I love Chania: The Venetian port and the endless walks through the old town’s quaint alleys which transport me to another era. Domus Renier, the once stately home of the Reniers, one of Venice’s leading noble families, which following its recent skillful refurbishment, has been transformed into a contemporary boutique hotel, blending serenity, luxury and high aesthetics with the kindest, warmest staff whose willingness and eagerness to satisfy my every desire-and whim- is omnipresent and comforting. I love the seas with their unique clarity which hides nothing of the beauty of the seabed.The autumn escapades into the countryside and the nearby mountains; the colours of the chestnut trees and the endless olive groves. But if you ask me what I mostly yearn for every time I return to Chania, I will with no hesitation reply that it is the food; wholesome yet delectable nourishment for my body and my soul. In fact I could write books about it, but the starting point would always be the wonderful a la carte breakfast of Domus Renier.
First there is the honey that comes from George from Rethymnon. We are talking about the real deal: thick, dense and richly flavored honey, that I love to eat with some -full fat-local yogurt, deriving strength from its exquisite sweetness. Actually I have praised this honey so much, that Mrs Litsa, the owner of Domus, always arranges for a small jar to come into my hands before I depart . “Until next time”, she asserts.
Then there are the “kalitsounia” with their unique filo pastry-thin, crispy, perfectly delicate- lovingly prepared by the capable hands of Mrs. Athena, Domus Renier’s wondrous cook. At Chania you may find all kinds of kalitsounia: With wild greens, with spinach, with cheese or onion. My favorite are those with mizithra and a local cheese called “malaka”. As soon as I take the first bite, I know for sure that the promise which I made myself to stop at just one, was once again an idle one.
Another breakfast staple is the stacka: frothed milk, in effect. It is of course super fattening but worth every calorie. I accompany it with free-range eggs and a slice of hot whole wheat bread. Every sinful bite sends me to heaven.
Wherever I go -and believe me I have been to many places-I have yet to encounter the taste of Cretan oranges. At Domus Renier they have oranges from their own farm and what’s more, they squeeze them right at the minute you sit down at the table so as not to waste even one single ounce of precious vitamin. With every satisfying sip that I take, I feel my body growing stronger and stronger. It’s like a magical elixir, yet it is so easy to find. It is the place and the way that it is served that makes a world of difference.
Last fall at Domus Renier, for the first time I tried the famous Cretan “moustalevria” . It is the only “natural sweet” I know of, without any added sugar. It is made from grape juice before fermentation begins. This is the quintessential super food-rich in antioxidants and low in fat. Grandmother Ioanna – who is behind many of Domus Renier’s delights – generously adds nuts and roasted almonds to the jelly; which sprinkled with cinnamon, constitutes an unsurpassed culinary creation.
There are many pies, but the Sfakia pie is totally unique. The more delicate the better, Mrs. Athena informed me. Actually in earlier days this used to be a criterion of skill. The thinner the Sfakia pie was, the more meritorious the housewife was. The original Sfakia pie consists of an ethereal layer of local myzithra between two delicate pastry sheets, while the more zealous ones accompany it with a generous spoonful of honey. This pie has an incredibly light and refined taste which is indeed unmatched!
This kind of breakfast naturally provides your body with enough energy and stamina. And the last thing you would normally think about would be food. This might be true elsewhere on the planet but it is not the case in Chania. For in this town the delights never end and some culinary treat or the other always beckons.
Take snails for example. Snails are a difficult food. They have fanatic foes and equally zestful friends! Here in Crete it is one of the most popular dishes and may be cooked in a variety of ways: stewed, braised or with rice. My favorite version is “boubouristoi” (and not just because I like the name!) which is snails lightly sautéed with rosemary in a pan – the perfect accompaniment of a shot of local raki.
Then there is the Chaniotiko boureki. A hymn to simple cooking, it is made with zucchini, potatoes and xynomyzithra. The secret of course lies exactly here: on the quality of the cheese. This dish might include filo pastry. I prefer it without though, as this way it is lighter, yet equally delicious and certainly worth a try.
If you take a trip to Chania’s countryside you’ll definitely bump into kid goats. Theirs is the meat that Cretans prefer and each county has its own recipes. Sfakia’s stew is for me, the most delectable, provided they make it with some local goat or a free range lamb. It is plainly cooked in olive oil and extinguished with wine or raki. But it requires loads of patience as it should be cooked at a very low temperature for a long time. I like it because it showcases the meat’s flavor without masquerading it with other ingredients.It is super juicy, tender and incredibly tasty and I can only find in Chania.
Eat, drink and be merry
But Chania’s culinary trademark is arguably no other than the infamous “gamopilafo”. I could be writing about it for hours (and eating it for hours too!). It is called gamopilafo as it is always served at weddings (gamos, in Greek). This is in fact the best place to try it. At a wedding reception or at a local home. It is the food which is associated with every joyful occasion-weddings, parties, friends gatherings, birthdays, anniversaries. Essentially it is boiled meat with rice. And in case you’re wondering how can boiled rice be actually delicious, bear this in mind: Cretan cuisine is a praise to simplicity and therein precisely lies its greatness, glory and difference. One can discern-and savor-each ingredient of a recipe.
Of course each housewife puts her own signature on this dish and each household is accustomed to eating gamopilafo in a particular manner. Some prefer it without butter, others with loads of lemon and many with some local yogurt. I’ve tried it in several variations but I can not pick out my favorite, because I relish them all!
In fact gamopilafo is so much more than food. No successful wedding goes without a good pilaf. If you go to a wedding in Crete you’ll be asked two critical questions: Whether the bride was beautiful and if the pilaf was good. That says it all!
The proper pilaf requires chicken broth and old sheep. It should be almost al dente; quite creamy, not too greasy nor washy. In Chania it is the food with which locals welcome and bid farewell to guests. They are enjoying it on Sundays and in any celebration and occasion of joy. It signifies the opening of the home, the invitation of strangers, jokes and banter around the family table. And if you are lucky enough and get asked by a local to have gamopilafo at their house, do not hesitate to wholeheartedly reply, “Yes of course, with pleasure.”
My first acquaintance with this outstanding Cretan delicacy was made at Domus Renier. Tasting gamopilafo from the hands of Grandma Ioanna, was an all senses experience, that got me forever hooked. In fact I’d like to earnestly thank her for introducing me to the wonderful delights of Cretan cuisine. It has by now become a serious hobby of mine and I can’t wait until next time I visit Chania to sample and discover more of its glorious cuisine.