Centuries of Cretan Herbs: The Herbs of Crete

Discover what a few herbs from Greece's largest island can offer your kitchen.

| February/March 2002

  • Cretan herbs are packaged and sold at the market.

Ten minutes into our tour of Crete’s capital, Heraklieon, our guide advised us to have some herbal tea. To help us adjust to the climate, the food, and the water, our tour guide, Eftalia, recommended diktamos (Origanum dictamnus). “For tourist tummy,” she said.

Diktamos, or dittany, as English speakers call it, has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb on the island of Crete. According to Myrsini Lambraki, a cookbook author and expert on Cretan food, the old name for diktamos was Artemidion. This refers to the goddess Artemis, who hunted with arrows dipped in poison.

“It was said, and almost all the ancient authors believed,” says Lambraki, “that diktamos had the quality to heal wounds from poisoned arrowheads.”

In the huge market in Heraklieon, in the midst of a table stacked high with purple eggplant, lemony squash, sheaves of grape leaves, and piles of wild greens, I found dried herbs and among them, diktamos. I asked the seller if it was true that this herb could work miracles.

“Yes, it is true,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “I myself drink many cups per day. It keeps me healthy, and as you see, it makes me very beautiful!”

Everything is beautiful in early summer on Crete, Greece’s most southerly island. This is why English, Dutch, and German tourists flock the beaches, and the scent of sunscreen, fish and chips, and burgers is in the air. And, I suppose, why mopeds, not donkeys, are the vehicles of choice.

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