The fishermen return exultant shortly before noon. The little Cretan village where I have come to spend a summer’s repose suddenly comes to life as the small fishing boats putter up into the harbor after a night at sea. The men arrive shouting, leap from their boats to the jetty to secure the ropes, moving swiftly with swagger and pride, knowing they are the morning’s awaited spectacle. Everyone flocks down to the jetty to inspect the catch. I follow along. One of the men holds up a strange, mottled brown fish to show the crowd, and for the benefit of the foreigners, says in English, “Look, it flies!” then unfolds a prickly, pleated fin that opens up nearly as wide as the wingspan of a bird of prey. It does indeed look as if it could fly. I imagine it flapping its wings underwater, skimming through drifting forests of green, phosphorescent kelp.
Maria, owner and cook of one the village kafeneons, is first one on the jetty. Maria is a dumpy, motherly, homebody sort of woman in her sixties, always clad in black or navy, a kerchief hiding her grey chignon, with two black, beady eyes like raisins in a bun. Despite her impish appearance, she is a shrewd bargainer and a keen judge of fish. With expert eye, she observes the mass of quivering fins and tentacles laid out on a crate for the villagers to pick and choose from. There are octopuses, rays, moray eels, and many other fish I have never seen before. She is quick to seize the fabulous flying fish, for it will make a delicious fish soup, the one dish this village is famous for, which local tourists brave the steep road down from the mountains on Sunday nights to taste. Maria and her rival, Nikos, owner of the other kafeneon in the village, snatch up the best fish. The other villagers and the fishermen’s wives must make do with what is left over, mostly very small silvery fish which will be fried in batter and crunched whole, heads, tails, and bones. Today there is to be a feast. Maria will cook part of last night’s prize catch for lunch today at the kafeneon for all the fishermen, their wives, and their friends, among whom I have generously been included. I have become friends with one of the local women, Cathy, renamed Katerina, an American woman married to a fisherman.
The fish dispensed, the crowd disperses and the housewives take their purchases down to the water’s edge. Squatting on the pebbly shore, they scale and clean the fish right in the sea, bloodying their hands and aprons. Minnows come to nibble the refuse. I watch as skilled fingers quickly work through a pail of fish. A quick incision is made in the belly, then the guts are ripped out and tossed into the water, or to the gluttonous cats prowling near by.
And there we are sitting at the kafeneon waiting for the soup two or three hours later, but who keeps track of time here? Clocks have no authority, time is elastic. The cliffs to the east chart the hours of the day. Strangely alive, they change color, move closer or retreat depending on the angle of light. In the early morning they are a gray, glistening mass until the sun rises high above them. As the day progresses they seem to come closer, growing more distinct, every crevice and cranny chiseled in stark shadow, like the features of a face coming into focus. At sunset they blaze magenta only to disappear at night until the moon casts an ashen glimmer upon their indistinct forms. Watching this slow spectacle is one of my preferred past-times at the village kafeneon.
There are only two kafeneons in this village, set catty corner to each other at the water’s edge, Maria’s kafeneon, and Nikos’ kafeneon. The latter is frequented primarily by German tourists and unmarried Greek fishermen, Maria’s by everyone else who doesn’t fit into those categories, plus a few fishermen.
Maria’s Kafeneon is a low building with a large central dining room decorated with posters of Alpine scenes, the height of exoticism in these parts, four or five bedrooms upstairs for guests, and a spacious cement patio out front, furnished with a few warped wooden tables and rusty chairs. A faded sign advertises rooms for rent in German, English, and French. A string of colored lights dangles from the reed roof. Electricity is provided by a noisy generator kept in a shed next door. The kitchen, partially concealed behind a tattered curtain, is a tiny not very hygienic- looking cubicle with no windows and no running water opening directly onto the patio. How Maria manages to create such delicious meals in such cramped quarters and with such rudimentary equipment is a mystery better left uninvestigated.
The kafeneon is the life and center of the village. In tiny villages like this one, the kafeneon functions as restaurant, cafe, hotel, grocery store, cigarette shop, town hall, and post office. Here you may sit alone, meet your friends, have a drink or a meal, read a book, discuss politics or play backgammon, or wait for someone or something to kindle your attention. Despite the gaiety, gossip, music, or boisterous conversation that may prevail at different moments of the day, the kafeneon is often a place of solitude, of meditative waiting. It is a place to be alone with one’s thoughts, or better still, to be alone without one’s thoughts. Nothing happens, nothing interrupts the calm routine: a cup of coffee, a sip of raki, thepotent local grappa, while you sit looking out at the water thinking of nothing, observing changes in the sea, in the light, and ultimately in yourself. You may occupy a chair for hours in the morning or evening without ever being asked to leave or to order anything. The kafeneon is an arena of social exchange, and whoever happens to be part of village society, even if momentarily, just passing through, is entitled to his or her place there, whether or not you consume an entire meal or just a glass of water.
