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What’s the Mediterranean diet?

by Nikki Rose

What’s the Mediterranean diet and who’s on it anyway?  Break out the world atlas and take a look at the size of the Mediterranean region – the sea touches the shores of many distinctly different countries.  Wow, does everybody eat the same thing everywhere?  I’ve noticed that some countries have been excluded from the Mediterranean Diet Club and are not even featured in those coffee-table cookbooks – membership may have required a stable government and luxury hotel accommodations for the research teams.  How about the cultural, agricultural, climatic, religious, economic influences of The Club members – are they all the same?  Are we missing some great stories behind traditional dishes by deeming the entire region one generic Oliveland?  Sure, “fusion cuisine” is the creative incorporation of flavors from other lands, but when you see a dish on a California menu like “moussaka-canneloni” (two distinctly traditional dishes from two different countries all rolled into one) is it fusion or confusion?  Cuisine and culture go hand in hand and the more global we get the less homogenous we should be.  The window into the culture of a nation is through the kitchen -- you can learn so much about people when you know what they eat and why.  What would Bostonians do if their beloved clam chowder was renamed “North American Clam Stew”?  Even America has diverse and interesting regional cuisine – more than the rap it gets overseas as a burgers & fries nation, right?

Recap on the history of The Diet phenomenon.  Back in the late 1950’s an American nutritionist, Ansel Keys discovered that many Cretan men living in the mountain villages had a very low rate of heart disease and cancer and lived to a very ripe old age.  He noted that they consumed lots of olive oil, but also looked at the bigger picture (which is blurry now) of traditional Cretan cuisine and lifestyle as a whole.  Dr. Keys conducted a 15-year comparative study of the cardiac disease and cancer rate in Greece (Crete and Corfu), Finland, Japan, Italy, The Netherlands, The United States, and Yugoslavia (known as the “Seven-Country Study,” although the demographics seem odd).  The results of the study proved his hunch with low instances of either disease in Crete and high instances in all other countries compared, except Japan, which didn’t fare too badly.  Hence, The Diet was born. 

When a story is passed on through the years, it tends to vary (even to a level of sensationalism, as is the case here). Olive oil was cited as a piece of the puzzle but the remaining pieces were lost along the way.  The Diet has taken many marketing twists and turns since – everyone wants to be a Club Member, whether they’ve paid their dues or not.  Ironically, Italy and France have managed to become Club Members, yet the cardiovascular disease rates in both countries have never coincided with The Diet’s premise.  Granted, both countries eat some of the same foods as the people of Crete and produce and consume their own olive oil -- Italy even buys olive oil in bulk from Greece for their own labels.  However, Italy was a losing country in the comparative study and just last year in France, a group of cardiovascular disease patients were placed on the traditional diet of Crete (not Provence) with very positive results.  None of this matters because the French and Italians are very good at marketing --  so why bring up some old story about Crete and risk competition?  I don’t think the competition would be too fierce because Cretans seem perfectly content with the way things are.  I imagine there are many reasons why they haven’t flooded international markets with their precious goods. The Diet’s premise was based on principals of traditional Cretan cooking and lifestyle, but the interpretations we see today change the rules of the game.

So olive oil is good for us.  That can’t be the end of the story because I’m almost sure we cannot survive on olive oil alone.  Those healthy olive oil fanatics must be eating something else to balance out this picture of gastronomic utopia.  Just within the isle of Crete the cuisine differs from region to region and there are many great stories -- often dating back thousands of years -- behind every traditional dish.  That’s what makes the food and culture so special. 

