Make It to the Meat

Cretan cuisine reflects a culture of hardy resistance and feminine flow.

Crete was home to one of the most powerful kingdoms in the ancient world, the mighty and mysterious Minoan civilization, but it fell, as all empires do. It was occupied for much of the subsequent millennia, by everyone from the Venetians to the Ottomans to the Greeks, but its people didn’t just sit back and take it. Every decade or so, they would rise in rebellion—and every time they did, the conquering forces would burn the fields. After all, as Henry Kissinger said, the way to control a people is to control their food supply.

Yet Crete would not go so quietly.  

The history of this place that is today the largest island in Greece is reflected in its cuisine: one born of those admittedly complicated terms, resistance and resilience, yet they are the best ones I can find to describe Cretan food. Full utilization, cooperative farming, gluten-free, low glycemic index, natural and organic: Today’s buzzwords are embedded in the Cretan culinary lineage, and the Irish blood in my veins hums in resonance with these hardy people. Surrounded by water, subject to invasion, forced to make more out of less, shaped by tragedy and scarcity, yet with a food and beverage culture marked by community and celebration.

“Maybe you’re part Cretan,” said Katerina Xekalou, creator and CEO at AVLI restaurant in Rethymno, Crete, as we sipped raki on the back patio climbing with blossoming vines. At this early hour, it’s still quiet, and she’s sharing the story of her people through full-sensory storytelling, spitting history and sharing memories while plate after plate of fresh, local, lovingly crafted food is placed before me.

You can tell how well things are going in a Cretan social engagement, Xekalou explains, by the number of courses you’re served. The first course is something marinated, smoked, or preserved that they slice up along with your raki, because in Greece, you never drink without eating, “and for as long as we would like to spend time together,” she says, “we continue serving.” To me, this is not only a beautiful philosophy but a social mercy.

As the engagement progresses, she says, dishes will escalate in complexity. From cheese and charcuterie you may progress to raw food like dakos or salad; pies stuffed with cheese, spinach, or meat. Then it’s on to the Cretan “fast food” of fried meze: slivers of squid curled in final repose, tiny silver sardines, or zucchini croquettes that ooze fresh green and soft, salty cheese when your fork pieces their crispy exterior. The last course is something slow-cooked in the oven and typically involving meat, such as moussaka, baked lamb, or goat — and if you make it to the meat course, it means they really like you.

I don’t eat meat, but the almost embarrassing excess of dishes scattered about the table when she flits away to attend to the dinner service suggests that we’ve thoroughly bonded. After all, generosity and gastronomy are intertwined in this place, from free raki and fruit at the taverna to portions of staggering proportions and produce that often comes from the person or proprietor’s own backyard.

“It’s not about the ‘I,’ it’s about the ‘we,’” Xekalou says. “I give you something now, and you’re going to give it back to me when I need. That’s how the Cretan culture and language survived through so many things.”

And there was a lot to live through: the Roman occupation in 69 B.C.; Arab dominance in the 800s A.D. There was the period of Venetian rule, from the early 1200s to 1669, still reflected on the horizon line of the island’s major cities, Chania, Rethymnos, and Heraklion, where sand-colored fortress walls tower above turquoise seas. The Ottoman occupation in the 1700s precipitated the Greek War of Independence in 1821, where Crete was torn by clashes between Christians and Muslims. Through it all, various revolutions crested and receded, including the failed Cretan Revolt of 1866 and an 1897 insurrection that resulted in a brief autonomous statehood. This was followed by union with mainland Greece, formalized in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars.

And then came the Nazis. Hitler seized the island as a strategic base in 1941, but the people fought back in a little-known tale of heroism, the Cretan Resistance. Guerrilla and intelligence groups rose from the mountains in the face of firing squads and the razing of villages and, of course, their fields, until the Germans ultimately withdrew in 1945.

It takes at least five years for farmland to replenish itself, so over these years of turmoil, the people learned to collaborate and preserve. To this day, when baking bread, the woman in the village with the most resources will invite those with the least to share the labor and take home some loaves, helping the host with the arduous task of scratch-baking while upholding the dignity of those in need. And things are made in massive quantities, because you never know when abundance might come again.

