`Mediterranean Lifestyle Alive and Well on Crete - Olive Oil Times

Mediterranean Lifestyle Alive and Well on Crete

Mar. 18, 2015
Lisa Radinovsky

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Here on the island of Crete in Greece, kiosks are full of potato chips, candy, crack­ers, choco­late crois­sants, and cig­a­rettes; cafés serve huge, rich, syrupy desserts; and toasted sand­wiches with processed cheese and turkey on pre-sliced white bread are pop­u­lar children’s snacks. This is still, how­ever, one of the best places in the world to immerse one­self in the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle.

The cheese pies and sou­vlaki that con­sti­tute Greek fast food may not be much health­ier than American ham­burg­ers and French fries, but the real food found in fam­ily kitchens and fam­ily-run restau­rants is a dif­fer­ent story, and so is the way it is eaten.

What is now called the Mediterranean diet is based on the Cretan diet and sim­i­lar diets from some of the other areas bor­der­ing the Mediterranean Sea, as stud­ied and described in the 1950s and 60s, before fast food cul­ture” hit the region. But the Mediterranean diet is really more than a diet: it is a lifestyle bound up with a diet, and a diet bound up with a lifestyle.

The active nature of that lifestyle has con­tin­ued to some extent. People of all ages walk a lot: seniors who don’t drive, kids mak­ing their way home from school, grownups exer­cis­ing, and fam­i­lies and friends out to enjoy them­selves on week­ends and hol­i­days. Others exer­cise by gar­den­ing, farm­ing, play­ing sports, or tend­ing sheep or goats, and those who live near the coasts swim in the sea (all year round, in the case of some hardy win­ter swim­mers).

The con­fla­tion of the Mediterranean lifestyle and diet is espe­cially obvi­ous when din­ing with Greek friends or extended fam­ily mem­bers, whether at home or in a tav­erna, indoors or out­side. There’s sure to be a great deal of food, plus red wine and per­haps raki, and plenty of time devoted to eat­ing, savor­ing, drink­ing, laugh­ing, and con­vers­ing.

This can tire chil­dren who are too young to amuse them­selves, since they’re gen­er­ally included, and adult con­ver­sa­tions and meals can stretch on through­out a Sunday after­noon or late into the night, as Greeks relax and social­ize in the Mediterranean fash­ion. However, if the chil­dren can play nearby, they’re gen­er­ally both wel­come and con­tent.

It’s all part of the extended fam­ily life of Greece, where social­iz­ing sel­dom occurs with­out food and drink, and hos­pi­tal­ity and gen­eros­ity can mean shar­ing pro­duce and olive oil as well as treat­ing friends to cof­fee or a meal, with or with­out a view of the sea.


The food enjoyed here in Crete is often part of the famous Mediterranean diet, with its well-known health ben­e­fits: plenty of olive oil used for cook­ing, for dip­ping bread, and lib­er­ally poured over sal­ads and fish; an abun­dance of fresh veg­eta­bles and fruits; legumes, pota­toes, and nuts; mod­er­ate quan­ti­ties of dairy, eggs, and wine; more fish than poul­try, even less red meat, and lim­ited ani­mal fats.

Meals are often built around beans, lentils, or veg­etable dishes such as green beans or cau­li­flower cooked with olive oil, onion, and tomato. With fish, poul­try, or meat, there are always veg­eta­bles drenched in olive oil — for exam­ple, sal­ads, beets, or the boiled wild greens (horta) found all over Crete. On spe­cial occa­sions, Cretan meals tend to include either small cheese pies (tiro­pites) made with the fairly low-fat, soft white mizithra cheese, or sim­i­lar lit­tle pies (kalt­zou­nia) made with spinach, wild greens, and/or herbs.

When guests are invited to a home or a restau­rant, meat is usu­ally part of the meal (except dur­ing cer­tain fast­ing days), although it isn’t sup­posed to be a promi­nent fea­ture of the tra­di­tional Mediterranean diet. This may be because Greeks gen­er­ally eat less meat than (for exam­ple) Americans, so meat is asso­ci­ated with fes­tive occa­sions and hol­i­days when peo­ple gather to cel­e­brate over a meal. That meat won’t nec­es­sar­ily be beef, pork, or chicken: it could as eas­ily be lamb, goat, or even rab­bit. (There aren’t many cat­tle in Greece, but sheep and goats roam all over Crete, wan­der­ing on and off roads and in and out of res­i­den­tial areas.)

