The Cretan Diet: Its Culture and Benefits

By Nancy Biska, ΚΡΗΤΗ Magazine
“Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food” — Hippocrates
Homer called olive oil the “liquid gold”. Nothing is more characteristic of Crete than the millions of olive trees that grow in valleys and mountainous areas. According to archaeological findings, Cretans have been cultivating the olive tree and have been using olive oil since 3500 B.C. during the early Minoan period.
In ancient Greece the olive tree has been the symbol of wisdom and peace. It was the sacred tree of goddess Athena and Athens, the capital of Greece. Also, at the Ancient Olympic Games, winners were presented with a simple olive tree branch which was cut with a gold-handled knife from a wild olive tree. The Greeks believed that the vitality of the sacred tree was transmitted to the recipient through the branch.
The olive oil is still being used for medical and religious purposes and it has been proved to be an essential ingredient of a healthy diet. Oil constitutes the base of the Cretan or what we call today Mediterranean diet, and is used in the majority of plates replacing butter or other forms of oil which are used in other areas of the world. Olive oil is the main product produced in Crete.
The secrets, the culture and the importance of the Cretan diet were presented by renowned cookbook author Nikos Psilakis during the extravaganza of authentic Cretan Foods and Wine held March 18th, 2007 at Drexel University in Philadelphia and March 20th, 2007 at the South Shore Country Club in Staten Island. Mr. Theodore Kalathakis, a renowned master chef from Crete prepared and offered to the participants a variety of authentic traditional Cretan recipes.
“It was a unique opportunity to experience firsthand the healthy and delicious diet of Crete” said the President of the Pan Cretan Association of America, Mr. Em. Velivasakis: “We organized these events as part of our continuing dedication to promoting the culture and traditions of Crete. Over the centuries, Crete and its inhabitants have always played an important role in the affairs of their ‘World’. From the Roman and Byzantine eras, to the Venetian conquerors, the Cretans were able to transient temporary difficulties and at the end conquer the conquerors themselves! Today perhaps, we should rise to the occasion and offer a way out for humanity from the destructive path of overuse and wasting of our natural resources, over-spending and over-eating, a path that leads to horrific consequences, obesity and diseases. I subscribe to the Cretan Diet and to the simple, clean life led by our Cretan ancestors and I believe that this can be the good beginning towards restoring order to the chaos of modern living and diet! “
“The term Cretan Diet is relatively new” explains the award winning author, journalist and researcher, Mr. Psilakis, in his presentation: “It was established just a few decades ago, after research carried out by the eminent American doctor Anzel Keys, who, in the late fifties, started to study groups of people from seven countries in the world. Crete was found to have the lowest rate of deaths from heart deceases and there was also a considerable difference compared to the other countries. Cretans enjoyed better health and longer life. This is how the term Mediterranean Diet came to light. However the example of Crete was unique”. “Cretan Diet is the diet of the poor Cretan farmers” Mr. Psilakis said. “As the island has been favored by nature and has plenty of sunlight, high mountain ranges and valleys in successive alternation, it is rich in flora. There are herbs and aromatic plants in abundance, extensive areas cultivated with vineyards, fruit trees and vegetables, while in the past they also cultivated hard wheat, barley, rye and pulses, however these corps have declined today.”
In the late eighties Mr. Psilakis, along with his wife, Maria Psilakis started their effort to record in detail not only the food products used in the diet of the Cretan farming population, but also the special characteristics of their diet . In other words, the way they handled their food stuffs, how they collected, stored and prepared their food. It was the first systematic research which, apart from the food stuffs, also studied the characteristics of the Cretan cuisine.
“Until then”, says Mr. Psilakis, “it was known that the Cretans consumed the greatest amounts of olive oil in the world, and much greater indeed than the next group in the study, the Italians about 35 liters per year”.
“It was also known that they ate pulses and vegetables” adds the researcher. “What we did was that we tried to find the ways they prepared them. In fact we studied nutrition in connection with gastronomy. The results were surprising: Cretans are certainly vegetarians to a high degree nevertheless they know how to prepare different tasty dishes using the same simple ingredients and their inventiveness! We found the explanation in the sources, in old manuscripts and ancient texts. People in Crete had to handle a tremendous wealth of natural products and at the same time they had to respect the food restrictions set by the Church that is the long period of abstinence from animal food products, which last more than one third of the year. Beyond the everyday diet and the way of food preparation we have to look for the specific historical, social and economic conditions that had prevailed on the island for many centuries in combination with their special natural environment”.
The study of the seven Countries
The Statistics shown in table 1 are the results of the study by the World Health Organization (1987) showing that diseases related to the heart and its connected vessels were considerably lower on Crete that in other countries:
To reach this conclusion, the international scientific community had to carry out research of which the results verify this fact beyond any doubt. A study was first carried out by many researchers to generally prove that various illnesses, such as cardiovascular diseases, were possibly connected with diet. Anzel Keys managed to scientifically substantiate the important role that diet played in the prevention of diseases and in the general good health of people. During the course of the study which started in 1956, 17.763 men between the ages of 40 and 59, from seven different countries and 16 sub-groups were studied. These population groups came from countries and areas which had varying levels of development, as well as different cultures and habits.
