Cretan food, which is distinct from Greek food in general, is some of the best to be found in the Mediterranean. This rustic but rich cuisine combines seasonal ingredients and balanced flavours that reflect the bounty of Crete’s sun-blessed fertile land. Across the island, regional variations create a diverse gourmet trail.
Like other southern Europeans, Cretans dine late and many restaurants don’t open their doors for dinner until 7pm. Reservations are only needed for the most popular restaurants and can usually be made a day in advance.
- Taverna Informal and often specialising in seafood, chargrilled meat and traditional homestyle oven-baked dishes.
- Estiatorio More formal restaurant serving similar fare to tavernas or international cuisine.
- Mezedhopoleio Serves mezedhes (small dishes, like tapas); an ouzerie is similar but serves a round of ouzo with a round of mezedhes.
- Rakadiko The Cretan equivalent of an ouzerie serves increasingly sophisticated mezedhes with each round of raki. Popular in Sitia, Ierapetra and Rethymno.
Year in Food
- Spring (March–May)
Easter feasts feature tender roasted lamb, kreatotourta (meat pies) and kokoretsi (grilled innards wrapped in intestines), and red-dyed boiled eggs decorate tsoureki (brioche-style bread). Spring brings edible wild plants, herbs and artichokes.
- Summer (June–August)
Cheesemaking kicks into high gear. By July, watermelon, peaches and other fruit fill markets; mussel season peaks. August food festivals: Sitia pays homage to the sultana raisin, Tzermiado celebrates the potato, and Arhanes toasts the grape/wine.
- Autumn (September–November)
Grape harvest begins. In October sample sweet chestnuts in Elos, with its quirky Chestnut Festival. Raki distilling hits its peak in November with raucous festivals all over, especially in mountain villages.
- Winter (December–February)
Sugar-dusted kourabiedes (almond shortcake) and honey-dipped melomakarona are top Christmas cookies. The vasilopita (New Year’s cake) comes with a hidden coin, which promises a year of good luck.
One of the delights of travelling through Crete is coming across a family-run taverna where traditional local dishes are made from ancient recipes using farm-fresh, homegrown produce; where the wild aromatic greens were picked in the mountains earlier that day; and where the oil and cheese are homemade, the tender lamb is from a local shepherd and the fish was caught by the owner. Really, that happens.
- Souvlaki Greece’s favourite fast food, both the gyros and skewered-meat versions wrapped in pitta bread, with tomato, onion, french fries and lashings of tzatziki.
- Pies Bakeries make endless variations of tyropita (cheese pie) and spanakopita (spinach pie) and other pies.
- Kalitsounia Cretan-style pies, usually filled with myzithra cheese and herbs or served sweet and drizzled with thyme honey.
- Street food Includes koulouria (fresh pretzel-style bread) and seasonal snacks such as roasted chestnuts or corn.
- Food to go In a hurry but want a full meal? Tavernas with mayirefta (ready-cooked dishes such as mousaka) are the best bet.
Dare to Try
- Ameletita Literally, ‘unspeakables’; fried sheep’s testicles.
- Gardhoumia Stomach and offal wrapped in intestines.
- Kokoretsi Heart, lung, sweetbreads, kidneys and other innards wrapped in lamb or goat intestine and spit-grilled over charcoal; eaten at Orthodox Easter.
Cook it at Home
Leave room in your baggage for local treats (customs and quarantine rules permitting) such as olives and extra virgin olive oil from small, organic producers; aromatic Greek thyme honey; dried oregano, sage, mountain tea or camomile flowers; and dried barley rusks. A jar of fruit preserves or ‘spoon sweets’ make an easy dessert poured atop Greek yoghurt or ice cream. Check www.greek-recipe.com or these new and time-tested cookbooks if you want to replicate those feasts you had on the island.
- Cretan Cuisine: Traditional Mediterranean Recipes For Eating Healthy and Living Well (2018) by Aura Tatu is based on the cooking of Mama Katerina, the retired kitchen queen at a resort in Maleme.
- Cooking With Katerina: Traditional Cretan Recipes (2015) by Katerina Goniotaki presents family recipes handed down from generation to generation, with lots of images and easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions.
- Cretan Cooking (2003) by Maria and Nikos Psilakis is a well-translated version of their popular guide to Cretan cooking. It contains 265 mouth-watering recipes, some fascinating asides on the history of the dishes, and background to the Cretan dietary phenomenon.
