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Mediterranean or Cretan Diet?

from Nikos Psilakis, writer.

Mediterranean or Cretan Diet? The question is not new and the answers given at times have not always been clear of intentions, mainly economic. It is true that both terms are important advantages for the promotion of local products and services such as tourism. Their origin is basically due to medical reasons, as they started to be established after the publication of international studies which in broad outline proved that cardiovascular diseases and neoplasias were evidently fewer in the Mediterranean are compared to European Northern countries and, generally, the developed industrial countries, among which were the United States of America. However, the famous “Study of the Seven Countries” planned by the American Anzel Keys at the end of the 1950’s, showed that large variations existed even among countries of the Mediterranean area, Crete being a perfect example: cardiovascular diseases were rare on the island and deaths from neoplasias (cancer) were fewer than in any other area of the world, at least those that were included in the Study.

diatrofh2 Today it has been accepted that the nutritional system of the Mediterranean countries is, in general, different from that of other countries. As those areas are mountainous for almost the most part, with sloping land and limited farming of large animals, people from ancient times had adopted a rather plain diet with vegetables playing the basic role in their nutrition. It is not by chance that ancient writers (mostly of the classical period which left us plenty of texts and evidence) thought that eating little was a virtue, while quite a few of them recommended the total disuse of meat. Among them Pythagoras and Cretan Epimenides should be mentioned. Therefore those views were not confined inside a peculiar circle of “scholars”, but spread among wider strata of the ancient society, mostly among the followers of major philosophical and religious movements.

Almost all mystical religions of ancient times imposed fasts, mainly abstinence from animal food for a specific period of time. The fasting periods of Thesmophoria, Arrephoria and Eleusinia could be mentioned, but also the nearly ascetic fast of the mystic Apollonius Tyaneus. Hesiod’s example is typical: he described a Greek paradise, a primitive golden age during which happy people obtained all their food products from nature.On the contrary, the societies of Central Europe had established the model of the man who could eat a lot, “was not afraid” of eating and was fed on special food products, among which meat had a significant place. The image of the Barbar in the wider Mediterranean area was identified with the man who ate meat almost exclusively, either raw or cooked on the coals, and was not acquainted with the cultivation of the land. The example of Maximinos the Younger who ate wild boar meat insatiably (he was said to consume about 15-20 litres of wine and 50 pounds of meat daily) caused feelings of disgust even among the Romans.

Frugal Mediterranean people
The consumption of natural products, the extensive use of olive oil and the moderate use of meat (once or twice a week) can, in broad outline, be regarded as the common characteristics of the Mediterranean diet. The human cultural patterns of ancient times were people who ate little and plain food, almost exclusively vegetables, and cared little about their diet. The anchorites of the Christian world created new models vested with sanctity and transcendence. They, too, were fed only on vegetables, mostly wild greens.
However, not all Mediterranean people had the same feeding habits. There were big nutritional differences, besides the cultural ones. One example drawn not from antiquity but from modern times refers to the consumption of olive oil. In Greece the average annual consumption is more than 17 kilos per person. In Italy it is 10.5 kilos and in Spain 10.2 kilos. Other countries follow whose inhabitants use very little olive oil, in contrast to the daily consumption of other fatty substances, such as cotton-seed oil or even animal fats, such as fat from lamb, which is used in areas of Northern Africa. Crete is at the top of the table: the average consumption of olive oil comes up to 34 kilos per year. A recent study carried out by us in the framework of a post-graduate project by a British university showed that even larger quantities are used. The average usage in rural areas is more than 55 kilos per year (however not all this amount is eaten, in fact it is the amount used in the preparation of food).

There are other differences as well, equally important. However, what has been given little attention has to do as much with the way of food preparation as with eating. No attention has been paid to the special social, economic and cultural conditions under which the nutritional models of different countries were shaped, or to the conditions under which they developed. The role played by religion should be taken into account. In Muslim countries the consumption of pork meat and wine is totally forbidden. In the Orthodox religion there are the long periods of fasting during which eating food of animal origin is not allowed. Instead, plenty of greens, vegetables and fruit, shell-fish, and olives can be used, as well as olive oil (except on Wednesdays and Fridays) and fish on special feast days. The example is typical and indicative of the relationship between religion and diet.

