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We Are What We Eat: Spring in Crete Means a Feast of Wild Greens

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In the rural village of Moires, Crete, farmer Fanouris Romanakis prunes his olive trees in the spring so that they bear more fruit.

Over the past weeks, we have been sharing Matthieu Paley’s visual food diary as he travels the globe on assignment for National Geographic in search of our ancestral ties to the food we eat. In this chapter, Paley finishes up his chapati and chai in the breathtaking mountains of northern Pakistan and travels back towards the sea for a Mediterranean springtime feast.

April 2014

She lies against the slope, framed in green. In her blue apron, black knee socks, and long hair tied in bun, she is beautiful. With some effort, she twists around to reach for a tuft of leaves just above her head. She grabs her stick and leans on it. Very slowly, she gets up. She turns to me and giggles as if to say, “Am I old or what!” She takes off her knitted vest and lays it flat on the ground under an olive tree. There is a large pocket in the front of her apron and it’s overflowing with wild plants: fennel, chicory, dandelion. Taking them out one bundle at a time, she methodically cuts the dirty roots off and wraps them inside the vest. They will be easy to carry home… and they look very snug.

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Vangelio Tsimbragou picks wild herbs near her home in the village of Meronas in central Crete.

Vangelio is in her 80s. She is foraging for wild herbs the same as she has done since she was a little girl. Above us is the small village of Meronas. Across from the wild valley stands Mount Psiloritis, its round peak still covered in snow. Olive groves are everywhere.

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A landscape of olive groves and vineyards in central Crete.

The largest island in Greece, Crete is a world in itself, very much favored by the gods. Indeed, the food is abundant. The Cretan eating habits are what define the Mediterranean diet, one of the oldest diets still popular today. I have my work cut out for me this week.

I meet some of Vangelio’s extended family. Everyone was out in the fields this afternoon, so there is a nice pile of freshly cleaned wild greens lying on the tablecloth. The conversation is loud and lively—a stream of friendly banter punctuated by hearty laughter, hand gestures, and much raising of the eyebrows. Everyone is incredibly welcoming. I am at the Moschonas for their Saturday family gathering. There is a kind of buzz that makes me feel right at home–we argue a lot in my family and I too like to express myself with my eyebrows.

“Now, we make kalitsounia!” boasts Stella. These are small pies filled with hand-picked wild herbs described collectively as horta. It is April, which has been horta time in Crete since the Neolithic age.

Stella is preparing dough on the table, rolling it out then cutting it into small squares. A couple of men are eating nuts and olives. They wash all this down with raki—a clear brandy made from grapes. Once neatly wrapped in dough, the little horta packages go back to the kitchen to get fried in olive oil.

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Saturday lunch at the home of Popi and Costas Semanderes in the village of Meronas. The family serves a homemade rose wine and dishes made from local ingredients (from left): stuffed grape leaves, an omelet with wild herbs, and potatoes fried in olive oil.

Meanwhile, a large bucket of snails has emerged from the freezer. “We eat snails all year round. Once we catch them, we sprinkle them with flour so they disgorge.” My mom still cooks escargot when I come back home to France. Sea snails, land snails … think of it … this must be some of the oldest food eaten by humans. Let’s just say the hunting skills required are not too sophisticated and they are an easy catch. No need for an elaborate bow and arrow or setting traps at dawn—simply go for a stroll in a patch of grass, turn over a few small rocks, and there they are.

“And they are full of Omega 3, no fat on that meat either!” Stella continues proudly, noticing my excitement. These little creatures will end up in a casserole, in a thick sauce made of onions, grated tomatoes, parsley, and bulgur.

I am offered a kalitsounia, hot out of the pan.

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Adonis Gligoris gathers parsley, accompanied by his children and a friend (left); fish from the Mediterranean, snails and vegetables from the fields, and wine from local grapes (right).

“Tell me about the horta,” I ask. “What did you pick today?”

Leaning over the table, Stella says with a smirk,”Oh, there are over 20 types out there, if you know where to find them.”

“That many?” I am amazed. “Come on… don’t tell me you can recognize all of them?”

“The hell I do!” Stella replies. “And I know them by name!”

I dare her to name them all and off she goes, eyes closed in concentration, “Golden thistle, black nightshade, mallow, sorrel, amaranth, brighteye, nettle, dandelions, purslane, hartwort, shepherd’s needles, vetch, spiny chicory, bitter dock, wild fennel, king’s spear…”

The list goes on and on. I am not quick enough to write all these down. Most of us are happy to tell chives from parsley. She, like all the other women sitting there—some whispering the names of a few herbs she forgot—is a born botanist. I am duly impressed.

The men are serving me wine. My plate is overflowing with escargots. A man starts playing the lyra. Fava beans and small fried sardines show up on the table along with another dish of what looks like tiny asparagus. Manolis sits next to me. He rolls a cigarette and points at the dish. “This one is medicament. Medicine!” He says with the gravelly laugh of a smoker, “Eat a ton of it!” I try a taste. It is a bit bitter—the kind of bitter you intuitively feel is good for you. I get his point. “We call these avronies… only in this season… you are a lucky man!”

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” Hippocrates wisely said. I feel I could live here for a long time, surely long enough to differentiate my wild fennel from my spiny chicory.

*****

Come along on Matthieu Paley’s global food journey from its origins in the mountains of Afghanistan, to the arctic tundra of Greenland, the steamy jungle of Bolivia, the crystalline waters of the Sulu Sea, and the rugged peaks and valleys of northern Pakistan.

The Evolution of Diet“, featured in the September issue, is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month “Future of Food” series. Follow Paley on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.


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