Cretan Diet and products of the island
The core of the Cretan cuisine consists of food derived from natural sources, whereas food of animal origin was more peripheral in nature. In general, people consumed seasonal products, available in the wider local area, which underwent minimal processing or none at all. The traditional cuisine was widespread in the island until the 1960s when, with improving living standards, alimentary patterns changed towards more meat and other animal-derived produce.
Fresh fruit and dried fruits, pulses, endemic wild herbs and aromatic plants, and rough cereals, whose cultivation was favored by the regional climate, were consumed in great amounts and constituted the base of the Cretan cuisine during that period. Dairy products were consumed on a daily basis in low to moderate quantities. Poultry and fish were consumed on a weekly basis in moderate quantities, whereas red meat was consumed only a few times a month. The main supply of fat was effectuated by olive oil, which was used not only in salads but also in cooking, unlike the northern European countries which primarily used animal fat. Another essential feature of the Cretan cuisine was the moderate use of alcohol, mainly red wine which accompanied meals. Finally, the most common dessert was yogurt and fresh fruits, while traditional pastry based on honey had been consumed a few times a week.
The Cretan Diet is famous, and some say miraculous! It is the original Mediterranean diet culture, history and geography have helped create a combination of foods and lifestyle which provides a unique diet that is highly nutritious, prolonging life and helping to prevent many of the modern diseases that shorten the lives of millions of people every year in the West. Western eating habits are the source of much debate at the moment, with concerns over the growing obesity levels in Europe, North America, and all the so called affluent western nations. Finding the ideal diet is becoming increasingly important for people who want to improve health and reduce weight. Fortunately, there is a diet that is healthy, natural, tasty – and proven to prolong life!
The Cretan Diet is both simple and wholesome. It features plenty of fruits and vegetables, beans, pulses and grains in abundance, olive oil as the principal fat, moderate drinking of wine and raki, herbal teas like Greek Mountain Tea said to be a “cure all” or Dittany of Crete/dictamus , one of the endemic species of the island. Honey and yoghurt, occasional use of lean red meat, and low to moderate consumption of dairy foods, fish and poultry.
What’s the Secret of the Cretan Diet?
Natural, traditional and local produce are features of the Cretan Diet, but some other features might surprise you. For example, in the traditional Crete Mediterranean Diet almost three times more fat is consumed than what the average American eats! The difference is that the Cretan consumes only olive oil, a substantial amount of which is neither boiled nor fried. Crete olive trees are said to outnumber the Cretan population by 500 to one! It is believed that the qualities of olive oil are key in maintaining good health and preventing illness. Unlike other oils, olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids which are resistant to oxidation. Olive oil is unique in that it is packed with anti-oxidative agents, which bond with toxic free radicals creating a natural defense against many different kinds of cancer. It’s time to throw away all other types of cooking oils! Another surprise is bread. Three times more bread is eaten in the traditional Crete diet than the diet eaten by the Americans, for example. However, this is still less than other Mediterranean areas.
Simple fresh food, locally produced. The locals still have access to a small garden or to a local flea market to get the products directly from the producers, in low prices.
A major feature of the Cretan Diet is its simplicity. There are no fancy sauces or tricky soufflés. There’s no difficult combinations or strange exotic ingredients. All you will need is a basic store cupboard of ingredients and then simply get in what you need for each individual recipe. Another feature of the Cretan Diet is the freshness and quality of the ingredients. For example, Artichokes grow wild here and are picked, prepared and eaten the same day. Always try to get local produce, in season. This is the tastiest and the healthiest of foods. Produce that has travelled round the world in refrigerated containers always loses some of its nutrition and taste. It’s not natural to eat non-local food, and it’s so important to consider the environmental impact of continuing to develop a taste for foods that have to travel round the world before they finally find their way onto someone’s dining table.
Choose one of our tours as a private tour and explore the local cuisine, in restaurants and taverns the locals would go. Do not miss the opportunity to feel the warmth of a Cretan family as expressed in every day attempt of the mother, to cook and create something unique for the family, with fresh ingredients from their garden … We invite you for a lunch, so come and eat like a Cretan.
The Cretan products:
Remnants of grape seeds have been found in vessels dating back to the Early Bronze age. Wine constitutes along with meat, bread the fundamental part of the very well known food trilogy of the Homeric banquets and meals. From vine-cultivators to vintagers, grape traders the links in the chain of the Minoan and Aegean wine production. Grapes have been utilized in Crete by 5000 B.C.
Today the only wine in the world known to contain Resin is the Greek wine retsina, also found in Crete. Light yellow variety or red. The resin of the native pines is added today in the beginning of the fermentation, just like it was done thousands of years ago. The ancient mixed wine with water not only raisin, something practiced in the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean.
Athenaeus in Deipnosophistae suggests that the ancients put water in their mixing bowl first, Akratos meaning not mixed wine and pure Nile water. Wine was used to wash the wounds of Homeric heroes and warriors as antiseptic. Dionysus Zagreos as we find him on linear B tablets at the palace of Nestor at Pylos, was also known as Hygiatis he who gives health.
