Crete, a bad beginning

Our Cretan holiday began with the classic traveller’s catastrophe – a missed flight. The 06.00 time printed so clearly on our tickets, meant six a.m. not six p.m. If it had meant 6.p.m., our tickets would have said 18.00. Of course, we knew that. We were shocked, surprised and embarrassed that we had made such stupid and basic mistake. After all we’d spent years now racing around the world with never a slip. We wasted several hours shaking our heads and blaming each other.  (YOU should have realised, YOU should have checked, WHO had the tickets? WHO could have asked for them? – If you’ve ever missed a plane for this reason, you probably know the lines)

In the hills of Crete
In the hills of Crete

The situation worsened when finally we rang the airline. There was no plane to Chania that day or the next – our week long Cretan escape was disappearing by the day. But wait, there was plane to Heraklion the next morning at 06.00. Never mind that Heraklion was several hundred miles from the resort at Agia Marina where our room with the balcony and the sea views awaited us, it was in Crete and tomorrow evening we could be there. We’d already won back a day. We were packed, ready and good to go. Things were looking up.

After misinterpreting our tickets and missing our flight to Chania the day before, we were leaving nothing to chance. Before the crack of dawn, we were at Gatwick airport waiting for next flight into Crete – destination, Heraklion.

Our fellow travellers were a team of lads heading off on a boys’ own drinking adventure and a team of lasses (distinguishable by lurid pink t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Nikis Hens night”), heading off on a girls’ own pre-wedding drinking adventure. Both parties were already armed with vessels of booze of various sorts and seemed to be having a jolly old time.

On the flight, the lasses grew louder and the lads grew quieter.  I wondered, not without a tinge of disquiet, if we were all headed for the same destination.

By the time the plane began to spiral down towards Heraklion, I was the only one awake and I contemplated its faded stones in luxurious silence.

There was no bus bound for Chania, at least not any time soon, and having already lost a day of our holiday we were reluctant to let go of another. We took a taxi.

Georgios, our driver seemed completely comfortable, if not downright pleased, with the prospect of the long trip to Chania and back. First we climbed, away from the coast, between steep rocky cliffs sparsely dotted with pines and shrubs and I thought of the World War II New Zealand soldiers, my father among them, on the run in this alien landscape. The road rose sharply and steadily to the summit and then sloped gently back down to the coast.

We passed slowly through straggling seaside settlements, remnants of villages with tiny churches and low stone cottages, punctuated all too often by looming modern resorts and hotels. On roadside signposts, I began to recognise names from old childhood stories – Galatos and Maleme.

“Agia Marina!” announced Georgios suddenly. So here we were, at last, a day late, but nonetheless about to begin our Cretan adventure.

Mastiha in Microlimano

I first met Mastiha one evening in a tavern in Microlimano, the smallest of the three historic  harbours of Piraeus, just south of Athens.

A yacht hovers outside Microlimano
A yacht hovers outside Microlimano

Although it was a warm Autumn evening, the restaurant had its terrace awning drawn down against the breeze that was rattling the masts of the yachts moored off shore and tossing restless breakers down on the beach.

We were the guests of some local gentlemen who spared nothing in sharing their hospitality. It was a long dinner of numerous courses and as many different accompanying wines.  In the sheltered terrace, with the sound of the breeze and the waves, the smell of grilling seafood, the glow of candles, gentle Greek  music,  lively conversation, it was cosy and convivial. Just when I thought we had sampled almost every possible dish and drink that Greece had to offer, our hosts introduced Mastiha.

It came in a shot glass, in the shape of strong liqueur that slipped down the throat like liquid fire, smouldered in the belly, spread a warm glow through the veins and finally burst into the brain like a meteor.

The essential ingredient of this potent liqueur is an aromatic resin, also called mastiha. It comes from the tree known in Greek as “schinos” and in Latin as Pistacia lentiscus.  Incredibly, although the tree grows in other of Greece and the Mediterranean, it is only in the southern part of the island of Chios that it produces mastiha. The resin emerges, in drops shaped like tears, from cuts made in the bark of the trunk and branches. It is then left to air dry and harden on marble dust.

Mastiha holds an important place in Greek tradition, both culinary and cultural. It is used in numerous ways.  For many years it was enjoyed mainly as a chewing gum. It was also a popular summer treat known as ipovrihio or submarine – a thick taffy, served by the spoonful and dipped in iced water.

Mastiha is still enjoyed as chewing gum and dessert.  For many, especially on Chios, it is an aperatif  of choice, often over ouzo and in some parts of Greece, it is served instead of brandy, at funerals.  Nowadays, Mastiha is also the main ingredient in over 300 food, cosmetic and health products and its fame has spread far and wide.