- The Glorious Foods of Greece (2001) by award-winning Greek-American food writer Diane Kochilas is a must-have for any serious cook, with a regional exploration of Greek food and a 60-page chapter on Crete.
The grand Cretan diet evolved from the abundance of local produce, coupled with enormous Cretan ingenuity. You’ll find not only all the Greek staples but a wonderful array of Cretan specialities, as well as regional variations across the island. While the cuisine has its roots in antiquity, and has been influenced by all the visiting cultures over time, it essentially relies on organically grown, farm-fresh, unadulterated seasonal produce, aromatic herbs, free-range meats and locally caught seafood. Cretan olive oil, produced in vast quantities across the island, is among the world’s best and is an integral part of cooking and meals.
Cheese & Dairy
Beyond the ubiquitous and delicious fresh feta (in stores, ask for the kind wet from the barrel, not mass-produced), Crete produces its wonderful cheeses primarily from goat’s and sheep’s milk, or a combination of the two. Many Cretan villages have their own signature cheese.
- Anthotiro Buttery white cheese that can be soft or hardened when dry.
- Graviera Nutty, mild Gruyère-like hard sheep’s-milk cheese, often aged in special mountain caves and stone huts called mitata. Delicious eaten with thyme honey.
- Myzithra Soft, mild ricotta-like cheese produced from whey, which can be eaten soft or hardened for grating; the hardened sour version is xinomyzithra. Hania’s specialty is galomyzithra. Variations abound across the island.
- Pichtogalo Chanion Hania’s thick yoghurt-like sheep’s-milk or sheep’s-and-goat’s-milk cheese enjoys EU-designated Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. It is sometimes used in bougatsa (pastry stuffed with creamy custard or cheese and sprinkled with powdered sugar).
- Xigala Creamy cheese from Sitia in eastern Crete with a rich, slightly acidic flavour.
- Yiaourti This thick, tangy sheep’s-milk yoghurt is something to savour, and best eaten with honey, walnuts or fruit.
Part of the magic of Cretan cuisine are the ingredients gathered from hillsides and around villages. For centuries Cretans have been gathering extremely nutritious horta (wild greens) and boiling them for warm salads or cooking them in pies and stews. There are more than 100 edible horta on Crete, though even the most knowledgeable locals might not recognise more than a dozen. The vlita (amaranth) variety is the sweetest, while stamnagathi, found in the mountains, is considered a delicacy and served boiled as a salad or stewed with meat. Other common horta include wild radish, dandelion, nettles and sorrel.
Another Cretan hillside specialty is askordoulakous (mountain bulbs), the bulbs of a wild green. They usually come fresh as a salad, dressed with oil and vinegar or lemon, pickled, or stewed with olive oil, vinegar and flour. The plant’s tender white blossoms are boiled or incorporated into recipes.
Cretan paximadia (rusks), a hangover from times of famine, are made from barley flour or whole wheat and double-baked to produce a hard, dry cracker that can keep, literally, for years. Don’t miss the excellent and popular dish called dakos (also known as koukouvagia and kouloukopsomo), in which the rusks are moistened with water or oil and topped with tomato, olive oil and creamy myzithra (sheep’s-milk cheese).
Cretan cuisine also shines in such vegetable dishes as aginares (artichokes) and tasty anthoi (zucchini flowers) stuffed with rice and herbs. Beans and pulses were the foundation of the winter diet, so you will find dishes such as delicious gigantes (lima beans in tomato and herb sauce). Also look for fasolakia yiahni (green bean stew), yemista (stuffed tomatoes) and bamies (okra). Melitzana (aubergines) are widely used, particularly in dishes such as briam (oven-baked vegetable casserole) or wonderful melidzanosalata (a smoky garlicky purée).
Fish is usually sold by weight in restaurants. You will usually be asked to pick from the day's catch displayed on ice in a glass case or in the kitchen, or brought to your table. Make sure it’s weighed (raw) so you don’t get a shock when the bill arrives, as fresh fish is not cheap. Fish is often grilled whole and drizzled with ladholemono (lemon and oil dressing). Smaller fish such as barbounia (red mullet) and maridha (whitebait) are lightly fried. Octopus is grilled, marinated or stewed in wine sauce.
Although fish is healthy and delicious, the World Wildlife Fund and other organisations report that 93% of Mediterranean fish stocks are overfished, in part because popular species such as tuna and swordfish are often caught as juveniles. Other menu staples such as sea bream and sea bass are also threatened. Check the Marine Conservation Society's Good Fish Guide (www.mcsuk.org/goodfishguide) for details.