As already said, meat-eating was rare in periods of which we have knowledge from written sources. It should be noted that changes in traditional societies of the pre-industrial period took place at a slow pace, bearing no relation to modern frenzied times. Ritual meat-eating originates from older practices, when religious celebrations were connected with animal sacrifices. In other words, festivities played a significant social role. People celebrated together, amused themselves and shared the meat from the sacrificed animals leaving only the smell of burning meat to the gods. This is what more or less occurs today in rural festivities when meat is offered to all visitors participating in the celebration. The ritual character of meat-eating can be traced in a long series of customs and symbolic actions. Nevertheless the symbolic language, a characteristic feature of all societies and all cultures, expresses a set of elements related to fertility and good luck that have to do with the fertility of both the earth and people. If we think about the civilisation of bread, we will understand why the best part of the bread is always given to the guests, why the sacred bread offered to the saints is always made with fine white flour, why the bread made for the celebration of weddings, baptisms and the New Year is also white, without any “dirty” substance, like bran.

The white colour, as the colour of good luck, is identified with purification before a passage rite.
As far as the way of food preparation is concerned, we have to say that Cretans have been used to a plain diet with dishes that maintain the characteristics of their basic ingredients. Flavour is not covered up by various strong substances, such as spices. Besides, to stay to the Cretan Diet, the combination of the ingredients leads to very interesting dishes. Meat is almost always cooked with greens, vegetables and pulses. The same more or less occurs with fish. Even the custom of cooking Easter lamb on the spit –spread throughout the rest of Greece- was unknown in Crete even a few years ago. The people of the island always ate lamb on this day celebrating the Resurrection of Christ however they preferred not to change their habits and so cooked it with greens and vegetables of the season, like with artichokes. Still, it is interesting that there is a wide variety of greens which are eaten raw (artichokes, spine-chicory, purslane and others). Some of them are even today thought to be very important for our health due to the antioxidants and the other useful elements they offer to the human organism.

Similarities and differences
Mediterranean or Cretan Diet then?

diatrofh3 The answer becomes easier if the term Mediterranean is regarded as a general system inside the framework of which one will find a lot of basic similarities and more, but not insignificant, differences. One could talk about a “loose connection” of the Mediterranean cuisines, as they use almost the same ingredients, yet in many different ways of preparation. Maybe the Mediterranean pattern should be compared to the general dietary system of the Northern countries, whose populations, as a rule, consumed more animal products. Cretan Diet is a distinct example differentiating in essence and to a large extent from the Mediterranean Diet. These differences have already been shown on the medical tables with the mortality rates of the population, but it is time the rest parameters became known, those which have already been mentioned and refer to the social, economic, historic, cultural and religious conditions that characterize every Mediterranean area. It is not accidental at all that the comparative medical tables present Crete as a nutritional paradise, and it is not accidental either that the Cretan pattern comes near to the myth. By observing the plain food, the persistence in greens, which are always part of a traditional meal, the great consumption of pulses and dark bread, one can understand the conditions that created this little “miracle”. Moreover, a housewife of a rural family should be watched preparing the food for her family, the way she did it in the 50’s and 60’s. She gets up very early at dawn, goes to the garden of the house and gathers the vegetables. Most times she hasn’t planned what to cook for lunch. She will decide it as soon as she has filled the basket with the products of the garden. If she has collected a lot of zucchini flowers she will think of preparing the delicious stuffed “dolmadakia”. She may even visit the neighbour’s garden for a few more zucchini flowers if hers are not enough· common law allows it. We see that the ingredients are fresh and seasonal. Traditional farming societies were provided with their food products directly from nature. Very few goods were imported, mainly rice, sugar and coffee. However these few goods were not used extensively in the daily preparation of food.
One might guess that the continuous provision of food from the same environment did not offer the variety we have today. In our times goods are easily transported from every part of the world, even from different hemispheres, so that it has almost been forgotten what season of the year they grow in. This is a real problem if we have to judge societies of the past with criteria of the present. For a farming Cretan society the variety of food was a matter of course, because variety did not only mean the abundance of different goods, but also the variety of tastes and flavours. Dozens of dishes could be prepared with the same products? the inventiveness of the people was taken for granted. In this way the food culture was automatically and self-evidently transformed into a gastronomic culture and highly demanding, too.

