We have been lucky enough to manage a lengthy summer holiday in Crete this year….. a full two-and-a-half weeks. I have always loved visiting Greece and its Islands and have been back many times over the years. As a family, we have also come to love the place….. the light, smells, flavours, laid-back atmosphere, warmth, food, people……
Our particular favourite destination in recent years has been Crete, the largest of the Greek Islands. Being larger, it has a wonderfully varied feel about it…… The thyme and oregano infused White Mountains…. deep spectacular hikeable gorges….. beautiful beaches which are gently lapped by the crystal clear stunningly blue waters of the Libyan and Cretan Seas…… rural villages built of stone and wood with their pretty pastel doors and pristine churches…… The locals are friendly and welcoming and the food they eat is perfect in its rustic simplicity, yet amazingly flavourful and vibrant on the tastebuds.
The incredibly smooth, locally pressed olive oil and mountain-thyme fed honey shot through with delicate, but distinctive floral hints are second to none. We always come back with as much as we can carry…… making the best use of the suitcase space left after we have eaten all our gluten free travelling supplies. This year we also discovered that that the Greeks have caught on to the idea of mixing their local fire-water – Raki, with fruits and other delights. I’m usually not a fan of Raki at all…. I generally loathe the stuff…….. But mix it with honey, or coffee, or vanilla or strawberry and it becomes a different drink altogether….. exceptionally moreish and very very drinkable!
With the on-going Greek Euro crisis, we were a little worried about whether our beautiful Crete would be suffering this year, but there was no outward sign of things being different or impacted in any way. That’s not to say that when the subject was locally broached, there was no recognition…… Sure, the furrowed brows appeared and a wave of concern was evident in the faces staring back at us….. But talk for more than a few seconds and all anxiety seemed to be cast aside with a positive determination that Greece is a resilient nation and whatever the outcomes of the EU questions, it will remain as beautiful, welcoming and alive as ever.
We stayed in two separate villas this year, both on the North coast. One in a slightly larger coastal village called Panormo and one (which we had stayed at before) set in the foothills of the White Mountains near Chania, in a village called Plaka. Each of our base destinations was different from the other…. Panormo being a reasonably unspoilt, local, chilled village, set around a safe harbour and beaches and within easy driving distance of the must see destinations of Knossos, Prevelli and Samaria Gorge.
Our second villa was picked and returned to for its stunning vista overlooking Souda Bay (below), perfect private pool and spacious accommodation. Twenty to thirty minutes drive from Chania, Crete’s second largest (and one of my very favourite) towns, it was perfectly placed for the best shopping on the island as well as our starting point for trips to some of the more central rural villages, Lake Kournas, Hora Sfakion and walking the Imbros Gorge.
With temperatures in the mid-30’s, we aimed for a careful balance between restful laziness by the pool and at the beach, combined with enough days out seeing exciting places to feel we had had a good adventure.
On the gluten free food front, I was frankly astounded at how different our experience was this year compared with 2013. Last time we went felt like an endless struggle trying to get our needs understood at restaurants, with lots of confused stares and shaking of heads when presented with our gluten free restaurant cards which explained our Coeliac predicament.
2015 felt like a new Greek world! One mention of óchi glouténi̱ (no gluten) pretty much everywhere we went, resulted in reassuring nods and smiles and immediate reference to menus to point out what was safe for our consumption.
A lot of Greek food is naturally gluten free, but asking how food was prepared and whether chips were fried independently of other foods was (at last) a welcome question, which actually seemed to be understood within a health context, rather than a strange and inappropriate challenge to our hosts.
Armed with our Greek translations for wheat, barley and rye, we met a positive and surprisingly enthusiastic willingness to check ingredients lists on sauce bottles and ice cream packaging and a general acceptance which surpassed many of the restaurants we have been to in the UK. One of our favourite restaurants in Plaka, particularly perfect for its views over the bay below, moved in the space of 4 days from guiding us through their basic menu to making both gluten free pasta and flour available to their small family kitchen! I felt like we were truly trailblazing understanding and change for those GF folk who follow us.
Another surprise was how many restaurants in more touristy areas (such as Chania harbour) were openly advertising ‘gluten free pasta’ or ‘gluten free options’ and how many Greek supermarkets and independent health food stores stocked GF pasta, crackers, cereals and biscuits. We even managed to source a loaf of fresh-made GF bread from the freezer in a family bakery in Chania’s main municipal market. How excited were we?! Sadly, it wasn’t the bread pictured below (which looked divine but deadly to us gluten-avoiders) and eating it showed there was some way to go on the taste and texture front (say no more…), but toasted it was actually quite nice!
Next time we visit, I will feel more confident in sourcing some of the basics on arrival, but I was nonetheless glad this holiday, to have my suitcase stock of gluten free dried foods to help sustain our needs on those ‘eat at home’ days. You can find my travel tips and tricks here.
I made some particularly delicious toffee-choc chip oat cookies using a Delicious Alchemy Oat Cookie mix as a base (forgot to photograph…. sorry!).
I also managed to knock out a couple of GF pizzas topped with local salami and cheese, using two Helen’s Brilliant Bread mixes (one white and one brown), that came with us from the UK. Doesn’t that look tasty?
On the more local food front, we were totally bowled over by the simplicity and deliciousness of a dish known simply as ‘Baked Feta’. Served to us in numerous ways, from being just topped with slices of tomato, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of thyme…… to being baked in a rich tomato and oregano sauce with added vegetables, it was utterly drool-worthy accompanied by (for those who could eat it) local bread with olive oil, or in my case, oven-roasted crispy potatoes.
This recipe is my take on that wonderful Cretan foodie memory…… Feta baked with barbecued red pepper, tomatoes and mountain oregano. I used barbecued red pepper as we happened to have one left over after a family barbie when we got home and I didn’t want it to go to waste. Don’t panic if you don’t have a barbie’d pepper hanging around your kitchen, you can easily substitute with a pepper that has been roasted in the oven before adding to the dish.
Baked Feta is for me a meal in itself, but works equally well as a starter, or as a side dish served with white fish or chicken. Either way, it is one dish that is truly so simple to make…… and I can promise you that once tried, you will be smitten!
I am sharing this amazing Greek dish with the following :
Free From Fridays with Emma at the Free From Farmhouse
No Waste Food Challenge with Elizabeth’s Kitchen Diary.
Simple & in Season with Ren Behan. Tomatoes are at their best right now and those beautiful little cherry ones came straight out of our garden.
Baked Feta with Barbecued Pepper, Tomato & Oregano (serves 2 to 3 as a side dish or starter)
- Pre-heat the oven to 220 C/425 F/Gas 7.
- If you don’t have a handy barbecued pepper, deseed and slice lengthways a pointy/sweet pepper into 4 strips. Lightly brush with olive oil and place in the oven to roast at 220 C/425 F/Gas 7 for 20 to 30 minutes until soft and beginning to blacken slightly at the edges.
- Mix together the chopped tomatoes and tomato puree and pour into the base of an oven-proof dish.
- Place the Feta block (whole) on top.
- Lay the sweet pepper across the top of the Feta and slice the fresh tomatoes in half (or slices for larger tomatoes) and arrange around the Feta.
- Top with a good fresh grind of black pepper and a generous sprinkling of oregano.
- Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the Feta is very soft.
- Remove from the oven and serve with crusty bread as a starter or as a side dish with oven roasted potato, white fish, or chicken.