Crete may be just an island but it has the diversity of a continent and a very distinct identity in all things, including food. The Cretan Diet, consisting of masses of greens, rusks, pulses and lots of olive oil, is world famous for its health benefits but there is much more to delight the palate. What are the sources of a cuisine at once delicious and good for you?
The culinary history of Crete is astonishingly long. Eight thousand years ago, the first Cretans were already growing barley and emmer wheat and herding sheep, pigs, goats and even cows. A few thousand years later they had domesticated the vine and the olive tree and had a repertoire that included greens and nuts, grains and pulses, grapes, figs and pomegranates, fish, octopus, sea urchins and snails, as well kid, lamb and beef. They also kept bees for honey. One could argue, as Andrew Dalby does in Siren Feasts, that the beginning of gastronomy was marked by the enhancement of basic gruels, roasts and stews with fruit, nuts and honey, turning food into enjoyment beyond mere survival.
Later on heavy meat consumption was frowned upon but eating birds was considered ok and the Cretans ate everything from songbirds to pigeons, ducks, geese and quail.
Sometime around the 7th century BC, the chicken arrived from the east. Later on rice, eggplants, oranges and lemons made their appearance while tomatoes and potatoes are very recent but have had a profound impact on Cretan food.
A major influence on the Cretan way of eating came from the Orthodox church, which introduced strict fasting periods, forcing the island’s cooks to come up with ingenious ways of enlivening their Lenten foods. They have managed this so successfully that many actually prefer some of the fasting foods to the festive meals (more on this in another post).
Although the island was occupied by the Romans and Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, and Turks, all of whom might have been expected to leave their fingerprints in the pie, the greatest influence from outside probably came from the exchange of populations in 1923, following Greece’s disastrous campaign in Asia Minor. Several thousand Greeks from the western coast of Turkey were resettled in Crete and they brought with them a more oriental and spice-based culinary tradition, exemplified by soutzoukakia, meat balls shaped liked fat cigars in a tomato sauce intensely flavored with cumin, pilaffs with pine nuts, currants and raisings, augolemono (egg-lemon sauce), halva (semolina puddings), and baklava.
During and after WWII Crete was reduced to hunger and rediscovered its traditional foods of grains, greens and olive oil, the basis of the famous Cretan diet. When prosperity began to return and with the huge influx of unadventurous tourists, many Cretan tavernas and restaurants began offering ‘safe’ menus of standard Greek fare, like grilled lamb chops and mousaka. Fortunately, more discerning visitors are beginning to arrive and with them more and more establishments are turning to their traditional specialties and inventing new ones with Crete’s fabulous fresh produce.
A few of the famous foods to seek out in Crete:
Cheeses: Several varieties of gravieras made from the milk of sheep and goats and aged in the mountains, soft graviera, malaka, conical and slightly sweet myzithra, tangy and salty xynomyzithra.
Pies: Crete has an incredible variety of pies, one of the most famous being the boureki, a pie made with zucchinis and potatoes. Many others are stuffed with one of the cheeses above along with herbs and sprinkled with sesame seeds. They can be sweet or savory and are almost invariably delicious.
Rusks: Ranging in size from half an inch or four or five, they can be flavoured with anise, cinnamon, almonds, coriander, orange juice, raisins or nothing at all, they can be little white slices or brown bricks. The latter are the base for Dakos in which they become a plate for chopped tomatoes, myzithra, olive oil and oregano.
Sweets: Delectable pastries filled with raisings, honey, nuts and sesame seeds come with names stafidota (filled raisin-almond biscuits) and stafidopitta (heavenly raisin cake).
All information are based on Diana Farr Louis book “Feasting and Fasting in Crete”.