The Mediterranean Sea touches the shores of many diverse countries.  There are cultural, agricultural, environmental, religious, and economic influences comprising a vast banquet. Promotion of exports from the region has washed away culture with waves of statistics on olive oil consumption and a few key ingredients available elsewhere. 

The window into other cultures is through the kitchen.  America has wonderful regional cuisine, even though it’s dubbed the burgers and fries nation abroad.  It’s challenging to argue that fact.  Turn the tables and consider the sweeping generalizations of the Mediterranean Diet.     

The History of The Diet

/imgs/articles/greens.jpgThe Diet phenomenon began in the late 1950’s through the research of Dr. Ancel Keys, an American physiologist and initiator of the K-ration meals during World War II.  Keys discovered that the cardiovascular disease and cancer rates in men living in rural Crete were surprisingly low and they lived long, healthy lives.  He noted that they consumed high quantities of olive oil, but also considered cuisine and lifestyle as a whole. 

Dr. Keys conducted a 15-year comparative study of these disease rates in Greece (only Crete and Corfu), Finland, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, United States, and Yugoslavia (known as the “Seven Countries Study”).  The results proved his theory of low instances of either disease in Crete and high instances in all other countries, except Japan.

The Cretan Diet was launched, which is confusingly referred to as the Mediterranean Diet.  Olive oil was cited as a piece of the puzzle but other important pieces were lost. The Diet concept spread throughout the Med, whether countries practiced it or not. 

For instance, the higher cardiovascular disease rates in France and Italy do not coincide with the Cretan Diet’s premise. They enjoy similar cuisine but also consume many products on the healthy diet moderation list that you never see in Crete.  Italy also buys extra virgin olive oil in bulk from Greece, mixes it with their production, then sells it under Italian brand names.  In France, for over a decade, doctors have placed groups of cardiovascular disease patients on the traditional diet of Crete (not Provence) with positive results.  The interpretations of the Med Diet have had little impact on the rise of diet related health problems. 

Geography, Climate and Lifestyle Shape Cuisine

Just within the isle of Crete the cuisine differs by region and there are great stories behind traditional dishes dating back thousands of years. Since these studies emerged, things have changed. What hasn’t changed much is the geography and climate. Crete is an arid, mountainous, rocky island with only a few major cities. Aside from seasonal tourist resorts and metro areas with modern supermarkets, this is farming and fishing country.  Olive and nut groves, orchards, grape vines and greenhouses cover nearly every inch of available land. 

Wild artichokes, fennel, purslane, dandelion, chicory, nettle, berries, poppies, oregano, thyme, sage and chamomile blanket the countryside.  Many residents enjoy the free food, including livestock and wild game.  The summers are long, hot and dry and winters are relatively mild with snowfall only in the mountains.  The climate is somewhat similar to Napa Valley but Crete is surrounded by salty seas and the winds it carries.

The produce is plentiful with intense concentrated flavor and color. The down side (for farmers, not holiday makers) is this seasonal drought. Olive trees grow miraculously out of dry, rocky earth.  There are approximately 3 million olive trees in Crete.  The terrain is unfit for cows – beef products are luxury imports.

Deep green, robust extra virgin olive oil is produced in even the smallest villages, usually only
by and for the community.  Residents do not purchase olive oil in supermarkets – they produce it themselves or know someone who does.  Several cooperatives export olive oil and have won top quality awards in international competitions.  Quality organic production is increasing, although some producers have never used pesticides.  Olive oil has been produced on Crete for about four thousand years – the Minoans exported it throughout the region. 

Frequent exercise is the key to a healthy lifestyle, so consider the labor involved in farming and the landscape of Crete.  Whether or not people are farmers by trade, many have a patch of land for produce and livestock to feed the family.  For practical reasons and personal preference, they might also make their own bread, cheese, yogurt, vinegar, wine, etc., in between their day jobs at the bank or hotel.

Fresh seafood consumption is clearly more prevalent in the coastal villages, although overfishing is a problem today.  Many villages are hidden in the mountains, based on Crete’s dismal history of foreign invasions.  Hence, traditional dishes are based on survival tactics and the art of foraging for food in the wild.

Settlements existed long before the automobile or refrigeration, yet traditional cuisine is not budging yet. Some dishes stem from mythology, trade route fusion, occupation and/or religious holidays when consumption of meat and dairy products is prohibited for long periods of time.  Greeks following religious dietary doctrines are part-time vegetarians. Times are changing, but we still have a chance to discover why this pocket of the world is so important to the scientific community – and us.

