Something good may come out of any crisis, and the one troubling Greece now is no exception. Our Cretan hosts, socially-aware activists and lovers of good food, decided to start a food cooperative in reaction to the worsening situation in their country. It was their way towards self-sufficiency, a realization of years-old dream of a community in an atomized society, and at the same time a means of supporting local farmers and producers. As people of action, once they made up their minds, they acted on it and the cooperative has been growing ever since, together with many others on Crete. The difficult times provoked many people to turn to alternative solutions –we were quite surprised by how much in this regard is going on on Crete. As we already dabble in a food cooperative in Warsaw, we were very eager to find out how these things work out in Greece. Having spent five months on the island, we could take a good look at their activities, meet many of the producers and, most of all, try all the wonderful food!
The members of such cooperatives are often proponents of good, natural and ‘fair’ food. Here was no exception. Our hosts, Ioannis and Monika, rarely compromise, even more so in regard to food. This was the reason for them having a small tribe of goats, some sheep and whole lot of chickens and, usually, a couple of pigs. They also grow vegetables and legumes, have a few citrus trees and more olive trees, and even a field of traditional Cretan grain — barley, and a mini grain mill. Come the season, Monika daily makes cheese from fresh milk, and usually bakes home-made bread. Most of the products they use — honey, wine, raki, raisins, other veggies and fruit and some breadstuffs — are bought from other members of the cooperative. Some of their own products, like eggs, goat milk or mustard, are a part of a selection available as a farmer’s box that gets distributed by members throughout Iraklion. All the products, even though without organic certifications, are grown and produced without any chemicals, a fact which we were made aware of numerous times, especially while hand-weeding the fields or pulling out snails from heads of cabbage.
Mustard, made from wild mustard seeds abundant in nearby fields, is the cooperative’s hit. The ingredients include, apart from laboriously cleaned seeds, the excellent cooperative olive oil and wine vinegar, while cooperative, sun-dried raisins give it its sweetness. The ready product is not only ordered by families, but also by Iraklion’s bars.
Joanna and Prodromos, whom we had the pleasure of visiting, deliver the herbs. They walk around their steeply sloped terrain to pick fragrant rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage, as well as local tea-herbs, like rockrose. Mediterranean herbs thrive in Cretan climate and the size of rosemary or sage bushes, which are usually able to survive the winter here, would often freak us out. They are also a favorite of the goats and we would pick the herbs for them, especially rosemary, which can calm intestinal discomforts.
Efthimis makes natural, raw honey and products with bee pollen, as well as experiments with new ideas like tahini and honey based nutella. He believes in what he does and would go on explaining with great conviction the imporatnce of having bee pollen suspended in honey.
Ioannis, the grapevine specialist, delivers sun-dried raisins, wine that accompanies all our evenings and fiestas, and petimezi — a concentrated (through long boiling) grape juice, that we use as a sweetener and add to salads instead of balsamico.
Myron, the hosts’ son, also grows grapevines, but his specialty is raki, the traditional alcohol of Crete. It wasn’t until we’ve spent some time on the island that we found out that in the past grapes were more common that olive trees! But due to better profitability of exporting olive oil, the grape orchards gave way to olive tree plantations.
Prozimaki, or ‘sourdough’ (a little one!), is the name of a bakery operated by a couple who are also members of the cooperative. Undeterred by complaints from the villagers, they are steadfast about producing dark, whole grain, sourdough-based breads and naturally sweetened baked goods, along with the most Cretan of products — paximadi. These barley rusks used to be a Cretan staple — soaked in wine were a type of breakfast (supposedly). Today, they are known to tourists in the form of dakos — rusks with chopped tomatoes. Modern dakos are usually made with white flour but Prozimaki stick to tradition and make old-school, super-hard, whole grain paximadi, which has to be sprinkled with water water before consumption.
The cooperative was able to establish contacts in other European countries and they’re sending products to Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. The main good is the liquid gold of Crete — the olive oil. I suppose by now everybody knows that on Cretans consume the highest amount of it in the world. After a few months here we can’t doubt that. Olive oil is often the sauce in a dish and the main condiment as well. In our four person household we used a liter of olive oil per three days. That’s more than 100 liter of oil per year!
In Greece, it seems likely everybody’s got their own olive trees and takes the olives to a local press, so it’s not much of a business, locally. Internationally, though… a lot of people are looking for organic olive oil, fresh and unmixed with lesser quality oils. That’s standard in Greece, but the oil we get to buy is often diluted. Ioannis, our host, knows a lot about olive oil — every batched made by cooperative’s producers is thoroughly tested. Ioannis tells mi about the importance of gathering only fresh olives, about the acidity and the content of free fatty acids. Due to the language barrier many details remain a mystery to me. The gist is clear though: their olive oil is the best!
Ioannis may be talking, but I know what I know — I’m eating it every day! When I’m at lack for dinner ideas, I cut home-made bread, pour the unfiltered, green, fragrant oil on a small plate, sprinkle Cretan sea salt and pepper all over. A glass of wine from the other Ioannis, a few large, plump olives and maybe a slice of cheese from our lovely goats. It’s all I want. We beloved olive oil so much that though we had problems packing all our stuff for the flight, we managed to squeeze a 5 liter canister into our 20 kg of baggage.
Apart from the people mentioned above, many others also participate in the cooperative: the friendly producers of citrus fruit and avocados, and people who are not producers but who support the co-op in its activities. Nobody is rich, in the literal sense of the word, but what they eat, where they live and how, makes is a great wealth. And this isn’t due to some blind luck, but due to the decisions and choices they have made on their way.
And here is a question to you all, our dear readers:
After our stay on Crete, we have two wishes: that more people could enjoy the goodness of food produced there and that the good people working for this to be possible could be supported as well. Each day, these folks do what they believe in and they stand by (or rather live on) the products they make. Our dream is to gather up people who are interested in trying the Cretan olive oil and other products of Crete that can survive the hardships of shipping. The group has to be sizable because the minimal size of a shipment is 60 5L (1.3 gallon) canisters of oil. Outside of Greece that generally would roughly translate into 60 people. The canister we took to the U.S. lasted us 3 months. There are ‘pathways’ already used for shipping to several European countries (Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and maybe more), we know that shipments can go to the U.S. as well, but would have to find out more details, if needed. Price per canister is 20 Euro (1 Euro = 1.12 U.S. Dollars) and together with the shipping cost to the Netherlands or Germany the per canister retail price came down to about 30 Euro. That’s 6 Euro per liter, a fantastic price for olive oil of this quality. Again, if there are folks interested in North America, we would have to make more inquiries, but hey, impossible is only inside our heads! Usually a shipment of olive oil is topped up with other products, like herbs, sea salt, raisins, grape syrup, wine vinegar, raki, paximadia or mustard (in fact, the mustard is the cooperative’s bestseller). In winter, citrus fruit and avocado can be sent to European destination.
So, what’s it going to be? Anybody willing to help the Greeks while getting some delicious food at the same time?
link to the cooperative’s site: http://www.apokinou.gr/en/