Cretan Wines

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The history of Greek wine goes back a long way.  As described in previous blog posts, wine presses have been found which date back to the Minoan era.  Offerings to the gods often included wine, as evidenced by archaeological digs in temples. Findings of massive clay jars to transport wine  have been linked to the Roman period, when Cretan wine was exported across the Mediterranean.  During the Middle Ages, wine produced in Heraklion (vino di Candia) was highly valued in northern and western Europe.

In recent years, however, the exports are not quite so far-reaching.  Greek wine is beautiful, yet at least in the UK (where I live) it’s hard to find. I didn’t know much about it before I came to Crete, and it has become a treasured find!

In the 1970s, a plague of Phylloxera caused mayhem.  Whilst in France a similar coup caused the export of some key grape varieties to distant places, in Crete the plague resulted in serious losses of Kotsifali vines.   The plague is long over, and as proof of the old adage, if it didn’t kill local producers, it did make them stronger. Cretan wine production accounts for 20% of Greek wine.  It is produced mostly by cooperatives. This small-scale production doesn’t really have a powerful marketing machine behind it, which explains why it is not more famous.  This, however, may soon be turned around by a new generation of producers, oenologists, and marketers, all keen on making Cretan wine shine.

The two most important protected designations of origin for Cretan wines are Arhanes and Peza.  These protected  designations of origin are for Kotsifali and Mandilaria (which are used to produce red wines) and Vidiano and Daphni (for Peza white wines).  There are several privately-owned wineries, the most important of which are Lyrakis, Miliarakis, Boutaris, and Creta-Oympias.  Small cooperatives, unable to compete with larger companies, sometimes opt to be recognised for their inventiveness.  This is the case of small producers in Sitia, where a new variety of grape, Liatiko, is being explored for red wines, and a recent protected designation of origin status has been conferred to white wines made of Thrapsathiri and Vilana grapes.

If you’d like to learn more about the wine and admire beautiful Crete, I recommend this video.

If you are interested in coming to Crete and exploring the vineyards, discovering the ancient and new wine-making processes, and enjoying tastings of Cretan wines, contact knowledgeable Karma Travel.  They will be able to book wine country tours, visits to wine makers and tastings for you, and provide expert advise so you make the most of your visit to Crete.

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Archanes

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It’s been a pleasure of a weekend back in Heraklion, and I have taken the opportunity to visit Archanes (also known as  Arhanes, as its Greek name is Arxanes).  What a gem of a little town!

Barely 14 km away from Heraklion, this could well be just a sleepy agricultural town, but the locals take pride in having meticulously restored it. Their efforts are much appreciated, as the maze of narrow lanes where balcony planters overspill with flowers is quite a joy to see.  You can easily spend an afternoon wandering coffee in hand around these narrow streets and tree-shaded squares.

I was told that the major of the city decided that ‘there is no past without future’, so this is where the restoration came about.  Whilst looking towards the future, this little town has a long-stretching past to show off, too.   Settlements from the Neolithic age have been found here by archaeologists, and there are four archaeological sites within a few kilometres. Fourni is a Minoan graveyard at the edge of the village, where a royal burial was found, complete with sarcophagi and rich offerings including necklaces made of gold, sardium and glass beads, fine bronze and ivory vases.

Vathypetro is outside Archanes, and was probably a palatial complex on a road from Knossos to the Messara plain.  The estate contained a manor house and several buildings, courtyards and workshops.  There are the remains of a Minoan wine press, an olive oil press, and a kiln, as well as vestiges of an ancient pottery shop.   Not a lot has changed in the region’s livelihoods for millenia, then!  Paradoxically, the excavation of this site has been hindered by the development of vineyards…

Archanes is one of Crete’s’ top winemaking regions.  Local producers take pride in their organic vineyards and traditional production methods.  The grape varieties grown here include mainly Kotsifali and Mandilaria, which produce wines described as ‘earthy yet fruity, with a deceivingly light colour’.  Two other adjectives I was given, which are not ones I’d often heard in relation to wine, were ‘honest and masculine’.  I guess that sums up the feel of this wine quite nicely.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how it was produced, and the tasting session was memorable.

If you would like to come and experience Cretan winemaking and wine tasting for yourself, please contact Karma Travel! Their expert staff will be able to organise vineyard and winery tours which you will surely enjoy!

Lake Kournas, Argyroupolis and Ancient Lappa

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With Lefka Ori (the white mountains) behind me, and surrounded by greenery, facing Lake Kournas, I’m spending an afternoon in an idyllic scenery.  This is Crete’s only natural freshwater lake, some 1.5 km wide and fed by underground springs.  Its crystal-clear waters change colour, I’m told, according to the season and time of day.  The lake is very much alive: turtles, crabs and fish can be watched from pedaloes or canoes, which one can leisurely paddle about the lake during the summer months.  Since I’ve missed that opportunity and we’re now in October, I’m quite content to spend my afternoon sitting on a lounger and soaking up the sun whilst reading a book.  There are tavernas around the lake, and so I can wander towards them to get myself a fresh portokalada (an orangeade) and sip it in pure bliss.  I’d been told to make sure I tried the myzithropitakia, cheese patties made with Cretan sour myzithra cheese, a staple of this region. So I obediently stopped by ‘Omorphi Limni’ (a taverna aptly named ‘Beautiful Lake’) and gave these heavenly treats a go.

