I arrived in Crete at the height of wine-making season. The fall, then at its ripest stage, brought finger-size squash, ambrosial peaches, a profusion of horta (greens), and riots of apples and quince. "Don't drive," locals warned. "The roads are slippery with grape juice that leaks from the trucks." But who could pass up roads slick with wine?So my friends and I packed into a car with my food-obsessed acquaintance Giorgos, taking him up on his promise to show us the island's best rustic tavernas. For a week we peeked in at Minoan sites, gazed at faded Byzantine frescoes, and feasted on the Mediterranean's loveliest and most lyrical food.
A word of warning: Crete has its share of microwaved moussakas, nasty schnitzels, and limp fish-and-chips (often spelled "ships" or "sheeps," both things very Greek). To get away from all that, dodge the touristy beach restaurants — or better yet, go slightly inland — and explore the world of authentic Cretan tavernas.
Giorgos insisted we begin our taverna tour in Arkhánes, a bustling village that has been a viticultural center since Minoan times—archaeologists working nearby have unearthed 4,000-year-old clay wine-storing pithoi, smaller versions of which are still in use today. We had come to Arkhánes for dinner at O Aristos. Simply furnished with long wooden tables, family-owned, and serving homemade wine and just a few daily specials, it's a village taverna like any other. (If a place is too cute, beware of the food.) And like many Cretan taverna meals, ours began with dakos, a brown barley rusk slathered with dense gold-green olive oil and foamy tomato pulp. "Our shepherds eat dakos in the pastures," said the owner, Grigori Konstantakis, his hands purple from days spent crushing grapes, as he brought out warm cheese pies, tiny stuffed grape leaves, and thick herb-flecked tzatziki (yogurt dip).
But our real reason for choosing Aristos was Grigori's famous boiled rooster. It owes its remarkable flavor and succulence to a diet of wheat and wild herbs, and came accompanied by a rice pilaf soupy and plump with rooster broth. "Cretans serve roosters at weddings as a symbol of happiness," said Grigori's wife, Kaiti.
Courtesy of our neighbors—12 wine makers in tattered striped shirts—we ended with shots of raki, a grape liquor so fiery and coarse we nearly choked. It seemed to go down more smoothly for the striped shirts: they sang madinathes, or two-line poems, about vultures, eagles, and freedom, then taught us their dance. Eleven steps to the right, two to the left. You move your feet very slowly and stomp sparingly.
"Let's leave before the bill argument starts," Giorgos pleaded. "They'll each want to treat, and sometimes these disputes end up in shooting."
"Escape the urban blight of Herákleion," my guidebook read. But we were in no hurry to flee Crete's gritty and strangely beguiling port capital. We rambled around its oregano-scented market, then enjoyed bougátsa, the heavenly warm cheese custard enclosed in thin sheets of phyllo, and iced coffee frappé on the clamorous Venizelou Square. "Nescafé has become the Greek national drink," Giorgos sighed.
Annoyingly hidden in a warren of cacophonous side streets in central Herákleion, Empolo is the only place in town that delivers genuine Cretan cuisine. More restaurant than taverna—decorated like a traditional house—it excels at rich peasant soups, omelettes, and macaronia, thin pasta cooked in potent goat broth and scattered with a ricotta-like cheese called anthotiro. After a sour-milk soup with pork and boiled wheat, we tried zigouri vrasto, a long-simmered garlicky goat brew well known as a hangover cure to anyone with a fondness for raki.
Crete is a botanist's Eden; besides the standard dandelion greens, more than 2,500 species of horta are used by the local cooks. Tonight's selection was tender two-week-old cabbage shoots, boiled (as always) and enlivened by splashes of lemon and olive oil. It's the insistent use of greens, grains, and olive oil that makes Cretan cuisine—according to scientific studies—the most healthful in the world.
Pites—pies—are the pride of Cretan gastronomy. Pies with myzithra (a soft and tangy whey cheese), drizzled with honey. Pies with horta or meat. Small pies, grand pies, pies fried, baked, thin as a pancake, or twisted into a rope and curled like a snail.
We discovered a veritable shrine to pites under an old mulberry tree at Taverna Platanos in Vrakhási, a somnolent whitewashed village with two Byzantine churches and an Ottoman fountain. Eleni Soulavaki, the owner, brought us platters of pites, stuffed with myzithra; fennel, spinach, and Swiss chard; and cumin-scented lamb. When we asked what else she'd cooked that day, she returned with bowls of lovely zucchini blossoms filled with minted potatoes and rice; an autumnal mélange of squash, broad beans, greens, and snails cooked in olive oil; and three stews, all magnificent—especially the sweet-sour, cinnamon-spiked stifado with beef and pearl onions.
