The Guardian

Sshh, don't tell Eddie that he shouldn't like octopus


Paul Simon and his family of budding gastronomes find a culinary trip to Crete yields much more than moussaka

Paul Simon The Observer”,

Sunday July 18, 2004

Article history


"Eddie can't yet link the tasty morsels of octopus with the sea creatures in his alphabet jigsaw."

Eddie loves octopus; can't get enough of it. And squid. He doesn't know what they are, of course, as he's only two and a half.

The distinctions between varieties of fish and meat aren't fine-tuned in his head, and he doesn't yet link the tasty morsels on his plate with the many-legged sea creatures in alphabet jigsaws. But he likes what's on his plate, and he's really tucking in, breaking occasionally to point excitedly at a fishing boat out in the beautiful bay or to grin at the charming waitress.

We've only been in Crete for three hours, furthermore, and he's already packed in an impressive spell of doggy paddle in our villa's swimming pool before dressing for dinner. This is a good start to a holiday.

Good not just because it's great to see your children happy, but also because food is the main reason we're here. The Cretan diet is famous for being healthy: studies show low rates of heart disease and cancer on the island, and long life too. Islanders traditionally eat plenty of fresh fruit, nuts and vegetables, fish and seafood, and less meat than the rest of us in Europe try to cram in. So my wife, Jane, Eddie and his two-month-old brother Finn and I came to stay where the Cretan diet takes centre stage.

The Istron Bay Hotel, in the east near Agios Nikolaos, rises up the hill from the shore of the stunningly blue Mirabello Sea like a vast, white ocean liner, stepped tiers revealing a classic seawater swimming pool, terraced bars and restaurants and the rooms' private sundecks. With scarlet hibiscus and purple bougainvillaea blooming all around, eucalypts and pines breaking up the lines of whitewashed walls, it immediately feels special.

Facing the sea on the other bank of the hill, surrounded by olive trees and purple-flowered bushes of Cretan ebony, are a handful of very smart self-catering villas. Our villa was provided by Simpson Travel, a new company formed by Graham Simpson, the founder of Simply Travel. There's attention to detail in the fixtures and fittings: two large bedrooms, a roomy bathroom and second shower, giant satellite TV and DVD player, a terrace big enough to accommodate family dining, sun loungers and toddler football sessions without having to move anything around to make space, and a beautifully clean, sparkling blue pool with a view of the coast.

Villa users can take advantage of the hotel's facilities, so you have the best of both worlds: your own kitchen for when you want to eat in, and four restaurants in the hotel for when you want the hard work done for you.

Over a delicious bottle of Cretan sangiovese, Istron Bay's managing director, Andonis Panayotopoulos, explained the hotel's ethos. It is family-owned, with two generations closely involved in its running. It lays on a children's club, day trips, dancing, tennis and indoor sports, exercise classes, water sports, scuba lessons and everything you'd expect from a resort hotel; but above all, the focus is on food.

Andonis is chairman of the Greek Academy of Taste, which is trying to establish an accreditation system for hotels and restaurants committed to delivering top-quality Greek cuisine to its guests. That cuisine rests on first principles laid down in 4BC by Archestratos, author of the first cook book.

'First, your ingredients must be fresh,' says Andonis. 'Second, they must complement each other's tastes, not fight with each other. Third, the herbs and spices should enhance the flavours not overwhelm them.'

I confess there was a fourth principle, but the wine was very good stuff - as was the Metaxa seven-star brandy - and I've forgotten what it was. The academy further stipulates that virgin olive oil should be used, not adulterated cooking oils.

The results, as we tasted them at different times throughout our stay, are spectacular. Dishes that stick in my mind were a stew of calamares served with triftoudia (the rice-shaped Greek pasta) in a delicate tomato sauce; herbed lamb meatballs stuffed with local cheese; melitzanosalata, a gorgeous aubergine dip; fava, the yellow split-pea dip that deserves a place alongside houmous on the nation's supermarket shelves; and - on a restaurant night themed around food mentioned in the books of local hero Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek - the Cretan national dish of finely battered cod accompanied by garlic sauce.

