For me, starting to write a new novel is a bit like opening up the fridge to work out what ingredients you have and what you’re going to make for dinner. If you start to find out about the food of an area, it takes you by the hand and introduces you to the people, the culture and the history of a place, and the stories within its walls. The Honey Farm on the Hill was no exception.
When I first thought about Cretan food, I imagined Greek salad: shiny, black olives, juicy, red tomatoes, crisp cucumber, crunchy red onion and crumbling, sharp and creamy feta cheese. That’s where my journey began – with goats and cheese – but where it ended up was totally different.
Arriving at a Cretan villa for a week’s research trip with the family was like house-moving day! Within minutes of getting the bags through the big ornate metal gate and deciding who was sleeping where, my three young teenagers had opened the French doors leading to the covered terrace and were in the pool, shrieking with delight, with the backdrop of a rugged mountain beyond. Night fell on our first evening there and we sat and watched the sky darken to the colour of blue-black ink. A big silvery moon silhouetted the mountain outline and I knew then that the mountain was going to become a lead character in my new book.
Still on the trail of goats and cheese, we drove up to a mountainside town the following day where we had the most wonderful lunch in a rustic restaurant. The children ate large, meaty sausages cooked on a glowing barbecue on the restaurant terrace, which was covered in unruly greenery, and I had the most wonderful stuffed peppers I’ve ever eaten. As we ate, I watched a man lead a billy goat and two nanny goats down the middle of the winding mountain road and I felt I had discovered the real Crete. The shops in town were full of brightly coloured pottery and tablecloths that I couldn’t resist bringing home. We visited a wonderful museum set in a cool, whitewashed house and learnt about the history of the area and about crocheting – a popular pastime for the elderly women of the village, which they manage to do with no glasses! It’s all to do with the Cretan diet, I was told. The healthiest in the Mediterranean. So what is it that makes the diet so healthy? The cheese? The wine?
To find out more I booked onto a cookery course in the traditional village of Vamos. Stepping down into the stone barn that housed the old olive press, our cookery teacher, Koula Varydakis-Xanialakis, met us and confirmed that, yes, the Cretan diet was the healthiest in the Mediterranean. She proudly told us the ages of her mother, grandmother and aunts, and of their exceptional good health. The secret? Just a little meat, lots of vegetables, lots and lots of olive oil and, of course, Cretan herbs. I had found the heart of the Cretan kitchen and my story was beginning to change direction.
With a little more digging I found exactly what I was looking for: Dictamus or Dittany, the miraculous herb of Crete. Its affectionate name is ‘erontas’, meaning love, and it grows only in Crete, high up in hard-to-reach places in the mountains. It has amazing medicinal qualities and is said to be a gift from Zeus for his upbringing there. Aristotle said that, if wounded by an arrow, wild goats would search out dittany, which would eject the arrow from the body. It is also known as an aphrodisiac and a token of love, and young men seek it out on high mountains and in deep gorges. In addition, it’s one of the wild herbs that gives Cretan honey its unique and fabulous flavour. Right then and there I knew I’d found the star of my story, and I knew the mountain I woke up to every day had a tale to tell.
Every morning I sat out on the terrace of our villa, surrounded by pomegranate trees and oranges hanging from the branches like golden Christmas baubles, whilst my early-bird son swam in the pool and a local cat kept me company. In the distance was my mountain. And there I began to write. Not the story I set out to tell, but the one that I’d discovered in Crete, in the heart of the mountains.
Our villa became our home. We were regulars at the local taverna, where children played and babies were cuddled as the daily specials were prepared by all the family. We tried the chochlioi, snails which the grandfather had picked and prepared for us. The smoked pork, apaki, was my favourite and the calamari was a big hit with us all too. Each meal ended with a generous glass of Rakı, or homemade rose liqueur, which was amazing! But there was one very special meal I will always remember from our time in Crete.
We’d been sent up into the mountains to meet Stelios, a chef who had turned his back on city life to set up a restaurant called Dounias Traditional Cretan Food, where all the food is home-grown and cooked over open fires. Stelios let us explore his farm and his kitchen. He introduced us to the Cretan cows on the mountain and poured us glasses of his homemade wine. Eating in his restaurant felt like being invited into his world and welcomed into his home.
I left Crete with a case full of dried herbs and a copy of Koula, my cookery teacher’s, book, Foods of Crete, which she’d signed with a message: “Be more like the people of Crete, use more olive oil!” I left feeling that I was leaving a new home, but that I’d discovered a story of love.
My new book tells that story…
The Honey Farm on the Hill is set in a small mountain town in Crete called Vounoplagia, which means ‘mountainside’. It’s the story of a woman with an empty nest when her teenager leaves home. With no clear future for herself, she goes back to Vounoplagia, where she first fell in love. Working on a honey farm there, she soon discovers the mountain holds just as many secrets as she does. But to find a happy ending of her own, she needs to unlock those secrets, and uncover the magic hidden right in the heart of the mountain.
The Honey Farm on the Hill by Jo Thomas will be available in paperback and ebook from 10th August.