Five reasons to love the Mediterranean

Food journalist Tony Naylor explores his love/hate relationship with the Mediterranean.

Like most modern Brits, I am approximately 37% Mediterranean. Without pesto, garlic, chorizo and feta, my diet would be as dull as Sunday lunch in Nuneaton in 1972. If you cut me, I bleed passata. We have taken a lot from the Mediterranean, but should we have left some of it behind?


Five reasons to love the Med

It turned us on to veg: The ‘tomatoes’ in UK supermarkets may still resemble wet balls of wool, but generally, thanks to the influence of our Mediterranean cousins, we now take vegetables far more seriously than we used to. It all started with Elizabeth David’s A Book Of Mediterranean Food: published in 1950, this implausibly colourful work turned a first generation of pioneers onto everything from aubergines to courgettes. Today, we food obsessives eat a veg-prominent diet which is, thankfully, worlds away from the stodgy cooking of post-war Britain.

It’s democratic food: For the most part, Mediterranean food is all about flavours not faff. If you have sufficient patience, knowledge, and good ingredients, it’s something you can replicate. It doesn’t require expensive kit or oodles of technical skill. This is food that’s all about air-drying, ageing, marinading, seasoning, preserving and the application (be it in a wood-fired Neapolitan pizza oven or a Turkish ocakbasi grill), of heat and smoke to food. In many ways, it’s devastatingly simple.

It taught us how to treat fish: For an island nation, we have very limited facility with fish. We batter and deep-fry it or make fishcakes, and we pride ourselves, laughably, on our crab sandwiches. Little wonder we’ve fallen in love with the delicacy, simplicity and zest of tuna carpaccio, sardine escabeche or grilled fish flavoured with ingredients like fennel, white wine and lemon. The Med can do glorious, laborious fish dishes, too – Marseille’s famous bouillabaisse, for instance – and here in Britain, we’ve barely begun to explore the preserving of fish (everything from salt cod to luxurious tins of fatty ventresca tuna fillets) which southern Europe has turned into an art form. 

It gave us licence to geek out: In the Basque region, there are all-male gastronomic societies. In Italy there is a festival for everything from radicchio to almonds. In Egypt and the Levant, they will never agree on whether to use fava beans or chickpeas in falafel. Basically, the Mediterranean countries have been obsessing about food for centuries. And, likewise, for good and ill (no-one likes a know-it-all foodie), we in Britain have learned that scrutinising what we eat, and taking pleasure in its small details, is not juvenile or shallow, but complementary to a wider lust for life. 

It took us beyond salt: Why do the southern Europeans revere courgettes, chickpeas, peppers or broad beans as much as a fine cut of beef? Because they’ve learned to get seriously creative with their seasoning, something we Brits are only now appreciating fully. How dull would our cooking be had we not embraced saffron, sumac, paprika and Provençal herbs, harissa and anchovies, or the use of oranges, raisins and apricots in savoury dishes? As Marcel Boulestin, the first French celebrity chef, put it: ‘Peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.’

Five reasons to remain sceptical

It has given us an inferiority complex: You might blame A Year In Provence, the first Moro cookbook, Jamie’s TV trips to Italy or endless newspaper articles extolling the Med lifestyle, but for years, we lazily copied that food rather than applying its lessons (seasonality, local produce, artisan skills) to our own. Even now, modern British cooking is always in competion with the latest surge of interest in, say, Greek or Israeli food.  Somehow, food from sunny southern climes always seems that bit cooler.

It gave us a terrible hangover: Southern European countries specialise in digestifs and liqueurs: raki, retsina, limoncello, grappa, which can taste like lighter fluid. And, please, do not get me started on the (poor) quality of the beer from down there. South of Munich, all you can do is stick to wine and fight down that giddy, holiday urge to order a third pastis.

It can be faddy: Call it adolescent rebellion. But after centuries of presentation-free peasant cooking, Spain fell hard for the science and theatre of El Bulli-style molecular gastronomy, or neuva cocina. Ten years on, high-end Iberian cooking is still in thrall to gels, powders, spherification, savoury ice-creams, food impaled on spikes and sauces served in toothpaste tubes. From a British perspective, it looks old fashioned.

It tantalised us with tapas: And now it seems that all food in the UK – Thai, Chinese, Moroccan, Indian – must be served in a small plate/ cicchetti-style. ‘It’s social! It’s sharing! It’s an adventure in food!’ its exponents insist. Remember that, as you are fighting over a series of ill-conceived, minuscule plates of food which, nevertheless, will rack-up a huge bill. 

It doesn’t know your family: The Mediterranean lifestyle industry (which sells us everything from cookbooks to pasta sauces), propagates the myth that the most desirable meal is one eaten communally in the sun by several generations of the same family. That might fly in Tuscany, but in Telford? In Britain, nothing ruins a good meal as thoroughly as a) having to eat it outside or b) listening to your dad moan on and on, as he slowly picks out all these ‘funny’ olives from his salad.

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