The varied wine list makes a feature of boutique vineyards using traditional Greek grape varieties and surprises brought in from elsewhere.

The passion for fresh ingredients extends to turning almost any spare space amid the hotel's grounds - beside tennis courts or below villa terraces - into vegetable patches. A popular picnic excursion takes visitors on a walk to discover local plants, including wild sage, thyme and other herbs used to make refreshing aromatic teas. And as well as wine tasting, those who want to delve even deeper into the cuisine can take Cretan cookery lessons. I wouldn't say it's expensive but when a supermarket owner in nearby Istron village asked where we were staying, she commented: 'Ah, you are a capitalist? Rich, yes?'

There's a good variety of day trips round and about, reached by relatively quiet roads fringed with pink and white oleanders, bright yellow broom, poppies and geraniums. It was a challenge meeting the differing needs of baby and toddler, and we weren't always successful. Agios Nikolaos has some attractive cafes and boutiques, and just beyond it is the up-and-coming resort of Elounda, which caters well for families and offers boat trips to the former leper colony of Spinalonga island.

An hour away, Heraklion is Crete's bustling capital, and the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos, labyrinth of the fabled minotaur, is just on its outskirts (though don't do as we did and forget your baby sling: the sight of us manhandling a pram around the ruins was laughable). To the east are Sitia and the palm-forested beach of Vai (reached via twisting roads that made Eddie car sick). There are lots more Minoan sites and Cretan highlights to find if you have the time.

We had a couple of days off to laze by the pool and beach - which again was better for toddler than baby. There's often a strong breeze in Crete, and we had to cocoon Finn in a towel and hide him away in his pram to shield him from the buffeting. But Eddie loved it, paddling, digging with his complimentary spade and pretending to drive one of the hotel's pedalos. I was a bit troubled by his driving style. 'Screech!' he'd go, then: 'Watch out, mate!' He didn't learn that from me ...

Inland, we headed for the mountain village of Kritsa, known for its lace and crafts but also the glimpses it offers of an older existence. Down its twisting lanes not wide enough for cars, old ladies in widow's black sat to talk and shell walnuts and almonds outside the doors of tiny two-room cottages. Vines climbed the cottage sides, sometimes reaching across the alleys to form shady canopies, and cats climbed the vines to reach little first-floor balconies.

One baker advertised 'village bread' and 'dry village bread' - an unappetising prospect perhaps, until we realised that dry bread wasn't 10-day-old crusty bloomers but 'dakos', a Cretan speciality. The small squares - exactly like miniature Hovis loaves - are drizzled with olive oil and left to soak a moment before being sprinkled with salt to eat. A deliciously crunchy opening to a meal, traditionally accompanied by a glass of raki, a much finer drink than your lighter-fluid ouzo.

It's an inescapable fact that few tourists learn much Greek, so menus in tourist cafes are invariably laminated picture books with captions showing the dishes' names in four languages: Greek, German, French and English. And I daresay few visitors get far beyond the hot dogs and chips of the first few pages. Which is a shame, because get far enough in and you'll come across pages of Greek and Cretan specials: x ortopitakia , tasty vegetable pasties; bougatsa, a sweet cheese and cream pie taken with coffee; and - a real discovery this - saganaki , a slab of cheese (or we often saw shrimps as an alternative) dipped in the lightest batter reminiscent of Japanese tempura. And always served without fuss by friendly waiters keen to entertain Eddie with tricks and little treats.

Here too, Andonis has some advice for foodies if they want to go beyond the safe, 'international' dishes on the menu: 'Ask the staff what they are having today. It will usually be a Cretan dish, or fresh fish lightly grilled.'

On our last night we used the hotel's babysitting service to enjoy the grand buffet in the à la carte restaurant by the bay shore. As other guests danced to live music, we invented our own mix of starters from huge platters of fresh vegetables and seafood, stir-fried on the spot with tasty sauces and a flambee flourish. Sharing tastes of each other's dishes, as the sea lapped the beach just below, it made sense that Crete nurtured Europe's first civilisation. This was very civilised indeed.



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