As these studies emerged from Crete thirty years ago, a bit has changed since then.  So what hasn’t changed?  First, there’s the geography and climate factor.  Crete is a mountainous, rocky island with only a few big cities and all that goes with them -- like pollution. Aside from seasonal tourist spots, this is farming and fishing country, not a metropolis.  Olive and nut groves, fruit orchards, grape vines and greenhouses cover nearly every inch of available land.  The summers are long, hot and dry and winters are relatively mild with snowfall only in the mountains. The produce is plentiful with intense concentrated flavor and color.  The down side (for farmers, not holiday makers) is this seasonal drought – making life more difficult than it already is. Olive trees grow miraculously out of dry, rocky earth, that’s why there’s more olives here than anything else. Cow’s milk butter is a luxury item as the arid, mountainous land is not fit for cows.  Deep green, pungent extra virgin olive oil is produced in nearly every tiny village, usually only by and for the community (the private reserve of gold).  Throughout Greece, many people  would not dream of purchasing olive oil in a supermarket – they either make it themselves or know someone who does.  Everyone is partial to their own village oil and even if they’ve moved away, they often return home to help during harvest season or have a supply sent to them – it’s that important. There are several large cooperatives in Crete who share their olive oil with the rest of the world and most still follow traditional production methods – some have won top quality awards in International competitions.  Why not?  The Greeks have had thousands of years of experience in olive oil production – the ancient Minoans traded it for precious metals and gems. 

As for exercise, farming is hard, physical labor so there’s no need to drive to the gym after work (haven’t seen one yet).  People are too busy tending to their land or animals to sit at a computer and surf the net --even if they could justify the need for a computer (the “net” is quite useful in the collection of fish).  Even if they’re not farmers by trade, many people have a small patch of land for fruit and nut trees, a vegetable garden and enough chickens for the family – and maybe a few sheep or goats.  Mostly for practical and financial reasons, they also make a lot all their own foods like bread, cheese, yogurt, vinegar, wine, etc., and pesticides are not even an option.  There’s plenty of seafood – more frequently consumed by the locals who live near the sea, often because it’s their own catch or that of another family member.  Recent scientific studies have proven that fish is very good for us – so dash out and get some!  There are many villages tucked so far into the mountains that I’m amazed that people manage to survive there – but they have for this very reason. Throughout history the unwelcome visitor (aka invader) to these parts has been met with Homeric resistance. Hence, many traditional dishes (with great stories to match the flavor) from mountain villages are based on survival tactics and the art of foraging for food in the wild – now it’s posh. 

So, depending on where they live, some people eat more fresh fish than others -- cured fish being the norm in the mountains.  Many villages were inhabited long before the automobile, refrigeration (stable or mobile) was invented, some originally dating back nearly 4000 years.  Even with today’s modern roadways and vehicles providing faster access to the shore, there’s traditional regional cuisine – which is not budging any time soon.  Most traditional dishes are centered around religious holidays – and eating certain foods like meat and dairy products is prohibited for long periods of time each year.  In essence, Greeks who follow their traditional religious calendar are part-time vegetarians.  Times are changing, but we still have a chance to discover what’s cooking here and why this little pocket of the world is so important to modern scientists, nutritionists – and us.

Well, that’s all very nice, you say.  We’re still standing at the open fridge waiting for cooking advice – ready to devour a bag of chips fried in some deadly oil just to take the edge off.  Wait! The common denominator are those dreaded fresh fruits and vegetables – tons of them.  Every day on the average Cretan dinner table, there may be a selection of five or six simply prepared vegetables – not just a dollop of spinach fighting for recognition on the edge of a plate of prime rib.  Simple salads with tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, onion and olives are the norm for lunch AND dinner.  Roasted and marinated green and red peppers, beets, wild or cultivated greens, artichokes, zucchini and eggplant are also hot ticket items.  Cretans eat lots of dried beans like yellow split peas (called fava), broad beans, chickpeas and lentils.  Some beans are just cooked until tender, mashed a little bit and mixed with olive oil, onion and salt.  There are many different types of freshly baked bread, which is always on the table.  The finale is usually seasonal fruit (not baklava, etc.) like cherries, honeydew and watermelon, grapes, figs, pomegranate, apples and oranges.  We should be very jealous because a lot of this stuff is also organic – a very expensive option for us – it’s too late, they’ve paved our paradise.

