Agapi Stavrakaki was born in Anogia, a mountain village on the island of Crete famous for producing fine produce and excellent musicians.
Decades before she would open Raeti, a delightful restaurant in Athens’ Ambelokoipi neighborhood which pays homage to her island home, a 10-year-old Agapi worked by her grandmother’s side at her family’s vineyard in Anogia, cooking for the workers harvesting grapes and making wine. She and the other women would prepare huge quantities of food in enormous kettles. Despite being cooked in bulk, the food was always traditional, fresh and tasty – Cretans have high standards!
Before continuing with Agapi’s story, a few things about Cretan cooking: One of the most legendary of Greece’s regional cuisines, it makes use of all the simple ingredients that are offered by nature with an open hand. Its magic lies in the exquisite quality of these ingredients, and in the cooking methods that rely on only a few things in order to bring out the best flavors. Take, for instance, arni ofto, a classic lamb recipe from Crete. It requires just two things: Crete-raised lamb and good sea salt. Then you roast the lamb in the oven (ideally a wood-burning one).
When you taste it, you’ll realize it’s one of the best roast lambs you’ll ever have. Through the meat, you will actually be savoring all the herbs this lamb was fed on an island with over 1,700 edible greens and herbs. Traditional Cretan cuisine is really all about what is, right now, one of the most contemporary trends in gastronomy worldwide: high quality seasonal ingredients, cooked with respect and simplicity in order to be nutritious, comforting and full of flavor.
And now, back to Agapi, who continued developing her talent and love for cooking and, at the age of 20, opened her first taverna, in Heraklion, Crete. At Agrimia (which means wild beasts), she served up her delicious food accompanied by live music, played by two musician friends with whom she grew up with: Vassilis Skoulas and Antonis Xylouris (nicknamed Psarantonis, today a famous composer in Greece). Agrimia was packed every night until Agapi lost her lease when the landlord decided he could replicate the spot’s success on his own. So, she picked up her 5-year-old son and moved with him to Athens’ Ambelokipi neighborhood. Talented, dynamic, independent and capable of achieving anything she sets her mind to, in the 25 years since her first culinary hit, Agapi has seen two more successes.
In Ambelokipi, a densely built area in central Athens where many Cretans who’ve arrived in the capital have chosen to stay, she and Psarantonis opened Erofili on Panormou, a central street. It thrived, and after three or four years, they moved to a much bigger venue on Patision Avenue. But with live music always fuel for Greeks to stay up till morning, the long hours eventually wore Agapi down. After a lot of thought (and a short career change as a seamstress), she decided to feed her love for cooking by opening Raeti, a smaller place right next to her house, with more forgiving hours for a single mother. The space is reminiscent of Crete in every way: rustic stone walls, photos of Cretan musicians and lots of mantinades (traditional Cretan rhyming couplets) hanging on the walls. The kitchen is large, open and sparkling clean. You’ll be surprised how everything is kept in order, considering this is a one-woman-show. Every day for the past 12 years (except Mondays and August holidays back to Anogia, when she’s closed) Agapi has cooked all the dishes herself.
Agapi arrives early each morning and gets cooking, then starts serving at noon. As you enter, there’s a glass window to your right with all the daily dishes on display: stuffed tomatoes and peppers, a hogget (older lamb that’s not quite yet considered mutton) stew in a light tomato sauce, baked sea bream topped with sliced tomatoes, rooster in tomato sauce, okra and other seasonal delights – at least seven different choices on top of the regular menu. Agapi’s son, now a grown man, helps in the serving, and the portions are big and the prices – a full meal with drinks run at about 15 euros a head – will put a smile on your face.
Almost all her ingredients are shipped from her home village of Anogia, including the lamb, goat and snails. Agapi made us a salad with perfectly boiled stamnagathi (a variety of chicory only grown on Crete) dressed in beautiful extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Her sarikopites (spiral pies) are stuffed with Cretan xinomyzithra (a fresh, creamy and slightly sour sheep’s and goat’s milk cheese). Deep fried to perfection and remarkably light, they are heavenly plain or drizzled with honey and cinnamon, as they are often served on Crete. Her rice, tomato and onion-stuffed grape leaves with a side of yogurt were some of the best we’ve tasted.
Then came the snail platter, chochlii boubouristi, a favorite Cretan dish that is not so easy to pronounce if you’re not Greek, but definitely easy to enjoy with a few glasses of local tsikoudia (a grape spirit similar to the Italian grappa). The snails are sautéed in olive oil with plenty of sea salt, rosemary and vinegar. It’s a beloved meze in Greece, and a great excuse to eat a whole loaf of bread, which you dunk in the dish’s juices. Last came the hogget in the light tomato sauce sided with spaghetti and topped with xiro anthotyro (a salty, hard Cretan cheese commonly grated onto pasta dishes). Like so many of Agapi’s dishes, it was hearty and comforting.
Eating and spending time in Raeti feels like being on Greece’s largest island, particularly on nights when Cretan musicians pop in to play live. The clientele is made up of regulars, many from the neighborhood who take out food almost daily, and Cretans who live in Athens and are happy to drive from the other side of the city to eat here. Agapi takes special orders as well for more complex traditional dishes like gamopilafo (a type of risotto cooked in hogget or goat broth, and served at weddings or other festive occasions).
In August, Agapi shuts down the taverna, as is common in Athens, and sets off to Anogia. After a few days of relaxing, she starts feeling uneasy. People who are used to working all their lives just can’t stop. She finds small tasks to complete around her island home, cleaning, helping a friend, doing some field work and then, after there’s nothing left for her to do, she comes back to Athens, to the warmth of her kitchen to do what she knows best: feeding a crowd.
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