As I am no stranger to the indulgences found throughout the Cretan island, I feel an inclination to reintroduce Greek cuisine to others by highlighting some of my personal favourites. Following is a short photo series of some great dishes that I tried on my last trip to Crete.
As Sir Rowan Atkinson so smoothly proclaims in Johnny English; “Sea urchin is the ultimate aqcuired taste”, his ultimate reaction upon tasting this morsel is a gag-refleks, spewing the contents all over the sushi-conveyor belt. The Japanesese have a strong love for uni (うに), a delicacy that fetches prices up to 250$ a kilo. Despite this overwhelming price tag, I have heard countless gourmet chefs scorn at the thought of using what is essentially the gonads (reproductive organs) of the sea urchin. In Crete, however, this so-called Cretan viagra is a buttery and oceanic taste experience, which is traditionally eaten with olive oil, lemon and white bread. I am a massive fan, see if you feel the same.
“It’s shrimpin’ business time!”. Unfortunately, danes have not totally cultivated a shrimp eating culture. Of course, you do find the Greenland deep water shrimps, a priced delicacy, devoured on special occasions. My concern, however, is that most supermarkets sell deshelled, beheaded and deveined shrimp in a vacuum seal package, removing so many taste nuances to the crustacean. The shells and heads are extremely concentrated in flavour and it is almost blasphemous to throw them away, as they are brilliant in stocks and glaces. Another way is to man-up and consume them whole, all that is required is a deep frying the corn-starch and flour coated shrimp in oil, thus breaking down the hard exterior and making them crispy. This is the real pop corn shrimp. drizzled with lemon and parsley.
The traditional “καφενεíο” (kafeneion) is a cultural heritage site to many Cretans as the center for socializing, discussing (arguing) current affairs, or just to play backgammon and catch some shade. This café normally serves coffee, but also serve tapas-style “meze” to accompany the Raki brandy or Ouzo. This “cretan bruschetta” is a testament to their healthy diet, consisting of barley rusks, grated tomatoes, xinomyzithra cheese, oregano and olive oil.
Not exactly a dish, but more of a primitive cooking method that remains prevalent in most outdoor kitchens throughout the Cretan island. By woodfired flames, these iron-heavy pots contain sizzling mini peppers and potatoes, cooked in olive oil. The remaining coals are sprinkled with bay leaf, thyme leaf and other herbs, a certain aromatherapy that clears the air from the fumes of seared meats.
A lot of rooftops and garden patios are sheltered by large bundles and chandeliers of these grapes that provide much needed shade. Brought to European markets by the Ottomans, these ultra-sweet tidbits are the ultimate table grape, yet their extremely high yield means they often end up in raisin format. You will notice these browner varieties of raisins next time you shop for your healthy snacks.
Upon finishing the harvest, a hearty meal was prepared by my uncle’s mother in law. This roasted chicken was astounding. First of all, the chicken is organic and roams the gardens freely, foraging its own food of worms and insects, but is also inclined to eating grape stems, herbs, kernels and whatever else it may find in its way. Unlike conventional commodity chicken, these birds live way longer, a fact clearly visible by the larger bones and more firm texture in the meat.
Harvesting tomatoes for the salad is a quick walk down to the garden and you find these little beauties. My cousin, evidently proud, showcases these sweet, yet tangy cherry tomatoes that burst like a ripe and crisp grape.
Beets, like in Denmark, are also really popular. In Crete they are often eat with grated aged cheese and a drizzle of vinegar. Topped with some gorgeous basil from the garden.
Cretan cuisine abides by a conduct of simplicity in ingredients and execution. The general attitude is to use local and in-season produce, and seasoned only with the herbs and spices that surround you. Despite the arid and ragged mountaineous terrain, Crete has an amazing abundance of niche agricultural production, especially the herbs. If you do decide to visit Crete for the culinary experience, then I only have some small pointers for you.
Firstly, eat fish in near proximity to the sea and away from the main pedestrian areas. Secondly, find your grilled meats experience in the traditional villages in the Cretan hinterland. Thirdly, NEVER pass up on an invite from a local Cretan- and always ask for advice on where to eat. The cretans are visciously proud of their culinary heritage and will happily assist you to their favourite dining haunt.