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 which reflect the bounty of Crete’s sun-blessed fertile land. Across the island, regional variations create a diverse gourmet trail.

The Basics

Like much of Europe, the Cretans dine late and many restaurants don’t open their doors for dinner until after 7pm. You will only need reservations in the most popular restaurants and these can usually be made a day in advance.

  • Taverna Informal and often specialising in seafood, chargrilled meat or traditional homestyle 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.
  • Kafeneio One of Greece’s oldest traditions, serving coffee, spirits and little else. Traditionally a male domain.

Food Calendar

  • Spring (Mar–May)

Easter feasts feature tender roasted lamb and kreatotourta (meat pies), and red-dyed boiled eggs decorate tsoureki (brioche-style bread). Spring brings edible wild plants, herbs and artichokes.

  • Summer (Jun–Aug)

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 (Sep–Nov)

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 (Dec–Feb)

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.

Food Experiences

One of the delights of travelling through Crete is coming across a family-run taverna where traditional local dishes are made from ancient recipes but with farm-fresh, home-grown produce, where the wild aromatic greens were picked in the mountains earlier that day, the oil and cheese is homemade, the tender lamb is from a local shepherd and the fish was caught by the owner. Really, that happens.

Meals of a Lifetime

  • To Maridaki Tender calamari, panna cotta to die for and friendly service to match, in Hania town’s cool Splantzia quarter.
  • Thalassino Ageri Oceanfront seafood meets sunset and romance on the coast just east of Hania.
  • To Skolio Casual but delicious, with locally sourced produce creatively prepared, and views of the Libyan Sea.
  • Castelvecchio Sit on the open-air terrace for people-watching paired with rich Cretan specialties created with flair, in Rethymno.
  • Vrisi In Myrthios, let a parrot serenade you on a secluded patio, while your taste buds tingle with local treats.
  • Avli One of Rethymno’s top tables, Avli never disappoints, perfectly melding the Venetian with the Cretan.
  • Zorba’s Tavern Get a warm welcome with live music and a moustachioed owner, Zorba, at Sitia’s most authentic spot.
  • Pelagos Choose between interior elegance or a garden terrace at Aios Nikolaos’ best bet for food to remember.
  • Taverna Giorgos Live the Greek seafront taverna dream in Plaka, whether supping on wood-fired chops or grilled octopus.

Cheap Treats

  • 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 (filled pastries) are the Cretan specialty.
  • 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) are the best bet.

Dare to Try

  • Ameletita Literally, ‘unspeakables’; fried sheep’s testicles.
  • Gardhoumia Stomach and offal wrapped in intestines.

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.

  • Cretan Cooking 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 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.

Cooking Courses

Culinary tours and cooking courses are becoming more popular in Crete, and some restaurant owners will give them, if asked.

  • Rodialos Regularly hosts one- to seven-day cooking seminars in a lovely villa in Panormo, near Rethymno. Mary Frangaki takes participants through the principles of Cretan cooking and the cooking of several courses.
  • Enagron Outside the village of Axos, Enagron runs cooking workshops and organises seasonal events around the production of cheese, wine and raki. The farm setting is lovely and there’s accommodation on-site.
  • Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries (www.cookingincrete.com) Greek-American chef and writer Nikki Rose focuses on organic agriculture and traditional approaches to Cretan cuisine with hands-on classes and demonstrations in people’s homes, visits to local farmers and producers. Courses are held island-wide.
  • Vamos Traditional Village Conducts Cretan cooking courses in an olive press, and rents restored stone cottages, east of Hania.
  • Katerina Pair herb-collecting and cooking lessons with restaurateurs in Myrtos, on the south coast of Lasithi.
  • Eleonas Cottages Head to Zaros, in central Iraklio province, to stay in traditional and ecofriendly cottages while learning to cook with organic Cretan produce.

