The Cretan food and diet is considered today to be the ideal diet which ensures good health and long life. In the 1950s, the international scientific community discovered how healthy Crete people were and concluded it was due to their diet.
Today it is generally agreed that people who live on Crete and eat according to the traditional ways have less chance of suffering from heart disease, even when compared to other Mediterranean countries. The main differences are that Cretans typically eat twice as much fruit as other Europeans, a quarter less meat and more pulses.
Cretan food is different from other types of cuisine because it does not try to mix flavours, even though various ingredients are used to make daily dishes. Each ingredient retains its identity and taste as part of the gastronomical composition. This then means that no ingredient blurs the flavour of another.
Food is important on Crete: its simple, basic, without over spicing. In areas where animals are bred, such as the mountainous regions in Khania, dairy products play an important role in the food. Pies filled with myzithra (a cheese made from ewes milk), meat and yoghurt dishes provide wonderful variations of staple foods.
Ecologically minded, Cretans traditionally cook only what is in season and waste nothing, preserving crops, meat and fish for the winter months.
The Cretan diet has ancient roots which can be traced back to the Minoan civilisation more than 3,000 years ago. It has survived the influences of the many colonising forces over the millennia the Romans, the Byzantine empire, the Venetians and the Turks; preserving the islands culinary traditions to be enjoyed by modern lovers of fine, healthy cuisine. Back in classical Crete meat eating was rare and often allied to religious rituals. It is notable that in the modern Cretan diet, meat consumption is still far less than other Mediterranean countries.
Nevertheless, Cretans still enjoy their meat, particularly pork, mutton, lamb and kid and even snails but all in moderation, with specialities such as spicy sausages and meat pasties. Of course, the islanders also have the rich pickings of the sea to harvest, particularly during May and October, although the Mediterranean is much overfished and consequently the price of fish is expensive. As a result, fish is eaten less often than might be expected of a Greek island.
The staple diet of the Minoans was similar to todays with emphasis on aromatic dishes using herbs, olive oil, vegetables, wild greens (horta), fruits, honey, olives, whole grains (especially barley), pulses and legumes. In fact beans and pulses remain an important part of the winter diet and legumes are popular as snacks roasted and salted green peas and chickpeas are often displayed in markets whilst raw broad beans are eaten as a meze. Fruit is always there at meal times in one form or another: Crete produces large amounts of oranges and mandarins, as well as melons, pears, figs, grapes, peaches and apricots as well as the production of more exotic fruits such as bananas, avocadoes and kiwi as well as the famous Cretan raisins, known as soultanina. In the mountainous regions there is bounteous production of mountain tea, walnuts, chestnuts and other products.
Furthermore, it is no surprise that olive oil plays a key part in Crete's healthy cuisine with the fertile island soils providing an ideal medium for growing bumper crops of this vital food. More than 35 million olive trees are cultivated on Crete not only do they cover the needs of the inhabitants, but large quantities are exported abroad. Even in traditional Cretan sweets, only extra-virgin olive oil is used. The oil is also great for frying, as it can resist high temperatures much more than other oils so it doesn't become oxidized and remains healthy. It can also be re-used up to five or six times fro frying. Olive oil is universally recognised for its health-giving benefits and is used widely in cooking and often liberally poured over salads in fact everything! A slice of freshly baked wholemeal bread liberally drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with oregano and salt is a delicious Cretan snack.
Bread has always been important to Crete no meal can be imagined without it in some shape. There has always been a great variety of breads, according to the season and depending on the different feasts. The Christmas Bread, or Christopsomo, is traditionally the main feature of the Christmas meal, occupying the table centre. The preparation is still a ritual and in some regions the bread has a large cross in the middle, or is decorated with partridges and flowers. Only the head of the family is allowed to cut the bread. He will wish everyone present a Happy Christmas before beginning the feast. At Easter time the Cretan women traditionally make the Easter breads avgokouloures or Lambrokouloures. On the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Panayia) on August 15th, eptazyma or seven times leavened bread is made. There are also special breads that are eaten at various celebrations like weddings and christenings, all decorated with appropriate motifs shaped from dough. Paximadi is hard dry bread that is baked once, cut into slices and baked a second time, in this way it would keep for a very long time. Traditionally, this was the bread that peasants took to the fields, softened with a little water and olive oil.