It seems the ancient understood that mixing wine with water had healing properties, we today know it kills bacteria such as E coli, Salmonella and Staphylococcus. Cholera and typhoid bacteria is killed when exposed to dry red wine!
But the most universally acclaimed and prized wine in Greek antiquity was the Pramnian, the cup of Nestor in the Iliad as well as the wine of Circe in the Odyssey. The sweet wine from a grape cluster dried in the sun or having been scorched and bruised on the vine branches is the Kritikos wine the Cretan wine or Pramnian. The wine of Crete was enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, Romans, European Christians and even the Muslim Ottomans! Wine centers from antiquity still in use today are to the south of Knossos Archanes, Peza, Malevizi, Mesara, Casteli, Amari and lousakies etc.
The Cretan wine is a pedigree, Crete is the most important vinicultural district of Greece. Its geographical situation and particular soil conditions make the Cretan wine exceptional. In 1976 phylloxera damaged a large part of the viniculture of Crete. The island has many vinicultural cooperatives, you can taste here local ancient varieties as well as French that sometimes as we say can also marry a Cretan variety.
You see for us wine slips through our lips and reaches our soul, just like Dionysus in the past, just like Holly communion, for we say in Crete after sharing a glass of wine with someone we forge a promise of hospitality and friendship.
Taste the wine of Crete, taste Dionysus, taste the wine that was enjoyed by Egyptian Pharaohs, Homeric Gods and heroes, Roman generals, Christians of East and West the wine that allured Ottomans, the wine that either remained Minoan or bedded the French vines. For this island a continent has a long tale to say and good wine is needed always when a good long story is told.
Top wineries of Crete – Cretan Tour Experts suggestions:
- Boutaris winery, at Skalani, prefecture of Heraklion.
- Lyrarakis winery at Alagni area, close to Arkalochori, prefecture of Heraklion.
- Douloufakis winery close to Dafnes, prefecture of Heraklion.
- Paterianakis winery, at Melesses area, close to Peza, prefecture of Heraklion.
- Dourakis winery, close to Alikampos, prefecture of Chania.
- Karavitakis winery, close to Tavronitis, prefecture of Chania.
Enjoy a wine-tasting and a guided tour around each one of those wineries, combined with a food tour (can be a full day tour) or a city tour.
Tsikoudia also commonly raki in the eastern part of Crete – is an alcoholic beverage, a fragrant, grape-based pomace brandy of Cretan origin that contains 40%–65% alcohol by volume, depending on the area or the producer .Tsikoudia is made by distilling of pomace, i.e., the pieces of grapes (sometimes including the stems and seeds) that were pressed for the winemaking process. The pomace is kept for about six weeks (fermentation process in jars) after the grapes have been pressed, in a tightly-sealed barrel, and then the fermented mush is distilled.
It is similar to the tsipouro made in mainland Greece, to the Spanish orujo, Italian grappa. In the eastern part of Crete tsikoudia is commonly referred to as raki, but apparently less so in the west.
It is often home-produced by individuals in villages throughout Crete, and so the alcohol content varies by producer. Typically each Cretan village has one or two residents who are licensed to distill, and tsikoudia is produced continuously for two or three weeks in late October and early November. The owner of the distillery, pay a small amount of money / symbolic and get a permit from the province.
Tsikoudia is sometimes served cold from a bottle kept in a freezer. This is commonly offered as an after dinner digestive and in most taverns in Crete it is offered as a complimentary aperitif with fruits and sweets after the meal.
It can be flavored using lemon rind) similar to Limoncello, rosemary, or honey (rakomelo). Other variations can be made with oranges and any other fruit to flavor the raki and reduce the alcohol.
The olives/Olive oil of Crete
The olive tree for most is a symbol of peace as found in the Old Testament! In fact this tree has been sacred in the Eastern Mediterranean much earlier. Very possibly Syria is where it was probably first cultivated.
Crete was the first area within Europe where this tree was cultivated and soon became a sacred tree as well. Frescoes of olive trees are seen in Bronze Age Minoan Art of Crete, engraved on rings, seal stones as well as olives remnants in sites. All the above occurred much earlier than Biblical times. Through Crete the garden of Eden of the Greek Gods and myths the olive tree arrives to Athens. This time associated with the Goddess Athena, here on just this moment we come to realize that the olive tree symbolizes not peace in an abstract way, but Peace between man and God!
That’s why olive branches were used regularly to signal the end of conflict, as well as approval of Higher Power.
Mythology has it that a long time ago a newly founded state wanted a patron God and name for itself. 2 Gods expressed an interest Poseidon the brother of Zeus who struck the sacred rock with his trident and water sprung at once, he also offered the control of all horses.
Poseidon was a very impulsive God untamed like the Wild sea his element.
The Goddess Athena, wise cautious (the first born child of Zeus born out of his head)after taking her time planted the first olive tree and the gifts it could bring…something the people would come to realize in time as wisdom and strategy was bestowed upon them.
I think we all know the God that was chosen, we all have marveled the Parthenon on the sacred rock of the Acropolis in Athens.
