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Cretan cuisine


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,

Greek products

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.

Greek salad

Cretan salad

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.

Dakos, Cretan cuisine

Dakos, cretan salad

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!

Cretan cuisine, Snails


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.

Cretan cuisine

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 worth trying.

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.

Cretan cuisine

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 than none.

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.


Tip of the day

Rethymnon (2). • Argyroúpoli: 27km far from Réthymno you will find Argyroúpoli, a village built on the remnants of the ancient city of Láppas. Numerous springs, the cave and the chapel bearing the same name are all well worth a visit.
 Gorges of extraordinary beauty traverse the mountains of the region: the ravine of Kourtaliótis, 3km long, ends at the famous Lagoon of Préveli; the ravine of Kotsifoú starts from the village of Kánevos and ends near the village of Sellía; the gorge of Patsós, in the Amári district; the gorge of Prassés, which ends at the village of Plataniás at the north coast east of the town of Réthymno; finally, the gorge of Arkádi and a number of smaller ones.
 The mountains of the region are exceptionally rich in caves. The most famous caves are those of Geráni, Simonélli west of the town of Réthymno, Áyios Antónios in the district of Amári, Melidóni, Moúgri Sissón and Sfendóni near the village of Zonianá.

Tel/fax: +33 (0)4 93 37 81 63 --- Mobile: +33 (0)6 08 37 02 49
Address in France: 20, Boulevard Joseph Garnier F-06000 Nice
Address in Greece: Astrikas - Chania - Crete, 73006 Greece