“You will put on some kilos and you’ll be back,” our taxi driver said as he dropped us off at the hotel. Never were truer words spoken. Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and tourists flock to its splendid beaches during peak season. But we took advantage of the perennially pleasant weather by booking a getaway late one September. There were savage landscapes and quiet coves, transparent waters and unhurried villages to be discovered. Yet, for me, the food was the real attraction.

I spent a morning in a crumbling former olive mill with cookery teacher Koula Barykadis. She showed me how to whip up a feast including stuffed vine leaves (mine were imperfect), courgette fritters and braised cockerel with hilopites, a type of local pasta. Afterwards, while Barykadis told me about the island’s culinary heritage, I nosed around her larder, which housed an assortment of mountain herbs, “spoon sweets” and pickled capers, as well as condiments such as the balsamic-like grape molasses she makes once a year.

That afternoon we followed the scent of herbs and stumbled across a farmers’ market. We tasted all kinds of seasonal fruits and vegetables including fresh walnuts and briny olives the size of jawbreakers. There were cheeses such as nutty graviera, traditionally aged in caves, and creamy anthotyros, made from sheep and goat milk. Appetite whetted, we chose a rugged taverna whose menu read like a love letter to the market produce.

We tried stamnagathi, a wild strain of chicory, cooked with olive oil and served with an assertive wedge of lemon. Then dakos — rusks of dried bread smeared with tomato pulp, oregano and lashings of mizithra, a crumbly cheese like ricotta. There were supernaturally ripe melons and an aniseed fish stew that I have riffed on endlessly ever since. Given the generous portions, we refused dessert but scoffed a plate of honey-drenched loukoumades (small Greek doughnuts) between sips of raki, a local grape brandy.

The pleasures of the table are fleeting but, as I sat overlooking the still, moonlit sea, I thought of the words of Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis in his novel Zorba the Greek: “I’m all right here. May this minute last for years.”

Pickled Melon with Whipped Feta and Fried Capers 

Ingredients of melon, feta and capers
© Aaron Graubart
Plated dish of Pickled Melon with Whipped Feta and Fried Capers
Tablecloth: Summerill & Bishop x MatchesFashion © Aaron Graubart

Serves four

Pickled melon:

200ml white wine vinegar
100g caster sugar
1 star anise
1 cinnamon quill
4 peppercorns 
Piece of lemon rind
500g melon such as cantaloupe

Whipped feta:

200g Greek feta
100g Greek yoghurt
30ml lemon juice
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
50ml extra virgin olive oil
2 tbs olive oil
5 sprigs fresh oregano
2 tbs capers
  1. To make the pickle, combine the vinegar, sugar, spices, lemon rind, a pinch of salt and 200ml of water in a small saucepan over medium heat and simmer for three minutes. Cool to room temperature. Cut the melon into bite-size chunks, or use a melon baller, and stand in the pickling liquid for 10 minutes, then drain.

  2. For the whipped feta, blend the feta, yoghurt, lemon juice and garlic in a food processor until very smooth. With the motor running, add oil in a thin steady stream and blend until emulsified. Season to taste and set aside.

  3. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Once shimmering, carefully add the oregano leaves and cook until they begin to crisp up — this takes about 30 seconds. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on kitchen paper to drain. In the same pan, add the capers and cook, shaking the pan until they crisp up. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain along with the oregano.

  4. To serve, smooth the feta over a plate and top with melon, capers and oregano. Serve with crusty bread or Cretan rusks.

Kataifi Fish Pie

Ingredients of Kataifi pastry, fennel, lemon and herbs
© Aaron Graubart
Kataifi fish pie in the pot
Tablecloth: Summerill & Bishop x MatchesFashion; Green Cast Iron Casserole: Le Creuset © Aaron Graubart

Serves six

3 tbs of olive oil 
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 bulb fennel, thinly sliced 
100ml ouzo, Pernod or pastis
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled and puréed
Pinch of saffron 
Sea salt and pepper
200g kataifi pastry
40g butter
1 tsp of fennel seeds
50g capers, well rinsed 
Handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley
Juice of half a lemon
400g cod, cut into chunks
125g prawns
200g squid, cut into rings
  1. Heat the olive oil in a shallow ovenproof casserole (approximately 26cm). Sauté the onions and garlic until soft and fragrant. Add the fennel and sauté for a few minutes, then pour in the ouzo and let it bubble. Once it’s been reduced by half, pour in 125ml of water and the tomatoes, and add a pinch of saffron. Season with sea salt and pepper. Cover and let it all braise over a low heat for 45 minutes until the fennel is meltingly tender.

  2. Preheat the oven to 180C. Pull apart the kataifi and place in a bowl. Melt the butter, pour over the kataifi, add the fennel seeds and toss. Remove the casserole dish from the heat. Add the capers, parsley and lemon juice, then add the fish, prawns and squid rings, making sure they are covered in the sauce. Top the surface of the dish with kataifi and bake for 30 minutes until the pastry is golden and the fish is cooked through.

Honey, Cardamom and Orange Blossom Loukoumades 

Ingredients of Honey, Cardamom and Orange Blossom Loukoumades
© Aaron Graubart
Plated Loukoumades doughnuts
Tablecloth: Summerill & Bishop x MatchesFashion © Aaron Graubart

Makes about 15 doughnuts

For the doughnuts:

2x7g sachets yeast
2 tbs caster sugar
350g plain flour sifted
1 heaped tbs cornflour
2 tbs extra virgin olive oil 
Seeds of 6 cardamom pods, crushed 
Zest of one orange

For the honey syrup:

250g honey
250g caster sugar
Peel of one lemon
4 cardamom pods, bruised
1 stick cinnamon
1 tbs orange blossom water
Oil, for frying
2 tbs ground pistachios, to serve
1 tbs of toasted sesame seeds, to serve 
  1. In a bowl, mix together the yeast, sugar and 350ml of lukewarm water and set aside for 10 minutes or until it is beautifully frothy. Add the flour, cornflour, olive oil, cardamom, orange zest and a pinch of salt and beat with a wooden spoon, or a mixer with a dough hook attached, until smooth and elastic — the consistency should be wet, halfway between a dough and a batter. Cover and set aside in a warm place for 90 minutes until it has doubled in size.

  2. Meanwhile, make the honey syrup. Combine the honey, sugar, lemon peel, cardamom and cinnamon with 250ml of water in a saucepan and heat to dissolve the sugar. Once it comes to a boil, simmer for 15 minutes over a low heat. Remove from the heat, stir in the orange blossom water and cool.

  3. Heat the oil in a deep, heavy-based saucepan (no more than half-full) to 180C. (If you don’t have a digital probe thermometer, a cube of bread added to the pan will turn golden in 30 seconds at this temperature.) Line a plate with kitchen paper. Using a lightly oiled tablespoon, spoon batter into the oil and turn occasionally until golden and cooked through — this will take about four minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. While hot, dip briefly in the honey syrup, making sure they are well coated. Sprinkle over the pistachios and sesame seeds and serve with coffee.

Ravinder Bhogal is chef-patron of Jikoni. Follow Ravinder on Instagram @cookinboots and Twitter @cookinboots

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