Why This Small Island Is Considered the Culinary Capital of Greece

At the crossroads of three continents — Europe, Africa, and Asia— Crete is considered the blueprint of the Mediterranean diet.

<p>Joe Daniel Price / Getty Images</p>

Joe Daniel Price / Getty Images

Greece's largest island, Crete, is home of the first European civilization, and, in many ways, it holds the mystery — and secret — of the Mediterranean diet.

Crete checks everything off the list of Greek specialties: wine from centuries-old vineyards that is some of the best in the Mediterranean; olive oil dubbed the “elixir of life” and said to be the source of the high longevity rate; and the infamous cheese, which is so specific, villages have their signature.

In Greece, local specialties revolve around a) what’s in season and b) what can actually grow there. And just because you’re on an island doesn’t mean you should expect an endless stream of seafood. I quickly learned this my first night in Crete. Sitting along the old Venetian harbor in Chania, once one of the most important trade centers in the Mediterranean, I sampled my way through meze that, for Crete, is considered modern.

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Boat-shaped peinirli, a Greek flatbread, is topped with minced lamb and traditional Kasseri cheese —plus pickled onion and sriracha aioli. Lasagna-like pastitsio, a layered pasta dish, is deconstructed and served with crispy Graviera cheese and wild truffle from Agios, the capital of Crete’s eastern Lasithi region, one of Greece’s oldest winemaking areas.

<p>Courtesy of Cretan Malia Park</p>

Courtesy of Cretan Malia Park

“In Crete, we are very lucky that so many different vegetables and fruits can be easily cultivated,” says Alex Manousakis, who, along with her husband Afshin Molavi, own and operate open-air Salis, nearby brasserie and art studio Maiami, and Manousakis Winery. “We push the boundaries and see how we can take these fresh ingredients to a different level.”

While some chefs are adding their own spin to the island’s traditional cuisine, the charm of Crete is that not much has changed in 4,000 years. The same ingredients found today — olive oil, honey, wild greens foraged in fields around the mountains — were also consumed in ancient Minoan Crete.

“The major drive here has always been the food,” says Agapi Sbokou, CEO of Phāea Resorts, who designed the restaurant concepts at Cretan Malia Park and Blue Palace Elounda around Crete’s UNESCO-protected cuisine. “The island has a distinct culinary heritage that draws upon the rich and complex history of civilizations that have been here — Arabic occupations, Venetians for 400 years, and the Ottomans all merge, enabling Crete to be truly considered the culinary capital of Greece.”

On the northeastern edge of the island, the coastline is a patchwork of Mediterranean maquis, or shrubs, adding pops of green to the chalk-white, rock-strewn mountains in the distance. Most of the dishes across the island are vegetable- or meat-driven, relying on what’s growing in the garden or game, but some spots on the coast, like Eloundi, serve freshly caught fish seasoned simply with olive oil and lemon, a sprinkle of salt and maybe capers.

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“For us, simplicity is the new luxury,” says Anthinagoras Kostakos, Phāea Resorts’ chef consultant. Simple is the best way to describe Cretan cooking. The main ingredients may stay the same, but Cretans can concoct multiple cookbooks out of a short pantry list of items. Barley rusks, for example, double as croutons in salad or form bruschetta-like dakos, topped with tomato, olive oil, and fresh whey cheese.

<p>Courtesy of Manousakis Winery</p>

Courtesy of Manousakis Winery

In this part of Crete, soft, spreadable goat or sheep’s milk cheese, like Xygalo Siteias, is a common meze dish (don’t even think about asking for butter with your bread). In other areas, hard, straw-yellow Kefalograviera cheese serves as a palate cleanser before the main course. Nearly 300 different wild edible greens and herbs grow around the island, but bitter stamnagathi, a type of wild chicory, is local here, and you’ll find it served raw or boiled and slathered in olive oil and lemon juice.

The island itself is an edible landscape, and locals and chefs alike aren’t afraid to pluck a sprig of sage or thyme they find growing randomly along the rocks. While touring the 16th-century Venetian fortress on the island of Spinalonga, which sits in the bay within eyesight of Blue Palace, a friend did just that. “This is a caper bush,” she says, snapping one of the round leaves off the branch snaking its way up the side of the crumbling walls. Caper leaves are often found pickled in Greek salads, while dried oregano — arguably the cornerstone of Cretan cuisine — is as abundant as salt and pepper.

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It's worth noting that Crete is also home to the most vineyards in Greece. “Growing vines here isn’t the easiest thing, but these types of soils are rewarding us with great, quality grapes,” says Nikos Karavitakis, the fourth generation behind family-run Karavitakis Winery in Chania. “Cretan wine has changed so much, and it’s our generation, the ones who have traveled and tasted different wines, who are helping us evolve.”