By Lisa Radinovsky from Greek Liquid Gold.
During the 2nd annual Cretan Lifestyle Conference in Rethymno, Crete, Greece, over 150 researchers and professionals gathered to discuss and experience one of the world’s healthiest lifestyles. Participants from 16 countries travelled to the birthplace of the Mediterranean diet for five days of stimulating presentations, Cretan cuisine, and exploration.
From November 13 to 18, an international group dedicated to wellness came from four continents to explore the benefits of the traditional Cretan diet and lifestyle, which many consider the original version of the famously healthy Mediterranean diet. Attracting twice as many participants as last year, the conference was organized by the Hellenic Center for Excellence in Health and Wellness along with Grecotel and the Region of Crete, under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Tourism, the Greek National Tourism Organization, and the Ministry of Rural Development and Food.
The event’s central message was that the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, including its traditional Cretan version, has repeatedly been proven to offer the basis for long-lasting, well-rounded good health and well-being. At the Grecotel Creta Palace conference center, some of the world’s foremost experts shared the latest developments on such topics as longevity and healthy aging, the sustainability of the Mediterranean diet, wellness tourism, lifestyle medicine, and the risks and benefits of moderate wine consumption, as well as the introduction of the Mediterranean diet in a wide variety of institutions.
Presenters came from the Blue Zones Project, the World Bank, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Massachusetts, as well as universities in Madrid, Navarra, Palermo, Naples, Athens, Thessaloniki, and Crete. One of many notable presenters was Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou, “the mother of the Mediterranean diet” and co-creator of the Mediterranean Diet pyramid.
As the conference organizer, Harvard professor Dr. Stefanos Kales, pointed out, Crete and this experiential conference are “a destination, but also a journey.” That journey took participants through olive groves and villages, past vineyards and forests, into valleys and over hills to an olive mill, a winery, a monastery, and a re-creation of a traditional farm and village, where they experienced key elements of the traditional cuisine and culture, including an active lifestyle close to the land.
Meandering through Grecotel’s organic farm and re-creation of a 17th century village at AgrecoFarms, conference goers savored bread freshly baked in a wood-burning oven along with olive oil from local groves, honey on its honeycomb, local cheeses and wines in a wine cellar next to a grape-stomping area, and meat roasted over an open fire, as well as joining a famous local folklore group in traditional Cretan dances. And then the actual feast began at long tables set up in a village square, as if Cretan villagers were celebrating a wedding or a feast day.
On another expedition, visitors were moved by the tragic story of historic Arkadi Monastery with its impressive church and museum, and surprised by the breadth of monastic fasting fare offered at a multi-course meal in the monastery’s dining room. In the Heraklion area, the group was fascinated by a guided tour of the ancient palace of Knossos, epicenter of the Minoan civilization, and then intrigued by a vineyard visit, lunch, and wine tasting at Lyrarakis Winery, where ancient Cretan grape varieties have been saved from extinction.
In the regional unit of Chania, conference goers participated in a traditional olive harvest in Biolea’s organic groves, watched the harvested olives enter the mill, and learned about their crushing into oil using either a traditional stone mill and hydraulic press or the modern stainless steel production line of Pamako in the same big room. The group then enjoyed a magnificent meal prepared in the mill’s kitchen and savoured at outdoor tables with a dramatic view of olive groves, hills, cliffs, and the sea.
As Rutgers University professor Labros Sidossis explained, “the special features that distinguish the Mediterranean Lifestyle from other healthy lifestyles are mainly the predominance of olive oil as the main culinary fat, conviviality, high social interaction and the pattern of sleep.” Eating together at large tables conducive to animated discussion throughout the conference, participants were inspired to celebrate the Cretan lifestyle together, while appreciating rich arrays of healthy food made from traditional local products.
The Cretan Lifestyle Conference encourages the continuing education of professionals and individuals interested in wellness, while supporting the Cretan economy. Hotels are kept open and inland destinations are explored after the usual tourist season has ended. Conference attendees discover the high quality of traditional products, so that many become ambassadors for Crete, its lifestyle, and its cuisine.
During the final night’s gala dinner at Grecotel Caramel Boutique Resort, the celebration included several award presentations. Emeritus Professor of Medicine Christos Lionis from the University of Crete was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to science and society in preventive medicine and public health; Creta TV journalist Antigone Andreaki received an award for Courage and Resilience as a journalist and role model breast cancer survivor; and Maria La Gloria, a living link between the conference and Ancel Keys’s famous “Seven Countries Study” (which provided the first scientific evidence for the Mediterranean diet’s health benefits) received the Ancel Keys Award. Currently president of the Mediterranean Diet Museum, she also cared for the eminent scientist Keys and his wife as they aged.
One of several dignitaries who recognized the importance of the Cretan Lifestyle Conference and took time to attend it, the Greek Minister of Rural Development and Food, Lefteris Avgenakis, pointed out in his speech that the World Health Organization has officially added the Mediterranean diet to its Intangible Cultural Heritage listings. As the Minister said, “today, the Mediterranean diet is considered a sustainable dietary pattern that is culturally accepted, available, affordable, economically fair, safe, and capable of meeting the nutritional needs of every individual. It is based on the optimal utilization of natural and human resources, while protecting and respecting biodiversity and the ecosystem.”
Referring to Cretan olive oil, wine, honey, cheese, and paximadi as part of “a living and priceless heritage,” Minister Avgenakis added that “the unique products of the Greek soil are now acknowledged with…scientifically documented evidence as superfoods.” Given the current “search for authentic and high quality products with a strong cultural heritage,” it is not surprising that Cretan “aromas and flavors travel and remain active… expressing the dynamic nature of this region to every corner of the world.”
*Originally published on Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (greekliquidgold.com). See that site for recipes with olive oil, photos from Greece, agrotourism and food tourism suggestions, and olive oil news and information.