woensdag 18 augustus 2010

Holiday Inspiration. 3 words Olive oil, Saffron, honey- which country?

With the holiday season rapidly drawing to a close it is perhaps a little premature to consider next year’s plans... Some of us may still be savouring the lingering taste of scrumptious foreign delights (more in our minds than on our palate), while others may be suffering the familiar holiday perils: extra pounds, uncomfortable sun burn or overspending- but you all have undoubtedly experienced new things and have precious memories to cherish. Travel is so broadening.
There is nothing so blissful as a holiday. Being in the branch ourselves unfortunately, we are unable to get away at this time of year. We have to hang off the words and experiences of others! It is amazing what a change a vacation break can make- our customers may leave with big smiles in their 'holiday home on wheels' excited yes, but often showing slight signs of apprehension, (at the prospect of driving such an awesome sized vehicle?) and often still attempting to tie up work related loose ends and other commitments (the joys of mobile phones). The quality time spent with family and the chosen path must work wonders because everyone returns recharged, relaxed, sun-tanned and brimming with stories to tell. We even have 'regulars' so we obviously must be doing something right.
Choosing a holiday destination can be exciting but somewhat daunting. The world is a large place, so should you discover new territories or do you return to a known and treasured location that has already stolen your heart? Every country has its charms, be it the hot sun and cocktails of Brazil, the flora and fauna of Costa Rica, the great food and wine of Italy, the impressive temples and Nile sunsets of Egypt or the warm, friendly caring nature of Thailand.
It is personal choice but often there is one country that stand head and shoulders above the rest for its overall appeal. For me it is the answer to the three clues........Greece. Did you guess correctly? My dream holiday would be to take a camper and drive down to Italy take a ferry and explore as much Greece as possible.

Three years ago I visited Greece for the very first time, I choose the largest of the Greek islands- beautiful Crete. In fact Vai beach, Crete is the film location of the Bounty chocolate bar of the 90's- so it really is a taste of paradise.
It was a fabulous vacation, I did the usual touristic things but was also lucky enough to experience a glimpse of real Crete. It is a country with many different faces. The Northern part is where you'll find the bigger holiday resorts (including the prime destination for party goers- Hersonissos / Chersonissos) but also picturesque towns like Rethymnon, and in Southern Crete it is much less developed and rockier. It has a good balance of old world and modern comforts. The climate is perfect.

It is quite stunning, it has lakes, mountains, crystal clear, strikingly blue waters and skies, with beaches to suit all tastes- sandy, pebble, rocky, lively or secluded. You'll find wildlife and beautiful species of flowers, plants and trees. Throw in catchy Greek music, very good food and intoxicating cocktails! With names like 'Sex on the beach' or 'Greek Passion'- how can you possibly resist?! The main challenge is not how many you can drink, but not to blush when you order!

The people are warm and friendly. They are very much 'traditionalists'. Especially in the villages the Cretans like to retain the 'old' way of life. They are content and show little interest or desire to leave their paradise- but they are happy to show you their beautiful country.

In the summer months the emphasis is largely on the tourist industry. After the last charter flight leaves in October, Crete is devoted to farming and agriculture. They harvest their olives, oranges and other products. There are no direct flights at all to Crete during this period (only via Athens), but in March the flights resume and tourism becomes important once more.
Every family is encouraged to produce and tend their very own olive groves. It is therefore not surprising to hear the ratio is 60 olive trees to each inhabitant! Because families gather their olives and process their olive oil, they are lucky enough to have their own personal supply! Usually there is one type, a kind of 'house oil- I guess- an all purpose oil, used for both hot and cold dishes, savoury or sweet. When I left Crete I was given some in a 1 1/2 liter 'soda' bottle- it was lovely, very pure tasting olive oil.
I too felt happy and very content in Crete, the way of life is relaxed. Their motto: work to live and not live to work. It is that simple. Are you ready to give up the Rat Race?
I always try to find a holiday destination that will inspire me on a culinary level. Of course it is difficult to always appreciate 'mass produced' food in Hotels. But my general opinion of Greek food is good. The wine is another story- the local wines taste more like fortified wine. Stick to the cocktails!
The Cretan diet is famous for being very healthy, tasty and nutritious, the rich soil ensure an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, which they prepare in simple but delicious ways, honey is important not to mention fish. All this is washed down with copious amounts of olive oil! (on average 25 liters per person annually!) The Greeks love to grill, be it vegetables or meat. Although you can expect a variety of different meats/ fish, I believe the huge quantity of meat often served in Greek restaurants in Holland is largely to cater for the Dutch people and is not particularly representative of Greek cuisine.
The down side of my introduction to Greek olive oil was it spoiled me somewhat, being the best olives / oil I had ever tasted, I now much prefer Olive Oil from Crete on my salads or just dipping.

