The Essential Mediterranean

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Essential Mediterranean

How Regional Cooks Transform Key Ingredients into the World’s Favorite Cuisines

"Late in autumn, just before the winter rains begin in earnest, all across the Mediterranean the wheat crop is sown, pale seeds broadcast across rich brown soil that has been turned and turned again to prepare a dark, moist, and nourishing bed."   –Nancy Jenkins, The Essential Mediterranean (p. 90)

The Essential Mediterranean by Nancy JenkinsIt is spring and Paola has been harvesting arugula from our two tiny garden plots for well over a month now.  Arugula (we call it "rucola" in Italian) is a feisty, hardy, spicy little annual leaf lettuce that readily reseeds itself every fall.  We plant it along the south side of the house so when that spring warmth and Colorado sun begin to beat on it in March, it pops right up, offering itself as a sacrifice for our daily salad.  With a little balsamic vinegar and tomato, it is a perfect reminder that we’ll soon be off to Italy for a few weeks of bicycling.

It is amazing how smells and flavors can transport you back to specific places or past experiences but that tasty arugula, with a little good olive oil, transports me back to Italy as much as any freshly grated parmesan cheese might. Then I’m reminded of the variety of fresh salad greens available throughout the Mediterranean region, including dandelion greens, chicory, and the generic Greek "horta" served freshly boiled in spring with abundant olive oil and lemon juice.

There is a reason why the Mediterranean diet is so popular.  Not only is it healthy, but it is simple and about as tasty as you can find.  And this is very likely because it is truly "local food."

Since I began traveling in Italy over forty years ago I’ve been struck by just how "local" food is.  I began to really notice this when I realized that Paola’s cousins on the farm harvest their small wheat fields using combines from the local farmers cooperative (not unlike the giant cooperatives with fleets of combines in the US).   But then I noticed that the flour mill where their wheat was processed was no more than ten kilometers (six miles) away.  The bakeries, of course, were even closer than that. So their wheat was grown, ground, and baked into bread within a radius of six to ten miles.  

Maybe this experience is where I developed my interest in the geography and history of Mediterranean cuisine.  So when I ran across Nancy Jenkins’ collection of essays and recipes on the essentials of Mediterranean cooking I couldn’t resist.  Indeed, it is a delight.

So many of her essays take me back to personal experiences throughout the Mediterranean basin, including her essays on "Salt,"  "Olives and Olive Oil," "Wheat," and . . . "The Family Pig."

Jenkins’ essay about butchering the family pig in Spain in mid-winter takes me back to helping to butcher (and eat!) the family pig in Italy in the 1970s.  Indeed, throughout the Christian Mediterranean world farmers traditionally raised (and still raise) a pig or two or three to make cured ham, bacon, salami, and to keep the family in protein through much of the winter.  The butchering of the pig on Paola’s family farm in Italy was a grand tradition with the roving butcher making his scheduled rounds shortly before or after New Year’s Day.  I’ll never forget our butcher calling for the bottle of brandy as he prepared the ground pork and spices to make the salami ("and a glass!" he would call as an after-thought to the brandy).

Other essays show just how deeply rooted in history are the culinary traditions of the region.  The Romans were specialists at harvesting and trading in salt throughout the Mediterranean, something they learned from the Phoenicians.  This is true, of course, for all Mediterranean traditions since wheat, olives, grapes, and more all came from the Fertile Crescent and were eventually transported westward via the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks, and others.  

Writing in the New York Times Magazine April 20, 2008, Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, among other books) challenges Americans to make a difference in the world climate crisis by growing some, "even just a little — of your own food."  Why bother, he asks?  Because maybe, it will help you reconnect with the planet, with yourself (the exercise is good for you, he says) and, perhaps, with your neighbor ("need any zucchini?")

Pollan points out that for most of us one calorie of food energy in our diet requires ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce — about 20% of our total personal carbon footprint.  If you’d like to be reminded just how good local food tastes, join us on one of our Mediterranean bicycle tours this summer and get a head start on thinking about growing your own garden (grilled zucchini or eggplant, anyone?)