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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cretan Dakos, or Koukouvayia (Owl) - Ντάκος

I have returned from my Blog Interruptus with a tale of autumn adventures on the island of Crete, along with a recipe for all those tomatoes in the pantry. Enjoy!

Cretan Dakos - Click to Enlarge Image

In my travels about Greece, I have been to Crete twice. The first time I touched foot on the legendary isle of King Minos, I spent a day there as one leg of an Aegean culture cruise; we visited Knossos and the Herakleion Museum. I was so inspired by my visit to the former that I was left with a burning desire to return someday and see more of that famous isle. As I sailed away that first time from the Cretan shoreline, I half-expected Talos to appear along the coast to see me off...

Years later, I landed on Cretan soil again. This time, I spent a couple months exploring the island by foot, motorbike, and boat. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my sojourn there had the character of a sacred pilgrimage, or perhaps it was something akin to an initiatory walkabout or rite of passage. In every way that mattered, I was committed to seeing Crete's wild places and exploring her backcountry, and to learning about her people and their folkways. In short, I was intent on immersing myself into the geist of the place. Yes, my purpose was to commune with the very spirit of Crete herself. With that in mind, I threw myself upon the tender mercies of the Fates.

I arrived in Herakleion in mid-September and stayed on Crete till mid-November. The weather was generally good, the tourist season was over, and the seas were at their warmest having been heated by the sun all summer long. During my visit, I camped on shorelines, slept in hostels and hotels, was a guest in private homes, and once, I even spent a frigid night in a desolate shepherd's redoubt on the upper slopes of Mount Ida (Psiloritis). Suffice it to say, I gained an intimate knowledge of Cretan topography; from the island's northern shoreline to its southern beaches and meandering coastlines, I immersed myself in the landscape. I traversed Crete's mountainous backbone on foot, starting from the mythical Idaeon Andron and the Nidha Plateau, and ending up in the great Messara Plain on her southern flank.

This course brought me into contact with Crete's people and history in a manner that few tourists get to experience anymore. Best of all, I kept a careful journal of my Cretan travels which allows me to relive most aspects of that trip. I am grateful for the experiences themselves, as well as the opportunity to share them with others.

Interestingly enough, I was aided in my efforts to discover the Cretan way of life by an Englishman and his half-Greek wife. If Steve, or Tina Pryor, ever read these words, I want them to know that our meeting remains an inspirational highlight of my life. I thank them for introducing me to Crete, and to their little village of Axos, which lies in the afternoon shadow of Mount Ida (Psilotiris). The two of them welcomed and shepherded me into the bosom of that most ancient land. I shall never forget their generosity.

Crete is a universe unto itself. From her bustling port cities on the northern shore, to the timeless isolation of hamlets in out of the way inlets along her southern coast, there is something for everyone on Crete. In a popular Greek song, Nikos Xilouris refers to Crete as "the key to Paradise", and I am convinced that he was correct. Which brings me to another salient point.

The Cretans are natural poets. To this day, they maintain a wonderful facility with a syntactical arrangement that forms the basis of Greek folk poetry and verse: decapentesyllabic (fifteen syllable) rhyming couplets. Try saying that ten times fast! In any given situation, a Cretan is able and quite willing to produce a ditty-on-the-spot, if you will. At such moments, they will be able to cleverly rhyme off something playfully erotic or satirical. These couplets are called mantinades and they are usually accompanied by the plaintive strains of the Cretan lyra. It really is marvellous to observe, most especially after a few glasses of tsikoudia, a grape marc spirit (Cretan 'moonshine').

Along with all her physical beauty, her mythology, history, poetry and music, Crete offers one more bounty for restless spirits: the Cretan diet. Much has been said or written about the cuisine of Crete and I will not exhaust the topic in this post. Suffice it to say, the Cretan diet in all its simplicity and salubrity is the original inspiration for what is today known as the "Mediterranean" diet.

As we are blessed with a surfeit of tomatoes from this year's kitchen garden, I have been using them up as quickly as possible. One of my favourite ways to enjoy an unconventional tomato salad is the Cretan Dakos, or as it is also called, Koukouvayia (Owl), pronounced as "koo-koo-VAH-yee-ah". My understanding is that it takes this name from its resemblance to the eye of an owl when viewed from above. This owl-eye effect is even more pronounced when two Dakos are placed side by side on a plate.

Owl's eye view - Click to Enlarge Image


Cretan barley rusks
Fresh tomatoes, diced
Real Greek Feta cheese, crumbled
Greek extra virgin olive oil (try Kolympari, an excellent Cretan olive oil)
Fresh mint. finely chopped
Dried Greek oregano
Red wine (optional)

  1. Soak the Cretan barley rusk slightly w/water or a splash or two of red wine and set aside for a couple minutes.
  2. Drizzle the rusk with olive oil and let it sit for another couple minutes until the oil is absorbed, then drizzle another tablespoon or so over top of it.
  3. Combine the diced tomato with the chopped mint and top the rusk with the mixture, then add the crumbled feta cheese, a pinch of oregano, and another touch of olive oil.
  4. Finish by placing an olive on top of it all.
Serve and enjoy!

Pánta Kalá! (Always Be Well)

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.