A foodie guide to Crete
The combination of mountain & sea and more sunshine than anywhere else in Greece, makes just about everything taste delicious. But perhaps the most important ingredient is the love (meraki, as it’s known) and imagination that goes into so many Cretan dishes. After all, alongside all the other traditions of Crete, food is a way of life on Greece’s largest island.
Take wild greens. Cretans may eat them every day but they still make them taste different every time through simple yet inspired combinations. Seasoning is often limited to salt & pepper and a twist of lemon and yet the taste couldn’t be more complete. And nor could the health benefits, with Cretan cuisine often referred to as the original Mediterranean diet because of the abundance of seasonal fruit & vegetables and extra-virgin olive oil.
So wherever you plan to find yourself in Crete – in the Venetian old towns of Chania and Rethymno, exploring Heraklion or Agios Nikolaos, in a village in the foothills of the White Mountains or Mt Ida, in a taverna by the sea or in an apple orchard in the Lassithi plateau … prepare to get very hungry as we open your eyes and appetite with our ultimate foodie’s guide to Crete.
What to eat in Crete: The local products
Of all the local products that Crete lavishes on its guests, nothing captures its essence quite like olive oil. It fuels the long life of locals (rich in antioxidants), brings together families and communities (especially at harvest time) and – above all – tastes delicious. No self-respecting Cretan household will be without a bottle or, more likely, a canister of local olive oil.
An astonishing 30 million trees and two-thirds of Crete’s cultivatable land are said to be dedicated to olive production. And it goes without saying that most of it is extra-virgin.
There are plenty of olive presses you can visit, offering olive oil-tasting and guides who will explain the secret to why Crete’s olive oil is unlike any other in Greece.
A year-round vegetable-growing machine
Strike up a conversation about Cretan food with a local and they’ll tell you that all their local products are special. Vegetables grow in harmony with the seasons: peas, asparagus, courgettes, fava (split peas) and other pulses from early spring; beans, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers and fennel from May; tomatoes, potatoes, squash and okra throughout the summer and well into the autumn; and carrots, broccoli, beetroot, cauliflower, spinach and – wait for it – avocado in winter. And that’s just a snapshot. It’s an island that never ceases to surprise. Its carob trees, for instance, make up the largest natural forest in the southern Mediterranean, with carob flour growing in popularity in breads and pasta.
From fruit trees to mountain greens
As for the fruit… it’s not just the sunshine, but also the landscape and the soil that contribute to the flavours – PDO oranges from Maleme in Chania, cherries from Gerakari in Rethymno, apples from the Lassithi plateau, figs, grapes, prickly pears… you name it. Uniquely in Greece, Crete produces bananas and mangoes. Cultivation can be on a scale large enough for export or just a fruit & vegetable patch for a household or restaurant.
Meanwhile, wild greens (horta) have been central to the Cretan diet for centuries, eaten not just for their complexity of tastes (bitter, sweet, nutty…) but also for their health benefits (rich in vitamins and calcium). If you see a local bent over in a field, they’ll be foraging for wild greens or herbs such as sage, oregano and thyme. Beet greens, dandelion leaves, dittany, stamnagathi (a type of chicory) and dozen more greens become focal points of Cretan dishes or delicious accompaniments, wilted and served with nothing more than olive oil and a twist of lemon. And the same mountain thyme that gives such depth to cooked dishes is equally irresistible to bees that produce some of the best thyme-honey in Greece.
Meat and dairy products
Although traditionally eaten sparingly, meat is given pride of place in home cooking and festival food in Crete – especially lamb but also goat, pork and chicken. Beef dishes are more scarce but they do feature. But the main product from the sheep and goats you’ll see roaming on the hillside is cheese and yogurt. The king of Cretan cheeses is graviera Kritis (PDO) – hard, yellow and spicy and popular all over Greece. It can be eaten with bread or a meze with olives, tomatoes and wine.
The variety of Cretan cheeses is astounding – myzithra (a whey cheese similar to ricotta), xynomyzithra (literally, sour myzithra), pichtogalo from Chania and xigalo from Sitia (both soft, spreadable and tangy)… anthotyro, kefalotyri, malaka, tirozouli. The list goes on. When you’re at the delicatessen and supermarket cheese counter, ask to try a few. And there’s a secret dairy product that gives a unique taste to so many Cretan dishes… staka, similar to clarified butter and traditionally made from ewe’s or goat’s cream. It’s as close as traditional Cretan cuisine gets to using butter.
