I was flicking through some old recipe books earlier this week and came across an old favourite of mine – a brilliant 400-page guide on the cuisine of Crete.
Written by Maria and Nikos Psilakis, Kritiki Paradosiaki Kouzina – To Thavma Tis Kritikis Kouzinas (Traditional Cretan Cuisine – The Miracle of Cretan Cuisine), the book (written in Greek) is full of amazing recipes, beautiful pictures and interesting information on the history and provenance of some of the foods and ingredients used in Cretan cooking.
Most fascinating of all is the start of the book, which talks about a study started by an American doctor, Ancel Keys, in 1956. Keys set out to explore the role played by diet in our wellbeing, and to examine its beneficial properties in preventing illnesses.
The seven-year study recorded the diets and health of people from across Europe, including a group of 700 men from an agricultural area of Crete. At the end of the study period, this group of Cretans had the least deaths from heart disease or cancer than people from other developed countries.
In the 50 years that have passed since then, there have been countless scientific studies that have shown how the traditional Mediterranean diet is linked to a longer life, less heart disease and protection against some cancers.
Other demonstrated benefits include reducing the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, aiding in weight management and depression, improving rheumatoid arthritis and promoting better breathing.
So what was the diet of these Cretans, what’s included in the traditional Mediterranean diet that seems to deliver all these benefits?
Their eating habits were simple, consisting mainly of pulses, fruit, vegetables, olive oil, and wholegrain bread or paximadi (dried bread). They occasionally ate small portions of milk, cheese and eggs, some fish, and (rarely) meat.
Tradition through food
I think back and remember the eating habits of my grandparents in Greece, or my parents in Cyprus, and realise that their simple diets consisted of exactly these foods.
They’d also eat at regular intervals, built around their lifestyles that usually included agricultural or some other form of manual labour. They’d have an early morning breakfast, then a mid-morning boukoma (or snack) of bread, olives, onions and whatever else they could bring along.
Lunch would be brought from home, then the evening meal would be taken with a glass of wine and with all the family sitting around the table. Companionship and conversation would flow with every mouthful.
These are traditions which are often forgotten in our modern day lifestyles, but they are traditions that Rena and I want to help bring back to life in our cookery courses. We will aim to preserve some of those traditional recipes and habits, but in a way that also takes into account our modern-day lifestyles.
We hope to make every single cookery course entertaining, enjoyable and informative, and want to welcome you on this journey with us!