An Interview with George Portokalaki of the Porto Club
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With more and more people opting for the Vegetarian and Vegan way of life, there are still some who wonder whether such lifestyles are merely fads.
BookCulinaryVacations recently had an insightful chat about this particular topic with Giorgios Portokalaki (George), the founder & owner of Porto Club Travel Services, a travel provider for small group exclusive weekly packages on the island of Crete. George explained to us that contrary to most beliefs, the popularity of Vegetarian and Vegan based diets have been long been established beyond the past few decades. In fact, in Greece, these lifestyles have been commonly adapted since thousands of years. Curious to find out more? Read on!
1. Could you share with us as to why Porto Club decided to focus upon offering Vegetarian and Vegan culinary holidays ?
I had been surfing the web at the end of the 90’s and realized that there was such a misconception of the Greeks and Greek Cuisine. The information I found made it seem as if we are very much Carnivorous when in reality, Cretan traditional cuisine and Greek cuisine in general focuses much on vegetarian and vegan based diets.
Right there and then I felt that I had to share the truth about Cretan and Greek cuisine and set out to contact Vegetarian & Vegan communities around the globe about my campaign. I became passionate about it. As a result, many of those people ended up asking for my help to find Vegetarian and Vegan food when they visit Greece. Long story short, I ended up starting my own travel services and extended the services to Vegetarian and Vegan culinary travel holidays and cooking classes.
2. Are you - yourself - a Vegan or a Vegetarian? If so, what made you decide to become one? If not, what are your thoughts on vegan and vegetarian diets?
I’m not a Vegetarian nor am I a Vegan in the conventional sense. My grandfather grew up in a monestary where he lived with monks for over 12 years. There, he learned much about wild greens and vegetables starting with where to find them, how to grow them to information on their nutritional value. As an adult, he used his knowledge in his profession, selling wild greens and vegetables. I was very much interested in what he did so I absorbed all the knowledge and experience that I could from him. I grew up with the notion that wild greens and veggies are “elixirs of life”.
Additionally, my grandmother and mother were both Christian Orthodox where for 186 days of the year, they follow close to vegan based diets - the only difference being that they still consume seafood as seafood are sea arches and do not have blood. Since my grandmother and mother were the cooks of the household, naturally, we were fortunate to grow up with an appreciation of healthy and quality dishes. Growing up, I consumed lots of uncooked fresh vegetables which we enjoy with a large amount of olive oil. It is the Cretan way of life!
Cretans enjoy simple, fresh and natural tastes. Photo credit: Porto Club Travel Services
3. You had mentioned that Vegan and Vegetarian diets have long been established and are commonly found within Greek cuisine. Could you tell us a little more about its long standing history?
It is thought to believe that the founder of Vegetarian diet is the ancient philosopher Pythagoras and until end of 1900 the vegetarian diet was known as “Pythagorean diet”. However, the Cretan diet dates back to the Minoan civilization of Crete (2000 BC – 1450 BC)which focuses on pure and healthy nutritional habits. The current Cretan diet is a product of the long history of the island a whole way and philosophy of life for the harmonisation of body and spirit with nature! Cretan dishes generally contain valuable fresh wild greens from the mountains, aromatic herbs, fresh fruits and vegetables, virgin olive oil and the famous thyme Cretan honey. Its philosophy and practices are similar to the Vegetarian and Vegan way of life.
George teaching travelers how to cook Authentic Vegetarian & Vegan Cretan dishes. Photo credit: Porto Club Travel Services
4. What are the most popular Vegan and/or Vegetarian Greek dishes among travelers? Do they differ from the dishes that Greek locals generally prefer?
From my experience, both locals and travelers both enjoy “Nesteesema” which translates to “the feast” - it is a wide variety of meat free dishes. These ladera dishes both Vegetarian and Vegan travelers can easily find and enjoy in Greece. Here’s a list of the 5 most popular. My personal favorite is the Gigantes Fournou.
- Horta Vounou (Wild Green Salad) – Various wild greens, salt, cooked in olive oil and sprinkled with lemon dressing.
- Gemista (Stuffed Vegetables with Rice –Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, zucchini, squash, onion, parsley, olive oil, salt & pepper.
- Melytzanosalata (Eggplant dip) –Eggplants, tomatoes, garlic, onions, olive oil, salt & pepper
- Gigantes Fournou (Oven roasted, Giant “Elephant” Beans in Red Tomato Sauce)
- Imam (Eggplants in Tomato/Onion Sauce) –Eggplants, tomatoes, garlic, onions, olive oil, salt & pepper
Gigantes Fournou, George's favorite dish. Photo Credit: Porto Club Travel Services
5. What would you like those who are not so familiar with Vegan and Vegetarian Greek cuisine to know about it?
Let’s just say that any Vegetarian or Vegan traveler so far who has visited Greece and tasted Greek Cuisine happily enjoyed Greek food and usually ended up incorporating it unto their daily diet.
I invite everyone to partake in a culinary holiday with Porto Club. It’s a great chance to completely immerse oneself in the culture of Crete. Tour around the island, visit cultural sites and local producers and learn to cook authentic and delicious vegetarian Cretan dishes. We have many choices of authentic cooking getaways that allow travelers to immerse themselves in Cretan local history, taste and cook using the techniques of traditional Cretan cuisine. As an added bonus, there’s plenty of opportunities to absorb some of the most breathtakingly beautiful sceneries Greece has to offer. Come to join us at Heraklion and let the passion of the Cretan way of life take you to a whole new cookery haven!
Indulge yourself with the stunning views and luxurious accomodation of the Porto Club