Small but mighty: Dittany of Crete

Ever been on holiday to Crete? Snaking up and down the narrow coastal and mountain roads you were probably overwhelmed by a botanical scent diffused into the air. Maybe even stopped the car to get some fresh air only to be perked up by a delirious smell of wild herbs. Crete prides itself as “a continent on an island”. There is some truth in this indeed, as Crete, unlike Northern Europe, escaped Ice Age harshness. A thriving ecosystem endowed the island with a carpet of almost 2,000 plants – many of them nowhere else to be found.

Rocky mountains and steep gorges make the perfect stage for the king of the endemic flora – Dittany of Crete. Hanging on their edge, this daredevil climber cost the lives of many Cretans in the past. Engaged in a green gold rush they traveled in groups from one end of the island to the other to track down their treasure. As their Minoan ancestors, these modern hunters traded extensively this valuable herb that refuses to grow anywhere else. Till WWII, France paid a small fortune (8,000,000 drachmas for 10 tons per year!) to import dittany for pharmaceuticals and perfumes*.

dittany

Dittany’s romantic name is ‘erontas’, meaning love in Greek. For one to reach it, he must go through the torments of love. As its alpine friend, the edelweiss, its bell shaped pink blooms were presented as tokens of devotion to beautiful Cretan girls. For the love of her son also, Aphrodite, as yet another legendary Greek mother, rushed to Crete to get Aeneas herbal first aid, when he was injured fighting over Rome. Roman poet Virgil drew inspiration for this story from Aristotle: “Wild goats in Crete are said, when wounded by arrow, to go in search of dittany, which is supposed to have the property of ejecting arrows in the body.”

*Wild dittany is an endangered species due to overexploitation so better prefer that of cultivated origin.

D for Dittany

Cretans are masters of longevity. No winter passes without a sip of herbal tea, while many use dittany to flavor their favorite spirit, the Cretan raki. Origanum_dictamnusSince the time of Hippocrates, it was widely known that dittany knocks out almost anything that ends with -ache i.e. stomach-, tooth-, head-, and starts with anti-, anti-aging, anti-septic, anti-cellulite, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer, anti-spasmodic, anti-irritant. In another way of putting it, if dittany was a man he wouldn’t suffer from sexual performance anxiety and if a woman she wouldn’t know what labor pain is. So, maybe it’s high time we revamp our medicine cabinet and check which chemicals we can replace with natural healers*. Herbs, although surrounded by legends, their benefits are supported by scientific research. One of them, at the University of Crete, was recently converted to a dietary supplement made of sage, thyme and burning bush** essential oils mixed with extra virgin olive oil.

*If in doubt, always seek advice from your doctor.
**Other name for dittany, as said to set on fire to its aromatic oils on calm, summer days.

Origanum Dictamnus 

Dittany was not traditionally used in Cretan cuisine. But after contacting chefs and restaurateurs on the island, I heard various opinions. And, as they say, de gustibus non disputandum est – freely translated, every tastebud wins!

smoothie

My “Do Try This at Home” kitchen experiments started with a breakfast treat. I never imagined I could enjoy a splash of dittany in my usual banana, honey, almond milk and tahini* smoothie. Surprisingly, it added more depth and spiced up my morning routine! Can’t wait for summer to cool off with an iced Cretan herbal tea made of dittany, thyme, sage, mint and honey. Heatwave be gone!

lamb chops honey dittany

Tapping Crete’s culinary words of wisdom, I tossed dittany in my meat and seafood marinades. Both times I balanced its slightly bitter taste with top quality honey from thyme flowers growing on the island. Dittany gave my meals herbal flavor and aromatic aftertaste that can be compared to oregano and thyme. Sprinkle it dried or fresh over omelette, baked potatoes or pizza, it turns any simple meal into a delectable experience! After two weeks of cooking alchemies my sensitive stomach purrs with happiness. “Stomachohorto” (stomach herb) is another well-deserved name for this miraculous perennial.
*Our Greek peanut butter. Tahini is a sesame seed paste, widely known as the main ingredient of hummus.

