On UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2012, Cretan food was once considered to be ‘poor man’s’ fare. In a world where health has never been so much in the spotlight, however, the Cretan diet with its focus on seasonal foods, traditional options, and local products has never been so popular.
Zinon Christophidis, Abaton Island’s award-winning chef, grew up around his grandmothers cooking. “I remember warm bread straight from the oven, sun-ripened tomatoes and deliciously tender slow-cooked meats,” he reminisces.
Eager to bring those traditional tastes from his home to your plate, Zinon insists on preparing every dish from scratch. “We make just about everything here in the kitchens at Abaton,” he enthuses. “We cure our own meat, we cook our own delicious sourdough bread, we make our own staka goat milk butter and use local seasonal fruits to prepare the spoon sweets served to our guests at breakfast - we even make our own sauces and pickles.”
Said to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve brain function and increase life expectancy, the Cretan diet is more than just food; it’s a way of life.
From traditional Cretan cuisine at Elemes restaurant to local breakfast delights at F-Zin Ivy league restaurant, brine-fresh seafood treats at Bony Fish, or exciting new takes on traditional dishes at WOW Steak or The Buddha Bar, you’ll find a feast of local flavours in Abaton Island Resort & Spa’s five gourmet restaurants.
Here are 6 iconic Cretan foods you must not miss during your stay.
What it is? Iconic element of the famed Cretan diet, the dakos is Crete’s delicious traditional rusk - it was originally created to preserve bread during the winter months when fresh bread was hard to come by.
Generally made with barley flour, the bread, which is baked twice in a traditional stone oven until it becomes crisp and compact, makes a delicious addition to any meal.
Why is it good for you? Dakos are rich in fibre which has been proven to be effective in reducing cholesterol levels and increasing the production of good bacteria that help to maintain a healthy digestive system.
What’s it used for? Often served as a meze snack, the dark brown rusks are softened slightly with water, topped with chopped tomatoes and crumbled feta or mizithra cheese, and then flavoured with mineral-packed oregano and drizzled with local olive oil.
Which dishes can I find at Abaton Island? You’ll find dakos on the menu at Elemes, the resort’s restaurant serving classical Cretan dishes.
2 Wild greens
Known as the local super food, Cretans have been gathering and eating wild greens - also called horta - for centuries..
Why is it good for you? Used as medicine since ancient times, wild greens are rich in vitamins, minerals and Omega-3 fatty acids which have been proved to lower blood pressure and help you lose weight.
What’s it used for? Wild greens are used to stuff crispy filo pastry pies called kalitsounia, or served as a side dish dressed with olive oil, lemon and sea salt.
Which dishes can I find at Abaton Island? Try chef Xinon’s crispy home baked pies (including his delectable marothopita fennel pie) or order his tsigariasto with stamnagathi - tender pan-seared Cretan lamb slow-cooked in olive oil, served with lightly steamed wild greens.
What is it? This creamy treat is made by salting and boiling the creamy crust on the top of fresh sheep’s or goat’s milk.
Why is it good for you? Staka is a very healthy alternative to cow’s milk.
What’s it used for? Mixed with flour (usually wheat or barley) staka is added to pasta, rice specialties, soups, stews, or pies, eaten as a dip, or added to sourdough bread.
Which dishes can I find at Abaton Island? Chef Xinon makes his own staka and adds it to many appetizing dishes.
Try his light and fluffy staka omelette or ask for gamopilafo, a mouth-watering rice dish traditionally served at Cretan weddings, which is made by cooking the rice in a thick goat, lamb or rooster broth, then adding a dash of lemon and lashings of stakovoutiro (clarified butter made from staka).
4 Olive oil
What is it? Greece is the globe’s largest consumer of olive oil and here in Crete you’ll find some of the world’s best EVOO.
Why is it so healthy? The ancients called it ‘liquid gold’ and the father of Western medicine, Hippocrates, used olive oil as a basis for countless treatments, ranging from chronic fever, to sore gums and skin disease.
Current research shows that the phenols in olive oil help combat cancer, arthritis and heart disease.
What’s it used for? Most homes in Crete have their own olive groves. The pure golden oil, which is harvested during the winter months, is used for everything - from making pastry and baking, to cooking meat or fish or dressing salads and meze.
Which dishes can I find at Abaton Island? Chef Xinon - who is Cretan born and bred - uses olive oil in all of his cooking.
What is it? This flavour-packed cured meat dish is made from fat-free cuts of pork. The pork is left to marinate in vinegar for several days, and then hung above an open fire fuelled with rosemary sage and other local herbs, to cure.
Why is it good for you? Healthy when consumed in moderation, apaki is rich in proteins and vitamins.
What’s it used for? This smoky, herb-flavoured meat can be used in salads or served on its own as a scrumptious meze.
Which dishes can I find at Abaton Island? Enjoy some of chef Xinon’s home-cured apaki for breakfast in Elemes Cretan restaurant.
6 Cretan Honey
What is it? Blessed with a rich diversity of flora and a blissful, balmy climate, Crete produces some of the world’s best honey - and it was in Crete that archaeologists discovered the world’s oldest hives.
Dating back to 3400 BC, the clay hives were unearthed at the Minoan palace of Phaistos and are now in display in Heraklion’s stunningly renovated archaeological museum.
Why is it good for you? It’s said that Eros, god of love, dipped his arrows in honey, whilst father of modern medicine Hippocrates prescribed the sweet golden syrup, which is rich in amino acids, proteins, enzymes, vitamins and minerals, for a variety of ailments.
Today scientists are rediscovering the near miraculous antibacterial properties of this golden food, which has been made here in Crete for centuries.
What’s it used for? Cretans use honey instead of sugar to sweeten drinks and cakes; they drizzle honey over their sarikopites – mizithra-cheese-stuffed pies, and they stir it into countless tasty marinades.
Which dishes can I find at Abaton Island? For a slice of pure indulgence try Chef Xinon’s honey-soaked phyllo-pastry baklava, sprinkled with pistachios and walnuts.