Cretan Food: Ingredients, Approach and PhilosophyWhen it comes to Cretan food, you could say it features the three F’s: freshness, fragrance and family.
Wild Herbs and GreensAs we drove from Heraklion, the provincial capital of Crete, civilization quickly yielded to nature. “Pull over here,” Viki implored us as we made our way into the hills. We did.
She hopped out of the car and scampered off the side of the road, and returned a minute later with armfuls of wild sage, oregano, thyme and marjoram. The car filled instantly with fresh and fragrance. It was out of this world.
She also pointed to several plants growing nearby: “You can pick those for wild salads. We have over thirty kinds of wild greens in our mountains.”
The Cretan countryside smells of wild herbs and flowers. Oregano is perhaps the most common herb used, but sage, thyme, parsley, marjoram, basil (different than Italian basil), fennel, and dill also play a prominent role. On Crete, you’ll find them used on salads, in dishes and also in beautiful, cleansing blends of herbal tea.
Cretan Vegetables and FruitsOne woman joked with us: “If you think this tomato is good, you should have tasted one from when I was a kid. Pure gold.”
Maybe so, but we were still impressed by the selection of local produce in the markets. Every time we went to a restaurant we learned that the food came from a nearby farm or village. And it tasted that way, too.
From pomegranates to peppers, Cretan produce is all about the crisp, the fresh, the retained flavor.
Olive OilOlive oil is the most important ingredient in Cretan cuisine. Virtually everything has a spoonful (or two or three) of olive oil thrown on top. Some Cretan dishes even swim in the golden liquid, only to their benefit. Savory pastries are fried in olive oil. Try french fries in olive oil and you’ll be spoiled.
Crete features over 1.5 million olive trees. If you are born on Crete, it seems like a birthright that you own at least a few.
To place the importance of olive oil to the Cretan diet in perspective, consider that average olive oil consumption in Germany and the United States runs about 0.5 liters/person annually. In Crete, it’s 25 liters per person per year. The best and healthiest olive oil, natural to Crete, has acidity levels of under 1, with 0.3-0.6 being the ideal.
Crete Eating: Family StyleBefore jumping into our favorite eating experiences on Crete, a note on the local style of eating. Family style is the name of the game: everyone shares.
Our guide, Ioanna, chuckled at us before we figured this out. As we served salad to our plates from the community bowl, she observed as a Cretan might, “You are strange. Just use your fork and eat right out of the bowl.”
Agreed. Community eating binds us, and it just might make meals taste that much better.
Getting Started: Cretan Appetizers and SidesDakos: A very typical Cretan dish. Rusks, a traditional dried bread that is baked several times and kept for months, is moistened in a bit of water, and topped with grated tomato, olive oil, cheese and oregano. Crunchy, light and full of flavor, it makes a perfect snack.
Marinated and pickled vegetables: Artichokes, wild onion bulbs, black and green olives are just the beginning of a mountain of marinated appetizer goodies that you’ll find on Crete. If small plate eating is your thing, this is where experience begins.
Fasolakia: Fresh beans cooked with a little crushed tomato and olive oil. The simplicity of this dish belies its taste and reminds us never to judge a book by its cover.
Dolmades: Stuffed grape leaves, usually with a rice, herb and ground meat mixture. This dish is not specific to Crete; it’s popular throughout this side of the Mediterranean.
Crete cheese: There’s certainly no shortage of cheese on Crete. Among the main varieties you’ll find: anthotiros, a sheep and goat cheese that’s mild and soft when it’s fresh and salty and earthy when hard; kefalotiri, a firm sheep or goat cheese, and mizithra, the typical fresh cheese of Crete made from sheep’s milk (and when made from goat’s milk it’s called katsikithia).
Graviera, the typical hard cheese of Crete is usually made with sheep’s milk. Although the name sounds suspiciously like gruyere, graviera is nothing like its Swiss sister namesake. Also delicious when fried and served hot.
The best introduction to Cretan cheese is a walk through the market (preferably with some knowledgeable locals) and sampling visits to a handful of cheese stands. We did our Cretan cheese deep dive at the Atsalenio Wednesday market in Heraklion.
Kalitsounia Kritis: A pastry crust stuffed with a slightly sweet Cretan cheese mixture (often including mizithra). Their sweetness implies dessert, but they are also served as appetizers.