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5 Cretan Health Foods for a Happier, Healthier You

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5 Cretan Health Foods for a Happier, Healthier You

Written by
Sarah O'Neill
January 2017

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Discover one of the world’s healthiest lifestyles on Crete and 5 dishes that exemplify the renowned Mediterranean diet.

If you’re hoping for a happier, healthier 2017, we invite you to discover one of the world’s healthiest lifestyles – and it’s found in Greece.

If you thought of Greek food as only tzatziki and gyros, think again.

The Greeks, and the Cretans in particular, have one of the heart-healthiest lifestyles in the world, the so-called Mediterranean diet.

Don’t be alarmed by the word “diet” and its modern connotations of rules, regime and self-denial. The Greeks know the true meaning of the word, after all they invented it: diaita, meaning way of life. When it comes to the Mediterranean diet, or lifestyle, the Greeks forgo calorie-counting in favour of crisp salads drizzled in olive oil; soft, warm bread straight from the oven; fresh, sun-ripened vegetables; creamy, white cheese; fish, seafood and slow-cooked lamb, all washed down with a glass of wine, or raki.

The inhabitants of Crete were the paragon of a remarkably healthy lifestyle which came to be defined as the “Mediterranean diet”. It was first described back in the 50’s and 60’s by American researcher Ancel Keys, who led the ground-breaking Seven Countries Study. By comparing the effect of diet on human health in 7 countries, Keys discovered that the lifestyle and culinary habits in Crete blessed its inhabitants with remarkable health and longevity.

Following these trailblazing studies, this lifestyle was recommended to the world, not as some dieting fad or the latest health craze, but by no less than the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization.

The Mediterranean diet is acknowledged worldwide as a dietary lifestyle that protects heart health and contributes to long life. More recent studies are exploring its benefits in preventing conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, and in offering an excellent source of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.

The best way to enjoy the Mediterranean diet is in its quintessential form on the island of Crete, Greece. We look at 5 dishes containing health foods unique to Crete, which are renowned for their nutritional properties, so that this summer, you can enjoy all of the pleasure with none of the guilt.

1. Dakos

The healthiest pub lunch imaginable, dakos hails from the western Cretan province of Chania, where you will find it in practically every restaurant, taverna of kafenio. It exemplifies the Mediterranean diet with nutritious bread; fresh, plump tomatoes and Homer’s “liquid gold”, extra virgin olive oil.

The basis of the dish is a Cretan bread called paximadi, a barley rusk that is baked twice for longevity and has been central to the Cretan diet since ancient times. When Ancel Keys was doing his research in the 50’s and 60’s, this Cretan bread staple was translated for his US study as “wholemeal bread”, but if you travel to the island and experience the real paximadia for yourself, you will soon realise that this hearty, fibre-rich snack leaves the soft slice of bread you pop in the toaster trailing far behind in the nutritional department.

The barley flour gives the bread a uniquely nutty taste. Cookery writer Elizabeth David described its “unmistakably earthy tang — anyone who has ever eaten a good barley or Scotch broth will recognize the taste and the aroma…” What’s more, just 100g of barley flour provides 40% of the dietary fibre you need in a day, aiding digestion and lowering cholesterol.

For the dakos dish, the crisp rusks are softened in olive oil and broken into bite-sized chunks heaped with fresh, chopped tomatoes, plump and sweetly ripened in the Mediterranean sun. Your restaurant might add red onions and a Cretan cheese called myzithra. The whole dish is drizzled with more olive oil, and often sprinkled with native oregano. This dish is a dietician’s dream, with the added magic of Greek olive oil, full of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, and, of course, taste.

2. Mezedes

Mezedes or mezedakia are small plates made for sharing and socialising, a wonderful way of tickling the taste buds with a delightful variety of Cretan cuisine. They are served as a selection of appetizers. Enjoy them as a snack with a shot of raki to aid the digestion (and the conversation!) or keep ordering more for a full afternoon meal.

It’s difficult to say what exactly you will be served on the day you order mezedes in a Cretan taverna, but you can expect plenty of marinated and pickled vegetables, such as artichoke hearts and onion bulbs; juicy fruits; protein-packed pulses and nutritious nuts; filled filo pastries (brushed with olive oil, not butter) and the quintessential Cretan olive.

Yet mezedes are much more than just a super-healthy snack. They are beneficial both physically and emotionally; an integral component of Greek cuisine and a prominent part of Greek culture, at the heart of which rests the belief that bringing friends together over shared food and drink is good for the soul.

