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Rethymnon, Crete - this diet offers a guilt-free vacation

© By Tom Douglas
 
Agreco Hotel

Organic fare grown and served at the Agreco model farm gives new meaning to the word 'ambrosia'

"Just exactly what do you mean by destructive tourism?" I asked Judy Smith as she offered me another helping of owl. The Grecotel marketing manager pushed her glasses back up on her nose, a slight frown crinkling her forehead. "A good example - or rather a very bad example - is an archaeological site like the Acropolis in Athens," she replied in a clipped English accent. "Millions of people have trodden on it and now no archaeologist could find anything of any worth there." Agreco Hotel
     That was one of the reasons, she explained, leading to a decision by Grecotel S.A., the biggest hotel chain in Greece, to build a model farm in the hills above Rethymnon, the third-largest town in Crete, situated on the north coast of the island halfway between the two other major communities of Iraklion and Chania.
     "Our aim was to try to avoid ruining something that is really virginal," said this ex-pat Brit who has made Crete her home for a number of years. "By offering the farm, we're saying to tourists: 'Look, instead of going into villages and annoying people, you can visit a farm and learn something about Crete - about our food and agriculture, our wild animals and our way of living.' That way we can avoid at least some of the instances of people sticking cameras in the faces of little old village ladies sitting on their front steps making lace."
     By the way, that helping of "owl" Judy proffered isn't as off-putting or as ecologically irresponsible as it sounds. All over Greece they serve a delicious concoction that is perhaps the most representative dish of the famous healthy Cretan diet. It's a crisp-dried rusk made from barley and rye, topped with grated tomato, Feta cheese, oregano and olive oil. It's called owl - or koukouvagia in Greek - because the large doughnut-shaped rusk resembles the eye of that nocturnal bird of prey.
     My visit to the farm, whose name "Agreco" is a combination of the words "agriculture" and "Grecotel", was the icing on the cake - better make that the olive oil on the salad - of the healthiest vacation of a lifetime. The 40-hectare Agreco and some 150 local farms supply fresh and healthy organic fare to the seven resort hotels in the Grecotel chain on Crete.
     "The demand for organic food outgrew Agreco's ability to produce it, so we embarked on a campaign to get other farms to follow suit," said Judy. "It was a little difficult at first because it's expensive initially to switch over to organic farming, but once we demonstrated our willingness to buy all the produce they grew, the farmers embraced the idea. Now our hotels all over Greece have adopted the practice."
     A bonus for Grecotel's clientele in Rethymnon is that they can spend the day at the model farm, which is a replica of a 17th century agricultural operation and mini-village. The buildings are constructed of Alpha stone from the nearby village of the same name and the complex also includes a church, a village square and a store selling such delights as olive oil, thyme honey, wine, traditional jam and glazed fruit. Agreco Hotel
     Agreco is a showcase of organic, environmentally friendly, traditional farming methods: a donkey-driven oil press, water-operated flour mill, a giant vat for grape crushing by foot and a hand-operated winepress. The ground flour is turned into bread baked in a giant wood-fired oven. The gardens produce a plethora of organic salad greens, fruit and vegetables and the adjacent meadows keep the farm's bees busy collecting nectar that will become part of the island's output of famed thyme honey.
     Visitors to the farm can take part in whatever activity is going on that day. They can emulate Lucille Ball's hilarious "I Love Lucy" television skit by stomping grapes to their hearts' content, lead the donkey on its round-in-circles chore of olive pressing, get involved up to their elbows preparing bread dough for the oven or roll hand-made beeswax candles to be lit in the small stone church in honour of the local St. Nicolas.
     Visiting children will thrill at the opportunity to come nose-to-nose with a wide variety of animals that make up a miniature zoo on the farm, some of them indigenous to Crete, others imported from around the world.
     "It all started with a pair of native kri kri goats," Judy explained. "They're an endangered species and a couple of them were found injured up in the mountains. Someone brought them to the forestry commission vet near here to be nursed back to health and they became so domesticated that we decided to keep them."
     Since the pair of goats (one male and one female) were true to their randy nature, there was soon a whole enclosure of their offspring. Word got around that Agreco would look after stray or unwanted animals, and part of the property gradually became a mini Noah's Ark.
     After a busy day down on the farm, visitors, for a comparatively modest fee, can stay for a 34-course dinner served on a huge open-air patio that offers a panoramic view of the lush Cretan countryside.
     And for the brave (or should that be foolhardy), the meal ends with an offering of the fiery tsikoudia, more commonly known as raki, the name that stuck after the end of the Turkish occupation of Greece. Distilled from the residue left over from the pressing of the grapes for wine, raki is the equivalent of North America's white lightning. Legend has it that raki was the potion that drove Ulysses and his crew off-course on their way home from Troy, but that's another story.

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Lat: 35.3° N      Lon: 25.2° E


Tom Douglas is an Oakville-based entertainment columnist, travel writer and author. Check out his books at: http://tomdouglas.typepad.com/tom_douglas/books/

Photo Credits
Courtesy of the Grecotel S.A. hotel chain


If you go
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rethymno
Places of worship: http://www.yellowpages.com/crete-il/churches
Fiction: http://www.cretetravel.com/Books_Crete/Fiction.htm
Visit Greece: http://www.visitgreece.gr/portal/site/eot/
Grecotel S.A.: http://www.grecotel.com/

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