The Cretans have always gone herb gathering, at times under duress. During centuries of occupation, first by the Venetians and then the Turks, Cretans relied on their knowledge of their native plants to keep them alive. Wild greens such as purslane, dandelion, and mustard were often all there was to eat. Herbs were used medicinally, but just as important, they were also used for making meager fare taste better.
Crete is perhaps most famous for its Minoan period, a flowering of culture and art that began around 1900 bc. The remains of the palace at Mallia and the ruins at Knossos bring in thousands of tourists per year. But most people don’t know that the Minoans were great herb-lovers.
According to Lambraki, when the Minoan palace at Mallia was excavated, a vessel was found containing vegetable remains of cedar, coriander, and wild fennel. Even today, Lambraki says, cedar fruits are consumed by the inhabitants of the isle of Gavdos, south of Crete. And, she assures me, the rich taste of wild fennel is much appreciated in modern Cretan cuisine.
Nancy Allison is a freelance writer living in New York. She writes about plants, people, and places for several magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom.