Cretan gastronomy is an important chapter of the Greek cuisine. But most of all, Cretan cuisine is a humble cuisine. Not only is the island of Crete a key player in agricultural and livestock farming activities but it also has a rich culinary culture to show through the centuries.
Olives and grapes are the most precious fruits of the Cretan land. Lots of local products come from these treasures of nature. And they give tasty Cretan delicacies, both sweet and savory.
The best way to explore the unique features of nature in Crete is through the authentic tastes of Cretan cuisine. Read all you need to know about the real traditional food in Crete and discover a top destination for gastronomy lovers.
“Cretan cuisine is most of all a humble cuisine.”
Extra virgin olive oil in Cretan cuisine
Greece is the 3rd largest producer of olive oil worldwide. Crete is a key player regarding the olive oil products and the varieties of Cretan olives (koroneiki, tsounati). The fertile soil of Crete Island and the cultivation methods produce an extra virgin olive oil of incomparable quality and taste.
Extra virgin olive oil produced in Sitia (Lasithi region) is a repeatedly awarded olive oil of superior quality, on a global scale, due to the very low levels of acidity (the least amount of fatty acids) and the delicate fruity flavor. The best way to taste the pure flavors and aromas of extra virgin olive oil is to drizzle it over bread.
Cretan table olives such as stafidoelies from Rethymno, a product of protected designation of origin, are an integral part of the daily Cretan diet. Olive oil is also widely used in the making of natural soaps in Crete.
Cretan wines and grapes
The Cretan varieties of grapes are the basis for a great number of local products. Crete counts 11 indigenous wine varieties and among them you will find Cretan Wines of protected geographical indication (PGI).
“Liatiko” is the flagship wine of Lasithi (eastern Crete). “Vidiano” is the king of Rethymno (western Crete). Read more about the distinct Cretan grape varieties and the favorite wine and food pairings in Crete!
Lots of Cretan delicacies are made from grape must (unfermented grape juice) such as moustokouloura (soft biscuits made with grape juice), moustalevria (a kind of pudding made from grape must) and petimezi (grape syrup with a sweet flavor for use in cooking).
Dried grapes give the Cretan raisins (stafides) which are commonly used in cooking, but they are also a healthful and tasty snack. Raisin bread (stafidopsomo), raisin biscuits (stafidota) are some of the most popular sweet delicacies in Crete.
“Yoghurt has a distinctive position in recipes of Cretan cuisine.”
Cretan cheese varieties
Crete is a paradise for cheese lovers. You will be amazed by the cheese varieties and the quality of particular regional cheese and dairy products. Among the most well-known cheese types are mizithra, anthotyro and graviera.
A closer look will allow you to discover small cheese treasures from the west to the east of Crete. Xygalo from Sitia (Lasithi region) is a unique creamy white cheese with a distinct sour flavor, listed in the products of protected designation of origin (PDO).
Tyrozouli is a semi-hard white cheese from Rethymno which is rich in flavor and it’s unlikely to be found in other regions of Greece. Also, xinomizithra from Rethymno is a white cheese of soft texture with a sour flavor, included in the three Cretan cheese varieties (the other two are graviera and anthotyro) listed among the top50 cheeses worldwide, according to the World Taste Atlas.
“Xinohondros trahanas is a particular kind of Cretan pasta.”
The region of Rethymno keeps an intense livestock farming activity providing Crete with cheeses of exceptional quality. A wonderful way to explore the Cretan culinary culture is to wander around the villages of Rethymno, tasting all kinds of local cheeses and dairy products.
Sitia, at the easternmost side of Crete, also offers unique dairy products made from pure and fresh milk, such as yoghurt, sweet dessert creams, rice pudding with cinnamon and staka which is a dairy product with a rich flavor, extensively used as a butter cream in Cretan cooking recipes. Staka with fried eggs is a must-try Cretan dish!
It’s really worth tasting xinohondros trahanas, a particular kind of pasta, made from wheat grains and sour milk which is in the heart of traditional Cretan cuisine.
