By Anita Draycott
Want to live long and healthy? Move to Crete. Back in the 1950s researchers came to this largest of the Greek islands to study why its inhabitants enjoy the world’s lowest percentage of cardiovascular disease and cancer. In later studies, conducted by the World Health Organization, Cretans also boasted the lowest mortality rate.
Ode to the Olive and Organic
Mind you the Cretan diet is no new-fangled fad. It dates back to 4,000 years ago when the mighty Minoan civilization was at its peak. Archaeological findings at the great Palace of Knossos in Heraklion indicate that Minoans were consuming almost the same foods as the Cretans eat today. Large clay vessels held olive oil, grains, legumes and honey.
Going back even further, Zeus, the mythical Greek god of the gods, was born in a cave on Crete and nursed on milk from a goat named Amaltheia. Crete has been a part of human history for 8,000 years. Paleolithic man arrived there around 6000 BC, and over millennia, people from a wide variety of cultures—Minoans, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and others—came to conquer and control the fertile island. Roughly 40 years ago, Crete became the birthplace of something new: the Mediterranean diet, a heart-healthy eating pattern that has become, for many, the de facto diet of anyone living in countries bordering the northern Mediterranean Sea.
Even during adverse times over successive occupations by Turks, Venetians and Arabs, the rural inhabitants of Crete subsisted on whatever their fertile soil produced organically. Most families had, and still have, a goat and enough olive trees to tide them over for the year. And they don’t scrimp on that liquid gold, the key ingredient to their longevity. Their diet also consists of plenty of fruit, vegetables, greens, legumes, goat cheese and whole-grain bread. They use wild herbs for flavouring, teas and remedial potions. Aromatic honey and raisins are natural sweeteners. Fish and poultry are consumed moderately and red meat is reserved for Sundays and festive occasions. Tomatoes from the New World were introduced in the 1900s.
Cretans have practiced viniculture for 4,000 years. According to Greek mythology, the god Dionysus made a gift of wine to his pals, including the King of Crete’s daughter, Ariadne. These days, most Cretans drink wine in moderation with dinner.
No meal in Crete is complete without a shot of Raki (fermented grapes infused with anise). The Cretans also mix Raki with honey as an aperitif and cure for sore throats.