Cocktail wizardry

Crowned with ancient myths and stories, dittany still fires up the imagination with its ‘supernatural powers’. Harry Potter’s Hermione saves her friends with Essence of Dittany, while modern witches use it in love potions and spells promising out-of-body experiences.

cocktail wizardry2

Now it’s your turn to bewitch your friends with your wizardry! Follow the steps of the Benedictine and Trappist monks or the visionary Martini and Rossi – they all used dittany in their secret botanical blends. You don’t have to study herbalism or botany though to lose yourself in the art of mixology. Pick out your favorite booze e.g. rum, gin or tequila* and load it with a fresh sprig of dittany (a tablespoon of dried works fine too) – aged or too complex, like Hendrick’s, not preferred. Sip and shake a bit daily! Strain out the herb when the spirit has taken the taste you desire. A few drops can even turn your plain water into an intriguing drinking experience!

cocktail wizardry

A dittany-infused syrup will offer you more flexibility and it’s super easy to make. Just follow the common formula of 1:1 ratio -meaning 1 part sugar to 1 part water – replacing the latter with dittany tea. (Discard the herb after a few minutes to avoid releasing its bitter nature).

Start your home bar experiments by making a cocktail of white rum, dittany syrup and freshly squeezed lime. Soon you will be able to create killer combinations that set apart from the rest. There are many tips and tricks from the pros, but just have in mind this one: a well-balanced cocktail needs none of its elements to dominate the taste. 

*Mastic liqueur pairs well with dittany to make the ultimate Mediterranean aperitif.

Special thanks to Dimitris Giakoumakis of Kolokotroni 9 Bar in Athens for all the useful tips and info.

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Rise and shine, full of beans!

Let off your fiery fireworks, for this year lentils, beans and all their beloved cousins in the legume family are celebrated!
2016 is declared by the UN as the International Year of Pulses aiming to highlight their nutritional benefits and their role in sustainable food production. For us Greeks though, legumes could be worthy of praise each year, as we have been huge fans and avid consumers since ancient times. And no wonder, as these ‘humble, earthy fruits’ received their esteemed super food quality, long before any marketing hype.

5 reasons why legumes are good for you.
5 reasons why legumes rock

Now if you ask me, I would happily exchange my cow for some magic beans – as Jack did in the famous bedtime story- for a million reasons.
Chickpeas, lentils, peas, beans etc are like supercharged batteries for your body and brain. Low in fat and high in protein, they can be your best friends for weight loss, doing the job of filling you up (Paleo diet doesn’t work for me either!).
Needless to say how cheap they are, always frowned upon as poor man’s meat. In Greece we use the saying ‘for a bowl of lentil stew’, meaning to give away sth for less than its real value. Professor Flint-Hamilton knows best. In her article, Aristophanes is the one who uses lentils and chickpeas to highlight the lack of sophistication of his characters, while Hippocrates recommends lentils as a remedy for ulcers and hemorrhoids.

full-of-beans-4
Save some salad for next day’s brunch

Isn’t it just great, that all these valuable pearls and beads are beautifully incorporated into world cuisines, in ways that allow their full aromas and vibrant colors to shine? Wouldn’t be panspermia – a bowl of  mixed legumes and grains offered by ancient Greeks to Demeter to ensure an abundant harvest- the ideal canvas for an artist or a fashion designer to take inspiration from?
But the greatest thing of all is that legumes are a passe-partout in the kitchen. So versatile and all-purpose, they can be eaten anytime of the day, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner. So ‘social and friendly’, there is hardly any food that isn’t fun to mix and match with. Even if the fridge looks half-empty, (or half-full, whatever).
The other day, I strolled up and down the street market and oops, so typically me, chatting with all the vendors and grannies in line, and I forgot what I really wanted to buy… Next minute I am there in my kitchen emergently calling for my problem-solving imagination to answer the never ending question “What’s for lunch today?”. Black eyed peas*
(it’s beans guys! -stop baffling non native speakers) and lentils* called to arms from my cupboards and there you have it! – a tasty and easy to make salad, embracing all the essence of the Greek land. Got leftovers? Save them for next day’s runny yolk served better on bulgur wheat than bread.

#LoveLegumes-2
#LoveLegumes

* Black-eyed peas were the only well known beans in ancient Greece, best quality considered now those of Preveza origin.
* Englouvi on Lefkada island is the home of a delicious and rare variety of lentils.

*If you really enjoyed my post, feel free to write any comments, share it with friends and become a follower.