Cretan cuisine is recently in the spotlight, as it offers an alternative to people looking for a healthier lifestyle in the modern world. Due to its plant-based philosophy and simplicity, it caters for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dietary requirements.
Even after 4,000 years, since Minoan times, Cretan diet has remained almost unchanged.
Cretan diet first gained worldwide fame after the ‘50s, when American researchers visited the island to find out why heart diseases, cancer and diabetes rates were surprisingly low and people lived to be 100 years old. Their good health was correlated to the Cretan lifestyle and diet, which became the basis of the “Mediterranean diet”, considered the healthiest in the world.
So, what are the foods of Crete?
Cretans are self-sufficient. Their secret to longevity and good health is living in harmony with nature and respect the seasonality of goods. In return, nature offers generously her gifts, some of them you find below:
Wild greens. Everywhere. In every way. Nature’s pantry and medicine chest at the same time. Horta – as edible greens are known- have always played an important role to Cretan diet. Bitter or sweet, Cretans love foraging them and use them variously. Raw in salads, stuffed in pies, cooked with pulses, they are the protagonists of vegetarian Cretan recipes.
Stamnagathi is the superfood of the island. A wild chicory known for its high antioxidants, protects from heart and liver diseases. Cretans even drink the water from boiled stamnagathi to detox from alcohol or ease their stomach.
Extra virgin olive oil
Cretans are very proud of their olive oil, considering it the best in the world, and don’t use any other form of fat for cooking. They even fry in olive oil or use it for baking desserts. Cretans can also be proud of holding the world record in olive oil consumption – 21 liters per person per year! The whole island of Crete is a huge olive grove with 30 million olive trees, the oldest of them being more than 3,000 years old! The main olive used to make their “liquid gold” is the tiny Koroneiki variety.
Honey nourishes Cretans since Minoan times, when bees were even deified. When on Crete, make sure you visit the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. There you can admire a masterpiece of Minoan art, the golden bees pendant, which, as found in an important ancient Necropolis, depicts the significance of apiculture to the islanders.
Thyme honey is used to sweeten up Cretan desserts, but considered as well the Cretan cure-all. Known for its antimicrobial properties, this is where Cretans turn to to relieve sore throats, mixing it either with mountain tea or raki (the local grappa).
Greece’s biggest island boasts a rich ecosystem with many herbs being endemic to Crete. Older generations of Cretans mastered herbs and used them wisely as natural remedies. Mountain tea (malotira) and dittany are enjoyed as herbal teas. Marjoram, thyme, oregano, fennel and rosemary are essential elements of every Cretan recipe. In lieu of spices in the local cuisine, Cretan herbs boost flavour along with your immune system and captivate smells and tastes of the island’s wild landscapes in your plate.
Cattle are rare on the island due to its mountainous terrain, that, on the other hand, provides the perfect environment for sheep and goats to thrive. Animals live in a semi-wild condition, with access to the bountiful Cretan “garden” of greens and herbs. And you can surely taste them in the dairy.
Graviera. By far the most emblematic cheese of Crete. It is made with sheep’s and goat’s milk and eaten simply with a drizzle of thyme honey on top.
Myzithra (or anthotyros) and xinomyzithra (its sour version). Creamy soft, ricotta-like cheese you cannot stay away from when on Crete. Fresh is used to make Cretan desserts, like kalitsounia, the perfect Cretan breakfast!
Staka. Those on diet or heart issues, please keep away! With staka, Cretans take it to another level 🙂 Staka is skimmed cream mixed with flour, added to simple foods like fries, eggs or risotto to elevate both taste and texture. Stakovoutyro is the butter left after making staka.
Meat. Mainly sheep and goat. Everyone who’s been to Crete, has a story with a crazy goat to tell 🙂 Symbol of the Cretan passion for freedom! Tastes divine when slow cooked, as its tough meat becomes fork-tender.
Pork used to be eaten for Christmas and leftovers were cured in salt and vinegar, a delicacy known till today as apaki. Wild hare or home grown rabbits make excellent stews as well.
Bread. Typical of the island are “paximadia” = doubled baked, hard bread made of barley, the perfect croutons for your Greek salad, (let them soak the olive oil-tomato juice to soften). Carob, indigenous of Crete, although neglected for long, now makes its comeback for good and makes excellent rusks with nutty, chocolate-like flavour. A very special paximadi is called eftazymo, made with chickpeas starter. We love its special taste, but most of all, we love the fact that there are so many folk superstitions that come with it. *One, for example, is that no one should know when you make this bread, as they might give you the “evil eye”- a local jinx. The truth is it needs extra care to be made, as it does not start with yeast, so no one would risk making the wrong move 🙂
We need a whole article dedicated to local wines only. But for now, let’s make a short tribute. Not only because the island boasts 15 indigenous grape varieties, but because its winemaking industry has recently made impressive leaps forward in just a short amount of time. Local varieties are indeed Crete’s competitive advantage in the wine world. Old varieties were saved from extinction, thanks to visionary winemakers, who discover day by day their true potential. Vidiano, one of the “survivors”, is now considered the flagship wine to lead the way for their international acknowledgement. Other rare, ancient varieties, like Dafni and Plyto, are revived and still kept as precious gems in the vintners’ treasury.
Take a glimpse of the Wines of Crete, here.
Raki or tsikoudia. One island, two names. The local grape spirit that encompasses Cretan hospitality. Everybody on Crete will welcome you with a shot (don’t shoot it, just sip) of this high alcoholic drink, even if it’s still 11 am, even if your kid is just 9 years old 🙂
Raki is distilled from fermented pomace in big copper stills. Rakokazana are big feasts organised around the cauldrons where raki is distilled in order to celebrate the new “harvest”. Definitely an experience if you find yourself on Crete around November.
Rakomelo is made by mixing hot raki with honey and sweet spices. It’s like our hot toddy or mulled wine. Comforting for cold, wintery nights, locals swear by it for treating any kind of cold and flu.