A Grecian Idyll: The Mediterranean diet in Crete

To celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary last month, Gregg and I headed off to Greece, to spend time mostly on the island of Crete. I was looking forward to the luxury of relaxed time together and of course, the Mediterranean diet! While you may know intellectually that the Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and olive oil, it’s another thing altogether to be IN a culture that actually lives it.

How was the food experience different? 

Eating the foods that are grown there. At home, I have such a huge selection of foods, from all over the world. In Crete one eats what’s available on the island, which in spring is primarily lamb, seafood, a TON of vegetables — beets, greens, including wild and cultivated greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, cauliflower. broccoli (a lot!), and fennel. Crete is covered in olive trees, some of them quite old (see below), and it’s no surprise that the local dressing is olive oil and lemon. Local herbs include oregano, sage, thyme, and rosemary with sea salt for seasoning. 

Olive-tree-sea.jpg

The food is as fresh as can be. Local ingredients, cooked lightly and simply, make for an entirely different eating experience. Familiar foods were so fresh I was (pleasantly) shocked!

For example, I found myself repeatedly ordering grilled sardines and mustard greens. Not something I might ordinarily order on a luxury vacation; but these humble ingredients were made glorious because the sardines and greens were fresh from the sea and fields. At home I open a can of sardines and put them on a bed of arugula with some lemon and olive oil, a fast go-to meal. It’s enjoyable--but not as divine as on my Grecian idyll. 

Greens are served at every meal, often horta, a wild steamed green, rocket (arugula) or spinach. White basmati rice is popular in small amounts with lemon and olive oil. We enjoyed dolmas in the seaside town of Plaka, made by an older woman and her daughter. They were not at all the tough ones we have from a can or deli, but made with a thin grape leaf and a beautiful stuffing. Sometime zucchini blossoms are stuffed as well.

Eating foods I normally can’t eat! I’m extremely lactose intolerant, but it turns out that I can cope with a little of the delicious sheep yogurt served in Crete. Every morning I had some with fruit and a little honey drizzled on it. I thought I had died and gone to heaven! 

What will happen if I try it at home? Who knows. Sheep in Crete graze on a wide variety of wild, organic plants. And while on vacation, my enteric nervous system calmed down, and I was SO relaxed. The enteric nervous system (ENS), by the way, one of the main divisions of the nervous system, governs function of the gastrointestinal system. So, being relaxed really helps you digest your food.

The gist of my experience: I was rediscovering food, and once again being inspired by the unparalleled experience of eating fresh, local ingredients, relaxing, walking through beautiful natural landscapes, and of course being with my husband! 

Why is the food so delicious?

Eating traditional foods IN the culture is a uniquely satisfying way to experience food. Crete has been steeped in cooking these foods for millennia—as evidenced by the Minoan cookware we saw at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Also, the food is organic and grown in mineral-rich soil, which I have no doubt enhances both health and flavor. The Greek salads in Greece had 10x the flavor of any I’ve had in the US!

It’s that experience of living it, and of relaxing around it. At home, we can settle at the table and take a few deep, relaxing breaths before enjoying a meal of fresh ingredients we grow or acquire, simply prepared, to support our digestion, our health, our family, ourselves. We can let the food nourish us.

Crete is a Blue Zone, among places in the world where people live an unusually long time. Kind of The Healthy Mind Cookbook and The Longevity Kitchen combined! 

Read more about the Mediterranean diet and Blue Zones in Mediterranean magic: is it all about the olive oil? 

Mediterranean recipes for you to try at home:

Mediterranean Lentil Salad is a delicious, nourishing favorite from The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, perfect for lunch, a light dinner, a buffet menu, a picnic or to carry along to the office. 

Mediterranean Sardines over Fennel and Arugula from my cooking buddy Andy Weil’s Fast Food, Good Food is a new fave. Of course, sardines are one of the best sources of the omega-3 fatty acids we need. They are also inexpensive, readily available, and sustainable; in fact, there is a great abundance of sardines in the world today, one of the few choice wild fish populations not in decline. If you don’t like sardines, this recipe may not change your mind, but the mustardy vinaigrette and herbs nicely nicely offsets their fishiness.

EVEN A STAYCATION CAN BE RESTORATIVE! HOW ABOUT A MEDITERRANEAN VERSION, WITH FRESH, LIGHTLY, SIMPLY PREPARED FOODS SERVED AT A BACKYARD, BALCONY OR INDOOR TABLE, SEASONED WITH MUSIC AND LAUGHTER, ENJOYING THE EXPERIENCE OF LIVING IT!