Meet The People Reviving Crete’s Traditional Food Culture

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

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.

Mariana Kavoulaki, in Crete, Greece
Aradena Gorge, Crete

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
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, Crete, Greece
Milia Mountain Retreat, Crete, Greece

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, owner of Ntounias Taverna and Educational Farm, Crete
Cooking at Ntounias Taverna and Educational Farm, Crete

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, Chania, Greece

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
, 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.”

Chef Afshin Molavi
Dinner at Maiami, Chania, Crete

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

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

“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.”

The Lowdown

Combining journalistic experience and a passion for
anthropology, Maria Passarivaki and Stefanos Gagos of SteMa
offer bespoke Greek itineraries for


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