|Crete's Culinary Sanctuaries
award-winning educational programs in Crete, Greece
|What's the Mediterranean Diet and who is on it anyway? Break out the map and take a look that the region
-- the sea touches the shores of many distinctly different countries. Wow, does everybody eat the same thing
everywhere? I’ve noticed that some countries have been excluded from the Mediterranean Diet Club and are not
even featured in those coffee-table cookbooks – membership may have required a stable government and luxury
hotel accommodations for the research teams. How about the cultural, agricultural, climatic, religious, economic
influences of The Club members – are they all the same? Are we missing some great stories behind traditional
dishes by deeming the entire region one generic Oliveland?
Sure, “fusion cuisine” is the creative incorporation of flavors from other lands, but when you see a dish on a
California menu like “moussaka-canneloni” (two distinctly traditional dishes from two different countries all rolled
into one) is it fusion or confusion? Cuisine and culture go hand in hand and the more global we get the less
homogeneous we should be. The window into the culture of a nation is through the kitchen -- you can learn so
much about people when you know what they eat and why. What would New Englanders do if their beloved clam
chowder was renamed “North American Clam Stew”? Even America has diverse and interesting regional cuisine
– more than the rap it gets overseas as a burgers & fries nation, right?
The History of The Diet
Recap on the history of The Diet phenomenon. Back in the late 1950’s an American physiologist, Dr. Ancel
Keys, discovered that many Cretan men living in the mountain villages had a very low rate of heart disease and
cancer and lived to a very ripe old age. He noted that they consumed lots of olive oil, but also looked at the
bigger picture (which is blurry now) of traditional Cretan cuisine and lifestyle as a whole. Dr. Keys conducted a 15-
year comparative study of the cardiac disease and cancer rate in Greece (Crete and Corfu), Finland, Japan,
Italy, The Netherlands, The United States, and Yugoslavia (known as the “Seven-Country Study,” although the
demographics seem odd). The results of the study proved his hunch with low instances of either disease in Crete
and high instances in all other countries compared, except Japan, which did not fare too badly. Hence, The Diet
When a story is passed on through the years, it tends to vary (even to a level of sensationalism, as is the case
here). Olive oil was cited as a piece of the puzzle but the remaining pieces were lost along the way. The Diet has
taken many marketing twists and turns since – everyone wants to be a Club Member, whether they’ve paid their
dues or not. Ironically, Italy and France have managed to become Club Members, yet the cardiovascular
disease rates in both countries have never coincided with The Diet’s premise. Granted, both countries eat some
of the same foods as the people of Crete and produce and consume their own olive oil -- Italy even buys olive oil
in bulk from Greece for their own labels. However, Italy was a losing country in the comparative study and just
last year in France, a group of cardiovascular disease patients were placed on the traditional diet of Crete (not
Provence) with very positive results.
None of this matters because the French and Italians are very good at marketing -- so why bring up some old
story about Crete and risk competition? I don’t think the competition would be too fierce because Cretans seem
perfectly content with the way things are. I imagine there are many reasons why they haven’t flooded
international markets with their precious goods. The Diet’s premise was based on principals of traditional Cretan
cooking and lifestyle, but the interpretations we see today change the rules of the game.
So olive oil is good for us. That can’t be the end of the story because I’m almost sure we cannot survive on olive
oil alone. Those healthy olive oil fanatics must be eating something else to balance out this picture of
gastronomic utopia. Just within the isle of Crete the cuisine differs from region to region and there are many
great stories -- often dating back thousands of years -- behind every traditional dish. That’s what makes the
food and culture so special.
Geography, Climate and Lifestyle Shape Local Cuisine
As these studies emerged from Crete thirty years ago, a bit has changed since then. So what hasn’t changed?
