top of page

Mediterranean diet or Mediterranean food?

"The supermarket spaghetti bolognese does not count. The Mediterranean diet has no preservatives. It is freshly picked, plucked and cooked."

Sarah Boseley - The Guardian

This is the original cover of Elizabeth David's slim volume on the food of the Mediterranean. Written way, way back in 1950 when rationing was still in play - just over 70 years ago. It's a beautiful thing and would have seemed even more so to her 1950 audience, as it epitomises the whole romance of the Mediterranean and its food. Sun, sea, exotic food to brighten up a grey and dreary England. Let me quote, almost in full, from her original introduction. Almost in full because, like that drawing by John Minton, it is the romanticised view of the Mediterranean that we probably all share, and that she was one of the first to foster:

"The ever recurring elements in the food throughout these countries are the oil, the saffron, the garlic, the pungent local wines; the aromatic perfume of rosemary, wild marjoram and basil drying in the kitchens; the brilliance of the market stalls piled high with pimentos aubergines, tomatoes, olives, melons, figs, and limes; the great heaps of shiny fish, silver, vermilion, or tiger-striped, and those long needle fish whose bones so mysteriously turn out to be green. There are, too all manner of unfamiliar cheeses made from sheep or goat's milk; the butchers' stalls are festooned with every imaginable portion of the inside of every edible animal ...

There are endless varieties of currants and raisins, figs from Smyrna on long strings, dates, almonds, pistachios, and pine kernel nuts, dried melon seeds and sheets of apricot paste which is dissolved in water to make a cooling drink." Elizabeth David

Her influence on what we ate and what we cooked was so great that these days when you wander into any supermarket here in Australia you will be confronted by all of those things, carefully arranged in glowing abundance under lights that make them look brighter than they actually are. Or you can visit the Queen Vic Market, where they are slightly more real and varied - although there, as in many markets in Melbourne, you will also find equally tantalising vegetables from the Asian continent.

The foodie magazines and cookbooks are full of tempting dishes from the Mediterranean shores, and our cities and suburbs are full o restaurants focussed on the food of all the Mediterranean's countries. Well they will be when COVID is gone. It's all so romantic.

But these days Mediterranean food has been transformed into a diet. Health food that will banish obesity, heart disease and cancer and give you many more years of happy life, and better relations with friends and family too. There are now rules. Boring. I worry that because it's promoted by the health food fanatics we'll go off what is actually a most wonderful group of cuisines.

Today's post has been inspired by a page - and a recipe to which I shall come later - on the Mediterranean diet, by 'nutritionist' Kate Skinner. I remember the first time I heard of a Mediterranean diet I wondered what on earth they were talking about. The Mediterranean that I knew although at that stage - limited admittedly to France and Yugoslavia, and later with Italy added in, was populated by lots of rather rotund old ladies in black who sat around the villages in groups. Maybe not obese, but not slim either.

Many of the older men were not that slim either. They were not at all taut, trim and terrific. And there were lots of pastries to consume from the cake shops, fast food venues in the larger centres of population and along the autoroutes; lots of steak and frites. The hypermarkets were full of all manner of canned and jarred and factory made foods (as well as lots of the fresh stuff of course). And in Italy there is lots, and lots of pasta and pizza. I believe that young greek boys top the obesity list in Europe, maybe the world. Not to mention the wine and the quantities of olive oil - how can that be healthy?

Well back in the 1960s studies were made of the long-lived populations in Crete and Ikaria in Greece, later extended to southern Italy and Spain, and they concluded that the longevity was down to their diet. Hence the exhortation to eat like the Mediterraneans.

"In health circles today, following this diet means consuming an abundance of fresh, seasonal vegetables, rounded out with plenty of legumes such as chickpeas and lentils, minimally processed whole grains (barley, wheat and farro), weekly servings of seafood (especially oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines), small amounts of red meat, modest servings of natural milk products such as fresh milk, cheese, or yoghurt, and a healthy intake of extra virgin olive oil as a primary fat source. Small quantities of high-anti-oxidant red wine are also encouraged (1-2 small glasses daily), nuts and a little natural sugar in the form of honey and daily fresh fruit." Kate Skinner - delicious.

But times have changed. Enter fast food and junk food. Enter convenience food loaded with sugar. Enter soft drinks also more than loaded with sugar. Even Elizabeth David was aware of the inevitability of change:

"In the lands bordering the Mediterranean, as indeed almost everywhere else, the cooking is constantly evolving; traditional dishes are being adapted to modern techniques and to new ingredients, or to old ones which, as a result of modern methods of cultivation, transport, preservation, and storage, have undergone material modifications or even basic change." Elizabeth David

And take away lots of the exercise that used to be the daily lot in the Mediterranean. These days there are machines to help with household tasks, farming and fishing alike.

