Crete’s farm-to-table cuisine is a way of life that has been handed down through generations, and today the Greek island is focusing on its authentic food with renewed gusto.
The Cretan cuisine is full of traditional tastes, aromas and ingredients, which date back to prehistoric times and still continue to co-exist in the present day Cretan cooking.
Head to Crete and sample some tantalising traditional cuisine, abundant in the naturally sourced produce grown from the enriched Cretan soil.
Here are just a few top restaurant recommendations, courtesy of Lonely Planet, so you can truly discover why Cretans have stuck to such a traditional cuisine for decades.
Elia & Diosmos
In the little village of Skalani you’ll find Argiro Barda, an elegant one-woman dynamo who oversees this sprawling, stylish tavern that pays homage to the seasons.
Elia & Diosmos translates as ‘olive and mint’, and the name encapsulates everything she has in her garden. “All of Skalani is my garden!” she half jokes, as she buzzes in and out, working with what nature has given her that day: producing homemade fennel pies, stoking fires at one of the outdoor patio ovens, kneading fresh pasta to go with lamb broth or dishing up her sister’s pickled sweet quince over halva (a slice of semolina).
She’s non-stop, but pull up a wooden chair and try to catch her for a chat. Try whatever she recommends (‘these dolmades are with shrimp, no not normal, not normal, but is the season’) because with such respect for her ingredients, there’s no better judge of a daily special.
www.olive-mint.gr; tel +30 28107 31283; Dimokratias 263, Skalani; lunch & dinner Tue-Sun
The village of Zaros, located at the foot of Mt Psiloritis (Crete’s highest mountain) is home to the island’s spring water supply. Just 1.5km away, you’ll spot the eleonas (olive groves) and your first hint of this gorgeous taverna, which is in a truly scenic spot with 360-degree views over the valley.
Here you can eat traditional Cretan recipes made by Koula (the mother of the owner, Manolis Saridakis) who, along with a local chef, prepares meals for diners at the taverna. She collects fresh vegetables and herbs from the gardens, eggs from the chickens, and while you sip malotira (Cretan mountain tea) or local wine, you’ll be overwhelmed by the heady aromas, whether that be the lamb kleftiko (a dish originating from the Turkish occupation of Crete), pilafi (a rice dish, perhaps with meltingly tender goat), stamnagathi (a wild mountain green), or potatoes with anthotyros cheese.
Overnight guests at Eleonas can also partake in cooking lessons in the kitchen with Koula for an interactive insight into her magic work.
www.eleonas.gr; tel +30 28940 31238; Zaros; lunch & dinner daily in summer, Fri-Sun in winter
Head east along the coastal road to Iraklio for a final meal at Peskesi, a converted cottage secreted away down a tiny lane. A relative newcomer to Crete’s fine-dining scene, Peskesi is the brainchild of owner Dr Panagiotis Magganas, who has researched Cretan gastronomy for more than 10 years. Its menu is a joy: such care and attention to detail is given to the explanation of dishes, the dedication to reviving forgotten, pure products of the land – even from Minoan times – and championing their nutritional value.
Take the warm hand towel infused with sarantavotano (a concoction of 40 herbs) and the card telling its touching story: it’s an old recipe of balneotherapy using endemic aromatic plants with healing properties. Order one of the refreshing raki cocktails, which might involve spearmint, homemade thyme, honey and lavender syrup. Salivate over a pork chop smoking over thyme and sage at your table. Here is where the lessons from your trip come together: you are truly worshipping the resurgence of authentic Cretan cuisine.
www.peskesicrete.gr; tel +30 28102 88887; Kapetan Charalampi 6-8, Iraklio; from 10am
This is an extract from Lonely Planet’s Food Trails, a gastronomic tour of the world’s tastiest destinations in 52 short breaks. Available now, RRP: $34.99; www.lonelyplanet.com