Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Cretan gastronomy

Sneak preview of what I'll be discussing soon, in good company (more details later).

Crete is the largest island of Greece, with a permanent population of 600,000. At 8500 sq. km., it is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. Blessed by the gods, unique in the world, thanks to the generous gifts of nature and history, its mild climate, fertile soils and strategic location have bestowed on Crete the gift of year-round agricultural activities with an age-old pastoral culture. Its majestic canyons, caves and plateaus cohabit fields and plains covered in thousands of olive trees, endless vineyards and the richest flora of Europe, all contained within 1000 kilometers of coastline.

Crete is believed to be the cradle of European civilization, and in modern times, the gastronomic traditions of Crete have given rise to what is known as the Mediterranean Diet, with extra-virgin olive oil at its base. For this reason, Cretan cuisine is regarded as one of the healthiest cuisines of the modern world. To this day, Cretan people proudly continue the agricultural and culinary traditions of their ancestors, with a high reliance on grains, grapes and olives, which is what gives us the most famous ingredient of the Mediterranean Diet, extra-virgin olive oil.

The history of Crete is backed up by nearly 8000 years of continuous population of the island. The Minoan civilisation, developed in Crete from 2500 BC to 1100 BC, is regarded as the most significant civilization that first flourished in Europe, attested by the presence of the palace of Knossos. During the period of classical antiquity, Crete was still on the fringes of the Greek world. It did not take part in the Persian wars or the Peloponnesian War. In the Hellenistic, the Roman and the Byzantine periods, Crete remained relatively untouched. This all changed when it was occupied by the Venetians in 1204, when it became an important trading post in the Venetian Republic. Crete maintained its importance in this way for four centuries until it passed into Ottoman occupation 1669. When the Ottoman Empire fell, Crete was declared an autonomous state in 1895, until it was unified with Greece in 1913. In the 20th century, Crete was plagued by post-war circumstances, with poverty and emigration. But the 21st century finds the island in a very different situation, mainly due to the spread of mass tourism. In the summer period alone, Crete hosts over three million visitors a year. If it weren't for tourism, Crete can be said to be relatively independent in its food supply.

Crete is intensively cultivated by the local population, which is engaged in the primary sector, producing mainly extra virgin olive oil, grapes, wine, vegetables and cheese, with a smaller proportion of meat products. Crete also hosts the highest number of PDO and PGI products in Greece. Crete's land-based agricultural traditions provide the impetus for the daily cooking habits of the Cretan people. Cretan food is based on fresh local seasonal produce. The abundance and ease with which a seed grows into a fruit or vegetable on the island provide the source of inspiration for Cretan gastronomy, all based on the the simple olive fruit, with aromatic plants added to dishes to strengthen their flavour. It produces olives and olive oil, grapes and wine, orange and other citrus, many fruits in general, wine and spirits, a wide variety of fresh and hard cheeses, cured meats of all sorts, fresh and dried bread products, thyme flavoured honey, wild greens and aromatic plants, and all manner of vegetables.

The Cretan diet, which is now known worldwide, attracted the interest of the scientific community in 1948, when the Rockefeller Foundation conducted surveys in Crete. The island's culinary traditions were regarded as a model of the Mediterranean cuisine, which was recognized by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Olive oil is actually the biggest secret of the Cretan diet and longevity of Cretans. Around 85 per cent of the olive oil produced in Crete is extra virgin quality. At 35 litres per person per year, Cretan olive oil consumption is the highest in the world. Many families own olive trees that not only meet their daily needs but provide a supplementary income. The island has 40 million olive trees — that’s an average of 70 trees per person. Olive tree cultivation is believed to have been pioneered 5,000 years ago by the Minoans who used it in their diet, as a cleanser, a scent and an ointment. The high quality crop is attributed to the island’s soil and climate — hot dry summers, cool autumns and rainy winters.

The Cretan earth is a botanical paradise with over 1700 species of plants, of which 159 are endemic. The Cretan kitchen uses herbs, especially oregano, thyme, rosemary, mint, cumin and fennel, and Cretans still like to brew malotira, a plant gathered from the mountain tops, to make mountain tea), together with other aromatic tisanes like dictamus, sage, marjoram and chamomile. These plants are not only eaten by the people, but also by the animals raised on the island for food purposes, which gives rise to their exceptional flavour. And many Cretans still maintain a tradition of pastoral life from prehistoric times to the present day. Cheese is often served with fresh fruit, it is offered as an appetizer and it is even presented as a dessert wrapped in pastry and topped with honey. Pastry products also form a significant part of the Cretan diet.

Cretans eat less fish than perhaps would be considered normal for an island people. Cretans are more likely to worship snails which they cook in various ways, boiled, fried and stewed. Lamb is roasted in the oven or stewed with vegetables. Meat is often boiled and eaten with rice flavoured in its stock, known as pilafi, which constitutes the main meal of a traditional Cretan wedding. Of the dozens of unique recipes of the island, the most typical local dishes are characterised mainly by wild greens and vegetables. The most well known dish of Crete which has been adopted by the whole of Greece is the dakos, which consists of dried bread slices, also known as rusks, topped by grated tomato, fresh cheese and oregano.

Crete is also believed to have the highest cheese consumption in the world. Dairy products of the island form the basis of many traditional Cretan dishes. Cheese is consumed in Crete at all hours of the day, as an accompaniment, starter, main snack, or even as a dessert. Despite the modernisation of milk production techniques, the traditional form of farming is still based on the experience of many centuries. Nowadays, milk is pasteurized, culture is added, and he milk is heated at specific temperatures to make cheese.

The Cretan diet is all about eating everything that this land produces — organic vegetables and fruit packed full of nutrients, as well as liberal quantities of olive oil, wheat and herbs. Cretan delicacies will delight your taste buds. Cretans linger for hours over freshly-cooked meals. Lunch often extende into dinner. One day, It’s a way of life that is starting to change as youngsters move away from villages to the towns and cities. But Cretans still maintain a passion for their local food and it is this enthusiasm that we want to share with our guests to the island.

So I wish you all bon appetit! As the Greeks say, Kali Orexi!

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