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26

Discovering the Natural Treasures of Crete

September 26, 2019
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Tammy Burns

I don’t know when I lost my connection to my food, but I do know where I found it: in Crete.

You’ve likely heard a lot about how the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest in the world. After spending time on Greece’s largest island, I can say I certainly felt healthier, but it wasn’t just a physical change. I felt more emotionally tied to what was going into my body than I had ever felt before. To borrow the words of a friend who joined me on Urban Adventures’ Gourmet Trail of Rethymnon tour: “It’s not just my stomach; it feels like my soul is being fed.” That’s what it feels like to eat in Crete.

Working with the European Sustainability Academy (ESA)

The Cretan diet is one of the healthiest in the world; try some of its organic treasures on Urban Adventures' Natural Treasures of Crete tour. | Photo Credit: Crete Urban Adventures

But if a food tour in Rethymnon gave me a taste of what food connection could be, my appetite for it grew ravenous on the Natural Treasures of Crete tour, run in collaboration with the European Sustainability Academy (ESA). 30% of your tour fee is donated to the ESA.

Located in the traditional village of Drapanos, in the Apokoronas region of Chania, the ESA provides training and development programs for business managers to learn sustainable practices and corporate responsibility. It’s the first of its kind in Europe, and its location is intentional. Cretans have long practiced sustainability, living off the products that naturally grow in the hillsides or in the coastal waters. The diet here is about using what nature has provided, and using it responsibly. Food waste doesn’t happen in the villages of Crete, because everyone can clearly trace their meal from farm to table and you don’t want to waste the lemons that your neighbour picked for you or the tomatoes that you grew with your own hands or the lamb that gave its life to your plate.

It’s because of this history and tradition of connection to the land that founder Sharon Jackson settled on a remote village in Crete for her program. Her belief (and the centre’s overall philosophy) is that “people cannot effectively contemplate the issues of sustainability in a non-ecologically sensitive environment.” By bringing senior managers out of their offices and into the outdoors, ESA hopes to make sustainability a tangible experience that they can see, smell, touch, hear and taste.

And oh, those tastes. That is what most people come on this tour for, but beyond just leaving with full bellies, they also take away a richer appreciation of why sustainably harvested food tastes the way it does.

Wild herbs and olive oil tastings

Cretan herbs
Foraging for herbs; wild herbs grow all over the island, giving it a natural scent that's hard to beat. | Photo Credit: Crete Urban Adventures

It’s late afternoon when I arrive for my tour, the hot Cretan sun starting to dip in the sky. I meet with Sharon herself and the others on the tour: a retired couple from Britain and a young Greek blogger. Before darkness can fall, Sharon leads us on a tour of the grounds, testing us to see if we can identify the herbs growing beneath our feet. She tells us that they didn’t plant any of this. In Crete, you don’t need to. Everywhere on the island, the air smells like oregano and sage and thyme and mint because it grows wild along roadsides and hillsides, and also here, in the ESA’s backyard.

Once it’s too dark to pick out herbs, we venture indoors for an olive oil tasting. I had never realized that, like wine, you can pick out different flavours from different oils: nutty and smooth, sharp and peppery. We learn about the rich tradition of olive harvesting in Crete and come to understand the value of it, how cheap EVOO bottles in supermarkets are often not really extra virgin at all. An everyday example of how so many of us don’t know what we’re really eating or where it came from.

And that is the very point of ESA. Most of us are so far removed from the Earth in our day-to-day that it’s easy to forget the impact we each leave on it. I’m just one person, inspired to overhaul my kitchen and my consumption habits based off a mere few hours in the centre. I can see in this moment how such a seemingly small gesture, of taking directors from the boardroom into the outdoors, could help push entire businesses into more sustainable, environmentally conscious thinking.

What’s more, ESA’s education program goes beyond corporate retreats. They regularly offer pro-bono workshops on issues such as waste management, climate change, sea degradation, water shortages and air pollution. There’s a children’s program on animal welfare. Practicing what they preach, the centre aims to achieve zero emissions and zero waste to landfill.

As the evening progresses, we move onto tastings of Cretan wines, paired with delicious local cheeses, meats, bread and, of course, olives. We learn where each sip and each bite originated. We learn how to connect with our food and with each other – former strangers now discussing sustainable agriculture and the natural treasures that grow on Crete. My stomach is full, but more importantly, my mind and my soul are fed.

Natural Treasures of Crete Tour