Scientific Application in Action:  Eating in Rural Crete

Every day on the traditional Cretan table, there is a selection of five or six simply prepared wild and cultivated vegetables as part of a small or grand meze.  It’s the opposite of the American concept of meat, starch, then vegetables.  Simple seasonal salads with tomatoes, cucumber, purslane, green pepper, onion and olives are common, yet many vegetables are also served separately.  Sweet and hot peppers, beets, greens, artichokes, okra, zucchini and eggplant are hot ticket items.

Dried beans or seeds are popular -- fava, yellow split peas, broad beans, chickpeas and lentils. Some are just cooked until tender, coarsely mashed and served with olive oil, chopped onion and salt. Fresh or dried (paximadi or dakos) whole grain bread is always on the table. The finale is seasonal fruit (not baklavas, etc.) like cherries, watermelon, grapes, figs, pomegranate, prickly pears, loquat, apples and oranges.  A shot of tsikoudia or raki, a locally distilled version of grappa, often arrives with the check.

Yes, there’s the grilled chicken, pork or lamb (souvlaki).  But there are things Cretans eat on a regular basis that are rarely mentioned in fancy food publications -- snails, new almonds, raw broad beans and artichokes, octopus, sardines, smelts and other small, whole fish (crispy heads, bones, fins and all are consumed).  Braised goat or wild hare and fowl, sausages and meats from head to foot are served on occasion. 

Potatoes, pasta, barley, stone ground wheat, and rice are prepared in different ways. Potatoes are just baked or fried in a little olive oil, or braised with other vegetables. Seasoned rice is used as a stuffing for different vegetables and the infamous grape leaves or zucchini flowers.

Yogurt is eaten straight, used in sauces, topped with fresh fruit, walnuts or a generous portion of aromatic Cretan honey. Traditional Greek yogurt is made from sheep and/or goat milk, and it’s thick like baked pudding.  Most fat (or flavor) is not extracted.

Cheese is a standard accompaniment to meals.  There are many types (via sheep or goats). The list is long with homemade variations of feta, mizithra (a soft fresh cheese), kasseri and kefalotiri (similar to Romano). Snacks include fresh or dried fruits and nuts like figs, apricots, raisins, peanuts, walnuts, almonds and roasted chestnuts. Last but not least are beloved olives – large or small, green, purple or black, preserved in brine, sea salt or not. 

Wine is a given – generally consumed in moderation with food. Some men drink quite a bit of raki and are well over 80 years of age but it’s hard to guess how healthy they are.  Most Cretan women consume very little alcoholic beverages, unless it’s in their homemade desserts.

Cooking Techniques

Cretan cuisine is based on technique rather than recipes. Grilling – ancient basics.  Nutritional benefits are that fat drips to the ground.  Outdoor stone ovens are used for bread baking and roasting. No complicated recipes are used -- olive oil, lemon and herbs.  Pungent dried oregano from the countryside is liberally used. 

Tomatoes are a prevalent, yet recent addition from the new world.  Aside from enjoying them during the long growing season, cooks make a basic tomato sauce for braising meat or fish with a variety of vegetables, starches or beans.  It’s a thin sauce that imparts subtle flavor and retains nutrients.

A standard vegetable prep lets the food speak for itself – simmered and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice and salt.  Other seasonings are used on certain vegetables.  A pinch of fresh or dried hot peppers is more common than black peppercorns. 

Horta – a seasonal combination of cultivated and wild greens, is simmered and served with a little cooking liquid and -- you guessed it -- lemon, olive oil and salt.  A modern variation is to sauté greens in olive oil with garlic, leeks and herbs.  Greens are prevalent in savory pastries called hortapitas.  Fresh spinach pie or “spanakopita” is a rarity – it’s not worth cultivating.  Try combinations of kale, collards, chard, beet, or arugula – bearing in mind the difference in cooking time.

Complex casseroles with meat and béchamel sauce (i.e., moussakas, a Turkish word) are also a rarity in Crete.  Using cooking techniques as your guide to experimenting with Cretan ingredients opens up the world of cuisine.  There’s a basic formula to which you add your imagination.

Copyright [emoji]169[/emoji] Nikki Rose. All rights reserved.
Published in Stigmes Magazine (Greece), January 2000; CIA Mes En Place, 2006. [abridged version]

Photos courtesy of Panayiotis Moldovanidis.