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