It was noon on a hill in eastern Crete. The sun glinted above, the Mediterranean curled below, and the air was a cloud of wild oregano, thyme and marjoram.
My guide, Andreas Foundoulis, however, was staring at something near his feet. “Nightshade,” he said, plucking a white bloom. “The poison is concentrated in the berries. Cretans eat the shoots—we eat almost anything that grows, even food animals won’t eat. There’s a saying: When donkeys starve, Cretans get fat.”
No one really needs an excuse to visit Crete. Easily reachable by air or a pleasant overnight boat ride from Athens, the island emerged from a peasant economy only about 50 years ago. It’s still tranquil, wild-looking and lovely, the coast lined with beaches and the interior brimming with treasures like the ancient palace of Knossos and the Venetian port of Chania. The food, even leaner, fresher, and more aromatic than mainland Greek food, is intoxicating.
I’d been surprised, though, when my 12-year-old daughters chose Crete for their first trip to Europe. Then they explained. Greece was the foreign country they knew best: childhood home of Zeus and site of Mount Olympus, as they’d read in the Percy Jackson series about kids who are half human, half gods.
It was the stage for Natural Born Heroes, an enthralling audiobook we’d listened to about Cretan guerrillas in World War II. Above all, it was the setting for the giant volume of D’Aulaires’s Greek Myths, which in our house passes as sacred text.
After a day with Andreas, I realized Crete was a homecoming for me too. I ate a mostly Mediterranean diet. I talked about the deities more than my kids did—from Artemis, bad-ass goddess of fertility, wild things and the hunt, to Pan, the entertaining lord of pandemonium. And I felt grateful to so many Cretan characters: the prehistoric worshipers of Mother Earth, the early adopters of lace-up sandals and rowdy dinner parties, the bon vivant goatherds who dashed into battle to fight against Hitler. Now I could touch the rocks, plants and places that helped shape my life an ocean away.
The first time Andreas stopped the car, I figured he wanted to show me some rare, picturesque posy. Andreas is in his mid-fifties, educated in Athens and Germany, with the snub nose and burly look of an ex-rugby player. But his world is Crete, which he explores on his motorcycle every spare hour he has. And he’s informed himself on everything from its cooking to its goddess cults. Plant by plant, he would show me, just about everything Crete produces has been precious to those who live here.
There was thistle, as high as my knee, with stout, prickly burrs. Cretans eat the roots, Andreas said. Also edible—he leaned into the hill and pinched some for me—was wild savory, which gives Cretan air its omnipresent delicious scent. In spring, the hill bursts with over 100 varieties of greens that Cretans call horta. Traditionally gathered by women, they’re heaped daily into salads, garlicky side dishes, and pastries layered with feta.
I’d eaten my first plate of horta just the day before. It felt like a shot of Red Bull, if that were a whole food, so energizing and flavorful that I stopped the dinner conversation to ask the waiter what I’d just eaten. Greens like those, along with olive oil, grilled octopus, limited meat, and mountains of colorful vegetables, are the key ingredients in what is considered the world’s healthiest cuisine.
Just after World War II, U.S. researchers landed on the island to analyze how the 150 families lived. While most ate the same quantity of fat as Americans, nearly 80 percent of it came from olive oil rather than animals. The locals also ate twice the quantity of fruits and vegetables Americans did. Though the war had just ended, their health was spectacular.
Later studies reinforced these findings, writes nutritionist Jacques Fricker, co-author of Fish & Figs, a Cretan cookbook. In the 1990s, French researchers served two groups of heart attack survivors different diets: a typical, clinically approved diet low in animal fat, and a full-on Cretan menu laden with vegetables, olive oil and beans. The lucky Cretan diners enjoyed a 75 percent drop in cardiovascular issues and a lower rate of cancer.
From a local perspective, though, this cuisine is not about science. It’s about pleasure and survival, impulses that are entwined in this culture.
Hiking up the hill a few paces, Andreas returned with a sprig of tiny pink flowers. A green, exhilarating perfume floated up. “Origanum dictamnus, or dittany,” he said. “Grows only in Crete. It’s an aromatic used in cooking, and also what the locals call mountain tea, which they drink all the time.” Used as a cure-all since ancient times, the plant is processed by pharmaceutical companies for its antibacterial properties. It’s also a symbol of the island.
According to local legend, Andreas explained, Artemis herself came here for dittany when Cupid shot her with an arrow. Dressing her wounds with the herb, the goddess regained her strength and precious autonomy. That may be why the herb’s local name is erontas, or “love.”
Love can be dangerous, though. The best dittany grows in steep, nearly inaccessible gorges, where climbing accidents were once so common that in the 1920s, suppliers started growing the plant on farms. Wild dittany for your sweetheart, though, still demands not just devotion but daring.
“Like picking edelweiss,” Andreas said. “It’s a way of proving your love.”
It says something about a culture when wild herbs are dinner and physical risk tells a loved one “I care.” Though Crete now faces rising obesity and other first-world ills, as recently as the 1970s much of the island was very poor. The land, with its herbs, olives, and sheep, provided almost all sustenance.
Sugar was rare. At the time I was pouring it in mounds on my Rice Krispies, Andreas had access to only one pastry shop, located in the island’s biggest city, Heraklion. What Cretans had instead was exquisite health, and their landscape. “That’s a walnut tree,” Andreas said, motioning down the path. “Next to it is a fig. That’s a grapevine. And that’s carob.” It was a candy bar, essentially, growing alongside the road. The only thing missing was calories.
Calories’ scarcity helped keep Cretans healthy for a long time, forcing them to supplement their diet with vitamin-packed greens. And that scarcity is why, during one of the direst times in Cretans’ history, they knew about another wild food that helped save them from annihilation.
Lifting a shrub like a trap door, Andreas showed me six white-and-brown striped snails underneath. “We eat them boiled, fried, with herbs, cooked in wine,” he said, scooping them up. “It’s the food you ate as a child. It’s in our DNA.”
Seventy years ago, snails helped keep Cretans alive during the Nazi occupation. Even now, it’s hard to fathom how an isolated society of goat herders and smugglers could have endured Hitler’s army so long. But Crete had been the seat of the Minoan empire from 2000 to 1500 BC and spent later centuries buffeted by Roman, Venetian and Turkish occupiers. So when the Nazis parachuted down in 1941, Cretans had developed an intense ethic of resistance. During the years that followed, snails sometimes meant the difference between life and death.
“1942 was the worst, especially the winter, when we nearly starved,” wrote George Psychoundakis, the legendary guerrilla who authored the memoir The Cretan Runner. “Every night, armed with oil dips and torches, the villagers would set out in hundreds in search of the priceless treasure which was the most luxurious fare to be found in house or inn.”
Dormant snails could last in a pocket for months, perfectly edible, while swashbuckling bandits like Psychoundakis raced across the island to work with Allied spies. Partisans and civilians both suffered horrifically in the occupation, with whole villages massacred by order of a general called The Butcher. But the 10-day Battle of Crete slowed Hitler’s push to Russia, where his army was finally snared when winter hit.
Up on the lush slope in Lasithi, that bloodshed seemed hard to imagine. But I understood easily how this austere, nurturing place inspired such passion. A few days later, as the girls and I climbed a slope by ourselves, Anna stopped at an old tree. “Are those plums?” she asked. Thanks to Andreas, I felt fairly sure that if something in Crete looked edible, it probably was. So Elena climbed up and tossed us three pieces of fruit. For a second we stared: our hands were drenched with red juice. Then we bit into our plums, which tasted glorious. We’re saluting Cretans, I told myself, and the place where food, pleasure and heroism so often grow close together.