Food and Wine
Crete has a strong culinary identity, so much so that throughout Greece you will find Cretan restaurants. It is not simply recipes that make the cuisine of Crete stand out, but specific products that express the Cretan landscape, and special dishes that are born of Cretan customs. There are also wines that strongly express their Cretan identity. And in addition to wine, there is the “grappa” of Crete – Tsikoudia, which is also called Raki. There are distilled spirits of grape marc all over Greece – notably the Tsipouro so popular, especially on the mainland and in northern Greece. However, tsikoudia plays a tremendous role in Cretan life, and is an essential part of Cretan culinary identity and the Cretan experience overall. Here are some essential Cretan culinary and oenological highlights.
Enjoying the Best of the Catch, Cretan Style
What could be simpler than an enormous freshly caught and expertly grilled fish? This is the supreme Cretan splurge, and priced accordingly. Large fresh fish are sold by the kilo, and do not come cheap, but they make a meal to remember. Alternatively, an excellent fish can be turned into a fish soup – “kakavia.” A memorable feast starts with a morning consultation between the fisherman, the chef, and the diner. It’s this kind of hands-on, high-contact interaction that makes fine Cretan dining such a singular experience.
Octopus is another popular delicacy of the sea – octopuses drying on a clothesline under the sweet sunshine is a classic image of Greece. A large octopus is best enjoyed simply grilled over the coals and doused in green olive oil. But if you are in the hands of a skilled chef – and there are many in Crete – consider enjoying your octopus “krasato” – stewed in wine, or even “Octopomakraronada” – a pasta cooked in the juices of the stewed octopus.
Inexpensive and delicious are “Atherina” – these are baby smelt, fried whole until crisp – think of them as a high-protein alternative to the french fry. The mid-size red mullet – “barbounia” – are also excellent fried.
Lastly, if you are very fortunate or well-connected, you may be able to order “achinous” – sea urchin – or more specifically, the bright orange or pinkish sea urchin roe. This is served with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of oil. They are as delicate as a baby’s kiss, and taste of all the sweetness of the sea.
Of Goats and Goodness
Crete’s rocky and rugged terrain makes it a veritable paradise for goats, while sheep love the lush plains. Both graze on the wild herbs and greens of the landscape, flavoring their meat and making nutritious and rich milk.
Both the meat and the rich milk are the foundations for many dishes and cheeses expressive of Cretan cuisine. A meal in any mountain village will feature some excellent meat preparations. In addition to grilled chops – the meat is so flavorful they need nothing more than a sprinkle of salt – you can try “Antixristo” – lamb or goat slowly roasted across from the coals until it turns mahogany and nearly melts on the bone. “Tsigariasto” is lamb in small pieces on the bone, slow cooked in a casserole over the flames until tender and fragrant, seasoned lightly with little more than salt and lemon. The dish may look humble, but it’s often the most delicious thing on the table. That is, unless an even less lovely and even more delicious dish is available – “Gamopilafo.” this means “Wedding Pilaf”, and is simply rice pilaf cooked with the rich broth of goat, itself cooked until tender. The pilaf is enriched with “stacovoutiro” – a butter from the thickened top cream of the goats’ milk. In Crete, a village wedding of 2000 guests is considered small, and a traditional wedding can last three days: delicious gamopilafo feeds a festive crowd.
Goats’ milk is used in Crete’s excellent cheeses, among them the aged yellow cheese graviera, and the fresh cheeses like mizithra and pichtogalo.
The Culture of the Cretan Vine
Crete’s winemaking heritage is thousands of years old. Certain indigenous grape varieties are well-suited to the island’s rocky and rough landscape. Although Crete is so far south, micro climates create favorable growing conditions: the mountain slopes expose the vines to the cooling north winds of the Aegean. Cretan vintners have focuses on reviving and preserving this precious viticultural heritage, making wines of unique character – fragrant history in a glass. Liatiko, Kotsifali, Vilana, Thrapsathiri, Romeiko, Mantilaria, and Plito belong to these special Cretan varieties. International grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Chardonnay are also cultivated on Crete.
Another drink expressive of the Cretan spirit are spirits themselves – Tsicoudia, a distilled spirit of grape marc, is ubiquitous throughout Crete. This pure spirit, fragrant with grape, is single-distilled, making it lighter than its northern counterpart, Tsipouro. Also, unlike Tsipouro, Tsicoudia is never flavored with anise. It is excellent at the table, and is often ordered instead of wine to accompany a meal. It is delightful with Cretan specialties such as “cochilous Boubouristou” – snails fried in rosemary and doused with vinegar, or “kalitsounia” – delicate fried pies filled with fresh goats’ cheese and drizzled with thyme honey.