Irish chefs in Crete to unlock the Mediterranean diet

The snow was gone early from all but the highest peaks on the Greek island of Crete – a worrying sign of climate change – when a mixed team of chefs, organic growers and media specialists arrived from Ireland to meet with counterparts at the Mediterranean Agronomics Institute of Chania (MAICh). Crete is the birthplace of the Mediterranean diet, renowned for its health benefits. But the diet offers more. Research shows that the ritual around Cretan food may also offer an important resource in recovering the health of our threatened climate.

Visham Sumputh, head chef at Dublin’s award-winning Etto restaurant, and Jonathan Smith owner of popular eatery Ernesto’s in Rathmines may, at first glance, seem like two chefs from different food traditions, but their passion for good food, made with sustainable, local and seasonal ingredients, is the strong, uniting factor that found them working shoulder-to-shoulder with chef Giota Tsounapi of MAICh and Stelios Trilyrakis, owner of Dounias Taverna – a ‘slow-food’ restaurant in the Cretan mountains, where everything is produced and foraged on site, before being cooked without the use of electricity or gas.

The Irish chefs worked first with Giota, in the kitchens of the Institute, where they cooked a range of dishes, many that she had learned from her grandmother from the tender age of six. The three chefs then travelled into the mountains where Dounias Taverna has been growing in reputation as prime example of circular economy agriculture.

“We cooked solely on open fires. It was absolutely amazing,” said Jonathan of Ernesto’s. “It’s a very primitive way of cooking, but they did it so well – everything serviced in the kitchen was from outside their own door. It’s totally sustainable and totally self-sufficient.”

Etto’s Visham was equally impressed with his experience of the Cretan food ethos: “When the person eats a meal, they understand the story behind it. There is a connection with the food.”

This loss of connection between people and food in modern Ireland, the growing shift in balance from natural to ultra-processed foods, and the subsequent damage to the environment, is at the back of the initiative.

“Ireland is like so many European countries,” explained Declan Cassidy, CEO of EurAV – one of the three non-profit organisations behind the project. “We have a connection with the land that is at the heart of our heritage and traditions. But, in the last couple of generations, the link with that tradition has been broken. Modern living has seen us turn from a society where households grew their own food or sourced it fresh, local and seasonal, to one where we drive to supermarkets to fill up trolleys with ultra-processed foods and readymade meals. When we do buy fruit and veg, it is often plastic-wrapped and shipped in from overseas, leaving a trail of carbon footprints – all because we expect things like tomatoes and strawberries all year round. We have come to prefer a pack of wax-covered identical apples in a plastic pack instead of the many native apples that are now an endangered part of our heritage, but that don’t have a uniform shape and are dull-skinned because they haven’t been artificially waxed. We came to Crete because, for the people there, the connection with food that is healthy for them, and for the planet, is still strong.”

The trip was part of the Climate Aware Sustainable Kitchen (CASK) project. Later in the year, it will see the Cretan chefs arrive in Ireland to work with 10 Irish food service industry professionals in order to discover how the ethos of the Mediterranean diet can be transferred to the products that grow naturally in this country. The lead partner behind the project is Sonairte, the National Ecology Centre of Ireland, and, in a one-day workshop at the organisation’s organic gardens and heritage orchards on Meath’s gold coast, the chefs, from opposite corners of the EU, will take Cretan recipes and re-invent them to use local, seasonal ingredients.

“Visham and Jonathan have been hard at work, identifying the ingredients that both countries share and brainstorming for Irish ingredients, with similar properties and flavours, that can replace the ones that can’t be grown in our climate,” explained Declan. “Having helped to forage for the ingredients, then having cooked them with the Cretan experts, they’ll be able to pass that knowledge on to the other eight chefs at the workshop in Ireland. Ten chefs may seem a modest number, but with Etto and Ernesto’s behind the project, along with the other chefs and cooks bringing this ethos into their work environments, it has the potential to be the start of a movement that helps us to repair our relationship with our environment.”

The one day workshop, to be held at Sonairte, will take place in August and will see the chefs begin the day by foraging for the ingredients that they will use in their Cretan-influenced recipes. After a day of cooking, members of the public will be invited to Sonairte to try the foods and give their verdicts.

Those interested in attending the evening, to taste what the chefs have produced, can register their interest through the contact form on this site.

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