The traditional Cretan Cooking

"The Cretan diet ultimately is really the Cretan lifestyle, where meals are not only inherently healthful but also social occasions for family and friends to gather. There is little stress and much joy in eating the way a typical Cretan does. All these things combined make for what is now coined "the Cretan diet." 

Cretan Diet and Recipes, cretanfood.blogspot.com 

For decades the traditional diet from the Mediterranean area has been recognised as the healthiest food in the world. Several scientific studies conducted since the 1950'es have supported this. One such study of 16 populations from 7 different countries ('The Seven Countries Study' from 1960) indicated that the rural Cretan population had the lowest mortality rate from heart attack and cancer compared to all the other examined populations. This could be directly attributed to the traditional Cretan diet, part of which dates as far back as Minoan times 4.000 years ago. 

However, as things have changed in Crete the present day diet of most Cretans is different and doesn't have quite the same health improving effects. In short the traditional food of the Cretans contains mostly native ingredients like, wild greens, lemons, oranges, lentils, beans, barley, and other vegetables, olive oil as the main fatty substance, bread (carbohydrates), fish and shellfish, only little meat and wine in moderate quantities. It is not each ingredient by itself but the combination of them which results in the wholesomeness of the diet. What's more, Crete has the highest number of organically grown products in all of Greece. 

The Cretan Cuisine 

When you stay in Villa Talea you're in the country. So forget about burgers, steaks and sandwiches and start exploring the wonderful world of 'Κρητική κουζίνα' - the Cretan Cuisine. Many of the traditional Cretan dishes have travelled through centuries and arrived almost unchanged with us today. We have recommended some of the nearby restaurants. Here you will be able to try out different Cretan specialities for yourself, but there are many others. In our general experience if you go inland you will have - sometimes in the most unlikely places - the most rewarding culinary experiences. 

Greek breakfast: A coffee and a cigarette 

It's a joke of course, but it is true, though, that the Greeks smoke a lot and in Greece like most other Mediterranean countries breakfast is not a big thing. (It's not part of the traditional healthy diet either). A simple Greek breakfast includes honey and marmalade on slices of bread and a cup of Greek coffee. Otherwise the breakfast may include various kinds of pastry like 'τυρóπιτα' (tyrópita), cheese pies or 'σπανακόπιτα' (spanakópita), spinach pies. Both of which can also be had just as a snack during the day. 

Greek coffee 

The Greek Coffee used to be called 'τουρκικός καφές' (turkikós kafés), Turkish coffee. But after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 when relations between Turkey and Greece deteriorated the name was changed to 'ελληνικός καφές' (ellinikós kafés), Greek coffee. The coffee remains the same, but you better remember not to ask for Turkish coffee when in Greece. 

Greek coffee is made from very finely grinded dark roast coffee beans. One or two heaped teaspoons of coffee per cup are added to cold water together with sugar as desired. The mix is stirred until all coffee sinks and the sugar is dissolved. The coffee is brought to boil, then poured into cups. It is usually served with a glass of water on the side. If you ask for your coffee to be 'μέτριο' (metrio) it will be medium sweet. 'βαρύγλυκο' (varigliko) means strong and sweet and σκέτο (sketo) is without sugar. 

Μεζέδες (Mezédhes) Appetizers 

A good way of getting to know the Cretan kitchen is to try a platter of μεζέ (mezé), which consists of different little appetizers. (A bit like the Spanish 'tapas' although the ingredients are different). It has been a part of the Greek culinary traditions since antiquity. The word is probably Persian in origin meaning something like 'taste' or 'snack'. 

It can be a lot of different things and you can have it anywhere. Sometimes you get it even if you don't ask for it, as you will usually get something to eat if you order drinks. In Greek homes drinks and mezédhes, are offered to guests. The idea of the mezé is to serve a balanced variety of different flavours in little samples. A lot of little different dishes, hot or cold made from fresh or cooked ingredients. You can have fresh or fried vegetables, nuts, creamy salads, salty olives, smoked or grilled fish and meat, sausages, little savoury pies, cheese, fruit and an endless number of other things. 

Τα Χόρτα (Ta Chorta), The wild greens. 

A fascinating thing about the Cretan kitchen is the widespread use of wild greens. On Crete about 200 wild species are eaten and 'mountain greens' are an important part of the menu in the homes as well as in the restaurants. They are hand-picked by the villagers from the plains and mountains. 'Ta Chorta' simply means grasses and is used as an umbrella term for various edible but uncultivated leafy greens. 'Σταμναγκάθι' (Stamnagathi), a slightly bitter wild green, is quite common. In English it's called Spiny Chicory, (Cichorium spinosum). Another common green is 'βλίτα' (vlita) in English Palmer Pigweed or Careless weed, (Amaranthus palmeri). 

Cheese from Crete 

If you travel in the mountainous areas of Crete you may come across a round stone building with domed stone roof. It will be a 'μητάτο' ('mitáto), a shelter, where the shepherd can rest while watching his flock. It also used to be the place where the Cretan cheese was made. A few shepherds still make their own cheese up here in the mountains but mostly, the milk is brought down to the local dairy. 

Feta is not as commonly used on Crete as elsewhere in Greece. Below are descriptions of three of the most common types of cheese from Crete. 

