Cretan Cuisine

On Crete, cooking is an art, since it follows specific rules, but preserves a sense of freedom that permits dozens of variations and different dishes. Food is prepared in simple ways, usually roasted, boiled or stewed. Combinations are modest but ingenious. The products used are always edible and seasonal, aiming at maximum utilisation and at bringing out their unique flavour.

Olive oil is the only fatty substance used from the Minoan era to the present day. However, as proven by various archaeological findings, the olive tree had already appeared throughout Crete during the Middle and Later Mesolithic period. It is estimated that oil production in that age must have been approximately 11,000 tonnes, without taking into consideration the enormous quantities of edible olives, which were consumed much more frequently than today. It should be noted that there are olives that mature while on the tree (stafidolies) and can be eaten without any previous processing.
Wild greens are usually eaten raw or boiled. For most months of the year, each family meal or dinner includes a salad with at least eight different types of greens. Wild greens with an intense scent are usually used to prepare small pies.

Vegetables are eaten raw, boiled or stewed in a light tomato sauce. Tomatoes are not frequently used in sauces, which are usually transparent and viscous and are mainly restricted to simple egg-and-lemon mixtures, lemon-and-oil mixtures, with vinegar or lemon juice.

Pulses are mainly eaten during long fasts, which are strictly observed. We often find novel combinations with fish or meat, which are still called by their Byzantine name: magiremata or magiries.
Meat mostly comes from kid, sheep, rabbits, poultry and, during wintertime, pigs. Kids and sheeps which remain free range, even today, and feed on wild greens, herbs and shoots; as a result, their meat has a pleasantly firm, fat-free flavour.

Snails, perhaps more than in any other cuisine in the world, including French cuisine, hold a unique place in Cretan cuisine, since they feature as the main ingredient in more than 25 dishes.

Fish and mollusks, whether cured or French, are consumed in the hinterland in even smaller quantities than meat; they are boiled, roasted or preserved in a mixture of olive oil, vinegar and aromatic herbs. On the contrary, in coastal regions, urchin soup, fish stew, octopus pilaf and shrimp pilaf, even crabs and all types of oysters are considered delicacies. The consumption of seaweed, which only takes place in western Crete, may be unique for Greek gastronomic habits.

The bread consumed at daily meals includes at least two types of flour, wheat and barley, while the main sweetening agents used up until 50 years ago were grape syrup and the renowned thyme honey.
Sweets are distinguished into four main categories:

  • Small and large pies, using various types of dough, filled with soft cheeses and covered with honey
  • Preserved sweets, using all edible fruit grown on the island
  • Sweets containing dried fruit and nuts, such as walnuts and almonds (patouda, karydopita, amygdalota) and
  • Baked sweets and feast breads, prepared with white wheat flour and plentiful flavouring and mainly kneaded with olive oil.

Dairy products are more important than fish and meat in the Cretan diet. They include the renowned Cretan xinochondros, a splendid blend of cracked wheat and whey. The Byzantine people considered Cretan cheeses to be the finest in the Mediterranean, while Venetians consumed large quantities of Cretan cheeses and prohibited their export from the island. The best known, even today, are anthotyros, graviera, kefalotyri and sour Chania mizithra.

One could list dozens of other products and their numerous variations, creating an endless gastronomic list that is the product of an accumulated dietary culture that has astoundingly preserved flavours, scents and even the names of Cretan dishes unchanged for centuries .

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