This resilient shallow routed tree today is embedded in the cultural, historical and culinary heritage of Greece! For olive wreaths are given still today to victorious athletes, olive oil is used in the Greek Orthodox Baptism today and olive branches together with palm branches are used on Palm Sunday to decorate entrances of Greek Orthodox Churches. The Green Gold, that is how in Crete we refer to this blessing that thrives on this full of rocks and mountains island.
So let’s discover some of these living monuments of Crete, silent witnesses of the history of our island and the Mediterranean people’s.
- Our first visit can take us to Eastern Crete Azorias Kavousi, This olive tree is a natural monument, the oldest olive tree in the world, and grafted on a rootstock of a wild olive tree…here we have the oldest sample of grafting in the world.
- Vatolakos olive tree next.
- Aerinos olive tree with a lovely tree trunk with embedded stones.
- Fourkolia olive tree near Piskokefalo.
- Genna olive tree also grafted from wild olive tree.
- Gortyna olive tree, the Gortys the Roman capital of Crete, here we can also see part of a marble column embraced by the olive tree.
- Grambela olive tree near Kandanos also grafted on a wild olive tree.
- Saint George Vardaliana at Arisanaki near Kandanos.
- Gre (old lady) Ele olive tree also grafted on a wild olive tree near Eleftherna. Amari olive tree at Monastiraki
- Mathena olive tree with its trunk forming a cave.
- Parnasos olive tree also drafted on a wild olive tree.
- Palea Roumata olive tree in Chania, this olive tree was used as a hiding place for riffles during WW2.
- Samonas olive tree at Lakkos near the Minoan settlement of Koydra.
- Kamilari olive tree.
- Paliamas olive tree this tree goes as far back as the Early Iron Age of Crete.
- The olive tree of Kamara Deliana.
- Finally in Western Crete Chania Ano Vouves one of the most popular olive trees.
Crete the cradle of European civilization, let’s see, visit these monumental trees for they are a marvelous heritage and have sunken their roots for more than 5000 years on this land, on this earth.
The honey of Crete
Crete the land of milk and honey, the birthplace of Zeus king and father of the ancient Greek Gods.
The people of the island of Crete have domesticated the bee as far back as the Bronze Age period successfully.
Melissa the bee in the Greek language, the name of a nymph, as well as the name of one of the Kourites (Melissos) guardian of baby Zeus and founder of the ancient city of Eleftherna. In mythology the ancient Greek Gods enjoyed honey, ambrosia and nectar, the first bee keeper in Hellenic Mythology was Aristaios son of Apollo and Kyrini.
Aristaios became immortal as Hours and mother earth nourished him with Ambrosia. We see here that ancient Greeks understood very well the healing powers of honey. In the Greek language Melissa-Melina-(she who brings the honey) is a name still given to women til this day. Today the bees that we find domesticated are of the Apis mellifica species.
The Cretan honey is renowned for its quality its aroma and taste. Bee hives are found through all out the island from spring through summer until autumn the bees thrive, wild flowers herbs, chestnut, pine trees and citrus blossoms are a bee’s paradise!
The Thyme honey is a category on its own alone its aroma and flavor is rich. The Sfakian Honey as well as the Lasithi Honey is famous for its quality. For centuries honey was the only sweetener in cooking in Greece until sugar was introduced, nearly all sweets, and breakfast in Crete involves some variety of honey. Pollen is also used not only for its substance rich in proteins and therapeutic elements is given to children and elderly on a daily bases.
Propolis the resin collected by bees with its antibiotic attributes used in traditional medicine or remedies.
Aristotle wrote about the bees and honey stating that the hard working bee holds a key to the balance of the Cosmos.
The people of the island of Crete that have very strong earthbound characters understand, watch and learn from nature, one of the favorite gifts a Cretan can offer or receive is good Honey. Honey with nuts and sheep’s yogurt is a sweet offered to guests and newlyweds!
Phillo pastry with honey and nuts a tiny popular sweet enjoyed through all out Crete. In Crete honey is understood tasted and enjoyed as much as good wine. The color, the aroma, the texture, the sweetness and how it might enhance types of cheese, bread or traditional dishes.
Cretan Tour Experts Travel agency and the team of professional licensed guides, takes you the land of milk and honey Crete, taste the honey of the Gods with us!
Top options for honey from Crete
Melissa Vasilissa, honey from a local family with tradition in producing honey, close to Heraklion.
Pasteli – Traditional Sesame seed candy
Sesame seed candy is a confection of sesame seeds and honey pressed into a bar or ball. It is popular on Crete as a snack, to give to the children the energy they need. The texture may vary from chewy to crisp. It may also be called sesame (seed) candy/bar/crunch; sesame seed cake may refer to the confection or to a leavened cake or cookie incorporating sesame and can be found in some areas of Crete.
On Crete sesame seed candy is called pasteli, (also known as Melekouni) and is generally a flat, oblong bar made with honey and often including nuts. Though the modern name pasteli is of Italian origin, very similar foods are documented in Ancient Greek cuisine: the Cretan koptoplakous or gastris was a layer of ground nuts sandwiched between two layers of sesame crushed with honey. Herodotus also mentions “sweet cakes of sesame and honey”, but with no detail.