Crete ... the island where food is a way of life and every meal is a social occasion.
Where family, friends, and strangers are invited with open arms to participate in a celebration of friendship and food.
A meal can take hours. No one rushes.
And the food (more like a feast) keeps coming... and coming... and coming.
As Nicholas Gage in his book, Hellas A Portrait of Greece, says, “... eating and drinking are a pleasant background for conversation, gossip, debate and to eat alone is unthinkable”.
This sense of community and generosity of spirit is inherent in the psyche of every Cretan and Greek.
It is palpable, and there is even a word in the Greek language that encapsulates it – philoxenia from the words philos (friend), and xenos (stranger or foreigner).
Literally, a “friend to stranger”, it is in fact much more than this, as it involves hospitality and courtesy.
Meraki is a word that is difficult to translate.
Usually used when referring to creative or artistic endeavors; it describes the act of doing something you love with soul, creativity, passion, and the utmost attention.
Everything to do with food in Crete is done with meraki.
Whether it’s a fisherman cleaning his early morning catch, a yiayia (grandmother) shelling peas on the stoop, a farmer skinning a rabbit, a shepherd making cheese, a young waiter serving fresh fish at a taverna, or a cheerful orange seller at the local markets – it’s all done with meraki. No matter where you eat, you’ll be welcomed with a smile, plied with food and gifts, and you’ll know that everything has been prepared and cooked with absolute devotion and love.
And given that you will have been ‘adopted’ by the owner of the establishment as one of the family, and that you will have had ‘the best meal ever, the memory will linger for years.
For nothing will ever taste the same elsewhere. Such is the visceral experience of eating in Crete.
On the island, food is celebrated, and the famous Cretan Diet is considered a way of life.
Their passion for food is deeply rooted in their culture and checkered history and can be traced back some 3000 years to Minoan times.
And given that the Cretan Diet lies at the heart of the Mediterranean Diet, it is no wonder food is synonymous with the Cretan spirit, their connection to the land, and their commitment to enjoying life.
Food is simple, fresh, and clean, and has legendary status thanks to its nutritional values. Cretan (and Greek) cooking is about the techniques and ingredients rather than the recipes. The hand of the maker and their backstory of history and expertise play a large role in the final dish, which is why they can taste so different from region to region.
Herbs such as sage, thyme, and oregano, grow wild all over the island, and their perfume pervades the air; so much so that when you sail to Crete you can smell her before you can see her.
Due to the island’s highly fertile soil, sustainability lies at its core, and with more than enough rain, fresh water from the mountains, and sunshine everything grows and tastes extraordinary.
Even the humblest of vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, and cucumbers, become must-have staples at every single meal.
Cretan dishes are simple and seasonal, selected from fresh, high-quality local produce.
Places to eat in Crete are more often than not family-run establishments, sometimes with up to four generations at the helm.
Meals are lovingly prepared using many ingredients from their own market gardens and cooked as though they are to feed their own family.
Cretans eat more fruit and vegetables than anywhere else in the western world, including locally grown organic pulses, vegetables, greens, wild aromatic herbs and plants (over 500 different types are used raw and cooked), fresh and dried fruit and nuts, and whole grains; particularly barley and rye.
Add seafood, meat, wine in moderation, and lashings of pure, thick green olive oil, and you have a healthy and perfect recipe for life.
The weekly laiki (farmers’ market) is a hive of activity where locals buy everything fresh from fruit, vegetables, olive oil, and honey to wine, raki, cheese, yogurt, pulses, and fresh and dried herbs.
Such is a Cretan’s need for fresh produce that in remote mountain areas and on the south coast where the land is largely untamed and unforgiving, produce is brought in on the back of small trucks.
Farmers, bakers and fishermen travel from village to village; selling fruit, vegetables, fresh bread, biscuits, and even fresh fish, heralding their arrival into each village by shouting their wares into a megaphone.
Very many thanks for the contribution to our beloved and good friend Francesca Muir