It is eas­ier to eat healthy food here than in many parts of the world, since excel­lent locally grown fruits and veg­eta­bles are always avail­able at rea­son­able prices. Even now, in the mid­dle of March, there are won­der­ful sweet oranges, as well as lemons, let­tuce, wild greens, arti­chokes, egg­plant, pep­pers, and more at the pop­u­lar laiki agora, or farm­ers’ mar­ket, as well as in stores.

It is strik­ing how few Cretans waste yard space on grass, which exists in fairly small patches only in wealth­ier neigh­bor­hoods or parks. Instead, yards are filled with flow­ers (espe­cially gera­ni­ums), fruit trees (includ­ing olives, loquats, and the ever-present lemons that are pro­duc­ing well now), and veg­etable gar­dens. This way, gar­dens pro­vide a fair pro­por­tion of many people’s pro­duce in the sum­mer and early fall. For more fresh pro­duce, many older women gather wild greens and herbs from the hill­sides.

Walking through a com­mu­nity, one may run across fallen avo­ca­dos, lemons, and olives, aban­doned but still pro­duc­tive grapevines, and an abun­dance of wild­flow­ers. Chickens are also com­mon enough that moth­ers out for a stroll with their off­spring may be offered the fresh eggs that are con­sid­ered espe­cially ben­e­fi­cial for grow­ing chil­dren.

A key fea­ture of a healthy Mediterranean diet is, of course, olive oil. Another Olive Oil Times arti­cle men­tions that one out of twenty Greeks have a direct fam­ily rela­tion to an olive grove,” but locals agree that the num­ber must be much higher in Crete — per­haps one in two Cretans. While 5 kilo­gram metal con­tain­ers of Cretan olive oil are read­ily avail­able in all the super­mar­kets, rel­a­tively few peo­ple seem to buy them reg­u­larly, because so many obtain their oil from fam­ily mem­bers or friends. Some buy extra vir­gin olive oil from peo­ple they know; oth­ers help gather the fam­ily olives and receive their share; still oth­ers receive olive oil as a val­ued gift, per­haps along with olives and/or home­made red wine.

Now that some Greeks are fast­ing for Lent, avoid­ing meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, it’s a per­fect time to try some excel­lent, healthy vegan recipes that are rich in olive oil. Lentils, for exam­ple, are a com­mon, nutri­tious main dish here (espe­cially easy if you use a food proces­sor to chop the veg­eta­bles).

Lentils, or Fakes

One of many tra­di­tional ladera,” or oily, Greek dishes made with olive oil

About 6 serv­ings

2 ¼ cups dry lentils
Water for ini­tial boil­ing of lentils
1 cup olive oil, prefer­ably extra vir­gin
½ cup red wine (optional)
1 tea­spoon dried oregano (optional)
2 bay leaves
Salt and pep­per to taste (per­haps 1 or 2 tea­spoons salt, if desired)
2 large onions, finely chopped (in a food proces­sor or by hand)
2 large toma­toes, finely chopped
2 car­rots (optional), finely chopped
2 gar­lic cloves, finely chopped
5 cups water (more or less, as desired or as needed)

Examine the lentils and remove any small stones mixed in with the legumes, espe­cially if you bought them in bulk rather than pack­aged. Boil the lentils in some water until the water foams up, then strain and rinse them.

Sauté the strained lentils and olive oil on high heat for a minute or so, stir­ring. Add the wine, oregano, bay leaves, salt, and pep­per, and stir over high heat.

Stir in the remain­ing ingre­di­ents and bring to a boil. Once the mix­ture has boiled, reduce heat, cover, and sim­mer for about 30 to 45 min­utes, to desired ten­der­ness. Stir occa­sion­ally, and check to see if you need to add more water as the lentils cook.


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