OK, so olive oil is healthy. But it's difficult to eat Mediterranean in England, says Cherrill Hicks
It's midnight: a taverna on the beach. The men are dancing Greek style, the wine is flowing, the food is authentically Cretan: rabbit stew, wild greens picked in the countryside, salad of ripe tomatoes, white onions and creamy feta cheese, and lashings of extra-virgin olive oil with plenty of bread to dip into it.

I'm not on holiday, although it feels that way. I'm on what is known as a "junket": an all-expenses-paid trip to Crete, financed by the European Community as part of its campaign to promote the consumption of olive oil. I'm one of a "select group of European journalists", according to the PR blurb, to be given the chance to hear "the latest scientific information" about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet in general and olive oil in particular.

Why Crete? Aside from the fact that it's an attractive place to have a junket (although in fact the weather is colder than in England), it's also the olive oil centre of the world: Greeks consume about 40lb of the stuff per person every year. Scientists think it no coincidence that its population also has the lowest rate of heart disease and - despite horribly high rates of tobacco consumption - the greatest life expectancy in Europe.

So here I am, at the sun-drenched heart of an ancient civilisation where olive oil is almost sacred. Myth has it that the olive groves were once cultivated only by virgins; even today no man ever relieves himself against an olive tree for fear of bad luck.

By day a group of eminent scientists, flown in from Italy, France and The Netherlands, give endless slide shows and reiterate the good things about the Mediterranean diet, particularly the Cretan version (less pasta and more oil than the Italians, less meat than the French).

We're reminded of all the major studies which show that obesity, as well as heart disease and other chronic illnesses, are linked to high intake of animal fats. We're told that the antioxidants found in fruit, vegetables and wine protect against heart disease and cancer and that switching to a decent diet could alter the "risk profile" of the entire European population.

We learn that olive oil itself (which in nutritional circles is fast becoming more fashionable than polyunsaturated fats such as sunflower) contains not only monounsaturated fat, but also vital antioxidants such as polyphenols and flavenoids.

By night, in the taverna, we sup on stewed aubergines, baby goat, wild green pie (hortopita), octopus, barley rusks, biscuits baked with olive oil (koulourakia) and stuffed vine leaves. I drink ouzo (of course) and watch much smashing of plates and more dancing (the men aren't exactly trim - but maybe it doesn't matter if the flab consists of olive oil). I visit Knossos and the beach. I miss the children.

Coming home, my three bottles of extra-virgin clinking in their carrier bag, I feel fired with enthusiasm, determined to provide a more Cretan- style diet for the family. I have a vision of free-range chicken stews simmering on the stove instead of nuggets; of peppers, aubergines and zucchini sauteed in garlic and oil, instead of chips; of fresh Greek salad instead of baked beans. Of figs, honey and walnuts for pudding, instead of synthetic-tasting fromage frais.

But once I get home, things don't work out as I hope. I try a Greek salad - but the supermarket tomatoes (even those absurdly labelled "grown for flavour") simply don't match the Greek ones for taste.

The children refuse to give up their buttered toast for bread dipped in olive oil or to swap their beloved sausages for sauteed courgettes. There are no wild greens in the shops, and even octopus is hard to come by.

And as a working mother, I don't have the time, energy or inclination to slave for hours over a hot stove, which is what so many traditional dishes require - or to learn, from scratch, new recipes. Our family cuisine soon returns to its normal, uneasy compromise: plenty of pasta, salads and fruit - accompanied by baked beans, chips and fish fingers.

"Did you have enough to eat while I was away?" I asked my seven-year- old.

"Don't worry, Mum. Dad made us lots of fry-ups."

Oh well - as long as they were done in olive oil.

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