Eat like a Cretan
We all know that the best food is local and Crete has a vast array of food that is locally produced and seasonal. Visitors to Greece’s largest island, at the southernmost tip of Europe can enjoy all the tastes and health benefits of the famous Mediterranean diet, in each of its regions. Owing to its temperate Mediterranean climate, with warm Saharan winds and cool temperatures high up in the mountains, and its rich soil, Crete produces a vast range of crops, with each season offering fresh, new produce. Crete harvests a lot of olives and olive oil, grapes, as well as other fruits, vegetables, grains, wild greens and herbs. The locals have retained many old rural practices such as collecting wild greens and herbs from the mountainsides, harvesting sea salt from the coastline and tending carob trees. Farm livestock, are kept for their dairy produce such as cheese, milk, eggs and meat and their labour is a fundamental part of agricultural food production, from turning olive presses and mills to tilling the land and clearing it of weeds and wild foliage.
The Cretan Food Culture
Going to a restaurant is a regular pastime for most Cretans. They have meals out with their friends and families almost every week and sometimes even more frequently. Restaurants in Crete are generally pleasant, welcoming venues, where customers can socialize in an informal setting, eat slowly, catch up, and enjoy each other’s company. The experience of eating out is overall leisurely. In fact, most eating establishments in Crete encourage their customers to extend their meal with complimentary Raki and desserts like Kalitsounia, small cheese and herb pies, and Loukoumades, honeyed dumplings, once their main meal is finished. Unfortunately many people who visit Crete remain unaware of the amazing Cretan cuisine available outside of their hotel complexes, with their Michelin star restaurants, extensive buffets and room service menus. If you ask any local Cretan they will tell you that the best food in Crete is found locally, in authentic eating establishments situated around the city centres and away from popular tourist areas.
Authentic Cretan Eating Venues
Each region in Crete has a vast range of eating establishments, including cosy restaurants known as Tavernas and Estiatoria that serve up a vast array of Cretan, Greek and Mediterranean delicacies, always with complimentary baskets of bread, water, desserts and the infamous Cretan spirit, Raki. There are Psarotavernas, which are fish restaurants that serve freshly caught fish, baked and grilled, as well as other sea food delicacies such as octopus, squid and shrimp. Inomagiria, small informal taverns have home cooked meals known as Magirefta, such as Moussaka, layers of juicy beef or lamb mince with slices of aubergine, and Pastitsio, a baked pasta dish with ground beef, herbs and béchamel sauce. Mezedopolia, Ouzeries and Rakadika serve Meze, small plates of traditional Cretan delicacies, that pair well with house wines, Raki and Ouzo. Depending on whether you are eating in a Mezedopoleio in the Cretan mountains or by the coast, Mezedes can include air dried hams or sausages, Apaki, cured pork loin, baked meatballs, seafood fritters, grilled octopus and squid, which are always accompanied with seasonal vegetables dishes such as fava beans, wild asparagus and many other all kinds of vegetable and pulse bakes and small pies. Last but not least are the Souvlaki and Gyro restaurants known as Ovelistiria, Psistaries and Souvlatzidika, where you can eat the best street food that Crete has to offer, including seasoned and grilled meats on skewers and juicy gyros meat wrapped in pitta bread with tomatoes, chips and Tzatziki sauce, a cucumber and yoghurt dip infused with garlic. Local Cretan wines are to be discovered and every establishment will offer you their local wine which each describes as the best. Meals often end with complimentary Tsikoudia or Raki, a short and strong drink made from distilled grapes, served in little liqueur glasses.
Fresh, Seasonal and Local Cretan Produce
The Cretan cuisine has gained international acclaim for its nutritional value which encourages longevity, health and vitality. Fresh vegetables and fruits, olive oil, fresh fish and meat and local cheeses are main components of the Cretan diet. In addition to commercially produced meats like chicken and pork, visitors will see flocks of sheep roaming the countryside, free range, as well as flocks of wild and semi-wild goats. Stews of slow-cooked goat and lamb in tomato and onion sauces have the authentic taste of straightforward good home cooking. Kleftiko lamb and potatoes hark back to the days of sheep rustling and shepherds in the mountains enjoying a meal of ‘stolen’ lamb. Many Cretans enjoy parts of the animal often ignored in other countries. The intestines turned on the spit make an Easter delicacy and many will enjoy whole lamb slowly turned on a spit by villagers or each family member on Easter Sunday. Many local tavernas in towns and villages offer these authentic meat dishes, as well as other famous dishes such as Gamopilafo, goat and lamb with buttery, lemony rice and Arni Stamnangathi, a lamb dish served with rare wild greens. But the real delight of Cretan cuisine is the seasonal vegetables. From artichokes in Spring, fresh from the family garden and cooked with just-picked broad beans or Koukia, to the courgettes and aubergines of the summer, Cretans have created a singularly healthy cuisine. Local garlic, onions and a variety of lush tomatoes form the tasty sauce for many dishes which may be vegetarian or include meat or fish. Fresh or dried beans in tomato are everyday fare as well as stuffed tomatoes or Gemista. Courgettes are transformed in to Kolokithokeftedes, courgette patties, or are sliced, battered and fried. Aubergine salad or dip is a garlicky must, and, of course, aubergines are essential for Moussaka. The Cretan cooks in the kitchens on this island are often people who have cooked their entire lives for their families. They will throw handfuls of parsley or fennel into a stew or a pie to enhance the dish. The fruits of Crete are the juiciest and sweetest, from summer’s melon, Peponi, and watermelon, Karpouzi, which are often served as a gift at the end of a taverna meal, as well as a variety of red and green grapes. In summer there are also the famous Amari valley cherries, whose clouds of blossom can be seen there in the early spring. Crete also produces wild mulberries, figs and pears as well as some peaches and apples. Even the kiwi fruit is now grown and avocado trees and plantain bananas can also be seen around Crete. Feta, Graviera, Myzithra and Anthotiros are a few of many local cheeses that are consumed regularly by Cretans. The milk from sheep and goats is made into a variety of hard and soft cheeses which add to any table. Village households make their own soft cheeses like Mizithra which can be salted and dried to sprinkle on pasta or put into small, individual handmade pies. Diners will enjoy a simple, salty feta, sliced into a tomato salad called Choriatiki or simply sprinkled with oregano and drizzled with olive oil.
To Your Health!
Cretans always start a meal with Kali Orexi which means good appetite and the call of Stin Ygeia Sas, to your health, with glasses raised up high and clinked, which punctuates many a warm, tasty and informal meal. There are many Cretan delicacies to try when you visit Crete, in a range of stunning venues with beautiful views. It goes without saying that dining out locally in Crete will both satisfy your appetite and make you glow with health!