As is the case with all forms of civilization, the diet of the Mediterranean countries has been created within a framework of historic and social changes. The urban cuisines of Italy and France and the professionalism of the chefs in many Mediterranean areas, combined with the entry of new products, influenced popular gastronomy to a great extent. On Crete these influences started to affect the preparation of food considerably only in the 20th century. The demand for modernization was identified with westernization, the bourgeois families tried to keep their image in harmony with the European pattern and began to write down and exchange recipes or hire chefs of western culture. However, this did not bring up any changes. The “new” dishes were not prepared as a choice of a new nutritional behaviour, but as an expression of a public image. It seems that they offered the new dishes at a reception or at a wining and dining and that their everyday diet was based on a combination of rural and urban pattern, consuming fish and meat more often that the rest of the population. On the other hand, middle-class people and farmers kept on the traditional diet, consuming greens, vegetables and pulses? besides, their economic situation did not allow significant changes.
In general terms it can be underlined that Cretan Diet remained unchanged as to its basic orientation – that is the provision of food products from nature – up until the 70’s. This changelessness does not have to do with the import of new products (the example of the tomato which was widely spread after the mid 19th century is typical.

The contribution of history
It is not very difficult to understand the relationship of a community’s diet with its economic situation and its farming production. Nomads are generally meat-eaters. They do not have the possibility to cultivate the land and make use of its products. Nutrition is also related to the customs. Crete has an excellent environment, fertile soil, a diversity of cultivations, and generally rich flora. In addition to these, an advanced civilization, a continuation of the renowned Minoan civilization. Even before this civilization had prevailed, people knew how to store their staple products, cereals, pulses, wine, honey, olive oil…

diatrofh4 Herodotus, the father of History, recorded a very original definition of civilization: uncivilized are those people who are not aware of bread. He was right! The first civilizations developed at places where people had discovered the storage of cereals and of the food products in general. It was the time when the first great step was taken: man passed from the stage of food-gathering to the epoch he had a permanent settlement, residence and cultivated land. For many centuries there was a basic separating line which could as well be a separating line of a cultural level. It was the meat-eaters that were considered to be uncivilized!
Today we are in a position to know with certainty what goods Cretans consumed 4000 years ago. Unfortunately we still do not know the ways they used to cook them. If we try to look into the evidence existing from Prehistoric Crete, we’ll see that Minoans were fed on greens and vegetables and used olive oil in cooking. Today, thanks to the progress of the exact sciences, we can find out that in a tripod pot they cooked greens in olive oil, pulses, or even pulses with meat. Without doubt, the new studies provide us with evidence and confirm what we already know almost with certainty from other sources. From residues in the pots we have learnt that in coastal settlements ancient Cretans cooked vegetables in olive oil. In a mountainous settlement on Crete lamb and goat meat was cooked with vegetables and olive oil 3700 years ago.
We referred only to the prehistoric, therefore more difficult, times, but we have to say that historical development has shown that there is an amazing continuity in the history of nutrition. Written sources unveil astonishing details of the feeding, religious and cultural in general history of the Greek area. During classical times a gastronomic blow-up occurred. Archestratus, a traveler from Magna Grecia, visited the Greek world and stated a large number of dishes, mostly fish preparations. Spices and aromatic herbs complement Hippocrates’ texts, who recorded that food has to be delicious and correctly flavoured. In this way one can satisfy his hunger more easily, enjoy his meal better and in the end he eats less. Sources referring to the nutrition of the Cretans during the Classical and Hellenistic periods show that they continued to get their basic goods from the earth, as exactly happened in subsequent years. An ancient writer, Chrysippus, left us an important recipe of an ancient Cretan sweet, gastrin. It was prepared with honey, grape-juice syrup, “phyllo” pastry, sesame seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, poppy seeds and pepper. The use of so many ingredients reveals a developed gastronomic culture. People did not want just to feed themselves but to enjoy their food as well.
The multinational states that existed in the area from the time of Alexander the Great for many centuries facilitated the contact between different peoples, as well as the mutual cultural influences. Cretan diet was not affected, though. Only in the towns and cities there was remarkable interaction with the people they lived together, mostly with the Venetians, who occupied the island from 1211 till 1645/1669.

