The word 'Diet' comes from the Greek 'diaita' - which means 'way of life' - and indeed the Cretan Diet is not only a delectable array of natural health-giving foods, it is intricately linked to a special way of life, where food is a very important part. Meals are eaten at leisure with family and ‘parea' (company of friends) and women play an important role.
The traditional Cretan diet has remained unchanged for 4000 years and consists of freshly prepared dishes made from local seasonal products without processing. The diet is based on plant food: vegetables, pulses, legumes (lentils, white beans, chick peas), endemic wild herbs, aromatic plants and rough cereals. Small amounts of dairy products are eaten daily, and poultry or fish weekly. Red meat (goat, lamb, game) is eaten only a few times a month. Honey and wild stevia are the only sweeteners. Alcohol (mostly red wine) is only ever drunk with meals. But most important of all is the olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil is ever-present, all year round, and is used in virtually every dish - savoury or sweet. It makes food taste so good, and it is incredibly healthy. Cretans never use butter.
Extra virgin olive oil in every dish. Dessert is fresh fruit, with honey and nut pastries three or four times a week
The traditional Cretan cuisine conjures up images of fresh ‘Greek salad' of cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, onions, olives, crowned with feta cheese, all glistening in pungent, peppery extra virgin olive oil – Homer's ‘liquid gold'. ‘Dakos' - crusty cretan bread - are topped with chopped tomato and cheese and softened in olive oil.
A ‘pikilia' (selection) of freshly prepared mezedes (appetisers): dips made from olives, yogurt, garlic, aubergine or fish-roe; delicate parcels of spinach and cheese in light pastry; pumpkin puffs filled with feta cheese; finely sliced courgette and horta, ladies' fingers, ‘dolmades' (vine leave rolls filled with rice, pine nuts and herbs, or mince meat), fava beans and lentils; peppers or tomatoes stuffed with rice and beans; snails, squid, octopus or sardines. An occasional meat dish: moussaka, spicey chicken, or roast lamb.
Every dish is freshly prepared, cooked in extra virgin olive oil and flavoured with mountain herbs and spices (basil, oregano, sage, bay leaf, dictamus, dittany, rosemary, mint, thyme, cinnamon, nutmeg). A little wine accompanies the meal. It ends with fresh fruit and perhaps a ‘sweet' such as sesame seed halva, or kataifi with yogurt with unrefined ‘raw' honey made by bees feeding on pollen from mountain herbs (especially Thyme and sage) is the only sweetener. And to top it off, a thimble-full of Raki!
The importance of Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Cretan Cuisine
Olive oil is an essential part of Cretan cuisine and is the only fat used in cooking. Apart from its exceptional health properties olive oil is a chef's dream. The variety of flavours means that different olive oils can be used for different cooking purposes. Most Cretans will have several different olive oils in their kitchen for different purposes. Strong fruity and grassy oils can add a special character to salads; more peppery oils are superb for roasted meat, fish and potatoes; milder, smooth oils can be used for light dressing, baking and desserts. Greek pastries and cakes are all made with olive oil. Furthermore, unlike most other cooking oils (such as sunflower, safflower), which oxidise when cooked (their 'flash point' - at which the oil burns and smokes - is much lower than extra virgin olive oil), olive oil's healthy properties are preserved through the entire range of domestic cooking temperatures. Olive oil is an excellent preservative of foods and is used to 'pickle' cheese, vegetables and fish.
The Cretan diet vs. other ‘Mediterranean diets'
The Mediterranean Diet is the healthiest in the world, a position acknowledged by Unesco in 2010:
The Cretan version of the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest of all
The Cretan diet differs significantly from other Mediterranean diets.Cretans eat far more olives, pulses, herbs, fruits and potatoes, and much less red meat, fish and cereals. But the main difference is their intake of olive oil - which is vast! Greeks consume twice the olive oil of Spaniards and Italians (the 2nd and 3rd largest consumers) - and Cretans more than double that of their fellow Greeks! In northern europe & America the main source of dietary fat is animal fat (butter and lard).
Find out more here: 'Cretan Diet and Health'
Cretans consume 4 x more extra virgin olive oil than anyone else in the world. This high consumption of olive oil made from the Koroneiki olive is a major factor in the health effects of 'The Cretan Diet'
Changing dietary patterns....and traditional revival
In the 1960s, meat intake in Crete increased with improved living standards. More recently, migration from villages to towns and globalisation has introduced unhealthy western fast foods into the diet. However, outside the tourist areas the traditional Cretan diet is very much alive and even in towns is being actively revived. The Cretan government now awards a 'Quality Label of Cretan Cuisine' certificate to restaurants whose menus contain traditional Cretan recipes.