3. Cretan Cheeses

Cheese can be healthy? Calorific, creamy, luxurious cheese? It may come as a surprise, but cheese plays a central and crucial role in a balanced, Cretan diet. If you make it your mission to taste your way through the different varieties, you may have set yourself an impossible challenge: practically every village makes its own, unique cheeses with a wide range of tastes and textures.

Sample myzithra, a white whey cheese similar to ricotta and best enjoyed with honey. Those determined to stick to their diet on holiday will enjoy xynomyzithra, exclusively produced in Crete and with less than half the fat of its namesake myzithra.

Staka is another particularly creamy, luxuriant cheese paste somewhere between a cheese and a yoghurt. When staka is made, the fat is skimmed off and kept separately as the famed stakovoutyro of Chania, which you can spread on your Cretan barley bread as a flavoursome alternative to butter, or enjoy in Cretan pilafi. You will rarely find this delicacy east of Chania.

Cretan cheeses are not only idiosyncratic and flavourful, they are also made of nutritionally dense sheep or goat’s milk. Both are higher in calcium, richer in protein, contain more folate (vitamin B-9) and are more easily digested than cow’s milk. Best enjoyed as an accompaniment to bread, fruit and honey, or simply as a dessert.

4. Lamb and Greens: Tsigariastó with Stamnankáthi

Stamnankáthi was originally a wild variety of spiny chicory, now increasingly cultivated, and native to Crete. Recently, it has become something of a trend in top-end restaurants. As you might expect from a leafy green, it is packed with calcium and iron, rich in vitamins E and C and Omega 3 fats. The ancient Greeks prized it for its medicinal properties and used it as an antiseptic and to treat rheumatism and stomach ache. Enjoy its bitter bite and exquisite aftertaste raw, drenched in olive oil with a slice of lemon, or as a cooked side order with lamb.

Slow-cooked lamb and goat dishes, like tsigariastó, have become eponymous with Greek culture, although back in the 50’s and 60’s, when Keys was conducting his study, these red meat dishes would have perhaps only been eaten once or twice a month, or on special occasions. Nowadays, most Cretans (and holidaymakers) can afford to eat red meat more often. The advantage of Cretan lamb or goat is the quality of the meat. The animals are grass-fed and about as free-range as you can imagine (indeed, you will pass many of them “freely ranging” along the roadside if you go for a drive into the Cretan countryside).

In tsigariastó, a signature dish of western Crete, the lamb or goat is slow-cooked at a very low temperature, preserving its nutrients from heat damage and resulting in a melt-in-the-mouth dish packed with Omega-3 fats, protein and vitamin B-12. The cooking oil of choice is, naturally, olive oil, which deserves an entry of its own…

5. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Olive oil is, admittedly, not a dish, but it is ubiquitous in virtually every meal and snack you will eat on Crete, savoury or sweet. It is, in fact, the only fat Cretans use in cooking, and they consume it in vast quantities. The Greeks are the world’s largest consumers of olive oil per capita - and the Cretans consume more than double that of their countrymen!

Homer referred to it as “liquid gold”, and Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine, designated it as “the great healer”. Research today has demonstrated its contribution to a healthy heart and circulatory system, healthy joints, and reduced risk of stroke, cancer, arthritis and heart disease.

If you travel to Crete this summer, it will be nearly impossible not to reap the health benefits of olive oil, as it will be used in practically every dish you are served. But if you want to take the benefits home with you, you will find a wide range of oils available: from awarding-winning brands, to home-grown varieties at the public markets, supermarkets and, of course, in the airport.

If you’re feeling brave you could buy locally from an individual or small shop. A little courage is required, because these small production oils are often rustically presented in a plastic water bottle. You may want to tape them up to prevent spillage! Oil tasting on Crete is rather like wine tasting in France. Sample your way through the markets and you will be delighted at the sheer variety of flavours and aromas.

Hungry for More?

Holidaying in Crete is not only gorgeous, it’s also delicious – and the good news is: it’s healthy for you too.

If you’re curious to know more about the Mediterranean diet, or looking for culinary inspiration for your next trip to Crete, Channel 4 and Yotam Ottolenghi have made an award-winning series he calls his “Mediterranean Feast”. In this episode, you can watch how the traditional barley rusks, paximadia, are baked and see how olive oil is indeed used for everything - including dessert:

Written by Sarah O'Neill

A passionate traveller, linguist and writer, Sarah has visited over 20 countries around the globe. She loves immersing herself in new cultures, learning the language, and getting to know the local people.

Would you like to be an author at Moments of Inspiration?
Do you have an original idea for a guest blog post or interest to write regularly as an author for us? Send us your article or simply contact us at:

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