Cretan diet as we know it today,stems all the way fromeating patterns of the Minoan era. According to archaeological discoveries, Minoans would consume almost the same foods as modern Cretans do today. Excavations of Minoan palaces unearthed large terracotta containers – also called pithoi – which were used for the storage or shipment of wine, olive oil, dried fruits, aromatic herbs and honey. Approximately 400 of these pithoi were found at the palace of Knossos.
Furthermore, in Minoan palaces today one can find a wide variety of Cretan plants and herbs illustrated on frescoes, with certain scenes depicting the harvest of saffron while others show herbs being ingested or used as decoration. This highlights the importance of herbs in everyday Minoan life, and how today’s notion and appreciation of healthy living based on nature has been passed down from the Minoans as an inherited and sacred treasure.
During the Minoan era, Cretan herbs were exported to Egypt and other eastern countries while Cretans also imported herbs and plants that were not endemic to Crete. The trading and usage of herbs has been a significant activity within Greek culture and Mediterranean civilizations, stemming from the Bronze Age.
During the Roman period, numerous doctors and physicians cited the importance of Crete and its aromatic herbs.
Andromachus the Elder, who was born in Crete and physician to the Roman emperor Nero, stated that Cretan herbs can “bring” medicine to people for several ailments. Cretan herbs have also been mentioned by the Roman physician Claudius Galenus, one of the most accomplished of all medical researchers of antiquity, who noted that the finest herbs of his era were collected in Crete and sent to Rome in knitted vessels.
FROM VENETOCRACY TO TODAY
Owing to the wide variety of endemic aromatic plants present in Crete, the island was considered to be the orchard of Greece by the Venetians andmany other conquerors. During the Venetian occupation of Crete from 1204 to 1669 AD, many herbs and aromatic plants were used for medicinal purposes. An example is the name given to Malotira or Cretan Mountain Tea (Sideritis Syriaca), which is derived from the Italian words male (bad) and tirare (pull, pull away).
Arriving at the 21st century, Cretan folk tradition has become a cultural entity with its own eating habits, customs and traditions. Aromatic herbs maintain a prominent position in the folk traditions and eating habits of modern Cretans.
Nowadays in Crete, there is still an active presence and wide variety of herbs that have been used since antiquity such as Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) and Greek sage (Salvia tribola), which grow predominantly on the mountains and are collected by local people.