First, there’s the geography and climate factor. Crete is a mountainous, rocky island with only a few big cities
and all that goes with them -- like pollution. Aside from seasonal tourist spots, this is farming and fishing country,
not a metropolis. Olive and nut groves, fruit orchards, grape vines and greenhouses cover nearly every inch of
available land. The summers are long, hot and dry and winters are relatively mild with snowfall only in the
mountains. The produce is plentiful with intense concentrated flavor and color. The down side (for farmers, not
holiday makers) is this seasonal drought – making life more difficult than it already is. Olive trees grow
miraculously out of dry, rocky earth, that’s why there’s more olives here than anything else. Cow’s milk butter is a
luxury item, as this arid, mountainous land is not fit for cows.
Deep green, pungent extra virgin olive oil is produced in nearly every tiny village, usually only by and for the
community (the private reserve of gold). Throughout Greece, many people would not dream of purchasing olive
oil in a supermarket – they either make it themselves or know someone who does. Everyone is partial to their
own village oil and even if they’ve moved away, they often return home to help during harvest season or have a
supply sent to them – it is that important. There are several large cooperatives in Crete that share their olive oil
with the rest of the world and most still follow traditional production methods – some have won top quality awards
in International competitions. Why not? The Greeks have had thousands of years of experience in olive oil
production – the ancient Minoans traded it for precious metals and gems.
As for exercise, farming is hard, physical labor so there’s no need to drive to the gym after work (haven’t seen
one yet). People are too busy tending to their land or animals to sit at a computer and surf the net --even if they
could justify the need for a computer (the “net” is quite useful in the collection of fish). Even if they’re not farmers
by trade, many people have a small patch of land for fruit and nut trees, a vegetable garden and enough
chickens for the family – and maybe a few sheep or goats. Mostly for practical and financial reasons, they also
make a lot all their own foods like bread, cheese, yogurt, vinegar, wine, etc., and pesticides are not even an
There’s plenty of seafood – more frequently consumed by the locals who live near the sea, often because it’s
their own catch or that of another family member. Recent scientific studies have proven that fish is very good for
us – so dash out and get some! There are many villages tucked so far into the mountains that I’m amazed that
people manage to survive there – but they have for this very reason. Throughout history the unwelcome visitor
(aka invader) to these parts has been met with Homeric resistance. Hence, many traditional dishes (with great
stories to match the flavor) from mountain villages are based on survival tactics and the art of foraging for food in
the wild – now it’s posh.
So, depending on where they live, some people eat more fresh fish than others -- cured fish being the norm in
the mountains. Many villages were inhabited long before the automobile, refrigeration (stable or mobile) was
invented, some originally dating back nearly 4000 years. Even with today’s modern roadways and vehicles
providing faster access to the shore, there’s traditional regional cuisine – which is not budging any time soon.
Most traditional dishes center around religious holidays – and eating certain foods like meat and dairy products
is prohibited for long periods of time each year. In essence, Greeks who follow their traditional religious calendar
are part-time vegetarians. Times are changing, but we still have a chance to discover what’s cooking here and
why this little pocket of the world is so important to modern scientists, nutritionists – and us.
Scientific Application in Action: Eating
Well, that’s all very nice, you say. We’re still standing at the open fridge waiting for cooking advice – ready to
devour a bag of chips fried in some deadly oil just to take the edge off. Wait! The common denominator is those
dreaded fresh fruits and vegetables – tons of them. Every day on the average Cretan dinner table, there may be
a selection of five or six simply prepared vegetables – not just a dollop of spinach fighting for recognition on the
edge of a plate of prime rib. Simple salads with tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, onion and olives are the
norm for lunch AND dinner. Roasted and marinated green and red peppers, beets, wild or cultivated greens,
artichokes, zucchini and eggplant are also hot ticket items.
Cretans eat lots of dried beans like yellow split peas (called fava), broad beans, chickpeas and lentils. Some
beans are just cooked until tender, mashed a little bit and mixed with olive oil, onion and salt. There are many
different types of freshly baked bread, which is always on the table. The finale is usually seasonal fruit (not
baklava, etc.) like cherries, honeydew and watermelon, grapes, figs, pomegranate, apples and oranges. We
should be very jealous because a lot of this stuff is also organic – a very expensive option for us – it’s too late,
they’ve paved our paradise.
