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Thursday, 5 April 2012

Cretan cuisine (Κρητική κουζίνα)

The tourist season is upon us. If you're coming to Crete on holiday during the non-Greek Easter period, you will still have the chance to experience Greek Easter, as they both fall within a week from each other (Greek Easter always falls either on the same day or later than calendar Easter). Here's a guide to what you can choose from for your meals in Crete. This article was originally published through Suite101.

Crete's ability to supply herself with fresh produce all year round has made the island famous for its locally grown seasonal food and its virgin olive oil.Crete is the largest island in Greece and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean. As the birthplace of the Mediterranean diet, it has strong agricultural roots, while relying heavily on summer tourism, with its clean enticing beaches and unique opportunities for agro-tourism holidays. The food of Crete is characteristic of Cretan culture; there is no event that isn’t associated with food on the island. The topography of Crete, with mountain ranges spanning its length, is diverse enough for the west to display marked gastronomical variations to that of the east.

Fresh, local, seasonal

The food of Crete is based on fresh local seasonal produce and a heavy use of olive oil. The food is generally all sourced from the island, although staples such as potatoes, onions and garlic (among others) are imported both from mainland Greece and abroad, mainly due to their increased demand and the fact that people have moved away from a subsistence economy, and are now generally urban in essence. Nevertheless, half the population still live in (semi-)rural areas.

 greek salad meal with tzatziki and bread

The island's move away from farming to tourism and other urban jobs was inevitable; primary goods in the food culture of Crete are now being cultivated or raised industrially. Globalisation aside, Cretan cuisine remains relatively true to its origins, while locals are deeply conservative when it comes to food. The evolving nature of Cretan cuisine is mainly based on health concerns, such as the use of fewer fats and lipids, and the creative use of the wider range of fruits and vegetables now available. Due to the plentiful opportunities for self-production and the popularity of daily street markets, Crete also displays a markedly different food retail environment compared to other parts of Greece.

Cretan table etiquette

Westerners often think of dining out as a three-course meal affair, where dessert comes last (and is always paid for), and everyone eats the plate that they ordered. In Crete, both appetisers and main meals can arrive at the table at the same time, some kind of dessert is always served at the end of the meal (free of charge), and people's forks wander into other people's plates - many times, all the food is brought to the middle of the table, and everyone takes a little bit of everything.

 tomatoes and onions drying under the fig and mulberry trees

Good food and appropriateness

If you’re coming to Crete to try 'good food', you’ll have to put aside commonly held beliefs and standards, such as star ratings of restaurants, and fancy cutlery on the table. Locals generally don’t visit tavernas (as restaurants are called here) because of a random rave review; they choose according to what they’ve heard by word-of-mouth. Good food is judged in a way that a Cretan would regard food to be good: freshness, seasonality, traditional cooking techniques, and appropriateness. For example, if you go to a village taverna located away from the coast and order fried calamari, that's inappropriate (you should have gone to a coastal taverna for that kind of thing).

broad beans and artichokes in dill sauce, with dolmadakia

Similarly, if you want to try the island's unique buttery staka dip, you need to be in a rural area, preferably at a mountain taverna! Instead of asking "Where are the best places to eat in Crete?”, a better question to ask is "What local food in Cree is an absolute 'must-try' while I’m here?" Seasonal local produce is above all the most important factor when looking for good food in Crete. A local tomato smells and tastes sun-kissed, a local watermelon cracks on opening, locally foraged wild greens look as if they’ve just popped out of the red soil; the Mediterranean sun, the generally hospitable climate, and maybe the highly scented herbs and the Mediterranean sea are said to give Cretan produce their inherent aromatic flavour.

Specialities of Western Crete

Although meals eaten all over the island are generally the same, each prefecture in Crete (there are four: from west to east, Hania, Rethimno, Iraklio and Lasithi) has its own regional gastronomic range. Nearly everything is cooked in olive oil (don’t take this for granted: it always pays to ask). Tavernas use mainly local produce in the food they prepare, and some tavernas even grow their own produce. So nearly everything is going to taste very fresh and seasonal. The following list of specialities from the long list of popular Cretan food is not exhaustive. It’s based on what is commonly found in Western Crete, which I’m very familiar with.

oinos kai skoufos restaurant 
  • Kalitsounia – fried and/or oven-baked pastry pies and pasties, filled with greens and/or the local soft white cheese (mizithra).
  • Boureki – a specialty vegetarian pie made in Hania, consisting of layers of potato and zucchini, cooked with mizithra and olive oil.
  • Ahinosalata – fresh raw sea urchins in olive oil are a salty Greek island delicacy; naturally, you would only for this at a seaside tavern!
  • Anthous – these stuffed zucchini flowers are often served in combination with stuffed vine leaves (dolmadakia); ask for them by name, otherwise, you will only be served the vine leaves, as anthous (often served with yoghurt) are a highly prized local dish, and there are never enough to go round!
  • Bougatsa Iordanis – this cheese pie, prepared daily and sold only in the morning at a particular outlet, is made only in Hania. It's popular with travellers who’ve just arrived in the town.
  • Dakos – the ubiquitous Cretan snack, made with barley rusk, tomato and mizithra, has also become well-known all over Greece and is synonymous with Cretan cuisine. It's easy to prepare anywhere, even in a hotel room, once you see how it's made.
  • Marathopites – these flat pies are made with fennel weed (not fennel bulb); they are a specialty of Hania.
  • Mizithropites – also known as Sfakianes pites (pies from Sfakia), they are flat and seamless, filled with mizithra and topped with local thyme honey.
  • Horta – boiled greens (vlita is seasonal in summer, as stamnagathi is in winter) are served as a salad, dressed in olive oil, salt and lemon.
  • Malotira – the dried leaves of various endemic plants gathered from the mountain plains make a highly aromatic tea, popular as a breakfast drink.
And for dessert, try a xerotigano, a fried vegan pastry containing very few ingredients. Always served at weddings and baptisms, they are also sold in some bakeries.

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