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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Food Culture and the Mediterranean Diet



The Mediterranean Diet is not a specific dietary program but a compendium of the eating habits traditionally followed by those that live in this part of the world. So, let's see what it consists of and its beneficial effects on its practitioners.

The eating habits of the 16 nations along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea vary depending on culture, ethnic traditions and religion. There are, however, some characteristics that are similar to all:

  • High consumption of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, bread and cereals
  • Use of olive oil to cook and as a condiment
  • Moderate quantities of fish, little meat
  • Small/moderate quantities of rich cheese and whole yogurt
  • Moderate wine consumption, usually with meals
  • Use of local, seasonal and fresh products 
  • An active lifestyle

The Ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet


Olive Oil is especially important as an alternative to butter, margarine and other fats. It is a valuable source of mono unsaturated fats that protect against heart disease, as well as a source of antioxidants such as Vitamin E. It is used to prepare vegetables, tomato sauce, salads and to fried fish.

History The Phoenicians planted the first olive trees around the XVI century BC, first on the island of Cyprus then in Asia Minor. Its greatest success was achieved in Greece where the myth was that the goddess Athena, in competition with the other gods, was declared the winner of a contest by Zeus by creating the olive tree. Historians have determined that the first olive tree “Plato's Olive Tree” was planted near Athens some 2500 years ago.

The species was prevalent in Italy since the days of the Roman Republic, especially in the southern part of the country. Today, it is cultivated everywhere in the country with many DOP and IGP denominations. As one of the pillars of the Mediterranean Diet, extra-virgin olive oil is present in virtually all food recipes. Among its benefits is the lack of physical and chemical manipulations as it is simply extracted by pressing the olives.
the only oil produced by a fruit as opposed to a seed
 

Olive oil should be the only fat in cooking as it is the only one that is not subject to degrading when exposed to heat. Culturally speaking, olive oil represents the Southern crudeness as opposed to butter cooked foods prevalent in Northern foods.

Therapeutic Aspects the “liquid gold” referred to by Homer has over time had a therapeutic function as well; it reduces the impact of heat while at the same time acting as a blood “cleanser”. It is both a nutrient and a medicine. Dishes containing olive oil are easier to digest, with an excellent gastric and intestinal tolerance as well as a protecting effect on the arteries, stomach and liver.

Fruits and Vegetables a high consumption of fruits and vegetables leads to protective action to prevent cancer and heart disease, probably because of the antioxidants present in these food items. This is especially true of tomatoes, an important source of antioxidants particularly when heated to make a tomato sauce.


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Fish such as sardines with its omega 3 polyunsaturated fats have a healthy fat content. Fish consumption is also important for its anti inflammatory properties in preventing heart disease and regulating blood circulation.

Wine first a clarification: there is no such thing as biological wine, only biological grapes. By its very nature, wine is the opposite of an industrial product that never varies; grapes vary from area to area depending on climactic conditions. They also evolve, mature and decline over time. In all Mediterranean countries wine is consumed in moderation, usually with meals. For men this implies two glasses a day and one for women. Red wine in particular contains a number of vegetable composts with beneficial properties. Also, powerful antioxidants such as poly phenols protect against oxidation.

Legumes during the middle ages, all of Europe risked high mortality rates due to a series of epidemics. Unable to procure high protein foods such as meat, the poorer classes were especially malnourished. Legumes were introduced only from the 10th Century, thereby making a gradual contribution to the welfare of the population, increasing resistance to disease and aiding in the re population of the continent. Later, with the discovery of the Americas and the importation of agricultural products, beans emerged as a basic staple without which the population could not have doubled in size in just a few centuries.
 
They may be consumed fresh or dry, with the former having a higher water content (60-90% versus 10-13%) hence, given the same weight, a lower caloric, protein and glycine content.

legumes are richest in protein, and protein quality, among all vegetables

In Italy, beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas and fava beans are the most common staples. Some are canned and are therefore available off season and in areas where they are not cultivated. Both fresh and dry, they are a key component of Italian cuisine in general and the “cucina povera” in particular. Studies confirm a high energy content, a high vitamin B content, as well as iron and calcium. The protein value is 6-7% in fresh and 20-25% in dry legumes.