I spent the morning visiting the pretty village of Argyroupolis, which was built upon a hill, and is built on several levels, with Kato (lower) and Pano (upper) sections.  With the advise of my trusted Karma Travel, I was able to hire a local guide to show me around, and knew to look for a particularly interesting herb shop in Argyroupolis, where I found a few cosmetic treasures.

This small town is steeped in history, which is evident from the rocks that make up its houses and public buildings.  As in other places, the building materials have been reused over time, and so these construction blocks were once part of Roman or Venetian structures.  The town’s current name dates back to the 19th century, when it was called Argyroupolis in reference to a silver mine in the neighbouring area.  However, settlements in this area are much, much older: this was once called Lappa, and there are references to its existence in Minoan times.  According to legend, the origin of Lappa can be traced to that era, when it is said to have been founded by Agamemnon, the hero of the Trojan War.

Lappa was a very important city whose territory extended from the north to the south coasts, and boasted two commercial harbours: present-day Dramia and Loutro.  The city was destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout its history. It enjoyed particular prosperity during Roman times (as evidenced by archaeological finds from the period), and also during the Byzantine period, when it was the Episcopal residence of Agios Titus, Crete’s first bishop and patron saint.  I particularly enjoyed a stroll around the Roman ruins of ancient Lappa, with its Necropolis, baths, and  aqueduct.

Down the hill, towards Asi Gonia, lies a particularly beautiful area with ten springs known as ‘The Holy Force’ (Agia Dynami).  Here, water gushes out of the mountains with such force that it was used to power water mills, which in the not too distant past dotted the area.  Nowadays, the mills are gone, but you can still sit to enjoy the view of the beautiful cascades from one of the many tavernas in this gorgeous setting.

If you would like to enjoy the peace and quiet of beautiful Lake Kournas, or are keen to visit the lovely Argyroupolis with its springs and ancient Roman ruins, contact Karma Travel.  They will be able to provide expert information and help you book all the services you need to make this a unique experience.

Sweet…

Greek walnut baklava

My sweet tooth had a field day whilst travelling in Crete.

At cafés and bakeries, you find fabulous local sweets and cakes like baklava, loukoumadhes (small dough balls served with honey and cinnammon), kataïfi (honey-soaked rolls of angel hair pastry filled with chopped walnuts), rizogalo (rice pudding) and yummy galaktobourekos (a custard-filled pastry).

These desserts are as good as they are because of the quality of the locally sourced ingredients.  Golden olive oil, brittle, fresh walnuts, and fragrant honey from the Cretan mountains, which can have notes of thyme or other wild herbs are the basis of these crispy and sticky delicacies.

In Rethymnon, for example, I followed a recommendation from my guide book, which said to visit Yiorgos Hatziparaskos, whose shop is tucked away in a hard-to-find side street, but was well worth finding.  He makes baklava and kataïfi the traditional way, and like the book said, they are to die for!

If you want advise to find the best baklava in Crete, or would like to take a cookery class to learn to make it yourself, ask Karma Travel!

Extraordinary Food

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Expect beautiful, healthy food made from fresh ingredients and prepared rather simply. Cretan food is amazing, and truly, it is all about the fresh fish, straight out of the sea, the just-picked plump and crisp vegetables, fresh and fragrant wild herbs sourced from the hills, and the golden olive oil used to prepare it. Uncomplicated and delicious!

I learnt that the average consumption of olive oil in Crete is 25 litres per person per year. It may sound like a lot, but it’s just so good that it’s easy to understand once you tried it. It is also used in many things, from salads to desserts like crispy and sweet baklava.

Be sure to try the traditional Cretan Rusks, traditional bread which is dried and baked several times until it is crispy and gold, and is served topped with grated tomato, olive oil, a bit of Feta cheese and oregano. It’s the perfect starter!

There was a night when I was not particularly hungry and thought a salad and a plate of ‘mixed mezedes’ should do. Well, the portions were so generous that three people could have happily shared! The meze selection was amazing, too. I had courgette flowers filled with soft cheese, dolmades, red peppers stuffed with rice and minced meat, croquettes, breaded sheep’s milk cheese sticks, calamari, gorgeous olives and artichokes.

Oh, the life!

If you want advise on Cretan cookery lessons, places to eat, or special places where you can go in Crete to savour local specialities, consult with Karma Travel!

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