By: Ilias Mamalakis
(Lover of food, lover of good food and never a selfish eater!)
-“Have some olives koumbare!”
-“The cheese is good too! “ answers the witty, gourmand
Cretan koumbaros, who instantly sums up the cheese as a better
meal than the olives.
Certainly for many centuries, Crete has offered a gastronomic
education and a series of dishes which have travelled through
time to arrive, almost unchanged, to the present day. Although
the island has been a melting pot for almost all the peoples
in the Mediterranean,
it seems that Cretan cuisine, despite its international past,
has remained strictly Cretan and minimally influenced by the
conquerors - in any case, any intermingling between the peoples
happened violently and not peacefully.
The Cretan people depended for their food almost exclusively
on the products of their earth. They have their own sauces,
dairy products, specialties, sweet dishes, pulses. This is a
very egoistic opinion you will tell me. Well, come with me and
let us see.
Have you heard anywhere else of eating papoules, stamnagathi,
rodiki, korfokoukia, daisy shoots or mosses? Well, here are
the specialty salads, always raw and always cooling, and with
plenty of oil, vinegar and coarse salt, with a few wrinkled
olives. So, if you find yourself in Crete during spring or autumn,
don’t forget to ask for some of these.
As far as cereals are concerned, barley has been cultivated
more than wheat. The famous barley rusk has come down to us
today - it is softened in water, soaked in oil and tomato, and
it constitutes our national dish, the famous “tako”
which is very tasty and very good for the digestion.
Crete has been grazed from the very old days until the present
time almost exclusively by goats and sheep, which constitute
the main body of Cretan stock-breeding.
Their meat is tasty and is cooked with all types of vegetables.
It is not so long since, in every village, the butcher (meat
seller) slaughtered a sheep or a goat having first orally ensured
the sale, because if he was left with it, it would either have
gone off (as there were no refrigerators of course) or he would
have to eat it himself.
So we have ewe, which have given birth once or twice, lamb
or goat or kid cooked with fennel, with delectable local artichokes,
with wild mountain greens, with tomato or egg and lemon sauce,
or simply boiled with rice drowned in staka.
Oh! that staka. A source of cholesterol and other unhealthy
ingredients but extremely tasty, fatty, aromatic, it is none
other than cream of butter (or “tsipa” as they call
it in Crete), which is collected from the shepherd with great
care, salted a little and kept in a cool place until needed
at weddings and celebrations to prepare the proud “gamopilafo”
(the rice used at weddings). It is difficult to find it these
days if you do not have access as a friend to a Cretan family
which in turn has a shepherd as a friend or relation.
But dairy products are not confined only to staka - we also
have the fantastic, sweet-smelling myzithres, anthotyro, home-made
tyrozoulia and the fantastic full-fat sheep’s milk graviera,
designated internationally as a cheese with appelation of origin.
Light yellow in colour, salted, a little peppery (depending
on its maturity) with all its fat, spicy with a totally characteristic
taste, it is the queen of Greek gravieras and has already made
its debut in the European and international markets which it
will certainly capture with its fine qualities.
Returning to meat for a moment, we must mention the lovely
rabbit which saved Crete from the famine caused every so often
by the various conquerors, the Nazis being the most recent ones.
Easy to reproduce (they breed like rabbits) and easy to rear
because of the flora of the area, they existed and still exist
in the garden of every village house. It is easy to cook and
can be served in stiphado (stew with onions), fried or roasted
in the oven with potatoes and it is always tasty and healthy.
The Cretans owe it a lot and they show this by their preference
for it. Just to give you an idea, I can tell you that half the
number of rabbits in Greece are to be found in Crete.
Another native of Crete has contributed a lot to the everyday
meal - we are of course talking about snails.
They can be cooked in many ways: scalded in salt water for a
meze in raki (a rare dish these days), with onions and fresh
tomato sauce and, of course, the best recipe of all, the renowned
chochlii boubouristi (fried and simmered in vinegar and seasoned
with rosemary) - something else!
Talking of vinegar, this is an important ingredient in the
island’s cooking. It is used everywhere, even in the preparation
of sausages, to which it gives a very characteristic taste.
As far as pulses are concerned, broad beans make a classic
speciality, one that was very popular in the old days - broad
beans (koukia matsarista). This is very good and tasty and is
basically broad beans with potatoes that have been crushed in
a pestle and mortar with oil and vinegar. It is heavy, feeding
and full of protein, a necessary food for the labourious life
of the country people.
Don’t let’s forget that Crete is an island and
a big island at that, and the Cretans have always valued and
still value the produce of the sea which is getting rarer these
days. Sargus, rofos, mullet, skorpidi, octopus, limpets and
many more - these are all delicacies mainly of the seaside villages.
I must make special mention however, of the prince of Cretan
waters - the skaros.
