LIFE

Crisis cultivates initiative at Cretan resort

By Elis Kiss

So you thought that the Greek tourism season would be over by now? Not according to the Saridakis family, who are now awaiting the arrival of this year?s first guests for their hands-on fall/winter vacation packages.

At the Eleonas agritourism resort in the village of Zaros, on the slopes of UNESCO classified Mount Psiloritis in southern Crete, fall and a part of the winter season will be creatively busy, as the ?Made in Crete? programs, cooking and olive harvesting courses, debut at the end of October and run to March next year.

From ?mezes? and Cretan meat platters to collecting olives in the Saridakis groves, the allure of the Mediterranean diet will be combined with the opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge of seasonal local produce, not to mention take part in wine and raki tastings.

There?s something to be said about collecting rosemary and sage from the herb garden and fresh eggs from the farmyard before gathering in the kitchen to prepare familiar dishes such as moussaka, but also signature local platters including ?sfougato me vrouves? (omelet with wild mustard greens) and baby lamb with famed ?stamnagathi? (spiny chicory). At Eleonas, all the ingredients are either homegrown on the family farm or sourced within a 5-kilometer range.

Both the cooking and olive harvest courses have already drawn interest and bookings from visitors in France, the Netherlands and Britain.

?So far, they all seem to be interested in the Cretan diet and the production of olive oil, for instance,? said Manolis Saridakis. ?It?s about recipes passed on from grandmother to daughter through time. It?s about taking your time cooking, about slow food, even when frying potatoes in olive oil.?

Ever since establishing the Eleonas resort seven years ago, the Saridakis family have been taking advantage of their natural resources and kitchen skills by offering a variety of cooking lessons for guests. The Made in Greece packages, however, are now providing a more organized platform for this kind of activity, while at the same offering a much-needed opportunity to extend the tourism season -- the prime reason behind the new Eleonas venture.

?Unfortunately, fewer Greeks are going on vacation these days and there is no aid coming from anywhere else,? said Saridakis.

Though the idea of the cooking courses and olive harvesting had been planted well before the current crisis, the need to reach out through new projects has taken on a new urgency in the last couple of years. According to Saridakis, although the last summer season was a deemed a good one, 95 percent of the resort?s clientele flew in from Britain.

The new strategy is also counting on the aid of an important ally.

?Sunshine helps,? said Saridakis, citing the generally mild weather on Crete from October through to November, when temperatures often climb to the mid-20s Celsius (mid-70s Fahrenheit). To complement the healthy and hearty food-related activities, the cooking package includes walking excursions, while Eleonas has direct access to the E4 European long-distance path, a walking trail leading to the Rouvas Gorge, famed for its natural spring water. The ancient sites of Gortyn -- the Roman capital of Crete -- and Phaestos are also just a short drive away.

Meanwhile, the olive harvest working holiday takes participants through the entire process, from handpicking to packaging.

?The crisis brought about something positive for the island,? said Saridakis. ?Every major olive oil producer is now standardizing their produce. This makes production even more competitive, leads to higher quality and everyone is starting to export, given that the standards are now in place.?

The Eleonas initiative aims to have a positive collateral effect on the broader local community. While guests may visit the award-winning Zacharioudakis winery for a taste of red Syrah and Kotsifali, for instance, they also have the opportunity to stroll around the local food markets, where, according to Saridakis, folksy souvenirs are increasingly being replaced by culinary products, which are also making their way to global markets.

For the Saridakis family, a little much-deserved rest comes in the deep midwinter, sometime in February.

?We are a family of farmers, this is our way of life,? said Saridakis. In the meantime, ?we are trying to piece the puzzle together. This is not solely about cooking or making olive oil, but also about learning the land?s history and culture.?

For more information, visit www.eleonas.gr. The six-day cookery courses run from October 29 to March 31 at 1,680 euros per person for a double room. The six-day olive harvest package runs from October 29 to December 10 at 1,170 euros per person for a double room. Prices do not include flights or ferry boat services to Crete.

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