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You can expect to eat well, extraordinarily well in Crete and, what is more, you may even come home feeling a bit better than you did when you left. That’s because the Cretan diet is judged to be one of the healthiest in the world. Historically, Cretans have always eaten only what the island produces – fruit, vegetables, whole grains and pulses – and that is still very much the guiding principle. Fish and meat of course are also readily available but the seasonal fruits and vegetables – raw, pureed, sautéed, fried, boiled, stuffed, chopped in salads – are very much the stars of the show. Its vegetarian heaven.
You only have to visit one of the local markets to get a sense of the quality of the produce available. The bustling Saturday morning open air market in Chania was an absolute joy to behold – a riot of colour and freshness, rammed with locals on a mission and not a single piece of plastic wrapping in sight.
I’d joined a Travel Editions escorted ‘Culinary Crete’ tour which, over the course of a week staying in Kissamos in Western Crete, introduced us in some detail to the delights and ingredients of Cretan cooking. This is not a cookery course but it did include two informal cookery demonstrations, both in the kitchens of family run tavernas. For the most part, the dishes proved simple to prepare, with the emphasis on the marriage of flavours rather than complex technique or refined presentation. Many dishes were familiar – mezze favourites like tzatziki, dolmades, spinach pies, the ubiquitous Greek salad and stuffed tomatoes and peppers. But there was always a Cretan twist and something new to discover. An advantage of travelling as a small group meant that we ate together most of the time and so food was served family style as sharing plates so we got to try lots of things that perhaps we’d never had ordered individually. It also reflected the local way of eating – always together, family and friends, gathered around the table groaning with food, very much the focal point of Cretan life.
Boureki is an example of one of the dishes we learnt to make – thinly sliced courgette and potatoes, layered with grated fresh tomatoes, soft Mizithra cheese, lots of seasoning and chopped fresh herbs and astonishing amounts of olive oil. Baked in a big dish in the oven, it certainly won’t win any prizes for its looks, but it tastes absolutely delicious.
Olive oil of course, and only the extra virgin kind, underpins everything. No butter, no cream, just lots and lots of olive oil. Over a quarter of the island is covered by olive trees and every family will have their own tree if not an orchard. They call it their ‘liquid gold’. We visited BioLea owned by the Dimitriadis family and one of a small but growing number of organic producers on the island, specialising in traditional stone milled, cold pressed oil. A tour of the production unit provided a fascinating
insight in to the intricacies and challenges of harvesting the fruits and extracting the precious oil. Naturally, the visit also included tastings and an opportunity to buy – testament to the quality of the product that I think pretty much everyone in the group left clutching a bottle of the delicious lemon flavoured oil.
Aside from visits to local producers (we also went to a thyme honey producer and a vineyard) possibly one of our most revealing outings was an invitation to visit the family home of one of our local hosts, Stelios (owner of the Cellar Taverna in Kissamos where we ate most evenings). With several members of the extending family living together in a collection of different buildings, family traditions are cherished here as Stelios explained. We started off in the central family room, walls adorned with fading photos of previous generations with a large table in the middle, the venue for family gatherings of all kinds – celebrations and wakes. In the back kitchen we were invited to taste the wine from the family barrels – one for each precious child and used to toast every significant family event from birthdays through to weddings. And Stelios was clearly as pleased to introduce us as we were to meet his elderly mother who had so kindly made lemonade and biscuits to welcome us.
This tour proved to be so much more than just an opportunity to eat delicious food. With a mix of guided excursions, activities and free time, the group was exposed to many different aspects of Cretan culture and its cuisine. It proved to be an enlightening experience.
Travel Editions operate their Culinary Crete tour in Spring and Autumn. 2019 prices for the 7 night tour inclusive of flights, accommodation, excursions, activities and most meals start from £1375pp. Click here for more details.