There’s something special about Crete, Greece’s biggest island. The country’s most fertile region, it has a long history of food and wine production that stretches back to the Bronze Age, making Crete one of the most interesting culinary destinations in Europe.
Bordered by the Aegean Sea to the north and the Libyan Sea to the south, the island is home to over 70 different edible herbs and wild greens, and local farmers produce a wide range of products, from Mediterranean staples like olives, tomatoes and eggplants to more tropical produce, such as mangoes and papayas.
It’s a place to savor the pleasure of simple cooking with fresh ingredients, an experience that is enhanced by the Cretans’ unique hospitality. It’s the kind of place where you can stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and eat the freshest and most flavorful homemade savory pie, which was baked by the gas station owner’s mother that very morning. That you can find some of the best food of your life in some of the most unexpected places is one of the many reasons why so many people fall in love with Crete.
Take Taverna Mariou, the local taverna in Mariou, a small mountain village with just 290 inhabitants. Located just above the southern seaside town of Plakias, the village was allegedly named after a female shepherd named Mario (Μαριώ). After a recent morning spent on the remarkable Preveli beach, we stopped in for a late lunch on the recommendation of a friend.
Like most tavernas, Taverna Mariou has a relaxed and inviting atmosphere, with the added bonus of a sweeping view of Plakias Bay. We sat at one of the wooden tables in their beautiful outdoor space, taking in the sea. Besides the other diners, the only creatures in the garden were cats lazily strolling among the olive trees – they appeared as enamored with the setting as we were.
Constantinos and Yiorgos Violakis, the father-and-son team that run the taverna, place a large emphasis on local food and artisanal products when creating their menu. At a moment when farm-to-table has morphed into a buzzword more often used to broadcast exclusivity rather than authenticity, it’s easy to forget that this approach to eating has been embedded in Greek culinary culture for so long. In Crete, particularly in the countryside, it has always been common sense to cook with seasonal ingredients that are easily accessible. In this vein, all of the products used by Constantinos and Yiorgos come from a nearby farm in Plakias village, only a ten-minute drive away.
This devotion to simple and seasonal food was evident from the first dishes to hit the table. In addition to bread, freshly baked in a wood oven, and a small bowl of local extra virgin olive oil mixed with honey and balsamic vinegar, we began our meal with a chunk of homemade fresh anthotyro cheese (a white, creamy, mild goat cheese similar in taste to ricotta) and a bowl of freshly picked artichokes topped with the restaurant’s own sun-dried tomatoes. The starters were accompanied by ice-cold tsikoudia, a local liquor distilled from grape skins that is not unlike Italian grappa and seems to pair nicely with, well, everything.
Some scientists have argued that snail consumption is one of the secrets to Cretans’ longevity.
The mains that we tried ranged from wholesome to indulgent, but all were delectable. There was the exceptional kaltsounia, a local type of pie filled with edible wild greens and chopped herbs like fennel and Mediterranean hartwort. Equally nutritious was the chochlious boubouristous, the local name for large snails sautéed in olive oil with sea salt, vinegar and rosemary. Consumed in Crete since the Minoan period (3000-1000 BCE), snails are a cherished delicacy on the island. Some scientists have even argued that snail consumption is one of the secrets to Cretans’ longevity. These were followed by eggplant saganaki – the chunks of slow-cooked eggplant with grated fresh tomatoes, feta and local graviera cheese melted in our mouths – and two types of meat: rabbit in a yogurt sauce and slow-roasted lamb with wild thyme and coarse sea salt.
On special occasions, Constantinos and Yiorgos prepare ofto or antikristo, an ancient method of roasting lamb or goat commonly used in the Cretan mountains (and even mentioned in Homer’s Illiad). Once the animal is butchered, it is divided into four pieces known as goulidia, and each large piece is skewered and seasoned. A fire is then lit, large stones are placed in a circle around the fire and the meat skewers are placed on top of these stones. On the weekends when they prepare this dish, the taverna often hosts local musicians who play traditional music until the early morning hours – an authentic Greek glendi (festival), if ever there was.
As Serge Reneaud, the French nutritionist famous for extolling the health virtues of drinking red wine, once put it: “Do not look for the pill simulating the benefits of the Cretan diet. There is no such thing.”
But we wouldn’t want a pill anyways, not when there are restaurants like Taverna Mariou to visit.