We hear about the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. But the Cretan Diet takes it a step further. Uniting the sea with rugged mountainous terrain and fertile plains, Crete is rich in every possible produce, meat and fish, of the highest quality. Crete’s bountiful land and seas offer such abundance that there is little intervention- good things are enjoyed as the earth has offered them up, in a traditional cuisine unchanged for decades, even centuries. Why mess with perfection? Here are many reasons to start your day in the Cretan way.
Cretan Breakfast: Start Your Day the Cretan Way
You will find white bread at tavernas in Crete, but most communities have wood-burning hearths and the bread baked here is most often whole grain. Hearty, delicious bread are made with whole wheat flour, rye, and barley.
Paximadia- the Cretan Rusk
But the best use of barley is in an indispensable Cretan product- Paximadia. Paximadia are twice-baked hard rusks made of white, whole wheat, rye, or barley flours, and sometimes even dark, sweet “Charoupi”- carob pods. But the barley paximadia, rich in flavour and colour, are the most popular. These are an excellent source of nutrition and fibre.
How to eat them
These are made to keep. They are completely dry and can be hard. But they are made to soak up flavorful Cretan products. The most popular use of paximadia is Dakos. Sweet Cretan tomatoes are grated and salted and blended with olive oil, and seasoned with dried wild mountain oregano. This is ladled onto the individual paximadi to soften them and then covered with soft, tangy mizithra cheese.
For breakfast, paximadia can be moistened slightly and let to soften, covered with the same delicious mizithra, and drizzled with honey. Fresh cheeses and mountain honey are two of Crete’s finest products, worth knowing about.
Crete’s Magnificent Cheeses
When you’re driving around the mountains of Crete, gazing at the sea beyond, look up every now and then. You’re sure to see some goats, balancing precariously on rocky ledges like acrobats. Goats love mountains and the wild mountain herbs they graze on. And we love their milk, especially when it’s made into cheese. Sheep, too, love the mountain herbs, and their milk makes great cheeses.
Crete has many delicious kinds of cheese, all of which are wonderful on the breakfast table. Here are some you will want to try:
Mizithra - One of the best known Cretan cheeses, this PDO designated soft and tangy goats milk cheese has a creamy and satisfying texture and a milky herbal scent that pairs equally well with savoury items, like dakos, and sweet, like kalitsounia (more on these fantastic treats later). Mizithra has a fat content of 50% and a moisture content of 70%.
Pichtogalo Hanion - With a name that means “Thick milk of Chania”, this delicious cheese has the texture of very thick yoghurt and a pleasant tang. This is also a PDO designated cheese.
Anthotiros Ksiros - Made from a mixture of goats’ and sheep's’ milk, this harder cheese (Ksiros means “dry”) has a 65% fat content. It’s delicious grated over macaroni, and for breakfast with eggs.
Graviera Kritis - Cretan Graviera, a delicious semi-hard cheese with a pronounced flavour from the very lands the sheep have grazed on, is the queen of Cretan cheeses, recognized with its own PDO. Produced generally in wheels of 5 to 25 kilos, it is served in wedges. It’s delicious with fruits, but for a real breakfast treat, slather wedges of it with a thick drizzle of Cretan honey.
The Cured Meats of Crete
Crete’s answer to fatty bacon comes in the form of two superior products:
Apaki - This lean smoked fillet of pork is seasoned gently with Cretan herbs- often sage or bay leaf. It is a delicious, moist cold cut for any time of the day and makes a wonderful lean breakfast meat.
Siglino- Another smoky cured pork treat, siglino is perfect for breakfast meat as it is very often served with eggs. Cubes or slices of siglino are crisp fried and cooked in an omelette.
A Sweet Start
The sweetening of choice on Crete is honey, and not just any honey, but thyme honey. Fragrant with the perfume of the pollen of this wild mountain herb, this is some of Greece’s very finest honey. At breakfast, try it drizzled over cheese pies, or in herb tea.
Crete has many regional pie specialities. Nothing could make a more delightful breakfast. Here are a few to look out for:
Kalitsounia: This most well-known of Cretan pies is a delight. Quite small and usually in a half-moon shape, dough is rolled thin, filled with mizithra, and fried crisp. The dough is so delicate that little bubbles appear on the curfact, making a great texture. These are eaten hot, plain or - preferably - with some thyme honey.
Marathopites - Maratho is wild fennel fronds. These are wilted in some oil and seasoned with salt to serve as a filling for a thin and delicate pie cooked on a dry griddle with no oil until small bubbles appear and the dough gets a toasty color in spots. This is one of Crete’s lighter pie options.
Sfakianopites - These magical pies from Sfakia start as seamless balls of dough filled with cheese, then rolled into thin cheese-filled seamless rounds. They are cooked on a dry griddle and eaten with, of course, more Cretan thyme honey.
Lychnarakia : These tiny pies are almost like tarts- filled with slightly sweetened cheese and open on top rounds of a cookie-like dough are pinched decoratively around the filling, then baked. They are sort of like little cookie-like cheesecakes and delicious with coffee.
Fresh Fruits and Juices:
Figs- If you have never had a fresh fig, think twice before you have one in Crete because you will be ruined! The flavour of a Cretan fig puts all others to shame. Try them with some pichtogala on the side.
Melons - an excellent breakfast, this juicy sweet fruit makes a refreshing start to the day. Try it with a little apaki for a lighter Cretan version of prosciutto with melon.
Oranges - At the farmers’ markets in Crete, you will see smooth-skinned oranges with some greenish cast to their bright orange rinds. These have the deepest coloured flesh and an unbelievable amount of tangy-sweet juice.
Crete’s wild mountain herbs are gathered and dried and used to season dishes or just be enjoyed on their own. Mountain Tea, Louisa, and mountain sage are just three varieties that make an excellent healthful tiane. They also make delicious iced tea.
Have you tried any of these delicious Cretan Breakfast foods