Mediterranean diet, Nature

Words and photography by Nick Gnafakis


You know so much already about the beauty and benefits from living a Mediterranean lifestyle. But there is an important part of Mediterranean culture that we need to discover and embrace more. A vital part that gives it that true authentic meaning and structure. Something special and unique to each country, region, island and village. Something that is passed on to each generation, the skill, the knowledge and passion that comes from within.

Let’s discover this. Let’s enrich ourselves with the natural gifts that grow on the Mediterranean soil. The secret herbs and teas that live on the mountains and are harvested for health, cooking and tradition. Niko’s Garden is a local online nursery in Melbourne Australia, which shares some of the hidden mysteries found on the Mediterranean mountains.

You are going to learn about some wild herbs and teas that local Greek villagers have been foraging, drinking, eating and healing with for centuries. Let’s start on the famous island of Crete. It is Greece’s largest island which is full of culture, tradition and some magical herbs. But most important, a place where Niko’s family calls home.

Cretan Dittany, or ‘diktamo’ in Greek, is an iconic herb. A native symbol which every Cretan is proud of. This magical mountain tea has many health benefits and is one of the most unique and beautiful plants on earth. This special herb is prized throughout Greece. Its aromatic flowers, leaves and stems all contain many antibacterial properties which are extracted for pharmaceutical companies to use worldwide.

Known for healing, it is most commonly drunk as herbal tea which aids cuts, open wounds and many other health issues in relation to the stomach and digestion. It was sold in pharmacies all over Crete throughout the years. Dittany is also referred to in certain parts of Crete as ‘erontas’ which is the Greek word for ‘love’. It grows amongst the cracks and cliffs of the rocky mountain sides and is often a dangerous venture to forage.

It was given this name by villagers as it was often a treasured love token for partners of young Cretan men who risked their lives to gather the beautiful pink flowers. Its amazing diversity and nature allows it to grow anywhere! Just like on the mountains, it does not need much room or even a lot of soil! It loves to hang and take over rocky beds and even thrives in pots!

Cretan savory known as ‘thriba’ in Greek is another special herb native to the mountains in Crete. This beautiful shrub grows wild amongst the villages, locals will harvest branches to dry and use all year round. It is a common kitchen ingredient, best described as a mix of oregano and thyme. It is a must have at home and is a staple in Niko’s favorite dishes. Try using sauces and marinades to add a spicy Cretan kick. It makes a unique addition to stews and soups giving your food an intense oregano flavor and aroma! It is also however a great herb to infuse as herbal tea.

This wild savory herb has many health benefits. It is full of essential oils which are rich in anti-inflammatory properties that aid with problems in relation to the vital organs. Savory leaves are commonly added in food preserves and jars to prevent bacterial growth, thanks to its antibacterial nature. And of course some Cretan flavour and character! These are truly Cretan herbs!

They are extremely hardy and endure extreme mountain weather and even snow! Just like the Cretans… as they have the same characteristics of these strong natured villagers who harvest them! Outside of Crete, Greece is home to so many other magical herbs that are prized amongst the villages and are in demand throughout the Mediterranean.

A renowned herb that is found on the mountains throughout Greece and the Mediterranean. It is prized worldwide for its delicate and sweet aroma. This famous mountain tea has many names and meanings, most commonly referred to in Greek as ‘tsai tou vounou’ which translates to ‘tea of the mountain’ In English ‘sideritis’ is another common name which derives from the Greek word ‘sideros’ meaning iron. This is with great intention as it is a medicinal herb which is drunk as herbal tea for its antioxidants and many healing properties which have been studied to show signs of relieving many serious illnesses like Alzheimer’s and even cancer.

Foraging this in-demand herb is a competitive hunt. Villagers will always keep secret the hidden spots where it grows on the mountains. Finding its soft, fluffy foliage and beautiful long spades of bright yellow flowers is like striking gold! Prized for its delicate aroma that seduces herb and tea lovers! Its unique floral flavor is like no other herb! It is often sold in packets dried at Mediterranean delis worldwide. But nothing beats freshly cut…just imagine the smell harvesting it yourself!

There is just something about basil that smells and tastes like the Mediterranean summer…
Greece is home to many different varieties that are unique to any other types of basil you have seen before.

  • Baby Greek basil – Probably Greece’s most famous Basil. Known as ‘vasiliko psilofilos’ meaning fine-leaf basil, it is most cherished for its micro leaves and spherical shape, growing what looks like a perfect round bush! It almost looks too good to be real! This basil is the perfect summer ornament, always lighting up the village in pots, on patios and all over the yard!
  • Curly Greek basil – Another popular variety of basil which is found all over the Greek islands in summer. Like the baby basil, it grows spherically in shape but has slightly larger leaves. Known as ‘vasilikos skouros’ meaning curly basil.
  • Perennial Greek basil – This unique variety is different to every basil! It will grow back every year bigger and bushier like a fruit tree! Growing long white flowers in summer, it is super fragrant and has a strong basil aroma.

Basil has a major role in Greek tradition, cooking and culture. It also has a key significance in the Greek Orthodox Church, always used symbolically when blessing with holy water. Basil is always infused as tea with other fresh herbs from the garden for it is full of essential oils that repair skin cells and aid with inflammation.

These are only some of Greece’s most treasured herbs… Niko’s dream was to bring a piece of the Mediterranean mountains to Melbourne. He is passionate about making this a reality and to finally share his favorite herbs with everyone!

Nick Gnafakis is a chef and passionate gardener born and based in Melbourne Australia with a proud Cretan heritage. He is the owner of Niko’s Garden. Niko first fell in love with the art of gardening one day at his grandfather’s little village garden, reminiscing of the mountainsides in Crete. This was the start of something special. Every day growing more curious to learn about the amazing aromas and tastes, these unique herbs, would bring. He felt it was time to give people a chance to get some of these magical Greek herbs in their garden at home! Now there is no need to climb dangerous mountains to reap the joys and benefits of these hidden Mediterranean treasures. Live in Australia? Love gardening? Learn how to get these life-changing mountain herbs in your very own garden!

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