Meditating the Mediterranean diet
Having spent a fair amount of time in Italy - particularly Milan, Parma and Liguria, I like to pretend that I am in spirit, part (wannabe) Italian. Through my best friend who is as Italian as they come, I have been indoctrinated into the ways Italians go about their food/life - an elaborate affair where quality reigns.
Some of the things I have learnt (the hard way): only the freshest ingredients make it into the pot, you never add extra salt to pasta once you've been served, and never ever ask for extras in a traditional dish (no garlic, extra cheese). Our friendship nearly got burnt to cinder recently when I asked to add more parmesan to my Napoli pizza. In her words, I could do that - if I wanted to shit on my pizza! Food is holy and ingredients are sanctimonious to the cook - a high priest(ess) of oral pleasure to the disciples around her table. Of course, I can't speak for all Italians as I know that just like any industrialised nation, food culture is on the decline and replaced by more convenient and fast food ways of eating even in Italy - the origin of highest quality edibles.
My interaction with food beyond just eating started in a place far removed from the Italian idyll. Yet a similar dogma towards fresh ingredients and attention to detail was taught to me by my mother on our sheep farm in Namibia. Here she'd take me into our vegetable garden where we would harvest fresh artichoke, carefully picking off a family of stinkbugs, before steaming the globes and dipping into a garlic-heavy aioli. Leaf for leaf we would gnaw the green flesh off hardy, spiked leaves until we'd reach the hairy dome protecting a sage heart of artichoke. Even as a child the sense of achievement was palatable to me, and a simple ritual of exploring and sharing the food we ate has fundamentally shaped me. The idea of getting our hands dirty for the food that we eat, in planting and harvesting, in preparation, in eating with our fingers and in noisy company - is one so integral to a wholesome appreciation of food. Yet far too many of us (me included) neither have the space, time, nor patience to invest. Food must feed us until we are full and sufficiently nourished, and ritual seems redundant. So we've become reliant on pre-packed vegetables and herbs, low-fat low-carb convenient options with too much meat and too little good oils, which we eat in separation and often in a hurry. Diet phenomenas like banting and paleo are (bizzarely) popular, though I find the idea of eating mainly meat, vegetable and animal fat, little grain and only selected vegetables very daunting. Honestly I see no value for the compromise you'd have to make for such a restricted diet. How come the fact that olive oil - in unrestricted quantity is a great medicine for longevity and vitality - is so closely guarded, and we actually believe there is such a thing as gluten intolerance (and not just simply badly refined gluten)? Life without pasta, nah thanks.
There is a mindfulness that nourishes the soul beyond body in the dogmatic ways of Italian eating. In the 1950's a smart man called Ancel Keys studied the Mediterranean diet in great depth, and was a prolific figure in the research of modern nutrition. Or rather, his findings were analysed, diminished to be nutritionally inferior and reinterpreted into what became known as the pillar of good eating - the food pyramid. What was left out was the necessity of high quality vegetable, fish and oils as the basis of a diet that strives to strengthen hearts and lengthen lives. Fortuitously, long life has also been associated directly with good company. Having far too much on our plate without trying to appropriate another culture, my practical recommendations for incorporating La Dolce Vita would be these:
- Eat in company, FaceTime a friend if you have to, but share your meals with someone. Better even, converse really loudly about your day to get into character. This way, you could also share a meal with your neighbour without having to be in the same room.
- Douse your scrambled egg/avocado toast/salad/pasta with olive oil, and please DO add a few drops to your fresh juice in the morning. Did you know that many of the benefits we hope for from juicing actually require a little unsaturated fats to be unlocked? Olive juice!
- When tomatoes are in season, try eating them daily for high vitamin C and because there is nothing more sumptuous than a ripe, pungent smelling tomato. Slice thickly, inundate with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with (preferably) fresh herbs - just about any will do, and salt flakes. Don't keep your tomatoes in the fridge but rather on your windowsill. Once they are fullest in colour and slightly soft to the touch they are ready to be eaten.
- Don't be shy of carbohydrates. They are not the enemy and sometimes an al-dente spaghetti served with garlic and chilli flash-fried in olive oil and freshly grated parmesan is the solution to just about any problem.
- If all of the above seem irrelevant or not your menu, at the very least keep a basil plant in your kitchen, from which you pluck its leaves occasionally to garnish or to cook with to gain some tactility in your food. The aroma that basil gives off after just one brush against it is seductive enough to convert even a microwave mealer.