Cretan Pork and Chestnut Stew

This week I read an interview with the subject of Joni Mitchell’s song: Cary. You know, the one that takes place in Matala, Crete. Cary apparently is the long lost mean old daddy of the song. So there they were, the song going around in my mind, laughing and toasting to nothing, throwing their empty glasses down…..anyhow, alongside the interview was a photo of Joni and “Cary”, in a grainy sepia, taken in a park in Iraklion by a photographer and his homemade camera. I recognized the setting: a handful of years later, I had MY picture taken in the SAME park, by an old guy with a homemade camera. Much as I try–its not in my online set of photos–I can’t quite find that picture to post here. I know it is here somewhere, in one of my boxes of pre-internet life.

Anyhow, the picture of Joni  got me thinking about Crete and the winter I spent living there. As what seems to have been the pattern with everyone else at the time, I didn’t end up there on purpose: i–and he who would become my first husband– drifted there letting the winds of fate decide whether we go to Spain and Morocco or Italy and Greece: We ended up heading east which kindled my own life-long love affair with BOTH Italy and Greece.

So: Brindisi to Corfu, Corfu to Athens, and after an old night ferry from Athens we splashed up on the island of Crete and rolled into Iraklion.

We found  a youth hostel/hotel, and in what felt like minutes, fell in love with the island.  The owners of the hostel/hotel took us under their wing and before you knew it, we were all like one big happy family. They were giving us gifts, we were  just enjoying everything about life in Iraklion. (And, like real families we eventually had a break-up! in this case they demanded their gifts back!). But during our honeymoon hotel phase, they taught me many things to cook, and eventually let us cook for them  [which I mentioned in my first unsung book Naturally Good (Random House/Faber)]. It was Chanukkah time and I made latkes and borsht; they had huge trepidation at this pink soup and unusual potato cakes, that is, until they ate. Then, they said we could stay for free if I painted murals on the walls,  downstairs which they were turning into a taverna/ouzeria. I said yes, and the painting began.

The hotel was in the center of town, right around the corner from the marketplace, not a million miles away from that park where unbeknownst to me–for i was a huge fan and would have been thrilled to have known–a few years earlier Joni Mitchell had her photo snapped, with her “mean old man”.

I loved living in Iraklion: it was so urban yet small. There was a cultural buzz of city life, the tiny town surrounded by rural idyll–it was so very unspoiled. Recently I went back to Iraklion and found it surprisingly the same: unspoiled. Especially the quaility of dairy products! We bought yogurt dished out from a ceramic bowl, feta dished out of an animal skin, and the best bougatsa (Cretan custard pie). We ate in the tavernas, danced when we weren’t eating and drinking, and when we weren’t eating, drinking or dancing, I was painting those murals!

My memories of that time are overlaid with so much good food, stews and casseroles of meat and vegetables I’ve never seen in cookbooks, just food simmered together from what was available, in season, grown locally: all of this way before it was chic to eat local, farm to table, etc: it was simply the way to eat. The ONLY way possible in fact.

So yesterday, when i read about Joni Mitchell and that park in Iraklion, I thought about the stews we ate there, often from a bowl spooning up the sauce, no extra accompaniment except for some bread and salad on the side. Looking through the kitchen I found pork, and a bag of fresh chestnuts; a few tins of tomatoes and I was ready to simmer.

The ingredients and amounts are flexible; traditionally dry red wine is used, but I didn’t have any and used verjuice (nonalcoholic slightly fermented grape juice), and to be honest: i don’t know HOW many chestnuts I used: a big bag full.

2014-11-17-15.15.502Cretan Pork and Chestnut Stew

Serves 4

  • 1 lb chestnuts
  • 1 lb pork, fatty and lean, in small bite sized chunks
  • 2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-2 medium sized onions, peeled and coarsely diced
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped/cut up
  • 1 cup dry red wine, slightly (ever so slightly) sweetish white wine, or verjuice
  • 2 cups water plus a little bouillon/stock/seasoning such as better than bouillion, or stock cube, or 2 cup broth mixed with water
  • 2 tins chopped tomatoes plus their juices, each can about 12-13 ounces
  • 2 bay leaves
  • about 2 inches worth of a cinnamon stick
  • Pinch or two allspice
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Dash vinegar, or lemon juice, to taste, if needed

Score each chestnut on its flat side, then roast in a heavy ungreased pan over medium heat, letting it char somewhat evenly. When they are all splotched with dark brown, cover and let them sit and absorb some of the smoky scent as well as cook them through and make them easier to peel.

When they are cool enough to handle, using a paring knife, peel off the skins; you’ll probably need to cut through the hard sort of base of each chestnut; see how it goes. Some of the chestnuts can be broken up if that happens, but try to keep as many whole as possible. When they are all done, set aside.

In a heavy bottomed large cooking vessel, lightly very lightly saute the pork with the onion and garlic, adding a spoonful or two of olive oil as needed to keep it from sticking and to keep it glossy. When the meat looks opaque, pour in the wine/verjuice and water/broth; Bring to oil, then reduce heat and let simmer over medium low heat for about 20 minutes.

Add tomatoes, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, allspice, salt and pepper, and cook over low heat another 30 minutes or so, or until the meat is tender and the sauce rich. If the sauce hasn’t condensed a bit and become delicious, try adding a little more broth, or pour the sauce off and boil down separately for a few minutes before returning to the pan with the meat.

Taste for seasoning and add salt, pepper, vinegar/lemon juice if/as needed.

Leave a Reply