After lunch Giorgos delivered his snail lecture: "Cretans gather them at night after a good rain, then feed them broken-up uncooked spaghetti to fatten and sweeten them. Cretans don't like skinny snails." Meanwhile, Eleni's small, sturdy granddaughter tried out her new fountain pen on our white trousers, then disappeared—with my camera lens cap—not to be spotted again.
Sure, Mátala's beaches and caves were "discovered" years ago—Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan were celebrity cave dwellers. But after a visit to the nearby Minoan ruins of Phaestos, Mátala isn't a bad place for a swim and a lazy lunch.
Judging from the scary photos of kitschy Greek food displayed near the entrance, you'd never know that Minos Palace is the finest taverna in town—not until you settle on the upstairs terrace, ouzo in hand, and order a cool, crisp salad of shredded romaine, tomatoes, olives, and feta; and the fried zucchini and eggplant, greaseless and light as a whisper. While most Greek fish tavernas overcook seafood, here the fried shrimp and the grilled ksifias (the famous swordfish from the south coast) arrived juicy, sweet, and impeccably fresh. And the htopodi (octopus) was the best I've tasted in Greece: charred, tender, bathed in a lemon-olive oil emulsion.
For many Cretan taverna owners, the restaurant is just a seasonal social diversion. The proprietors of Minos Palace—two brothers-in-law, both named Mihalis—make a real living tending their grapevines and olive groves. One Mihalis, the one who proposed to my friend Maria, was even running for local office—and has since won. And to think that Maria could have been the First Lady of Mátala!
With an intimate, fragrant harbor that is as pretty as Portofino's and nearly as hopping as Hong Kong's, Khaniá is the jewel of Crete. As befits a taverna with serious culinary credentials, Karnagio is slightly removed from the tourist action, tucked away in the harbor's eastern corner with only a partial view of the sea.
No matter. Everyone's here under the vine-draped trellis: curly-haired Circes-in-training—lipstick the color of figs—and their beach-bum lovers, town matrons, businessmen, grandmas in black, plus a few international types (the waiters here speak passable English).
We chose from an encyclopedic selection of mezédhes (appetizers), then enjoyed perfect fried vegetables, grilled baby lamb chops, and a mean cuttlefish stew with olives and fennel. My friend especially loved the boureki: custardy layers of minted zucchini and myzithra cheese, baked under a cap of sesame-sprinkled phyllo. "This really puts moussaka to shame," she raved. Even the after-dinner giveaways (honey-drenched mini-baklava; smoother-than-usual raki) were pretty superb.
We stayed on in Khaniá for our last meal—at Anaplous, in a 400-year-old Venetian-style house that had been bombed during World War II and only partially restored. Here we dined on a patio surrounded by operatically illuminated crumbling walls. (As if we hadn't seen enough ruins already.) The wine was presented in decorative carafes, and the faux-rustic menu completed the designer vision of Crete. A taverna this wasn't.
Anaplous opened in 1992 as a vegetarian restaurant, but now its main attraction is meat, such as lamb on the bone slowly cooked with wine and wild thyme (a recipe from Sfakia, a place famous for cheese pies and vendettas), and other riffs on highland preparations for meat baked in the earth, in clay, or on stones. The pites here are lovely pizza-like crackles of dough smothered with fresh cheese and topped with smoked sausage or air-cured beef. And the dakos could pass for an upmarket bruschetta. Dessert was a vast plate of thick yogurt mosaicked with every conceivable nut, seed, and dried fruit. Now, that was like eating the countryside.
Back home, I decided to test Giorgos's recipe. I collected a bowlful of garden snails and tried to feed them raw pasta.
They didn't survive, I'm sorry to say.
Few waiters or proprietors at Cretan tavernas speak fluent English, and few of these restaurants have printed menus. For extra help with ordering, ask your hotel to inquire about the daily specials—or persuade your waiter to give you a peek at the pots in the kitchen. The food is well worth the challenge.
O Aristos Kato Arkhánes; 30-81/751-243; lunch for two $15. A 20-minute drive from Herákleion, and a good lunch stop after a visit to Knossos, Crete's premier Minoan site. Call ahead to order the rooster.
Empolo 7 Manou Miliara, Herákleion; 30-81/284-244; dinner for two $17.
Taverna Platanos Vrakhási; 30-841/31488; lunch for two $16. About 13 miles from the resort town of Áyios Nikólaos, on the northeastern coast.
Minos Palace Mátala; 30-892/45066; lunch for two $20. Close to Phaestos, Crete's second-most-extensive Minoan site.
Karnagio 8 Katechaki Square, Khaniá; 30-821/53366; dinner for two $26.
Anaplous Sifaka and E. Melxisedek, Khaniá; 30-821/41320; dinner for two $26.
Prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.