Epicurean journey Greece: on assignment in Crete

Blue Palace Crete beach photoIt was 5:45AM when the doorbell buzzed. Breakfast arrived in the predawn darkness along with the soft clanging of plates under silver domes. The strapatsada, Greek scrambled eggs with tomatoes and feta, still warm and bougatsa pies flaky. Alison and I both reached for coffee first and after taking a few photos settled in our front row seats for a quiet sunrise on the balcony at the Luxury Collection’s Blue Palace Resort & Spa overlooking our private plunge pool and the gulf surrounding Spinalonga island, an old leper colony that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. My first photoshoot of the day beckoned us to leave shortly after but over the next few days we formed a habit of waking early to start the morning in tranquility.Blue Palace Crete room service photoBlue Palace Crete beach photo

Our stay at the Blue Palace was one mixed with business and pleasure. Most of what I shared on my social channels highlighted the leisure elements because let’s face it, nobody wants to hear about how hard you work when you wake up in five star hotels with views that belong on the big screen and feast on the regular. I can hear the Brit’s eyes roll when we’re on the phone and I recount how “hard” my day was. Instead, in this post I thought it would be fun to share some of my culinary highlights with Cretan cuisine as well as some behind the scenes accounts of my photoshoots at the Blue Palace.

Cretan cuisine & customs

Where in Athens I was drawn by its history, in Crete I was intrigued by its deep-seated customs and traditions. Shortly after we arrived in Crete our driver, without prompting, peppered us with information of the areas as we drove past. “Natural olive groves,” he’d point out. On a narrow lane in Kritsa, a small village perched on a rocky hill, local women brought out their handmade garments worn for celebrations (kouda) for show and tell. George, the barehanded beekeeper in Kroustas, insisted on wearing his sariki (handwoven headscarf) for photo ops. He also has a penchant for carving wooden spoons we learned when he hauled out a toolbox full of them for us to admire. Cretans, I learned, are fiercely proud of their culture and embrace sharing aspects of it even to complete strangers.Crete village windows photo

The hallmark of Cretan gastronomy relies on three local products: olive oil, honey and wine. In my experience it is full on savoury, a bit sweet and all sorts of lively. That was the case in Irini’s myzithra cheese pies with a lick of George’s thyme-scented honey, the lamb antikristo seasoned only with sea salt and slow cooked for 5 hours over a beachside firepit and the grilled octopus salad from the Blue Door taverna of which I will now use to judge all other octopus salads. And let’s not forget the clinks of glasses full of raki, a numbing clear spirit that is drunk like water in Crete.

Cretan beekeeper wearing a sariki, a handwoven headpiece photo

This is George the beekeeper posing in his Cretan sariki, a handwoven headpiece.

blue-palace-cretan-feast-food photoOctopus salad in Crete photo

We were fortunate to experience the last Cretan Feast of the season at the taverna. The hotel has hosted weekly celebratory festivals based on the island’s traditions since 2014 with local producers providing handmade pies, cheese and honey. Our table filled quickly with mezes of fried snails, dakos (bread topped with fresh tomatoes, olive oil and oregano), handmade pasta called skioufikta and an assortment of dolmadakia of which I’m specifically partial to the vine leaves stuffed with zucchini flowers, rice and spiced with local herbs.Cretan Feast at the Blue Palace hotel in Crete photo

Around us were professional Cretan folk dancers jumping, stepping and kicking to the tunes of the lyra and a crooning alto. In between bites of lamb with mountain greens and grilled bream with stewed okra we linked arms on shoulders and joined in on the dancing. “Yamas!” I’d occasionally belt out along with the dancers as my two left feet tapped around aimless but denying defeat.

