“Forget gourmet, discover gastronomy“ is the mantra of our hosts Fanis, Vagelis and Andonis. And they wear their message proudly. It’s the first thing we saw when they greeted us for our Natour Labs Cretan Cooking Class in the village of Milia Crete at the Milia Mountain Retreat, the words were emblazoned on their T-shirts.
I heard about these three ambassadors of Greek culture during a stay at Hotel Ammos. I contacted Andonis to learn more, and he graciously invited me to join the group for one of their Tuesday cooking courses.
The trip to Milia Crete is a story in itself. Traveling from the warm beaches of Chania to the top of the mountains takes less than an hour. The road is steep and quite rudimentary, with many stretches built with just one lane. For the uninitiated, driving up this road can be quite nerve wracking. But once you learn that what the roads lack in width, the drivers make up for in friendly cooperation, it all seems quite adequate. The caution necessary to transverse the route guarantees a slow and gentle ascent with ample time to take in the breathtaking views.
On arrival at the Milia Crete turn off, the road narrows even more and becomes gravel, more a path than a road.
The difficulty in accessing Milia Crete is in fact by design. In the past, the route to Milia would have been invisible to anyone not belonging there. Also, the hidden nature of the village has provided shelter and security during many wars and sieges and it kept the self-sustained villagers safe and fed while they waited for treacherous events to pass. Its obscurity was its main defense and the reason that today you can walk into approximately the same village you might have visited in the 17th century.
In the ‘70s, with the infrastructure of the village crumbling, the father-in-law of Tasos, the current owner, decided to save the village and turn it into an eco lodge with a restaurant open to the public. Every Tuesday, this is the home of Natour Labs Cretan Cooking Class. The beautiful stone houses of the village have been restored and outfitted as guest accommodations, with fire places inside, and hammocks outside perfect for reading in the afternoon sun to the occasional sound of bells from goats wandering the surrounding hills.
On the day of my visit, a varied group showed up hailing from New York, London, Paris and Greece. Our youngest cooking participant, who came with mom and dad from London, was just short of two years old! Tasos pitched in with child-minding duty and kept the little girl entertained with visits to see the piglets raised on the premises.
The island of Crete is rich in agriculture. A diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables has amply fed the islanders for many centuries. Locals were healthy and lived long active lives. Many studies talk about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. However in Crete, as in most countries, modern industrialized food has taken over. Imported foods abundant in carbohydrates and sugar dominate in the local grocery stores, as a result, the Cretans now suffer from an obesity epidemic. I can provide a first-hand account of this as I have been coming to Greece since I was a teenager. Years ago it was rare to see anyone overweight, but on my recent visit it was shocking to see XXXL shops prominently advertised on the main thoroughfare.
The mission of Natour Lab is to remind fellow Cretans (and visitors) about the traditional way of cooking and eating, encouraging a return to the practice of cooking with simple fresh ingredients, in season, and from local sources. At Natour Lab in most cases right from the Milia Crete. It’s a message beginning to be heard wherever you travel these days, and one championed by an ever-increasing chorus of voices advocating a more sustainable way of living.
The take away from the course was that with few ingredients and little time you can create the most wonderful dishes. Our three-course meal illustrated it. First, was a starter of local mountain cheese and tomatoes on crostini followed by a wonderful tomato and peach soup. Peaches and tomatoes go together naturally, we were taught, as do braised lamb and a honey dish with potatoes and courgette (which is zucchini if you live in the US or Australia).
Bread was made fresh that morning in a wood-fired bread oven. Delicious! A high light for us all were the cookies that we made from a simple dough of flour, olive oil, honey, and cinnamon. Repurposing a countertop sausage machine, the dough was extruded into delicate shapes. This resulted in a rustic “shortbread” cookie, just as good as the original, but with no sugar or butter.
The difficulty in accessing Milia Crete is in fact by design. In the past, the route to Milia would have been invisible to anyone not belonging there.
As is usually the case when a group of strangers are thrust into a room together, it begins with a “warming up” period! And as the class was conducted in English with most in our group speaking other languages, we had additional communication hurdles to overcome. But once we all started chopping and mixing, barriers quickly melted away. By late afternoon, we were all seated around a communal table in conversation, eating and drinking the fruits of our labor, wishing we could linger into the evening.
Check Natour Lab’s website to see what is being offered during your visit to Milia Crete. They also offer a variety of specialized experiences, including bee keeping, and hiking excursions throughout Crete. You can arrange private classes and tours to suit your schedule.
Some of the more challenging hikes require proper equipment. So if you are interested in those activities, enquire before you arrive, and get advice on what equipment to bring.
Planning a visit to Natour Labs cooking class in Milia Crete? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.57°partly cloudy93% humiditywind: 14mph WNWH 60 • L 5165°Fri67°Sat64°Sun62°Mon61°TueWeather from Yahoo!