While travelling around this strange planet of ours I have encountered a variety of unique foods and dishes that have made me question how we as humans view food. In western culture, we seem to view food as a source of joy, and for some, entertainment, while in other cultures food is simply a necessity; nutrition that must be consumed in order to survive. It is a great luxury that we as westerners have the privilege of such great choice and abundance when it comes to eating. I am reminded of the quote by Moliere from his book The Miser, “Do we eat to live, or live to eat?” This recent evolution of food becoming an industry complete with monopolies, research projects, licenses, branding, and certifications has completely flipped our view of what food truly is -a necessity that is crucial to our survival- not a decadent morsel to amuse our taste buds. Yet somehow this industrialization of one of the seemingly simplest elements of human life, sustenance, has led to the literal poisoning of our society and introduction to frivolous nonessential delicacies accompanied by a monumental amount of waste. We now have learned to eat only the best and tastiest parts of an animal or plant. We seek out flavors such as sweet and salty merely to quench unnecessary cravings. While this mentality is still found throughout the world, there are some places which, due to rich cultural traditions, continue to view food as less of an entertaining pastime and instead as a source of crucial nutrients. Crete is a perfect example of one of these very cultures that continue to cook and source food in a traditional manner, from foraging for snails and mushrooms under rocks and rainswept hillsides, to raising sheep and goats by freely shepherding them around the rocky, mountainous landscapes of the island and fishing the blue waters of its shoreline.
When first arriving to Crete I was expecting to find the kind of delicacies one would normally find in Greece; Gyros, Pita, Tzatziki, olives, and large mezze platters. While all of these dishes can be found in Crete, what I found to be more common were dishes originating from the traditional Cretan diet. This newly learned phrase confused me at first and I immediately related it to the famously recognized Mediterranean diet. I was quickly informed that while there may be some similarities between the two diets, they are distinctly unique from one another. I then learned that the Cretan diet, although maybe not as famous as the Mediterranean diet, is also recognized and highly regarded, mostly thanks to a study called The Seven Countries Study carried out by Professor Ancel Keys. This study examined the diets of seven well known countries from around the world and the long-term health effects of their particular diets on the local population. In this study, carried out over a thirty-year period and completed in the late 1960’s-70’s, Professor Keys found that of the 7,000 people he studied, in the 50-60 age group, the Cretans and the Japanese had the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease, and cancer, than any other country. The Cretans who were the subjects of the study also proved to have the highest longevity, dying from natural causes, some as old as 98, with five of them surpassing 100 years old and living until the age of 104 or 105.
The key to the Cretan diet is unprocessed, natural foods, a hell of a lot of olive oil, and not that much meat. What people have to realize about this unique diet is that it was not created on the basis of longevity or health, it was created out of necessity- quite simply- what was available to the Cretans on this isolated rock. It is a diet associated with the frugality of agricultural life and the privations that came with the island’s history, for example wars and conquests by foreign powers. Over the centuries, the Cretan diet was shaped by socioeconomic conditions, cultural idiosyncrasies, microclimates, historical background, and the region itself. While it may have seemed to outsiders that the island didn’t provide all that much in the way of sustenance to its inhabitants, for the Cretans the island provided more than enough, you just had to know where to look. Throughout history Crete’s lands have been cultivated in order to grow olive trees and citrus trees as well as grape vines and, in ancient times, wheat. The countless number of olive trees and the age-old tradition of producing olive oil meant that the people always had an abundant supply – if not much else. Olive oil was used to cook everything from meats to sweets, and was even used to store perishables such as meats and cheeses. While people also farmed vegetables