7 Captivating Commandments of Cretan Cuisines
Dr Kylie Sergentanis
Growing up, I was always conscious of eating healthy. My mum started weight watchers when I was a teenager, I read the information with her and so began what I thought was a healthy diet. I ate what was advertised at the time in Australia as a healthy diet:
- Low fat dairy – Actually low fat everything!
- Minimal oils
- Vegetable/canola oil for cooking
- Margarine instead of butter
- If I drank soft drink I would choose ‘diet’
- Baking with artificial sweetners
- Grains were a big part of my diet
- When shopping I bought products based on calories and low fat without thought for sugar content, artificial colours/flavours, preservatives or nutritional content
Then, in 2006 I moved to Crete for a working holiday. Whilst in the back of my mind I thought about being healthy, most of the time I have to admit I didn’t analyze how healthy the food was – I was just enjoying the amazing flavors and the wonderful fresh produce. I was outside my ‘normal’ life so didn’t want to inhibit my experiences with limiting foods and trying to calculate calories. Once I stopped to analyze how I felt over this time, I realized that food was providing me with more energy, I wasn’t getting as hungry between meals and I had far more enjoyment from the food I ate.
So, after reminiscing about those days, I have devised 7 rules that living in Crete taught me about food:
- Olive oil is gold: I love it, my taste buds love it, and my body loves it! Olive oil makes everything taste so much more delicious. In Crete, most families own olive trees and harvest their own oil. Crete produces some of the best quality oil in the world and Cretan families have barrels of it that they use in pretty much every meal. Sometimes to abundance – my mother in law would present me with salads that looked more like soup! However, it is hard to argue with the research behind just how good olive oil is – something any person from Crete could tell you after generations of eating this liquid gold!
- Load up on vegetables and salads! Greek food is about so much more than just delicious slow cooked meat – in fact in Crete they often only eat red meat a few times a week and during lent not at all. This means there are so many wonderful vegetarian recipes. Lentils and legumes feature heavily in the Cretan cuisine. In Summer, a meal is never complete without a salad, ‘village’ or what we know as Greek salad features heavily! In winter, a dish is made of greens – often picked from the side of the road (the first time my father-in-law stopped the car to pick plants from the side of the road that ended up on the dinner table that night I admit to being a little shocked). The greens are known as ‘horta’ and are often served with olive oil (gold!), lemon juice and salt.
- Everything is eaten seasonally – this is important on so many levels from decreasing our carbon footprint to maximizing the nutrients found in food by avoiding long periods in cold storage.
- Stop eating low fat dairy: I forgot about low fat diary whilst in Crete– the Greek yogurt was incredible. Particularly if you were lucky enough to catch the ‘yogurt and cheese’ man who would drive around the village selling fresh made yogurt in ceramic containers. No preservatives, no additives, no artificial flavours – just delicious yogurt from sheep, goat or cows milk.
- Food is social: meal times are sacred. I was a bit shocked to learn that many of the Greek men (even those with a family of their own) would go each afternoon to eat lunch cooked by their mothers at home. Once they have a wife and children, they often come each day for lunch as well. Once I thought about it, I realized how wonderful this is – building family connection, all of the extended family coming together each day to eat. It is such a perfect way to introduce children to food as well – they all eat with the adults and develop a healthy appreciation for food.
- Alcohol should always be consumed with food. I remember being amazed in Crete that I always received a ‘snack’ when ordering a drink, it ranged from a bowl of nuts, popcorn, crisps or a plate of tomato, cucumber, olives and feta. It emphasizes that the drink should be enjoyed and not just ‘swished back’. I believe it creates a healthy relationship with alcohol.
- Fruit is the perfect ending to a meal! A plate of seasonal fruit and raki (Home made alcohol) will always be given at the end of a meal in Crete. I think it such a perfect ending to a meal! Watermelon is the favorite in summer and is so welcome on a balmy night!
I feel so grateful and lucky that I was able to experience the Cretan cuisine and learn a new way of thinking about food. A recent study at Deakin University found that depression can be helped by eating a “Mediterranean” diet and after my own experiences, I can definitely see why.
It has taken me a long time to transition some of my eating habits and let go of some of the old ‘truths’. I also feel like my knowledge is constantly changing and evolving, I would love to hear from anyone who has had an epiphany related to food, nutrition, lifestyle or health!