbit and chicken dishes.
One very unusual cheese is malaka (=soft). It is white, very milky and elastic – sort of like mozzarella. It is mainly eaten in Easter pies. The mixture of mizithra and malaka is used in tourta and Easter kalitsouni. Apart from sfakiani pita and bougatsa, another dessert to snap up is xerotigana, etherial pastry ribbons that are coiled around a fork as they are deep fried. They come dipped in honey syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
2. What is the best time of year to visit your city?
he best time to visit Chania is in late spring – early summer, because it’s the very beginning of the touring season and nothing is crowded. Also, it’s just after the rainy season, and the gardens are bursting with flowers!
3. Are there any events foodies should plan their trip to your city around?
Agricultural August is an annual event taking place for the last 13 years in Chania. It is organised to promote the agricultural food- products of the region. Visitors can taste and buy a lot of local products.
Crete has a long sardine fishing tradition so sardine festival is as popular with Chania visitors as it is with locals. It is celebrated each year in early September on Nea Chora beach, just a short walk from the Venetian harbour of Chania.
Chania has 4 weekly farmer markets (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday) at different locations. They are great places to buy fresh locally grown fruit and vegetables, cheeses and herbs from small producers at low prices but even if you don’t buy it will give you a glimpse of local life. The markets run from early morning until around 14.30.
4. Who are some of the chefs in your city that we should keep an eye on?
Yannis Tsivourakis, the executive chef at the five-star Minoa Hotel, modernises traditional Cretan cuisine. He is one of the few chefs who uses olive oil almost exclusively as the main ingredient for his dishes. Also, he is very fond of humble and underestimated ingredients. Iosif Petrov, executive chef at the restaurant of Serenissima hotel, creates avant garde dishes combining local ingredients and recipes with french techniques. South of Chania, in the small traditional village of Drakona, Stelios Trilirakis, chef-patron at Ntounias, honours traditional Cretan cuisine and the methods of Slow Food.
5. What can people expect on your food tours?
They can expect tasty food tastings, food history, politics and culture. Since Arabs, Jews, Venetians, Ottomans, Greeks from Asia Minor and immigrants have passed through Chania, adding their flavors to the local cuisine, they will follow their trail. Therefore, they will experience a multisensory food event and a short lesson in ancient cooking, they will be treated to historic foods made according to ancient and medieval recipes and will taste delectable delicacies from one-of-a-kind specialty food shops while enjoying the opportunity to understand better the culinary history of the city.