Food and drinks in Crete

Nowadays you can expect to find most common foods that you would find in your own country on Crete. You will however not have the wide choice that you would get in a large supermarket in Europe. Products that are imported specifically for foreigners will generally be a fair bit more expensive.
Alcoholic drinks are well represented and quite cheap but foreign wines are very difficult to find, so bring your Bordeaux with you!

Now that this is covered, let's have a look at Cretan foods and drinks, particularly the "specialities". On the whole do not expect fancy foods here, traditional life on Crete is very simple.

Olive oil

Crete has about 60 olive trees per inhabitant so olive oil (the only oil traditionally used in cooking) is one of the staple foods. A family of four will easily use a litre a day if not more. A good restaurant must use good oil, the rest of the cooking comes second. Most people have their own supply of oil (60 olive trees per inhabitant, remember?) or buy from each other but of course you can buy oil in the supermarkets. Buy Extra Virgin oil, it will often be written in English on the labels. If you are considering buying some really good olive oil to take back with you, it is best to buy from a producer, not because it is cheaper (which it is) but because you can find some really good oil. Where? I am not going to divulge my supply - I think that I have just found the perfect one after years of searching - and have it plundered! If you go around and eat at a place where you find the oil especially tasty, compliment them on their oil and ask nicely if you could buy a little bit of it (a few litres is a little bit). This is, I guess, the best way to strike lucky. Another place where you could look is the covered market in Chania: there are some good oils to be found there and you might be able to get a taste before buying. There are no big price differences between the best oils and poor quality ones and as a rule they cost around 5 to 7 Euro per litre in shops.

Cheese

You will be able to find a reasonable variety of cheeses in the supermarkets but there are only a few types of Cretan cheeses, listed below:
Graviera: the name is a loose rendition of the word "gruyere" and it is a little similar. This is the standard hard cheese and being of local production, there are many types and tastes. Taste before buying.
Myzitra: a fresh cheese made of ewe's milk. It can also be made of goats milk (in which case it is called "katsikithia") or mixed milk. This is the standard fresh cheese. A good goat's one will taste like these expensive French "chèvre frais" that you can buy in good delis, at a fraction of the price.
Anthotiros: from the words "anthos" and "tiros" meaning "flower" and "cheese" it is a very mild, soft spring cheese made when the sheep pastures are still full of flowers. The closest cheese that I could compare it to is mozzarella although it is quite different.

Paximadi

I list it because it is an unusual staple food but it is not necessarily something that you would want to take back from your holiday as a present to someone: paximadi is the hard dry bread (it is baked, cut in slices and baked again) that peasants take to the fields and soften with a little water and olive oil. It will keep forever.

Herbs

The first thing that always strikes me whenever I step off the plane on Crete is the smell of herbs, especially thyme, oregano and marjoram. The whole island smells of herbs and is covered in them. Buy a supply before you leave the island, they will be fresh and cheap. A few herbs are also found only on Crete, like "diktamos" or Cretan dittany (which is supposed to have all sorts of medicinal properties).

Honey

Crete has been an important honey producer for a good few thousand years (it was a main export item to Ancient Egypt) and the honey is very good, especially the thyme honey. You can find honey in all the shops but it is better (and a little cheaper) to buy it from a producer.

Meat

Not something that you would take back with you of course, but I would just like to mention that the meat here (at least the local production meat) is supposed to be as good as it was in Northern Europe some decades ago, before industrial animal husbandry became the rule - this is according to an old German butcher who was here on holiday and told me so. Particularly noteworthy of course is lamb and goat's meat. They are not as cheap as one could think but almost all of them are free range and fed on wild herbs.

Fish

The Mediterranean is very overfished so do not expect masses of cheap fish. There is good fresh fish but it is expensive. The best place to buy it is in the covered market in Chania.

Local drinks

Ouzo is NOT at all a Cretan drink, so don't bring that back as a Cretan souvenir! The local "hard drink" is called "raki" or "tsikoudia" and is distilled from what is left over from pressing grapes so in fact it is the same as the Italian grappa. It is a strong, pretty clean alcohol, meaning that you'll get drunk on it really quick but will feel halfway human the next day. It is a little difficult to buy because it is mainly home-produced. The bottled stuff called 'raki' or Cretan raki" in the supermarkets is generally awful and no Cretan would touch it. It is also expensive compared to the Euro 3,50 or 4 per liter that you would pay elsewhere. Here again the same rule might apply as when buying olive oil: if you come across something that you like, ask very nicely if you could buy a bottle of it.
A very rare variation of it is called mournoraki and is distilled from mulberries. It is very strong but quite nice. Almost impossible to buy.

 

 

Cretan wine

Traditionally Cretan wine is home-made and rarely bottled. The wine is a golden brown colour with a fairly high alcohol content (13 - 14%) and more akin to port or sherry. Whether you like it or not is very much a matter of taste and of course a matter of where you drink it. It is cheap and you may be able to buy it by the liter in your local shops or café. Taste before buying because it can be very good or very bad.

In recent years (30 or so) commercial wine production started. At first, cheap red and white wines were produced for the tourist market but nowadays you can find more and more quality bottled wines. Some small producers are getting very good at what they are doing.

Fruit and vegetables

Although this is changing most of the fruit and vegetable that you will be able to buy is "what grows here when it grows". It's something of a strange experience for many who have become used to finding everything all year around in the supermarket. It means that the choices can be limited but it also means that what you will buy will be cheap and fresh and certainly not wrapped in plastic!
A good place to see what is on offer is at a local street market in a city. There are markets on several days of the week in Chania (in different streets) but the nicest one is probably on Saturday, just ask any local where the market (called 'laïki' in Greek) is located.

One unusual vegetable commonly eaten here goes by the generic name of "horta" which literally translates as "grass". This covers all sorts of wild (nowadays some of it is cultivated as well) green stuff, generally bitter tasting, boiled until tender and served with a liberal dash of olive oil and a sprinkle of lemon. This is peasant food par excellence: healthy, tasty and free although if you buy it at a shop some of the more interesting types (wild stamangathi for example) can command substantial prices because of the work involved in its collection and cleaning.

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Crete photo of the day
Crete Photo of the Day