Mediterranean - Everything under the sun

By Richard Fox

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Olive oil Curry

Healthy and full of flavour, Mediterranean food encompasses a whole range of cooking styles - from Spanish and French to Lebanese and Egyptian - that...

Healthy and full of flavour, Mediterranean food encompasses a whole range of cooking styles - from Spanish and French to Lebanese and Egyptian - that can add interest to any pub menu. But, says Richard Fox, just be careful where you source your ingredients

I've just had one of those foodie "eureka" moments, like the first time you put curry sauce on chips, or realise that marrowfat peas are not school dinner hell but a sublime accompaniment to a meltingly warm pork pie. Actually, this particular moment of divine inspiration wasn't so much a taste-inspired "whoopee" as a slowburn realisation. It's blindingly obvious really - it just took a trip to sunny Spain to getsome clarity.

You see, our fixation with Mediterranean food isn't anything to do with the exotic. In fact, much of the fish element of the diet is caught in our own coastal waters. It's not even that our first taste was probably experienced in an olive shaded, terraced taverna, overlooking a moonlit harbour with the sun-kissed partner of our dreams. It's something much more elementary.

So, there I was in an unassuming locals' caff on the Costa del Sol on a busy, car choked main street, with dodgy plastic chairs and my chain-smoking mate, Andy, sitting opposite. The Med? Oh yes, but picturesque and romantic? Most definitely not.

But their one €1.50 tomato bruschetta was a culinary triumph. Lightly toasted, garlic-rubbed fresh bread - check; fresh vine tomatoes - check; herbs and seasoning - check; finished with olive oil - check. It wasn't brain surgery, except that two days later I decided to relive my Med experience in a swanky and expensive wellknown bar chain in Yorkshire, and opted for the tomato bruschetta. What did I get? Burned toast - check; no garlic - check; tinned tomatoes - check; no herbs or seasoning - check; a culinary

travesty - check.

The point is, it's not the menu header that makes the cuisine Mediterranean; it's the quality of the ingredients and the thought behind their assembly; it's simplicity with care - oh, and don't forget the gracious and professional service.

So, for the remainder of this feature let's understand that it is that Spanish café bruschetta approach that underpins

Mediterranean food, regardless of location, menu description - or company. And really, that's why we love it.

It's not like Indian, Chinese, Japanese or Thai food, which, according to our own perceptions, have certain generic flavours that define the style. The Mediterranean covers a geographical area that encompasses three continents and at least 16 countries.

From Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Israel and Egypt all the way across to Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, there's diversity unprecedented in any other regional cuisine. From a spice and dried fruit couscous from Morocco to a French bouillabaisse bursting with fresh seafood, the Mediterranean

flavours are as diverse as Lancashire hot pot and Thai Green Curry. What is consistent, however, is the people's passion for their produce and the simplicity of cooking that allows the natural flavours of that produce to shine through. And it's precisely these values we should aspire to if we're going to do justice to, and reap the rewards of, this wonderful region.

For culinary purposes, however, the area can be divided into three key regions: North Africa, particularly Morocco; southern Europe, notably Italy, France and Spain; and the eastern Mediterranean mainly Egypt, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey. The climate is common to all these regions: dry,

hot summers and cooler winters.

Vegetables such as onions, garlic and tomatoes play a key role. Beans are also common throughout, but with distinct

regional variations: chickpeas and fava beans in Egypt, green beans in France and white cannellini beans in Italy. Fresh herbs are abundant throughout southern Europe, while North African cuisine is rich in spice. The Spanish eat more fish than just about any other country in the world - but you won't find any heavy cream sauces disguising the simple, fresh flavour that can only be achieved from a perfunctory

char-grill or frying pan. So, whatever region of the Med you want to embrace - and why not make it all of them - just

remember to keep it simple, use the freshest ingredients and let the natural flavours do the talking.

The other thing to remember about Mediterranean cooking is that it originates in the home, not the restaurant. The image of a Mediterranean mama, her sleeves rolled up, clad in an apron and surrounded by fresh market produce is no more stereotyped than a bunch of overweight British kids hanging about outside a burger bar at lunchtime.

Which brings us to the not-so-small matter of health and wellbeing. Antioxidants, Omega-3s and monounsaturated fatty acids are not nominations for next year's Mercury music prize, but the heartbeat of Mediterranean food. This little combo is what makes the Mediterranean diet one of the healthiest in the world. Firstly, monounsaturated fatty acids, such as olive oil, do not raise cholesterol in the way that saturated fats, found in butter, lard and most animal fats, do. It's cholesterol that causes furring up of the arteries, restricting blood flow and resulting in heart attacks and heart disease.

As far as antioxidants are concerned, they prevent our cell walls being damaged by free radicals. Think of these little buggers as a gang of hoodies, hell bent on giving you a good kicking from the inside. Pass the olive oil will you. And then, of course, there's the Omega-3s, found extensively

in oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel. Evidence suggests that they protect against arthritis, hypertension, cancer and heart disease.

All in all it adds up to a pretty awe inspiring package of life-giving properties. But how do you sell that to your punters, alongside the rows of booze, fag machines and your prize-winning full-on fry-up?

The answer is you don't really need to. Our omnipresent foodie friend Jamie Oliver - with his new TV series on Italian food - is doing a pretty good job for you. At the rate he's going, it's going to be the kids dragging you away from a sneaky Big Mac and a Mars Bar, and demanding they

get taken to "that place that does the fresh Mediterranean food".

And then, of course, there's the simple matter of just offering a menu with a sense of balance. Why not have some inspiringly fresh, tasty - and healthy - options alongside

pub favourites such as scampi and chips, a monster home-made beef burger and sticky toffee pud? It all adds up to choice and value at the end of the day.

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