Aside from the popular grilled or skewered chicken, pork or lamb (souvlaki), there are a few things that Cretans
eat on a regular basis but are rarely mentioned in fancy food publications – maybe because of the shock factor –
like snails from the mountains, octopus, sardines, smelts and other small, whole fish (crispy heads, bones, fins
and all are consumed), rabbit and other wild game, and some meats from head to foot on occasion. Most people
from industrialized (or paved) nations prefer not to know if and when they’re eating animal meat or innards – that’
s why we have hot dogs, sausages or fancy paté – to cover up the evidence. There’s plenty of pigs’ head
served in upscale Parisian restaurants – and some may find it more acceptable when presented on silver trays in
a sauce with other delicacies they can’t pronounce.
As for starches and things, potatoes, pasta, barley, and rice are prepared in many different ways – with a pretty
even percentage of weekly consumption. Potatoes are often just baked or fried in a little olive oil, or steamed
with other vegetables for hot or cold combinations. Rice seasoned with onions and spices, is frequently used as
a stuffing for many different vegetables and the infamous grape leaves – which are great when made fresh.
Then there’s yogurt – eaten straight, used in savory sauces, topped with fresh fruit, walnuts or a generous
portion of aromatic Cretan honey – another precious commodity in the ancient (and modern) world. Traditional
Greek yogurt is made from sheep’s or goat’s milk, and it’s thick like ricotta cheese. The natural milk fat (also
known as the flavor) is not extracted. I wish we had stuff like this in the States – why they extract all the fat from
yogurt is beyond me – it’s tasteless gelatin. People always seem to read the nutritional information on the back
of a yogurt carton – something obviously nutritious, but don’t dare glance at the info on a bag of potato chips.
Yogurt is pretty easy to make at home with cow’s milk – that is, if you’re not too busy. I have yet to hear of a case
where someone gained weight from eating too much yogurt with 10% fat.
Cheese is another favorite here and there are many different types (mostly sheep or goats’ milk, but some made
from cows’ milk). The list is long and requires a separate chapter but homemade variations of feta, mizithra (a
soft fresh cheese, sometimes similar in texture to New York style cheesecake or ricotta depending on the cheese
maker), kasseri and kefalotiri (hard cheeses similar to Romano) still rule as part of the meal. Snacks may include
fresh or dried fruits like figs, apricots, raisins and nuts like peanuts, walnuts, almonds and delicious roasted
chestnuts. Last but not least are the beloved olives – large or small, green, purple or black, preserved in brine
or not – take your pick, they’re everywhere.
Wine is a given – but generally consumed in moderation and always with food – not as heavily as we’ve
witnessed in the plate-breaking tourist spots or Hollywood productions. If everyone here lived like Alexis Zorbas,
we’d be in trouble. Some men drink quite a bit of raki, the local firewater distilled from grape must, which can be
hit or miss depending on the producers. Quite a few raki fans around here are well over 80 years of age – I’m
not sure how healthy they are but they’re certainly living long! It’s OK to drink a little too much and dance a little
bit, but to get a rip-roaring sloppy drunk is not acceptable behavior (this observation is based on local rules of
conduct, tourists noticeably exempt). Also, Greek women drink very little alcoholic beverages, if at all, and
smoking is a new, scarcely tolerable vice of the younger generation. Good guess to say the women are healthier
Foraging For Food: Make A “Fresh” Start
So, how do we put this all together on the dinner table and live to be 100? Think of a time when there was no
section in your supermarket with food crammed into boxes, bags or cans – YOUR DINNER made in a big building
on the edge of town -- preparation conditions unknown without submitting a Freedom of Information Act
Request. This is the price we pay for convenience in our hectic, industrialized world.
Now picture the farmers’ market with produce harvested at peak ripeness that day, fresh fish straight off the boat,
fresh meats straight from the hills (the chickens and sheep share the olive groves – roaming not to Hoboken,
New Jersey) and fresh breads still warm from the oven. Picture a nice trip to the country to pick up your wild
greens (and snails if you like), wine, olives, olive oil and cheese from local producers. This is rural Crete. This
way of life is not enticing to the younger generation – I can understand why – farming is a tough life.
