The food of Crete is pure and raw and it is all about the freshness of ingredients, local products and the simplicity of its flavours.
Through centuries of continuous occupation, the residents of the island lived mainly with what the nature had to offer thanks to a great climate, plenty of sun and its abundant flora and fauna and rich nature.
Cretans are to large extent vegetarians in their daily lives; they consume the biggest quantities of olive oil worldwide, manage the Cretan flora with inventiveness, and make simple foods with different flavours based on what the Cretan land has to offer: green leaves, olives, vegetables, fruit, etc.
In Crete the cooks will tend to use locally sourced products, avoiding imported ingredients which distort the identity of their food. If you were to embark on an adventure to taste the oregano, the basil, the tomatoes grown on different soil, you will see that the identity of the cuisine comes through accordingly. In a place like Crete, food is such a big part of the heritage that preserving and authentic taste is simply essential.
In order to understand how the food is cooked here, you have to move into a house with a local, witness how they wrap the Dolmadakia, how they make the stuffing for the Gemista, how they open the dough according to the local tradition, how they clean and stir the vegetables for a Briam. The way a frying pan will be placed on fire, the quantity and the size which are cut, how much oil they put will define the flavour and these are peculiar traditions which you will most probably find only here.
How can someone know by just reading a recipe how much salt and oil a delicious recipe needs, if a bit of cumin should be added – Cretans love it so much! The Cretans will not easily reveal that this unexpected flavour in the food behind the garlic and the mint is just a bit of cumin. And even the way that the food will be placed on the dish when serving it so that the one who tastes it can taste it authenticity.
The oily dishes are perfect when they are served simply, just in the way they were cooked in the pot with parsley, onion, garlic, fresh tomato and oil – proportion here is key and that allows the sauce to thicken without the separation of the oil from water.
Crete is present everywhere, in the people, the places, the habits, the customs. Food is so big here that the grandson or nephew couldn’t visit his grandfather or uncle without bringing him something, ‘peskesi’ according to the Cretan customs. Food is soul here and there is no food without soul on the island.
For recipe ideas from Crete, here is some inspiration below!
Garlic, cucumber and yogurt dip (Tzatziki)
- 1 kg strained yoghurt (1.1lbs)
- 2 large cucumbers
- 3 cloves garlic
- 4-5 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp vinegar
- 1 tbsp finely chopped mint or dill (optional)
Peel and grate cucumbers. Squeeze as hard as possible to remove water completely. Mash garlic with salt in a mortar. In a medium-size bowl, mix yoghurt with cucumber and garlic. Slowly add vinegar and olive oil and combine well. Finally add mint or parsley. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Cumin and Garlic Meatballs in Tomato and Wine Sauce
These cumin-flavoured meatballs may be casseroled or oven-baked with potatoes – here is the oven version.
- 500g minced meat (lamb or beef)
- 130g bread, soaked in white wine
- 2 cloves of garlic, grated or crushed
- 1 heaped tsp of ground cumin
- 1 small onion, grated
- half tsp salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 medium egg
- 2 dessert spoons of olive oil
Squeeze the bread dry, place in a bowl with the meat and the other ingredients and mix everything together well with your hands. Leave the mixture for at least half an hour in the fridge then firmly press the mixture into balls or torpedo shapes. Place in a shallow oven dish and add equal amounts of parboiled potatoes, cut into similar sizes.
To make the sauce wizz a 1 tsp of cumin seeds, half tsp salt, the garlic, onion, a glass of white wine, the olive oil and a 400g tin of tomatoes, in a liquidiser. Check seasoning, add a wine glass of water, wizz again and then pour over the meatballs and potatoes. Cook at Gas Mark 6, 180C for about an hour, checking after 30 minutes or so.
Serve with shredded white cabbage, carrot salad and lots of fresh bread.
Written by George Portokalakis