Wild greens, "Horta" in Greek, are among the most healthy and nutritious foods for foodies.
What’s best, is that they grow wild, with no help at all. They are basically plants that grow uncultivated in all sorts of places, ranging from roadsides to open fields and mountains.
Wild greens have been a very important part of the Cretan diet throughout the centuries and they have played an important role to the people’s survival during harsher times, when the food was scarce (wars, famine e.tc). The Cretans have always valued them for their medicinal properties and their suggested benefits for conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure but also for being a great source of antioxidants and Omega 3 fatty acids. In fact, wild greens are generally higher in nutrient content than their domesticated counterparts.
These glorious wild greens are also a gastronomic treat, with flavors ranging from bitter to salty and sweet and textures ranging from tender to crisp. They can constitute both, a side dish (cold or warm salad) and the main meal. Greens pair well with almost everything – meat, fish, pasta, seafood – as they enhance rather than overpower the flavors of the other ingredients.
Although foraging for horta may sound like an old-fashioned activity, it is in fact still very popular. Driving around the Cretan countryside, you'll often see men, women and children alike, picking horta on the roadsides and in olive groves, gathering the greens into plastic bags, bushel baskets, or specially-designed large-pocketed aprons.
Wild greens still form a significant part of the diet in Crete, judging from the fact that they are collected in the wild, sold at the supermarket, the greengrocers’ shops and the local street markets. Many wild greens have become trendy of late, and feature on many top-end restaurant menus.
Truth is that on just about every Cretan restaurant menu, you will find a dish called horta, which is a bowl of boiled wild greens with lemon and olive oil. Lemon juice goes amazingly well with cooked greens, not just for adding flavor but also for helping your body absorb the iron from them. Many islanders used to drink the broth in which the greens were boiled, adding plenty of lemon juice to it.
Wild greens are also used for the traditional Cretan green pies, called kallitsounia. Kallitsounia are small half-moon shaped pastry filled with a mixture of wild greens and fried in virgin olive oil. According to the local recipe, the finely chopped wild greens are not boiled but cooked, with plenty of virgin olive oil and only a little water, for approximately an hour at a medium temperature. They are then left to cool and drain before filling the pastry.
Crete is, for sure, an excellent natural environment with rich plant variety which renders it one of the most ineresting flora in the world. There are about 1800 species and subspecies of plants on the island and 193 approximately are endemic, which means that they are only found in Crete. The rich flora of the island is due to its geographical position, mild climate, mountains which are separated from each other with meadows, small plains and many gorges.
The most popular wild edible plants of Crete are:
avronies (Tamus communis): they are found in wet sites, springs, stone benches, gorges of the lowland, sub-montane and montane zone. The tender shoots are consumed cooked in steam and browned with meat or eggs.
agoglossos (Anchusa azurea): it is found in the ends of roads, fallow and cultivated fields mainly of the sub-montane zone. It is also called “fish of the mountain” since the tender stems can be dipped in a beaten mixture of flour and liquid and then, fried. The tender stems are also consumed cooked in steam.
agriagginara (Cynara cornigera): it is found in fallow and stony sites of the lowland and sub-montane zone. The leaves and the head are consumed raw, cooked in steam or browned. They can even be cooked with scrambled eggs and can become pickle. The raw salad is a very common side dish for the local drink raki.
agrioradiko (Taraxacum megalorhizon): it is found in the montane zone at an altituide of 1000m approximately to 1600m, in the Plateau of Katharo in Lassithi and in the mountain Kedros in Rethymno. The leaves are consumed raw in salads or cooked in steam.
askolympros (Scolymus bispanicus): it is found in fallow land, stony sites and cultivated fields of the lowland and sub-montane zone. The leaves are consumed cooked in steam and the root is consumed cooked in steam and/or fried afterwards.
ahatzikas (Scandix spp): it is found in the ends of roads, ditches, vineyards, fallow and cultivated fields of the lowland and sub-montane zone. The leaves have a special smell and they are consumed browned.
galatsida (Reichardia picroides): it is found in stony soils, steep sites, fallow fields, thickets and cultivated fields from the littoral to the montane zone. The leaves and the tender shoots are consumed raw with vinegar, cooked in steam or browned.
