Mediterranean diet in practice

While the scientists expand on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, few people know the actual recommendations of the diet and how it was developed. The Mediterranean cuisine, though seemingly cohesive, is highly regionalized, and the Mediterranean cookeries vary between respective regions. With the massive Mediterranean cookout in my kitchen, I had tried to confront the common perception of Mediterranean eating habits with my actual findings and I came up with practical hints for a healthy Mediterranean kitchen.

Olive oil, butter and lard

Extra virgin, good quality olive oil dominates the Mediterranean cooking. However, the local cooks do not entirely abstain from butter or lard; they are an inevitable part of many traditional recipes, especially those of Northern and Central Italy, continental Croatia, rural Spain, or Turkey. The Turkish baklava is loaded with butter; the ever present béchamel sauce used for lasagna and other casseroles is based on butter; cornmeal recipes (polenta) are based on the rich and sweet taste of butter; gniocchi, tortellini, ravioli are delicious with the addition of butter. The world famous buttery sweets like Panettone, Biscotti, Amaretti, Catalan neules are appreciated mostly locally, where they originated.

The recommendations of the Mediterranean diet are based on the Greek and Southern Italian cuisines. Even though in Southern Italy, historically, butter was consumed less frequently than in the North, it was replaced with lard in dishes where olive oil is not suitable, especially sweets. This substitution was imposed with the agricultural reality of that region; yet again people have not and do not abstain from unsaturated fats as one might presume.

Mediterranean white breads

Whole grain, dark bread is scarce in the Mediterranean, and in some parts has been made available only recently, with the influence of modern trends on the local diet. The traditional Tuscan bread casereccio, Italian ciabatta and focaccia, the Greek pita bread, the French brioche and baguette, or the Maltese bread, are white breads. White bread is not only present in the kitchen, but it is consumed frequently and in large quantities; typically with olive oil rather than butter. Bread varieties are created with addition of nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, or olives, more frequently than grains. The healthy benefit of the Mediterranean white bread is that it is fresh, without preservatives, and does not spoil. Becuase it dries up rather than gets mouldy, the stale bread becomes a base for many traditional dishes. These include the famous Italian bruschetta, Tuscan pappa al pomodoro and panzanella, Catalan picada, Bomba di riso from Emilia Romagna, Miascia from Lombardy, or the Maltese Pudina tal-Hobż. In Croatia, my husband’s family eats heaps of kruh (white Croatian bread), and pretty much with everything; for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At lunch time it is served to accompany soups, stews – even those with potatoes, pasta dishes, or as an appetizer with olive oil and some local cheese. No restrictions.

There is a general perception that semolina, made of durum wheat flour, typically used in Southern Italy, is a healthier alternative to plain white flour, which is more popular in the North. As the Mediterranean diet recommendations considered the Southern Italian diet it is important to compare the actual attributes of the two wheat flours. According to the nutritional differences are only slight if you compare 100g of unenreached semolina with 100g of white, all purpose, unenriched wheat flour. Semolina is richer in protein (21g vs. 10g), a better source of calcium (3% vs. 1%), and iron (11% vs. 6%). Durum wheat is a healthier option, but will not make a dramatic change to your health if you decide to replace white flour with it. In fact, 100g of semolina is a source of 237 more calories than 100g of plain white flour. The truth is that the Italian people do not stress over it and often use semolina for its consistency more than nutrition, often mixing it with the less expensive white wheat flour.

Not just wheat

The typical Mediterranean bread is white, but many of the local dishes embrace grain variety. Pearl parley is often used in soups and stews like the Croatian Ričet. In Italy they cook barley in the same manner like risotto and call the dish orzotto (orzo means barley in Italy). Buckwheat flour is used to make pasta like buckwheat tagliatelle in Lombardy or the Lombard pizzoccherri and sciat (fried dumplings). The Mediterranean kitchen is known for the variety of flours used to prepare healthy dishes. Apart from buckwheat, chickpea flour is used in dishes like crepe in Southern France called socca, or farinata in Norther Italy. Chestnut flour is used to make noodles like chestnut tagliatelle, or the Italian sweet chestnut cake called castagniaccio. The famous polenta is prepared with cornmeal, and it is very popular in Italy and Croatia. Maize flour is also a base for cake recipes, like torta sbrisulona.

Mediterranean cheese galore

The Mediterranean diet pyramid recommends moderate consumption of dairy products. The consumption of dairy is hardly moderate in the Mediterranean. It is impossible to claim that the Mediterranean basin, the source of world famous cheeses like Parmesan, Mozzarella, Feta, Gorgonzola, Mascarpone, Grana Padano, or Pecorino can be characterized by moderate consumption of dairy. Apart from the famous cheeses, the locals take pride in their regional cheese, which is commonly consumed as cold cuts, with bread and meats. In Emilia Romagna for example, it is difficult to find recipes that do not require the addition of their famous Parmigiano Reggiano. The Italian ricotta cheese is an inevitable part of many healthy recipes with spinach, ravioli, dessert recipes and casseroles – both in Northern and Southern Italy. Milk and cream are also commonly used in many recipes. Milk for instance an inevitable part of the popular béchamel sauce, cooked across the Mediterranean.