"It is quite a high-carbohydrate diet, which was fine when people were physically active on farms or fishing boats." Sarah Boseley - The Guardian

Indeed UNESCO became so concerned that:

"In 2013, Unesco listed the Mediterranean diet as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco and Portugal." Sarah Boseley

I think to get on that list, not only does the activity need to be important but it also, I think, needs to be endangered. Interesting to note all the other countries around the Mediterranean that are not included in the list. Why? Is France a lost cause already or is it not endangered? What about Egypt, Malta, Israel ...?

In the eyes of UNESCO it is so much more than a diet - it's a way of life:

“Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is a moment of social exchange and communication, an affirmation and renewal of family, group or community identity, ...

The Mediterranean diet emphasises values of hospitality, neighbourliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity.” UNESCO

I'm not so sure about intercultural dialogue and respect for diversity either come to that.

It's all a bit idealistic and nothing to do with how the Mediterranean diet is talked about these days, which is as an actual diet. With rules - but actually not enough rules for it to be a 'proper' diet - like my 5/2 diet, for example, which is aimed at weight loss. It's really a just a set of guidelines about which foods to eat more of - vegetables and fish and grains - and which to eat less of - dairy and meat.

Fat in fact, specifically extra virgin olive oil and fatty fish play a large part, which would seem somewhat counterintuitive, but apparently there is actual science behind it:

“If you are trying to get people to eat a lot of vegetables and salad, it’s quite difficult to do without oil. And if you are putting oil on top of salad, it also has a bit of a satiating effect. Aubergines or tomatoes in oil – you can have enough of that quite quickly. Whereas something that you’ve got saturated fat in, such as cake or biscuits, it’s easy to knock them back and you don’t realise how much is going in.” Tom Sanders - Emeritus Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, King's College, London

Not to mention the particular fats in olive oil which help reduce the risk of heart disease. Doesn't seem right does it? But it does. And the anti-oxidants in red wine. But not too much. And the major bonus of it all - it tastes gorgeous.

"the Mediterranean diet is generally considered to be delicious, except by those who hate olive oil." Sarah Boseley - The Guardian

Elizabeth David was not really concerned about good health - well not in a missionary kind of way. Her missionary zeal was purely focussed on taste:

"I hope to give some idea of the lovely cookery of these regions to people who do not already know them, and to stir the memories of those who have eaten this food on its native shores, and who would like sometimes to bring a flavour of those blessed lands of sun and sea and olive trees into their English kitchens." London, 1950 Elizabeth David

I dipped at random into her book to see what a typical Mediterranean dish might be for her, and came up with Poulet Antiboise which is a supremely simple braised chicken dish with oodles of olive oil, oodles of onions and some black olives. I think I made it once or twice - I must have another go. Not many other vegetables though but it would be served with a green salad I'm sure.

The delicious. article had a Mediterranean diet recipe too, which is a very interesting contrast. Not nearly as rustic and yes, including the entire Mediterranean diet pyramid of foods. It's called Seared tuna, zucchini and lemon salad with green olive smash. There are cannelloni beans in the salad too and salted ricotta is grated over the top. The olive smash consists of 1 cup Sicilian olives, 1/4 cup pistachios, 1 long green chilli, 1 small clove of garlic and 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, which is all blended together in a food processor and scattered over the finished dish. Not to mention drizzling it with oil.

A diet that's not a diet, but more a way of life. A way of life that offers delicious food, healthy exercise and lots of love. Well that's the romantic view of it. It certainly brings back memories of happy times under the Mediterranean sun for me. Kate Skinner says that it's inexpensive and quick to cook as well, whereas I did see one critic say that it was expensive and slow. Well yes, if you're going to cook tuna it will be expensive, but there are so many other fish in the sea.

It's a bit of a marketing exercise though isn't it? I mean I suspect it bears little relationship to what people all around the Mediterranean eat these days. It's just a food pyramid with a more romantic name.

"Thoughts of Mediterranean fare may conjure up images of cheesy salami pizza, heaped bowls of spaghetti and platters of biscotti, when in fact the traditional Med diet is focussed on seasonal vegetables, legumes and olive oil, with smaller additions of meat, fish and dairy. It's an inexpensive and easy way of eating that's good for you too." Kate Skinner - delicious.


Related Posts

See All
bottom of page