The Happy Cooker in Crete

The Happy Cooker in Crete

Lacing with Wine

While attending a Greek cooking class in a traditional hillside village of western Crete called Vamos, I learned how to prepare Greek culinary delights and became a happy cooker.

Lacing our course with liberal glasses of village wine produced instant smiles!

Map of greece
Map of Greece showing Crete.
Map of Crete. The arrow shows the location of Vamos where the cooking classes took place

Ebullient Chef Koula

Koula Barydakis, our ebullient chef instructor, began lessons by pouring a shot of raki for herself and her students. Chanting lustily, we toasted the traditional Cretan diet, one of the healthiest in the world.

Who says I can’t register for the cooking school?

Why healthy?

Chef Koula explained: “We Cretans eat abundantly but simply. We consume much olive oil, olives, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. This includes wild mountain greens (horta), yogurt, cheese, lentils and beans.  We eat meat once a week and on special occasions. (Plus fresh fish and seafood!)

“We always drink a lot of mountain tea (malotera, good for the stomach) while eating bread and olives.” 

Recipes are flavoured with natural and native herbs like oregano, thyme and sage. 

And, of course…the wine!

Locally produced red wine commonly accompanies lunch and dinner.

Sustainable Practices

When it comes to food, Koula justifiably points out that Crete has always practiced sustainable living without using the name. For example:

Raki—Crete’s most famous after-dinner drink—- is derived from the residue of grape pressing. 

Most fruits and vegetables consumed are seasonal, not imported from faraway places.

Crops are grown naturally “like our forefathers” without fertilizers and pesticides. 

fresh vegetables
fresh local vegetables

Local animals help minimize waste

In Koula’s village, goats make short work of any scraps of food. 

Chickens are really free range; fresh eggs, when cracked, show off bright orange yolks. 

Even the scavenger street cats of Crete are part of the solution!

Learning a life skill

Koula says her parents sent her to hairdressing school to learn a trade skill.

They did not know, however, she also attended cooking school. While there, she refined her culinary skills as taught by her mother and grandmother. 

At 16, Koula left Crete to travel abroad. Of course, she detoured, spending most of her time away as a chef in Toronto’s Greektown in Canada.

Eventually the Grecian sirens beckoned her back to her blessed home island. Where she now teaches popular cooking classes.

Cooking classes in Vamos, Crete

Under a patch of cobalt blue sky, Koula conducts her cooking classes in the village of Vamos. She uses an old olive oil press building. Renovated for her use, it’s the perfect Greek setting for food preparation.

In case of rare inclement weather, she moves to a house.

An old olive press
This original building is home to an old olive press.

Today’s menu

During our session, we chopped, grated, mixed, pressed, formed—and dined on—rooster with Cretan pasta, kalitsounia pies, grape leaves with rice (dolmades), zucchini fritters, Greek salad, and garlic beets with yogurt salad.  

Accompanied by liberal amounts of village wine, of course.

dolmades - stuffed grape leaves
Preparation of dolmades – stuffed grape leaves

Kalitsounia pies
Kalitsounia pies cooking in olive oil

Beautiful, bountiful Crete

Cooking Cretan style is not the only lesson Koula taught us.

She is an exuberant ambassador for her island: “Crete is a beautiful island filled with bountiful food.  The wild, natural beauty of the mountains and the ocean make you think that when God created Crete, He created all the beauty the human mind can imagine.”

preparing the vegetables
Only the freshest local ingredients are used.

A Land of Fresh and Fragrance

“The land is so rich with olive, lemon, and orange trees and gardens. The fragrances alone can make you drunk.  The wide variety of herbs and flowers from ancient times found on Crete are still used to cure pains and diseases,” explains Koula.

“Writers, explorers, scientists, and tourists all come to Crete to see it, study it, eat the tasty foods, drink the raki, and get high on the immortal wines of Crete. 

“The people of Crete live simply. They always win your heart.”  ***

A memorable meal

With a glass of wine that tastes like sunshine, Koula toasts us with: Kali Oreksiwhich means ‘enjoy your meal’. We can hardly wait to experience our memorable dinner.

Class graduation - a fine meal
The class and teacher are enjoying wine with the meal they prepared. The happy cookers are all smiles.

Books by Koula

Traditional Recipes of Crete and The Mediterranean Diet of Crete

COVID update—

As of mid-July 2020, Koula says “tourists are slowly starting to come to Crete. Flights are starting from a few countries like Germany, Holland, Canada, Switzerland. Soon England and Sweden. We are still looking for the best way to work and be safe.

“As you know, or heard, Crete had few Covid cases. The nine who were ill were foreigners.”

“I held my first cooking lesson on July 17 with a family from Germany. We wore masks and gloves. For now, we can only work with six people at one time.

“So far there are not many requests after all the cancelled bookings.”

But the future looks bright.

Safety first

As Koula says, “We will try our best to help people feel safe in Crete and Greece in general.”

Music of Crete

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Travelled: Fall, 2011

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