There are supermarkets where you can buy many good-quality items – and even imports if you want them, but
everyone here knows the difference between manufactured and home-grown quality and they’d rather be sure of
the source. Besides, the price is often better without the middleman. I’m sure people live like this in many
regions of the world, but I’m in Crete and will not speculate or make comparisons of places I’ve never been. It’s
not Manhattan and if everyone moves here – it will soon resemble Manhattan – making the point moot. We are
not doomed to live short, unhealthy lives just because we can’t live here. We have a choice – to wean ourselves
off the manufactured stuff to control the content of the foods we eat. In short, to make a “fresh start” and shift
back to raw ingredients. How do farmers the world over plan their meals? The conversation goes something like
this: “Honey, what’s ready to pick today?”
The Cretan diet is based more on technique than recipes. Grilling is the number one choice here – we’re back to
some ancient basics. When considering the nutritional benefits, picture this: meat set above fire, fat dripping to
the ground (or to the bottom of your fancy gas grill). In the case of grilled fish – it’s brushed with olive oil and
grilled whole – tastes great. Grilling is easy and requires minimal attention or pots and pans, that’s why I like it.
For those of us who don’t enjoy grilling during a winter blizzard, there’s roasting. Mastering these two cooking
techniques can make life much easier. All you need to know is when the food is done. No fancy recipes or
sauces are required -- olive oil, lemon and your favorite herbs are great on anything that’s prepared well – fish,
chicken, steaks, burgers, lamb chops, vegetables, whatever. Keep it simple.
During the cooler season, Cretans braise meats along with a variety of vegetables, starches or beans. Braising
does require a bit of time and attention, but stews taste better made in advance and often freeze well, so it’s
good for snowed-in days. Cretans also make a number of fish soups – which are very subtle and delectable –
just a variety of bite-sized morsels simmered in fish stock with onions, potatoes, carrots and a bit of parsley –
sometimes with tomatoes. That’s it, nothing to it.
As for the preparation of vegetables, there are a few standards here and most are seasoned with olive oil, lemon
juice or vinegar and salt (sometimes pepper, herbs and spices on certain vegetables). I don’t know what Greeks
did without tomatoes – a rather recent addition from the new world -- because you see them with almost
everything. Aside from eating them fresh with nearly every meal during the long growing season, they make a
basic tomato sauce (personal preference) and combine it with dried beans and vegetables like string beans,
zucchini and potatoes, artichoke hearts or broad beans. It’s a thin sauce, which acts as a flavorful cooking liquid
– retaining all the vitamins – and great for dipping your bread. If you just boil vegetables and drain the juice –
guess where the vitamins are going.
Another common way to cook vegetables like cauliflower, artichoke hearts, stuffed cabbage or vine leaves is to
simmer them in a little stock or water and make a frothy egg-lemon sauce (avgolemono) with the vegetable
liquid. For greens like spinach or beet shoots, they are often simmered in a little water until tender, served in a
bowl with their cooking juices and seasoned at the table with, you guessed it, lemon, olive oil and salt. Greens
are also sautéed in olive oil (what else?), sometimes with garlic, leeks or onions and served with a splash of
lemon juice or used as the base for a variety of delectable vegetable pies (chortapitas). Try any combination of
greens commonly available at the supermarket like kale, collards, beet greens or spinach using the same
technique – bearing in mind that some greens are more delicate and require less cooking time, so add them later
on in the process.
Tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini and eggplant are often stuffed with seasoned rice with or without ground meats
and baked or layered in casseroles with meat sauce and bechamél sauce on top (i.e., moussakas). These
complicated dishes are usually reserved for special occasions. Learning cooking techniques as opposed to
following recipes opens up a whole new world of experimentation and makes cooking more fun when you know
there’s a basic formula to which you then add your imagination. Enough ideas for now? Great, let’s eat!
Copyright © Nikki Rose.
All rights reserved.
|What's the Mediterranean Diet
and who is on it anyway?
by Nikki Rose
Published in Stigmes Magazine (Crete), January 2000;
Culinary Institute of America, Mise En Place Magazine, 2006