Traditional cured meats that inspire new recipes
Last but not least, there are the cold cuts – allantika, as they’re known. Synglina and apaki stand out – salted pork tenderloin, marinated in mountain herbs, olive oil and vinegar and then smoked. Once they’d hang in kitchen fireplaces (the only source of heat in traditional Cretan houses), slowly being smoked to preserve them for the cold winter months. You’ll find them in butcheries and supermarkets and as ingredients lighting up inventive new dishes in some of the most modern restaurants in Chania, Heraklion, Rethymno and Agios Nikolaos.
What to eat in Crete: Popular local dishes & sweets
Of course you’ll find all your Greek favourites in tavernas and restaurants – pastitsio, moussaka, souvlaki, keftedes (meatballs), tzatziki and horiatiki (Greek salad) – but once you’ve been introduced to local Cretan cuisine, you won’t be ordering anything else. Below are some of the classics found in most tavernas.
Also known as koukouvagia (owl), dakos is Crete’s best-known salad. A bed of softened barley rusk (paximadi) is generously topped with chopped tomatoes and crumbled feta or myzithra cheese and flavoured with oregano. Your dakos salad may or may not have olives but it will definitely be crowned with plenty of extra-virgin olive oil.
Hortopitakia are small, square pies filled with wild greens, onion, fennel, olive oil and typically myzithra cheese (although you’ll find different versions around Crete) and kalitsounia are small cheese pies, also with myzithra. Honey can be drizzled on before serving for an extra sweet touch. Meanwhile, marathopites are thin, round pancake-like pies filled with fennel. And boureki is a speciality of Chania, consisting of layers of potatoes, courgettes (or pumpkin in winter months), myzithra and mint.
They love snails in Crete and cook them in an incredible number of ways. A favourite dish is chochlioi boubouristi – as delicious as it is hard to pronounce. The snails are pan-fried face down (boubouristi means face-down in the local dialect) with olive oil, rosemary and vinegar. Boiled wild greens often add the finishing touch.
Pasta and wheat-based dishes
You’ll find plenty of pasta variations in Crete but if you want to try a version traditionally made by Cretan housewives, look for skioufichta makarounia. Flour and water are bound, kneaded and rolled into long, thin sausage shapes. They are then cut, rolled into thumb-sized curls and boiled in salted water, and served with nothing but staka (clarified butter) and grated kefalotyri or anthotyro cheese (or maybe some fried sausage or apaki). Simple and utterly delicious. Another classically Cretan taste is xinohondros (fermented cracked wheat with sour milk or yogurt, made into a soup). It is one of the oldest ways of preserving milk and was once a staple village meal.
Before moving onto the meat dishes, there’s Crete’s most famous accompaniment – gamopilafo (wedding rice, as it translates). There’s nothing amazingly complicated about gamopilafo … just rice cooked in meat broth, seasoned just enough (but not too much) and finished with generous amounts of staka butter. But the taste makes you close your eyes in satisfaction. It’s served at weddings and festivities (with plenty of meat) but you’ll find it in restaurants and tavernas too.
Cretan meat dishes
Kreatotourta (meat tart, as the name translates) is a meat pie – typically goat or lamb that is boiled and taken off the bone and then layered with a combination of cheeses (eg anthotyro, xynomyzithra and graviera) on a pastry-lined dish. Mint, seasoning, staka and some of the meat stock are added before the pie is sealed with a pastry lid and baked.Tsigariasto arni or katsiki is lamb or goat gently cooked in a generous amount of oil (the name comes from the sizzling sound it makes), allowing it to become tender without losing any of its goodness. Meanwhile, arni stamnagathi is lamb cooked with one of Crete’s favourite greens (see above). One of the most famous Cretan meat dishes is antikristo, whole sides of lamb or goat speared with a wooden stick and suspended alongside (but never over) a wood fire for hours as it gently cooks. There’s no sight more worthy of a couple of glasses of raki than tiers of antikristo placed in a circle around an open-air fire at a mountain festival.
Ending your feast of Cretan dishes are the classic sweets. First in line are kalitsounia lichnarakia. You’ll remember the kalitsounia cheese pies above and, sure enough, these pieces of pastry heaven also have cheese (myzithra) but they are given a sweet twist with cinnamon-flavoured pastry and honey mixed into the cheese. They are traditionally eaten at Easter but are utterly addictive, so you’ll find them all year round. Another cheese-based pie turned into a sweet by honey (and a mint kick) are sfakianes pites, which are like little pancakes, originally from Sfakia, in southern Crete. Moving onto festival sweets, kserotigana are spirals of thin pastry, gently fried before being soaked in sugar-and-honey syrup infused with cinnamon and served with chopped walnuts. And loukoumades (though not exclusive to Crete) are somewhere between puffs and doughnuts, eaten freshly cooked with a generous covering of honey and nuts. They are the taste of childhood for many Greeks.
