Health-boosting foods of the Cretan diet

It all started with an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. That’s when I became fascinated with Crete.

Sure, it looked beautiful, but so does most of the Mediterranean. What really made me sit up straight – and elicited Bourdain’s effusive approval – was the prevalence of wild greens in the diet.

I used to live in Northern Greece, where I came to love grilled fish, fried calamari, tzatziki, souvlaki, baklava, moussaka, dolmades, phyllo pies, and a hundred other delectable specialties. But greens? The only green I remember came from cucumber and oregano.

Now that we’ve been there ourselves, we can happily offer this overview of what to eat in Crete, and some tips on where to sample it – including those mouth-watering superfoods, wild greens.

 

Koutsounari taverna sunset Crete Greece

Ready to enjoy the Cretan diet? Pull up a seat at a taverna with a view, like this one in Koutsounari.

 

 

The Cretan diet: the quintessential Mediterranean Diet

 

We have all heard that the “Mediterranean Diet” is among the world’s healthiest, but did you know that the Cretan diet principally defined it?

The truth is that the Mediterranean is a diverse area with disparate cuisines. The term “Mediterranean Diet” refers to the one high in fruits and vegetables, moderate in whole grains, and low in animal-based foods which was studied in the famous Seven Countries Study launched in the 1950s that provided over 50 years of data. The places used for the study in Greece, and considered representative of this diet, were Corfu and Crete.

While their diet was among the highest in fat (mostly olive oil), they had low incidences of heart disease. Though the study has been critiqued repeatedly*, subsequent studies have confirmed and further investigated Crete’s relatively low incidences of heart disease and cancer, and increased longevity.

 

Foods in Crete

 

Olive oil

Even before greens we must mention olive oil, which in Crete is its own food group, and used in startling quantities. It helps to regulate cholesterol and weight, reduce inflammation and oxidative damage, plus may help retard the development of certain cancers.

Crete is the world’s third-largest producer of olive oil and has the highest consumption per capita.

 

Greens and vegetables

High in anti-aging antioxidants which battle cancer and heart disease, as well as vitamins and minerals, the wild mountain greens or “horta” (there are tens of varieties) of Crete truly do find their way to almost every table.

The greens can be incorporated into main dishes or into crusty phyllo-dough pies, but the most common manner is steamed or simmered, doused with olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt and lemon (the latter helps the body absorb iron); the dish could not be more simple – or more healthy. Somehow the flavors combine perfectly and create something totally unique. It’s culinary alchemy.

Tip: Where better to sample wild greens than Chania’s favorite organic farm-to-table restaurant, Glossitses (at the mouth of the Venetian Harbor, overlooking the lighthouse)? 

(Interesting note: “horta” means grass, and the word for vegetarian, “hortofagos,” can be translated as “grass eater.”)

Onions and zucchini are the prominent vegetables, but be on the lookout for fresh artichokes in spring and zucchini flowers in summer. If you’re in Chania, try the regional boureki, which has layers of potatoes, zucchini (or pumpkin), myzithra cheese and mint. You’ll find it with and without a crust.

 

steamed horta

Disclosure: this picture of wild greens was taken in Croatia. While in Crete, I was too busy eating to photograph them!

 

Fruits

Ready for dessert? Don’t be surprised to see an orange on the menu, or an apple. Fruit is traditionally consumed throughout the day, providing more antioxidants and healthy fiber that helps to regulates cholesterol.

One new discovery here was candied fruit – not something I’ve ever particularly liked, but the Cretans do it right. They often use slightly bitter bases, like orange peels, and pair them with strong raki (see below). By the end of our trip, a meal didn’t seem right without this combination “digestive aid.”

 

Whole grains

The typically seven-grain bread of Crete is most often represented by paximadi, which is twice-baked and hard as a rock until softened with a bit of water and olive oil. Dakos is the Cretan bruschetta, with chopped fresh tomatoes, crumbled white cheese, and a shake of oregano and sea salt.

 

decorative bread in Rethymno window, Rethymno, Crete

Bread as art, in Rethymno’s Old Town

 

Animal-based foods

Yogurt

Everybody knows (and most people love) the creamy, protein-rich Greek yogurt. Here, it’s often made from sheep’s milk – an added treat.

 

Cheese

Myzithra is the local standout, but the list of Cretan cheeses is too extensive to list here. Sheep, goat, fresh, cured, crumbled, sliced, pan-fried, baked … Crete’s got it all, but sparingly. The cheese here is more like a condiment, and less like a course. Except, of course, when you feast on bougatsa – similar to Greek tiropita – a cheese pie decadently sprinkled with sugar, which we highlighted in our post on Chania.

Tip: We already mentioned the no-name café in Agios Nikolaos for pan-fried saganaki, but must also highlight what is certainly the most gluttonous display of cheese – and Ben’s favorite on Crete – the four-cheese saganaki at Kalderimi in Chania, which is a large, molten cheese dip.

 

Fish

Seafood is increasingly expensive in the Mediterranean because it has been overfished, but that fits right into the Cretan diet, where fish was typically consumed only a couple times a week. When you do sample it, it’s delicious. Plus, the omega 3s help with heart health, weight, and mood.

