Food in Crete is bursting with intense Mediterranean flavours. It’s uncomplicated and made from fresh, healthy ingredients, much of which is grown in Crete’s natural environment using ‘earth friendly’ methods. Golden olive oil from the island’s plentiful olive groves is used along with lemon juice and a few choice herbs for added flavour. Lamb, chicken, pork are popular meats and as Crete is an island fish is also on the menu. Vegetarians won’t be disappointed in Crete; plump ripe tomatoes, softly gleaming aubergines (eggplant) and yellow-flowered courgettes (zucchini) are abundant. Then there’s the Greek cheese, Greek yoghurt and Greek pastries strewn with nuts and drizzled with honey. Shall I go on? Here are some of Crete’s best eats…
What to eat in Crete
One of the best ways to get an idea of what you like is to order Meze which is the Greek version of Spanish tapas. Meze comes from the word ‘Mezedes’ meaning little delicacies and it’s a great way to try lots of small tasty dishes of Greek specialities. These can be as simple as slices of cucumber and tomato sprinkled with sea salt or a mix and match of some of the following…
Isdakos or Dakos is a delicious starter or snack – Cretan twice-baked barley bread, known as rusks, are brushed with extra virgin olive oil and topped with chopped, juicy sun-ripened tomatoes (you can actually taste the Mediterranean sunshine in Cretan tomatoes) and a crumbly white cheese. A sprinkling of oregano tops it off. The combination of crisp bread and ripe, juicy tomato really wakes up the taste buds.
Saganaki – deep fried slices of cheese. Absolutely delicious, crisp on the outside and warm and chewy inside. Totally gorgeous – don’t judge me!
Tzatziki is made with creamy Greek yoghurt, grated cucumber and garlic with a dash of olive oil. Tahini – Sesame seed dip with olive oil and lemon juice. Taramasalata is a pale pinkish coloured dip made from fish roe.
All of these dips are just perfect for diving into with warm pitta bread or are delicious used as a sauce with meatballs.
Stuffed Vine Leaves
Stuffed vine leaves are called Dolmathakia or dolmades. The vine leaves are used to make little packets containing rice and/or minced meat, pine nuts seasoned with mint and sometimes finely chopped vegetables. If the season’s right a zucchini (courgette) flower might be folded into the vine leaves for a splash of yellow.
Olives and Olive Oil
There must be a million olive trees in Crete and you couldn’t go there without eating a bowl of gleaming olives at almost every meal. The first ever olive press was discovered on the island of Crete in around 1600 B.C. All olives start out green and turn black when they’re left on the tree to ripen so it just depends at which stage they’re picked as to whether they’re black or green. Olives need to be cured in brine or water before they’re ready to eat and there are many different varieties. The most well-known Greek olives are Kalamata olives.
Greek Salad (village salad or farmer’s salad)
Greek Salad is my all-time favourite salad and I can’t wait for the time when summer arrives in the UK and it’s hot enough to eat outdoors. That’s when I make myself a Greek salad and eat it al fresco while I dream of the summer ahead. Greek salad is made with chopped, crisp cucumber, ripe tomatoes, red onion, olives and topped with a slab of crumbly feta cheese. It’s seasoned with salt and oregano and drizzled with a generous slug of olive oil which you can mop up with a hunk of crusty bread. The best salad ever!
Furnos aka The Greek Pie Shop
Pie shops can be found everywhere in Crete and we found a fabulous one in Rethymno’s old town which was just a hatch in the wall opening onto a narrow street. The counter was laden with all types of pastries and pies; sesame seed covered rings of doughy bread, filo pastry both sweet and savoury. We overdid it a bit on the Spanakopita and cheese and onion filled filo because it all looked and tasted so fab! Who ate all the pies? Me!
Spanakopita – Filo pastry in the form of a large pie cut into slices. The layers of pastry are filled with spinach and feta or sometimes with onions and the wild greens ‘horta’ that grow in Crete. The outer layers of pastry are crisp and flaky but get more dense from the moisture of the filling to give a gorgeous chewy texture. You’ll also find tiropita in the pie shop – cheese pies to die for!
Cretan Main Dishes
Keftedes are meatballs made with minced lamb which is lightly herbed with mint and sometimes have a small scoop of cheese in the centre – great with a dollop of tzatziki on the side.
Souvlaki is deliciously tender meat which has been marinated in a red wine sauce and grilled on skewers. Pork, lamb or chicken can be used. Souvlaki is often served with salad and pitta bread.
Moussaka – A Greek classic, which is delicious in both meat and vegetarian options. Moussaka is baked with layers of aubergine, potato and minced lamb with a thick layer of in béchamel sauce. Perfect with a bottle of the local red wine!
Kleftiko – Lamb slowly cooked in a special, clay oven (kleftiko). So tender that the meat falls off the bone.
Stifado – A rich, warming beef stew cooked in red wine and served with rice.
Vegetarian food in Greece
If meat’s not your thing ask the waiter if there’s “Orfana” on the menu. It means orphan and is the meatless version of a dish – so your dolmades would be filled with rice and vegetables and you’d be served a vegetarian moussaka.
Kaltsounia – Yes! More Cheese Pies – same but different, though. These pies are little bites of deliciousness! Each handmade pastry is shaped into a tiny cup with pinched edges with the open centre home to the cheesy lushness. Now, here’s the surprise – these little cheese pies are sweet. Cretan cheeses like Mizithra or Malaka are used but not feta as it’s too salty. The pastry is slightly sweet and doughy and the top is dusted with cinnamon.
Baklava is made with the thinnest layers of filo pastry between which you’ll discover chopped nuts and cinnamon. It’s drizzled with plenty of honey or syrup and come in handy bite-sized pieces. Look out for bird-nest style pastries made from thin strands of pastry all knitted together and filled with nuts and honey.
The baker next door to our villa in Rethymno had some little pies on his counter which I couldn’t resist. Shaped like pasties they were filled with stewed apples picked straight from his garden and dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon.
Crete is one of the Greece’s biggest wine producers and we had some very good wines. We also had, shall we say, rustic local wines but all quaffable.
Raki – Cretan Brandy
Raki, also called Tsikoudia in parts of Crete, is made from the pips and skins after the grapes have been used to make wine. It’s made the same way as grappa in Italy, although it’s not as strong. Raki served in small shot glasses with a selection of mezes or olives. It’s drunk neat, without water, and you’ll find it in most tavernas, bars and restaurants.