Top 5 things you absolutely have to eat in Crete and where to find them in Chania
It’s so good to discuss travel with fellow foodies as they feel duty bound to give their feedback in terms of where or what you can eat and drink and share their culinary experiences of your chosen destination. This was exactly the case when I mentioned to a friend my upcoming trip to Crete. His instant reply was that I would absolutely love the place as the tomatoes are amazing! He wasn’t wrong and in fact, the tomatoes were so unbelievably good that they became my breakfast staple, sliced and layered on some toasted local bread, sprinkled with dried oregano and thyme, and topped off with a drizzle of the local olive oil. Simple yet utterly delicious.
I hold my hands up now and confess that I haven’t really thought that much about Greek food. Of course, we all know moussaka ( I make a very good one myself thanks to Queen Delia), feta cheese and the Greek salad, kebabs and various meze dishes but I’m wracking my brains to think of one Greek restaurant that I’ve tried in London in the past ten years and I can’t come up with anything even though I’m a regular on the eating scene here. (Please feel free to comment below with your suggestions if I’ve missed something special!)
Anything that’s wrapped in, layered with, stuffed into or otherwise includes this magical vegetable is absolutely fine with me.
It didn’t take me very long to realise what I’ve been missing. First, I don’t think any cuisine pays homage to the humble aubergine quite like the Greeks – with the possible exception of the Turks – and in my book, anything that’s wrapped in, layered with, stuffed into or otherwise includes this magical vegetable is absolutely fine with me. I’d even go as far as to say that if I only had to eat one thing for the rest of my life it would be the aubergine, that’s how much I love it! And in fact, I thought the vegetarian food, in general, was absolutely outstanding, certainly more so than the classic Greek style baked lamb that I tried and found a little bit disappointing.
Crete is leading the way in the revival of Greek cuisine
Crete figures prominently in the revival of Greek cuisine, drawing on excellent local ingredients such as flavoured rusks, fresh and cured meats, wild edible weeds and of course rakí, the famous local distilled clear spirit made from grape pressings – similar to Grappa, if you’ve had that, and served at the end of every meal . I had so much fantastic food during my stay in Chania it’s really quite hard to come up with my top list but here goes – in no particular order!
1. Meatballs with aubergine
On my first night in Chania, I ate dinner at the highly recommended Well of the Turk. Tucked away down a back street in the Turkish district of Splantzia and nestled under a cover of overhanging bougainvillaea, the dishes served here are a combination of Greek and Turkish specialities and it was the perfect place to have my first aubergine experience. It came in the form of pork and veal meatballs wrapped in slices of aubergine, baked in the oven and served with baba ganoush and flatbread. This was an absolute standout dish and I returned later in the week for another helping. It was just as delicious second time around and what a lovely end to the meal – a plate of fresh fruit and a couple of glasses of raki on the house.
2. Courgette/zucchini fritters
I was absolutely thrilled to discover that the Tamam restaurant which featured in the Telegraph’s list of top Cretian restaurants was just around the corner from my hotel. Working partially out of an old hamam, this restaurant began life as a Middle-Eastern vegetarian diner during the 1980s. Even though it now also offers meat and fish, I stuck to the delicious veggie options and was absolutely blown away by my starter of courgette fritters – finely grated courgette, mixed with a hint of mint and thyme, wrapped around a central lump of cheese and deep fried. Not very photogenic but bloody delicious and in fact the photo only shows 3 fritters – there were 4 but I was doing that whole thing where I pretend I can’t eat it all before polishing off every last morsel and almost licking the plate! I’ve also included a photo of my main Imam Bayildi – layers of, yes you guessed it, aubergine, cheese and one of those tomato sauces that is so reduced and so intense that it’s almost black in colour – but oh what a flavour! Hard to pick between the two dishes but I think the fritters just pipped it.
3. Garlic oyster mushrooms
Sorry, but I happen to think that this is one of the most beautiful plates of mushrooms that you’re every likely to see and I can assure you that they tasted just as good if not better than they look. Guided again by the Telegraph’s list I realised that I had been sunning myself on the beach at Neahora (a 10-minute walk from my hotel) in front of To Magazaki without even realising. Not a very glamorous looking place, but crammed full of locals which is always a great sign, this lunch of garlic oyster mushrooms, a spritz of lemon juice and crusty bread was an absolute highlight of my week. Washed down of course with a couple of glasses of chilled, easy-drinking local wine, this has to be one of my all-time favourite lunches ever!
On my last evening, I went for dinner at Chrisostomos, an award-winning restaurant along the harbour front. My lamb dish was fine, nothing really to write home about, but then I saw a few of the locals were eating a green vegetable, which looked like spinach, and I was intrigued enough to ask the waiter what it was and to order a portion for myself. Turns out it’s called vlita – amaranth greens – a green that grows wild in gardens all over Greece in the summer. I know amaranth as the healthy Peruvian grain but I didn’t know that Greeks eat the leaves, not the seed. Hard to describe exactly how it tasted, probably a cross between spinach and kale, it was served hot dressed with olive oil and lemon juice simmered together with a small courgette. Full of nutrients and it absolutely delicious – bonus!
This has to be one of the most unusual breakfasts that I’ve ever eaten but if it’s good enough for the late, great Anthony Bourdain, who visited this very place, then it was certainly not to be missed. It’s called bougatsa and it’s been made, daily in this particular bakery, Bougatsa Iordanis, every day since 1924. The secret to this unique Chania version is the cheese used to make the filling, which is a local cheese that cannot be found anywhere else. The filo pastry which surrounds the creamy cheese filling uses oil instead of butter and it was crisp and flaky and not a soggy bottom in sight! Not having much of a sweet tooth, I decided to have it without the customary sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top but one mouthful later I gave into the custom and it lifted the whole thing to another level – it was absolutely delicious!! I’d say it’s worth a trip back to Chania just to eat this again, it was so special and unfortunately not something you can make at home.
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