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Mare nostrum

"When visitors to France and Spain, in particular, drive towards the sea they say that the sensation at a certain point is of opening a door and entering another world." Claudia Roden

For me that point, if travelling south in France, either by road or by train is at Valence. Past Valence the sky suddenly seems to open up and the sun shines. Which of course is a completely stupid thing to say, because even on Mediterranean shores it sometimes rains and the wind blows cold. There are miserable days there as anywhere else. But here is David standing on some southern French beach expressing, I think, our love for that beautiful enclosed world of the Mediterranean Sea.

This post is derived from coincidence again. Last night we watched a program in the series Secrets to Civilisation - the second one called Cities and Empires, which looked at the Mediterranean in ancient times - well the iron age - and the influence of climate on how cities, then empires rose and fell. The title is a bit of a misnomer really. Unlike many ancient history documentaries it was actually really interesting, particularly, from my point of view, when it talked about how what was grown depended on the terrain and the climate. Egypt could rely on producing grain because it had the dependable Nile. Other countries had to trade metals for food, or grow what they could - tough things like olives and vines. Or conquer and take.

The coincidence aspect is because this is a week in which I try to cook something from one of my guru books, and this week I am back to Elizabeth David and her very first book A Book of Mediterranean Food. This is my somewhat grubby version - obviously not the first edition because it was written way back in 1950 when I would have been a mere 7 years old. It's not even the first revised edition, but the second, published in 1965, which is the year I left university. I suspect I bought it later though. The website Cook's Info says of it that:

"it was essentially a piece of imaginative fiction for its English readers. They couldn’t get half the ingredients she described, owing to rationing, and some hadn’t been available even before rationing, but she created an interest in these food ingredients and a desire to try them, by making foods that people had not heard of yet"

And a demonstration of that is in the section on eggs and cheese, because in her recipe for pissaladière, she says:

"Further along the coast, across the Italian border, these dishes baked on bread dough are called pizza, which simply means a pie, and there are many variations of them, the best known being the Neapolitan pizza which consists of tomatoes, anchovies, and mozzarella cheese (a white buffalo-milk cheese)."

Can you imagine a world in which pizza was a complete unknown?

But back to the Mediterranean. You may be sitting on a beach, or standing above one, as here, and looking out to what seems an endless sea, but the Mediterranean is indeed a small enclosed world on a planetary scale. Africa is slowly and steadily moving towards it apparently, which would mean that it would then be completely enclosed. In millennia of course - well probably even more than that, but I am guessing that that would mean another climate change - at least for the sea. Maybe, in fact, the sea would ultimately dry up or be submerged under Africa. Unique on the planet anyway because of where it is. Canada has Hudson's Bay which is perhaps only a little bit smaller but it's so far north and so cold, and the Black and Caspian Seas are smaller and completely landlocked. Well I suppose the Black Sea is not quite and, in fact, could be called part of the Mediterranean anyway.

The Mediterranean is indeed in a sweet spot - climate wise and also because of its position between east and west. At the end of the Silk Road by land and with access to the west by sea and by land as well. All of which has contributed to the growth of those ancient empires - Greek, Roman, Persian, Mongol and Arabic all of which left their mark on its food.

As did the climate and terrain. The climate is wonderfully warm and dry in summer, mild and wet in winter. The terrain however, is not always amicable to growing crops or keeping vast herds of cattle.

"With not enough humidity nor much space for cattle raising, there is little of the butter and cream and large quantities of meat characteristic of the cooking of northern Europe. On the whole the area is sheep and goat country and stock-raising is restricted to smaller animals such as pigs and rabbits, as well as chicken and game-birds which do not require fodder nor much attention." Claudia Roden

But I see I'm rambling somewhat. What did I really want to say? Maybe the books and the television have made me miss the Mediterranean - not always perfect and as idyllic as it sounds of course. The French Riviera - La Côte d'Azur - is mostly a concrete nightmare - wall to wall not very attractive houses from Nice to the Italian border - and yet even here you can find tranquil, spots heady with the aroma of wild thyme and pine against a background of singing cicadas. And good food. Lots of good food. Some of it exorbitantly expensive and haute cuisine, some of it almost fast food catering to tourists - the inevitable moules et frites being the prime example of this - but even they can be truly delicious. But there is also really good food because I think that Elizabeth David and her ilk have taught us what real Mediterranean food can be and reignited the inhabitant's pride in their amazing food heritage. And back here we can reproduce that feeling just a little bit, either by cooking it ourselves as I am tonight or by dining out in a plethora of restaurants representing just about every cuisine that surrounds mare nostrum.

"Have you been there? Everywhere it is dry with hot summers and mild winters, with rare but violent rainstorms and strong winds. The scenery is idyllic, the still blue sea and luminous sky and colours fading into pastel tints in the dazzling light, the earth grey and ochre, the houses white or rose or rusty gold. It is so dry that the luxurious vegetation is pale, not vivid green. Against it the different reds of the winter roses and of the geraniums and bougainvillea which come out in the spring are electrifying." Claudia Roden

It was maybe Elizabeth David that taught us to love Mediterranean food - but she was not alone. Robert Carrier did his bit and later Claudia Roden showed us how much more there was to the Mediterranean than the south of France, Italy, Spain and Greece and these days we are perhaps more focussed on those more distant southern and eastern lands.

Dietitians have encouraged us to eat a Mediterranean diet and UNESCO has added it to their Intangible Cultural Heritage list. I'm also pretty sure that these days we have a cupboard full of all those mandatory Mediterranean foodstuffs.

"You should stock up your larder with good-quality olive oil, rice, pasta, lentils, beans, chickpeas, dried fruit and nuts, tins of anchovy fillets, peeled tomatoes and tomato paste, and preserves such as olives, and capers. Collect a good range of spices and aromatics and always have garlic, lemons and tomatoes at hand." Claudia Roden

My baked Greek style lamb chops are beginning to send their delicious - and yes Mediterranean - scents through the house. I'm pretty sure that I made this recipe a few times, but then I would have followed Elizabeth David's instructions such as they are. She does not tell you how long to cook them for example or at what temperature. You just cook it until '"almost falling off the bone."

She also tells you to add some sliced potatoes and tomatoes 30 minutes before it's done, and as an afterthought:

"Sometimes aubergines cut in half lengthways with the skins left on are added with the potatoes and tomatoes."

Back then I would probably have not messed at all with what she said. Today though I covered it with foil for the first hour of cooking, reckoning that this way it would be juicier. And indeed there is more liquid, maybe even too much. When I added the potatoes and the tomatoes I also added those aubergines but cut in chunks and some onion too. You have to have onion don't you? And I raised the temperature because it really wasn't cooking very much and I have to have it cooked in half an hour or so. Besides I would like some of the liquid to disappear and for everything to look a little less pale and a bit more crusty and appetising. It's a very simple dish. Maybe too simple. We shall see.

"We love the Mediterranean for the sea and the radiant light, for its colours and varied forms and a hundred warm intangible smells. We love it because of its spirit and because it was the home of the magnificent civilisations which lie at the heart of our own. But it is its foods which formed our tastes that are the easiest to love." Claudia Roden


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