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Greece and Crete


GREECE AND CRETE. Greeks, until recently, have been mainly vegetarian not by choice but by necessity. In the mountainous Greek countryside it was not possible to pasture large herds and provide meat for everybody. In ancient times and even recently, meat was a rare, festive dish, consumed on Sundays, at Easter and Christmas, and for important family feasts. The traditional Greek diet and the similar diet of the people of CreteGreece's largest islandare mainly based on regional and seasonal agricultural produce: vegetables, leafy greens (horta ), various kinds of dandelion and chicory, mustard greens, both sweet and bitter, and amaranth shoots in the summer. The greens are either foraged from the hills and fields or cultivated. Grains, mainly in the form of homemade bread, were the basic staple, complemented with fruity olive oil, olives, beans and other legumes, local cheeses, yogurt, occasionally fresh or cured fish, and sometimes meat.

Typical dishes are vegetable stewsgreen beans, zucchini, artichokes, or leafy greens cooked in olive oil with onions or garlic and fresh or canned tomato or lemon juice during the winter. Tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplants are also stuffed with rice, sometimes with the addition of ground meat. Beans, chickpeas, and lentils are made into soups, while all seasonal vegetables and greens are also used to make the stuffing for pies wrapped in homemade or commercial phyllo pastry. Hortopita (greens pie), also called spanakopita (spinach pie), is probably the most common example. Lots of flat leaf parsley and the intensely fragrant dried wild oregano are the most common herbs used in Greek cooking. Celery, dill, and wild fennel are also used fresh, while mint is added to some dishes, fresh but also dried. Bay leaves flavor meat stews, and cinnamon is used in most tomato sauces and meat stews, sometimes together with cloves. Stifado (rabbit, hare, or veal stew with pearl onions in red wine sauce) is scented with bay leaves, cinnamon, and cloves.

Only after the mid-1960s, as the country became more affluent, did meat gradually begin to play a significant role in people's everyday diet. Around that time, the Greek demographic structure changed. At least four out of ten middle-aged Greeks who, in the early twenty-first century, lived in the big citiesAthens and Thessalonikicame originally from agricultural areas. They moved with their families to the cities during the last forty years of the twentieth century, bringing with them the cooking and culinary habits practiced in the villages by their mothers and grandmothers.

Most people have kept their ancestors' village homes and visit them on long weekends, summer holidays, and at Christmas and Easter. Many have also kept much of their land, so it is common for Greek families to produce the olive oil they consumeabout forty pounds per person each year. And when they don't produce it themselves, they buy it from friends who have a surplus. This reflects Greek society's largely agricultural past. Olive oil is not just the primary fat used in Greek cooking, but is also basic to Greek people's identity. It is tied to every ritual, both folk and religious, that marks the crucial events in the cycle of life. Priests anoint infants with olive oil when they are christened, and the bodies of the deceased are embalmed with olive oil and wine prior to burial.

Bread was the basic staple food up until the mid-1960s, as it used to be in ancient and Byzantine times. Although now they can afford a great variety of foods, Greeks still consume enormous quantities of bread. Traditional breads are often made with a combination of wheat, barley, and sometimes corn flour, using sour old-dough starter as leavening. Barley, easily growing in the dry and difficult climate of southern Greece and on the islands, was for many centuries the staple food of the ancients. It was ground and eaten as porridge or made into flat breads. Today in Crete and on the other islands, paximadia (rusks)slices of twice baked and completely dry barley bread, which need to be briefly soaked in water to soften themare still very popular. Paximadia keep well for many months and were the ideal food for sailors. They were only baked every two or three months, so they made good use of the oven heat, as wood was always in short supply in most arid Greek islands.

Lunch, eaten around 2 p.m., and dinner, eaten after 8:30 p.m. and often at 10:00 at night or even later, are the two principal meals of the day. Breakfast is usually just a cup of coffee, occasionally accompanied by a cookie or biscuit. Meals include a salad of fresh raw or blanched seasonal vegetables or greens, and end with seasonal fruits. Wine accompanies most meals. Greece has many old indigenous varieties of grapes that produce wonderful wines that have now started to be exported and appreciated by connoisseurs. Some of the best-known Greek grape varieties are Xinomavro, which produces the deep red wine of Macedonia; Aigiorgitiko, which produces the red from Nemea in the Peloponnese; Asyrtiko, which produces a fruity white from the island of Santorini; and Moschofilero, which produces the fragrant fruity white from Mantineia in the central Peloponnese.

