Crete Cook Cultivates Sustainable Sanctuaries

From foodtank.com by Brian Frederick
Crete Cook Cultivates Sustainable Sanctuaries

This year, Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries (CCS) is celebrating 20 years of operation in Crete, Greece. CCS is an educational program that organizes award-winning seminar series, focusing on culture, nature, sustainable organic agriculture, and traditional cuisine. Since its founding, the program has hosted more than 3,000 students, teachers, researchers, and journalists. These seminars include visits to historic sites, discussions with local producers, and cooking lessons.

Nikki Rose is the Founder and Director of CCS, a Greek-American professional chef, and an author. Much like CCS, her cookbook highlights Cretan cuisine, history, and lifestyle. Food Tank had the opportunity to discuss Chef Rose’s career and CCS.

Food Tank (FT): How did your organization get started and what are its goals?

Nikki Rose (NR): When I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1994, the food world was rapidly changing to automated systems. The result was a loss of appreciation for the culinary arts and quality food. Many people who devoted their lives to supplying and preparing culinary masterpieces—small-scale farmers, cheesemakers, beekeepers, bakers, chefs—were being pushed out by industrial agriculture and food production. In reaction, I started organizing seminars in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. I invited chefs, including Certified Master Chefs and Pastry Chefs, to teach and demonstrate their work, as well as organic farmers, chocolate, beer and winemakers to tell us about where our food and beverages come from and how to produce them. It was an interactive way to exchange info and rekindle interest in our food sources.

Nikki Rose (left) with student. Photo Credit Nikki Rose.

During that time, the Mediterranean Diet was a hot topic. Many chefs, including those at large hotel groups, were required to know about it and incorporate dishes into their menus. Since I’m a Greek-American Chef and the premise of the Mediterranean Diet originated in Crete, Greece, professional chefs, doctors, and nutritionists asked me to organize seminars focusing on the diet. But as a chef, I didn’t want to host a “diet seminar,” especially about Crete in an American hotel with chandeliers. So, I invited those professionals to join me in Crete to learn the bigger picture that I had experienced—that the so-called “good traditional diets” are inextricably linked to strong supportive communities, respect for nature, and traditional, sustainable agricultural practices.

As soon as I extended that invitation, I knew I was crazy to think that Type A pro chefs and doctors would enjoy hanging out with shepherds in the mountains, waiting for the cheese making process to conclude! It was a risk to bring people from the fast-paced world of kitchen deliveries, mega supermarkets, and generic hotels into a world of artisan food production that requires a lot of time and patience to achieve excellent results. Thankfully for me, they loved the experiences.

Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries “School Without Walls” evolved with a tremendous amount of effort, including searching for the most knowledgeable and passionate teachers on this island. It is an award-winning program for best practices in Responsible/Sustainable Travel. Teachers in the CCS Network include resident university professors, archaeologists, botanists, ecologists, herbalists, mountaineers, professional chefs, fishers, organic farmers-producers, vintners, artists-musicians, and sustainable tourism/community-based tourism practitioners. We organize a range of dynamic accredited seminars for academic institutions, health and travel professionals, and serious culture-food enthusiasts. This year, CCS is celebrating our 20th Anniversary! We’re also working on a documentary about these issues.

Food preparation. Photo Credit Nikki Rose.

Our seminar attendees also learn that Crete is not exempt from the adverse impacts of so-called “modernization” and that the traditional trades, cuisine, and resulting health benefits we learn about are at risk. Real, sustained action and education help to reduce and even reverse some of those risks. That’s what Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries Educational Network is all about.

FT: You promote a Cretan diet. What is it and in what ways is it good for you?

NR: I summarize this in my book, “Crete: The Roots of the Mediterranean Diet” enjoying the benefits of one of the world’s healthiest cuisines wherever you live.

The famous traditional healthy cuisine of Crete is not a phenomenon. It’s a matter of respecting the land and sea; the gifts nature provides us. Every chef is only as great as their ingredients. The foundation of the Mediterranean Diet concept is fresh, organic food and a clean environment. So many people have visited me in Crete, looking for secret ingredients in our cuisine that they can bring home with them. But in many cases, they need not search any further than their local resources for wonderful, sustainably produced and harvested food. The benefits of traditional Cretan cuisine are more than ingredients. The recipe begins with conservation and ends with enjoying flavors of the season with good company.

FT: You mentioned the seminars CCS organizes. What do these seminars focus on and why?

NR: Food is the window I use to tell the stories of our communities, culture, and natural heritage. There is much to discover here in Crete, with over 4,000 years of cultural and culinary history. There is also much to protect. Mass tourism, unsustainable development, industrial agriculture, and processed food have chipped away at what many of us cherish, including close community bonds and fresh, local, safe food. Beautiful villages are abandoned because their traditional way of life/barter system is no longer viable. Small-scale farmers and fishers have given up their traditional trades to become construction workers, housekeepers, or bartenders at resort hotels. Beautiful, traditional bakeries are boarded up or replaced by burger and pizza bars for tourists. None of this “modernization” supports the cultural or culinary heritage of the island of Crete. Granted, few people here want to live entirely in the past. However, development in some regions of Crete has been too rapid and unregulated, posing a significant risk to our environment, health, and preferred, commonsense, sustainable way of life.

