Want to learn about Cretan food? Looking for Cretan recipes? Read Marianna Leivaditaki’s guide.
Marianna Leivaditaki grew up in Chiana in Crete, helping in her family-run taverna. Now she’s head chef of Morito in Hackney. Marianna’s book, Aegean: Recipes from the Mountains to the Sea, is out now (£26, Kyle Books).
The long and quirky island of Crete has been gifted with breathtaking beauty. From high mountains and hidden villages to long gorges and cerulean seas, it is a place fit for the gods. Such diverse landscape has played its part in setting the foundations for Cretan food culture, which changes dramatically when moving from the low to the high lands.
The sea offers incredible food but also carries a certain way of life in its breeze. Daily banter, sharing food and drink is a daily occurrence, and the tavernas and small kafenia (traditional cafés that also serve meze) are rowdy. Loud voices, colourful clothes and sun-kissed faces eating plates of sea urchins and sun-dried octopus, with bottles of cold beer, give life to the small cobbled streets metres away from the sea.
Salads are similar to what you might know as Greek salad, with tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, red onions and olives, but in Crete it will be peppered with mizithra, a traditional goat’s cheese or goat’s curd, instead of feta, and broken Cretan barley rusks.
Watermelons can be spotted being sold from the back of farmers’ vans in countless spots across the island, and it too features in salads, often with feta and mint (try our watermelon and feta salad recipe). Courgettes abound and appear stuffed, as courgette fritters, in courgette soups and baked in gratins, while its flowers are similarly stuffed and fried (try our stuffed courgette flowers recipe here).
Moving towards the mountains, the food becomes wilder. Foraging knowledge is held firmly by the hands and in hearts of the people in the high lands and, as such, indigenous ingredients are often available in the more traditional tavernas tucked away in tiny villages. Dining in the mountains is likely to involve a massive platter of lamb cutlets (a lot of the taverna owners in the villages have their own animals) cooked over charcoal, olive-oil-fried potatoes, a large plate of horta (blanched foraged greens) and some fried fresh cheese drizzled with floral thyme honey, as well, of course, as some village wine.
What to eat in Crete
Served on the coast, sea urchins are a delicacy in Crete, enjoyed simply with lemon, olive oil and a thick slice of fresh bread.
Breakfast means a portion of freshy baked bougatsa (a salty cheese curd pastry) topped with lots of sugar at Bougatsa Iordanis in the centre of Chania.
Mutton and orzo soup
Stroll through Chania, on Crete’s northwest coast, to the Agora (the main covered market) and you’ll easily find a plate of this comforting and distinctly aromatic soup.
At the traditional kafenios in the mountains you can order coffee, as well as good raki and the best meze. Frying snails with rosemary and red wine makes for a punchy but messy plate!
After a night out, Cretans are likely to order a plate of patsas (tripe and veal trotter soup) at one of the traditional after-hours eateries. Not for the faint-hearted but a very good tummy liner.
Marianna Leivaditaki grew up in Chiana in Crete, helping in her family-run taverna. Now she’s head chef of Morito in Hackney. Marianna’s book, Aegean: Recipes from the Mountains to the Sea, is out now (£26, Kyle Books). Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.