“They have to use every single part of every single fruit, every single seed,” she explains, “either to survive themselves, feed their animals, make flour, or even to do the compost, but they cannot throw things.” I’ve seen the Cretan no-throw philosophy extended to tomatoes sprouting furry white coats and grapes collapsing in the afternoon sun—yet this still bests that common phenomenon in the world’s major cities, where sacks of perfectly good produce are dumped because they dared bear a blemish or pass an often-arbitrary expiration date.

The Cretans are expert remixers; tomatoes, for example, become salad, soup, or omelets, are sauced or sun-dried. Canning and pickling are proliferate, as in any cuisine with deep roots. Dakos, a signature dish, may be served in fine restaurants today, but it’s survival food: dry bread resurrected by the drippings of grated tomatoes and liberal glugs of oil, topped with something briny and homemade cheese.

Dakos at Avli

From mirepoix to soffrito, global cuisine honors many Holy Trinities, but in Crete, it’s olive oil, wine, and bread. “They almost drink the olive oil,” Xekalou says. Crete’s median olive oil consumption is an astonishing 34 kilograms per person, per year, nearly double that of even Italians (11) and Greeks as a whole (17). The same study found that Cretans have the lowest mortality by coronary disease over a 25-year observation period, as compared to people from seven countries, such as Finland, Italy, and Japan.  

That’s because food and drink is medicine, and people have used it to heal for millennia before dietary science came along. The animals and plants that flourish in Crete, nurtured through generations, have health benefits embedded in ancient knowledge. Carob, a low-gluten grain substitute, is commonly used to make rusks and bread; fresh red tomatoes and green pinwheels of dense, meaty Cretan cucumbers are plucked from backyard gardens and liberally sprinkled across plates. Goat and sheep cheese is the default in this mountainous land, and their babies, Xekalou says, are approximately the same size as human babies—making their mothers’ milk a better match for human digestive tracts.

Indeed, the whole diet is rich in the microflora that build a flourishing internal ecosystem, especially when factoring in a focus on fermentation that stretches back to the Minoans’ pharmacological cocktails. The beverage tradition here is strong, and Cretan wine is enjoying an under-publicized revival. These wines are distinct and truly remarkable, a strong counterpoint to the disproportionate prestige the industry gives to French and Italian varietals.

They’ve never been big and bold, like those from Napa, says Nikos Miliarakis, owner and winemaker at Minos Miliarakis Winery, the first to on the island to bottle wines, but they don’t have to be. Like the people and place, they are subtly complex, best appreciated in pairings of mutual enhancement. The whites are fresh, crisp, and mineral-rich; the reds rich, deep, and tannic, yet subtle. Crete is home to 11 indigenous grape varieties that yield as much depth, flavor, and character as anything from Bordeaux, yet Greek wines in general get a bad rap.

That’s because the tourism industry caused a race to the bottom in Crete, Miliarakis and Xekalou say. Traditions that survived through millennia of invasion, war, starvation, and struggle were nearly erased in just 30 years when commercialization and globalization spawned the succubus of the all-inclusive resort. As these places spread like a cancer across the Grecian landscape, they put the local food and beverage industry at the mercy of corporate entities that could undercut them on pricing and convenience—all while bringing masses of visitors ignorant of the importance of local cuisine, anesthetized by excess and surrendering to the faux-authentic.

The end result? “Me, myself, and I are now much more important than ‘we,’” says Xekalou. Cretans are survivors, and the way to compete in this strange new world was to sacrifice quality for quantity and cost-effectiveness. As was the case all over the world, generational knowledge began to be lost.

Still, while there are many who need to re-learn the old ways and generations who were never taught, Crete is littered with villages that seem to be exceptions to the laws of entropy. While certifications are still an emerging infrastructure, many practice low-intervention principles by default. And a new class of producers, restaurateurs, and farmers are preserving and restoring tradition while championing sustainability.

Interestingly, many of the wineries I most delighted in are run by women who intercepted patrilineal inheritance lines, bringing their own feminine divinity.