“Vegetables and wild greens are the base of Cretan cuisine”
Cretan wild greens (horta)
Cretan cuisine relies on seasonality and fresh ingredients. Vegetables and wild greens form the basis of Cretan cooking and locals love to include all kinds of wild greens to their daily diet, either raw in a fresh salad or cooked as part of various recipes.
Lamb cooked with artichokes, goat meat with stamnagathi greens, tsigariasta horta (a selection of different kinds of fresh stir-fried greens), hortopites and marathopites (homemade pies stuffed with wild greens) are some of the most popular foods in Crete.
A great number of vegetables and fruits are produced in Crete. Avocados, Maleme oranges from Chania (a product of protected designation of origin), figs of particularly sweet taste, a Cretan type of cucumber called xylagouro, cherry tomatoes from Lasithi and fresh green beans (chlorokoukia).
The benefits of the unique Cretan bananas
The Cretan bananas and the carob would definitely be included in a list of uniquely Cretan products. Cretan bananas are particularly small in size and have a sweet, rich flavor. The sweetness and the soft texture make bananas a perfect ingredient for sweet delicacies, in the place of sugar.
They also have high nutritional value with a high level of potassium, which improves blood pressure level and promotes the general health of the heart. It’s a real nutritional treasure and they are cultivated in a few places in Crete, mostly in Heraklion and Lasithi areas. Sitia, in Lasithi, is one of those unique locations in Crete where these pure aromatic bananas are grown.
Cretan carob products
The carob is also a unique fruit intensely cultivated in Crete. It’s used regularly in Cretan gastronomy, both in savory and sweet recipes. Various local products are made from carob and are regularly used in cooking, such as carob syrup with vinegar, chocolates with carob and Cretan Rusk made from carob flour. Carob flour is a great option for gluten-free recipes.
And, carob powder can substitute chocolate or cocoa because it’s a caffeine-free product. But what makes carob so special is that it’s a high fiber natural product, improving normal bowel movement and it’s, at the same time, a low-fat product, with important health benefits, as it reduces the levels of <<bad>> cholesterol. It’s considered a natural superfood.
“A wild landscape of dense vegetation covered with aromatic wild herbs.”
Cretan wild herbs
The beauty of Cretan nature lies in the infinite natural contrasts of its landscape. One may discover mountainous areas alternating with wild landscapes and terrains of dense vegetation covered with aromatic wild herbs. Thyme, lemon thyme, rosemary and oregano are the most commonly used herbs in cooking recipes and really add flavor to so many foods. On the other hand, natural wild herbs such as “malotira”, “fliskouni”, mountain tea, sage, chamomile, dittany and marjoram are essential for aromatic infusions, suitable for the cold days of the winter and also for stimulating the immune system.
The aromas of Cretan wild herbs are everywhere, and as you wander around Crete you will be amazed by the incredible natural diversity of the landscape, so different in the west and east parts of the island. The land of Crete is a land of thrills and pleasant explorations, providing the opportunity to get in touch with the culinary culture of the island and the cooking habits of the locals.
“Cretan wild herbs are not only suitable for cooking use but they also make aromatic tea brews.”
Cretan thyme honey
Brews from wild herbs pair so well with honey. Pine-thyme honey, blossom honey and thyme honey are the main varieties that can be found in Crete. Cretan thyme honey, which is made from wild thyme, holds a distinguished position worldwide, as it is a honey variety of superior quality due to its high nutritional value. It’s an aromatic honey of delicate and mild taste with a light golden color.
Thyme honey from the thyme fields of Sitia, in the region of Lasithi, is a pure natural product. It’s harvested with great care from carefully selected wild thyme fields giving unique kinds of apiculture products such as royal jelly, propolis and bee pollen. Sitia’s thyme honey is a honey of superb quality and it has received multiple awards at global contests. Thyme fields around Sitia are part of the geological park of Sitia, which has been recognized as a “NATURA” area.
“Bread is used in the making of various kinds of Cretan rusk.”