such as squashes, tomatoes, potatoes, and zucchinis, during hard times, due to war or harsh weather conditions, Cretans were sometimes forced to give up farming for small periods of time and to resort to foraging for wild-growing edibles such as ‘horta’- wild greens – as well as snails and mushrooms which make up a large part of the Cretan diet. One classic Cretan dish, and a personal favorite of mine, is boiled horta drenched in olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon. Horta, which directly translated means grass, is literally the weeds – as we know them – that poke up between the cracks in city pavements. Here in Crete those weeds are collected from the fields and hillsides by old women armed with a sharp knife and a plastic bag, they recognise the different types of horta most sought after for cooking, or eating raw. This is a practice that is still observed today, and when visiting Crete, you may even see some of these small groups of elderly ladies roaming about in open fields, backs bent to the ground, collecting large bags full of these weeds to feed their families with that evening. Horta and boiled greens are beloved of the Cretans and are traditionally eaten with almost every meal and used to be the Cretans’ main source of protein and iron. The other delicacy consumed by the Cretans are snails, which they cook in much the same way as the French. Snails are a creature that is found in great abundance around the island and are regularly consumed by the Cretan people, usually accompanied by mountain spices and olive oil. Snails are particularly easy to find when it’s raining and it is a common sight to see the old folk carefully gathering them from the hillsides after a downfall. One story I heard is that a friend of ours gleefully gathered a large bagful, took them home and slung the bag on the back of the kitchen door. Hours later, having forgotten about his haul, his wife discovered every wall and work surface of her beloved kitchen crawling with snails…..
Another favorite of the Cretan diet is paximathia, or twice baked bread, that may remind one of a large crouton. This hard, teeth-breaking rusk was a life hack for the poor farmers of Crete, as well as for most Cretans, who had no way in which to store fresh bread. Paximathia, on the other hand, pretty much never went bad and needed nothing more than a large jar to store it in. Now a traditional delicacy that is still vastly consumed today by the Cretan people, paximathia is made out of whole grain and rye, nutritional grains that are not what we now consider to be empty calories like white bread. What may surprise many people is that the average Cretan consumes three times more fat and bread then the average American, however this fat is consumed through olive oil, and the bread that is consumed is all whole grain. Here you have a perfect example of good quality ingredients versus bad and their long lasting effects. While the average American may consume less fat than the average Cretan, the kinds of fats that the American is consuming are trans fats and saturated fats from items such as butter, red meat, and processed foods. The Cretan on the other hand, who statistically consumes 35 liters of olive oil annually, is consuming unsaturated fats such as Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, through olive oil, which statistically leads to lower health risks unlike the fats found in the western diet. The same can be said for bread, while the average American consumes white bread made from processed wheat, the average Cretan consumes whole meal and rye bread that has been produced and baked by, most likely, a family member or friend.
The final key factor of the Cretan diet is the little to no use of meat, specifically red meat, and processed sugars. While sheep and goat shepherding is a traditional part of Cretan culture, these animals were primarily used for their milk, a large amount of which was used to make cheese, that would keep for long periods of time, and their hides and wool. Whilst chicken, lamb, and goat were consumed, meat was usually saved for special occasions and holy days such as Christmas and Easter. Sugar, due to it being an expensive and decadent commodity, was also rarely consumed and used only during special holidays to make traditional sweets and baked goods. Dessert for the Cretan people normally consisted of fresh fruit which was gathered from local fruit trees, or a little bit of honey with granola. Ice cream, candy, and such processed foods packed with unnatural sugars were only introduced to Cretan society around the mid 1900’s after the German occupation of the island.
