This is the first post of several for my trip to the Greek Island of Crete earlier this year.
Social media is such a scary beautiful beast. On the one hand it is wonderfully amazing, connecting people that might otherwise never meet. And on the other hand it is, at least to me, so strange and a little bit scary for the exact same reasons. It is through Instagram and of course our shared love of photography, that I came to know Betty Liu of bettysliu.com. It all started with liking each other’s posts on and off. You know the game, a poke here, a poke there. Nothing serious. The typical social media friendship. But when we did finally meet up during Saveur Magazine Blog Awards last year when we were both nominated for best photography, it was immediately love, for me at least. So when Betty asked if I would be interested in going to Greece with her to teach a workshop, I immediately jumped on board. This was my very first time in Greece and I absolutely loved it.
Ah Milia, where to even begin to describe this gem of a retreat and the wonderful people who were unfailingly generous. This is not the Greece that is blasted all over Instagram. This is not the brightly white and blue beauty that we, rightly so, often associate with Greece. Instead this is the wild and moody mountains that I imagine the first, rather barbaric Cretans, saw and chose for their home. The lush green hills allowed the abundance required to sustain villages and the treacherous mountains proved to be perfect barriers to guard against invaders. Hidden deep in the folds of the Topolia gorge in the western foothills of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains), lovingly restored original 16th century stone settlements now make up an environmentally sustainable retreat. In the 20th century, the tiny settlement was used as a hideout by WWII resistance fighters but later abandoned and completely left in ruins. 30 years ago, the owners of Milia began to realize a dream to revitalize this area of Crete with a focus on preserving the traditional circle of life, both the human traditions and environmental history of the land. Livestock was reintroduced and terraces replanted with local herbs and greens. It is truly inspiring the love and respect that can be seen and felt in the restoration of this land. If you are looking for a holiday where you will reconnect with the most basic fundamentals of life, this is the place to go.
I had a pretty rough time traveling to Crete. A delayed flight from NY to Istanbul, with what was already a very tight layover, led to my luggage being stranded in Istanbul. Luckily it was easily traced and the airport promised that they would deliver it to Milia the next day. We were greeted at the airport with the excited faces of Eleni (The Foodie Corner) and Artemis (Wonderfoodland). These wonderful women, along with the help of Constantina, essentially organized the whole workshop. Betty and I literally just had to show up.
Betty and I arrived a day and a half before the workshop. We spent the extra time getting intimately familiar with the amazing food made by the chefs at Milia. You can see a detailed list of foods not to miss further down. But there was one dish in particular we had twice and would have had a third time if we’d had a chance. It was a play on a traditional dish with generous chunks of slow braised beef languishing in orzo that was cooked much like a risotto along with always seasonal tomatoes. The resulting dish was creamy, rich and so very comforting. We managed to wrangle the recipe from the chef, Panagiotis, and I definitely plan on adapting it for the home kitchen for a future post.
The first day at Milia was really what I want every trip to be, relaxing and revitalizing, with time spent leisurely exploring an area. We wandered around the property cutting flowers and branches for the workshop. On one of these walks we found a little building with the most gorgeous pink walls and well we just had to have an impromptu photo shoot in front of it. A few steps away from this little building was a shed like structure that we later discovered is used by the property to brew raki, the local anise-flavored alcohol served after every meal. We ended up conducting a little styling session with the attendees in this shed. The gorgeously grimy stone floors and creaky wood doors that allowed that elusive slither of light were absolutely perfect for creating those luscious shadows that I love so much. It is finding these kinds of unexpected little gems that I love about shooting on location. Light is an ever changing animal, with its accompanying temperament and frustrations. But the challenge of the unplanned forces me to learn to be a better observer and photographer. And when you do get a shot that you love, it is that much more rewarding.
