Cretan cuisine (Greek: Κρητική κουζίνα ή διατροφή) is the traditional cuisine of the Mediterranean island of Crete.
The core of the cuisine consists of food derived from natural sources, whereas food of animal origin was more peripheral in nature. In general, people consumed seasonal products, available in the wider local area, which underwent minimal processing or none at all. The traditional cuisine was widespread in the island until the 1960s, when with improving living standards, alimentary patterns changed towards more meat and other animal-derived produce.
Snails with tomato
Kolokythoanthoi are often served with a dollop of Greek yogurt on the side
Fresh and dried fruits, pulses, endemic wild herbs and aromatic plants, and rough cereals, whose cultivation was favored by the regional climate, were consumed in great amounts and constituted the base of the Cretan cuisine during that period. Dairy products were consumed on a daily basis in low to moderate quantities. Poultry and fish were consumed on a weekly basis in moderate quantities, whereas red meat was consumed only a few times a month. The main supply of fat was effectuated by olive oil, which was used not only in salads but also in cooking, unlike the northern European countries which primarily used animal fat. Another essential feature of the Cretan cuisine was the moderate use of alcohol, mainly red wine which accompanied meals. Finally, the most common dessert was fresh fruits, while traditional pastry based on honey had been consumed a few times a week.
The Cretan cuisine of the 1960s has quite a few differences compared to other Mediterranean cuisines of the same period. More specifically, the 1960 Seven Country Study (involving 13.000 men from Finland, Netherlands, Japan, United States, Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece) has demonstrated that in Crete the consumption of olive oil, pulses, fruits and potatoes was higher compared to the consumption of the same type of food in South Italy. On the other hand, red meat, fish and cereals were consumed in smaller quantities. One of the factors that seem to have contributed to the low consumption of food of animal origin that was observed in Crete during the study of the Seven Countries was the fact that during this period the Cretans kept to the fasts dictated by the Greek Orthodox Church (180–200 days per year) to a large degree.
Several studies have been carried out to test the effect of Cretan cuisine on human health. The island had attracted the attention of the scientific community as early as 1948, when researchers from the Rockefeller Foundation were summoned by the Greek government in an attempt to improve, in the post-war era, the "bad" living conditions of the Cretan population. Within this framework, a detailed assessment of the Cretan cuisine was performed, and –to the surprise of the researchers– it proved to be nutritionally sufficient, with only a few exceptions which were limited to areas with a very low income and very limited food production by the families themselves.
Initially, the protective effect of the Cretan cuisine for human health was attributed to its high monounsaturated fat content, due to the daily use of olive oil, as well as to low saturated fat, due to the low consumption of red meat. Today it is recognized that this particular nutritional scheme possesses important additional features, providing the necessary micro-constituents (i.e. vitamins and minerals), being rich in ω-3 fatty acids, vegetable fibres, antioxidants and various phytochemicals, which have significant influence on several body functions, and a beneficial effect on health.