The dry and rocky landscape of Crete may appear to be barren, says Lambraki, as she surveys her native land. But visit in May, she advises, when the wild herbs are blooming. Take a deep breath and you can almost make a meal off of the scent.
Making meals flavored with herbs is a Cretan specialty. The island, with its rugged coastline and mountains thick with olive groves, hosts a unique crossbreed of European, African, and Asian flora. Cretan flora includes nearly sixty species native to Asia and not found anywhere else in Europe, and more than 200 species not encountered in mainland Greece.
The Cretans have made ingenious use of their island’s native herbs since antiquity,according to Lambraki, and have exported the herbs for centuries. She quotes Claudius Galen, the personal physician of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote in the second century, “Many of the herbs cultivated in the emperor’s gardens originate from Crete. Many of the greens, herbs, fruits and seeds on this island cannot be found anywhere else in the world. . .”
Cretans don’t take this bounty for granted—the wild herbs and greens which abound there are used daily. A visitor to Crete is immediately struck by the wealth of herbs everywhere, from fresh dill and fennel in tiny markets to chamomile, oregano, and dittany in the souvenir shops. Even at the airport gift shop, you’ll see Cretan herbs and thyme-flavored honey among the bottles of ouzo and Greek olive oil. And ever present is the scent of wild thyme and sage on the hot breeze.
Fennel, too, grows wild along the roadsides and in the hills, its sweet licorice scent as delightful as its delicate fronds. On my visit to this lovely island, I found that simply seeing herbs grow wild made me feel happy. And what a temptation! Each time I took a walk I’d return to my pension with my pockets full of oregano to use on my lunchtime tomato, olive, onion, and feta cheese salad.
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These websites contain helpful advice for planning travel and Crete or interesting information if you’re just looking for fun.
Click here for the main article, Centuries of Cretan Herbs.
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.