Visitors of Crete have found out that when exploring local villages and off the beaten path stores it’s possible to find Cretan memories to take back home. Objects that tell a story of their own, that are characteristic of the land and that – sometimes – cannot be obtained anywhere else. Here is a list of the best ten souvenirs people are buying in Crete.
1. Olive oil
Olives have been cultivated in Crete since the Minoan times (about 3500 BC). Archaeologists have even found a room devoted to hosting an olive press in the Minoan palace of Knossos. Cretans are the first worldwide consumers of olive oil, the main ingredient of the healthy Cretan diet. Still, from the olive, it’s possible to obtain a varied range of other products as well, such as marmalades and pastes to spread on bread, but also beauty products and even objects for the kitchen, made from olive wood.
2. Thyme honey
The area of Sfakia, on the White Mountains of Crete, is famous for the character of the inhabitants, their resilience and hospitality, but also their gastronomy. The pies from Sfakia (also called Sfakianes pites) are made with very simple ingredients and when still hot, are topped with the best honey around, honey from Sfakia. On Crete, varieties range from orange blossom to pine tree, but thyme honey is the absolut best-seller due to its mild taste, deep orange color, and unique consistency.
3. Graviera cheese
Contrary to what anyone would believe, it’s Greece the first worldwide consumer of cheese. Of course, Feta cheese remains a best-seller in the rest of the country; however, in Crete, locals mainly prefer soft types such as anthotyros (quite similar to the Italian ricotta, that can be eaten dry or fresh) and mizithra used for pies and salads. When it comes to more aged or savory cheese, the choice is the pungent and spicier Cretan Graviera, with a subtle flavor of nuts and even pepper sometimes. Graviera is also sold aromatized with thyme or spices and often aged in mountain caves. In Crete, Graviera is made from sheep and goat milk in different proportions.
Another characteristic of the Cretan mountains is the endless varieties of wild greens, herbs and medicinal plants that grow with the aid of the ideal climate: abundant water from the mountains combined with balanced temperatures and a very rich soil. It’s no surprise then that herbs are used for teas and that they also serve as condiments at the table. Herbs like thyme, oregano, and marjoram are widely used. To make the Cretan Mountain tea, instead, the chosen ingredients include dittany (which only grows on Crete) but also chamomile, verbena, and sage. Locals are known to include up to 12 different mountain herbs to prepare what they also call “cocktail tea”. They serve this tea hot and with honey during winter, or with a touch of orange zest and iced in summer.
5. Local crafts
Near the city of Chania, there’s a unique place that gathers over thirty local artisans in one village, it’s the Verekinthos Arts and Crafts Village, specially built to provide local artisans with spaces where to live and create. This project, that took over thirty years to complete, puts on display crafts that would have otherwise been lost. Taking a walk around the village allows seeing clay board games, glass and metal pieces of jewelry, toys made of tin or wood, and refined ceramic objects. Some artists also offer courses on Byzantine painting and ceramics.
6. Carob products
Carob is a very common evergreen tree growing almost anywhere on Crete. The island is home to the largest natural grove in Europe, which is located in Tris Ekklisies. The pod (and not the seeds) are consumed dried or roasted and are used also to produce carob flour. During the different wars, carob used to feed the rebels in the mountains and villagers too. Carob is today considered a superfood, it’s also a healthy substitute for chocolate and some of its derived products include pasta, coffee, tea, and biscuits.
7. Cretan knives
Cretan knives have always been key to the local culture, men used to carry two of them all the time. One of the knives was intended for food, that meaning scaling fish, carving meat or cutting bread. The other served to kill the enemy. The difference between the two of them mainly resides in the shape of the handle. Food knives have special areas on the handle accommodate the fingers. The knife used to stab the enemy, instead, has a straight handle while the blade is especially thought to produce a faster death.
8. Cretan boots
Stivania are these traditional boots still to be found on Crete, especially in the mountains and in far away villages. Shepherds still consider stivania as part of their everyday outfit. On the other hand, while in the cities, stivania can be seen during special feasts and celebrations, since they are part of the Cretan dress many dancers wear. Walking down the road of the leather, in the center of Chania, it is still possible to get a customized pair. People from all over the world come to the island, get their feet measured and, a few weeks later, once back home, they receive a pair of boots that fit really well.
These strings of beads, out of Greece known as worry-beads, are part of a tradition that can also be found in other areas of the country. In Crete, however, the House of Amber, has one the biggest collections of Komboloi. Komboloi normally count an odd number of beads and there are versions both for men and for women. Their beads can be made of aromatic wood, such as sandal, but also natural stone, amber or plastic To have a better idea about their use and history, take a look here.
Pottery can also be useful, other than ornamental, as a present. Margarites, a village near the city of Rethymno, is probably one of the best places where to test your own skills on clay but also to choose among pots, cups or plates to take back home. The production of pots is a millennial tradition on Crete, it’s easy to see them in see in the form of pitharia, the huge vases the Minoans would use to store oil, wine or food. Many of these have been found in different Mediterranean cities, proving the commercial ties Crete used to have with nearby civilizations.