Amongst some of the typical dishes are snails, (cochli) scalded in salt water for a meze or fried and then slowly simmered in vinegar and seasoned with rosemary; a variety of speciality salads from unusual roots and shoots like daisy shoots, mosses or rodiki. Eaten raw, with plenty of oil, vinegar and coarse salt they are fresh and cooling in the hot summer months. The famous barley rusk, or tako is probably the Cretan national dish, softened in water and soaked in oil and tomato it is very good for the digestion as well as being extremely tasty. Vinegar is another important ingredient in Cretan cooking and is used in all manner of things, even the preparation of Cretan sausages, giving them a distinctive delicious taste.
Meat dishes include rabbit which has often been the saviour of the Cretan following poverty and famine caused by various conquerors over the years. Served in the traditional stifado stewed with tiny onions, fried or roasted with potatoes in the oven, it has a special place in the Cretan history. Mutton, lamb and kid or goat are meat also eaten, particularly on festive occasions. Cooked with fennel or artichokes, with wild mountain greens (horta) and tomatoes or an egg and lemon sauce they are delectable and make a celebration something special. Another Cretan speciality, often served as an accompaniment to meat and rice is staka. This is one example of a less healthy Cretan foodstuff, but a delicious treat. Staka is simply the cream of butter (tsipa) which is carefully collected from the shepherd, then a little salt is added and it is kept in a cool place until required. Traditionally it was a common dish at christenings and weddings where it was added to the gamopilafo the wedding pilaf of rice and meat.
Of all the fish dishes, the prince of Cretan waters is the skaros, described by the Ancient Greeks as the parrot fish. This fish has white, firm flesh, crispy skin and aromatic innards. Typically, Skaros is grilled and then eaten whole and is best caught early in the morning, before it feeds, so that it has an empty stomach and you wont be eating sand. Preparation of the skaros merely involves removing the bitter liquid from the fishs gall bladder, which when done by the expert, takes a few seconds. Kakavia, or fish soup, is another speciality. Traditionally scorpion fish was used, although nowadays this is an expensive choice. Simmered with potatoes, onions and lots of lemon and olive oil it is a truly delicious dish.
The best known Cretan cheeses are Graviera, which is the most popular hard cheese and tastes (and sounds like) Gruyere. There are many different types so it is always best to taste a little before buying. Myzitra is made from ewes milk although it is also made from goats milk (katsikithia) or a mixture of both. Often used in cooking as well as eaten fresh. Myzitra is the cheese that is mixed with lamb and cooked wrapped in pastry the Sphakia pie. Kaltsounia are other small pies which are filled with unsalted myzithra and then fried in oil. The final cheese of note is Anthotiros translated this means flower cheese made in the springtime when the pastures where the sheep graze are full of flowers. It is a mild, soft cheese with some similarity to mozzarella.
Desserts are not usually part of the Cretan diet, a meal will often finish with fruit. However, there is a Cretan sweet made from myzithra, eggs, cinnamon and aniseed or sesame seeds. It is quite delicious and, in line with the tradition of eating thing in season, only available when the sheeps milk is plentiful and fat. A sweet treat found all through the year is kserotigana, strips of dough wound into coils and deep fried before dunking in heavy, honey-based syrup and sprinkled with chopped walnuts.
Food is often accompanied by local Cretan wine found all over the island or raki or tsikoudia. Although ouzo is sold and drunk it is not a traditional Cretan drink. Tsikoudia is a strong aperitif made from the distillation of the skins left over from pressing grapes. Sometimes it is flavoured with citron (then called kitoraki) or mulberries (mournoraki). It is a colourless clear liquid that takes on the delicate aroma of any flavouring of fruits used. Tsikoudia, proper, is often difficult to buy in as it is usually home produced and does not really compare to the raki that is available in the shops. However, local distilleries may have some to purchase.
The whole of Greece has been an expert producer of wine for thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks considered wine as such an important part of their lives that they created myths about it and divinities to worship, such as Dionysus, god of fertility, wine and theatre. Crete has played an important part in this history and the island has some of the most traditional vineyards in Europe with many old grape varieties, some of which can be traced back thousands of years to the Minoans.
Today, immense effort has been put into modernising production and the quality of the wine produced. The whole industry is now enjoying something of a renaissance, moving away from the traditional, heavy, rustic table wines for which the island was once known towards the lighter, modern, more sophisticated styles of Cretes contemporaries in France, Italy and Spain. Thus, the island is now producing some splendid, reliable wines that are becoming increasingly popular and winning international acclaim as well.