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All the greens of Greece

Matthew Chalmers searches for Mediterranean vegan dining on the Greek island of Crete

\"Go to Greece and dine on vegetables and you shall leave its shores as light as a leaf, with ouzo in your eyes and horta in your heart\"

Buckets of adulatory ink have been spilled over Greece and its marvellous food through the millennia. Gourmets, gourmands and food-writers of every stripe have tried to do justice to the produce of this delectable land, from Archestrasus to Alexiadou.

Greek menus regularly include an array of vegetarian and vegan dishes, making Greece one of the finest places to visit in the search for traditional, plant-based meals.

Therefore, I hope you will forgive me for dashing another inkwell into the wine-dark sea of praise surrounding Greek cooking, this time from the vegan perspective. For Greece is a paradise for all, and vegans are permitted to enjoy many of the pleasures kept behind its olive gates.

I say Greece, but Crete was the island of choice, and the area around Falasarna bears rich fruit for any number of ravenous vegans. Long mornings of sultry sun and lounging away the hours doing sweet, hot nothing can engender a fierce appetite.

After paddling in the fresh surges of the Mediterranean, giggling like a toddler/idiot as salt cured my slick hair, we decided lunch was required.

Overlooking a strip of burning sand, tickled by the constant turquoise waves, I sat in Panorama Tavern Falasarna (falasarna.gr) thinking that its name made up for in accuracy what it lacked in imagination.

The meal was a triumph - hunks of firm-soft white loaf drank up puddles of olive oil and vinegar before plunging into a bed of garlic potato dip.

Warm breeze tousled diners' hair and when my eyes closed - as cool, amber beer came tumbling from a frosted glass through my lips - I feared I would not open them again lest that moment end. A sensational beginning.

 

Although the skordalia (potato dip) stole the show I was also reminded of one of my all-time favourite Greek foods - horta, or mountain greens.

These spinach-like plants come served in a large wilted pile, soaked in olive oil and lemon juice. The ones at Panorama were great - but the discovery the following day of Zaharias Tavern (look for it on Trip Advisor) would elevate these humble vegetables to new heights.

Zaharias was to become the only twice-visited restaurant of my stay due to their fragrant grub and perfect host. Situated in the small village of Platanos, cosied into the olive latticed hills, the restaurant was the real deal: it grew its own vegetables, and made its own olive oil, raki and wine.

The hospitality was exceptional, and you truly felt nestled in a provincial, Hellenic idyll. The variation of horta served here was bitter, somewhat tart, and delicious.

The branching, spiny arms of these greens made them look and feel more rustic, and with a fistful of chips and cup full of lemon juice their soft, iron flavour was ballad-worthy.

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Accompanying the greens was a banquet that would make even the Minotaur forsake meat and return to his ruminant roots.

Green beans from the garden with courgette, tomato, potato and onion in a kind of ratatouille - the sort of food that strangled whatever whisper of winter there was on the September breeze.

The gemista - soon to become a regular fixture on my plates - was a symphony of oregano, onion, mint and rice embedded inside melting tomatoes and peppers in an operatic performance that would dwarf Beethoven, unman Mozart and make Bach bawl for his mummy's strudel.

The humble lentil soup was a runny brown gush to gash your heart. It commanded the sort of sweet, earthy explosion of flavour that demands that you eat now and breathe later. However, the Koh-i-Noor of the dishes was the mushroom stifado.

Imagine red wine tumbling in waterfalls of imperial purple into seas of the richest, sun-massaged tomato, slivers of garlic that burned like earth and fire and onions that could make you cry after cooking.

All swimming round a cut of mushroom with bursting savoury flesh like a root from a nymph's garden.

If I've oversold the place then let me retreat now into modesty; if you are in the area, make sure you go to Zaharias. Although the restaurant scene was fantastic, evenings at the villa were hardly a drab affair.

Twilights passed by with smiles over tapenade smothered grilled toasts, balsamic and olive oil and chunks of sublime tomato.

