THE CRETAN DIET: A Delicious Part of Greek Gastronomy
Much has been written about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet and of course the place of Crete and Greece in this is anchored by history and blessed by geography. Cretan olive oil is among the best on the planet and Cretans consume a lot of it, along with lots of homegrown fruits and vegetables. The island’s unique biodiversity and special climatic conditions make it ideal for agriculture and myriad native wild herbs and greens. For example there are the horta edible greens (lapatha, seskoula, kafkalithres, mironia etc.) which not only make for some incredibly scrumptious pies (hortopitakia) but which according to scientific studies also have an exceptionally high nutritional value, with plenty of micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals).
Simple and locally sourced ingredients, minimal use of pesticides, unfussy cooking and generations of time-tested culinary traditions add up to what is essentially the healthiest of all the Mediterranean diets. According to Athens-based Stefanos Pertsemlides, a leading Greek nutritionist, “the Cretan diet doesn’t differentiate much from the Greek/Mediterranean diet, as the term ‘Mediterranean diet’ is based on the Cretan diet of the early 1950s when a very important study revealed the Cretan diet to bea protective factor against cancer and cardiovascular diseases.” He adds that what differentiates Cretan cooking from that of other areas of Greece is that “most of the other areas in Greece do not have the very wide variety of ingredients that Crete has. This is quite unique—especially for an island.”
A vast and varied coastline, largely untouched mountain ranges and fertile plains too, provide a solid backdrop for Crete’s agricultural bounty, of which olive oil has played a central role stretching back 3,500 years. Minoan palace ruins at Zakros even feature olive harvest frescoes! With 35 million olive trees, Crete produces a third of all the olive oil in Greece and ninety percent of it, is extra virgin. This is a land with rugged contours and good soil: It’s no wonder that some 18 Cretan agricultural and livestock products and at least a dozen wines have been awarded PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status. In Crete there is seasonal variation too, and as Pertsemlides points out, “Crete has such a variety of high quality ingredients (meat, fish, vegetables, olive oil, fruits and herbs) that are produced on the island that there is no need to import.”
The cuisine and fresh food traditions of Crete are both distinct from and yet form an integral part of the whole big delicious Greek gastronomic picture. “As in most areas of Greece, the Cretan diet has specific characteristics,” Perstemlides says,“such as the wedding food gamopilafo, (the wedding risotto) or the traditional antikristo (“across the fire”) method of cooking lamb and goat meat.” And whether it is at Legacy Gastro Suites’ casual-gourmet EL43 or in the comfort of your suite, what you’ll taste here is truly a mosaic of Greek and Cretan foods and flavors.With that in mind, here is short primer on some food items familiar in Crete:
Cretan honey is the product of bees collecting nectar from pine and acacia trees as well asplants and herbs like thyme, ironwort (Cretan mountain tea), oregano, sage and heather. In addition to its many uses in the Cretan kitchen, honey is said to have medicinal properties as natural remedies as well. Other edible Cretan wild herbs include dittany, sage and pennyroyal. Why not try some of Crete’s organic baby artichokes and askordoulaki (tassel hyacinth bulbs)? They are generally pickled in an olive oil, salt, and vinegar mixture and sometimes served as meze (small plates) to accompany raki. Kapriko is slow-roasted pork with a delectably crispy skin, while apaki and siglina are gourmet smoke-cured cuts of pork. Skioufikta is a tube-shaped pasta, cooked in a meat broth, topped with grated dry anthotyro cheese. Another Cretan pasta, Xinohondros made of chopped tomatoes and soft farm cheese drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. A less common kind of rusk is called eftazima and is made with cracked bulgur wheat and fermented milk. Zucchini flowers stuffed with rice and herbs are called anthi and are quite popular. The cheese spread called Xygalois made from goat’s and/or sheep’s milk, is low in fat and is a bit sour to the taste. Speaking of Cretan cheeses, they often find their way into traditional pie recipes that can be sweet or savory (salted); you’ll see names for these like kaltsounia, mizithra, sfakianes, lichnarakia and others. Cretan graviera and three other cheeses have been awarded PDO designation. The traditional hard Cretan bread rusks are made from barley and called dakos. Often they are served as an appetizer with from a dough of ground chickpeas. Snails, or hohli, are a much-treasured Cretan delicacy and you taste them fried up with vinegar and rosemary (a dish called boubouristi) you’ll understand why for yourself.
Cretans also like to nibble on dried figs, sultanas and currants, all both healthy and tasty and which are also exported in significant quantities. Carob is making a comeback especially in bakery and confectionary, and Crete’s carob tree forests are the most extensive in the southeast Mediterranean. And let’s not forget about organically grown fruits like oranges and of course grapes as well as apples from the Lassithi Plateau, sweet cherries from Gerakari and even bananas from Arvi. And then of course, we could talk about Crete’s amazing wines … some of which we definitely recommend you try during your stay at Legacy Gastro Suites!
Author Anthoine de Grand