An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Mediterranean Diet revisited

Back in 2005 I wrote an article for a British magazine about the diet and longevity of the Cretan population. On hearing recently that Greece is set to top next years European obsesity tables I thought to check out what I had written all those years ago so I dug it out this morning and oddly prescient it proves to have been.

Given that the original work that gave rise to the notion of "The Mediterranean Diet" as being a healthy lifestyle choice was undertaken on Crete some 40 years ago perhaps this reprint might prompt some further thought on diet in general.

Rather than update the piece as a whole let me just note a few developments since the original publication:
Starbucks and McDonalds have opened here;
food shops carry much more processed and convenience food than heretofore;
internet gaming cafes have become prevalent;
many of the traditional eating patterns have been disrupted;
Pavlos died peacefully last year of heart failure;
Jiannis still cycles to and from the village most days.

Here is the original article:


The grapes are in. The proto raki is ready. The olives are clearly visible on the trees, their leaves showing silver in the autumn breezes. Georgi Nikolarakis leans back on his chair and smiles, his eyes light up. Here is a man about to mount a hobby horse. The Cretans like little better than holding forth: unless it is eating. Of course this inevitably means that they have learned to combine the two. Given that the topic here is food then we have a pretty perfect discourse coming.
Georgi, an avuncular man with a full beard and a weather beaten complexion, opened his taverna back before Georgioupolis was a tourist destination, when only independent travellers and beleagured hippies turned up at this end of the 11 mile beach that is the Gulf of Almyros.

"Why," I have asked him "do Cretans live so long?"

"Maybe they do and maybe they don't. The last generation lived longer than my generation and as for the kids today --- who knows: they eat so much rubbish! When I was a child my mother would give me stakka for my breakfast: spread on a slice of black bread. Only rich people had white bread. (Stakka is the solidified cream from sheeps milk and is something like condensed milk but stronger in flavour. All brown breads in Crete are called black.). If I was lucky I'd have honey spread on top. My aunty used to live in Xania (the nearest city) and sometimes she would bring white bread for us, it was a special treat but Mikhaili's mother, Mikhaili from Creta Corner, used to bake a bread from rye that had lots of hard bits in it and all the kids would smell it from far away and come and beg for it. Bread is at the centre of every Cretan meal. Bread and olives. And salad. Fresh salad from the garden."

The garden in a Cretan village home is always given over to herbs, vegetables, fruits. and salad crops. The flowers are grown in tubs, pots, old tins. The soil is reserved for things you can eat: and that includes chickens and maybe even a pig. The flowers are extraordinarily well cared for, dazzlingly beautiful, and ingeniously grown but the garden is strictly reserved for edibles.

"The workers in the villages," Georgi continues, "often started the day with no more than a hunk of bread, some olives and a glass of malotiras (mountain tea). And then they would go off to work with maybe a piece of cheese and another hunk of bread in their pockets. You remember Pavlos? Pavlos the drinker. He was a big drinker. He was always in Tito's: always drinking wine but he always had bread and some cheese in his pocket that he would eat while he was drinking. When he was eighty some he was knocked down by a car; they said he was drunk but when wasn't he? When he died they cut him up and the doctors said he had the liver of an eighteen year old. Even my granny who was 106 and a teetotaller had a glass of wine with her breakfast: fresh juices and a glass of wine. She married my grandfather when he was 82 and she was 28 and they had 5 children - all healthy. The stakka, is good for the potency. So are artichokes; you just pull off the spiky leaves and eat the artichoke raw with lemon and salt. They turn your lips and tongue brown and they make you windy but they are good for the heart and the potency."

What about meat? Does meat play a big part in Cretan diet? Lamb is eaten everywhere in tavernas but what of the village people? Do they eat much meat?