Tip: Our favorite seafood restaurant in Crete was Thalassino Ageri in Chania.

Another tip: Seafood isn’t the only fish on Crete. Be sure to try fresh trout when you’re in the mountains.

 

Sunset at Thalassino Ageri. Ben said the fish jumping at the water near our feet were the local protesters.

Sunset at Thalassino Ageri. Ben said the fish jumping at the water near our feet were the local protesters.

 

Red meat

Most restaurant menus now have plenty of meat dishes to offer , since tourists demand them and revenues rise with them, but traditionally these were feast dishes, reserved for special occasions. Lamb, kid and pork, not cows, are the traditional meats of Crete. Gamopilafo, the wedding pilaf, is rice simmered in meat broth.

 

Snails

Snails are a popular food on the island, with restaurants specializing in just this. They are a good source of vitamins A, C and D, and amino acids.

But I didn’t try them. After a bad snail experience as a teenager (it involved braces), I just haven’t been able to gather the courage!

 

Drinks

Raki

Raki is the Cretan version of grappa, a strong clear liquor that is supposed to be a digestive aid. I wasn’t a big fan, but unless you get up and leave without paying the check, it will be served to you after dinner regardless of whether you order it.

By the end of our trip I didn’t want it any other way! Ice cold and served with candied fruit, it makes the perfect end to a meal (and the perfect beginning to a late night).

A particularly yummy raki specialty is rakomelo, raki combined with honey, cloves and cinnamon. It is served warm in winter and room temperature in summer. Definitely worth drinking all year.

Tip: The first batch of this distilled liquor will send fire down your throat! Request raki from the second pass: its lower alcohol content makes for a more enjoyable sipping experience. If that’s not available, take Ben’s advice and exhale, rather than inhale, as you drink.

 

Wine

We were excited to try Crete’s wines, but production is limited. We saw far more raki and frappes than local wine on the island.

 

Greek frappe

A frothy frappe, served at the Alcanea Cafe in Chania

 

Frappe

This is definitely not a traditional Cretan drink, but it’s so ubiquitous that I feel obliged to list it. Made with Nescafe instant coffee and shaken in a special contraption (adding milk and sugar is optional and recommended), the result is a frothy iced coffee drink that tastes like nothing Starbucks has ever served.

 

Herbs

The king and queen of Cretan herbs are oregano and mint, but the island is covered in wild Mediterranean herbs that add fragrance to air and homes alike.

 

Honey

Another quasi-food-group, honey enhances everything from yogurt in the morning to flaky phyllo pastries after lunch to rakomelo after dinner. It is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and in Crete – a place with a strong tradition of producing honey that dates back over thousands of years – it tastes divine.

 

One to the left and one to the right: we weren't the only ones ready to enjoy an amazing dinner in Crete

One to the left and one to the right: we weren’t the only ones ready to enjoy an amazing dinner in Crete

 

* One of the most interesting was that it failed to account for traditional fasting among its Greek Orthodox subjects, who basically consume a vegan diet throughout lent and during the remaining fast days of the year (180 in total). 

 

Special thanks to the Crete Tourism Board for invaluable assistance with planning this trip. To read about our commitment to candid and balanced reviews, see our disclosures page.

Comments

  1. You covered all bases! Yummy!

  2. Kristen says:

    Wow! Great photos, interesting tidbits of information, and I find myself yearning for a healthy meal. Sitting in a Cretan taverna overlooking the sea would make it perfect. Every blog you write makes me want to visit the location and my list is growing.
    Funny comment about the snails, that’s right up there with the shrimp experience.

  3. jessica says:

    I love this post! Yum! As a “grass eater,” I love the idea of wild mountain greens being standard fare at restaurants! Oh, the amount of iceberg lettuce I’ve had to endure stateside… If only there could be more cretian restaurants in my neighborhood :) My stomach is begging me to buy a plane ticket now!

  4. Jessica – Hmm, I like the thought of a Cretan restaurant craze sweeping the world…though in the meantime, yes, I think a plane ticket or home recipes are the only ways :-(

  5. I’m curious to try the raki and candied fruit. It sounds like an interesting combination.
    I’m definitely on the Cretan ‘health food’ bandwagon. Bring it on! :-)

  6. I so envy you. Love Mediterranean food and the fact they call me a hortofagus. Doesn’t sound very lovely though. You know, I always had a feeling mediterranean food had healthy aspects to it, but I didn’t know what they were until this post.

    I want to go to Greece now. Wish you were still living there so I could visit. Incidentally, apparently I’ve been tweeting your posts but just haven’t given you Twitter credit for it. Just straightened that out though. =-)

    Oh yeah and love how the site is coming together- new design and all.
    Christine |GRRRL TRAVELER recently posted..Getting Around Tokyo on the cheap and easyMy Profile

  7. Gayla – The raki and candied fruit are both such strong flavors on their own that they wouldn’t appeal much to me. But together? Magic.

  8. Thanks, Christine! Following your hunt for great falafel spots in Korea assures me you’d love the food here. Something tells me you’ll make it there someday soon ;-)

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