Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017

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Crete expectations

A tour of this Greek isle unveils a 4000-year-old recipe to good health: its famed diet

Want to live long and healthy? Move to Crete. That seems to be the conclusion many have come to. Back in the 1950s researchers came to this largest of the Greek islands to study why its inhabitants enjoy the world’s lowest percentage of cardiovascular disease and cancer. In later studies, conducted by the World Health Organization, Cretans also boasted the lowest mortality rate irrespective of cause of death.

I figured if I couldn't move there, I could at least learn more about Cretan cooking at the source. And the Cretan diet is no new-fangled fad. It dates back 4000 years to when the mighty Minoan civilization was at its peak. Archaeological findings at the great Palace of Knossos in Heraklion indicate that Minoans were consuming almost the same foods as the Cretans eat today. Large clay vessels held olive oil, grains, legumes and honey.

Going back even further, Zeus, the mythical Greek god, was born in a cave on Crete and nursed on milk from a goat named Amalthea. Crete has been a part of human history for 8000 years. Paleolithic man arrived there around 6000 BCE, and over millennia, people from a wide variety of cultures — Minoans, Romans, Arabs, Turks and others — came to conquer and control the fertile island.

Ode to the olive

Roughly 40 years ago, Crete became the birthplace of something new: the Mediterranean diet, a heart-healthy eating pattern, that is the de facto diet of anyone living in countries bordering the northern Mediterranean Sea, and which is constantly quoted as the diet to copy for longevity and health.

Even during adverse times over successive occupations by Turks, Venetians and Arabs, the rural inhabitants of Crete subsisted on whatever their fertile soil produced organically. Most families had, and still have, a goat and enough olive trees to tide them over for the year. And they don’t scrimp on that liquid gold, the key ingredient to their longevity.

Their diet also consists of plenty of fruit, vegetables, greens, legumes, goat cheese and whole-grain bread. They use wild herbs for flavouring, teas and folk remedies. Aromatic honey and raisins are natural sweeteners. Fish and poultry are consumed moderately and red meat is reserved for Sundays and festive occasions. Tomatoes from the New World were introduced in the 1900s.

Cretans have practised viniculture for 4000 years. According to Greek mythology, the god Dionysus made a gift of wine to his pals, including the King of Crete’s daughter, Ariadne. These days, most Cretans drink wine in moderation with dinner.

Cretan cooking 101

On my last trip to Crete, I stayed with friends in the Salvia Villas (Skouloufia near Arkadi, Rethymnon; tel: 011-30-283-105-1656; salviavillas.gr), on the outskirts of Rethymnon, where we had three bedrooms and bathrooms, laundry facilities, a private pool and a fully equipped kitchen. The villa owner, Stelios Kalliyiannis, arranged for a local chef to give us a cooking demonstration — our first glimpse into the magic of Cretan cooking.

We started with dakos, a traditional appetizer made by rubbing olive oil over dry barley rusks and topping them with diced tomatoes, mizithra cheese and oregano plucked from the villa’s bountiful herb garden. We also helped the chef whip up a salad of spiky wild artichokes and broad beans, as well as a dish of spinach, fennel and local greens and finally a moussaka casserole layered with potatoes, ground meat, zucchini, eggplant and béchamel sauce.

Kalliyiannis generously contributed four litres of his homemade wine, but really no meal in Crete is complete without a shot of raki (fermented grapes infused with anise). The Cretans also mix raki with honey as an aperitif and cure for sore throats.

Nature’s medicine chest

The bountiful Cretan soil produces myriad herbs and medicinal plants. Aristotle recorded that a goat wounded by a hunter’s arrow consumed a plant called origanum dictanmus and the arrow miraculously fell out of the healed wound. This dictanmus is considered a sort of panacea for all kinds of ailments—from headaches to digestive problems. Some also believe it to be an aphrodisiac.

The day after our cooking lesson, we hired Suzuki Jimnys from a company called the Exploring Club (17 Tenedou, Heraklion; tel: 011-30-281-024-138; exploring-club.gr) and headed off-road into central Crete with our guide George Manoussakas. Just outside the town of Spili, I spotted a leathery-faced man leading his donkey into a meadow. The old chap, who looked like he was sent from central casting, was busy foraging for wild plants.

My lack of Greek and his lack of English prevented anything more than a conversation in of pointing and gesturing, but it was clear the old fellow was delighted with his pickings. I was in search of dictanmus and while I didn't spot any in the fields, I hit pay dirt at the Maravel Shop (Spili; tel: 30 2832022056; maravelspili.gr) in Spili, its shelves also brimming with olive-oil soaps, salves, balms and potions made from local herbs.

A taste of honey

If you want to sample authentic Cretan recipes head to the Symposium Restaurant (31 Petichaki, Rethymnon; tel: 011-30-283-105-0538; symposium-kriti.gr) located in the Old Town of Rethymnon. Symposium is one of only 25 restaurants on Crete that are certified by the Greek Academy of Taste for serving traditional Cretan cuisine made from local products. In fact several of their recipes came from grandmothers in the rural villages. The lamb, braised with garlic and figs, is truly a dish worthy of the Greek gods.

For dessert, stroll around the corner to Hatziparashos Paraskevas (30 Emanouil Vernadou, Rethymnon), an ancient bakery where Giorgos and his wife Katerina have been perfecting honey-soaked baklava for 65 years.

I left Crete with a suitcase full of olive oil, dried herbs and honey. What the heck? If you are what you eat, I might as well eat like a Cretan.

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