I do use other types of (olive) oil for cooking- which are actually processed oils- from the likes of Bertolli and Carbonell. My tip: Carefully read the labels with much suspicion. You may think you are getting good olive oil but even 'pure' olive oil is the term for refined oil (processed) that has been mixed with Virgin olive oil!
Don't be misled. Olive oil that has been bottled in say Italy doesn't say anything about the origin of the olives/oil in question! There are a lot of dubious practices regarding olive oil...welcome to the oil business! There are too many cases of olive oil being 'adulterated'- that is, olive oil diluted with olives originating from other countries or even with other (much cheaper) oil types! Further olive oil is often chemically manipulated to altered the acidity levels and even artificially 'coloured'.
I am especially disturbed by misleading labeling- there is a definite a lack of overall regulation. It needs to be addressed and standarised. It's quite scandalous. We, the consumers are being cheated, not only out of our money but our health! I will be doing a blog on olive oil in the future. Watch this space.
Cretan olive oil is a top quality oil with very low acidity (0-1), largely hand harvested, and traditionally produced. For as long as it remains in the hands of the 'people' and not the 'industry' it will retain it's superior quality. The extra Virgin Olive oil I use has a golden slightly green colour, and a exceptionally fine taste and aroma reflective of the good climate, fertile soil and ideal conditions for the prime development of the olive trees.
Greece rank 3rd place (18%) in world production after Spain (30%) and Italy (24%).
My next important find was Saffron-

This is the most precious, colourful, and expensive spice in the world. Saffron are the stigmas from the Crocus Sativus flower. Krokos Kozanis (produced in mainland Greece) or Greek Red Saffron is a superior quality Saffron. Saffron is expensive because it is very labour intensive to grow as well as harvest. The stigmata is extracted by hand and dried, each flower contains a mere 3 filaments- 150 crocus flowers yield only 1 gram of dried saffron!

Saffron is not just a fragrant, colourful food enhancer it has many therapeutic qualities. It aids digestion, asthma, is anti cancer / anti oxidant and even boosts your sexual energy!
The much cheaper safflower flowers can be used to offer some colour to foods but no flavour. Safflower is frequently confused with and sometimes passed off as saffron. Make sure buy your saffron from a reputable source! We were once cheated in Egypt- we were offered the real thing to sample but were sold or 'fobbed off' with safflower! It wasn't until we were home and unpacked it that we became aware of the deceit. The difference is that whereas Saffron consists of loose red filaments, safflower often is 'clumped' and often yellow/orange in colour.

Saffron dissolves well in oil, water, milk, lemon juice or even alcohol! (apparently vodka yields extremely good results I have yet to try- but I will!) I have been all too often disappointed with the colour produced by my saffron- not really knowing quite what do with it or how much to use. I had once read that large doses of saffron can be lethal! I now realise it would have to be of unaffordable quantities!
I now use a little warm water and soak the strands for anything from 15minutes to two hours, then I press them with a spoon, it is amazing how much colour will be released.
Saffron rice:

Other finds include olives, honey, in particular- Thyme honey (and wild flower)- yet again high quality and acclaimed as being one of the best in the world. But don't be alarmed it doesn't taste strongly of Thyme! The honey is rich in the aroma and flavour of pollen collected by bees from the wild Thyme (and wild flowers) growing abundantly on the island. It is often sold in pretty glass jars with mixed nuts.

I also purchased various dried herbs- these are often served on a Greek salad and mixes for making authentic tzatziki. And of course some real Feta cheese. Rich and creamy, salty, moist and slightly sour, semi-solid and certainly not hard and tasteless like you often find here.
Also I was intrigued by a number of non food products. Natural sponges and olive oil based skin products. Olive soap, but also face moisturisers, toners, cleansers, shampoos and even sun tan lotion. We opted for this natural sun screen (of course not totally chemical free) and it was superb.
Add these little goodies to a couple of bottles of Ouzo and you have one happy lady!
It will be no surprise to hear that one year later I returned to Crete to stock up on my supplies- and I actively encourage other family member to visit Greece (with my shopping list) in order to satisfy my passion.

I was so inspired in Crete that I immediately threw a Greek themed party on my return.
My BBQ menu included Feta filled burgers. Souvlaki (chunks of meat with herbs and spices cooked and served on skewers) I used the sweetest tasting lamb. Greek chicken, bread, Greek salad and Bourekakia (Feta cheese/ spinach filled triangle pastries) Fresh fruit including pineapple and water melon and cocktails!
Unfortunately I have no photo's of the food but here are the cocktails:

The Feta filled burger- otherwise known as Biftekia Yemista or Biftekia Gemista
This has since become a firm favourite in our household. Who doesn't love oozing cheese? These are minced meat/cheese burgers but without the bread bun and with the cheese on the inside- lets be kinder and call them meat patties.
I was inspired by this recipe
You can vary the type of mince, the herbs and cooking methods (BBQ, grill, oven or frying pan!) and even try different cheeses.
I have tried all sorts, including with and without breadcrumbs and egg- all with excellent results. Photo to follow.

I hope you have found inspiration during your vacations and wish you lots of happy holidays in the future.
PS If you are heading in the direction of Greece feel free to mail me for my shopping list.....;-)