All day long and most of the evening, the local men sit in the kafeneons sipping coffee, nibbling pumpkin seeds, or just staring out at the sea. The older Greek women frequent the kafeneons more rarely, as they are at home doing the hard work, hoeing and watering the vegetable garden, tending the goats, washing the sheets by hand. But you will find one or two local women sitting here in the kafeneon of this village, sitting quietly alone during the daytime , waiting for the men who have gone out to sea, or for the postman who distributes the mail there and collects outgoing letters a few times a week, or waiting for the bread van to come down from the mountain village, or for a ride up the cliff for a rare shopping trip or an errand in town, as hardly anyone here has a car. Although the men in the kafeneon may sit idly, this is not true of the women. Even here they are always busy, crocheting delicate doilies and labyrinths of lace.
Today I am waiting with the women for the fishermen to come and join us, for the lunch to be prepared and served, while children play on the little beach below the patio. We have drawn our chairs up around a long plank table spread with a gaudy oil cloth, where an assortment of Cretan appetizers has been laid out: pumpkin seeds, roast chickpeas, olives, tiny cubes of watermelon, cucumber and goat cheese on toothpicks. The fishermen are off somewhere, tying up the boats, putting their gear in order for the next trip out, rinsing their wetsuits and washing their hands under the village tap. Like the others, I sit with a small hand-woven basket containing a spool of white thread in my lap, a crochet hook in my hand, learning to make an edging of lace. Spiros, Maria’s son, steps out of the kitchen with a bucket in hand. Noticing my handiwork, he sighs and shakes his head, “ And now, you too, “ he says pointing to the thread, “have caught the Cretan disease! All the women get it!” My companions laugh as he walks out of the kafeneon and down to the rocky shore.
When the men arrive, unshaven, unshowered, and famished after a night at sea, their wives give them a teasing welcome, asking what took them so long, since everyone is hungry.
We are curious mix of locals and foreigners. Yannis, Katerina’s husband, is the leader of the group of five fishermen. He is a tall, long-boned, lanky fellow, with a raggedy beard and long, sun-.bleached hair, resembling an El Greco Christ with a sun tan. He wears a pair of tar- spotted cut -offs and a tee shirt full of holes. Just yesterday I helped Katerina launder his jeans in a basin of sea water, using special detergent, then wringing them out by hand. The other four fishermen, all in their late twenties or early thirties, are dressed in a similar fashion.
Their wives are Canadian, American, German and Greek and their flock of blond children speak a babel of languages. The young fishermen are accompanied by an older man in his seventies, whom everyone respectfully calls Captain, the rank denoted by the battered marine officer’s cap he always wears. When he takes his place at the head of the table, the feast officially begins.
It begins, to my chagrin, with live sea urchins, brought by Spiros to the table in a red plastic bucket. So that’s what he was doing down by the rocks, prying off sea urchins for our lunch. He goes back to the kitchen and returns with a plate of lemon slices.
Yannis frowns at the lemon, and demands to know why Spiros has brought it. “For the ladies,” he explains. “They like it with lemon.”
“Impossible. Lemon ruins the flavor of sea urchins.”
Now Yannis turns to me “ You ever eat these?”
I shake my head.
Yannis plucks an urchin from the bucket, slits it open with a knife, and plops it on my plate.
“Only here can you eat such thing. In Italy where you live, the sea is polluted. But here it is clean, it is safe.”
I look at the urchin. A slimy pinkish gelatin quivers in the cup of its spiny shell and oozes over the sides.
“Taste. You must try it.” He lifts the plate and nods his head, encouraging me to take and eat.
I can’t think of anything less appetizing, but how can I say no? Never refuse a Greek’s hospitality, I have been repeatedly warned. I take a spoon, scoop up a bit, and nearly gag as I swallow the stuff. The others laugh at my expression as I am unable to hide my reaction.. The Captain calls out for some raki, and a little thimbleful is promptly brought to me. “That’ll kill the taste if you don’t care for it,” says Katerina. I swallow a few sips of liquid fire She is right, it takes the fishy taste away, but my tongue and lips are momentarily numbed.
“Have another?” says Yannis with a devilish smile, eyes glinting, reaching into the bucket for another urchin.
“No thanks. One is enough,” and everyone laughs again.
When the urchins are finished, the next course arrives: a large fried octopus, suction cups and all. Yannis carves the octopus and passes down the servings. I get a slice of head and a piece of tentacle. As we eat the octopus, he tells us how he caught it: attracting it to the surface with a powerful light then plunging a knife into its head. He mimes the fluid gestures of the tentacles in the water, then the writhing of the death throes. Next comes the battering and knocking to make the flesh tender. Despite this gruesome tale, the octopus is surprisingly delicious.
One fish tale leads to another, especially because it takes so long to make fish soup. The conversation churns away in an excited tone, mixing Greek, English, German, pauses of interpretation, delayed laughter, puzzled silences. Stories of fish and the sea intertwine with unusual topics about which everyone seems anxious to voice an opinion, such as beach nudity or gay marriages. Very different points of view are expressed in no uncertain terms, as far flung worlds and cultures collide.
