Monday, 1 October 2012

11 million olive trees......

I have just returned from a wonderful week spent walking in western Crete.  Obviously the countryside is very different from the UK.  It's possible to pluck figs and walnuts from trees as you pass, vines spill over fences and there is a constant aroma of wild fennel.  Irrigation is essential and everywhere we walked we saw the agricultural water meters, measuring the amount of water being applied to each small plot of land.  Water isn't wasted here and neither is land.  The terracing on every possible hillside isn't a vestige of ancient agricultural practice, it's a modern way of maximising your production.  Olives are a major crop.  I'm told that there are over 11 million olive trees on Crete and a farmer will describe his land, not in terms of hectarage, but by the number of trees growing on it.  Our walking holiday was organised by a hard-working couple who also own a taverna where their home-produced olive oil features heavily in the cooking.  When Stelios describes Angela, his Essex-born wife, as "a lucky girl" to get not only him, but all those olive trees, I sense that he is only half-joking.  This is a place where food is valued and is still truly local, both in ingredients and practice.  Cretan cuisine ranges far beyond the "moussaka, souvlaki and stuffed tomatoes" that I have always associated with Greek cooking.  And although I suspect that vegetarianism is viewed with some bemusement, anyone can eat well without consuming meat.  Unfamiliar dishes featuring courgettes, aubergines, green and dried beans, and salads of big juicy tomatoes and cucumbers with olives and feta cheese appear at every meal.  The greens known generically as "horta" were particularly delicious.  Traditionally they are gathered wild, changing during the season, although many varieties are now cultivated.  Wonderful goats cheeses are unlike any I have tasted in the UK and eggs often appear, startlingly yellow in thick omlettes, and obviously freerange.  And as we were by the sea there was also fish, straight from the boats.  When meat did appear it was almost superfluous, although I was interested to try some goat, a meat I have only tasted rarely.  Sampling unfamiliar food is, to me, one of the joys of travel, and I have never seen the point of sticking to what you know.  But it is unusual these days to find a place where local produce is so entirely the norm.  Crete is, like the rest of Greece, suffering from the dire economic situation.  I was told that many public employees had not been paid for months.  As a tourist one is warmly welcomed and I can only hope that people continue to visit and support the economy there.  I shall certainly enjoy the thick, green, viscuous olive oil from Stelios and Angela's olive trees that I brought home with me.  And I hope that the tradition of local food production from one's own plot of land will prove to be a strength for people in Crete and other rural areas. 

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