Meet the People Reviving Crete’s Traditional Food Culture
Crete’s rugged, mountainous landscape has sustained a thriving food culture for millennia. Emma Latham Philips meets the islanders spearheading a farm-to-fork movement while preserving old-school sustainability
15 February, 2023
Zeus, the king of the gods, was born in Crete. His mother bore him in a cave on Mount Ida, or perhaps Mount Dikti; Cretans still debate the location. He grew up on the island's mountain slopes, among the maquis and the garrigue shrub, the thorns and the thyme.
This kind of ancient lore is on the tip of every tongue on the island, which was home to the first advanced Bronze Age civilisation, the Minoans, from 3000 BCE. Crete's flora, and therefore also its cuisine, is rooted in the legends. "What was eaten then is mostly still enjoyed today," explains food archaeologist Mariana Kavroulaki. "I try to understand the culinary tastes of the past by recreating them." Kavroulaki hosts cooking and tasting classes exploring the dishes of the classical period. Dishes are made, and eaten, in her garden, an olive grove that dates back to the Venetian period. Surrounded by ceramic dishes filled with nuts, figs and herbs, a white cloth holding homemade cheese hanging from a gnarled branch nearby, she wraps Palaeolithic barley flatbreads in vine leaves, ready to be cooked over open flames. "I made that using information given by Aristotle," she comments.
Kavroulaki is part of a wave of Cretans who believe sustainable tourism, traditional farming practice and the protection of the landscape and local culture go hand in hand in the fight against modern food culture's reliance on convenience and homogeneity. A history of consecutive conquests - Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians and Ottoman Turks - has meant that generations of islanders have learned to rely on nothing but the land and each other to get by. Self-sufficiency has never been a trend here. It's a survival skill, and many of the ancient culinary traditions continue to live on in rural villages scattered across Crete's mountainous interior.
Food archaeologist Mariana Kavoulaki
For Maria Passarivaki and Stefanos Gogos, the co-founders of SteMa Journeys, this community of island food producers serves not just as an example of a distinctive and ancient culture but also as an illustration of sustainable living. "The traditional diet of Crete is the true material wealth of the island," Passarivaki explains. The duo, who organise bespoke travel itineraries across Greece whose aim is to provide travellers with unexpected stories in non-touristy destinations, have arranged our journey to meet these old-school pioneers.
Milia Mountain Retreat is a microcosm of this purposeful lifestyle. A careful restoration of a medieval farming settlement by owners Iakovos Tsourounakis and Giorgos Makrakis has transformed an abandoned village into a sustainable lodge.
Hidden among the chestnut trees of a reforested valley in the White Mountains, the eco-retreat is off-grid and only reachable by a nail-biting mountain road. Rugged hilltops isolate the property but also provide everything needed to run the guesthouse. Understated yet elegant rooms are solar-powered. The water system is fed by a spring. In the restaurant, the wine is home-produced, and a nightly menu sees reimagined traditional cuisine enjoyed by candlelight. There are snails with courgette and lemon oil sorbet, skioufihta (traditional pasta) and rabbit stuffed with local mizithra cheese.
Milia Mountain Retreat
It's a similar story at Ntounias Taverna and Educational Farm, one of Crete's most famous slow-food establishments. A hair-raising drive through the mountains leads to the village of Drakona, where the restaurant is based. Smoke pours from traditional pots on wood-fired ovens, and potatoes steep in olive oil, bubbling and spitting. For an out-of-the-way setting, the restaurant is busy. Co-owner Stelios Trilirakis and his children ferry plates outside, pour wine from aluminium jugs and joke with guests.
Trilirakis opened the restaurant and the adjoining organic farm with his wife, Efmorlili, in the village of his birth. They serve the beloved recipes once made by his grandmother. Dishes use meat, milk and cheese from the farm's cows and sheep and vegetables from the garden. You might eat boureki with courgette, potato and mizithra cheese, or a village salad made using whatever is growing well that week. Meat isn't wasted, so slow-cooked lamb (kleftiko) is often accompanied by liver and heads. Trilirakis wants guests to experience the Cretan way of life, so, alongside lunch, various agrotourism experiences are available, such as feeding the rare, indigenous breed of cattle, gidomouskara. Heading up the mountain towards the herd in a truck laden with mulberry branches, we eat wild figs as the setting sun turns the slopes a fierce orange.
