Carnival season in Crete: Fat Tuesday & Smoky Thursday

April 1st, 2007

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Along Rethymnon’s Venetian harbor, a strong gust of wind almost caught me off balance – and with this surging spring wind, I caught a heady whiff of grilled meat.  Overhead, holiday lights outlined masks strung across streets in the town’s old quarter.  Music blared as costumed kids paraded in clusters or holding a parent’s hand.  We stepped aside as Smoky Thursday crowds ambled past, young revelers behind masks.  In all parts of Greece, we were told later, high-jinks and heaps of meat on the grill are the tradition on this Thursday before Shrove Tuesday.  Both are days of (over) indulgence  before Lent’s long privation, the forty days leading to Easter when no meat can be eaten.  For devout Greek Orthodox practitioners, no cheese, nor any oil pass their lips during Lent.  The practice is Orthodox, but the carnival atmosphere (dampened by a light rain) in this busy port on Crete’s north coast had a decidedly Venetian air – not surprising after four hundred years of Venetian occupation.  We ducked into one of the snug bars near the harbor for a warming nip of raki and noted locals sipping the same clear alcohol distilled from grape must.  Drummers marched past, masks appeared and vanished in the narrow streets, and a throng of teenage boys in wild, colorful wigs pranced along, (partially) disguised. We walked back to the hotel past the cybercafé, our usual spot to check Email messages.  But now it was filled to overflowing, and under a broad awning’s protection from the rain, I noticed that the pink and blue “wigs” were taking a cyber break.

Spring in Crete means more than Carnival antics and the hiss of meat on the grill.  During a weekend at the eastern edge of this long, mountain-ridged island, we spent a day with friends, driving along steeply winding roads into the hills above Agios Nikolaos. Wild almond trees in bloom sponged soft pastel tints across arid, rock-strewn pastureland. We paused as sheep scampered across the road; villages were silent, shuttered. One might wonder if anyone lived there.  Artemis was driving, and she rolled down the window to ask directions of a woman dressed in black. “You lookin’ for greens?” the old woman spoke first, in a local dialect (I was told).  “You know where to find ‘em?”  Their short conversation gave Artemis directions to a taverna, but yielded no secrets about where to find ‘horta’, the wild spring greens so prized to fill flaky pita (pies) as well as to keep for medicinal uses.  We drove on to a smaller village for lunch in a simple taverna with no sign posted outside – one has to know the lay of the land for lunch in these hills.

Settling into our places at a pine table, I asked “What’s for lunch?” The house specialty, I was told: boiled goat.   Not kid, nothing like cabrito (kid, a favorite for Mexican Easter feasts) that I had tasted, just the long-simmered goat.  The cook and his wife seemed to be eagerly awaiting our arrival.  First, a flotilla of plates arrived for us to share and sample: eggplant salad, a dish of dakos (barley buns moistened with olive oil, then spread with crushed tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese), pickled octopus, herbed beans, country bread and succulent black olives.  Then, a bowl of broth before the main course was set before us all: a platter of steaming meat and carrots. The first bite was surprisingly tender, definitely delicious.  A side of macaroni and a dish of greens came around, a light red wine was poured again, and I thought: Ah, spring in Crete, prefect timing for a memorable lunch of boiled goat!