Specialty Cretan Dishes
Cretan tavernas usually offer the full range of Greek one-pot stews, casseroles and mayirefta (ready-cooked meals), in addition to food cooked to order (tis oras) such as grilled meats. The most common mayirefta are mousakas (baked layers of eggplant or zucchini, minced meat and potatoes topped with cheese sauce), pastitsio (layers of buttery macaroni and seasoned minced lamb), yemista (stuffed vegetables), yuvetsi (a hearty dish of baked meat or poultry in a fresh tomato sauce with kritharaki, rice-shaped pasta), stifadho (meat, game or seafood cooked with onions in a tomato puree), soutzoukakia (meat rissoles in tomato sauce) and hohlioi (snails). Meat is commonly baked with potatoes, with lemon and oregano, or braised in tomato-based stews or casseroles (kokkinisto).
And then there are the Cretan specialties that should not be missed. As you travel, you’ll see the flocks of lamb and goat that figure so prominently in Cretan mountain cuisine, and Cretans have their own way of barbecuing called ofto or antikristo, in which big chunks of meat are slow-roasted upright around hot coals. In parts of Crete, meat is cooked tsigariasto (sautéed).
- Arni (lamb) me stamnagathi In this favourite Cretan specialty, local lamb is cooked to tenderness with a popular wild green called stamnagathi. You may also find the dish with katsiki (young goat).
- Boureki Richly layered cheese and vegetable pie.
- Gamopilafo This rice dish is offered at traditional Cretan weddings (gamos means wedding) and some high-end restaurants. It’s a sort of deluxe risotto prepared in a rich meat broth and stakovoutiro – a butter created from the creamy skin that forms on the top of boiled fresh goat’s milk which is then made into a roux.
- Hirina apakia It takes an involved, multi-day process to create this delicious smoked pork. The meat is first marinated in vinegar for several days, and then smoked over a fire stoked with local herbs. It can also be served cold in thin slices.
- Hohlioi (snails) Collected after rainfall and prepared in dozens of interesting ways: try hohlioi bourbouristoi, simmered in wine or vinegar and rosemary, or snails stewed with hondros (cracked wheat). Cretans eat more snails than the French do and even export to France.
- Kouneli (rabbit) Local favourite stewed (stifadho) with rosemary and rizmarato (vinegar).
- Soupies (cuttlefish) Excellent stewed with wild Cretan fennel.
- Staka Rich, soft buttery roux somewhere between a cheese, yoghurt and sauce, usually found on menus with goat or pork. It’s a rich but delicious dish, with the meat absorbing the flavours of the staka. It’s also often added to rice pilafi (pilaf) to make it creamier.
- Vrasto (mutton or goat stew) Found in traditional mountain village tavernas.
- Psari (fish) A staple along the coast and cooked with minimum fuss – usually grilled whole and drizzled with ladholemono (a lemon and oil dressing). Also look for ohtapodi (octopus), lakerda (cured fish), mussel or prawn saganaki (usually fried with tomato sauce and cheese), crispy fried kalamari (calamari, squid), fried maridha (whitebait) and gavros (mild anchovy), either marinated, grilled or fried.
As well as traditional Greek sweets such as baklava, loukoumadhes (ball-shaped doughnuts served with honey and cinnamon), kataïfi (‘angel hair’ pastry; chopped nuts inside shredded pastry soaked in honey), ryzogalo (rice pudding) and galaktoboureko (custard-filled pastry with syrup), Cretans have their own sweet specialities. Also, traditional syrupy fruit preserves (known as spoon sweets) are served as dessert, but are also delicious on yoghurt or ice cream. Some tavernas serve halva (wedge of semolina) after a meal.
- Bougatsa Traditional breakfast food, a pastry stuffed with creamy custard or cheese and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
- Kalitsounia Cretan stuffed cheese pies start with handmade pastry dough, often formed into tiny cups. Fillings vary by region and household, though they tend toward the sweet, using cheeses such as myzithra or malaka (but not feta) and honey or spices.
- Sfakianes pittes From the Sfakia region of Hania, fine pancake-like sweets with a light myzithra cheese filling, served with honey. The dough incorporates a dash of raki.
- Xerotigana Deep-fried pastry twirls with honey and nuts.