Thankfully, there are still untouched regions of Crete that require our full attention to protect for generations to come. So, my focus first and foremost is on celebrating the work of people in Crete that have devoted their lives to protect our cultural and natural heritage. To help provide tangible support to people protecting the priceless things some of us take for granted, that could be lost forever due to greed and negligence. Through our seminars, students have a rare opportunity to meet some of the stewards of our heritage to discover the importance of this interrelationship and apply that knowledge wherever they live, to help enrich their lives and their communities.

For instance, many small-scale organic farmers abandoned their villages for what they perceived as a better life in industry and commerce in metro areas. Some of them realized that life was not for them or they lost those jobs due to our economic crisis. But to “return to the land,” people need to find ways to make a living in this rapidly changing world that does not always support or respect farmers as they deserve. By creating a culture of respect for our stewards of the land—the providers of our good, safe food sources—we can work together on solutions, including policy changes. We cannot live without safe food providers and a clean environment for them to work in, lest anyone forget!

FT: Many of your organization’s seminars include trips to historic sites.  How do you tie history into cuisine?

NR: Great question. Our past can teach us so much about our present and future, lessons learned and lessons ignored. Every seminar includes classes about our history, beginning with the Minoan civilization—how they lived, what they produced, ate, and drank.  Also, their beliefs, including a great respect for nature. Some seminars include private tours of archaeological sites where excavation is in progress, which is a rare and wonderful opportunity, so we can see what our ancestors were cultivating, collecting, and cooking. We also discover how raiders, traders, and invaders have shaped our cultural culinary heritage through the ages.

Visit to archaeological site. Photo Credit Nikki Rose.

Unsustainable agricultural practices are nothing new, and we can see how ancient civilizations either adapted or disappeared. Wheat and barley cultivation are two examples of deforestation, depleted water tables, and depleted soil, resulting in devastated societies. Around the world today, we can add toxic chemicals, toxic seeds, human-induced climate change, and pollution to that list, resulting in a much more serious recipe for disaster.  

On the bright side, more and more people are coming together to respect Gaia and share their knowledge with the local and global community. This includes the amazing teachers in our CCS Network, Peliti.gr, your Food Tank, Seed Freedom Movement, Pesticide Action Network, Center for Responsible Technology, Environmental Working Group, Food Democracy, Moms Across America, and many other groups around the world. For more on Minoan food connections, see my interview in Archaeology Magazine.

FT: You focus on nutrition, biodiversity, and sustainability. How do you teach these and what have you learned along the way?

NR: All of these fields are interrelated. We cannot have “good nutrition” without respecting and protecting our primary supplier, Nature, and without supporting the dedicated stewards/distributors of what we need to exist and thrive.

When people practicing or teaching in nutrition and healthcare fields asked me to organize seminars for them in Crete, they envisioned we would have a lot of cooking classes and possibly visit a market for ingredients. Yes, cooking is absolutely an important part of nutrition education. However, I had to explain to them the benefits of also learning the bigger picture. We will also hike in the mountains to learn about our edible medicinal wild plants and visit organic farmers, heirloom seed savers, vintners, and olive oil producers at their farms and factories. Everything we eat or drink has a story and the best people to tell that story are the producers. If we have the time and opportunity to meet them, whether that be at farmers’ markets or a seminar in Crete, then we have a better understanding of how crucial their work is to our well being.

What I learn from students is that their education back home might not be adequate for current or future careers. I stay in contact with many of our previous students and hear that they have formed alliances with local organic farmers, fought for organic food in their cafeterias and communities, or went on to work in food policy. Their learning experiences in Crete had more significance than I imagined. Students have found very innovative and effective ways to replicate what they experienced back home. That didn’t occur to me when I founded CCS…it just grew organically. Thanks to social media, I frequently hear from many of them, requesting advice about new projects or research they are conducting. So we are collaborating on solutions long after they return home, which is wonderful.

FT: What are some of the obstacles you have encountered?

NR: When I started designing my seminars over 20 years ago, I did not realize that some of my classes would be “controversial” to some academic institutions and healthcare professionals. For instance, offering classes with a botanist and a biologist/traditional herbalist sparked a huge debate with one university because they did not want their students to meet anyone involved in “unproven science.” My argument was that if I completely omitted our crucial botanical heritage from a tour to Crete, I was omitting a huge chapter of our heritage. And their students would not learn everything they need for their future careers.

CCS students at local farm. Photo Credit Nikki Rose.

The university’s real concern was not obvious to me at the time. Some academic institutions funded in part by Big Ag and Big Pharma may not want students to be informed about anything other than their “products.” I think those students are at a disadvantage if they are not conducting research outside of their curriculum. Thankfully, I convinced the university to include those classes by reluctantly revising the course descriptions to a fluffy title “cooking with herbs.” Today, these lessons are the highlight of our study tours—fun botanical hikes in our gorgeous mountains and a lot of valuable information about the benefits of herbs not only in cuisine but also in teas and natural medicine.

When I spoke at the U.N. New York conference on Cretan Nutrition, my focus was “Conservation is our best recipe.” No matter how many wonderful products we have wherever we live, to benefit from them in our daily lives and for generations to come we need to protect and celebrate our providers and stewards first. With heightened awareness of the issues, we can increase solutions and actions for food security, safety, justice, and access—basic human rights.

Aside from our annual study tours and private group seminars/workshops, we also organize a few seminars for adults that focus on our culture, nature, and cuisine. Our program this July is in collaboration with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsible Travel. More info is here.

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