You smell the stink, but you hear the scent!
— Viki, one of our guides on the Greek island of Crete, captures the philosophical essence of Cretan cuisine.
While I appreciate that the traditional Cretan diet is known as being one of the healthiest in the world, every time I look at our food photos from Crete I think back to our experience: “Damn. That was just awesome food.”
Cretan cuisine is one of foundation, not of complicated sauces. Its strength lies in the quality and freshness of its ingredients, the use of wild herbs and greens, and purity of taste. And not to be forgotten, the copious use of olive oil, Crete's liquid gold.
We'll touch on the ingredients and philosophy of Cretan food before diving into some of our favorite appetizers and sides, mains, desserts and drinks — and where we consumed them. The goal: so you don't come to Crete looking only for gyros and souvlaki.
Let's dig in!
Cretan Food: Ingredients, Approach and Philosophy
When it comes to Cretan food, you could say it features the three F's: freshness, fragrance and family.
Wild Herbs and Greens
As we drove from Heraklion, the provincial capital of Crete, civilization quickly yielded to nature. “Pull over here,” Viki implored us as we made our way into the hills. We did.
She hopped out of the car and scampered off the side of the road, and returned a minute later with armfuls of wild sage, oregano, thyme and marjoram. The car filled instantly with fresh and fragrance. It was out of this world.
She also pointed to several plants growing nearby: “You can pick those for wild salads. We have over thirty kinds of wild greens in our mountains.”
The Cretan countryside smells of wild herbs and flowers. Oregano is perhaps the most common herb used, but sage, thyme, parsley, marjoram, basil (different than Italian basil), fennel, and dill also play a prominent role. On Crete, you'll find them used on salads, in dishes and also in beautiful, cleansing blends of herbal tea.
Cretan Vegetables and Fruits
One woman joked with us: “If you think this tomato is good, you should have tasted one from when I was a kid. Pure gold.”
Maybe so, but we were still impressed by the selection of local produce in the markets. Every time we went to a restaurant we learned that the food came from a nearby farm or village. And it tasted that way, too.
From pomegranates to peppers, Cretan produce is all about the crisp, the fresh, the retained flavor.
Olive oil is the most important ingredient in Cretan cuisine. Virtually everything has a spoonful (or two or three) of olive oil thrown on top. Some Cretan dishes even swim in the golden liquid, only to their benefit. Savory pastries are fried in olive oil. Try french fries in olive oil and you'll be spoiled.
Crete features over 1.5 million olive trees. If you are born on Crete, it seems like a birthright that you own at least a few.
To place the importance of olive oil to the Cretan diet in perspective, consider that average olive oil consumption in Germany and the United States runs about 0.5 liters/person annually. In Crete, it’s 25 liters per person per year. The best and healthiest olive oil, natural to Crete, has acidity levels of under 1, with 0.3-0.6 being the ideal.
Crete Eating: Family Style
Before jumping into our favorite eating experiences on Crete, a note on the local style of eating. Family style is the name of the game: everyone shares.
Our guide, Ioanna, chuckled at us before we figured this out. As we served salad to our plates from the community bowl, she observed as a Cretan might, “You are strange. Just use your fork and eat right out of the bowl.”
Agreed. Community eating binds us, and it just might make meals taste that much better.
Getting Started: Cretan Appetizers and Sides
A very typical Cretan dish. Rusks, a traditional dried bread that is baked several times and kept for months, is moistened in a bit of water, and topped with grated tomato, olive oil, cheese and oregano. Crunchy, light and full of flavor, it makes a perfect snack.
Marinated and pickled vegetables
Artichokes, wild onion bulbs, black and green olives are just the beginning of a mountain of marinated appetizer goodies that you'll find on Crete. If small plate eating is your thing, this is where experience begins.
Fresh beans cooked with a little crushed tomato and olive oil. The simplicity of this dish belies its taste and reminds us never to judge a book by its cover.
Stuffed grape leaves, usually with a rice, herb and ground meat mixture. This dish is not specific to Crete; it's popular throughout this side of the Mediterranean.
There's certainly no shortage of cheese on Crete. Among the main varieties you'll find: anthotiros, a sheep and goat cheese that's mild and soft when it's fresh and salty and earthy when hard; kefalotiri, a firm sheep or goat cheese, and mizithra, the typical fresh cheese of Crete made from sheep's milk (and when made from goat's milk it's called katsikithia).
Graviera, the typical hard cheese of Crete is usually made with sheep’s milk. Although the name sounds suspiciously like gruyere, graviera is nothing like its Swiss sister namesake. Also delicious when fried and served hot.
The best introduction to Cretan cheese is a walk through the market (preferably with some knowledgeable locals) and sampling visits to a handful of cheese stands. We did our Cretan cheese deep dive at the Atsalenio Wednesday market in Heraklion.
Sheep’s cheese-filled pastries fried in olive oil. Named after the iconic traditional scarf, of the same shape, worn by the men of West Crete. We ate these fresh at the women's cooperative of Idaia Gi in the mountainous village of Gergeri (on the way to Phaestos).
