One of the greatest joys of visiting the Greek island of Crete is sampling local food and enjoying it in the company of locals. Ask anyone on Crete about his or her go-to restaurant or favourite dish, and you might find a crowd gathering around you in minutes with plenty of robust opinions and each person sharing his mind on the matter. Cretans love to talk about their cuisine and share their knowledge.
Cretan cuisine is not complicated but incremental, where dishes and combinations are built on a foundation of fresh ingredients and the use of wild herbs and greens drives a simple purity of taste. Not to be forgotten is the copious use of Crete’s liquid gold: olive oil. All of this together conspires to not only create a delicious cuisine, but also food that’s good for you. It is no wonder the Cretan diet is considered one of the healthiest on the planet.
Here’s what to look for – and to look forward to – as you eat your way around Crete.
Once you’ve had a taste of Cretan olive oil, you’ll never be the same. You’ll find it difficult to consume olive oil with the same perspective ever again.
Olive oil is perhaps the single most critical important ingredient in Cretan cuisine. It imparts flavour and it provides context. Virtually everything served on the island features a spoonful (or two or three) of olive oil thrown on top or cooked inside. This miraculous golden liquid is not heavy, but instead adds just the right flavour and touch of deliciousness. Not to mention Cretan olive oil is known for its very low acidity, which makes its copious consumption not only almost guilt-free but good for your system.
To put into perspective how important olive oil is on Crete, take a look at the island’s annual consumption per person. In Germany and the United States, this runs about 0.5 liters per person annually. In Crete, it’s 25 liters of olive oil per person per year.
Markets and Fresh Ingredients
We love fresh markets. They are often among the first sights we seek out when we arrive in a new destination. Not only do open-air fresh markets provide an opportunity to learn about local foods, but they are also a great place to meet and interact with locals.
Across Crete, most cities and towns feature weekly fresh markets. Heraklion, the island’s capital, features markets that move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood every day of the week. Ask your host or the local tourism office where you’re staying for a schedule. Go, get out there, sample food, ask questions, smile – and you’ll be rewarded. Markets on Crete – good, tasty fun.
Cretan Appetizers: Small Plate Eating
Ah, the beauty of small plate eating. They are fun, you can pace yourself, and they are usually light to eat. Not to mention they are often simple, what-you-see-is-what-you-get affairs where freshness of ingredients and flavor separation shine through. We could live on Cretan appetizers alone – the small plate offers were among our favorite segments of the meal.
Marinated and Pickled Vegetables
Simple, fresh, tasty. Everything on the island is seemingly subject to pickling and marinade – artichokes, wild onion bulbs, and black and green olives are just the beginning. If small plate eating is your thing, this is where the experience begins.
This is a very typical Cretan dish that you’ll find almost everywhere. Rusks, a hard Cretan dried bread that is baked several times, is moistened slightly with water and topped with grated tomato, olive oil, cheese and oregano. It’s crunchy, light and full of flavour, particularly when generously drizzled with local olive oil.
Fasolakia is fresh beans cooked with a little crushed tomato and olive oil. While this dish may not sound like much, it makes a surprising, beautiful mixture of simple, fresh ingredients that reminds us to never to judge a book by its cover.
Cretan main dishes tend to be hearty, taking from the island’s agricultural roots and from the contours of the Cretan landscape. Although Crete is an island, seafood is not as abundant nor as inexpensive as you might imagine. Expect meats cooked simply or otherwise combined with simple, roasted vegetables. The focus is on quality fresh ingredients combined to compliment each other while maintaining their individual flavour profiles.
Snails with Cracked Wheat (Coclious me hondro)
Some may say “ewwww” and shy away from the thought of eating snails. We urge you to shelve your fears and just try once this dish of 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, and you’ll definitely earn some street cred from locals.
It may not look like much in the photo below, but it is delicious. Psitos is meat (most often pork) and potatoes slow-cooked in a traditional Cretan wood-burning oven. When the oven reaches the right temperature, the coals are removed and trays of pork and whole or rough-cut potatoes are placed inside. The oven door is then sealed so no liquid or air can enter or escape. Everything is locked in, flavours and all. The result is astounding, inimitable Cretan barbeque.
When we asked several locals about their favourite dish, Cretan Rice was perhaps the one mentioned most. This dish is often served at Cretan weddings, but you can also find it in restaurants. In simple terms, this is rice cooked in sheep broth and served with fall-off-the-bone tender mutton (sheep meat). Again, the description is simple and undramatic, but the richness and depth of flavour will surprise you and leave a lasting impression.
This pastry is 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.
We all know how rich and creamy Greek yogurt is – now imagine that same texture and consistency with a bit more tang. That’s Cretan yogurt. Mixed with honey and walnuts, this yogurt dish is truly divine.