While the basic ingredients that make up the Cretan diet are great nutritional corner stones on which to build a healthy culture, they’re not the only things that form such a long living and prospering society. The key to the Cretan diet is not only what the Cretans consume but also how they live. The traditional Cretan way of life, coupled with their traditional views on food and nutrition are what have allowed Cretans to rise above all else in their low cardiovascular disease and cancer rates. A healthy mix of exercise, a controlled amount of house made wine and Raki, and the observing of religious events such as lent and fasts are what have given Crete the leg-up in this regard. One of the fundamental parts of traditional Cretan life was a large amount of uphill and downhill walking. Cretan villagers throughout history have built their villages inland nestled amidst the many mountains and hills that make up the island. This was not due to some perversion to the ocean, quite the contrary, while Cretans farmed and maintained fields and lands close to the coast, they were forced to live inland high up on the island in order to hide from pirates that quite often frequented the Cretan shores while looking for some coastal fishing town to pillage and burn. This cultural norm forced almost every Cretan to wake up extra early in the morning and venture down to the coast from their mountainous village homes in order to work their fields. This journey often took over two hours and was done all on foot, many times accompanied by a donkey that they would load up that evening with whatever they had harvested that day, and then make the trek back up the mountain to their village. Throughout their hard day of laboring in the field all they would have to eat was boiled greens and an egg for breakfast, paximathia with cheese and greens covered in olive oil for lunch, and pretty much the same thing for dinner depending on what they had harvested that day in the field. If they had gathered horta they would eat that, if they had snails then that would be the centerpiece of their meal. Each meal, other than breakfast, was accompanied by a small glass or two of homemade red wine, and after dinner raki, the traditional clear spirit of Crete. Three times a year the Orthodox Greek Christians, of which the island was almost entirely comprised of throughout the early 1900’s, fasted. The most famous of these times is Lent, the forty day fast leading up to Easter, where no animal products, sweets, or anything cooked in oil is consumed. A similar fast is observed forty days before Christmas and for the first fifteen days of August. These periods of fasting greatly contributed to the health of the Cretan people, for almost three months of the year they ate no meat, sugar or dairy products.
Today, even with modern living, westernization and the island’s tourism industry, the Cretan diet is still favoured – particularly in the villages where communities nestled high up in the mountains still produce their own crops, cheeses, and meats in the traditional Cretan manner. While a new modern way of life may have changed much of Crete and its inhabitants’ view on food, many of the old food traditions of the island are still upheld today, for example the gathering of snails and horta in nearby fields and the large consumption of olive oil and paximathi. The few traditions that no longer exist due to new technology and western influences may not be practiced but are definitely still remembered by the Cretan people. For a better idea of the daily way of life in Crete back in the mid to late 1900’s, I went to speak with Nikolaos Chaniotakis, the Dean of The University of Crete and Professor of Chemistry and Analytics in Heraklion city. Born in the mid 1960’s Nikolaos lived in a remote mountain village in southern Crete. As a small child, when school was not in session, an event that happened quite regularly due to budget cuts and lack of available teachers, he and his older brother were left home alone, or with their grandparents, while their parents ventured down the mountain to work the family’s fields that were located closer to the coast. His parents, not trusting the young boys in the house alone, would lock up the house, leaving them to play outside. With a couple of lumps of paximathia and a pan of oil, the boys, the oldest being eight or nine at the time, were expected to gather a few eggs from the hens, light a fire under the oil and cook their lunch. They would enjoy the unsalted eggs with their paximathia dipped in oil then go play in the orange orchard and gorge themselves on mandarins and oranges until their tummies ached. “It doesn’t sound like much, but to us it was all we knew, and it was enough.” Said Niko after recounting his story. “I would only have three ice-creams during the whole summer!” He went on, “I didn’t have enough money to buy any more than that and the ice cream man only came to the village every other week… maybe once a week. Then the tourism started and everything changed.” What is repeatedly expressed by pretty much any Cretan you talk to is that while their history may seem barren and slightly depressing, while their lands may seem rocky and difficult to farm, the Cretan people never lacked anything. They always made it work and they always found what they needed, and for that they were happy. When all is said and done, the traditional diet and lifestyle of the Cretans is their true wealth – material and immaterial. Material since it has to do with food, immaterial since it carries the weight and traditions of an ancient historical path together with the experiences of the journey that have helped to build and characterize Cretan culture.
Great article Alice! You’ve outlined many of the “The Secrets of a Long Life” described by Dan Buettner in Blue Zones. Eating well, regular exercise, fasting, community – all lead to a longer, healthier life. Love your thoughtful observations!