Decadently rich and creamy, this stuff is to die for. The local Cretan yogurt variety is made with sheep's milk instead of cow's milk. Top it with honey, nuts, and some fruit for one of the most beautiful (and healthiest) breakfasts on the planet.
A pastry crust stuffed with a slightly sweet Cretan cheese mixture (often including mizithra). Their sweetness implies dessert, but they are also served as appetizers.
Where to eat it: For a vast spread of Cretan appetizers and nibbles, head to Agreco Farm outside Rethymno. Many of the appetizers you see above were devoured there. It’s an organic farm with a nice view of the coast; food is fresh and top notch. Also serves a full Cretan feast for dinner.
Something More Substantial: Cretan Main Dishes
Snails with Cracked Wheat (Coclious me hondro)
Fresh snails cooked with olive oil, salt, onion and red wine served in a cracked wheat stew. You’ll never look at eating snails in the same way again. Added bonus: you will also earn serious Cretan cred by eating this dish. We're told many travelers shy away from it. Not only did we enjoy eating it, but we felt honored to have been served it.
A rich, filling staple of Cretan weddings. Cretan wedding rice is made by boiling a side of sheep (we’re told older sheep are better for this dish) for hours and hours so that the meat becomes fall-off-the-bone tender. Served with rice cooked in sheep broth. It may sound boring, but the richness and depth of flavor will surprise you.
Artichoke hearts with wild hare
I heart artichokes. So imagine my excitement when we were served a dish overflowing with artichoke hearts stewed with wild hare (or the next door neighbor's rabbit) and crushed tomatoes. I had to really work hard not to eat myself sick with this dish.
Where we ate it: We enjoyed the main dishes above at Kalliope Kehadiadaki's Taverna in the village of Apostoloi in the hills just southeast of Rethymno (Tel: 30 28330 61285). Kalliope’s cooking is famous with locals and visitors alike. And, she's a sweetheart grandmother. There’s no menu; just chat with Kalliope regarding what she has fresh and what you like. Ingredients come from her family farm or from other farms in the village. Very reasonably priced – €10-€15/person for a feast, including her husband’s wine and raki. The journey into the hills to find it is worth it. Special thanks goes to our guide, Ioanna Glypti, for introducing us. We would never have found it without her.
Pork (usually) and potatoes slow-cooked in a traditional Cretan wood-burning oven. When the oven is hot enough, the wood coals are removed and trays of pork with potatoes are placed inside. The oven door is then sealed so no liquid or air can get out or in. Cooks for about 3 hours. It may not look like much in the photo below, but it is truly delicious and tender.
Where we ate it: Seli Ambelou, a family run taverna near the Venetian windmills on the way to Lassithi Plateau. This place is full of Cretan families on Sunday out for their weekly meal.
We were surprised to learn that although Crete is an island, people don’t eat seafood as much as they do meat. One reason for this is that overfishing has pushed up the price of seafood. When you do find local seafood, it’s usually cooked lightly in olive oil. Worth a splurge.
Where we ate it: Taverna Spinalonga ARIS in Plaka. A great place to have a long seafood lunch after visiting Spinalonga island.
Something Sweet: Cretan Desserts
Candied fruit may sound boring. But when done right, it can be terrific. In this case, take the sour perfume-fragrant skin of a pergamont (pergamonto, or bergamot orange), candy it in sweet syrup , serve it with fresh yogurt and side it with raki. Never tasted anything quite like it. An inspired finish to a meal.
Like hand-made donut holes fried in olive oil and topped with honey, cinnamon, and finely ground earthy bits like sesame or nuts. Decadent.
Pastry filled with cream and/or cheese, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The most famous bugatsa is served at Kipkop in Heraklion, founded in 1922 by Armenian immigrants who serve up the same recipe to this day.
While filo dough isn't a dessert per se, it's the foundation of many desserts on Crete, including the ubiquitous baklava. You’ll never look at filo dough again in the same way after visiting George Hadziparshos' bakery in Rethymno (Address: Verbadov 30). He takes a small ball of dough and in his methodical way stretches it over a burlap covered mattress — without a single tear, bubble or hole. Amazing.
Something to Drink
It’s hard to visit Crete without drinking raki — a couple of times a day. Although raki is made in the same way as Italian grappa – from the remains of grapes (pits/skins) – it is fortunately smoother and less potent. And, it’s almost always served with food like savory little snacks or dessert.
When it's time to make the raki (October-November), Viki explained: “I can hear the smell of alcohol.” Yes, you can literally hear the crackling of the wood and the sound of raki stills piping away. Then you know it’s time to join friends and neighbors to eat, drink and fill up bottles of raki straight from the still.
Crete is one of the Greece's biggest wine producers. Most of the wine that we tried was of the local village homemade variety. While most of it was acceptable table wine, it didn't strike us as exceptional. However, one of our guides gave us a bottle of her husband's red wine and we were convinced that Cretan wine could, in fact, be truly excellent.
In the middle of the day or at its end, look for herbal teas. Never thought you could make wild oregano tea? You can, and it's nice. Mix and match herbs, or better yet, let your knowledgeable host do it for you. And stay on the look out for malotera, or mountain tea. A great way to keep your body hydrated and refreshed as you eat your way around the island.