We have been hearing about the Mediterranean Diet and its great health benefits for years now. More whole foods and fewer processed foods are at its heart, and so is preferring vegetables over meat, and – perhaps above all – olive oil over cholesterol-rich butter.
Think of the Cretan Diet as the Mediterranean diet, just perfected and tweaked. All you need to do is visit Crete for evidence of its effectiveness- you will see it in the lively faces and energetic strides of the elderly of the island.
The Discovery of the Cretan Diet
Of course, we mean here the discovery of the Cretan Diet and its benefits by the international community. (In Crete, they simply call it “food”).
In the 1950’s, a comparative study was conducted on the diets of seven nations – it was in fact called “The Seven Country Study”, conducted by researcher and professor Ansel Keys, of the University of Minnesota in the United States. The study targeted rural communities where the lifestyle and diet had remained relatively unchanged for decades, if not much longer. In addition to the United States, communities in Finland, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Japan. After the 12 years of the study, the mortality rate of the participants was measured. In Finland, 171 out of a thousand men aged 40 – 59 (at the beginning of the study) had died. In Greece – 3(!)
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: The Cornerstone of the Cretan Diet
Researchers were initially surprised at the success of the Cretan Diet, considering what a large proportion of calories consumed were calories from fat. However, a huge percentage of these calories were from olive oil. And not just any olive oil, but extra-virgin olive oil. It cannot possibly hurt that in all cases, the oil was local and not commercially packaged- which is how the majority of Cretans enjoy their olive oil today. (A further benefit is that in many cases, people harvest the olives themselves from their own trees. A lot of exercise goes into a making a litre of olive oil – but that is another story.)
The benefits of olive oil are now well known. In addition to the monounsaturated fat – oleic acid, which has anti-inflammatory properties, it is also packed with powerful antioxidants. It also contains enough polyphenols – a micronutrient that, in addition to being beneficial for the heart and digestive system, tend to induce a sense of well-being (also obvious from the excellent disposition and good cheer of the Cretans).
Another very important factor in the Cretan Diet is the proportion of plant matter. But, it’s not just any plant matter. Greens, packed with phytochemicals and nutrients, are essential to the Cretan table- as salad, and as an ingredient in dishes and in pies. But in Crete they are not just any greens- they are very often foraged wild greens, and a variety of greens mixed together to have a spectrum of nutritional benefits.
Wild greens, like the delicious stamnagathi, nettles and others, are joined by a host of vegetables. There are many vegetarian Cretan specialties. A meatless meal in Crete is not at all uncommon, and can be a delight.
Cretans also forage for protein, especially the delicious low-fat, nutritious and tasty snails.
We can all follow the Creation example and eat only things that are in season, at the peak of flavor and nutritional benefits. Rather than having imported vegetables that are out of season and have long been picked, the fresher the better- better for us, better for the planet. They are also so much more delicious. In Crete, vegetables have a strong personality, and identity- they taste like themselves, whether a sweet tomato or a deliciously bitter artichoke.
When we eat things in season, we really appreciate them more- they become special. It also adds variety to the Cretan diet – the Cretan table in May is different from the Cretan table of November, and both have their delights.
Legumes and pulses like split peas, lentils, chickpeas, and beans are extremely high in fiber and nutrition, and low in fat. They are a staple of the Cretan diet, and an extremely healthy alternative to meat for a hearty and filling the main dish.
Dairy – Making it Count
Dairy is not consumed in the same quantities it can be in other places in the western world. However, the dairy is excellent. This means a little goes a long way. Many of Cretan dairy products – the excellent cheeses for instance – come from goat’s milk. The goats graze on the same wild herbs and greens that grace the tables.They are not given hormones, and hey spend their days under the strong Cretan sun. Of course, the milk these lucky, happy animals produce is not only more delicious, it is also more pure and healthful.
Cretan cheeses like graviera, myzythra, and pichtogalo serve as delightful meze and as a rich accent to dishes. They are so satisfying that they do not need to be consumed in great quantities.
Like the dairy, the eggs of Crete are simply more wholesome. They come from happier chickens, who eat much better feed. You can see this in their vivid orange yolks. A simple fried egg in Crete is really something to savor.
Of course, meat does play a role in the Cretan Diet, but never to excess. And, like all the other foodstuffs of the island, it is the quality of the meat that makes the difference. Goat is the meat of choice- lean, flavorful meat from animals that have foraged and grazed on healthy wild herbs and greens. This is not only healthier meat, but much more satisfying.
Fish and Seafood
The fresh fish that is the centerpiece of many festive tables is locally caught. It is full of omega-3 fatty acids and free of hormones and antibiotics that many commercially farmed fish can contain.
Octopus is another favorite, providing high quality lean protein, loaded with beneficial minerals.
Bread – the Staff of Life
Cretan bread is often made from excellent flour and, if you are fortunate, baked in a wood-burning oven for maximum flavor. A slice of this hearty bread, often with a whole grain component, goes a long way.
But even better than bread is the ever popular Cretan staple – paximadia. These twice-baked dry crisp rusks – very often of barley flour – are absolutely delicious. They are also packed with fiber and other nutritional benefits. Paximadia are essential to the Cretan diet, forming a delicious base for Dakos– topped with grated tomato and fresh goat cheese, they are healthier, heartier, and more delicious alternative to bruschetta. They also form a component of the classic cretan salad – a version of the Greek salad popular all over the country. But the Cretan version has rusks soaking up the juices of the tomatoes, substitutes fresh goat cheese for feta, and often includes nationally-packed and tangy wild purslane.
No Greek table is complete without olives. Loaded with antioxidants and vitamin E, Crete’s classic olives have an added benefit- the favorite Cretan preparation is “tsakistes” (“smashed”) – steeped in lemon after being cured, for an added burst of both flavor and health.
Alcohol in moderation can be part of a healthful diet. On Crete, the wines are very often small batch wines made locally – delicious and pure. For spirits, Cretans prefer “Tsikoudia” – otherwise known as “Raki” – to commercial bottled hard liquors.
This distilled spirit of grape marc carried the flavor of the terrain to the glass, and it is famously pure. Go easy at first – it is strong and you may not have the experience the Cretans do with it. But a purer alcoholic drink is hard to find- it brings good cheer. Another Cretan secret to a healthier relationship with alcohol- they always, always have something to eat while they are drinking, from olives, but, and cheeses, to a whole selections of delectable “meze”.
Eat Like a Cretan
It’s not just the nutritional benefits of the first quality food products of Crete, but the role food plays in life. Even if we cannot forage for wild Greens at home, or make our own cheeses and enjoy oil from our own centuries-old trees, we can still shop locally, and support our farmers’ markets and other regional producers. We can also eat with style. For Cretans, the most important ingredient of a good meal is fellowship and lively conversation. Sharing food with family and friends is always a healthier, happier way to eat.
Discovering the delights of the Cretan diet, from the simple omelet at a village cafe you stop at on a mountain drive, to a fresh-caught fish at a remote seaside taverna, or even the local specialties at a village festival can be a highlight of your explorations of the island by car.