The Herb Man of Kouses
Greece Travel Secrets visits the Cretan Botano herbs and
spices shop near Matala in southern Crete in search of the herb man of Kouses.
Creto Botano Herb Shop
Iannis Yanoutsos was from Thessaloniki and was visiting
Crete when he heard that he had lost his job. He was an engineer whose
speciality was repairing old printing machines, but with changes in technology
there were fewer demands for his skills, and his company gave him early
retirement. It was an opportunity to find a new skill, and so he became the
herb man of Kouses.
Creto Botano Herb Shop
Iannis is away when we call at his shop, Cretan Botano, also
known as the House of the Swallows, in the tiny village of Kouses. It gets its
name because there are two swallows’ nests inside the shop, with the doors and
windows adapted so the birds can fly in and out.
Iannis’s wife Hrysa is busy behind the counter with a steady stream of customers, but still takes time
out to tell us their story. She also explains why they have so many chilis all
over the shop. ‘Iannis likes his food hot,’ she says. ‘Our chilis are all from
around the village here, although chilis grow all over Crete.’
After Iannis was made redundant, he and Hrysa opened their
shop about ten years ago in the centre of this village, about 6 miles (10 kms) north-east
‘Back then this was an old kafenion,’ Hrysa says, and with typical Cretan hospitality she offers us tea, wine or raki, and suggests we sit out on the balcony behind the shop.
‘It had been like that for 100 years. Iannis renovated the place and started drying and selling herbs. His shop helped to regenerate the village because of the visitors who came. The village coffee-shop re-opened, for example. Only about 100 people live here, and there are no rooms to rent in the village, but still people come because of the shop.’
Hrysa tells us how their shop slowly became successful.
‘About seven years ago one journalist who had a TV programme in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and France came and made a film about us. Since
then the visitors have increased every year because it was a very good film.
Iannis also grows olives and in the programme I cooked Greek dishes. He was
making programmes about food and local cuisine.
‘That film was very good for the whole village. It was a
half-hour film, all about us. This was the beginning. The next year a German TV
programme came, then magazine journalists started to come and to write about us.
We feel lucky and grateful. We believe we make things with love and people
appreciate it and it's a success eventually.’
The shop is certainly a remarkable place. Although it
started off by selling the Cretan herbs that Iannis grew, collected and bought
from people to sell, it’s now crammed with herbs and spices from all over the
world. A jar of harissa spice from Tunisia sits on top of a jar of Baharat spice
from the Middle East. Next to that is a Berber spice, and nearby a jar of
There’s coriander next to cardamom, and close by a jar of
cinnamon from Sri Lanka. It has all the smells of an exotic souk here in this tiny little Cretan village.
A large red metal can contains ‘Indigestion tea’ or ‘Dyspepsia’.
There’s a herb to help anyone suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, another for
high blood pressure and another for stress relief. Mastic from Chios stands
alongside vanilla pods from Madagascar.
‘Iannis found very nice people here to provide him with wild
herbs from all over the island,’ says Hrysa. ‘They were nice quality herbs, like
oregano. He also has a garden of almost one hectare [2.47 acres] where he grows
things for the last two years. Another important experiment he was doing was
planting herbs under his olive trees which helps the olive oil to get flavour
and also the benefits of the herbs.’
On the shelves are jars of cranberries and bilberries, of dried
wild sweet cherries. There are sesame seeds, mustard seeds, bottles of olive
oil infused with basil and jars of Cretan honey and Cretan salt.
Hrysa tells us that Iannis started by growing simple herbs
like mint and basil, for himself and to sell in his shop. She says it’s very
hard to find Cretan mint and basil on sale anywhere because everyone grows
their own. The herbs you find in the markets sell mainly to visitors and are
all imported from overseas.
‘What he also did later,’ Hrysa says, ‘was to start growing
tulsi, which is popular in India. It's like basil and he made this experiment
to see if it would grow here and it was very successful. He keeps experimenting,
all the time. People send him seeds from Africa. Another herb that grows well
here is artemisia or absinthium. It's an anti-oxidant so you have it in tea.
It's very bitter. He was the first to grow this on Crete.
‘We've heard French, German and English people in here, also
Greek. Because it's a nice product the people come again and again every year
when they return to Crete.’
We weren’t surprised. We left laden with two bags full of
assorted herbs and spices, and a vow to return and hopefully next time meet
Iannis himself. He sounds a remarkable man.
For more information and opening hours visit the excellent
Greece Travel Secrets discovered
this wonderful place on a food and wine tour of Crete with Go Crete.
Where to Stay on Crete
Other Crete pages
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This Amari Valley drive in southern Crete starts and ends in Ayia Galini, takes four to five hours and cover 100 kilometres or 62 miles.
Agios Nikolaos is a pretty and popular town on the north coast of Crete and this page on Greece Travel Secrets covers its history, museums and beaches.
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