'Γραβιέρα' (Graviera) is a hard cheese with a slightly sweet taste which comes in many different types. It is a traditional cheese made in Crete. It is made from ewe's milk sometimes mixed with small quantities of goat's milk. It is ripened for at least 5 months. 

Μυζήθρα (Mizithra) is a traditional Greek whey cheese which has been around for thousands of years in Greece. You can have either fresh, unsalted or slightly salted Mizithra (which tastes a bit like the French 'Chèvre Frais') or you can have dried Mizithra which is salted, dried and used as grated cheese. Mizithra is made from whey derived from ewe’s, goats’ or cows’ milk or mixtures of milks. 

Ανθότυρος (Anthotiros) is a mild, soft cheese made in the spring. The word means 'flower cheese'. It is mainly made from whey of ewe’s or goats’ milk. Like Mizithra you can have it either fresh or dried and salted. Fresh Anthotiros is used as table cheese or for cheese-pastries. Dried Anthotiros as grated cheese. 

A Kitchen with Oriental Roots 

Many of the dishes found in Crete and Greece have their origin in the Ottoman kitchen. Μουσακάς (moussakas) comes from the Arabic musaqqa`a meaning 'chilled'. The sweet pastry called μπακλαβα (baklava) may actually be originally Greek, but some say it is originally Chinese!. Anyway, it is widespread in many of the former Ottoman countries. Also τζατζίκι (tzatziki) and, κεφτέδες (keftedhes), meatballs, are names with Turkish or Persian roots. Some dishes may be pre-Ottoman, only taking Turkish names later like ντολμάδες (dolmathes), stuffed grape leaves, which may be from the early Byzantine period. A few dishes are influenced by Venetian (Italian) cuisine, such as παστίτσιο (pastitsio), Greek Lasagne or μακαρόνια με κιμά (makarónia me kimá), a Greek version of spaghetti with meat sauce. 

Some traditional Cretan and Greek dishes 

'Χοχλιοί' (kochli), snails

Since antiquity snails have been a popular dish in Crete. Snails are prepared in different ways. They are eaten boiled with vinegar, or cooked with tomato, potatoes and squashes or fried in olive oil with lemon. There is an old traditional Cretan dish called 'χοχλιοί μπουρμπουριστοί' (kochli bourbouristi), popping fried snails, which is very delicious. 

Ντάκος (Dakos)

Until recently white bread was only consumed at festivals and other special occasions on Crete. The daily bread was dark brown made from wheat, barley, and rye. From this comes a delicious appetizer called Ντάκος (Dakos). It is a kind of rusk, made with barley topped with tomato, soft cheese, olives, oregano and olive oil). 

Goat or lamb

On Crete you can have mountain goat or lamb prepared in various ways. As fricassee, with artichokes or asparagus, wild greens (stamnagathi), with mizithra cheese, with okras or vine shoots or yoghurt just to mention a few varieties. 

'Κλέφτικο' (Kleftiko)

'Κλέφτικο' (Kleftiko) comes from the word 'kleftis', meaning 'thief'. It is lamb made in an oven made from a pithoi. The large clay pots which have been made on Crete since Minoan times. An oven made from such a pot can hold enormous quantities of meat so with a row of these ovens hidden in the mountains (called 'thieves kitchens') a sheep thief could secretly cook and preserve stolen meat and then sell it later. 

Today 'kleftiko' is usually made in an ordinary oven as the clay used for making a 'pithoi' today contains lead which may poison the meat and only a few have old ovens made this way. But the dish is a reminiscence of Crete's old tradition of livestock theft and the life of the tough men of the mountains. 

Pork

Pork is also widely used. As απάκι (apaki), smoked ham or λουκάνικο' (loukaniko), pork sausage for example. 'Σουβλάκι' (souvlaki), meat grilled on a skewer, was traditionally made with pork. Today other kinds of meat are also used (lamb, chicken or fish). The word souvlaki is a diminutive of souvla (skewer). 

Fish and seafood

Fish and seafood is another delight. Try having χταπόδι (Chtapodi), octopus, either 'psito' (fried) or 'krasato' (cooked in wine) or 'κακκαβιά' (kakkavia), a fish soup with lemon, olive oil, potatoes and onions. So many more dishes could be mentioned. But you'd better go and try them yourself. 

Τσικουδιά (Tsikoudiá)
The Cretan 'fire-water' 

Perhaps better known as 'Raki' which is the name used elsewhere in Greece, this spirit is the clear strong drink most people become acquainted with during their visit to Crete as it is usually offered after dinner in the restaurants and tavernas. It is produced from the grape stems and skins left over from the wine production. After the harvest in August, the grapes are crushed for wine. The left over (called 'strafylo') is kept in barrels where it ferments until October / November. 

To do the distillation you must have a licence, which is usually held by one or two families in the village. The other villagers bring their 'strafylo' to the small distillery which consists of a copper pot with a lid and a funnel leading to a water cooled tank. The 'strafylo' is placed in the pot on top of thyme branches. Then the lid is sealed and a fire is lighted under the pot. The steam from the contents is slowly funnelled to the tank where it is cooled and transformed to liquid - tsikoudiá. In the video below you can follow the entire process.