Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
Bookmark and Share

Mangia Bene

    The food of contemporary Crete is founded on its history and what is locally produced. Crete lies in a strategic position in the Mediterranean, acting like a modern aircraft carrier in the southern Aegean. For this reason it has been a prime target of invaders for millennia. Crete was home to the Minoan civilization during the Bronze Age (3000 to 1100 BC) that built the Palace of Knossos that can be visited today. The Romans also ruled Crete, but the Crete of today began its formation with the Arab occupation that lasted from 824 to 961 AD. But unlike Arab rule in Spain and Sicily, little of lasting value was left in Crete by what amounted to a band of Arab adventurers. The island was restored to Byzantium in 961 and the Christian ruling class was strengthened. A slow decline, tethered to the decline of Byzantium in general, occurred and by 1204 Crete was sold to the Venetians who used the island as a source of grain, wine, hides, and wood for shipbuilding. More importantly Venice understood the strategic importance of Crete and secured the island for its excellent harbors. A feudal administration was established, but Venetian rule was vigorously confronted by the Cretan character and for centuries terrible revolts occurred that were ruthlessly suppressed. Venetian rule lasted until 1669 and by the end of their rule Crete was an amalgam of Cretan and Venetian influences. As Venetian power waned, a new force entered Crete. The Ottoman Turks took Crete in 1669 and ruled until 1898. In the beginning of Turkish rule there was great hardship and deprivation. Later there was ruthless discrimination against Christians and conversions to Islam were frequent. Greek and Cretan cultural traditions were preserved and protected throughout this period by monasteries and the Greek Orthodox church. Culinary traditions, too, were preserved in monasteries and in remote mountain villages that could resist occupation. But Crete is quite different than the rest of Greece, even though that may not be immediately evident to the casual visitor. Like other Mediterranean islands Crete is self-contained and isolated. And, like many of the other islands of the Mediterranean it is mountainous, meaning that life is not automatically associated around the sea which has always been dangerous because of invaders and pirates.

    Today, the traveler is most likely to encounter Cretan food in tavernas where prepared food (etimo fayeto) is served at lunchtime from bain marie. One inspects the various dishes that the chef has prepared, sometimes up to 12 different dishes, and chooses what they want. Stuffed vegetables, tourta, savory pies, and dishes of pulses that are a kind of cross between soups and stews are made. In the evening one will be presented with a selection of meze, a variety of appetizing little dishes that might be the entirety of the meal. Other food, such as stifado (stew) or grilled meats will arrive at the table haphazardly as they are finished. Being an island, Crete is renowned for its fish dishes which are usually grilled or made into a stew.

    Cretan food has a kind of mythic, legendary status among nutritionists because of studies showing that rates of chronic heart disease and other chronic diseases are quite low as a result of the diet and lifestyle of Cretans. Even so, Cretan food is actually quite simple, based on olive oil, olives, pulses and vegetables and fresh and dried fruits with very little meat and fish consumption. Crete also has deep traditions surrounding two food items that remain special on islands: bread and cheese. There are many breads, from votive breads to preserved rock-hard breads for times of famine. Like its other Mediterranean islands, Crete shares the same traditions when it comes to bread and a whole book could be written about them. So too with cheeses, many are still unnamed, just as in Corsica, called simply "cheese." Although when pressed, Cretans will tell you that you are eating kefalotyri, or malaka or a clotted cream-like product called staka. Each of Crete's invaders influenced the food. The ancient Greeks made sausages. The Byzantines salt and dry-cured meats and used honey in both sweet and savory dishes. With the Venetians wine production grew as did olive. Although many Cretan dishes have Italian names, they are not necessarily Italian in origin. The Turks brought the use of various spices such as sesame seeds, cumin, and coriander seed and certain other dishes such as the chicken liver and cinnamon pie called tzoulama. But there are other influences including Jewish.

  (Photo: grilled octopus)

  Cretan food is simple food, but that does not mean it is bland food. It is food based on a foundation of basic native ingredients, olive oil, wild greens, lemons, oranges, lentils, beans, barley, and vegetables and a culinary structure emerges from the combinations created by cooks.