Eat: Greek food in Crete
Eat: Greek food in Crete
There are few people who don’t like Greek food, with a trip to Greece drawing visitors not only for its history, beautiful beaches, and sailing opportunities but its cuisine. The country has become one of the world’s top spots for foodies, with a big uptake in food and wine tourism in recent years. Everything from fresh seafood, cheeses, and olives to traditional dishes like souvlaki and moussaka can be enjoyed alongside tasty local and regional wines. But how did these famously delicious dishes come about?
Greek food from ancient history through Modern Times
Thanks to texts and images that have been recorded from ancient times, we know that Greek fare has played a significant role in the culture for centuries. Its influence spread to ancient Rome, throughout Europe, and well beyond.
Local Staples The first cookbook in history was written by the ancient Greeks. Their diet was founded on Mediterranean ingredients, with olives and grapes a vital aspect. It combined what’s known as the Mediterranean triad: olive oil, wine, and wheat, with frugality. While fish was commonly consumed, meat was rarely eaten. The trend continued into Roman and Ottoman times until more recent years, with meat becoming more readily available. nOne of the most wellknown staples was a black soup, melas zomos, made with the boiled blood of pigs with vinegar added to prevent emulsification.
Fusion fare in Greece can easily be traced all the way back to 350 B.C. when Alexander the Great extended the reach of the Empire from Europe to India, with various influences absorbed into the cuisine. After falling to the Romans in 146 B.C., Roman influence was blended into Greek cooking.
The Romans took Greek foods to another level, creating thin phyllo pastry dough that’s still used today to make sweetened pies, a cheese turnover called tiropita, and spanakopita, a Greek spinach pie. The Ottomans brought a touch of Central Asia, including dishes like rice pilaf. Under their rule, dishes had to be called by their Turkish names, many of which remain for popular Greek classics, like baklava, originating from the Ottoman Turkish. By the 19th-century exotic ingredients from the New World like potatoes, tomatoes, squash, and beans were all given Greek inflection.
Every recipe, like every song, travels from place to place, molded over time to take on a different character. While many Greek dishes share the same names as Turkish ones, often keeping their original names, the differences are simple and small, with each place adding its own bit of flavor. Sarma in Turkish cuisine, for example, is known as Ntolmadakia yalantzi in Greek, but they’re almost identical, only differing with the sauce that is used. In Greece, papoutsakia is prepared, but it’s called karnıyarık in Turkey made without the white sauce.
Greek foods today
Today, you’ll find that Greek foods have influence from every era, marrying vegetables and savory meats with mountain herbs tossed in. Wild game like rabbit is braised just like the early hunters did, while peppers are stuffed with ingredients that can be traced back to many different origins, including rice and cheese, nutmeg, mint, and sultana raisins. The fruit and nuts folded into sheets of dough, bathed in muscat, citrus, honey, and brandy, is a technique gifted by Byzantine chefs.
Wild sage, oregano, thyme, and rue are often gathered by the locals to make wine, while vine leaves growing on trellises are a favorite part of Greek meals too, frequently made into dolmades (stuffed dishes). The climate is ideal for producing many of the herbs used in wine and for cooking. They’re gathered and often hung in bundles on the rafters of stone homes. But herbs are not only used for flavoring foods; they’re used as medicines, like Chamomile, to help calm or soothe a cold.
Each region, island, and even towns tend to have its own particular local ingredients that are popular in dishes, like Santorini’s capers that grow wild and are brined in salt. Yellow lentils might be topped with everything from sardines and tapenade. Farm-totable food is a way of life in Greece, but there may be no better way to experience it than a visit to Crete.
Image: Domes Zeen Hotel, Crete
The Cretan diet: one of the healthiest and tastiest
The Cretan diet is widely regarded to be among the healthiest on the planet, with people here often living long lives. It’s been based on farmto-table ingredients centuries before becoming the popular worldwide trend that it is today, with the way of living and eating passed down for generations.
Island inhabitants have long relied on the land for nearly everything they ate. Cardiovascular disease was practically unheard of, and cancer was even more rare. While the population has been primarily made up of poor farmers, they worked their fields, spending their days outdoors in a beautiful natural environment, consuming plenty of tasty fresh fruits and vegetables alongside a glass of wine or two at every meal.
A study conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation shortly after the Second World War described the island diet as lots of greens, vegetables, and pulses (crops harvested as dry grains like legumes). That was followed up by a study that began in 1958, focused on multiple countries across the globe which found that Cretans lead in longevity. Researchers discovered that a dramatically higher proportion of the population was living past 100, much of which was accredited to diet and lifestyle. The people firmly believe no one should eat alone, long-lived not only because of the food but as Cretans say, “because they break bread and drink wine together.”
After the study results were revealed in the 1990s, the word about the island’s cuisine quickly began to spread, making it famous around the world.
The deep roots of Cretan food
Many of the foods eaten on Crete today were consumed during the Minoan era. The Minoans lived here during the Bronze Age (3000 to 1100 BC) and built the Palace of Knossos, one of the most popular attractions in Greece today. Their diet included food from the sea like fish, sea snails, and barnacles. Meat from animals that were hunted or bred like sheep, goat, rabbit, cattle, and pigs, were also part of the diet. In later Minoan periods, wild deer was also on the plate.
Thanks to excavations, we know that ancient people ate many legumes like beans and lentils, fruits and nuts, and cereals such as barley, along with olive oil and wine. Even just a century ago, the diet is believed to have been more like that of the Minoans than modern Greece due to a lack of refrigeration. Various forms of traditional food preservation had to be used with small-scale vegetable crops forming eating habits similar to the ancient civilization.
Image: Domes Zeen Hotel
Today, foodies are often drawn to Crete to enjoy the simple but delicious dishes made with no cream and a few tasty spices. You might find pork with cracked wheat, sea bass with purslane, chicken with peas, or a slab of juicy lamb ribs cooked in honey and a side of potatoes with lemon juice, olive oil, and honey.
The island even has its own special bees that are known for producing especially tasty honey. A slice of Gruyere drizzled with honey is a favorite dessert. Salads are plentiful here too – in fact, there is even a saying about it, “if you have a field, don’t let a cow or Cretan in. They’ll eat all the greens. Some say, eating in Crete is like eating in the Garden of Eden.
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