Aside from the popular grilled or skewered chicken, pork or lamb (souvlaki), there are a few things that Cretans eat on a regular basis but are rarely mentioned in fancy food publications – maybe because of the shock factor – like snails from the mountains, octopus, sardines, smelts and other small, whole fish (crispy heads, bones, fins and all are consumed), rabbit and other wild game, and some meats from head to foot on occasion.  Most people from industrialized (or paved) nations prefer not to know if and when they’re eating animal meat or innards – that’s why we have hot dogs, sausages or fancy paté – to cover up the evidence.  There’s plenty of pigs’ head served in upscale Parisian restaurants – and some may find it more acceptable when presented on silver trays in a sauce with other delicacies they can’t pronounce. 

As for starches and things, potatoes, pasta, barley, and rice are prepared in many different ways – with a pretty even percentage of weekly consumption.  Potatoes are often just baked or fried in a little olive oil, or steamed with other vegetables for hot or cold combinations.  Rice seasoned with onions and spices is frequently used as a stuffing for many different vegetables and the infamous grape leaves – which are great when made fresh.  Then there’s yogurt – eaten straight, used in savory sauces, topped with fresh fruit, walnuts or a generous portion of aromatic Cretan honey – another precious commodity in the ancient (and modern) world.  Traditional Greek yogurt is made from sheep’s or goat’s milk, and it’s thick like ricotta cheese.  The natural milkfat (also known as the flavor) is not extracted.  I wish we had stuff like this in the States – why they extract all the fat from yogurt is beyond me – it’s tasteless gelatin.  People always seem to read the nutritional information on the back of a yogurt carton – something obviously nutritious, but don’t dare glance at the info on a bag of potato chips.  Yogurt is pretty easy to make at home with cow’s milk – that is, if you’re not too busy.  I have yet to hear of a case where someone gained weight from eating too much yogurt with 10% fat.  

Cheese is another favorite here and there are many different types (mostly sheep or goats’ milk, but some made from cows’ milk).  The list is long and requires a separate chapter but homemade variations of feta, mizithra (a soft fresh cheese, sometimes similar in texture to New York style cheesecake or ricotta depending on the cheesemaker), kasseri and kefalotiri (hard cheeses similar to romano) still rule as part of the meal.  Snacks may include fresh or dried fruits like figs, apricots, raisins and nuts like peanuts, walnuts, almonds and delicious roasted chestnuts.  Last but not least are the beloved olives – large or small, green, purple or black, preserved in brine or not – take your pick, they’re everywhere.  Wine is a given – but generally consumed in moderation and always with food – not as heavily as we’ve witnessed in the plate-breaking tourist spots or Hollywood productions.  If everyone here lived like Zorba, we’d be in trouble.  Some men drink quite a bit of raki, the local fire water distilled from grape must, which can be hit or miss depending on the producers.  Quite a few raki fans around here are well over 80 years of age – I’m not sure how healthy they are but they’re certainly living long!   It’s OK to drink a little too much and dance a little bit, but to get a rip-roaring sloppy drunk is not acceptable behavior (this observation is based on local rules of conduct, tourists noticeably exempt).  Also, Greek women drink very little alcoholic beverages, if at all, and smoking is a new, scarcely tolerable vice of the younger generation.  Good guess to say the women are healthier here.

 So, how do we put this all together on the dinner table and live to be 100?  Think of a time when there was no section in your supermarket with food crammed into boxes, bags or cans – YOUR DINNER made in a big building on the edge of town -- preparation conditions unknown without submitting a Freed  convenience in our hectic, industrialized world. 