Evidence from the sources
Important documents have been preserved in specific monasteries which record even the daily diet of the monks during 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This information is valuable because the diet of a monastic community was not different from the nutrition of the common population. What do these documents say? They ate greens and vegetables, plenty of pulses, a little fish, either fresh or preserved, such as sun-dried octopus, very little meat, olive oil, olives preserved in many ways, and fruit in abundance. They also ate cheese, fresh cheese and anthotyros (cheese with honey which is a common Cretan desert today has been referred to in the sources for 2000 years). Besides, eggs, plenty of snails during the fasting period of Lent and pulses soaked in water were consumed. Wine accompanied every meal. It is very important to say that the consumption of beef was forbidden, as well as of donkey and horse meat. The reason is simple: all these are labour animals, essential for the survival of the rather self-consuming rural family.
diatrofh5 These sources have been completed by travelers’ texts. The earliest information comes from 16th century and has multiplied with the passage of time. Let us refer to specific pieces of information which today look strange:
In the market of Chandax before 1600 plenty of fruit and vegetables were sold. A French traveler was impressed by the sage-fruits, which later were used in the preparation of a syrup-sweet. Today only a few old people eat them.
A Cretan who left as a refugee and went to Venice after the conquest of Crete by the Turks wrote down his memoirs in his old age. He always remembered Crete and the flavours of the food he ate there and believed that there were not anywhere in the world tastier greens than those growing in Crete. He records that Cretans ate plenty of artichokes, snails and fish.
In the 16th century a baker hired his bakery out. The hirer had to provide him with the cakes, the bread and the “eftazymo” bread he needed. As far as I know, it is the first mention of the “autozymo” bread as “eftazymo”.
The travelers who visited Crete at the time of the Turkish occupation often dined with peasants and referred to their food with disregard. Bread was hard and dark. Cretans ate only barley bread then. What did Cretans of the time have for dinner? Greens and only greens. Maybe an egg as well, or “xinochondro” (something like porridge with ground wheat and sour milk), if there was any.

In 1844 a scholar from Constantinople, Chourmouzis – Vyzantius, referred to the Cretan’s diet and expressed his surprise about the great amount of olive oil they consumed. They cooked even pork meat in olive oil! He was caught by surprise because pork fat was the main fat substance used in cooking in the Northern areas.
Studying monastery documents from 15th to 19th century, we found that a nun in 1610 needed six “mistata”, that is 75 kilos (around 150 pounds) of olive oil per year. If we take into consideration that 1/10 of it was used for lighting and that there were years with reduced production, we can infer that she consumed 35-40 kilos. As we have already said, a Cretan of the 70’s needed about 35 kilos compared to 17.5 kilos given by the International Olive oil Council as the average olive oil consumption per person in Crete. The same nun consumed huge amounts of olives, it seems incredible but 120 kilos of olives consumed per year are really a lot. This is only an example, there are still some more which do not change the picture. These records (we know even amounts of pulses, wheat, barley or wine) give a rather adequate picture of the Cretan’s nutrition during the period of the Venetian occupation.
Not long after the 1866 revolution another traveler tried okra for the first time in Crete! He found the dish strange at first but in the end he liked it. He also wrote that Cretans ate the upper parts of the bean plant and other plants which are not eaten today. It is not irrelevant that when potatoes were imported to Crete for the first time by a teacher from the island of Naxos people thought that the bulbous parts of the plant, potatoes themselves, were to be used as toys and did not eat them. Instead, they ate their tender tops and they were tasty, too.
Shortly after 1915 a professor from the University of Athens, Michael Defner, came to Crete. He found out that the Cretans had an excellent diet and was surprised by the quality of their cheese and the Sfakian pies which he described more or less as heavenly food.
The people who belonged to the target group of the famous Study of the Seven Countries were farmers from semi-mountainous and lowland areas of Crete (for example, the villages around the town of Kastelli, Pediada, were included in the Study). If for specific townspeople their nutrition represented the insistence on rural-pastoral backwardness, for the medical society it was the miracle which became known as the Cretan Diet.

Source: Karmanor Editions

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