Raki and Mezze...
When Autumn comes and the grapes are harvested from the small vineyards surrounding the village, scattered everywhere where there's a flat piece of ground amid the tumbling mountains, the Cretans take large barrels and press the grapes into them, stalks and all, and let the naturally warm air cause the yeast to foment a crude, rough wine.
When it's ready an olive wood fire is built under a makeshift stand with a hole through which the heat can rise and on top is placed the small copper stills, often handed down through generations. The condensing pipe runs through an old oil drum full of cooling water ending in a small tap.
The copper still is filled with the rough wine, stalks and all, and sealed.
Soon, clear alcohol begins to drip and then stream from the tap and is collected in whatever containers are to hand. When the Raki ceases to flow the still is emptied and refilled, again and again through the day and into the night.
This Raki making is a time of joy. Families gather for the process, bringing to eat whatever their gardens have; cucumbers, tomatoes, walnuts, green olives and black, Pomegranates (especially these because they somehow are good for the system when drinking Raki), and what they've made: Pasticcio, salad, cakes, whatever.
Starting around 11 or 12 in the morning, the process can take all day and last until midnight, by which time hundreds of litres of Raki have been produced if the harvest of grapes has been good.
Its strength is about half that of whisky or gin, making it a drink that can be drunk in reasonable quantity. Interestingly it never causes hangovers, no matter how much you drink, though this might have to do with the Cretan habit of never drinking without Mezze (Cretan 'tapas') and whenever drinking is happening so plate after plate of typically extremely healthy Cretan mezze is served. It might be raw cauliflower from the garden served with oil and lemon, a few sardines caught that morning, pork or liver cooked in oil and a little red wine, a rabbit or hare if someone got lucky, always salad, in winter wild greens from the mountains, dandelions boiled with potatoes and dressed with oil and lemon, snails collected when the first rains happen in November and they stick their necks out and go for a look around, cooked with garlic, lentils and beans with tomatoes and celery and onions, rice cooked in chicken stock with tiny pieces of chicken liver, just-picked and boiled sweetcorn, all simple dishes, tasty and healthy, always with lashings of the beautiful olive oil of this region of Crete (which a family of four can get through 200-300 litres of in a year).
It's an institution here. “Hey, come and drink a little Raki!'
So you do.
Because it's home made, because it's something that's easy to give, because it brings people together, because it seems to create good atmosphere, because it's fun, it is a symbol of the sharing culture of a place that until recently consisted of almost tribal villages. Only fifty years ago water was collected from the spring (now it comes in pipes from the spring) and the bread oven was lit every morning and each family brought its dough to nestle among the flames. Then it was common for the whole village to gather around the ovens and take breakfast together, returning in the evenings to drink Raki and share mezze and to play music and sing and dance. In populous villages, especially those in the mountains, such nightly gatherings still occur. At certain times of the year, big village "pareas" are held, and everyone comes together.
This is a short video of a Parea in a local village, held in the school yard.
No people are perfect, no human being is perfect, but collectively we aspire to create places of safety and joy, to live in a community where we are known, to share and have fun.
We've lived here ten years and seen that culture slowly waning as the television and money and debt based economy have further penetrated. Twenty years ago, we hear, it was different again. What will the next ten years do to this place? Will Raki making be banned? Will they bring in a Raki tax? Will government intrude further into lives, TV get these people further in its grip?
The Cretans are proud of what they have and cling to their traditions but, like everywhere, the traditions are slowly getting weaker, taken over by the sick 'western' culture which is killing ways of life everywhere.
When I taught English here, before the economic murder committed by the EU and banksters made me unemployed, I asked the kids to interview their grandparents about how life was for them. Almost without exception the answers were the same: Poor, but happy. Life was good, if sometimes hard. The villages were, in effect, tribal societies. The object of life was pleasure, producing family, taking joy from nature and from people, living long and being healthy (which they did.) The place is still full of 100+ year olds now, but now there are chemicals, now the air is full of radionuclides, now there is cancer taking young and old as everywhere.
Sometimes, when we go forwards, we leave good things behind.
Another short video from a near village, Skordilo. At the beginning the old bread oven is used to make "potatoes and pork in the oven", cooked with mountain oregano, lemon juice and olive oil. Towards the end, notice the old yet still vigorous Cretans having a dance.
"Ella na pume raki! (Come to drink Raki!)
Olive Farmer and Aktina Pempti
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