The Cretan dietary archetype is known today all across the world. Scores of medical studies have found it to be of significant benefit to human health, while dishes inspired by the island’s traditional cuisine are served in many cosmopolitan restaurants in big European and American cities. And yet, it seems that contemporary Cretans took some time to discover its value for themselves. It was associated with the frugality of agricultural life and with the privations that accompanied Cretan society for many centuries, and were due, primarily, to the complex paths of history, to wars and to the consecutive conquests by foreign powers. Strange as it may seem, Cretan cuisine only began to be talked about seriously in the early 1990s, when the results of those medical studies started to become more widely known.
Today’s 60-year-olds grew up eating plenty of greens and vegetables, a lot of pulses and very little meat (only on Sundays and major holidays). This was how the island’s diet was described by the American researchers at the Rockefeller Foundation, who compiled a ground-breaking study on the island’s society and economy shortly after World War II. This was followed by the seminal Seven Countries Study, the brainchild of another American, Professor Ancel Keys. It is largely to him that the Cretan diet owes its international fame.
The island’s inhabitants relied on their land for nearly everything they ate, and food did not come in great abundance – yet they lacked nothing. They were the healthiest of all the population groups in Keys’ study. (Several newer studies, as well as statistical data from international organizations, have confirmed Keys’ findings.) Cardiovascular diseases were almost unknown and cancer was even more scarce. The island’s local population, consisting mostly of poor farmers, lived their days happily in a beautiful natural environment; they worked their fields and enjoyed delicious fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as a small glass or two of wine with each meal.
Field studies for the Seven Countries Study began in 1958. Researchers studied population groups from two Greek regions, Crete and Corfu, and from Yugoslavia, Italy, Holland, Finland, Japan and the US. People selected ranged from 40 to 60 years old. Approximately 30 years later, in 1990, nearly all the participants from the other groups had passed away. On Crete, more than half were still alive. In 2004, 154 people from the original group of 620 were still alive, according to the Medical School of the University of Crete, which in 1990 took over observing these people. Newer data hasn’t been published. Who knows, some could be centenarians, and still with us.
Cretan or Mediterranean diet?
Cretans sometimes get upset if someone today speaks to them about the “Mediterranean” diet. The term, a construct devised by scientists, does essentially describe the Cretan food regimen in the 1960s, but academics, researchers and local community representatives on the island believe that the term is too generic and does not accurately express important distinctive features unique to Crete. Only one term is acceptable here: the Cretan diet. They do, of course, acknowledge that every Mediterranean country has developed its own distinctive diet with several shared elements between them; the differences, however, aren’t negligible. A particular people’s diet isn’t only the result of what is produced locally. It is also shaped by socioeconomic conditions, cultural idiosyncrasies, historical background and, also, in a significant way, religion. On Crete, those who follow Orthodox dietary rules don’t consume animal products for more than a third of the year!
Many ask what the much-vaunted Cretan dietary prototype really is. The answer is simple: it’s the diet of the island’s poorer farmers, of those who lived in mostly rural areas until the late 1970s. At that point, they began to be influenced by the modern way of life, to consume more and more meat, and to use processed foods and more sugar in their cooking.
The secrets of Crete
One might well ask how such a notable culinary tradition could have evolved in a place where the diet of those who lived there depended almost exclusively on local agricultural production. The underlying principle behind this entire culture, behind the techniques and the different ways of food preparation, is necessity: different flavors – that is to say, different dishes – had to be created from the same ingredients.
There were wild greens at lunchtime and wild greens in the evening, and yet on the Cretan family table there was always a real wealth of diversity. In the book “Cretan Cooking,” for instance, which I wrote with my wife, we record more than 40 ways of cooking snails; snails are to be found in great abundance on the island, and have always constituted a favorite food for locals. There are dozens of culinary processes for wild greens, for vegetables and pulses, devised to make the most of all the different treasures that nature could offer. The famous Cretan wild green pies, for example, are prepared using multiple combinations of wild greens, depending on the season and the local flora, so that the result smells wonderful. If one were to ask a local how many different types of wild greens she needed to make a pie, she would probably laugh and answer: “As many as nature can provide.“ Yet not all will do. Those that have a powerful scent will be used in moderation, and those that have a bitter taste will never be used in a pie, where sweet, mild-tasting wild greens dominate; it is from these sweeter greens that the harmony of a simple yet ever so important and prized dish will emerge. The bitter-tasting wild greens are, of course, highly sought after on Crete as well, but for different dishes.
Wild greens constitute perhaps the greatest asset in Cretan cuisine. No one knows exactly how many different species of plants are used for human consumption, but more than 120 have been identified. They grow everywhere, from coastal zones to high mountain regions.
One of the great advantages of Cretan cuisine is its simplicity, the purity of its flavors. Spices and aromatics are used very sparingly and heavy cream almost never, so that each ingredient can maintain its distinctiveness.
The most common ways of preparing meat and fish on the island furnish prime examples of how to make the best use of natural resources. They are often combined with wild greens or pulses. The traditional Easter dish of the Cretans, for instance, used to be lamb or kid goat served with artichokes, or sometimes with lettuce, chicory or other spring greens. Beef, on the other hand, is very rarely used. On Crete, most meat dishes are made using goat or sheep (which still graze freely on the island’s mountains), or poultry, rabbits and, mainly at Christmas, some pork.
Exclusively olive oil!
If the first three great secrets of Cretan gastronomy are the harmonious blend of produce used, the simplicity of the finest dishes and the ingenuity of the local people, the other great secret goes by the name of virgin olive oil: no other cooking fat is used in the traditional diet of the Cretans. Even their desserts are usually prepared with olive oil, rather than with butter. What’s more, the entire island is effectively a vast olive grove, with 30-40 million trees.
According to official international statistical data, each Cretan consumes more than 35 liters of olive oil annually – more than any other population group. In Italy and Spain, the other main olive oil-producing Mediterranean countries, the average is just 10.5 liters!
For visitors today, the exploration of the island’s local cuisine is an additional journey of discovery and a significant culinary experience. Unfortunately, it is not always readily available, and one needs to search in order to discover the island’s authentic flavors. There are certified restaurants that make a concerted effort, but these are few in number. In most cases, what are called “Cretan” dishes are simply inspired by traditional cooking. Thankfully, the drive to make the best use of the local gastronomy has been making major strides over the past few years. Several small hotels, tavernas, restaurants and cafés have set examples for others to follow.
An important role is also being played by a number of local cultural associations which, since the mid-1990s, have been organizing yearly festivals, mostly in the summer, in some of the villages. At these festivals, the women of each village cook together and offer tasting sessions featuring the local dishes. These festivals, however, are not enough to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for the authentic island cuisine.
The greatest riches
There’s a saying in this corner of the world: if you own a fine field, make sure to keep both cows and… Cretans out of it. This bit of folk wisdom may in fact point out the philosophy that evolved on the island regarding dietary habits. The everyday experience of the Cretans over many centuries gave rise to a culinary tradition that insisted they make the most of the resources of the land. When all is said and done, the traditional diet of the Cretans is their true wealth, and it is both material and immaterial. It’s material in the sense that it has to do with food, a real thing that you can taste, touch and smell, but it’s immaterial, too, since it carries the weight of a long historical trajectory, the experiences of the human journey on this island.