Feasting & Fasting in Crete

Some cookbooks appeal to our eyes, trying to tempt us through artful photography; others have such interesting texts they have us reading all the way to the sales desk. "Feasting and Fasting in Crete: Delicious Mediterranean Recipes" by Diana Farr Louis meets both these criteria. The light-drenched olive branch on its cover demands that we riffle through the pages. The attractive, user-friendly layout lures us further with sepia-tinted photos of people, places and markets encountered by the author on her travels through Crete in search of recipes and culinary lore. But sooner or later, it is her stories that grab our attention: sheep-shearing rituals, the Byzantine background of a festive sausage, meals served by monks to19th century explorers, and the pastry-making tips shared by country women and sophisticated chefs are just a few of the subjects she explores.

Belonging to the Elizabeth David/Claudia Roden school of cookbook writers, Farr Louis prefaces her recipes with a short history of the island’s eating habits from Minoan times to the present. Besides touching on possible Arabic, Venetian and Ottoman influences, she also describes the "discovery" of what has become the world-renowned Cretan diet. Based on staples like wild greens and vegetables, pulses and grains, olive oil, and cheese, combined in imaginative ways and seasoned with fresh herbs, Crete’s dishes are as good to eat as they are healthy. These doses of history and nutrition are administered with a light hand, while the author introduces us to many of the wonderful cooks who opened their kitchens and, often, their hearts in the course of a lesson in preparing fresh pasta, wedding pilaf, Easter cheese tarts, or Smyrna-style meatballs.

But no matter how attractive a cookbook is to look at or fun to read, it still has to pass the taste test. Are the recipes good and do they work? Again, "Feasting and Fasting in Crete" gets high marks. There are simple dishes for every day, such as chicken roasted with whole lemons, baked spinach crepes, or chickpea fritters; a wealth of recipes in the rich fasting tradition without meat, eggs, fish, or dairy products that will make vegetarians happy, including a mouth-watering repertoire of Lenten desserts sweetened by raisins, walnuts, honey and brandy. For holidays and special occasions, it will be hard to choose from among such treats as fish with artichokes, eggplant stuffed with vegetables, cheese and olives, and pork with celery with a wine and tomato sauce instead of the familiar egg-lemon seasoning.

In short, a copy of "Feasting and Fasting in Crete" by your stove or bedside is the next best thing to an island holiday.