Innovative Cretan cooking school teaches a new cooking style

High in a hilltop village on the island of Crete is a tiny whitewashed house with a profusion of blue-flowered morning glory vines spilling over its front door.

What makes it different from the handful of other houses in Koutouloufari is that it shelters a cooking school as well as the home of an English couple, Rosemary and Kevin Barron.

They have adopted the cooking style of Crete as their own, and their school, Kandra Kitchen, introduces others to their newfound way of cooking - and way of life.

This happens from April through October when students in groups of 10 or so arrive for the week-long program combining instruction in Cretan cookery with plenty of leisure time to enjoy the island's other pleasures.

Ideally, students go on to spend another week or so in Greece, using their newly acquired knowledge of local food and culture for an enjoyable stay.

One thing that students learn is that Cretan cooking - like the rest of the island itself - is part of the larger Greek culture and yet has an identity all its own.

''The foods you find on Crete are basically the same dishes as in the rest of Greece, but they are much spicier,'' says Mrs. Barron.

''The influence comes from the Turks, who, when they occupied the island, introduced allspice, cumin, coriander, and other seasonings.

Crete was always directly on the spice route from the East,'' she continues. Another difference is that you find more pasta dishes here than in the rest of Greece, because the Venetians ruled the island for 300 years.''

Cretan cooking also means reliance on the island's bountiful supply of pungent herbs, superb local cheeses, thick yogurt, freshly pressed olive oil, seafood, and great varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Koutouloufari, an unspoiled village clinging to the rugged hills above the Aegean Sea, is reached by an hour's flight from Athens to Heraklion, plus a 15 -mile drive.

On my visit last fall, the Barrons presented a five-course lunch, typical of what students cook, analyze, and enjoy at a morning cooking class.

To our table on the terrace came a first course of raw sea urchins served in their spiky, black shells, followed by an unusual salad of glistrada, a watercress-like herb that grows on Crete, with lemon juice and coarse sea salt.

The entree was a lamb and okra casserole cooked in a clay pot called arni me bamies redolent with the spicy Cretan touches of freshly ground allspice, cloves , and roasted cumin seeds. Along with it was a platter of rice flecked with fresh herbs.

Also among the foods studied and prepared are a wide variety of Greek appetizers, or methezes - dishes that include marinated vegetables, eggplant salad, yogurt and cucumber dipping sauce, fava beans dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, and the surprisingly tender marinated octopus.

''Because people are coming halfway around the world, we feel it is important to offer them something more than just an academic course,'' says Kevin Barron. ''We want to acquaint them with Crete.''

When the Barrons opened their school in Koutouloufari, they were warned that the villagers might resent their presence.

''But that's not been the case at all,'' Mr. Barron says. ''In fact, they have shown a lot of interest in what we're doing and we try to involve them in the school as much as possible. They're constantly teaching us something new.''

More information is available from Kandra Kitchen Crete, PO Box 6533, San Francisco, Calif. 94101; (415) 285-6482.

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