Emmanouela and Niki Paterianaki, sisters and third-generation owners of Domaine Paterianakis in Peza, make certified-sustainable wines, and they teach the farmers they work with to follow natural, organic, and biodynamic practices (their father was the first organic winemaker in Crete). Their wines are the best I’ve had in Greece and among my all-time favorites: elegant and complex, crisp and mineral-rich, leathery and tannic yet light, everything lovingly cultivated in resonance with the cycles of plants, creatures, and planetary bodies.

Paterianakis Winery

There is To Rivathi (“The Chickpea”), which is not just an organic falafel stand in Heraklion, but a microcosm of a better world. The ingredients for the restaurant and the prepared foods they sell, made in their nearby production facility, are supplied by a collective of 12 family farmers. The parent organization, Apo Kinou, aspires to become a self-supporting eco-community, and is already following collective, horizontal leadership principles. Their name means “all together.”

At Apo Kinou's processing facility (above) and restaurant

Alexandra Manousakis of Manousakis Winery in Chania also took over her father’s vineyards; a visual artist, the bottles bear her beautiful designs. She and her husband, Afshin Moulavi, make organic and natural wines that are robust yet refined, served with world-class food. After all, Moulavi is the owner and chef at Chania’s remarkable Salis restaurant, where he combines Cretan cuisine with the island’s Italian influence and Persian culinary elements from his childhood. My favorite was a slow-cooked beet risotto that Moulavi called the vegetarian version of a whole-hog roast: complex and smoky-sweet, evoking moonlit dunes and sun-dappled shores.

At Chania’s Dourakis Winery (second-generation co-managed by another daughter, Evie Dourakis), winemaker Antonis explained the spiritual leap of faith the whole practice involves: it often takes 30 years before you know if the care, money and time you’ve poured into a grape was a success. Just like a person, it isn’t fully realized until it’s matured for a few decades—one of many ways in which the vines of Vinis vitiferia are entangled with our very veins.

I was connected to many of these people, including Iro Koliakoudakis, the warm-hearted sommelier at Periplous Restaurant, through a mutual friend, and it built a chain-link of love that bridged me from one side of the island to the other. The root of the English word “hospitality” is the Greek “philoxenia,” meaning “guest-friendship,” and after these interactions, I felt bonded; Koliakoudakis helped me with everything from local recommendations to storing my luggage before the night ferry. During a sunset dinner at Periplous, she paired fresh seafood with a retsina from the Tetramythos Winery that was fermented in clay amphorae, just like the Minoans used to do. I’ve never felt food and drink actually shimmer before, but when the spruce-and-umami combination danced across my tongue like King Midas’ golden glow, this was the only word I could think of to describe it.

“When you sit around the table with people you don’t know, and you eat and drink with them, when you get up, there is a relationship,” Xekalou says, “and this is in the mentality of the locals.” It’s really true. I’ve built relationships around tables in lots of places, times, and settings, but in Crete, it shimmered.

Through the cuisine that was a portal to the hearts of the people, I fell in love with this place: the real kind of love that includes the hard parts. Never have I eaten and drank so well, so many days in a row, as I did here—nor have I worked so hard, so many days in a row. During my first stint with Workaway, a website where people offer their labor in exchange for room and board, I volunteered at an emerging permaculture farm outside Heraklion. We dug ditches through rock-like loam and clay in 90-degree heat, and it was the hardest physical work I’ve ever done. But here, too, I found friendship as we cooked and devoured hearty meals together after each day’s work. Even our simplest pleasures just sang: the fresh feta from a neighboring farm; big loaves of brown bread to sop up the succulent olive oil produced by our host; pasta hand-made by our Italian volunteer; piles of buttery avocados and sweet melon.

Crete changed me, but it reminded me of what I already know. These things that can seem trivial—alcoholic beverages and restaurant indulgences, farmer’s market groceries and home-cooked meals—are part of the fundamental fabric of our being. Food and drink is culture and social currency, identity and history, embedding us in the whole web of life. It’s art and craft, story and song, the plants and land and all its creatures, and the connections we build around it tells us who we are.

In Crete, I found my people. May you find those with whom you can make it to the meat.