Have you visited Greece? As our guest poster below explains, many tourists to Greece spend time on the islands looking for sun and beaches, but don’t truly enjoy the magical part of the islands – the cuisine. In the following post, you’ll learn all about Cretan Cuisine and the dishes of Crete – the largest Greek island – that make it such a wonderful destination for food lovers.
Visiting Greece can easily seem like a ubiquitous summer vacation. But the largest island, Crete, is a completely different story. Droves of tourists usually make their way to the Greek islands during the high season, which are the months of June through August. Relaxing on sandy beaches and gorging on souvlaki and gyros pita is all fine and dandy, but truth be told, you’re missing out on a lot this way.
We sometimes hear people talking about how they were disappointed with their visit to Crete. When we ask why – having spent a full month there eating our way across the island and enjoying ourselves – we get the same answers: ‘We couldn’t swim’ or ‘It was too hot’. Both answers hold some merit, as Crete is known for having powerful waves (combined with rocky beaches), and an unforgiving summer sun.
However, both answers also prove that tourists often have no idea what kind of a place Crete is and what makes it truly magical.
Crete is not your average seaside resort. It’s also not an endless string of souvlaki restaurants. In fact, it is a place of such exquisite cuisine and the sweetest of wines, with local dishes completely different from one another as you travel from one side of Crete to the other.
Visit it during spring or autumn if you can’t stand the heat, and try some of the best delicacies you’ve ever treated your taste buds with.
A proper prelude to any serious discussion about Cretan cuisine is mentioning olive oil. There’s a fun fact stating that an average Cretan consumes about 25 liters of olive oil annually. Just to give you some context, westerners usually consume half a liter during the same period.
If you’re thinking that they must be drowning their food in olive oil, you’re not wrong. It is an essential part of almost every Cretan meal. They fry their food in it, dress their salads with more than several spoonfuls of it and they soak barley rusks in it. They worship it. And why wouldn’t they?
It’s by far the healthiest oil on the planet, and Crete is well-known for producing their own supply of it. There are more than a million olive trees on the island, and it’s their own unique form of wine tourism. Instead of inspecting vines, you can get lost in endless olive tree fields.
Paximadi, or barley rusks, forms the base of this delicious bruschetta-like appetizer. They’ll top it off with fresh, neatly sliced tomatoes and some additional spices and herbs, the most common one being oregano.
In general, Cretans use their own vegetables grown on nearby farms that are as fresh as they get, just like the olive oil, which, you’ll find in this dish as well, adding incredible flavor but also making the rusk just a bit softer.
Rice dishes aren’t that common in Crete, but there’s one that they absolutely adore. After trying it for ourselves, we could see why. It’s on the more expensive side of dishes that you can get in a restaurant, for cultural reasons. It was traditionally served only at weddings (Gamo), hence the name – Gamopilafo.
The rice itself is prepared with lemon and special Cretan butter which is made from goat milk instead of cow milk. The meat is boiled for a very long time, making it very soft towards the end and more than delicious. It’s usually lamb or pork that is used for this occasion. We’ve had the pleasure of trying it at Monastiri Tavern in the city of Chania, which also happens to have most of the dishes mentioned here.
This is just a fancy way of saying fried snails. Even though this dish was very high on our list of foods to try, when the moment came to order them, we felt a small measure of uncertainty. Reluctantly, we ordered some snails and haven’t regretted it since.
One very important thing to note here is that they’re always fresh. As soon as they’re collected, they’re cooked in – you guessed it, olive oil! Of course, they’re rolled in flour first, so that they become nice and crispy. Red wine is very commonly poured in there as well, and all they do in the end is sprinkle a bit of rosemary to top it off.
This meal is as Cretan as it gets, with the taste that’s divine. Oftentimes tourists just shy away from it, but it’s really about getting over some mental obstacles. The reward for pushing through fear and disgust is amazing.
This bitter-tasting herb is actually native to the island of Crete. We found it a bit too bitter maybe, even when it’s prepared with different kinds of dishes. Most commonly, it’s served boiled with eggs and lemon, the latter of which seems to counteract the bitterness the best, at least in our experience.
While we were staying in Agia Galini, we decided to have some much-praised lamb meat. There was just spruce of Stamnagathi in there that we didn’t even know about, but the taste was there. Recognizing it immediately, we ordered some Tsikoudia (more on that later) to wash it down with. Maybe such strongly bitter food was not right for us, but travelling to Crete and experiencing their cuisine should include Stamnagathi – at least once!
Most families on Crete have their secret recipes and different ways in which they make dough for this delicious pastry. Shapes also vary from one another, but they boil down to the same, base scheme, and that’s having a pastry container for delicious cheese inside.
They’re always sweet cheeses which also vary greatly on the island depending on where you are. Feta is never used, and the ones we tried also had a fair share of sesame seeds on top that really fit the bill perfectly.
Before discussing Cretan wines, here are some Cretan dishes that we haven’t managed to try yet, or there were simply too many of a kind to cover them efficiently (looking at you cheeses).
Like many other dishes here, Fasolakia is made from fresh, local ingredients. The dish includes olive oil, fresh beans and tomatoes in this case. It looks very tasty, but we haven’t gotten around to trying it out this time.
Myzithra, Graviera, Xinogalo, Kefalotyri Kritis, Pichtogalo Chanion and many more – Cretan cheeses require you to spend far more time in trying them all out, solely focused on their subtle, yet tangible differences. If you were to visit Crete only for the sake of cheeses, you would have your hands (and mouths) full.
Uniquely shaped pastries fried in olive oil, Sarikopitakia is brimming with cheese made from the milk of a sheep. They’re deeply rooted in Cretan tradition and resemble scarves woven in Crete’s west.
Cretan Sweet Wines
Wines have existed on Crete since the age of Minoans, and have always been predominantly sweet. They were highly praised in the ancient world, especially in Rome! Their popularity hasn’t waned to this day, so here are some varieties that you ought to try during your stay on the island.
The most common variety found on Crete, Thrapsathiri offers an exquisite range of tastes, very succulent and just dreamy. Our favourite bottle of white came from Monastery of Toplou that adds in a blend of Vilana. Gorgeous fruit tones made their presence known with each sip from the glass.
We’ve had the honour of tasting yet another great bottle of white during our stay in Rethymno. This particular branch came from Klados, whose wines are not that strong and possess less fruity undertones. However, the rich, enamouring taste was present at all times and we ended up trying some older vintages. These were especially delicious combined with some of the dishes that we’ve mentioned, so amazing that it even managed to soothe the taste of Stamnagathi.
Tsikoudia is better known by another name – Raki. It’s made by distilling pomace and provides very strong fragrant tones. We’ve grown accustomed to this potent alcoholic beverage that often contained about 60% alcohol. After each and every meal in many restaurants on Crete, Raki comes as a complimentary drink on the house. Sometimes, even a couple of glasses – or rather shots.
Raki is just as culturally important as any bottle of wine, and many restaurant owners (and every household) make their own. In fact, tourists are often ill-prepared for its devastating punch, but you get accustomed to it. It’s sometimes even rude to consider rejecting it, so if you don’t want to offend your host, take a deep breath and take the shot!
After reading about all of these fantastic Cretan foods and wine, you might have a better picture of the culinary experiences the island of Crete has to offer. When you take a trip there, don’t miss out in trying these specialties and dishes.