Cretan cuisine and specialties

Greek and Cretan cuisine is in family with the Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine and if you are familiar with anyone of them you will quickly find your way around a Greek menu.

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Crete is self-sufficient in year-round fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as in seafood, and proud of its culinary traditions. Cretan food unsophisticated and solid, fresh and plenty. There is nothing delicate or precious about the cooking. Fish is usually baked or grilled with nothing more elaborate than a sauce of oil and lemon, the meat – traditionally lamb or goat – is grilled or cooked as a stew. Spices are minimal: maybe a little pepper and some local herbs.

There is nothing sophisticated about the cooking but the quality and freshness of the individual ingredients: the oil (always olive oil) must be the best, the fish very fresh, the meat tender and the vegetables preferably just picked from the garden.

Cretan specialities are the local graviera cheese (a kind of gruyere) and myzithra, creamy white cheese often served instead of feta in the common Greek salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions.

Cretan country food or “horiatiko fagito”.

The most common dishes are:

Stifado, “beef stew with wine”, Arní me angináris, “lamb with artichokes”, Kréas kókinisto, “meat in tomato sauce”, Chortopitakia, “small spinach pies”, Kounéli me yiaourti, “rabbit with yoghurt”, Grilled lamb, beef, rabbit or pork and many varieties of fish.

You can also order mezes which is a variety of dishes shared by everyone as either appetizers or as main courses. With the food you can enjoy the local wine, a light sherry like red wine, when it is more than 5 years old it is called “Marouvas”, there is also retsina,”resinated wine”, raki and ouzo.

For dessert there is, fruit of the season e.g. Watermelon, honeymelons, figs, fresh oranges and not forgetting the grapes, but if you have a sweet tooth, then baklava, kataifi or Greek style yoghurt with honey and nuts will satisfy you.

When eating out

Eating out in Crete has its own customs. You will not offend if you do not follow them because Cretan are used to foreigners and pretty broad-minded. Still, knowing the dos and don’ts might save some awkwardness.

For Cretans, a meal is a social occasion and accordingly, food is ordered for the “table”, not for the individuals. You order a bit of everything, spread it around the table, or more often cover the table with different dishes and everybody picks at everything. If or when more food is needed, more is ordered. There is also quite an element of status involved in the ordering and it is not uncommon for Greeks to order far too much, either to show off their status or show their generosity.

Table manners are pretty relaxed. The main bad manner would possibly be ordering for yourself when in company.

Use of the fingers instead of forks and knives is very common. After all, food is there to be touched and eaten, not picked at.

When pouring wine, don’t fill the glass to the brim, when drinking it, leave a little in your glass until it is being refilled.

Paying the bill in Crete

As with ordering, paying a bill has a lot to do with offering hospitality. I have never seen Cretans sharing the payment of a meal (at least not in a way that could have been visible to others). One will pay for all and there is often a hefty argument about who will have the privilege of paying. As such, if you, a foreigner, are eating with Cretans you will be pretty hard put to foot the bill, unless you resort to sneaky ways such as paying the bill away from the table when no one is looking. Even this can lead to awkwardness because the traditional Cretan hospitality makes it almost a duty to act as the host to foreigners.