It’s not necessary to say much - those who know, (mainly
the fishermen and the village gourmets) classify it as the height
of enjoyment. White compact meat, crispy skin and aromatic innards.
Don’t be surprised, skaros is eaten whole! yes, yes, whole!
It must of course be caught early in the morning, before it
feeds, so that its stomach is empty, so that when you eat it,
the sand will not annoy you. The expert eater grills it in one
piece. The only thing he takes out is the bitter liquid from
the gall bladder (an operation of a few seconds done with a
match), and then he grills it and enjoys his meze. What do you
say now to a fish soup, the famous kakavia (bouillabaisse)?
I remember they used to make it for us in my village in the
old days with scorpion-fish, potatoes, a lot of lemon and oil
and probably an onion or two - it was really terrific and nothing
like the various bad versions of mediocre culinary imagination.
If you know of a good fish taverna and you happen to go on the
day they’ve made kakavia, you can order two bowls without
thinking twice! Ask too if they have achinosalata (sea-urchin
salad), a wonderful (and probably expensive) meze which is certainly
Now that we’ve eater well, even through descriptions,
let’s have a dessert - a kalitsounaki in the shape of
a lamp, Crete’s star sweet, although unfortunately available
only during certain seasons of the year, mainly when sheep’s
milk is fat and plentiful. It is a tiny pie filled with fresh
myzithra cheese, eggs, with or without aniseed and sesame seeds
but with a little cinnamon. It is very pleasant to eat and can
be kept for many days in a cool place. More often you will find
crunchy kserotigana, fried doughy strips, wound in coils, steeped
in heavy syrup and sprinkled with lots of grated walnut - you’ll
want to lick your fingers.
While we are on the subject of traditional Cretan food, here
are three restaurants where you will find some of the tastiest
and best-cooked dishes in Crete.
Eutychia’s taverna - outside Kolymbari still makes the
rare dish called ‘tourta’, i.e. a pie filled with
lamb and various local cheeses.
Kombos’ taverna outside Rethimno on the road to Atsipopoulo
makes a tasty splinogardouba (spleen) - and you’ll be
lucky if they have staka.
In Iraklio, in the suburb of Phoenikia, in Zervos’ taverna,
apart from the very tasty food, iced raki is served in a real
ritual. For dessert, there are savoury and sweet mezedakia,
like fried myzithra cheese with honey, water melon syrup preserve,
green almonds and many more...
Dear travellers, whatever good things you have to eat, they
lose some of their value if you don’t wash them down with
a good drink. Crete has two spirits to show off - raki or tsikoudia,
and the traditional Cretan wine. Tsikoudia is an excellent drink
for any occasion. Tsikoudia to whet your appetite, tsikoudia
to help you digest, tsikoudia (warm, mixed half and half with
honey and a little pepper) to warm you up, tsikoudia (iced)
to cool you down, tsikoudia when you’re tired, tsikoudia
to help you relax. Tsikoudia for the body to ward off the evil
eye, all your life swimming in tsikoudia and no complaints.
Tsikoudia is a superb distillation of the skins of pressed
grapes (tsikouda) which is done in old distillers (called “kazania”
or boilers in Crete). Sometimes they flavour it with citron
and other aromatic fruits and so we have kitroraki (with citron)
mournoraki (with mulberries) and others. Tsikoudia is a genuinely
alcoholic drink with the delicate aroma of ripe grapes and citrus
fruits, and clear as crystal. It can be drunk through the whole
range of temperatures, from hot straight from the distillery
to iced from a shot glass, but you must be careful because it
goes to your head if you are not used to it.
As far as wine is concerned, this has improved greatly in recent
years thanks to the attempts made by many zealous vinegrowers
and wine manufacturers. So it is of high quality which does
justice to the produce, and its excellent quality never varies.
Home-made wine has all the characteristics of Cretan men.
It is heavy, quick-tempered and serious, and it thunders and
is sweetish at the same time. Finally, it breaks into a measured
smile. It is loved by its producer, by Cretans in general and
by specially educated palates. It has an earthy, deep red colour
and has the fruity aroma of the grape.
We’ve eaten and drunk well so now let’s have an
after-dinner digestif. And what a digestif - the best! Cretan
diktamo tea (ditary) known to the inhabitants of the island
from the most distant past. The Cretans call it eronda, maybe
because you must have a real love for it to go and look for
the herb on the rough inaccessible slopes of Mt. Psiloreiti,
where it grows. Nowadays it is cultivated regularly and it has
lost some of its wildness, but cultivated diktamo is better
Wherever you stop in the rough Cretan countryside, you will
always find good company and a tasty treat with a little tsikoudia
to calm you down - a treat expressing the traditional Cretan
hospitality. If someone behaves coldly or professionally towards
you forgive him, he certainly is not a local Cretan but from
somewhere else and has come to Crete on business.
|Source of the
information on this page : “Unexplored Crete”,
Road Editions. For more guidebooks and maps of
Greece, click here.