The Cretan Miracle

The Cretan Miracle

The Mediterranean diet is currently considered by Nutritionist as a modus vivende that endows people with longevity and sound health, with Crete at its epicenter, as supported by research conducted on an international scale 1. It was established that the inhabitants of Crete manifest the lowest mortality indices with respect to cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Researchers then focused their attention on the particular aspects of nutrition responsible for such robust health.

The “Cretan Miracle - Diet & Cuisine” is a way of life

In Crete, diet is a way of life – and cooking is part of people’s everyday culture. The impressive terrain and rich nature of this land has always been linked with a multiplicity of cultural phenomena and, consequently, gastronomy, which is the principal expression of a land’s idiosyncrasy.

Thus, the diet of the broader geographical region of the Mediterranean is today the most famous around the world for its beneficial properties for human health, as well as its gustatory delight, as it includes a wide variety of ingredients, scents and colours. The combination of food quality and flavour has always been sought after.

It is no accident that 2,500 years ago Hippocratesbelieved food should not only be healthy but also pleasant to taste. He preferred food that was of lower quality but that he found delicious, because he believed that the positive effects on humans due to biochemical processes caused by a quality meal, which also provides a feeling of satisfaction, are of greater importance.

Thus, gastronomy originated centuries ago as the art of preparing rich and delicious meals.
The importance of the health aspect has always been primary as well. Asclepius, a God of ancient Greek mythology and the central figure of the hero-healer arche-type, reflected the entire perception of the healing power of nature, of which nutrition is an integral part and was protected by one of his five daughters, the goddess Hygieia.

Homer also spoke of the relationship between nutrition and health, which was scientifically supported by Hippocrates and the renowned physician Galenin later centuries. The latter was the second greatest physician of antiquity who separated the therapeutic part of health into three sectors: nutrition, medicines and surgery.

The first two had always been integrally linked with nature: nutrition depended on the fruit of the land, while medicines depended on its herbsand it is no coincidence that these are the ingredients of cooking that have shaped the Mediterranean model and, by extension, the Greek and Cretan nutritional models.

The history of Cretan diet is very old; its roots lie deep in the Neolithic Age. Today science has no proof, only circumstantial evidence of the dietary habits of Cretans 5,000 years ago. However, a clear picture of those habits emerges from as far back as 4,000 years ago, when the Minoan civilization was at its peak. On the basis of archaeological findings, it seems that ancient Cretans, the Minoans, consumed pretty much the same products that are being consumed by modern Cretans today. Large clay jars (pithoi) were found in Minoan palaces that were used for the storage of olive oil, grain, legumes, and honey. In various pictorial representations2 we can also see the magnificent world of Cretan plants and herbs.

During the Byzantine period, the Cretans remained faithful to their dietary legacy and cooking habits. On the one hand, urban families were keen on preparing elaborate meals distinguished for their exceptional taste. On the other hand, the rural population subsisted strictly on products grown: greens, fruit, legumes, olives and olive oil. The Cretans, however, applied their accumulated knowledge and imagination to these lowly products producing delicious results. This practice sustained Cretans through adverse times, in periods of successive occupation by the Arabs (824-961), the Venetians (1204-1669) and the Turks (1669-1898). A turning point in the Cretan diet occurred with the introduction of the crops, particularly of the tomato, from the New World.

The conquerors come and went from Crete, but the Cretan spirit, religion, language and cuisine remained unchanged over the centuries!

 

The Cretan Cuisine

On Crete, cooking is an art, since it follows specific rules, but preserves a sense of freedom that permits dozens of variations and different dishes. Food is prepared in simple ways, usually roasted, boiled or stewed. Combinations are modest but ingenious. The products used are always edible and seasonal, aiming at maximum utilisation and at bringing out their unique flavour.

Olive oil is the only fatty substance used from the Minoan era to the present day. However, as proven by various archaeological findings, the olive tree had already appeared throughout Crete during the Middle and Later Mesolithic period. It is estimated that oil production in that age must have been approximately 11,000 tonnes, without taking into consideration the enormous quantities of edible olives, which were consumed much more frequently than today. It should be noted that there are olives that mature while on the tree (stafidolies) and can be eaten without any previous processing.
Wild greens are usually eaten raw or boiled. For most months of the year, each family meal or dinner includes a salad with at least eight different types of greens. Wild greens with an intense scent are usually used to prepare small pies.

Vegetables are eaten raw, boiled or stewed in a light tomato sauce. Tomatoes are not frequently used in sauces, which are usually transparent and viscous and are mainly restricted to simple egg-and-lemon mixtures, lemon-and-oil mixtures, with vinegar or lemon juice.

Pulses are mainly eaten during long fasts, which are strictly observed. We often find novel combinations with fish or meat, which are still called by their Byzantine name: magiremata or magiries.
Meat mostly comes from kid, sheep, rabbits, poultry and, during wintertime, pigs. Kids and sheeps which remain free range, even today, and feed on wild greens, herbs and shoots; as a result, their meat has a pleasantly firm, fat-free flavour.

Snails, perhaps more than in any other cuisine in the world, including French cuisine, hold a unique place in Cretan cuisine, since they feature as the main ingredient in more than 25 dishes.

Fish and mollusks, whether cured or French, are consumed in the hinterland in even smaller quantities than meat; they are boiled, roasted or preserved in a mixture of olive oil, vinegar and aromatic herbs. On the contrary, in coastal regions, urchin soup, fish stew, octopus pilaf and shrimp pilaf, even crabs and all types of oysters are considered delicacies. The consumption of seaweed, which only takes place in western Crete, may be unique for Greek gastronomic habits.

The bread consumed at daily meals includes at least two types of flour, wheat and barley, while the main sweetening agents used up until 50 years ago was grape syrup and the renowned thyme honey. Sweets are distinguished into four main categories:

Small and large pies, using various types of dough, filled with soft cheeses and covered with honey

Preserved sweets, using all edible fruit grown on the island

Sweets containing dried fruit and nuts, such as walnuts and almonds (patouda, karydopita, amygdalota) and

Baked sweets and feast breads, prepared with white wheat flour and plentiful flavouring and mainly kneaded with olive oil.

Dairy products are more important than fish and meat in the Cretan diet. They include the renowned Cretan xinochondros, a splendid blend of cracked wheat and whey. The Byzantine people considered Cretan cheeses to be the finest in the Mediterranean, while Venetians consumed large quantities of Cretan cheeses and prohibited their export from the island. The best known, even today, are anthotyros, graviera, kefalotyri and sour Chania mizithra.

One could list dozens of other products and their numerous variations, creating an endless gastronomic list that is the product of an accumulated dietary culture that has astoundingly preserved flavours, scents and even the names of Cretan dishes unchanged for centuries.

 

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