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A Cretan Way of Life: The Meze Table, by Rosemary Barron

posted on 09/10/20


One inestimable joy of travelling is the opportunity to experience of another way of life. When this includes food, drink and fine companionship, and is based on gastronomic knowledge accumulated by an ancient civilisation, it is especially thrilling. An invitation to a Cretan meze table is one such moment. Its origins lie in the eastern Mediterranean custom of offering every visitor refreshment, but it was the cooks of Cretan and Greek antiquity who turned mezedes into an art.

A wag in classical antiquity once referred to mezedes (or mezes) as 'preparing the stomach for the onslaught to come'. He had a point, for their purpose is to stimulate the appetite, not satiate. But it is in the writings of the philosopher Plato that we discover the range of tastes and textures offered by a well-balanced meze table. Laid out before the guests, he says, were platters of radishes, olives, beans, green vegetables, figs, cheeses, fresh chick peas and myrtle. That is, foods both sweet and savoury, fresh and preserved, crunchy and tender, and flavours subtle and strident.

These ancients also understood, no doubt through experience, that drinking on an empty stomach was not a good idea. With wonderful logic, they combined their love of discussion and companionship with their understanding of the role diverse and colourful foods play in supporting our good health. Thus a delightful and practical social ritual was born.

In a marvellous continuity of tradition, the same principles of contrast, seasonality and sense of place are evident at Cretan meze tables today, and they are one of the most enjoyable features of Cretan life. Portions are bite-size, and a meze selection may comprise as few as five dishes or as many as thirty. You will find mezes everywhere, from the humblest mezedopoleion (meze café) to the smartest hotel and, in homes, they are automatically offered to you, the visitor. By providing attractive, intensely aromatic and highly-flavoured foods, drink – local wine, tsigouthia (schnapps, made from the remnants of the vine) – and a relaxed atmosphere, a host demonstrates their ability to satisfy both the physical and spiritual needs of their guests.

The simplest and smallest meze are called mezedakia: olives, crisp tomato and cucumber wedges, salted almonds, melon and fennel seeds, dried figs, sharp pickled vegetables, tiny fried fish, crumbly fresh cheeses. In the mountains, a meze table might include air-dried ham or sausage, morsels of liver, tiny meatballs (kephtedakia), and, on the coast, seafood fritters, oysters, sun-dried octopus and sea urchins, as well as an array of seasonal vegetables. In spring, the first fava beans, almonds, wild asparagus and green walnuts make an appearance; later, exquisite little pies filled with fresh cheese, wild greens, and shaped into squares, half-moons, coils; courgettes, peppers, okra. In autumn and winter, mezes offer warmth and comfort – morsels of small game; puréed pulses, vegetable and cheese pies, remnants of yesterday's bakes and stews.

Sometimes, too, meze flavours are reminiscent of the early-medieval Byzantine empire – dried fruits, baked aubergines – or the later Venetian and Turkish occupations. And, although the daily influence of the Orthodox church has waned, its imaginative meze dishes, especially those of its frequent fasts, are still to be found centre-table: dips (salates) of pulses (chick peas, favas, split peas, lentils), nuts (walnuts, almonds), taramosalata (mullet roe); vegetable and pulse bakes; stuffed vegetables, leaves and flowers.

By their very nature, mezedes are celebratory foods; they are a host's way of telling you that it's good to see you. They are easily shared, and served with little fuss at any time of day; the host's reward is an intense satisfaction. For all six senses of your guests are gratified: mezes look attractive, their varied aromas, tastes and textures tantalise and conversation flows. It's the moment to slow down, enjoy the sense of companionship (filia) around your table, and raise a glass to the gastronomic wisdom of the ancients.

Four simple, seasonal vegetable mezes

1. Fry aubergine and/or courgette slices in olive oil and sprinkle with a few drops of red-wine vinegar; serve with yogurt and small black olives.

2. Mix lightly cooked green beans with olive oil and red-wine vinegar (lathoxsithi: 5 parts oil to 1 part acid) and sprinkle with coarse sea salt and plenty of flat-leaf parsley.

3. Arrange roasted red bell pepper strips on a plate with anchovy fillets, capers and small black olives; sprinkle with chopped fennel fronds and extra virgin olive oil.

4. Mix cooked white beans (haricot, cannellini) with lathoxsithi, rigani (Greek oregano), slivered spring onions and capers, sprinkle with paprika and serve with feta cheese.

By Rosemary Barron
MRT lecturer

Rosemary leads our tour, Gastronomic Crete, in September 2021.

View itinerary for 'Gastronomic Crete'

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