Especially in dry form, legume seeds contain a respectable quantity of phosphorus, calcium and iron. They should be cooked at length as they contain anti-digestive elements in its crude form. The heat from cooking eliminates these negative characteristics. Dry legumes should be left over night in water before cooking. Lentils do not require this treatment.

Beans have been known since antiquity. Originally from the Americas, they have been found in pre-Inca Peru and were also a favorite with the Romans; known as the “poor man's meat”, there are over 300 varieties of beans; of these, 60 are edible. There are red, black, multicolor, small, large, round and flat ones. They range from the Mexican bean (small, black and round) to the Spanish one (large, white and flat). Given the large qualities available, beans are cooked in a variety of ways (soups, minestrone, salads and condiments). They are digested slowly and are rather filling.

Lentils were among the first foods to be cultivated and consumed by man; traces have been found in Turkey in ruins dating back to 5500 BC as well as in Egyptian tombs from 2500 BC There are large seeds (6-9 mm), yellow or green, cultivated mostly in the Americas, and a smaller variety (2-6 mm), orange, red or brown in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and India. They are cooked as soup and as a side dish to meat and other dishes. It is a well wisher during the New Year's celebrations all over the world.

Peas along with lentils, peas are the legumes of which we have the most information from antiquity. Probably originating in Asia, they may date back to the stone-age. Modern techniques allow for availability year round, canned or frozen, fresh or dry.

Chick Peas originally from the Orient, the name derives from the Latin word “aries” which refers to the shape of the seed. A major staple in the Middle East and in India, they are cooked with pasta, as soup and as a side dish.

Fava Beans this ancient plant, originating from Persia and Northern Africa, may have been known in the bronze and iron ages. Possibly the first legume to be consumed by humans as they do not require cooking.
In some parts of Southern Italy, they are eaten as a fruit or in dry form with pasta or greens. Heavy consumption of fresh fava beans may cause anemia in genetically predisposed populations in the Mediterranean basin.
 
Truffles the black truffle has found a perfect habitat in the beech woods in harmony with oak, birch and hazel trees as well as black pine. It can be found in different areas of central and southern Italy. It has had its place for nearly two thousand years in the more culturally sophisticated cuisine, and is appreciated for its unique aroma. Found in sizes approaching that of a grapefruit, it acts as an environmental guard as it refuses to grow in polluted terrain. Composed of water, fibers and minerals its function is uniquely “aromatic” in this type of cuisine; the small quantities utilized contain limited nutritional value. Nevertheless, it has its place in a variety of preparations associated with appetizers, first and second dishes especially if accompanied by olive oil.
 

Pasta the Romans where among the first to mention lagane (from which lasagne derive). Previously, Horatio and Cicero consumed this light pasta made with flour and water. However there is no further historical data on pasta from 200 AD. It is believed that maccheroni originated in Sicily. The term is from the Greek “macar” which means happy or food of the blessed ones. Pasta was seasoned with sugar and honey besides cheese and butter. The first recipe with tomatoes dates from the year 1839. And the first apparition of the word spaghetti appears in a Neapolitan cook book from 1824.

Bread the history of bread begins with that of man with barley and millet the preferred ingredients as they were ideal from a nutritional standpoint; they were eventually replaced by cereal. The invention of bread can be attributed to the Egyptians nearly 3000 years ago. They also developed the first ovens and, it is believed that the workers of the pyramids were paid in bread. Thereafter the Greeks developed at least 72 varieties of bread whereas the Romans improved on certain technical features such as windmills. There were at least 400 ovens in Imperial Rome with the first public oven dating back to 168 BC. Only with the start of the 20th Century bread production reaches an industrial scale.

Mozzarella the domestic water buffalo originates from India and was also found in Persia, brought over by migrant workers or armies. Later, Islamic soldiers brought it to Syria and Egypt. It arrived in Italy in the year 596 during the reign of the Longobard king Aginulfo. It thrives in warm, swampy areas rich in water such as the Nile Delta. In Europe it has found fertile ground in Puglia, Campania and the low lands along the Danube River. Mozzarella was offered and received with great pleasure by the nobility passing through while on the Grand Tour to Pompeii and Paestum. The word mozzarella comes from “mozzata” or cutting. The denomination “Mozzarella di Bufala” was nationally recognized in 1993 with a D.O.C. label and a D.O.P. label at the Europe level in 1996.


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