CRETE ISLAND - WHAT TO EAT
No other single product is more important to Cretan food, the famous Cretan Diet and Greek cooking generally than the olive. From this small fruit, olive oil is produced. "Elixir of Life", "Liquid gold" and "Gift from the Gods" are all terms that have been applied to olive oil. Ask a Cretan farmer in his 80`s if he agrees with the exalted praise given to the humble oil he produces and he will smile widely, moustache turning up at the sides, eyes twinkling with merriment, pat his bottom lip with his finger and say: "Einai poli kala." (It is very good!)
Crete has about 60 olive trees per inhabitant so olive oil (the only oil traditionally used in cooking) is one of the staple foods. A family of four will easily use a litter a day if not more. A good restaurant must use good oil; the rest of the cooking comes second. Most people have their own supply of oil or buy from each other but of course you can buy oil in the supermarkets. If you are considering buying some really good olive oil to take back with you, it is best to buy from a producer, not because it is cheaper (which it is) but because you can find some really good oil.
The consumption of cheese in Crete is the highest in the world! An important source of proteins of high biological quality, cheese plays a central role in the Cretan diet. Sheep and goat keeping in Crete dates back to the myths of the antiquity. It is said that the milk products of Crete were the food of the great God, Zeus, who was born in a cave. His company and nurse was a goat called Amalthea. Since then animal farming in Crete has not changed. It is based on small animals (goats, sheep) while cows are few. It is also based on the free grazing. The animals of Crete are free throughout the year on the mountains or pastures and feed almost exclusively on wild plants, the incredible Cretan herbs and bushes.
Types of Cretan cheeses:
the name is a loose rendition of the word gruyere and it is a little similar. This is the standard hard cheese and being of local production, there are many types and tastes. Taste before buying.
a fresh cheese made of ewe`s milk. It can also be made of goats milk (in which case it is called katsikithia) or mixed milk. This is the standard fresh cheese. A good goat`s one will taste like these expensive French `chèvre frais` that you can buy in good delis, at a fraction of the price.
from the words `anthos` and `tiros` meaning `flower` and `cheese` it is a very mild, soft spring cheese made when the sheep pastures are still full of flowers. The closest cheese that I could compare it to is mozzarella although it is quite different.
Crete has been an important honey producer for a good few thousand years (it was a main export item to Ancient Egypt). A walk in the thyme covered hillsides will often soon reveal a crop of brightly colored bee hives. Its golden honey is mainly produced from flowers, thyme and pine trees. Crete`s golden honey is sold everywhere, and is very popular with visitors to Crete who can choose from a wide selection in the shops in the main tourist resorts. It`s a good idea to try and get the honey that`s not in the fancy jars, though. In fact, try to find a local farmer or honey producer.
These dry rusks are a traditional Cretan food full of healthy flavor when moistened with olive oil and mixed with oregano, cheese and tomatoes.
Paximadi is the hard dry bread (it is baked, cut in slices and baked again) that peasants take to the fields and soften with a little water and olive oil. It will keep forever.
One of the things that will hit you as you walk around Crete away from the towns is the smell of herbs in the air. The mountains and hillsides are literally covered in thyme and their purple flowers, as well as decent smatterings of pungent sage and fragrant rosemary. You`ll also find plenty of oregano and marjoram growing wild too. Here too is the home of Cretan Dittany or "diktamos" - this is only found here on this Island of Crete, and is renowned for its special medicinal properties. These amazing herbs of Crete (dittany is one of them) grow in the steep mountains of the island and are collected by experienced collectors, to be dried naturally and then packed in modern packing plants, with no chemical or other processing. Dittany of Crete is becoming more and more popular as an aphrodisiac too! Used as an herbal tea Dittany of Crete tastes fantastic. Buy a supply before you leave the island, they will be fresh and cheap.
Wild Greens (also known as horta) are wild mixed greens of many varieties, picked from the fields and hillsides, and even roadsides, often by the women of the village. This is peasant food par excellence: healthy, tasty and free although if you buy it at a shop some of the more interesting types (wild stamangathi for example) can command substantial prices because of the work involved in its collection and cleaning. Usually simply blanched or steamed in many parts of Greece, in Crete it is also served salad raw, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. You can also find the mixed greens as a filling for Greens Pies and in omelets.
A feature of the fruit and vegetables available in Crete is their locality and freshness. Seasonal fruit and vegetables can be seen in the markets and shops, with only a limited selection of imported food. It means that the choices can be limited but it also means that what you will buy will be cheap and fresh! A good place to see what is on offer is at a local street market in a city. There are markets on several days of the week in Chania (in different streets) but the nicest one is probably on Saturday, just ask any local where the market (called `laïki` in Greek) is located.
Not something that you would take back with you of course, but the meat here (at least the local production meat) is supposed to be as good as it was in Northern Europe some decades ago, before industrial animal husbandry became the rule. Free range animals can be seen all over the Island. You won`t have to go far to see a flock of chickens scampering freely in an open space near a farm. Particularly noteworthy of course is lamb and goat`s meat. They are not as cheap as one could think but almost all of them are free range and fed on wild herbs.
Crete is an island and fish is freely available especially in the restaurants on the coast and in fishing villages. Unfortunately, the seas around the Island are over-fished, which makes fresh fish expensive. Fishing boats can be seen at almost all the coastal villages, and you`ll see the fisherman swap his boat for a flat-bed truck to ply his wares in the tiny streets of the villages and towns near his port. You can catch a fish by flagging him down. You`ll know he`s coming because he`ll be announcing it over his truck`s tanoy. Listen out for the word psarie. A great place to buy fish is the indoor market at Chania, although the towns and large villages will have a fresh fish shop. Usually open fronted with huge marble slabs sloping down to the shop front, filled with fishes of all sizes (in the morning).