Resources

  • Greek Recipe (www.greek-recipe.com) Popular Greek recipes.
  • Gourmed (www.gourmed.gr) Mediterranean cuisine, with Greek recipes and features.
  • All About Greek Wine (www.allaboutgreekwine.com) Information on Greek wines.
  • Wines of Crete (www.winesofcrete.gr) Vintners of Iraklio Wine Country

Local Specialities

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 and aromatic herbs as well as 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 with AOC protection, sometimes used in bougatsa.
  • Xigala Creamy cheese from Sitia in eastern Crete with a rich, slightly acidic flavour.
  • Yiaourti Thick, tangy sheep’s-milk yoghurt is something to savour, best eaten with honey, walnuts or fruit.

Vegetables

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 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 are 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 (or koukouvagia and kouloukopsomo), often categorised as a salad on menus, where 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 aginara (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 also widely used, particularly in dishes such as briam (oven-baked vegetable casserole) or wonderful melidzanosalata (a smoky garlicky purée).

Seafood

Fish is usually sold by weight in restaurants and it is customary to pick from the selection on display or in the kitchen. Make sure it’s weighed (raw) so you don’t get a shock when the bill arrives, as fresh fish is not cheap. The choice fish for grilling are tsipoura (sea bream), lavraki (sea bass) and fangri (bream), while smaller fish such as barbounia (red mullet) are delicious fried.

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, 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).

But 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, in which big chunks of meat are grilled 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 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 (pork delicacy) It takes an involved, multiday process to create this smoked. From marination to smoking over a fire of 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 (stifado) 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 is 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.

Sweet Treats

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), rizogalo (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.
  • Kaltsounia 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, like 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

The Cretan pomace brandy raki (also known as tsikoudia) 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 raki.

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 rakomeloraki, 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).

Wine

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 crop of boutique wineries are overseen by internationally trained winemakers who produce excellent bottled wines. Minos-Miliarakis, Lyrakakis and the Sitia Coop are among those producing Crete’s top wines, some of which are exported. Wine tourism, too, is picking up as wineries open visitor centres that double as mini-museums 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, common in Lasithi and Iraklio wine regions.
  • Kotsifali Indigenous red grape with high alcohol content and rich flavour, typical of Iraklio region, often blended with Mandilaria.
  • Liatiko Very old indigenous red variety with complex character, found mainly around Sitia.
  • Malvasia Original Cretan variety, strong flower aroma with notes of muscat, 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 wine 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.

Beer

Brink’s is the only beer actually produced on Crete; their organic lagers are made at Brink’s Brewery, near Rethymno. Other craft beers include Vergina and Hillas lagers from northern Greece, organic Piraiki made in Piraeus, Craft from Athens, and Yellow Donkey from Santorini. Major Greek brands include 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.

The key to picking a restaurant is to steer away from ‘tourist’ restaurants and go where locals eat. As a general rule, avoid places on the main tourist drags, especially those with touts outside and big signs with photos of food. Be wary of hotel recommendations, as some have deals with particular restaurants.

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

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.

While changes in working hours affect traditional meal patterns, lunch is still usually the biggest meal of the day, starting after 2pm. Greeks 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.

Most tavernas open all day, but some upmarket restaurants open for dinner only. Cafes do a roaring trade, particularly after the mid-afternoon siesta.

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.

Mayireio 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 Crossed between a patisserie and a cafe (some only do takeaway).

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 totally customary to browse the mayirefta (ready-cooked meals) behind the counter. Just ask for a look before ordering.
  • Taverna dress code is generally casual, but in high-end restaurants dress to impress.
  • Expect a small charge for bread and nibbles served on arrival.
  • Hospitality is a key element of Cretan culture, from the glass of water on arrival to the customary complimentary fruit or dessert and raki served at the end of a meal, when you ask for the bill.
  • Dining is a drawn-out ritual; if you eat with locals, pace yourself, there will be plenty more to come.
  • Service can be slow (and patchy) by Western standards, but there’s no rushing you out of there, either.
  • Tipping is not mandatory but Greeks usually round up on the bill or add around 10% for good service. To split the bill, work it out among your group – Greeks tend to treat the whole table.
  • 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) and pace yourself, 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.
  • Drinking age is 18. Public drunkenness is uncommon and frowned upon.