Raki & Ouzo
Raki (also known as tsikoudia), the Cretan pomace brandy, is an integral part of local culture. A shot of the fiery brew is offered as a welcome, at the end of a meal and pretty much at any time and on all occasions. Distilled from grape stems and pips left over from the grapes pressed for wine, it is similar to the tsipouro found in other parts of Greece, Middle Eastern arak, Italian grappa, Irish poteen or Turkish rakı.
Each October, the raki distilling season starts, with distilleries and private stills around the island producing massive quantities. Expect lots of drinking and feasting, and if you pass a village distilling raki, you may well get an invitation. Good raki has a smooth mellow taste with no noticeable after-burn and shouldn’t cause a hangover. It does not incorporate herbs, and is drunk neat. Family-owned distilleries bottle the potent brew in plastic water bottles, sold in groceries, tavernas or by the roadside.
In winter, look for warm rakomelo – raki, honey and cloves.
Ouzo, the famous Greek aniseed spirit, has a more limited following in Crete. It is served neat, with ice and a separate glass of water for dilution (which makes it turn milky white).
Krasi (wine) has been produced in Crete since Minoan times, and Crete’s farmers have long made wine for their own consumption. Commercial production, however, did not start until the 1930s and only in 1952 did Minos in Peza become the first winery to bottle wine on Crete.
Today, Crete produces about 20% of Greek wine, most of it through huge cooperatives that aim for higher yields rather than higher quality. Much of that type is blended and sold in bulk, and is usually what you get when you order ‘house wine’ in restaurants. An ever-growing number of boutique wineries are overseen by internationally trained winemakers, who produce excellent bottled wines. Minos-Miliarakis, Lyrarakis, Douloufakis and Rhous are among those producing Crete’s top wines, some of which are exported. Wine tourism, too, is picking up, as some wineries have opened visitor centres with exhibits and tasting rooms.
Retsina, white wine flavoured with the resin of pine trees, has taken on an almost folkloric significance with foreigners. An acquired taste, it goes well with strongly flavoured mezedhes and seafood.
Cretan Wine Varietals
Crete has three wine-producing areas. The largest is the Iraklio Wine Country, which makes about 70% of Cretan wine. It produces mostly Kotsifali, Mandilaria and Vilana grapes in two centres; one around Peza/Arhanes south of Iraklio and the other around Dafnes, a bit further west. The smallest wine region is east of here in Lasithi. Vineyards cluster primarily around Sitia and are specialised in Liatiko grapes. In western Crete, the main grape-growing region is west of Hania, where the main varietal cultivated is Romeiko.
- Dafni Lively with subtle acidity and an aroma resembling laurel, this white grape is common in the Lasithi and Iraklio wine regions.
- Kotsifali Indigenous red grape with high alcohol content and rich flavour, typical of Iraklio region and often blended with Mandilaria.
- Liatiko Very old indigenous red variety with complex character, found mainly around Sitia.
- Malvasia Original Cretan white variety; strong flower aroma with notes of muscat, and ages well if blended with Kotsifali.
- Mandilaria Dark-coloured but light-bodied red wine, prevalent around Arhanes and Peza.
- Romeiko Red grapes mostly grown around Hania and turned into robust red, white and rosé wines.
- Vidiano White indigenous grape with intensive and complex peach and apricot aromas; often blended with Vilana.
- Vilana Main white grape of Iraklio growing area; fresh, low-alcohol wine with a delicate aroma evoking apples.
The global craft beer craze has reached Crete with Iraklio-based Solo and the Cretan Brewery near Hania whipping up some fine ales and lagers. Another local brewery is Brinks, which makes organic lagers near Rethymno. In dedicated craft beer pubs, you might also encounter Vergina and Hillas lagers from northern Greece, organic Piraiki made in Piraeus, Craft from Athens, and Yellow Donkey from Santorini. Major commercial Greek brands are Mythos, Fix and Alfa.
Coffee & Tea
- Greek coffee Traditionally brewed in a special copper briki (pot) and served in a small cup. Grounds sink to the bottom (don’t drink them). It is drunk glykos (sweet), metrios (medium) and sketo (plain; without sugar).
- Frappé Iced instant-coffee concoction that you see everyone drinking.
- Tsai (tea) Try camomile or aromatic Cretan tsai tou vounou (mountain tea), both nutritious and delicious. Endemic diktamo (dittany) tea is known for its medicinal qualities.
How to Eat & Drink
Food and the ritual of dining together play an integral role in Cretan life, whether at home or eating out with family and friends. Cretans will travel far to get to a great restaurant or eat specific food, heading to the mountains for local meat and the sea for fresh fish. Some of the best tavernas are tucked away in unexpected places.
