Greece is blessed with richness of natural products that promote wellbeing, maintain good health and lend heaps of flavor to countless dishes. Here are some for you to look out for.
The Olive and Olive Oil
Native to Greece, olives have been cultivated in the Aegean since 2000 BC and, together with their oil, have since become a fundamental part of the lives of Greeks: Both feature in the people’s diet, religion, mythology, medicine, literature and art.
Olive oil was particularly important in the palaces of Knossos, Mycenae and Pylos.
It appeared in almost every dish, was used to make bread and occasionally was the only condiment used with bread in a simple meal. But it also has qualities that are not related to food; it is used as a fuel, for cosmetic purposes and as medicine (the Hippocrates Code cites 60 pharmaceutical uses for olive oil).
It was also the sacred tree of the goddess Athena and Olympic winners were crowned with a wreath of wild olive known as “kotinos”.
The bedrock of the Mediterranean diet to this day, olive oil is good for the heart, preventing thrombosis, has polyphenols that reduce “bad” cholesterol, is endowed with antioxidants that help battle cancer and the effects of ageing, and helps diabetics control their blood sugar levels too.
It also plays an important role in the development of the central nervous system and ensures the smooth functioning of the digestive system.
Why Greek olive oil? To begin with, it’s distinct and rich flavor, but there’s also the fact that an increasing number of studies are confirming that the olive oils produced in Greece have a higher polyphenol content than those from other countries.
Olive oil has been a basic component of the Greek diet since ancient times and is famed for its beneficial properties.
Raw or cooked, the flavor it adds to food is simply delightful. Likewise, Greece has a large variety of table olives, which liven up salads, cooked dishes, and of course cocktails.
Crocus (or saffron) is likely the result of efforts to tame the wild Crocus cartwrightianus in ancient Greece. The plant appears frequently as a motif in Cretan frescoes and vase paintings, while in the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri on Santorini, archeologists discovered a fresco of a woman collecting crocuses. The ancient Greeks drank crocus tisane to fight insomnia and the painful effects of drinking too much alcohol, while the Romans used it to dye their robes.
Today, the crocus grown in Kozani, northern Greece, is among the most expensive spices in the world (it takes more than 150,000 flowers to produce a kilogram of the stuff) and it is extremely popular for its aroma, its unique flevour, its colouring properties and its contribution to good health.
It is packed with vitamins, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and lycopene, which is known for its cancer preventive properties. It is also a powerful antioxidant and anti-ageing agent.
Kozani crocus. A mere pinch is enough to endow foods with a rich yellow colour, a powerful aroma and subtle flavor. It is perfect with rice, pasta, potatoes, white meat, soups and salads, and pairs well with other spices, while it is also used in sweets.
Food historians believe trahana to be an advanced version of the wheat and milk gruel eaten by ancient Greeks and Romans. The 1st century AD Roman cookbook “Apicius” makes mention of a food called “tractae”, while we also know that a dish called “tragos” or “traganos” was very popular in Byzantine times. Today, trahana is made with slightly soured milk (from cows, sheep or goats) and partially or finely cracked wheat.
Rich in carbohydrates and fibre, it is a great energy booster and protects the bowels.
The soured milk contains the lactobacillus bacteria, which helps the digestive system, while it also has protein, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and calcium, as well as carotenoids such as lutein, a powerful antioxidant.
Trahana is mainly used in soups and is low in calories (100 Cal/100 gr). In recent years, chefs have been enriching the classic trahana soup with bites of meat and vegetables or fish. It can also be added to casseroles with meat, pulses or vegetables, or be used as filling in pies, stuffed tomatoes and peppers, or vine leaf dolmades.
Chios Mastic Gum
The mastic gum tree was especially popular among ancient Greeks, who pickled the shoots for a delectable meze and chewed the resin drops, known as mastiha, to keep their breath fresh. They also used it to add aroma to wine.
Here, of course, we are referring to the mastic tree of Chios, as the Pistacia lentiscus Chia does not produce its fragrant resin anywhere else in Greece, only in the southern part of the island. Medical texts from late antiquity offer a plethora of formulas based on mastic gum, which has been considered beneficial to human health ever since.
Contemporary studies have confirmed this knowledge, finding that extracts from the Chios tree’s resin can prevent arteriosclerosis and protect the heart, reduce sugar and cholesterol levels, and have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-cough, appetite stimulant, aphrodisiac, astringent and diuretic properties. In short, it is an all-around medicine.
Chios mastic gum has multiple uses today, and appears in sweet and savoury recipes, in spirits and in cosmetic products. It is sold in the form of crystals, powder, oil and essential oil.
One of the country’s most eclectic deli products, “Greek caviar” is made from the eggs of the flathead grey mullet. Also known widely by its Italian name, “bottarga”, its main ingredient is harvested from the Messolonghi-Etoliko lagoons of Kleisova and Bouka, and it is certified with a Protected Designation of Origin label.
The most common method of preservation is sealing the roe in wax so it does not come into contact with the air and can keep for several months. It was considered a delicacy both in ancient Byzantine times.
Avgotaraho has a high nutritional value as it is an important source of protein, vitamins, iron, calcium, selenium, zinc and crucial omega-3 fatty acids, which are known for their contribution to a healthy cardiovascular system.
Messolonghi avgotaraho is served in very fine slices (after having been softened at room temperature for at least an hour) or grated on bread and even salads, as well as in risotto and pasta dishes, lending them an incredible delicate yet noticeable flavor.
Cretan Spiny Chicory
This is a wild variety if spiny chicory (Cichorium spinosum) with a distinctive bitterness which is a staple of Cretan cuisine. Its Greek name, “stamnagathi”, derives from an old custom on Crete of covering the animal’s water troughs (stamnes) with the stuff to keep away insects. Spiny chicory is a source of dietary fibres, antioxidants, iron, calcium, potassium, vitamins A, C and E, and beta-carotene. F great tonic and diuretic, it helps cleanse the liver and has mild laxative properties.
