A foodie guide to Crete
Of all the local products that Crete lavishes on its guests, nothing captures its essence quite like olive oil. It fuels the long life of locals (rich in antioxidants), brings together families and communities (especially at harvest time) and – above all – tastes delicious. No self-respecting Cretan household will be without a bottle or, more likely, a canister of local olive oil.
An astonishing 30 million trees and two-thirds of Crete’s cultivatable land are said to be dedicated to olive production. And it goes without saying that most of it is extra-virgin. There are plenty of olive presses you can visit, offering olive oil-tasting and guides who will explain the secret to why Crete’s olive oil is unlike any other in Greece.
Strike up a conversation about Cretan food with a local and they’ll tell you that all their local products are special. Vegetables grow in harmony with the seasons: peas, asparagus, courgettes, fava and other pulses from early spring; beans, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers and fennel from May; tomatoes, potatoes, squash and okra throughout the summer and well into the autumn; and carrots, broccoli, beetroot, cauliflower, spinach and – wait for it – avocado in winter. And that’s just a snapshot. It’s an island that never ceases to surprise. Its carob trees, for instance, make up the largest natural forest in the southern Mediterranean, with carob flour growing in popularity in breads and pasta.
As for the fruit… it’s not just the sunshine, but also the landscape and the soil that contribute to the flavours – PDO oranges from Maleme in Chania, cherries from Gerakari in Rethymno, apples from the Lassithi plateau, figs, grapes, prickly pears… you name it. Uniquely in Greece, Crete produces bananas and mangoes. Cultivation can be on a scale large enough for export or just a fruit & vegetable patch for a household or restaurant.
Meanwhile, wild greens have been central to the Cretan diet for centuries, eaten not just for their complexity of tastes but also for their health benefits. If you see a local bent over in a field, they’ll be foraging for wild greens or herbs such as sage, oregano and thyme. Beet greens, dandelion leaves, dittany, stamnagathi and dozen more greens become focal points of Cretan dishes or delicious accompaniments, wilted and served with nothing more than olive oil and a twist of lemon. And the same mountain thyme that gives such depth to cooked dishes is equally irresistible to bees that produce some of the best thyme-honey in Greece.
Although traditionally eaten sparingly, meat is given pride of place in home cooking and festival food in Crete – especially lamb but also goat, pork and chicken. Beef dishes are more scarce but they do feature. But the main product from the sheep and goats you’ll see roaming on the hillside is cheese and yogurt. The king of Cretan cheeses is graviera Kritis – hard, yellow and spicy and popular all over Greece. It can be eaten with bread or a meze with olives, tomatoes and wine.
The variety of Cretan cheeses is astounding – myzithra, xynomyzithra, pichtogalo from Chania and xigalo from Sitia, anthotyro, kefalotyri, malaka, tirozouli. The list goes on. When you’re at the delicatessen and supermarket cheese counter, ask to try a few. And there’s a secret dairy product that gives a unique taste to so many Cretan dishes, staka, similar to clarified butter and traditionally made from ewe’s or goat’s cream. It’s as close as traditional Cretan cuisine gets to using butter.
Last but not least, there are the cold cuts – allantika, as they’re known. Synglina and apaki stand out – salted pork tenderloin, marinated in mountain herbs, olive oil and vinegar and then smoked. Once they’d hang in kitchen fireplaces (the only source of heat in traditional Cretan houses), slowly being smoked to preserve them for the cold winter months. You’ll find them in butcheries and supermarkets and as ingredients lighting up inventive new dishes in some of the most modern restaurants in Chania, Heraklion, Rethymno and Agios Nikolaos.