Now picture the farmers’ market with produce harvested at peak ripeness that day, fresh fish straight off the boat, fresh meats straight from the hills (the chickens and sheep share the olive groves – roaming not to Hoboken, New Jersey) and fresh breads still warm from the oven.  Picture a nice trip to the country to pick up your wild greens (and snails if you like), wine, olives, olive oil and cheese from local producers.  This is rural Crete.  This way of life is not enticing to the younger generation – I can understand why – farming is a tough life.  There are supermarkets where you can buy many good-quality items – and even imports if you want them, but everyone here knows the difference between manufactured and home-grown quality and they’d rather be sure of the source.  Besides, the price is often better without the middleman.  I’m sure people live like this in many regions of the world, but I’m in Crete and will not speculate or make comparisons of places I’ve never been.  It’s not Manhattan and if everyone moves here – it will soon resemble Manhattan – making the point moot.  We are not doomed to live short, unhealthy lives just because we can’t live here.  We have a choice – to wean ourselves off the manufactured stuff to control the content of the foods we eat.  In short, to make a “fresh start” and shift back to raw ingredients. How do farmers the world over plan their meals?  The conversation goes something like this:  “Honey, what’s ready to pick today?”

On to cooking techniques.  The Cretan diet is based more on technique than recipes.  Grilling is the number one choice here – we’re back to some ancient basics.  When considering the nutritional benefits, picture this:  meat set above fire, fat dripping to the ground (or to the bottom of your fancy gas grill).  In the case of grilled fish – it’s brushed with olive oil and grilled whole – tastes great.  Grilling is easy and requires minimal attention or pots and pans, that’s why I like it.  For those of us who don’t enjoy grilling during a winter blizzard, there’s roasting.  Mastering these two cooking techniques can make life much easier.  All you need to know is when the food is done.  No fancy recipes or sauces are required -- olive oil, lemon and your favorite herbs are great on anything that’s prepared well – fish, chicken, steaks, burgers, lamb chops, vegetables, whatever.  Keep it simple.  During the cooler season, Cretans braise meats along with a variety of vegetables, starches or beans.  Braising does require a bit of time and attention, but stews taste better made in advance and often freeze well, so it’s good for snowed-in days.  Cretans also make a number of fish soups – which are very subtle and delectable – just a variety of bite-sized morsels simmered in fish stock with onions, potatoes, carrots and a bit of parsley – sometimes with tomatoes.  That’s it, nothing to it. 

As for the preparation of vegetables, there are a few standards here and most are seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar and salt (sometimes pepper, herbs and spices on certain vegetables).  I don’t know what Greeks did without tomatoes – a rather recent addition from the new world -- because you see them with almost everything.  Aside from eating them fresh with nearly every meal during the long growing season, they make a basic tomato sauce (personal preference) and combine it with dried beans and vegetables like string beans, zucchini and potatoes, artichoke hearts or broad beans.  It’s a thin sauce which acts as a flavorful cooking liquid – retaining all the vitamins – and great for dipping your bread.  If you just boil vegetables and drain the juice – guess where the vitamins are going. 

Another common way to cook vegetables like cauliflower, artichoke hearts, stuffed cabbage or vine leaves is to simmer them in a little stock or water and make a frothy egg-lemon sauce (avgolemono) with the vegetable liquid.  For greens like spinach or beet shoots, they are often simmered in a little water until tender, served in a bowl with their cooking juices and seasoned at the table with, you guessed it, lemon, olive oil and salt.  Greens are also sautéed in olive oil (what else?), sometimes with garlic, leeks or onions and served with a splash of lemon juice or used as the base for a variety of delectable vegetable pies (chortopites).  Try any combination of greens commonly available at the supermarket like kale, collards, beet greens or spinach using the same technique – bearing in mind that some greens are more delicate and require less cooking time, so add them later on in the process. Tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini and eggplant are often stuffed with seasoned rice with or without ground meats and baked or layered in casseroles with meat sauce and bechamél sauce on top (i.e., moussaka).  These complicated dishes are usually reserved for special occasions. Learning cooking techniques as opposed to following recipes opens up a whole new world of experimentation and makes cooking more fun when you know there’s a basic formula to which you then add your imagination.  Enough ideas for now?  Great, let’s eat!

Copyright World Culinary Arts 2000

Nikki Rose is a professional chef living in Crete and founder of World Culinary Arts, dedicated to preserving culinary history via distinctive educational seminars.  Contact rosenikki@hotmail.com 

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