Two pillars of The Mediterranean Diet

A VERY BRIEF HISTORY ABOUT MEDITERRANEAN FOOD

The stained glass windows of the Mercado Central Atarazanas, Malaga, Spain (Photo by David Shalleck)

The stained glass windows of the Mercado Central Atarazanas, Malaga, Spain (Photo by David Shalleck)

“You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

— Christopher Columbus

There are many layers in the topic of Mediterranean food. Thousands of years of culture, tradition, religion, festivals, celebrations, conquest, discovery, trade, and commerce are part of the conversation. At the same time, out of necessity and for pleasure, the devotion to eating well by the inhabitants of the region has sustained all of these influences. The commitment to gathering, growing, and producing quality ingredients; an almost fanatical need for appealing flavor; and dedication to quality time spent at the table has survived generations even during the challenging times.

Globalization is nothing new to a palette of cuisines rooted in imports from Asia, India, the Middle East, Portugal, and the New World. Over centuries by land and sea, the trinity of olives, grapes, and grains made their way across the Mediterranean from east to west along with vegetables and legumes, nuts, fruit, sugar, spices, honey, milk and cheese, then meat and fish. These beginnings met new ingredients imported from the New World that quickly integrated into the cooking throughout the Mediterranean. The result was an evolution of cuisines with distinct differences and at the same time, marked similarities.

The ancient sea salt pans of Trapani, Sicily are still in use today. (Photo by David Shalleck)

The ancient sea salt pans of Trapani, Sicily are still in use today. (Photo by David Shalleck)

For the most part the terrain and climate throughout the Mediterranean region is somewhat consistent. Favorable conditions on land and the ecosystem of the sea contribute to the abundant cultivation of food. Roman and Moorish methods for farming as well as methods for fermentation and distillation have been used for centuries. The terracing of steep hillsides and use of gravity-flow systems for irrigation are nothing new to agriculture. Salt, at one time used as currency and heavily protected for its value as a preservative, has been harvested from the sea for thousands of years. While the olive and wine grape are ubiquitous throughout the region, certain areas have become synonymous for crops like oranges from southwestern Spain, basil from northern Italy, and apricots from central Turkey to name a few.

Unfortunately, increased demand for food products from the Mediterranean due to the popularity of the region has spawned false claims of provenance in marketing and food package labeling. To offset this, the European Union created a registry to protect the origin of specific foodstuffs, mainly from geographical areas that have a unique character. On product labeling you will see a yellow sunburst-like graphic symbol star-studded inside that indicates a guarantee of origin, geography, or a traditional specialty.


THE diet lifestyle

Mercato Rialto, Venice, Italy (Photo by David Shalleck)

Mercato Rialto, Venice, Italy (Photo by David Shalleck)

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

— French epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

The respected biologist and physiologist Dr. Ansel Keys can be credited as the founder of what we know as the Mediterranean Diet. The results from his seminal mid-twentieth century Seven Countries Study showed favorably that everyday eating in Italy and Greece composed mainly of vegetables, fruit, pasta, grains, fish and olive oil with meat and dairy in smaller quantities was highly protective against heart disease. Since then, research continually reveals this pattern of dietary intake can help the cardiovascular system, lengthen life expectancy, increase libido, ward against depression, protect from diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, fight certain cancers, and aid in weight management. The respected food and nutrition organization Oldways Preservation Trust lists hundreds of Mediterranean Diet health studies on their website.

Interestingly the proportion among the food groups in the Mediterranean Diet is similar to the evolution of ingredients and cuisines throughout the Mediterranean. This puts credence to the diet as being rich in cultural heritage. For thousands of years the inhabitants of the region have been exemplifying a way of eating and living that has offered much more than being merely prescriptive. Quality time at the table, moderate wine consumption, regular exercise, and social interaction has also been attributed to well-being. In fact, the word “diet” comes from the Greek word diaita—a way of life. Adding to this mélange of goodness, positive memories from traveling experiences provide happiness hormones for much longer than the happiness derived from material purchases.  

A mural hanging in the Mercato Ballaro, Palermo, Sicily (Photo by David Shalleck)

A mural hanging in the Mercato Ballaro, Palermo, Sicily (Photo by David Shalleck)

More recently, economic and social change among the countries of the Mediterranean has had an influence in a reduction of the Mediterranean Diet. To help offset this decline, in 2013 a group of seven countries— Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco, and Portugal successfully petitioned UNESCO to grant the Mediterranean Diet as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. As registered, the diet:  

“… involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols, and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food.” 

In order to remain an Intangible Cultural Heritage, the countries that have inscribed the Mediterranean Diet are required to periodically report their efforts in preserving the diet. But it is really up to us to participate in the “diet” to secure its legacy. The value-add is at the same time, our well-being benefits in the process.