One topic about which little debate is allowed is fish. When it comes out in the conversation that I was once a vegetarian, excluding even fish from my diet, a heated argument ensues. This is something the old Captain cannot fathom. The sea is so full of edible fish. How can you not eat it, when other people are starving? It’s a philosophy someone suggests, and this seems to make it more acceptable, to confer a dignity otherwise lacking. Ahh, he says, a philosophy, I see. On Crete, it seems, adherence to a creed for the sake of philosophy may still offer valid justifications for one’s behavior, no matter how anomalous.
Fortunately we are saved from further conflict by the arrival of the soup, which is brought to the table in an enormous, battered, blackened aluminum pot. Yannis lifts the lid, peers in, feigning diffidence, sniffs loudly and then lets out a theatrical grunt of appreciation as a lemony aroma is suddenly unleashed into the air. Ceremoniously he ladles out the soup: large pieces of white fleshed fish and chunks of potatoes swimming in a clear lemon-scented broth. As the old Captain cuts thick slabs of bread for everyone, the table wobbles.
We eat in silence, with gusto. When there is not a morsel of fish or a drop of broth left, the recipe is discussed. Although the ingredients are few and the procedure is simple, everyone present claims to possess the one secret, unknown to anyone else, that imparts the special flavor to the soup.
You start with the olive oil. The olive oil they use here is produced locally, from the dusty groves you can see up on the arid hillside. Nearly everyone has a few trees of their own up there. In autumn the olives are picked by hand and cold pressed, yielding an oil deep green in color, full of sediment, rich and tangy in taste, even a bit piquant. A drop of this unfiltered oil on a piece of fresh bread is a meal in itself. Pour some of this oil into a pot, be generous but not prodigal. The taste of the soup will depend on the oil, as there are no other flavorings but lemon and onion.
No, someone else claims, the taste of the soup depends on the pot: it must be an aluminum pot, better if old and scraped with a few dents in it. Saute an onion until it is soft and translucent, but it must not brown or burn. I try to get more specific instructions as to the onion: red, yellow, or white? What about a leek or a scallion? An onion, I am admonished, any onion you’ve got! Here the secret is not the onion but the flame, not too high, not too low, even better when cooked on coals. Add the potatoes one per person or more if you are hungry, a tea cup of water per person, cover and cook the potatoes over very low heat. When the potatoes are nearly cooked, add the fish. Simmer just a few minutes more until the fish is done, not a second longer. Have the juice of one lemon ready and add it to the pot just before serving, but the lemon juice must not boil or overheat. What fish? I venture. It doesn’t matter, I am told. How can it not matter I wonder? Surely the flavor depends greatly on the fish? No, no, one of the fishermen explains, it depends utterly on the precision of your procedure. Whatever you’ve caught will just have to do. You can make it with any fish. Even without fish, someone adds. Without potatoes or onion, adds another. With just water and salt, says someone else and everyone laughs.
After the soup, come fried eggplant and tza tziki, then wedges of deep red watermelon, ice cream for the children, and lastly those bitter, unfiltered Greek cigarettes that fill the air with a dense, acrid, blue smoke. The gaiety turns to torpor. The local wine, genuine but overly sweet, has gone to everyone’s head in the heat. Just when it seems that luncheon is over and there’s nothing left to do but go home and sleep, Katerina rises from the table saying she has prepared a special treat for all of us. She disappears inside the tiny kitchen and returns with a large plastic bowl which she places in the center of the table, then peels off the saran wrap cover. “Chocolate Mousse,” she announces and the children, playing with toy cars on the cement floor in a corner of the kafeneon squeal with delight and run back to the table.
She doles out a tiny portion for everyone. The superb quality chocolate flavored with cointreau and coffee, gives off a strong, rich odor in the heat. The chocolate has been brought from Germany and carefully preserved for a special occasion. The egg whites have been whipped to peaks by hand, the whole thing refrigerated several hours in the only fridge in the village. It is a culinary masterpiece.
We greedily taste this exotic desert, while Yannis looks on in annoyance.
“How can you eat that? It looks disgusting!”
“Yannis can’t bear the taste of food that’s been in a fridge for long,” Katerina explains.
“Not just that. I don’t like the color. It looks like...”
“Please Yanni !” she says and rolls her eyes.
The other fishermen dig in and are soon smacking their lips.
“I guess it just depends on what you’re used to,” I say, slightly amused that we have discovered each other’s weak points. The Captain relieves Yannis of his uneaten portion of mousse and shares it with one of the children.
The mountains to the East have taken on a purplish glow and the electric chatter of the cicadas grows more insistent. . The fishermen are tired now. They have been up all night. Their expedition took them way past the uninhabited island of Psira that you can’t even see from here.
“Those cicadas are the plague of this village,”says Yannis. “ How can a man think or rest with all that racket? There’s no peace of mind in this place.”
Everyone concurs and we all go home to sleep in the hottest hours of the afternoon.