Winding south to the Sfakia region, the road passes picturesque villages, bewildered goats and roadside honey stalls. Formerly a one-room mountain refuge, a cluster of seven stone buildings in the village of Agios Ioannis now makes up Alonia Guesthouse, a retreat surrounded by centuries-old pine and cypress forests. Glaringly pale peaks sit further away, populated by the owner's father's sheep, and a stone shepherd's hut, a mitato, used for milking and making cheese. The flock is free to wander the slopes, a diet of herbs and wild greens gives their meat a subtle flavour. "Don't be afraid if he slaughters one," Antonis Georgedakis comments of his father. There are beehives, too, where we dip fingers carefully into sticky honey.
Stelios Trilirakis, left, and traditional cooking techniques at Ntounias
Up in the mountains, the air is thick with the scent of Mediterranean herbs and the sound of sheep bells. White sea onion flowers and holm oak grow. So, too, does malotira (ironwort), a medicinal herb traditionally found by shepherds on the slopes. Georgedakis uses it to make mountain tea.
Farm-to-fork culture isn't isolated to the peaks of Crete's interior. The slow movement has also reached the coast. In Chania Town, a 20-minute walk from The Tanneries, a waterfront hotel and spa that blends marble, exposed stone and monochrome interiors to create an elevated minimalist stay, sits the Old Venetian Port of Chania. There, at Salis restaurant, co-owner Afshin Molavi borrows from both his Iranian and Swedish heritage to produce a distinctive take on taverna culture that blends modern gastronomy with traditional Greek permaculture principles.
Salis restaurant and garden
Almost all of the ingredients used in the Salis kitchen are grown in organic gardens on the city's outskirts. "Harvest what your hand catches," Molavi's restaurant partner, Stelios Kalyvianakis, laughs, grabbing purslane from a tangle of wild greens fringing one of these gardens. Growing and gathering their own means the restaurant always has access to seasonal produce. "We think creatively," Molavi explains, "using the parts others waste". At dinner, pickled watermelon rind is served with tuna belly. There's lacto-fermented cucumber salad, purslane with cherry tomato and grape molasses, and duck-breast risotto.
Self-sufficiency and sustainable business practice feed into another of Molavi's ventures, the Manousakis Winery, which he co-runs with his wife and winery owner, Alexandra Manousakis. She returned from the US to take over the vineyards planted by her father in 1993. Now, the winery in Vatolakkos village offers taverna-style fare alongside tours and tasting sessions.
"The labels tell the story of our winery," explains Manousakis, pouring a glass of romeiko, Chania's only indigenous grape variety. Manousakis' grandmother sent her father to the US in the hope that he would have a better life; he brought up Alexandra and her siblings in Washington, DC, returning to Crete for holidays. "This was the house he was born in," Manousakis says, pointing to the elegant white villa opposite the tasting terrace. "The winery was my dad's way of giving back to the island he loved."
Salis' Afshin Molavi, left, and Maiami
Now Manousakis has returned permanently - her waterfront restaurant, Maiami, in Chania Town, serves her favourite comfort foods, and doubles up as a gallery and studio space for her art.
From the outset, the family felt that organic and agroecological vineyard practices were the only way to respect Crete's environment. Similar stories of regeneration exist across the island. Half an hour's drive from the city centre, the Botanical Park and Gardens offers biodiversity where there was once devastation.
"The garden was born from the ashes," explains owner Petros Marinakis, walking between the tropical, subtropical and alpine zones. The park was conceived after a fire burnt 100,000 ancient olive trees, destroying his family's land. Today, 20 hectares are filled with fruit trees from all over the world, as well as herbs, spices and medicinal plants, all grown using permaculture principles. Though the garden is more for exhibition than production, a selection of the 200-plus different fruits can be found in the dishes served at the on-site restaurant. "The Botanical Park and Gardens was created to reconnect people to the natural world," Marinakis explains. "Walking through it is an emotional experience."
Combining journalistic experience and a passion for anthropology, Maria Passarivaki and Stefanos Gagos of SteMa Journeys offer bespoke Greek itineraries for travellers.