A common misperception of the modern visitor on the island of Crete, whether Greek or international, is that people of Crete consume excess amounts of meat, particularly lamb. That to a certain extent is true, however not for the reasons one might think of.
Meat on the island was considered a luxury for many years. It was part of celebrational menus and festivities and it usually accompanied large celebrations or important events. Meat in the average Cretan household was consumed perhaps once or twice a month, outside lent periods and only on Sundays. It was usually either poultry, game or some other form of white meat whose loss did not cost the household. In the house-economy, each animal had a role and was an inseparable part of the household workforce.
Therefor to offer meat other than the types we just spoke about was an act of hospitality. This is why it is not particularly easy to find vegetarian or vegan dishes in the local tavernas or restaurants of the island. Humble food is not acceptable in terms of guest relations. At the end of the day, in the mind of the lady of the house, you cannot welcome guests by offering them lentil soup.
It is this exact reason in what follows we will try and present a tiny list of hidden culinary vegan gems that will astonish you if you are in on the island during their seasonal peak for consumption.
1. Artichokes with Broadbeans
When we talk about signature dishes, this is one most people in the country will know is coming from the island of Crete. A unique and exceptional combination of flavors and aromas. An excellent blend between the unique texture of the heart of the artichoke and fresh broad beans (in Crete broad beans are consumed dry as well). Artichokes are consumed widely on the island and they are part of many recipes. In Greece, only the heart of the artichoke is used for cooking. This dish is the perfect reminder that spring is at its best. Add on top the aromatic components of a lemon juice and some fresh dill and the result is simply a symphony of aromas and flavors in the mouth.
2. Giahnera (Casserole Greens)
It is simply impossible to not come across a dish that involves Giahnera at any time you visit Crete between now and the end of May. Giahnera is referred to as greens that are usually used for casserole dishes. Giahni in Greek means the ones cooked from the steam (ahni) of the casserole. Giahnera usually involves a bunch of fresh greens such as leek, spring onion, fennel, chisel, spinach, celery and parsley. There are variations of this but this is the base. It is easy to imagine the richness that springs out from a plate based on the aromatic complexity of these amazing fresh products. They are often found in pies that make the perfect starter of any meal. They can also be found as a protagonist in dishes along with snails, or cuttlefish.
3. Fried Pumpkin Savoro
When pumpkin season is on, one of the best and most unusual executions of a pumpkin dish one can find on the island is fried with olive oil, vinegar and rosemary sauce. The fried pumpkin loosed a lot of its moisture and makes a lovely crusty exterior while at the same time inside remains firm and very aromatic. The addition of the sauce enhances the aroma with rosemary giving a different tone. Unfortunately, this can only be executed with fresh pumpkin and not frozen one, this is why it is only a few months a year this dish can be executed!
4. Mushroom and Chestnut Stifado
This dish is truly a hidden gem in the local culinary tradition. Despite the fact that it does not look like it much, Crete has a lot of places for mushroom hunting. A lot of different varieties grow here and for the locals is a delicacy that should be taken very seriously. Places where the locals could find mushrooms were kept secret so others could not go and take all of the available mushrooms. A mushroom and chestnut stifado is a great dish with a lot of character that has nothing to be envious of from the usual beef-based stifado. The term stifado refers to a casserole based food with a lot of onions that are not added completely raw, but after they were left in the water for some time in order to soften and sweeten up. The sweetness of both the onion and the Chesnut, together with the full-bodied mushroom aroma and flavor bring out a dish for all purposes and occasions that can actually be a well-appreciated superstar and accompany some great wines as well.
5. Chard and Black Eyed Peas Salad
This dish is the epitome of balance and simplicity. Complete with nutritional characteristics from carbohydrates, to proteins to vitamins to minerals, with the simple dressing of fresh Extra Virgin Olive Oil and fresh lemon juice or vinegar. Season it well and enjoy a dish that comes out the culinary books of cooking 101. It might fall under the salad category yet it is a truly complete meal.