To experience collective, uncompromised and unique Cretan spirit? You shall join the village festivity in Crete, known as 'panigiri' (festival, feast) that are organised throughout summer and devoted to the particular Saint of the island. And not only. Those kind of village feasts on Crete are compared to the spice bazaars around the world - your taste buds, flavours and senses boosted, appeal to novelty is aroused, spirit awakened, openness and friendliness unlocked.
In fact, any occasion for celebration that makes the villagers come together is appreciated and welcomed but even better if the centre piece, a very star of the eve are snails - 'chochlios' or 'kohli' (that means a spiral, or a screw) as they are called on Crete - one of the traditional dishes on the island.
'Chochlidovradia' or so called 'snail feast' or 'snail night' though is something unique and unlike 'panigiri' scheduled in almost every Cretan village throughout summer, is organised only in one - Agios Thomas (Saint Tomas) village in Central Crete.
Take your seat!
The preparations for the snail feast in the village have started well in advance - provision of food supplies and cooking for hundreds of guests have been planned weeks ahead. As a rule, cretans are respectful about food - the ordering, delivery and savouring procedure.
Here, at the snail feast, if you haven't secured your seat at the table well in advance (advisable!), you have to arrive as early as possible as the chances are hight that the place will be too busy for you to find a seat. Each table is assigned a number. The closer to the improvised stage in front, the more prominent the seating is supposed to be.
There are more than 40 ways of cooking snails on Crete and here, in Ag. Thomas village you get the snails cooked in three different ways - snails with rosemary and wine, snails with cracked wheat or bulgur and snails with vegetables. Delicious and generous!
More food to come
Note that the snails act only as a teaser as more of the food awaits you. Guests are presented with a simple-looking menu that lists lamb, patatoes, greek salad ('horiatiki'), fava, and roasted peppers, wine (white and red), the list goes on - to choose from and to order for a fair price.
Manolis, Georgios, Takis and the rest of the waitress' army are running all night long to deliver hundreds of plates on large trays to the villagers and the guests. Even the village kids have been recruited and the relatives engaged in the honorary waitressing function of the eve. Only after the hectic ordering process and when the food is served one can finally relax and the festivity can start.
Dance till you drop
This is the occasion when the Cretans seem one big unique tribe on the world map with its own unique rituals, spirit and identity (that are different from mainland Greece) and no other replace to feel it better as here - in the 'tribal gathering' - collective festivity. Dancing in Crete is a must and no serious festivity is considered without dancing. The courtyard of the elementary school of Agios Thomas village is turned into an improvised festivity place.
Cretan lyra, laouto and the rest of the parea
It seems that the music likewise waitressing (which rather is food and customer relations business) is strictly man's business. Cretan celebration usually are fast and furious that are intensely challenging even for experienced musicians. In Crete, the lyra-laouto ensemble retains its power and influence as emblematic men’s/ sheperd’s instruments and as the national instruments of Crete. Along the rhythm of Cretan lyra, glasses of wine (and later raki) are raised and "yammas" shouted.
Generations meet and melt
It all might seem like a culinary celebration of the village accompanied by music and dance performance yet it is more than that. An occasion for the youngest and the oldest to get together, to talk, to dance, to feast. Togetherness happens without a pathos, as a matter of fact . Different generations together is not a rare sight in Crete but in this kind of festivities the natural ease just becomes so obvious. And this, just like any other place in Crete, is where generations meet and melt - old young, kinds, parents, gandpas and omas, everyone become a part of festivity.
"Snail night" is organised by the Cultural Association of St. Thomas in the courtyard of the elementary school in the village of Agios Thomas (Saint Thomas). In 2014 the festivity took place on Saturday, August 3.
Having traveled for over 30 years, since 6 years now, I have found the whole world in one of the most fascinating and unique places on earth – Crete. It is a diverse, rich and inspiring island which even after so many years does not stop surprising me - its rich history and unique traditions, its people, the delicacies of Cretan cuisine, its landspace and its stunning nature. Here I reveal some of its secrets.
I see Crete through turquoise - pink glasses.