Cretan diet holds a special place within the culinary world as for its flavors, as well as its health benefits. The Cretan lifestyle as it combines with the natural resources and the selective additions of products that match the general culinary pattern makes Cretan diet very unique. So what is this pattern and how does it unfold? How is every day life unfolding in terms of its food traditions?
Krites (Κρήτες-People of Crete) developed their culinary habits based on their natural resources. Of course this is the case for most civilizations and cultures. However, Crete has a particularity. The way it sits geographically with the Eastern side placed more South than the Western side creates ideal conditions for a diverse environmental setting across the island. Add variations of soils, water supply, weather conditions and so on and you come up with is the most complete garden you could ever imagine. Food is always seasonal and even today, when industrialization, fast food nations, and fast pace of life demand quick solutions, people on Crete remain faithful to their seasonal, local food products. In order to understand the level of our faith in our food we have only one McDonald restaurant in a city of 150 thousand people that is actually never crowded. Cretan fast food nation includes souvlaki, giros, and other Greek sinful delicacies that i will make reference to later in time.
In the Kitchen-Then….
Traditionally there are three main courses (breakfast, lunch, dinner) in the daily dietary circle of the Κρητικός (Kritikos) and two complimentary snacks. Breakfast is rich and composed by bread, cheese olives and sometimes food that was left from the day before, or from that cooked for the day. Some elders claim that they drink a small glass of red wine for breakfast, and others that they dip a slice of dry bread (παξιμάδι- Paksimadi) in the wine. At this point it is important to add that breakfast is served on sunrise. For the average Cretan of the not so recent past the working day starts when “God Dawns the Day”. This means that 06:30 people were already in the fields. This is not a common practice today. People wake up a little later and they tend to not use wine in their breakfast. Instead coffee is the main morning drink which is a culture not only on the island but in the entire country.
Lunch is simple and usually consumed in the fields where work was done (vineyards or olive groves). This meant that it had to be easy to carry around and not very heavy for the stomach so work could continue. Dinner was closing the day with warm food that was also light and simple. Pasta and milk were starring on the dinner table, but also food like barley and magiri (small handmade pasta in soup) were consumed for dinner.
Complicated recipes are immediately connected with times of celebrations or days of religious significance. Such traditions were so strong that even today specific food stuffs or cooking is connected to specific traditions such as the roasted lamb for Easter. Religion and culinary traditions go hand in hand . Long periods of lent (40 days before Easter, 40 days before Christmas, 15 first days of August) were very faithfully followed and there are still a lot of families today, in both rural and urban areas, that keep such traditions in their culinary and traditional lives.
Daily food was (and still is) based on natural resources, local production, seasonal productivity, and religion. Winter is the season of pulse consumption. Chickpeas, beans, and fava beans were on the table at least twice a week. Bates and onions were the perfect companions for such dishes. Salad was made of cabbage, or freshly picked wild greens either raw or cooked. Different products take the place of these one as seasons go by and make the cuisine rich and full of flavors.
A visit in any household in Crete, whether urban or rural will pretty much still follow the culinary traditions that have been developed through centuries. Festivities and religious practices are still followed due to the fact that the vast majority of the people in Crete are Greek Orthodox. Many do not follow these practices as part of their beliefs towards the divine, but simply as a cultural continuation.
The modern Cretan family keeps a basic equilibrium with cuisine of the past with very few additions that the connection with the rest of the world brings. For example the days of lent are much less in the modern household. There is no wine in the modern breakfast and dinner is a little more rich than it used to be. Yet the concept is there. Traditional recipes are circulated among households and people’s pallets are trained to accept them with enthusiasm. I know very few people that would not appreciate the simplicity of a plate of fresh wild greens with zucchini.
The culinary traditions of Crete are in immediate connection with nature and religion from the time of Knossos. The spiritual goes hand in hand with the natural which in turn shapes the cultural daily lives of the people of Crete. In addition the purity of products and their consumption on a daily basis enrich and protect the body with the necessary intake of calories, fat, vitamins, anti-oxidants and so on. Olives and olive oil, herbs, cheese and milk products, bread and wine were (and to a certain extend still are) inseparable from the life of the Kritikos. This together with hard physical labour and minimal use of chemicals in agriculture developed the famous Cretan Diet.