To be more precise, those under study were: 3 population groups from Italy, 5 from the former Yugoslavia, 2 from Spain, 2 from Finland, 1 from the Netherlands, 1 from USA and 2 from Greece. Of the two groups from Greece, one was from Crete and the other one was from Corfu. Publication of the first results caused a great dealof discussion. There was one general conclusion, that the inhabitants of Mediterranean countries experienced better health than those in the northern countries.
Most astonishing were the results from Crete where the inhabitants of the island rarely suffered from heart diseases, to such an extent, that it was almost unheard of! Also, the growth of cancer related diseases was decisively lower in comparison to the other countries in the study. Table (2) shows the remarkable difference in the death rate due to coronary illnesses between the inhabitants of Crete and the other countries in the Study of Seven Countries and Table (3) records the general death rate of the inhabitants of Crete, according to the same study.
Serge Renaud’s study
Mr. Psilakis also referred to a study which started in Montreal and was completed in France by Professor Serge Renaud. Many years after the study done by Anzel Keys, the French professor Serge Renaud thought, quite brilliantly, of using the Cretan dietary prototype as a preventive measure against death in cases where the people had already suffered a heart attack and were under medical observation. One group ate according to the guidelines set down by the American Heart Association, which were, in general followed by the majority of doctors all over the world. This suggested a low intake of fats. The second group in the study followed the Cretan dietary prototype. Table (3) clearly shows the results. From the group which used the Cretan diet, 8 people died in total whereas from the other group, 20 died. This shows a higher mortality rate of between 70 to 76%.
The quality characteristics of the Cretan Diet
Mr. Psilakis highlighted the characteristics of the Cretan diet: “Cretans ate only what their land produced because there were limited possibilities of importing foods. We should keep in mind that the island is cut off from the three large continents that surround it and so there were problems of transportation. For this reason they relied upon their land and on the inventiveness of the female population. The culture of taste has mainly depended on women. Securing foods was the responsibility of both men and women. However, the preparation of food was a sheer female job. The women often had to prepare different dishes with the same ingredients. In order to talk about certain quality characteristics of the Cretan Diet we can briefly refer to:
1. Simplicity. There are generally no complicated dishes that need time and many utensils to prepare them.
2. Purity of ingredients and taste. Not many spices are used so the ingredients retain their autonomy till the end of cooking. Neither cream nor spices are added which alter the authentic flavors.
3. Exclusive use of olive oil. Olive oil is used in the preparation of sweets and so the intake of animal fat and cholesterol is very low. The systematic cultivation of the olive tree started 4000 years ago. Today the harvest period is during the first winter months.
4. The way off cooking meat, fish and other animal products such as snails. These foods are prepared in combination with greens, vegetables and pulses. Typical examples are: fish with okra or with artichokes. Easter lamb with artichokes, pork meat with cracked wheat, beans with fennel and so many others. It can be realized how many antioxidants are included in each dish.
5. Bread. Bread is generally black, with its roughage, usually a mixture of wheat and barley or even rye. White bread was prepared only on great feasts and on social occasions. We seize this opportunity to say that festive breads of Crete are unique, true works of art, with rich decoration. Let us refer to a few of them. Wedding bread: It is characterized by fertility symbols, such as the scorpion and the birds with their eggs. Birth bread: in the center you can see the mother with her baby and various symbols around them. The bread of the Fates: Fates, who visit a newly born baby on the third night to decide its fate according to Greek mythology. Engagement bread: with the rings around the fingers. The bread of Death: with the figure of the dead man on it. Christmas bread/ Easter bread and the small breads prepared for the children, just like Adonis’ breads of ancient Greece.
6. Consumption of uncooked vegetables. Many kinds of greens are used in salads. For example, purslane, the plant which contains large amounts of omega 3 fats, an indispensable ingredient of the summer salad in Crete. Even today, you can see people in the countryside holding baskets or bags and collecting wild greens for their meal. If you ask how many species of greens are eaten in Crete is very difficult to give an answer. Some say that the edible greens are more than the inedible. The combinations in dishes with greens again result to a balance of taste. A salad
or a greens-pie may contain more than 10 or 20 different greens. There is a saying among people in neighboring countries, which by the way is felicitous: “if you have a field, do not let a cow or a Cretan get into. They both won’t leave any greens in it”.
7. Wine. One or two glasses of wine with each meal. Here, also, tradition goes back in time. The oldest wine presses that have been uncovered date back to the prehistoric times, 4-5000 years ago,. Wine is interwoven with our religious traditions therefore it is essential element of everyday rituals.
8. Pulses. Cretans are the greatest consumers of vegetables and pulses in the world. 9. The habit to eat and enjoy the meal as a family. The Cretan meal is a ritualwhich builds up and strengthens family ties.
Prefect of Heraklion Mrs. Vangelio SchoinarakiIliaki who traveled to U.S.A. to participate in these events stated in her greeting: “Our commitments in the Prefecture of Heraklion are to support the qualitative agriculture and farming, biological cultivation and to promote our unique products worldwide. We are encouraging the development of Agricultural tourism by supporting local agriculturalists and farmers. We are grateful to the Pan Cretan Association of America for their support in organizing these great events which gave us the opportunity to present the distinctive qualities of Cretan diet to Americans”.
Mr. Psilakis, along with his wife, Maria Psilakis have written a number of significant books. Their cookbooks include Cretan Traditional Cooking (1995); The Olive Culture, Olive Oil (1999); The Greeks’ Bread and Sweets (2002); and Herbs in Cooking (2003)
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