Given the long summers and mild winters, alfresco dining is central to the dining experience – with tables set up on pavements, roads, squares and beaches.
When to Eat
Most tavernas open all day, but some upmarket restaurants open for dinner only. Cafes do a roaring trade, particularly after the mid-afternoon siesta.
- Breakfast Greece doesn’t have a big breakfast tradition, unless you count coffee and a cigarette, and maybe a koulouri, tyropita or bougatsa eaten on the run. You’ll find Western-style breakfasts in hotels and tourist areas.
- Lunch While changes in working hours affect traditional meal patterns, lunch is still usually the biggest meal of the day, starting after 2pm.
- Dinner Cretans eat dinner late, after sunset in summer. This coincides with shop closing hours, so restaurants often don’t fill until after 10pm. Arrive by 9pm to avoid crowds.
Where to Eat
- Estiatorio Restaurant with upmarket international cuisine or Greek classics in a more formal setting.
- Kafeneio Coffee house and cultural institution, largely the domain of men.
- Mayirio Restaurant specialising in ready-cooked homestyle one-pot stews, casseroles and baked dishes (known as mayirefta).
- Mezedhopoleio & ouzerie Serves lots of different mezedhes (shared small dishes), often with ouzo or raki.
- Rakadiko The Cretan equivalent of an ouzerie serves increasingly sophisticated mezedhes with each round of raki. Particularly popular in Sitia, Ierapetra and Rethymno.
- Taverna Common, casual, family-run (and child-friendly) place. They usually have barrel wine, paper tablecloths and traditional menus. Specialist variations: psarotaverna (fish and seafood), and hasapotaverna or psistaria (chargrilled or spit-roasted meat).
- Zaharoplasteio Cross between a patisserie and a cafe (some only do takeaway).
Wining & Dining in Crete
Cretan food and wine are feisty rather than fancy, usually made with freshly foraged, gathered and hunted ingredients and prepared in time-tested ways. The cities, Rethymno and Hania especially, have some fine eats, but the most dazzling meals are often found in unexpected places in the mountains or in coastal villages.
If Kotsifali, Mandilari, Malvasia and Liatiko are music to your ears, they will please your taste buds even more. These grape varietals, all indigenous to Crete, blanket the rolling hills of Iraklio Wine Country, which begins just past Knossos. Many estates offer tastings and tours.
You'll see bottled natural spring water from Zaros all over Crete, but only in the village itself can you taste the famous local trout, ideally in a taverna overlooking deep-green Lake Votomos.
A rare treat awaits in Rethymno at Yiorgos Hatziparaskos, one of the last traditional filo masters in all of Greece. Watch the head-spinning process and sample the sublime baklava and kataïfi (‘angel hair’ pastry).
Fish lovers hit the jackpot in Mohlos, a wee north coast village below a surreally beautiful quarry. Its quartet of harbour-fronting tavernas are all good places to devour the catch of the day with a view of Minoan ruins on an offshore island.
With over 1.5 million trees, olive oil is the lifeblood of Crete. You see, smell and taste it wherever you go. One place to peel back the curtain of mystery on how it is actually made is the Paraschakis Olive Oil Factory, near Rethymno's Melidoni Cave.
Etiquette & Customs
- Try to adapt to local eating times – a restaurant that was empty at 7pm might be heaving with locals at 11pm.
- Book for upmarket restaurants, but reservations are unnecessary in most tavernas.
- In tavernas, it’s fine to browse the mayirefta (ready-cooked meals) behind the counter before ordering.
- Taverna dress code is generally casual, but in high-end restaurants dress nicely.
- There is a small charge for bread and nibbles served on arrival.
- Often you will be served complimentary fruit or dessert and/or raki at the end of a meal, usually after asking for the bill.
- Dining is a drawn-out ritual; if you eat with locals, pace yourself, as there will be plenty more to come.
- Tipping is not mandatory, but Greeks usually round up on the bill or add around 10% for good service. To split the bill, it's best to work it out among your group rather than asking the server to do it.
- Cretans are generous hosts. Don’t refuse a coffee or drink – it’s a gesture of hospitality and goodwill. If you’re invited out, the host normally pays.
- If you are invited to someone’s home, take a small gift (flowers or sweets). Remember to pace yourself, as you’ll be expected to eat everything on your plate.
- Smoking is banned in enclosed public spaces, including restaurants and cafes, but you’ll see plenty of Cretans flouting the law. Smoking on terraces is permitted.