Greece’s biggest island has hot sun and superb beaches but also one of the healthiest diets in the world, says Kathryn Liston
Sweet, ripe tomatoes that taste of the sun’s life-giving rays, salty sea urchins that taste of the sea … Greece’s largest island and one of its most southerly is celebrated for its spectacular beaches, mountains and Venetian-era architecture but its fertile plains and bountiful seas are also replete with succulent olives, tender octopus, squid and grouper and vegetables that are both fresh and full of flavour.
The Cretan diet is all about eating everything this Mediterranean island’s rich soil produces — organic vegetables and fruit packed full of nutrients, as well as liberal quantities of olive oil, wheat, herbs and very little meat. It’s one of the healthiest diets in the world, according to a Seven Countries Study conducted from 1958 to 1999 by Dr Ancel Keys, which revealed that Cretans have very low levels of heart disease and cancer and high life expectancy. It’s also one of the oldest, dating back to the Minoan era of 1400-1700 BC. Herbs and plants in use today have been found on murals and icons at the Bronze-age Knossos Palace near Heraklion, the island’s capital, along with huge jars for storing olive oil.
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 Cretan Minoans who used the oil in their diet, as a cleanser, a scent and ointment. The high quality crop is attributed to the island’s alluvial soil and climate — hot dry summers, cool autumns and rainy winters. Around 85 per cent of the olive oil produced here is extra virgin.
Today wild, aromatic herbs and plants are used to flavour meals and locally-produced honey and grape-juice syrup as sweeteners — processed sugars do not feature. Pure, seasonal ingredients form the basis of simple recipes with minimal processing; the result is not only delicious but life-enhancing, too.
During my week in Crete I dine like a Minoan queen and learn some of the secrets of the cuisine at the Aldemar Royal Mare Hotel in Hersonissos. With head chef George Chatzopoulos’s patient assistance, I produce a delicious aubergine salad and Cretan kritharada (prawn stew with truffle oil and orzo pasta).
Thereafter, dish after dish of Cretan delicacies delight my taste buds; tender, sweet octopus and barbecued grouper at the Grecotel Amirandes hotel in Gouves, east of Heraklion; an exquisite sweet orange pie made with filo pastry (portokalopita) at the five-star Daios Cove Hotel in Agios Nikolaos, on the north-east coast; Sfakiani pita with quince jam and pine nuts and goat’s cheese pies with thyme honey at Grecotel’s organic Agreco Farm, near the seaside resort of Rethymnon. Here at the 40-hectare estate, Grecotel guests are invited to become a farmer for the day, while holidaymakers can pop into the taverna and enjoy traditional Cretan food served in a glorious hillside setting.
Cretans linger for hours over freshly-cooked meals, lunch often extending into dinner. One day, I spend eight hours around the table (though not in one sitting). It’s a way of life that is starting to change as youngsters move away from villages to faster-paced towns and cities — though not if restaurateur Magganas Panagiotis has his way. He opened Peskesi restaurant close to the centre of Heraklion Old Town two years ago to promote the Cretan diet and its health benefits. He is passionate about Cretan cuisine, his enthusiasm spilling over like the small glasses of rosé raki he pours liberally from a cut-glass decanter after our meal. When I visit on a Tuesday night, the converted manor house is buzzing with lively chatter.
“Our cuisine is exclusively based on traditional recipes, on pure ingredients and on the principles of authentic Cretan cuisine,” he says proudly. “A cuisine with a great tradition in taste, aromas and ingredients which began in prehistoric times. Many young people here in Crete eat too much meat and not enough vegetables. They have forgotten about Cretan cuisine and I am trying here to revive this treasure.”
The restaurant’s fruit and vegetables are grown on the 60-acre organic farm Panagiotis owns in Haraso, Hersonissos. They include native varieties such as manarolia (grass peas) and psares (a curly vegetable similar to lettuce, with a vinegary taste), which have almost disappeared from the island. Harvesting is carried out by hand to preserve the quality of the product. Free-range animals and poultry are raised on organic feed.
“We use traditional techniques and avoid using chemical fertilisers and pesticides to ensure we produce healthy and safe crops that have real nutritional value and do not pollute the environment,” explains Magganas.
Before opening the restaurant, he spent 10 years scouring the island’s villages and Minoan texts for traditional recipes and cooking methods, which he replicates creatively. He shows me a drawing of the spit-roasting technique depicted on a fresco at the Palace of Knossos, which he has adapted to cook kandavlos — pork souvlaki marinated with wine, olive oil and wheat which, when it arrives at our table, sizzles and sings. Kreokakavos (pork roasted with honey and thyme and served with legume purée) has been taken from the world’s oldest cookbook, the Greek classic Deipnosophistae, written in the 3rd-century AD by Athenaeus. Freshly-picked artichoke leaves taste of early-morning dew; fried courgette flowers stuffed with creamy Cretan cheese melt in the mouth; marinated tenderloin gently infusing over smouldering sage and thyme perfumes the air. Wild herbs such as purslane add a lemony zing to salad, as well as providing omega 3, vitamin B and C. It’s also a great detox for the digestive system, I am told.
Several of the villagers’ dishes feature on the menu, such as Mrs Katerina’s spiny chicory casserole and Mrs Popi’s omelette with karolades (onion flowers). I try earthy-tasting snails, or chochlios — a popular Cretan delicacy fried in flour and olive oil and doused with wine — and goat stew before moving on to Cretan pie filled with creamy cheese and honey, then gastrin, a Minoan pastry topped with dried nuts, sesame and poppy seeds, honey and grape syrup.
A selection of herbal teas rounds off this sumptuous meal, including karteraki, which contains a mixture of Cretan mountain herbs and tastes like camomile. Thankfully, after such a feast, it is also an excellent aid for digestion.