Crete - the diet and its place in the longevity of the Cretans

The grapes are in. The proto raki is ready. The olives are clearly visible on the trees, their leaves showing silver in the autumn breezes. Georgi Nikolarakis leans back on his chair and smiles, his eyes light up. Here is a man about to mount a hobby horse. The Cretans like little better than holding forth: unless it is eating. Of course this inevitably means that they have learned to combine the two. Given that the topic here is food then we have a pretty perfect discourse coming.

Georgi, an avuncular man with a full beard and a weather beaten complexion, opened his taverna back before Georgioupolis was a tourist destination, when only independent travellers and beleagured hippies turned up at this end of the 11 mile beach that is the Gulf of Almyros.

"Why," I have asked him "do Cretans live so long?"

"Maybe they do and maybe they don't. The last generation lived longer than my generation and as for the kids today --- who knows: they eat so much rubbish! When I was a child my mother would give me stakka for my breakfast: spread on a slice of black bread. Only rich people had white bread. (Stakka is the solidified cream from sheeps milk and is something like condensed milk but stronger in flavour. All brown breads in Crete are called black.). If I was lucky I'd have honey spread on top. My aunty used to live in Xania (the nearest city) and sometimes she would bring white bread for us, it was a special treat but Mikhaili's mother, Mikhaili from Creta Corner, used to bake a bread from rye that had lots of hard bits in it and all the kids would smell it from far away and come and beg for it. Bread is at the centre of every Cretan meal. Bread and olives. And salad. Fresh salad from the garden."

The garden in a Cretan village home is always given over to herbs, vegetables, fruits. and salad crops. The flowers are grown in tubs, pots, old tins. The soil is reserved for things you can eat: and that includes chickens and maybe even a pig. The flowers are extraordinarily well cared for, dazzlingly beautiful, and ingeniously grown but the garden is strictly reserved for edibles.

"The workers in the villages," Georgi continues, "often started the day with no more than a hunk of bread, some olives and a glass of malotiras (mountain tea). And then they would go off to work with maybe a piece of cheese and another hunk of bread in their pockets. You remember Pavlos? Pavlos the drinker. He was a big drinker. He was always in Tito's: always drinking wine but he always had bread and some cheese in his pocket that he would eat while he was drinking. When he was eighty some he was knocked down by a car; they said he was drunk but when wasn't he? When he died they cut him up and the doctors said he had the liver of an eighteen year old. Even my granny who was 106 and a teetotaller had a glass of wine with her breakfast: fresh juices and a glass of wine. She married my grandfather when he was 82 and she was 28 and they had 5 children - all healthy. The stakka, is good for the potency. So are artichokes; you just pull off the spiky leaves and eat the artichoke raw with lemon and salt. They turn your lips and tongue brown and they make you windy but they are good for the heart and the potency."

What about meat? Does meat play a big part in Cretan diet? Lamb is eaten everywhere in tavernas but what of the village people? Do they eat much meat?