glykoradiko (Leontodon tuberosus): it is found in the ends of fields, fallow sites, rare thickets, vineyards and cultivated fields of the lowland and the sub-montane zone. The roots are consumed raw and the leaves are consumed cooked in steam.
zohos (Sonchus sp.): it is usually found in cultivated fields, fallow land, ends of roads of the lowland and sub-montane zone. The leaves and the tender shoots are consumed cooked in steam.
kafkalithra (Tordyliym apulum): it is found in fallow and mainly cultivated fields or vineyards of the lowland and sub-montane zone. The leaves have a strong smell and they are consumed raw in salads or browned.
kritamo (Crithmum maritimum): it is found on steep and sandy beaches of the littoral zone. The leaves are consumed raw in salads after being seasoned with vinegar. It is also called “sea fennel” because, in its fresh form, it smells like a mixture of fennel and peppermint.
lagoudopaximado (Prasium majus): it is found in stony soils, fallow fields, gullies, wet sites and rare thickets of the lowland and sub-montane zone. The tender shoots are consumed browned.
lapatho (Rumex spp): it is usually found in cultivated fields, pasture land and wet sites of the lowland and –mainly– sub-montane zone. The leaves are consumed browned. They can also be stuffed with herbed rice (dolmades).
lapsana (Sinapis sp.): it is usually found in cultivated fields, ends of roads and fallow fields of the lowland and sub-montane zone. The leaves and the tender shoots are consumed cooked in steam
pentanevro (Plantago lanceolata): it is found in wet sites, meadows, gullies or slopes of roads of the lowland and sub-montane zone. The leaves have a light, sweet and fresh smell. They are consumed browned and they are eaten in small portions along with other greens.
radikio (Cichorium intibus): it is found in meadows, fallow and cultivated fields of the lowland, sub-montane and montane zone. It is a species with many different varieties (color, shape, fuzzy leaves or not e.tc.). The leaves, the tender shoots and the root (“goula”) are consumed cooked in steam.
skordoulakas (Μuscari commosum): it is found in fallow land, meadows, stony sites and cultivated sites of the lowland, sub-montane and montane zone. The root (bulb) is consumed cooked in steam. Ιt is also eaten as a 'pickle' having been cooked and preserved with olive oil, herbs and a little vinegar.
stamnagathi (Cichorium spinosum): it is found in the littoral and montane zone. The leaves are consumed raw in salads with olive oil and lemon, cooked in steam or browned. It is considered the “prince” of wild edible plants as it is rich in vitamin C and E and Omega 3 fatty acids, which boost the immune system. This particular variety is now starting to be commercially cultivated.
stafylinakas (Daucus carota): it is found in meadows, stone benches, vineyards, ends of fields and cultivated fields of the lowland and sub montane zone. Domesticated carrots are cultivars of this species. The leaves and the tender shoots have a strong smell and they are consumed cooked in steam. They are also used in pies to give flavor as they smell almost like parsley.
styfnos (Solanum nigrum): it is found in cultivated fields, fallow sites and meadows of the lowland, sub-montane and montane zone. The leaves and the tender shoots are consumed cooked in steam.
fasoulida (Ranunculus ficaria): it is found in cultivated fields, springs and wet sites of the lowland and sub-montane zone. The leaves are consumed browned in small portions.
During your winter visit in Rethymno, a good starting point to learning about edible wild greens, is to go for a walk at the local air market (Laiki), operating on Thursday mornings at the parking next to the Municipal Garden and on Saturday mornings, at 200m distance from the central bus station. Ask the local producers to help you tell apart the different species and organise your own excursion on the countryside in order to forage for them. You can also taste different kinds of wild greens at almost any restaurant and tavern, in and out of the city. Try new recipes and learn about the making of simple Cretan dishes based on wild greens.
If Rethymno is a summer destination for you, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Cretan Diet Festival, which is organised every summer in the beginning of July aiming to highlight and promote local products. During the Festival, you can try special menus in many restaurants, which are introduced by local chefs based on Cretan traditional recipes and local ingredients (olive oil, wild greens, cheese, snails, pomegranate e.tc.), paired with local wines.
Stavridakis K., Wild edible plants of Crete, Rethymno, 2006