Strangers become friends thanks to alcohol
The first time I ever tried Greek cuisine – it was goat’s cheese I remember – I had a thumping headache. I was about ten-years-old and my primary school class were doing a project on Ancient Greece, so we were very lucky to be tasting such an exotic variety of salads in a relatively provincial school. But I’m afraid I’ve harboured a severe dislike for anything goaty or lemony ever since, and I blame it on my recurring memories of feeling very ill one day back in 1992.
Which is why I wasn’t at all surprised to be feeling exactly the same way whilst waiting to sample Father Andreas’ freshly-made fromage atop a mountain on the island of Crete. But, what took my mind off my throbbing head (which was probably more brought on by the potent Raki the night before rather than the awful memories of child trauma) was the delightful fact that I’d actually helped to bring the cheese to life.
As this is Part One of my Agro-Blog (Agro meaning Agriculture, I think, not somebody losing their temper and getting agro) then I should probably start from the beginning.
Last Monday I jumped on an early-morning SAS flight from Copenhagen and landed in Athens just a few hours later. I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but it was the first time I’d landed in a totally new foreign country on my own in ten years. The last time had been Switzerland as I embarked on a Winter Season in Chamonix. But that’s a story for another day, and for the very very delayed travel book I’m writing called Office Twat.
I was lucky to get there, to be honest, as I’d left my passport in my Check-In luggage, and I only discovered this as the bag was disappearing down the conveyor belt to the netherworld of the airport. As it was an unmanned Check-In desk I had to hop on the belt to retrieve my bag, which caused all sorts of people to react rather agitated. Thankfully it was a simple error on my part and everyone got on with their lives.
Once at Athens I had five hours to kill, and there was no way I was going to spend them in the airport. So I quickly surveyed my surroundings and discovered a Metro line that ran straight in to the city. Having never been to Greece before, and having always been fascinated with the Acropolis and so forth, I decided there was only one place for me to be, so that’s where I headed.
45 minutes later I was out in the sunshine and suddenly regretting not having packed any shorts. The streets back in CPH had been icy as hell (when hell freezes over, obviously) and full of snow, so I wasn’t expecting any kind of pleasant weather a few hours ‘down the road.’ Alas, I had to grin and bear it as I began the steady incline up to the heart of Ancient Greece.
The streets were surprisingly empty for such a touristy part of town and I remember thinking, why have I never been here before at this time of year? Dragging my bag behind me, still with airport labels attached, seemed to attract the attention of the locals, and some of them stared at me with jaws hanging low. At one point I actually stopped to make sure nothing was hanging out of my trousers, because I couldn’t quite understand what was wrong with me. Maybe it was the jumper.
With gusto I moved on, keen to at least catch a glimpse of the mighty abandoned temple of old, and soon enough I reached a staircase made of stone and occupied by a homeless man who had a brain tumour, apparently. Well, that’s what his sign said, anyway. “That way to the Acropolis,” he shouted.
What he failed to mention was that the gates close at 3pm, which was now only 20 minutes away. Regardless of the time, suitcases were totally forbidden anyway, so getting in was never going to happen. Tantalisingly close, but no cigar.
Time was against me now, as I rolled back down the hill and towards a place to eat. All I’ll say here, is that I managed to get a warm wrap, iced cappuccino, some crisps, and lots of refills of water for less than €10. My wallet was very happy at this, and my stomach was pretty chuffed, too. We moved on.
Back at the airport I checked in to my flight to Crete and went to meet the other bloggers, journos and photographers who were joining me on this trip. I hadn’t met any of them before, but instantly I got chatting to a few of them, in particular a guy named Gary from the North of England. He was a videographer who made holiday shorts for Sky, and it was nice to hear a familiar accent again.
The rest of the group were made up of French, Israeli, Czech, American, Polish and Dutch folk, so a nice mixed bunch.
Once in Crete we drove to the village of Archanes and up in to the hills beyond, where we found our accommodation for the next five days. I was expecting a hotel room somewhere close to the city, but instead we were presented with several private villas with kitchens and dining areas, and great views over the village and the rising sun in the morning. But no sooner had we dropped our bags and chosen our roomies than we had to hop back in the van and head out for our first Cretan evening meal.
For the next couple of hours we were served plate after plate of salads, olives, meats, breads and cheeses, not to mention the on-tap wine that kept getting poured in to my glass every time it was empty.
But, as most of us had been travelling all day, we declined to stay any later and we began the uphill walk back to the villas.
The next morning we awoke slightly later than was originally planned (thank God someone changed it to 6:45 instead of 5:30). And after a big breakfast containing yet more salads, cheeses, bread and greek yoghurt, we climbed once again in to the van and began our short drive to an olive grove nearby.
After being introduced to Stavros Garakis and his small crew of Olive Harvesters, we immediately set about gathering the olives ourselves using something known as an elaioravdistiko – which literally translates as an oil stick thingy.
Now, I could take this opportunity to tell you some interesting facts about the number of trees it takes to produce just one litre of olive oil, and I could also tell you the percentage of acidity needed to class the oil as Extra Virgin, but I think I’ll leave that for the other magazines I intend to pitch this story to.
We spent a good few hours soaking up the sun and bagging up dozens and dozens of kilos of olives, finally sitting down at the end of it all to eat lunch amongst the olive trees. I was pissed within the hour.
© Emilie Eychenne
Our next destination was a factory where the olives are pressed. Believe it or not, this is called an Olive Press. It was pretty funny, actually, as most of the staff could be seen standing there with fags hanging out of their mouths as they dumped the olives and extracted the oil. I wondered whether these olives would be described as ‘Slightly Smokey’ on the labels once they reached the shops.
Our third destination of the day was yet another Olive Press, but this time a family-run one up in the hills. The difference between the two was immense. For starters, the staff actually found the time to talk to us and tell us about their products, and we got to taste a few whilst being told what made them taste and feel so different. It was interesting to learn about the spicy after tastes at the side of the mouth; something I haven’t really paid any attention to before.
The day ended with a well-deserved shower and a brief lie down before rushing out the door to go and eat again. This time our meal was accompanied by a demonstration from a local woman who was making throat sweets using local herbs and spices. It was very random, but helped to liven us all up a bit. We were all feeling pretty knackered from the day’s events.
And they brought out the Raki – a local alcoholic beverage served one shot at a time. Now, I’m usually a bit of a pussy when it comes to schnapps and the like, but this stuff fell just on the right side of tasty. So I had another, and another, and soon enough I was having ridiculously funny conversations with my new friends, who had been complete strangers just a few hours before.
Stavros, who had joined us for dinner, had noticed how well we were all getting along at the end of the table and motioned to a t-shirt his friend was wearing. Raki: Connecting People, it read.
How right he was, I thought.
This blog post originally appeared over at matthewjames.dk