Cretan Bread and Rusk
There is no better thing than enjoying freshly baked bread combined with good quality olive oil. Bread and rusk are on every Cretan table along with the cheese. Eftazimo is a type of bread kneaded seven times before it becomes bread. The word “efta” has the meaning of the number seven in Greek language. Lasithi, in the easternmost part of Crete, has a long tradition in the baking of eftazimo bread. It has a particular sour taste and a soft and crunchy texture. Eftazimo bread is used for the making of the same type of Cretan rusk.
The sourdough bread (prozimenio) is a favorite type of bread in Crete. The preparation for that type of bread takes quite a long time and it actually demands patience and talent. But freshly made bread with real butter and Cretan thyme honey on top is such a tasty and healthy either breakfast or a snack.
In Crete you will taste all kinds of Cretan Rusk: wheat, barley, rye, migadi (wheat and barley), whole grain, carob and eftazymo. Cretan rusk comes in different textures and shapes. “Dakos” comes in large pieces of bread, “kouloura” rusk has a round shape, carob rusk is made from carob flour and “dakakia” which are actually little bites of rusk are a perfect choice for a healthy salad or even for a nice savory snack.
“Snails cooked with xinohondros trahanas is a core food in Cretan cuisine.”
Cretan snails (escargots)
A high source of iron and protein, low in fat, rich in trace elements and total phenols, the snails of Crete are a real delicacy. It’s a meal of high nutritional value. Locals regularly cook the snails in a pan either adding onions and tomatoes (chochlioi kokinistoi) or with red vinegar and rosemary (chochlioi boubouristoi). But snails cooked with xinohondros trahanas is a core food in Cretan cuisine. In Crete, you will even find frozen snails and precooked meals with snails which you could easily savor. Snail secretion is largely used in skin care and particularly in skin regeneration treatments because of the snail secretion.
The real Cretan cuisine
One of the most popular traditional dishes that Cretan cuisine features is Xinohondros trahanas (wheat grains made from sour milk and flour) cooked with aubergines and tomatoes. Both lamb and goat meat are largely used in Cretan cooking combined with artichokes and wild greens. Also, freshly made Cretan pasta such as chylopites and skioufichta are the basis of many tasty recipes. “Chylopites” pasta served with yoghurt and grated anthotyro cheese, skioufichta pasta cooked with Cretan syglino or apaki meat (pork with a smoked flavor which is marinated and cooked with olive oil and wild herbs) and served with grated hard anthotyro cheese.
“Anthoi” is a traditional food made from zucchini blossoms stuffed with rice and aromatic wild herbs. “Dolmades” is a quite similar Cretan food as it’s made from green vine leaves (grape leaves) called “ampelofylla” also filled with rice and wild herbs. They are served with lemon and yoghurt and it’s such a fresh and aromatic traditional dish. A proper Cretan salad contains “xylagouro” cucumber which is crunchier in texture, table olives, “kritamos” green leaves, Cretan rusk, extra virgin olive oil and galomizithra, xinomizithra or xygalo cheese.
Cretan okras (longer in shape) cooked with tomatoes, fresh green beans called “chlorokoukia” and artichokes cooked in olive oil and lemon are some of the traditional foods placed in the heart of Cretan cuisine. “Yahni” is a kind of vegetable stew and it’s a dish included in the daily Cretan menu of the locals. It’s actually a selection of fresh seasonal vegetables cooked with wild herbs and olive oil.
Cretan gastronomy is the reason to visit Crete
Crete has a rich culinary culture and it’s an ideal travel destination for pleasurable gastronomic explorations. Travel into the flavors and aromas of Crete, experiencing the real food in Crete.
Plunge into the authentic Cretan cuisine, visiting local restaurants with a farm-to-table philosophy. Choose your self-guided tour itinerary and use the Foodies guides created by Taste the local Crete.
Follow your customized food itinerary choosing a tailor-made tour itinerary. Have access to unique wine and food experiences, cooking lessons and special local food and wine festivals.
Also, meet the people behind the finest Cretan products and visit small-scaled local farms for guided tours and unique tasting experiences.
Learn more about the culinary habits of the locals and start cooking the Cretan way with the Daily Cretan Cuisine eBook.