Mediterranean sweets

When looking at the Mediterranean diet pyramid, one might think that should nearly restrain from sweets. I have not seen the Spanish, Italians or Croatians resisting sweets. In fact their breakfast menu is almost entirely a dessert. The Italians and Croatians love their morning coffee really strong, with some nice cake, biscotti, or brioche to go with it. Again, it is hard to believe, that the inventors of some world famous desserts like Tirmisu, Panna cotta, Crème Brûlée, Kaymak, Baklava, or Halva keep the consumption of sweets down. According to my observation, they eat sweets often, but in small quantities at a time. As I mentioned before, they choose to eat sweets in the morning, giving themselves time to burn the calories during their active day ahead.

Drinking wine

I was confused by the recommendation of moderate wine drinking. The scientists recommend moderate consumption of wine, just like in the Mediterranean. I do not understand ‘moderate’. In Northern Europe, where we live people drink wine occasionally, perhaps once a month. In Croatia, they drink wine every day at lunchtime and more. I have seen the same in Italy. In Spain, Sangria is an ordinary beverage. That is not moderate according to my understanding. To clarify the actual recommendations, people drink wine to enjoy and they do not get drunk on it. They generally drink a lot of wine, but in moderation at a time.

Meat and fish in the diet

When it comes to the recommendation of low consumption of meat as part of the Mediterranean diet, again I would not fully agree. Meat does not constitute a dominating part of a single meal, but it is consumed frequently. Bacon and ham, especially cured hams like Jamón Serrano, Parma Ham or the Croatian pršut are incorporated in many dishes that are consumed on nearly daily basis. It is important to note that the Mediterranean cuisine embraced an entire array of meats including rabbits, donkeys, horses, pigeons, ducks, geese, game, lamb, as well as pork and beef. Unlike in other cuisines where pork or beef dominate the menu, the array of meats consumed in the Mediterranean diversifies the diet, and the negative qualities of pork or beef have a limited impact on the generally healthy eating habits.

The consumption of fish on the other hand is not as plentiful as many people presume. Perhaps on Sicily, Malta, the Greek Islands or Spanish coast people have a better access to fish and seafood, but for the rest it is surprisingly expensive and not as common on the menu as one would think.

The healthy foods

It is absolutely obvious that the greatest attribute of the Mediterranean cuisine is its diversity. There are some components of the Mediterranean cooking that should be identified as the healthy core of the diet – the produce that is consumed in dominating quantities: olive oil, tomatoes, red wine, garlic, green leafy vegetables, zucchini, bell peppers and nuts. The Mediterranean diet recommendation points to frequent consumption of legumes; in my opinion legumes are as frequently consumed as meat, fish or cheese, and should not be place at core of the Mediterranean diet.

With the Mediterranean cookout in my kitchen, I buy heaps of canned tomato and garlic and I keep running out of it. Also, I regularly run out of olive oil, so grab a bottle or two every week, when I do my shopping. Green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, cabbage, endive, Swiss chard, and arugula are abundantly used in many recipes. People also eat fresh, mixed salads every day, with many of the green and red leaves (like radicchio) in it. The vegetation season is very long, and some of the leafy greens grow fresh even during the winter. Garlic and onion are used both, or interchangeably as a base for almost every dish. Many desserts, that people do not eat rarely in my opinion, are made with nuts, raisins and other dried fruits.

Far beyond food

It is important to realize that in the Mediterranean culture each meal is a form of entertainment and it typically comprises of an appetizer, first course and second course. Given that, each meal is a source of a great variety of foods, thus comprehensive nutrition. Furthermore, the meal split into a few courses, served in relatively small portions, slows down the entire eating process; thus allowing people to reach the sense of satisfied hunger right with the natural rhythm determining the stomach – brain communication.

In Spain, Italy and Malta people dine out a lot; but the quality of food consumed even in the restaurants is spectacular. It is prepared fresh and with natural ingredients. Furthermore, the difference between the Mediterranean eating habits and the United States, the UK or Germany is that people abstain from processed food, frozen meals, or microwave dishes. The meals are not only cooked fresh, but with the usage of fresh ingredients, from scratch. It has an impact on the actual value.

As the dominating components of the Mediterranean diet are clearly healthy, people do not abstain from spoiling themselves. In my opinion the prerogative of the Mediterranean diet is to eat a lot of the good food, but most of all to eat everything else. The variety of foods on the Mediterranean table is absolutely spectacular. People are passionate about cooking, recipes and experimenting with different ingredients. In this setup they do not manage to eat too much of one food, like pork, beef or wheat flour. With the time it takes to ‘make a circle’ around the great array of foods, one cannot ‘over doze’ with the fat from the cheese, cholesterol from eggs, simple carbohydrates from pasta or toxins from pork.

The healthy lifestyle in the Mediterranean is also related to the great weather and people’s preference for the outdoors. Their typically vivid and cheerful nature, paired with a talent for controlling stress (“manana”), contributes greatly to the mental health of the people, thus a healthy well-being.

Given the actual culinary practices in the Mediterranean kitchen, the Mediterranean diet should not be interpreted as a guideline to weight-loss, but rather as a reference to a healthier lifestyle. A bowl of pasta served every day, and eaten in front of your TV set, do not fit the standards of a Mediterranean diet. The true meaning of the Mediterranean diet goes far beyond food.

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