Manolis Manolarakis, Dietitian and President of the Union of Dietitians and Nutritionists of Greece, describes the diet of his great-grandmother from Crete who lived to be 99 years old.
My beloved great-grandmother (in Greek pro-yiayia) Aristea and my great-grandfather were two of the many Greeks from Crete (home of the Mediterranean diet) who immigrated to the U.S. during the mid-war period (period between WWI AND WWII).
They worked hard, had a family, but with start of the Second World War they found themselves once again in Greece. The first days of the war my great-grandfather George, and his son (my grandmother’s brother Manolis – I have the honor of being named after him) were executed by the Germans for their participation in the Resistance.
The years that followed were difficult and my great-grandmother managed not only to raise her daughter but also her grandchildren (among them my mother) using the simple food that her own land, the land of Crete, produced.
Today, the Mediterranean diet (for me the Cretan diet) may be known as the gold standard of diets, with a multitude of health benefits, but this same nutritional model preserved and played an important role in the survival of thousands of Cretan Greeks during the war and the difficult years that followed.
Producing their own food
The family received income from the cultivation of olives and oranges and olive oil production. They also cultivated for their own use, seasonal vegetables that were the basis of their diet. Wild greens – horta, and beans supplied by local merchants were common components of the diet. Likewise, wheat which they grinded themselves (at the home in the village you can still find “millstones” that were used to grind the wheat) and made their own bread.
Their source of meat and animal protein were the chickens and their eggs (even today there are several chickens that provide eggs and meat for my children). There were 4-5 goats and through breeding provided red meat and milk for children. They also consumed fish often, and rarely ate beef or other red meat.
Difficult economic conditions imposed a diet without excesses and making the most of available food. The stale bread became paximadi (rusk), the leftover milk became cheese (graviera or mitzithra), and the olives that did not become olive oil were preserved in brine.
The surplus of vegetables was exchanged in the local markets for fish, red meat and a range of food products that they did not produce. There was also the cultivation of orange trees and several other fruit trees that provided fruits for the family.
What did my Cretan Yiayia eat?
While they followed the typical diet of the Greek-Orthodox fasts, the daily nutritional routine is what makes the Cretan diet special. For breakfast there was freshly boiled milk, paximadi, olive oil and some fruit. The mid-morning snack during work also included paximadi along with olive oil or olives and some cheese. At noon, they ate plenty of vegetables even if there was meat present (the Cretan cuisine is famous for marrying vegetables with many different ingredients and other food groups) or beans.
The day started early, they were up at sunrise, so dinner was early as well. They ate leftovers from lunch or paximadi, cheese, tomato and a little oil, otherwise known as the now famous and popular Dakos, that many restaurants have now included on their menu as a sophisticated salad.
This diet has been analyzed and researched in-depth. The benefits of the Cretan diet are well established. Personally, I do not need any scientific proof to be persuaded of this. Like many Cretans of her generation, my pro-yiayia Aristea had a long life. She lived until she was 99 years old, with absolutely no chronic health problems and most likely died of old age, with a “rosy cheek” as the Greek expression says.
Photo Credit: Crete by David Merrett
Manolis Manolarakis is a Dietitian/Nutritionist based in Athens, Greece. He manages the scientific nutrition website www.diatrofi.gr and the e-magazine: e-food for e-thought (in Greek). He is President of the Union of Dietitians and Nutritionists of Greece and a member of the National Scientific Committee of the European program EPODE – Paideiatrofi in Greece.