Behind the scenes of a food photoshoot

Behind the scenes of a food photoshootMy experience at the Blue Palace struck my ideal balance of work and play. Yes, I often woke up before the sun did in order to take advantage of more atmospheric light. Yes, it can be difficult and overwhelming to split my attention between photography and jotting down the details of the cuisine, a place’s history and surroundings. But in between shoots Alison and I lounged by the hotel’s private beach and enjoyed table service from Isola Beach Club. We even found time to get pampered with massages at the spa. And during working hours what fun I had laughing at the sight of the Blue Door staff clutching their camera phones waiting for me to finish my shot so they too can take their own photos.Blue Palace Isola beach club food Crete photoBlue Palace Crete Isola beach club interior photoBlue Palace Isola beach club Crete

When I first got into food photography professionally I thought my favorite aspect of the job was photographing the food itself (and of course eating it). Much later I realized that it’s not only the story of and meaning behind the dish that captivated me but also the people who create them, whether it’s a chef, beekeeper or cheesemaker. In one day I spent time with them all and saw first hand just how passionate they are for their work and by extension how it contributes to Cretan culture and cuisine. Below are some of the images I captured of the locals I met in Crete and the stories behind them.

Blue Palace Cretan caique photo

A handsome caique, traditional Cretan fishing boat, was moored on the hotel jetty and behind it a pale pink sky. It was 7AM and we’re both barely awake. I felt a tad sorry that Alison had to suffer an early morning for the photoshoot with me but not for long as we marveled at the atmospheric light. The Blue Palace’s caique used to be a working fishing boat but now it is largely used to provide customized guest experiences. A romantic at heart, I like to imagine its use for the original purpose: a fisherman’s lifeline used to bring the sea’s bounty to the Greek table.

Blue Palace Hotel executive chef inspecting the catches of the day photo

Blue Palace executive chef Alexandros Lefkaditis inspecting the catches of the day. He is possibly one of the jolliest chefs I’ve ever met. He prepared a lobster citrus salad with the utmost flair (of which we were happy recipients) but when asked how he started working as a chef he only flashed a demure smile and offered the simple fact that he came from a long line of chefs in the family.

Fresh seafood photo

Bounty from the sea

Cretan Beekeeper and a valley of thyme photo

George the beekeeper tending to his bees – before he invited us over to his village to taste his thyme scented honey on homemade pies and impressed with his handcarved wooden spoons.

Beekeeper and honeycomb photo

Cretan locals photo

Ms Irini (pie maker) and Mr Dimitris (cheese maker) taking a break during our photoshoot. They are both from the same village and have been suppliers of the Blue Palace since 2014.

blue-palace-myzithra-cheesemaking-cretan-feast photo

Fresh mizithra cheese made in front of our eyes. It still surprises me sometimes how a few simple ingredients can transform into something so comforting and delightful. The cheese, made with goat and sheep’s milk, was still warm to the touch when I popped a mild and slightly salty spoonful in my mouth.

Cretan cheesemaker photo

There’s a small village in Crete where many of the men wear moustaches, the more voluminous the better. It’s a source of pride and all of them are well groomed.

Cretan pie maker photo

Pies are more similar to crepes or pancakes in Greece. They can be made sweet or savory and filled with assorted stuffings such as cheese, custard or spinach.

Stoking fire for a lamb cooked in a pit in Crete photo

Lamb antikristo is an ancient method of cooking lamb for celebratory feasts by roasting it for five hours over a fire pit. This simple method produced the most fork tender meat and proved to me that complicated techniques are not required to produce good food.

blue-palace-crete-candidsbyjo-behind-the-scenes-photoshoot

Working as a food photographer is a solitary experience for me. I prefer to work alone or in small teams so having an audience watch me work initially caught me off guard. It takes time to build a scene particularly for on-location shoots. To an observer it must look like I’m unsure of what I’m doing and therefore buying time because inevitably someone will offer advice. By the time I reached Crete I had already become accustomed to others’ curiosity and started enjoying the company. I also learned the value in sharing some of the photos of the shoot to ease potential anxiety.

I loved his dedication, the Blue Palace’s food & beverage manager, and wish I caught his name (update: Mr Naslas). From one photoshoot to the next he was always vested in the shot. I took his suggestion to add a wine bucket in one of the scenes and he practically beamed. I also loved that he always had his phone out as soon as I finished with a scene so he could capture it as well.

Yamas! Drinking raki with locals in Crete photo

Just as I was wrapping up the shoot a cold bottle of housemade raki appeared. At this point it really did just feel like I was getting a drink with old friends after spending the afternoon with my face behind a camera. My biggest takeaway from the whole experience is this: when in Crete – drink raki. Yamas!

Note: I was a guest of the Blue Palace Resort & Spa and worked in collaboration with The Luxury Collection for this piece.

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