herbs and wild greens

“Can you smell that aroma?” asks Dimitris, as he places a strange implement on a rockrose bush. The hills surrounding the village of Sises in the region of Rethymno are the only place in Crete where Cistus Creticus grows in such abundance, and the implement he’s just put into position is one invented by the Sisians. Made of quince wood and plastic straps, it collects precious gum from the bush. This is a task that can only be accomplished when the resin is soft, which means no rain and temperatures of 33 Celsius and above in the shade.
There’s nothing easy about the process. After hours under the sun, the straps become covered in a thick coating of resin that is then scraped off by the ladies of the village, using another makeshift tool fashioned from a door latch. I imagine how bizarre the spectacle must have seemed to passing tourists when the road connecting the village to the city of Iraklio first opened a few decades ago. Before then, labdanum had been a mainstay of the Sisian economy, with more than 100 men going out to collect it on hot summer days. They would be happy with a harvest of half a kilo a day, and they stored the gum in their homes, often under the beds so as to better enjoy its aroma.
For the Sisians, labdanum is also associated with good health. “People who go labdanum-collecting never get sick,” village elders will tell you. And back when there were no manufactured medicines on hand to treat their ailments, a little bit of labdanum diluted in hot olive oil was used for colds and skin complaints. It seems the ancient Minoans and Egyptians were onto something with their praise for the “wild rose of the rocks.” Modern science has justified their firm belief in its beneficial properties: Cistus Creticus’ leaves are comparable to green tea in terms of the antioxidants they compare. And I would be more than happy to prepare a tisane for you, blending Cistus with two more of Crete’s medicinal herbs.

“Can you smell that aroma?” asks Dimitris, as he places a strange implement on a rockrose bush.​

Manousos lifts the bell-shaped lid of a 150-year-old copper distillation vat to reveal a thick layer of Cretan dittany leaves and flowers. The process of extracting their essential oils is almost finished and the aroma fills the room. His methods are the same as those used in Lasithi for hundreds of years.
Manousos remembers the traditional herbalists who would travel from village to village selling sage oil for stomach pain, oregano oil for toothache, and cedar oil for swollen tonsils. “There are many more healing plants on the island, of course,” he says, letting me in on a traditional recipe called sarantavotano, a combination of 40 plants that is regarded as a very effective defense for the body.

There are many healing plants on the island of Crete and a traditional recipe called sarantavotano is a combination of the top 40 that are regarded as an effective defense for the body.

The plants were customarily collected all year around by the women of the village and boiled in an earthenware pot reserved for this purpose. The tea that resulted from this process was regarded as working miracles in strengthening the immune system and treating all sorts of ailments. “Newborns were dunked into a trough full of sarantavotano nine times,” says Manousos, before launching into a recital of the recipe, which comes in the form of a mantinada:
“If your health is gone and you want to get it back,
the herbs from the earth are by far your best tack;
Citrus leaves and lemon scent, mandarins, oranges and quince…”
In Crete, herbs and plants have been used for their medicinal properties for 4,000 years or more. In fact, Manousos has found drawings by an Italian archaeologist who studied the distillation methods used by the ancient Minoans and, based on these, is in the process of building a 150-liter, three-chamber distillation pot at a ceramics workshop in Thrapsano. The bottom section will contain the water, the middle part will hold the herbs and the top portion will collect the essential oils.
It is a device that was eons ahead of its time technologically, and while knowledge of it and of other processes was nearly lost over the course of the centuries, this wisdom is gradually being rediscovered. This is also the case with a range of natural cosmetic products and perfumes that were among Minoan Crete’s most important exports millennia ago.

Another plant that used to be collected by Chania locals was Carlina Gummifera, which they used as chewing gum.

Wild greens is something you can find in Crete without much effort at all. Manolis, an expert wild food forager with a farm in Paidochori, Hania, was taught how to forage for them by his grandmother and can fill a basket every season of the year. He explains that there are more than 60 types of wild greens growing in the wider vicinity, from prickly radish and white hedge-nettle to dandelions and meadow parsley.
“You can’t rely just on how they look to tell them apart, you have to go by taste, texture and smell,” Manolis says. There are, of course, several wild greens that are toxic. This category includes mullein, which grows in the recesses of rocks and was once used to purify rainwater. Another plant that used to be collected by the locals was Carlina Gummifera, which they used as chewing gum. The root juice of this purple thistle becomes gummy when it comes into contact with air. After our walk, Manolis invites me for a glass of tsikoudia and a taste of some of the fruits he has collected in his basket: figs, pears and mangos -a cornucopia that hints at the abundant variety of fruits and vegetables that flourish on Crete.

Photos courtesy of Giorgos Anastasakis / © Region of Crete