` Restaurants Embrace Crete's Celebrated Diet - Olive Oil Times

Restaurants Embrace Crete's Celebrated Diet

Feb. 25, 2015
Lisa Radinovsky

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Reading the arti­cles by Athan Gadanidis on the decreas­ing prices of olive oil in Greece and the country’s fail­ure to fully exploit its rich olive oil resources brought to mind a meal enjoyed among hill­sides cov­ered with olive groves last spring at the Dounias Taverna or Traditional Center of Gastronomy of the Cretan Diet,” in Drakona, Crete.

At the Dounias Taverna, the own­ers cook with olive oil from their trees which beau­ti­fully com­ple­ments their own fresh, home-grown pro­duce and meats as well as other local prod­ucts cooked over a wood fire and baked in their wood-burn­ing oven.

Dounias Taverna

Such cre­ative, healthy cook­ing can encour­age cus­tomers, includ­ing an American who has lived in Crete with her Greek hus­band for the last twelve years, to both embrace the Cretan diet at home and appre­ci­ate restau­rants like this which are ded­i­cated to it.

Inspired by tasty food and count­less arti­cles detail­ing the ben­e­fits of the tra­di­tional Mediterranean diet, includ­ing copi­ous amounts of olive oil, many decide to change their diet and cook­ing. This American searched for olive-oil based healthy recipes, learned from local Cretan cooks, exper­i­mented with extra vir­gin olive oil in every­day dishes, and began to pre­fer the small, fam­ily-run Cretan restau­rants which are also depen­dent on it.

The exquis­ite, ancient gold head­pieces that mimic olive wreaths in Greek muse­ums cap­ti­vate view­ers at first sight, but an American’s con­ver­sion to the Cretan diet may occur more grad­u­ally. After all, the tra­di­tional Cretan diet pro­vides quite a con­trast to the typ­i­cal diet many Americans grew up with, and large num­bers still con­sume foods like ham­burg­ers, hot dogs, steak, pork chops, mac­a­roni and cheese, spaghetti, processed meats, and soft white bread. Even those who eat plenty of sal­ads and fresh fruit might also drink soft drinks and fre­quently enjoy cook­ies, donuts, cakes, and pies rich in but­ter, mar­garine, or short­en­ing. However, the Americans who feel nos­tal­gic enough for those desserts to bake them on hol­i­days may still come to real­ize they can man­age with­out but­ter and processed food for every­day cook­ing and bak­ing.

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One such con­ver­sion to the Cretan diet began dur­ing a mid-thir­ties preg­nancy, shortly after a move to Crete. Avoiding processed foods and eat­ing plenty of fresh fruits, veg­eta­bles, and whole grains was fairly easy on this agri­cul­tural island where peo­ple tend to cook from scratch, using fresh, often local, ingre­di­ents. It was harder to develop a taste for fresh fish (served with the head and tail!) and boiled wild greens (horta) with oil and lemon, but not impos­si­ble. While it can ini­tially seem very strange for an American to eat sal­ads, veg­eta­bles, or bread with strong-tast­ing extra vir­gin olive oil, one can grad­u­ally become accus­tomed to the taste and even come to savor it. A vis­it­ing Canadian in search of but­ter could not find any in the house, because olive oil is used for almost all cook­ing, bak­ing, sal­ads, and bread dip­ping in his con­verted cousin’s Cretan-American kitchen.

Fish for sale at the farmers’ market in Chania

Those con­vinced to change their diet may search for health­ier alter­na­tives, for exam­ple in Micki Sannar’s attrac­tive Olive Oil Desserts cook­book, which fea­tures some tasty but also very sweet desserts. The olive oil pie crust there is an excel­lent alter­na­tive to one made with solid fats, and it’s easy to add less sugar to the apples than advised. Internet searches on foodferret.com, which allows users to list ingre­di­ents to include (e.g. olive oil, whole wheat flour) and to exclude (but­ter, sugar) reveal recipes for health­ier muffins and cook­ies made with olive oil as well as count­less other foods.

A won­der­ful, just slightly sweet olive oil cookie can be adapted from an online recipe rich in orange juice and olive oil. And Greeks have known all along how to make excel­lent cakes with olive oil and yogurt, but no but­ter. Brown rice or bul­gur is tasty when cooked with olive oil, gar­lic, bay leaves, and a bit of salt, and tra­di­tional Greek recipes for ladera,” or olive-oil rich, lentils, beans, cau­li­flower, or green beans, among other things, are easy to fol­low as well as healthy.

Many of the large resort hotels on Crete may need to resort to frozen meals dur­ing their high sea­son (accord­ing to the owner of a small fam­ily-run tav­erna out­side Chania), but there are still plenty of fam­i­lies on the island who cook with fresh ingre­di­ents from their own gar­dens or farms. A favorite is Kyria (Mrs.) Maria’s Sunset Restaurant next to Tersanas Village Apartments in Horafakia, where one can enjoy freshly baked pastit­sio, mous­saka, chicken, ham­burg­ers, giant beans, stuffed grape leaves (dol­mades), greens, mush­room pie, and sal­ads on the spa­cious ter­race over­look­ing the sea from May through October.

Another fam­ily has turned a burnt hill­side into the gor­geous Botanical Park of Crete, a nat­ural won­der­land amidst foothills of olive groves that is full of both exotic and local plants. They use their own organic pro­duce in the increas­ingly pop­u­lar restau­rant that mixes tra­di­tional Cretan tastes with beau­ti­ful, tasty inno­va­tions includ­ing or accom­pa­nied by olive oil.

Botanical Park chicken dish garnished with flowers and citrus

Also in the foothills of Crete’s White Mountains, Dounias Taverna’s excel­lent rep­u­ta­tion keeps it busy on many a Sunday after­noon, even in the win­ter. Sitting on the patio over­look­ing the olive groves in warmer weather, or squeezed into two small rooms when it’s cold, cus­tomers savor meals with unique twists, such as a rich cau­li­flower dish with coarse wheat and cheese, spanako­pita with whole wheat crust, and tzatziki and boureki made with unusual ingre­di­ents rather than the typ­i­cal cucum­ber or zuc­chini.

When it isn’t too busy, cus­tomers are invited into the kitchen to see the dishes of the day first­hand, in pots on the stove, just com­ing out of the large, dome-shaped wood-burn­ing oven, or arrayed on a coun­ter­top across from it. And before the end of the meal, the owner, Stelios, has a habit of bring­ing out addi­tional dishes to try — even after the kids have left to fol­low his son on a tour of their farm, vis­it­ing rab­bits, olive groves, gar­dens, and a cow, and grownups have declared them­selves too full to eat more!

The Greek olive oil indus­try may not be doing as good a job mar­ket­ing its prod­ucts as the Italian indus­try, but the per­sonal, local, small-scale touch of hard-work­ing Cretan fam­i­lies offers hope that vis­i­tors to Crete can grad­u­ally be per­suaded to enjoy a tra­di­tional Cretan diet fea­tur­ing high qual­ity, extra vir­gin olive oil.

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