Meals On Reels – PART ONE

The crew from Television New Zealand was coming to Crete to film an episode of Taste Takes Off, their award-winning culinary travel program. They asked us to introduce them to the people, places and cuisine that characterize Crete.

Long before the crew arrived, Kostas Bouyouris and I conducted a recce, pronounced ‘ricky’. It’s film lingo for researching story ideas and coordinating shooting schedules. With our growing network of great farmers and chefs, we had to make agonizing decisions. What are the most important stories? Who are the best people to tell them? To minimize crew travel time, we had to choose a single region of Crete, and decided it would Rethymno on the northern coast. The casting decisions required several visits and lots of meze to work it all out.

Not everyone in the world wants to be on television, especially foreign television that may never be aired in Crete. Some farmers are indifferent to such exposure and suspicious of people asking questions about their cheesemaking techniques. But New Zealanders are historically friends of Crete, and many people went out of their way to help.

TVNZ has covered a lot of ground during the show’s nine years on the air and the crew has probably seen some strange and wonderful things. The crew is very accomplished, personable and mellow – great traits to have in their line of work, and for working in Crete, as we’d soon find out. Chris Wright, the producer-director was interested in every detail of Cretan cuisine and very fun to work with. Peta Mathias, the show’s presenter, seems to be at home where ever she might travel, and her love of good food made her an instant friend here.

Our shoot schedule looked great on paper. Time was reserved for bumpy road trips and the Cretan way of unrushed greetings. Knowing Cretan customs and sensibilities as we do, meze breaks were included in the schedule, which probably seemed unnecessary to the crew. It’s not just that we wanted them to relax and eat well. Strangers cannot follow a shepherd up a mountain, ask him a bunch of questions, videotape his every move, then drive away.

Business is conducted around the dining table. You’ve got to get to know each other, prove you are trustworthy and care about their work, and prove that you can drink more than a shot of raki (homemade grappa) without acting silly. The crew passed these tests with ease. A sustainable organic farmer’s time is very valuable, unless laboratory foods like GM corn and processed cheese miraculously become healthy food choices. Culinary film crews have it good here – overtime is guaranteed and the fringe benefits are delicious. Note that people who make raki will tell you that it goes well with almost all meze. It also cures bashfulness.

On the very first day of shooting, it poured. Flash floods and power outages added to the excitement. It rarely rains in the summer and most of the shooting we had planned was outdoors, based on the nature of the project. I stuffed the schedule into the bottom of my purse. We were on Cretan time now.

Our star shepherd had no time to make cheese – for himself or for the cameras. We know many shepherds, but his story is special and we wanted to include the gorgeous scenery in the mountains where he works. During the tourist season, many shepherds only have time to look after their sheep in between their day jobs at the hotels and such. They sell the milk to small factories that are not usually open to visitors, especially a film crew. Secret recipes and a superstition that our presence will ruin the batch are the reasons.

While we were having meze at a friend’s taverna, enjoying the fabulous homemade cheese, back-up plans were made on the spot. Yiannis has a small flock of sheep and was happy to milk the little dears for the cameras. We had to wait a few days for Yiannis to collect enough milk before his wife, Despina, could make the cheese. It was worth the wait to sample the malakos, the cottage cheese straight from the pot. Despina prepared an excellent feast for us and Yiannis played his lute and sang the most beautiful traditional love songs. He is a pro musician, among the many other hats he wears. That info was not in his ‘cheesemaker’ biography.

If you think anyone’s living the Slow Life around here, think again. Mrs Tassoula, our star village chef with a gorgeous taverna overlooking the sea, got stage fright and decided she did not want a camera crew in her kitchen. Based on her very outgoing personality, we guessed it was due to her schedule. Her son announced his engagement to be married, which requires a near-immediate celebration.

Mrs Tassoula changed her mind we worked around her schedule. She rolled out her homemade pita dough for the cameras like a star athlete, making it look as simple as boiling water. The perfectly formed, fresh mizithra cheese and spearmint stuffing waited in the wings. We did not have time to film her making hortapita – pungent wild greens tucked into the same dough, but we made time to eat them. The beauty of Crete is spontaneity unless there’s a camera crew involved.

One person who was not camera shy at Mrs Tassoula’s place was a skinny great-grandmother, waiving her cane and ranting and raving in a corner. She was telling my partner, Panos, that he should get married and stop chasing different women every night. She made a gesture with her hands to emphasize her point. Steve, the cameraman, caught that moment on film. I doubt any one else will see it, but it was priceless.

Some passersby nearly threw themselves in front of the camera. Since we were not covering a soccer match, I thought of the wasted film and time. The crew is so accustomed to this that they just work around it. During the octopus tenderizing demo and interview with the fisherman on the port, crowds of shopkeepers and tourists gathered – not realizing that they were in the way or ruining the sound. The whole time, a coast guard boat engine was blaring … seems they were waiting for a big boss. I held my breath, waiting for them to leave the port or turn off the engine, but they never did.

Nikki Rose is a professional chef, writer and founder of ‘Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries, travel programs to preserve our culinary history’. She works directly with local chefs, farmers and scientists in Crete to support traditional trades and sustainable organic agriculture. Her published articles and upcoming book focus on these issues and have appeared in Slow Food publications, Athens News and Stigmes Magazine (Crete), among others.
[email protected]

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