The ancient Greeks regarded it as an important medicine.
Cretan spiny chicory can be eaten raw with a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon or vinegar, boiled in salads, cooked with lamb or goat, or served alongside seafood. It is also pickled.
Its botanical name, Salvia officinalis, is etymologically associated with Latin word “salvare” or “to save”, because of its curative properties.
The ancient Greeks used the leaves in a poultice to treat the wounds and snake bites, though today it is mainly popular as a tisane, known as Greek tea by the French and Greek weed by the Chinese.
That is not to say that it no longer has any ritualistic associations.
On the island of Syros, for example, locals believe it counters the effects of ill-wishers, while you will still see it hanging in bunches outside the doors of homes to ward off evil.
A richly endowed herbs, sage has anti-catarrhal (for asthma, bronchitis and the common cold), anti-infective (for the flu, gum disease, insect bites), antispasmodic (menstrual cramps) and healing properties.
Overall, it boosts the nervous system, improves memory, stimulates blood circulation and contains antioxidant enzymes that counteract free radicals.
Sage. Bunches of sage are sold nearly all over Greece. Boil it alone or with other herbs for a fragrant hot or cold tisane.
Greek raisins, or currants, may be small and not very fleshy, but they are packed with a wealth of nutrients, trace elements and antioxidants that help fortify our bodies against all sorts of ailments. Doctors in ancient times would prescribe raisins for almost everything, from food poisoning to battling the effects of ageing, and by the late 19th century, raisins accounted for 80% of Greece’s total exports.
They have multiple health benefits: they provide an energy boost, help deal with iron deficiency, have antioxidant properties, help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and contribute to proper bowel functioning. Furthermore, they retain all these beneficial qualities even when they’re exposed to high heat, such as when cocked in savoury or sweet recipes.
Raisins are eaten as is, as a snack (two tablespoons of raisins a day meet 1/3 of recommended fruit intake), and are used to add sweetness to savoury and sweet dishes.
The history of beekeeping in Greece dates back millennia.
Excavations at Phaistos on Crete have revealed clay hives from the Minoan era (3400 BC), Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, prescribed honey for all his patients.
Pythagoras encouraged his followers to regard it as a key source of nutrition, served on bread, and in Classical times, honey was extremely popular in desserts. In fact, ambrosia, the food of the Greek gods, is said to have contained royal jelly.
It is an amazing source of carbohydrates, antioxidants, vitamin B complex, and trace elements and minerals necessary for a balanced system. Greece’s rich’ biodiversity – more than 1,300 endemic plants, a wonderful variety of flowers, herbs and trees – has a marked effect on the honey produced here, endowing it with exception flavor, aroma, and density.
Honey. Almost every part of the Greek mainland and islands produces high-quality honey. Just ask around and look for ways to get more into your diet.
The Ancient Greek name for “paximadi” rusks was “dipyritis artos”, or twice-baked bread.
A staple in Greek kitchens since the time before refrigerators and chemical preservatives, which required clever ways to keep bread edible for as long as possible – rusks (made using barley flour as this crop grows better in Greece than wheat) are considered a key component of a healthy and balanced diet.
A good source of vitamin B, selenium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, silicon, chromium and fiber, it helps keep the bowels and liver working properly, and also fights cellulite.
Barley rusks. Try replacing your breakfast toast or wheat crackers with barley rusks and your sugar-rich store-bought cereals with barley porridge with honey. Barley rusks do not contain any preservatives and because they are twice-baked they will keep in your pantry for a long time.
Yoghurt has always held a special place in Greek cuisine. The ancient Greeks referred to it as “oxygala” (acidic milk) and were extremely fond of it. Centuries later, its existence was confirmed by a French traveler, Pierre Belon (1547-64).
Traditional yoghurt, distinguished by the skin that forms on its surface, is made from cow’s sheep’s, or goat milk and contains valuable bacteria that have a positive effect on the digestive tract, such as lactobacilli, which, according to numerous studies, can aid in cancer prevention.
Furthermore, Greek yoghurt helps digestion, gives us all the nutrients of milk (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B complex etc.) and is suitable for people who are lactose-intolerant. It is a superfood in every respect!
Traditional yoghurt is delicious on its own, mixed with honey and nuts, fresh or dried fruit, a dollop of fruit preserve or even tahini. It can also be served with rich meat dishes.
The ancient Greeks considered it a symbol of happiness and joy, which is why wedding wreaths were also made with twigs of oregano.
They also knew of its curative properties and used it internally as a tisane to treat food poisoning, diarrhea and colic, as well as externally to relieve skin inflammations.
Up until a few decades ago, Crete’s folk medicine practitioners would fry oregano leaves in olive oil to make a poultice that relieved back pain and used its oil to soothe toothache.
It is among the herbs with the high Vitamin C content, and also contains calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, copper, boron, manganese and vitamin A.
It has antibiotic and antiseptic qualities, particular as an essential oil, and is used to alleviate symptoms of the common cold, gum disease and throat infections (as gargle).
Its antioxidant properties are 42 times greater than apples, 30 times greater than potatoes, 12 times greater than oranges and four times greater than blackberries.
Oregano grows all over Greece. Fresh or dried, it lends its distinct aroma to sundry foods and salads.
About the Author
George Anapliotis is a Greek man passionate about healthy lifestyle and good nutrition. He is currently traveling around Greece and writing for a travel blog in Crete / Greece. If you ever need the services of his local car rental company in Greece/Crete, it will be his greatest pleasure to assist you.