Sweets were originally part of the festive table, which almost always involves meat, usually lamb on most occasions. Now, of course, sweets tend to be eaten at all times of the day.

With its many islands, Greece probably has more boats per capita than cars. Nevertheless, fish and seafood have never been plentiful enough to become a staple for the people who live near the sea. The fish and seafood of the Aegean are exceptionally delicious but scarce, and the best fish that islanders manage to catch is sold to the big cities for much-needed cash. Red mullet, sea bream, grouper, mackerel, bonito, swordfish, smooth hound, sardines and anchovies, spiny lobster, octopus, calamari, cattlefish, and cockles are the most common of the many kinds of fish one can find in the market, especially in the winter.

The Venetians and Genoans, who ruled most of the country during the Middle Ages, and later the Ottoman Turks, who made Greece part of their empire and remained the rulers of northern Greece and Crete until the early 1900s, have all left their marks on Greek cooking. (The use of yogurt in cooking and baking, more prominent in Crete, is the result of the Ottoman influence.) But the rules of the Greek Orthodox Church are by far the most important element in shaping people's eating habits. Even nonreligious Greeks often abstain from foods deriving from animalsmeat, dairy products, and eggsduring the fast days that precede Easter, Christmas, and other religious occasions. It is notable that even the McDonald's restaurants in Greece serve special menus during those days. This is the reason that many traditional dishes, such as stuffed vegetables and phyllowrapped pies, come in two versions: one with meat (sometimes called the "festive") or with cheese, and one without, for the fast days.

The numerous religious holidays are scattered throughout the year. These holidays have often evolved from ancient celebrations. Easter, Greece's most important feast, seems to have its roots in the pagan agricultural spring festivals of antiquity. Celebrated in the open country, amid fragrant herbs and multicolored flowers, the Easter table features tiny, succulent locally raised and fed spit-roasted lamb or kid and salads of wild greens, tender raw artichokes, and fresh fava beans. The traditional Easter sweets are made with myzithra, a generic name for the various regional creamy fresh sheep's milk cheeses of the season.

Many dishes are still closely related to religious holidays, although pizza and hamburgers, as well as gyro and the ubiquitous "Greek Salad" tend to banalize modern Greek food. Magiritsa, a delicious soup made from chopped lamb's innards, scallions, and dill, with a tart egg-and-lemon sauce, is only eaten after the midnight Resurrection Mass on Good Saturday. Pork is associated with the Christmas and New Year tables. Christmas has become a major holiday only during the past forty years. Pigs are raised by most families, especially on the islands, and are slaughtered in December to make sausages and other smoked or salted meats that are used as flavorings in vegetable or legume dishes throughout the year. At the festive table, one finds head cheese and stewed pork with winter vegetables such as celeriac and greens, often cooked with avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce). Ground pork is the stuffing for lahanodolmades (cabbage leaves), the Christmas dish in Macedonia. Fish, a symbol of Christianity, is consumed on Annunciation Day (25 March), and always at the solemn meals that follow funerals.

Greek food follows the seasons. In the homes cooks do not make stuffed tomatoes or melitzanosalata (eggplant dip, made by mixing chopped grilled eggplant with garlic, olive oil, lemon, and parsley) in the winter, although these vegetables are now available all year round. The frugal Greek cooks ingeniously combine seasonal ingredients to create dishes that modern dieticians now use as models for the famed healthy Mediterranean Diet. This highly recommended diet was the result of a study by an American, Dr. Ancel Keys, and his associates, who compared the daily food intake and the overall health condition of the inhabitants of seven countries in the early 1960s. They found that the Greeks, and more specifically the inhabitants of Crete, fared best of all.

See also Christianity: Eastern Orthodox; Mediterranean Diet.


Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists (7 volumes). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Bober, Phyllis Pray. Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Dalby, Andrew. Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Keys, Ancel. Seven Countries: A Multivariate Analysis of Death and Coronary Heart Disease. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Kremezi, Aglaia. The Foods of Greece. New York: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1993.

Kremezi, Aglaia. The Foods of the Greek Islands. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Aglaia Kremezi

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