The culinary arts follow specific rules, which, however, allow a wide margin for tens of variations and dishes. Food is usually prepared simply, grilled/roasted, boiled or simmered. The combinations are simple but inventive. Ingredients are always local and seasonal and taken full advantage of so as to highlight their particular flavours.
The rural population has always known how to use natural ingredients, the basis of the famous Cretan traditional cuisine, to their best effect. In difficult times, in periods of economic recession and subjugation, such as during Venetian or Ottoman rule, fish, game and snails were ingredients that helped locals survive; they were cooked in many different ways, creating culinary masterpieces.
The rich, edible Cretan flora is widely used, since it always offers Cretan households the possibility of affordable food. Nothing is wasted: housewives cook pumpkin flowers, the young shoots of various vegetables, the leaves of wild mallow, the shoots of blackberry bushes, even stinging nettles, which enjoy pride of place in Cretan cuisine and can be used to prepare sfoungato (a kind of spongy egg-pie), yahni (pot casserole) or various other dishes. .
Olive oil is a unique fatty substance that has been used since Minoan times. The olive tree, as confirmed by various archaeological finds, has been found throughout Crete since as early as the Middle and Late Mesolithic periods (2000 B.C.) It has been calculated that olive oil production in those times must have been around 11,000 tons, not including the huge quantities of edible fruit that was consumed much more back then than it is today. It should be noted that there are olives that ripen on the tree (stafidolies, literally raisin-olives), which are still eaten without any further processing.
Wild greens are usually eaten raw or boiled. Most months, every family lunch or dinner includes a salad with at least eight different wild green species. Intensely aromatic greens are used to make small pies.
Vegetables are eaten raw, boiled or yahni (pot-cooked) in a light tomato sauce. The use of tomatoes is not frequent in sauces, since most sauces are transparent and watery, like avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce), or based on lemon and oil or vinegar and oil.
Legumes are mainly consumed during the long fasting periods – when food based on animal products is forbidden – which are strictly observed at various times of the year. Legumes are also encountered in original combinations with fish or meat, preserving their Byzantine names and called mageiremata or mageiries.
Meat usually comes from goats, sheep, rabbits, poultry and, in winter time, pigs. Even to this day goat kids graze freely, eating wild greens, aromatic herbs and young tree shoots; this is why their meat has a pleasantly crispy texture and hardly any fatty flavour.
Snails have a special place in Cretan gastronomy, probably more than in any other cuisine in the world – even compared to French cuisine – since there are more than 25 dishes with snails as the main ingredient.
Fish and crustaceans, salted or fresh, are consumed, at least in the hinterland, in smaller quantities than meat, either boiled, grilled or preserved in olive oil, vinegar and aromatic herbs. On the contrary, along the coastline, achinosalata (sea urchin salad), soup made with fish living in the rocks (kakavia, a type of Bouillabaisse), chtapodopilafo and garidopilafo (pilaf made with octopus or shrimps), even crabs, just like all kinds of shellfish, are considered to be wonderful ingredients.
The breads accompanying daily meals are made with at least two types of flour, wheat and barley (in the past carob flour was used too), while the sweeteners, as recently as 50 years ago, were petimezi (grape must syrup), the famous thyme honey and carob syrup.
There were four main types of sweets:
- Small and larger pies made with different types of dough and filled with soft cheeses, drizzled with honey;
- “Spoon sweets” (fruit preserves), using all edible fruit growing on the island;
- Sweets containing various nuts, such as walnuts and almonds (patouda [purse shaped biscuits filled with nuts], walnut cake and marzipan sweets); and
- Breads and celebratory breads prepared with white wheat flour and lots of aromatic herbs, the dough usually kneaded with olive oil.
One of the outstanding products of the Cretan land is honey, which for many years was the only sweetener used; today it is also used for the preparation of various dishes. A typical example is meat in honey as cooked in Western Crete, while the commonest desert in animal raising regions is myzithra or graviera cheese and various pies drizzled with honey.
Dairy produce is very popular in the Cretan diet, being more important than meat or fish. This includes the famous Cretan xinohondros, which is a wonderful blend of bulgur wheat and buttermilk.
Byzantines considered Cretan cheeses the best in the Mediterranean, while great cheese quantities were also consumed by the Venetians, who had forbidden cheese exports from the island. The most famous cheeses are anthotyros (fresh cheese with milk and whey from sheep and goat), graviera (ripened cheese made with sheep’s milk) and kefalotyri (hard, salty, yellow cheese made with goat’s and/or sheep’s milk).
Finally, local cuisine uses dozens of wild greens and aromatic herbs that grow everywhere, particularly in mountainous areas, and are used either to flavour various products (e.g. edible olives and olive oil), to add flavour and nutrients to various dishes or to prepare wonderful herbal teas. Whether medicinal or not, these plant species are probably the most representative elements of the natural profile of this land: small and ‘humble’, without impressive colours or shapes, yet coming in a vast range of intoxicating scents, offer a deeply satisfying palatal experience.