I knew this was going to be a different trip. It had been 5 years since our last trip to Greece and so much had happened since then. The highlights? Having a second child and opening up Philhellene late in 2008.

Learning to love Greek food and wine more than ever before was a by-product of the latter. We set off on our holiday, knowing that we were heading towards a great culinary adventure. I knew exactly what I wanted when I arrived at our place in Athens (Glyfada), to visit the local fourno and buy some fresh tiropita, mbougatsa and seeded karveli (round loaf) followed by kaimaki ice cream, a beautiful blend of vanilla and ‘stretchy’ mastiha.

If I remember correctly, whichever eatery we visited in Greece, if there was anything mastiha on the menu, I had to sample it! The only other place I’d had mastiha dessert was actually at Philhellene back in Melbourne, where we’ve been blessed with the culinary skills of Susie and her delicious creamy mastiha cheesecake and Philip’s wonderful Mastiha Panacotta. How did you think I felt when he told me yesterday that he’s playing around with mastiha to create an ice-cream for our menu? Super excited is an understatement!

I knew Crete was around the corner and I was getting very excited at the prospect of visiting Lyrarakis winery and also meeting the team at Zaharioudakis winery. Eastern Crete was our base, just out of Sitia, in the area of Palaikastro. Hiring a car on such a big island is a must and I’m so glad we did. We were able to drive to the most remote villages and eat at a number of family run taverns. We met the owners at many of these establishments and heard many stories, including how they had caught the fish we were having for lunch with their own hands just that morning! I recall trying the most wonderful chargrilled gavro (Greek anchovies) at a tavern called ‘Votsalo’ at Kouremenos beach, a famous spot for windsurfers. It put a smile on my face seeing the kids eating the local delicacy, hohlious mboumbouristous, snails pan fried in olive oil and fresh rosemary.

The Lyrarakis winery, a 20 minute drive south of Herakleion in Alagni, is famous for reviving grapes close to extinction. There we met the chief wine maker, George Lyrarakis after numerous long distance phone calls and we were so happy to immediately connect and feel like we were meeting family! We tasted many indigenous varieties, most of which we offer exclusively at Philhellene like Kotsifali (red), Vilana and Plyto (white) as well as Dafni, a rich white that will be arriving to our restaurant very soon. We finished off the tasting with Malvasia of Crete, an exceptional sweet wine.

Bart Lyrarakis is George’s cousin and in charge of exports – it was wonderful to hear from him of all the interest in these Cretan wines from other countries, a positive sign for exports of Greek produce in these times of such economic turmoil. We ate some lovely local delicacies like Ntako and Graviera Anogeion and we left Lyrarakis winery reassured that our relationship will continue to thrive.

The next day we drove to Zaharioudakis winery, in the Mesara region. When we got there we were astounded by the location and architecture of the cellar door and vineyard. It is located at the top of the hill ‘Orthi Petra’ at an altitude of 500 metres. The owner, Stelios Zaharioudakis and his family put on a wonderful spread during the tasting and showed us around the impressive winery. All wines are organic and in particular interest to us was the Vidiano variety (white), another indigenous grape that Stelio, searched high and low for. He found it by chance while having raki at a kafeneio in central Crete and talking to some locals! Since then the grape has blossomed into a wonderful white wine, available as a variety of its own as well as combined with sauvignon blanc. Don’t be surprised if you also see Zacharioudaki wines at Philhellene soon.

Overall, this was a different and amazing holiday…a bit of work and a bit of play in the Greek sunshine, the best of both worlds!