Lounging, reading, trying to retain good humour whilst playing and losing chess, I helped myself to handfuls of grapes.

These were large and squishy, sweet as syrup, and I washed them back with glasses of peach juice, rich and soothing with a lightly furred texture and glacé flavour.

 

I touched on another area of Crete when making a pilgrimage to the pink sands of Elafonisi, that glamorous world heritage beach. I will confess that the beach was a little miserable, with vast and thunderous crowds unexpected for September and murky waters with an appearance verging on sinister.

Alas, even the small refuge we found in a clear and crystal lagoon was disturbed by the menace of a floating turd.

We needed an escape - and found it in the shape of Kosmo's Fish Tavern, a mere five or ten minute drive away from that notquite- paradise.

I have waxed lyrical on many a dish yet neglected the ubiquitous Greek Salad - the feta we left for the savages amongst us and dined, instead, on tomatoes so soft and fragrant that Softness and Fragrance themselves considered renaming themselves to \"Kosmos' tomatoes\".

I also tried some spaghetti enjoy as it was. arrabbiata, just for a change, and found myself delighted by the al dente strands of pasta and the smoky, heated tang of the sauce.

The imam bayildi, a relic of the Sultan, was enough to get lost in, and by the time the last strands of aubergine, garlic, onion and tomato had been mopped up I had donned a fez and gone galloping towards Mecca. In fact, imam bayildi means 'the imam's smile', and I was wearing a grin like the Cheshire Cat.

Stuffed zucchini flowers provided a lovely, mild alternative to the funk of dolmades and as I glugged down beer the wind sung 'Careless Whisper' in my ear and generously warmed my walnut-brown body.

Mamos beer was the final revelation from Kosmos tavern - Alfa and Mythos, the usual lagers, I find relatively indistinguishable and, though tasty, make good shandy fodder.

There is no cure for holiday blues, and I had the early-onset variety - our plane left in the evening, which meant that our last day was hard enough to enjoy as it was.

 

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Buckets of stormy rain and bolshie concertos from the Olympus orchestra, with Zeus as conductor-virtuoso, put a further downer on the mood. Yet even when lashed with rain Chania is a beautiful city.

A spoonful of Venice and a dash of Istanbul on a Hellenic base with Byzantine dustings make the city uniquely classy and pretty. Watching
lightning in the blue gloom from a seafront café with rich, tannin-filled coffee under-nose was not actually a bad experience.

We tried our hand at the famous Pulse vegan (Search for Pulse Vegan on Facebook) restaurant but the weather had wiped out their seating arrangements and they reluctantly turned us good vegan comrades down.

Crestfallen, like a pack of wet dogs we stalked with grumbling bellies through the antique streets and into Tamam restaurant (tamamrestaurant.com) - a final wet kiss from (vegan) Aphrodite.

There was a touch of Near Eastern about the restaurant and good lathering of upmarket cuisine along with it. The food was jolly. What salad is this that crunches so sweet and lightly? How can such dolmades exist, which make all prior dolmades akin to parcels of garbage?

 

Wherefore does the aubergine dip remind me of the first time I said 'I love you' and heard it back from an impassioned partner? Surely, I should not be comparing tomato fritters to a summer's day?

It was another success and I began to suspect that Greek chefs were actually shamans who, like Circe, turned us into pigs every time we entered their realm, so gluttonously and ravenously and happily did we eat.

I wish I had further songs to sing of food in Crete but all odysseys come to an end. All I will say is that the spectre of that old, curmudgeonly vegetarian Pythagoras lives on in those hills, where vegetables are treated with heaps of love and gallons of mastery.

In fact, it is even rumoured by various Byzantine babushkas that eating vegan in Greece gains you that old sage's blessing, so that you'll never have to shrink from an isosceles or blush at a hypotenuse ever again.

Go to Greece and dine on vegetables and you shall leave its shores as light as a leaf, with ouzo in your eyes and horta in your heart - leave the fish for the sharks and the goats for the vultures.

 

Words by Matthew Chalmers

VeganLife

The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.