On the first day of the workshop, our wonderful host, Tassos, took us on a hike of the property. We were treated to views of verdant hills set against the dramatic snow capped limestone White Mountains. Along the way we ran into Giorgos, one of the founders of Milia. He was only too happy to show us the many local herbs and greens that were reintroduced to the area. All around us were deep green olive trees, all the different wild mountain greens used by Milia’s kitchen, bright red poppies, wild asparagus, and even a few wild goats. I had such a great time getting to know each of the attendees and was really curious to see what they hoped to get out of the workshop. We had a wonderful mix of people with all levels of photography knowledge, from true beginners to those who are writing their own cookbooks.
What to eat:
I absolutely love the Mediterranean way of eating – a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Meals are eaten much later than usual with dinner often starting no earlier than 9PM. Unlike the food that many people associate with Greece – grilled meats, rich milk based sauces, the food at milia was wonderfully vegetable focused and vibrant. Meat definitely played a role, but rather than grilled it was usually slowly cooked in a large wood oven and always accompanied with lighter vegetarian friendly dishes. I also found the cheeses used to be super fresh and delicate rather than heavy. Each of the meals that we had during the workshop were memorable and I found myself with a growing list of dishes that I needed recipes for. In short, it was definitely the type of food that I could see myself eating regularly.
- Greek Yogurt: This is super cliché, but seriously there is a reason why Greek yogurt is known the world over.
- Fava Dip: Misleadingly named (at least for us Americans), this dip is NOT made with the green fava bean. Instead, it is an amazingly creamy yellow split pea dip, made very simply with water, onions, garlic, olive oil, and lemon. This might dip really should be just as well known as hummus. I wanted to lick the bowl but sadly had to share with the workshop attendees.
- Legumes: I was pleasantly surprised by the prevalence of beans in the food that we ate. In particular I really enjoyed the black eyed peas that were mixed into yogurty pasta salad and the gigante beans that were cooked to perfect creaminess in tomato sauce.
- Grape leaves: The grape leaves here were such a surprise for me. I find that this is something I never really seek out in the US. It isn’t something that I think about craving. But boy does fresh grape leaves just plucked off the plant make a difference.
- Pitas: Short for spanakopita, prasopita, katopita, etc – the pies of Greece. The pitas at Milia were flaky and never heavy. In particular make sure to try one made with wild mountain greens. The picking and cooking of these greens is a very traditional thing in Crete. The skills and knowledge are passed down the generations and it is said that this along with olive oil is the reason why the Cretan diet is one of the healthiest in the world.
- Malotira (mountain tea): The plant with its fuzzy leaves makes a very comforting herbal tea. It’s hard to describe the flavor, but could be described as a cross between chamomile and mint – very mild and super easy to enjoy mugs and mugs of.
During the workshop, our hosts at Milia were gracious enough to do two live demonstrations for us. One for the freshly made bread that is served at the restaurant and another for wild mountain greens pita. They patiently and rather happily stood for us as we circled around them with our cameras like a group of vultures. For me, food photography is always about the telling of the human stories behind dishes, the traditions and histories that drive the cultural development of a region.
In addition to the styling sessions and demonstrations, we also took two little trips away from Milia. The first was Elafonissi, a turquoise and pink sand beach about an hour drive from Milia. The rather moody early spring weather we experienced during the workshop meant bright sunny days interspersed with quick rain showers. The morning of our little excursion we woke to rain and we almost had to cancel this excursion. But with a little juggling of our schedule we pushed the trip to the afternoon with the hope that the rain would let up. Sure enough the skies cleared just as we pulled up at the beach. As anyone who shoots landscape knows, after a good rain is often when the most dramatic of clouds come out to play. An added bonus was that the beach was almost completely abandoned. Our second excursion was on the last full day of the workshop. We had the opportunity to visited a local beekeeper who produces thyme honey. I have always found bees and bee society to be incredibly fascinating so this was such a wonderful treat for me. I am finishing up on a popsicle recipe for later this week that involves the thyme honey I brought back with me along with several other ingredients that I loved in Greece.
I had such an amazing time on this trip getting to know old friends better and making so many new ones. All in all, I found so much inspiration here and returned to New York newly invigorated and even more in love with photography. I will definitely be returning to Crete and hope to leisurely explore the other parts of Greece in the coming years.