What to drink in Crete: Raki/Tsikoudia & local wines
Tsikoudia (or raki) could well be your introduction to Cretan food & drink. It’s what tsipouro is to Greeks everywhere else in the country – distilled pomace (crushed grapes, skins and seeds) left over from the grape harvest. But in Crete, the liqueur goes by the name tsikoudia or raki. And unlike some versions elsewhere in Greece, it is never scented with anise.Tsikoudia welcomes guests into the homes of locals, accompanies sunset mezes by the sea, lubricates the banter of locals in village coffee shops and releases the emotions of folk songs in mountain villages. It also brings communities together for the distillation process (rakokazana), which you can get a taste of by visiting a distillery. The copper vats might be more modern these days but the distillation process and enthusiasm with which Cretans make their favourite firewater haven’t changed.
Discovering the local wines
Finds at the palaces of the Minoans – the Cretan civilisation (Europe’s oldest) that flourished from around 3000-1450 BC – prove that they’ve been making wine in Crete for thousands of years, and viniculture became organised under Venetian rule in the Middle Ages. But the rise in the international reputation of Cretan wines owes more to the know-how and modern viticulture techniques of the current crop of Cretan winemakers.
Cooled by Aegean winds in the summer months and protected by the mountains in the winter, European staples such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc have no trouble growing in Crete’s limestone soil and hilly terrain (with some vineyards as high as 800-900m). But what makes Cretan wines really interesting is the commitment of wine-makers to local varieties such as white Vidiano and red Liatiko (the most common grapes) as well as Vilana, Kotsifali, Mandilari and Thrapsathiri (often blended) along with popular grapes found elsewhere in Greece, like Assyrtiko, which produces crisp whites, perfect for seafood or summer meze.
Around two-thirds of Crete’s wines (by volume) come from the Heraklion region, which contains four PDO-level appellations – Archanes (reds) and Peza (whites and reds) on the road southeast of Knossos, Dafnes (reds) on the road southwest towards Phaistos and Malvasia Handakas – Candia (whites) found along both routes. Following the wine routes of Heraklion is without doubt one of the best things to do in Crete for foodies and wine lovers.
And wherever you are on holiday in Crete, you won’t have to travel far to find a vineyard. If you’re keen on discovering the food & wine scene of Chania, in western Crete, there are family-run vineyards not far from the city (a perfect addition to exploring the Apokoronas villages) and in Rethymno (which was named European Wine City in 2018) there are vineyards in the likes of Arkadi, Geropotamos and Psiloritis. Lassithi (in eastern Crete) is home to another PDO region, Sitia, with plenty of vineyards to visit.
FAQs about Crete, Greece
As one of the largest producers of fruit and vegetables in Greece, Crete is practically self-sufficient in local produce. It benefits from the most sunshine in Greece and its cuisine is often referred to as the original Mediterranean diet, one of the healthiest in the world. It has an abundance of extra-virgin olive oil and its dairy products (especially cheese and yogurt) and fruit and vegetables are exported to the rest of Greece and internationally. Crete’s local dishes are known for their richness in taste (despite their simplicity and subtle seasoning) and emphasis on seasonality. Traditionally, meat was eaten in small quantities and at festivals. Cretan wine has also developed a good reputation over recent years, with local grape varieties such as Vidiano and red Liatiko.
Crete is famous for its landmark beaches (such as Balos, Elafonisi, Preveli and Vai) and some of the most important cultural sites in Europe - particularly the Minoan settlements in Knossos and Phaistos and the Venetian old towns of Rethymno, Chania and Heraklion, which are also the names of three of the four regions in Crete. The fourth (and easternmost) prefecture is Lassithi, with Agios Nikolaos (the regional capital) and Elounda, one of Crete’s most popular summer holiday destinations, including the historic island of Spinalonga. It is also famous for its mountains and gorges, such as the Samaria Gorge in Chania, one of Europe’s iconic hikes. The E4 European long-distance hiking trail passes through Crete.
Chania and Heraklion have international airports and there is a third, smaller airport in Sitia (in Lassithi) just for domestic flights. The flight times to Athens is around 55mins and to Thessaloniki approx. 1hr30mins. If you are planning to visit Crete by ferry, there are ports in or close to all the main settlements along the northern coast, with daily ferries from Piraeus to Chania, Heraklion and Sitia, as well as ferry connections to many Cyclades and Dodecanese islands. There are more ferry connections in the summer months, including ferries from Rafina to Heraklion, in eastern Attica (around 45mins from the centre of Athens).
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