"Mountain people have always eaten meat once a week and fish once a week. And snails. Snails are good for cancer: it's the calcium. Do snails count as meat? Most families would have a cow or two and some chickens and maybe a pig. And when you kill an animal you eat everything. You don't waste anything and you don't feed bits of the dead animal to the other animals like they did in England. Look what that got them. Now, with the common market, it's become more difficult. Rules about who can kill animals makes it difficult. I would never eat the liver and spleen from a butcher shop animal. I don't know what it's been eating. When your neighbour killed out a pig or a goat you knew it was clean. The same with the chickens. Why are chickens in supermarkets all the same size? Why am I not allowed to buy eggs from my neighbour? I know his chickens are happy and properly free range. It makes me angry, you know, when English people say Greek food is greasy. Look at all the dead animal fat they put into their gravy for the Sunday roast. Here in Crete we have the best olive oil in the whole world and that's what we cook with."

So what do they eat when they aren't eating meat? The Italians have their pasta, the Indians their rice, and the Irish have their potatoes. What are the staples of the Cretan diet?

"We still have seasonal eating here you see. Soups and pulses in the winter and fruits and vegetables in the summer. When things are in season you eat them. People forget how many soups we eat. In the winter we have bean soups (such as fassoulatha made with harricot beans), chick pea soups, lentil soup (fakes) , potato and leek soup. In summer we might have tomato or chicken with rice and lemon, - not so heavy. Once, some years ago there was a monk here from a Russian monastery. He had pure white hair and a big white beard like your Santa Claus. Here in the taverna. He was over a hundred and was on his first holiday. He had a translator with him. He asked for soup and I told him we didn't have soup today. "Nonsense," he said "do you have onions? Courgettes? Potatoes? Garlic?" Of course I had all of them. "Well then", he announced, "you have soup. Twenty minutes is all it takes!" And so he had his soup and I ate with him and we drank a little raki together. He was a really interesting man. He had lived most of his life in a monastery but he knew about life".

This fascination with other peoples' lives and this willingness to sit and eat and drink with them while they tell their tales and put the world to rights is another central rite of the Cretan eating experience and one that Georgi is sure contributes to the well being and long life of the Cretans. A good meal with Cretans will take hours and sometimes drifts into the early hours without you noticing.

"It's not good for you, you know, all this sitting for five minutes in front of the television and wolfing food down. How can you enjoy it? If you do one thing then do it properly. If you are going to eat you sit down together and you eat what you need and you drink a little wine and you talk and then you have company and you feel good and if you feel good you live longer and you enjoy your life. Even the old people here feel useful and wanted. They have stories and they have wisdom. They know all of the herbs and fruits and potions that keep you healthy. They are always welcome to eat with you. They don't rush off for antibiotics when they don't feel so good. They'll make some tea with special herbs, maybe chamomile or wild marjoram or oregano or dikti , or they'll take some fish soup, or perhaps have a massage with the lamp oil or proto-raki. Petrol is best for the massage but dangerous...

As if to demonstrate, and in that magical mode of serendipity that seems to go with the langourous life in Crete, there is a shout from outside the taverna. Georgi's dad Pavlos has just walked down the mountain from his home in Mathes, maybe 6 or 7 kilometers, and asks if Georgi wants bread from the baker. Pavlos will buy a 2 kilo loaf and walk back home. Pavlos is 86. Of course, his friend Jiannis could have got the bread. He cycles up and down to Mathes every day on an old sit up beg bicyle with Sturmey Archer gears, but Pavlos doesn't like to take advantage. "He's an old man after all" - Jiannis is 88. At this point we finish our chat because Georgi is going to get some food for Pavlos to take back with him. A yiouvetsi, (lamb cooked with greek noodles) some lentil soup and a bowl of xorta, another of the magic ingredients of the Cretan diet. Xorta is a dish prepared from mountain greens: often cooked from 3 types of wild plant that grow freely on the mountainside and in the olive groves it is served with olive oil, lemon and oftentimes potatoes. "Since my mother died", says Georgi "my father doesn't bother much cooking for himself. I don't know what we'll do when he gets old".

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