Crete on the Half Shell

by Byron Ayanoglu
ISBN: 0002006359

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A Review of: Crete on the Half Shell
by Olga Stein

Crete on the Half Shell is many things-travel memoir, account of the author's reacquaintanceship with the more and less savoury aspects of his Greek heritage, tale of the mad, mad, mad world of restaurateuring in Crete, as well as what amounts to a series of well-written episodes of watch your favorite ego-maniacal chef scour an island for just the right ingredients and then prepare a gastronomical wonder of a meal', guaranteed to drive you to the fridge repeatedly in doomed attempts at finding something to satisfy the powerful cravings stirred up by Crete on the Half Shell.
Greek-born Montrealer, Byron Ayanoglu returns to Crete, seeking a friendlier clime to retire in and rediscover his Greekness'. At the airport in Crete, he runs into Theo, the aforementioned imperious chef, famous ex-restaurateur, who practically commandeers Ayanoglu into assisting him with his new Greek restaurant scheme. Theo's plans don't materialize, but he does treat Ayanoglu to some marvelous cooking in the interim. One meal is prepared as follows:

The pumpkin was boiled gently, pured and set in the strainer to drain out its excess water. Ginger, nutmeg, and a drop of sweet ewe's-mild cream were added, along with a tiny sprinkle of salt. The red cabbage was boiled and chopped. Tart apple, green onion, and fennel leaves were added, as well as a light dressing of cider vinegar and safflower oil. The potatoes were cooked and tossed with chopped fresh rosemary and arugula and sweet butter from the same ewe's cream.
Meanwhile, quince was poached and added to dried bread, raisins, chopped onion, slices of kumquat, sage, and goose fat to become the stuffing. As the goose roasted in the oven, Theo's patented watermelon-ginger chutney was dished out into a shallow plate to temper and reassume its subtle but meaningful range of flavours.

Between cooking, eating, and deal making, Byron takes himself and the reader on excursions to various towns and famous locales. He is strong on describing places. Here he is on Rthymno, in southern Crete:

[The Venetians] built fortresses around the best harbours, and delightfully comfortable towns outside the walls of the fortifications. They did it at Heraklion and Chania, where the based their power; but they reserved their most charming legacy for Rthymno. There they built a stupendous town-sized fortress on the site of the ancient seafront acropolis, and on its periphery, like a garland around the beefy neck of a prizefighter, they sculpted a flowery set of connected neighbourhoods, with dainty, tall houses inside courtyards on a maze of narrow roads and alleyways.

While living in a room with a view in Mario, in the south of Crete, Byron once again becomes entangled in a restaurant venture, this time with two couples and a photojournalist friend of his. The plan is to open a curry house that would serve traditional fare to Cretans and a more internationalized cuisine to tourists. This part of the book is particularly funny, as Ayanoglu describes how the partners weather one misfortune after another-money shortages, an earthquake, and the building's proprietor's rapacious grabs for a bigger share of future profits. Overcoming all adversity, they finally manage to open the restaurant, but are immediately forced to sell their interest after seven of the Crete's highest governing officials develop severe reactions to the spicy curry they sample at the opening night party. In the end, all of the partners are fortunate enough to recoup their capital, so that the book remains a lighthearted account of a time spent in Greece that turns out less idyllic than the narrator had planned for. Ayanoglu never loses his sense of humour, and his wit, when he isn't writing about Mr. Pete (the building owner) and his flatulence, is a subtle and generous disclosure of human strengths and failings. This book about food and Greece would make a lovely film.

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