Not an article is written about the healthy Mediterranean diet without reference to the diet of the people on the island of Crete. When we developed the Culinary Discovery Tour for Aghios Nikolaos on Crete, we wanted guests to experience the true magic of the foods of Crete. The only way to do that is to get up into the mountains, so we travel to Zaros, high atop Heraklion, about 45 minutes from the port.
On our recent tour, the guide pointed out wild thyme and salvia (sage) growing in massive bunches along the road. We then arrived at a restored Cretan village perched on top of a mountain.
This beautiful village depicted the lives of people who lived in simple but functional homes decorated with beautiful woven goods. Weaving was not only a functional part of life in this village, but it had religious overtones as well. After a stroll through the village we arrived at a lovely, large room where we spent the next few hours cooking and learning about Cretan cuisine.
The menu for this day was dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves), gemista (stuffed vegetables) and fyllo (stuffed cheese pies). We also prepared rusk with tomato and feta cheese, the food of shepherds.
We started class by gathering around a large table and meeting our hosts, two Cretan women who shared their families’ cooking secrets!
Our first task was to hollow out tomatoes and zucchini so we could stuff them with onions, zucchini, tomatoes and fresh oregano. We quickly learned that the secret to the Cretan diet is olive oil and more olive oil. In fact, one third of the calories in the traditional Cretan diet come from olive oil. (Another factor that may contribute to their general good health is that the average Cretan walks 13 kilometers a day!)
Next the ladies brought out rock-hard bread called rusk, a twice-baked barley bread carried by shepherds into the hills where they tend their flocks for months at a time. We soaked the bread in water for a few seconds to soften it up and then topped the rusk with shredded tomatoes, feta cheese, oregano – and of course, MORE OLIVE OIL. Everyone had a job to do. Below you see one of our guests (a veterinarian from Alaska, no less!) shredding the luscious local tomatoes for the rusk, and Iria from Destination Services sprinkling on the oregano.
Next we moved on to the dolmadakia… And what fun that was! We used fresh grape leaves (not the kind in bottles and jars) to wrap our vegetable and rice stuffing. We learned how to hold the grape leaves properly (smooth side down) and not to use too much stuffing. I think we did very well for our first try. Doused in olive oil, of course, they went into the oven to bake for our lunch.
Last but not least were the cheese pies, which looked like cinnamon buns, made with fyllo. (That’s how they spell it!) The dough is made with flour and water and a bit of raki, a local liquor that gives the dough the ingredient it needs to be soft and supple. We learned how to roll out the fyllo and had fun making the swirls when it was filled with the local tart sheep cheese, myzithra.
After all that work, our reward was to enjoy what we made together as a class. We sat at a beautiful table in the courtyard and enjoyed each other’s company as well as the fruits of our labor. We were treated to some local wine and the enchanting hospitality of our hosts.
After the bus ride home, we returned to the village to shop for local oregano, olive oil and Cretan cookbooks. Then we headed back to the Bon Appétit Culinary Center for our “Healthy Mediterranean” cooking class, where we learned several new healthy and savory recipes. We made a white bean hummus with roasted garlic and chickpea crackers, shallow-poach fish with a lemon butter sauce, and a quinoa-semolina-spinach cake.
It is easy to see why the Cretans are so healthy. They live on an idyllic, sunny island with loads of fresh fruits and vegetables and LOTS of olive trees. But as important, they seem to enjoy each other and are always interacting. Our guide was very informed about the vegetation of Crete, and we all enjoyed hearing his stories of growing up on Crete – what has stayed the same and what has changed.
As always, we were thankful to the team of sous chefs in the culinary center who accompanied us on the tour. They enjoyed seeing the vegetation in the village and pointed out that much of it reminded them of their villages at home in India.
The world really is a small place, and food is a wonderful way to bring us closer together!