Hold on to your hats, this may be a long one…
Getting away from my desk is hard.
My weekly problem-solving column in The Telegraph gardening supplement has run more or less without a break since 2001 (apart from some jiggerypokery around Christmas times) and involves a weighty e- and snail-mailbag.
I endeavour to keep things as up to the minute as possible, and juggling the weekly deadline with other commitments and with various speaking engagements, as well as coping with my natural gardener’s reluctance to miss anything interesting on my own patch, means that traditional planned holidays are rare.
But last week I got away – walking in the gorgeous gorges and mountainous mountains of Western Crete. It was an organised thing and given both the time of year – wild flower prime time – and the fact that it was advertised in glossy inserts in the broadsheets, anonymity was not guaranteed. But thankfully I was not asked too often to identify the staggeringly prolific and beautiful flowers we passed on our walks, which was just as well.
There was a confusing array of yellow daisies that could have been erigerons, anthemis, argyranthemums or whatever, and the hills were alive (as the cliché goes) with varieties of phlomis, sage, spartium, euphorbia, cistus, little magenta gladioli, scarlet poppies and pink mallows. I probably disgraced myself by being scarcely able to contain my excitement – Greece was always hot, beige and dusty whenever I visited it in the past.
The convivial bunch that made up our small walking group was very tolerant, and, in snatched moments, I buried my head in an illustrated book to help ease the frustration of near-impossible plant identification (for the record, the best paperback by far on the subject is a relatively new one, but with the ex£hange rate up the spout, it costs almost £20: Wildflowers of Crete by Vangelis Papiomitogilou).
And then there was the food, which has moved up a culinary notch or three since the ubiquitous stuffed tomatoes and moussaka of the 1980s, when I was last in Greece.
Apart from grilled, roast or otherwise lengthily cooked and very bony goat (absolutely delicious, particularly oven-baked with cheese), we mostly ate wonderfully simple veg dishes – many of them involving those waxy, sweet-flavoured oblong potatoes (‘Nicola’, I think).
So I came home determined to work harder on my allotment. I discovered this evening that its perfectly possible to imitate horta (wild ‘greens’ – dandelions, wild spinach, anything edible really, cooked ’til soft, and seasoned with fresh lemon juice, deep-green aromatic Cretan olive oil, salt and pepper) by cooking and appropriately seasoning the chopped, chunky bolting heads – thickened stems and all – of last season’s perpetual spinach.
Finally, a plug for the company that organized our holiday ‘on the ground’ and masterminded our walks.
Strata Tours, is an Anglo-Cretan outfit (she’s Anglo, he’s Cretan) of great charm and efficiency. Anyone visiting Western Crete in spring or autumn (the only really possible walking times in Crete) who wants a guided mountain walk should contact them and they will try to fix things up. Our guide was an Everton-supporting retired emigré called Bob who was well versed in Cretan culture and history, as well as being an (extremely excitable) bird-spotting nut, which was a definite plus.
As my son used to write repeatedly in his primary school news book: It was fun.