` Mediterranean Lifestyle Alive and Well on Crete

Food & Cooking

Mediterranean Lifestyle Alive and Well on Crete

Mar. 18, 2015
By Lisa Radinovsky

Recent News

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.

Advertisement

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

Advertisement

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.



Related News