The Real Mediterranean Diet
I visited Italy several times with my husband, who was born in Rome, before we decided to retire here, in south Italy. The everyday diet available to the average person here is much healthier than what most people eat in the United States. There are no “health food” stores, but food in regular stores may be comparable to health food here. Most produce is grown on small near-by farms by traditional methods that don’t rely on pesticides. Genetically modified food is not allowed in Europe. Rather than have special “health food” for knowledgeable people, the aim is to have healthy food for everybody. Rather than take vitamins, they try to eat food that still contains nutrients. Although there are a few supermarkets, most people shop in small individual stores, each specializing in one locally grown product like breads, cheeses, meat, fish, or fruits and vegetables.
Trebisacce by the Sea
We decided to settle in Trebisacce, a small town on the Ionian Sea, in the arch of the Italian “boot”, near the town where my husband’s father was born. On nearly every block there is a store selling dozens of varieties of extremely fresh fish (pesce), caught that day by local fishermen. One local specialty is Rosa Marina, tiny newborn fish less than an inch long, mixed with the hot peppers for which Calabria is world-famous.
Before buying our house here in Trebisacce, we used to stay at a small hotel called Parnasso. The hotel meals, prepared by a local woman, were simple, healthy and delicious. For lunch, vegetable and bean soup, then fresh fish and sepie (squid), lightly floured and sautéed in olive oil, followed by insalate verde (green salad) , finished with a bowl of fresh fruit, especially the locally grown small tangerines (mandarini) which were in season, and or course, grapes.
For breakfast, we would walk down the main street to the “Bar Centrale”. Bar in Italy doesn’t have the same meaning as a bar here. They do serve wine and liqueurs, but mainly caffé. Cappuccino is only served in the morning. You can also get freshly squeezed juice (spremuta) from oranges grown near-by. They sometimes serve a glass of water to drink before your caffé, supposedly to clear your palate so the coffee tastes better. This is actually a good health practice, if you’re going to drink coffee, since coffee is a strong diuretic. Caffé in Italy is what we call espresso, a few tablespoons of very strong coffee in a tiny cup. It is expressed from the beans by steam, which releases the aromas. American style coffee is called café lungo, (long coffee). It is paradoxical that Italy, known for “slow food”, drinks very fast coffee. A pot of tea is also available for tea lovers like me. With their morning caffé, most people will have a “cornetto”, a hot roll shaped like a trumpet (not to be confused with “cornuto”, which means something bad).
The main meal, which could be at noon or late evening, follows a definite order. First comes antipasto (before meal), which could be an assortment of fish, cheese or salami appetizers, olives etc. The primo piato is usually pasta, but could be risotto (rice), or polenta (cornmeal) in certain areas. You could also have a bean dish or vegetable soup as the “first plate”. The secondo (second plate) is the main dish, meat or fish, served with cortorno, various vegetable dishes. Some of our favorites are cicoria (dandelion greens), and carciofi (artichokes). Delicious! After this there may be a plate of various local cheeses, walnuts, and always a bowl of fruits. Then caffé, perhaps with dessert, like tiramisu (which means “pull me up”), panne cotto “cooked cream”, (like crème brulee or flan), or gelato, Italian ice cream, much more flavorful, yet with less fat and sugar than American ice cream. Wine and bottled mineral water are served with the meal. The wine is usually red, locally grown and delicious. The best wines are not exported, as they don’t travel well.
The Culture of Olives
Many families have olive trees and grapevines in their backyard or at their parents’ home in the country. In late fall the family gets together to pick the olives by hand, or by shaking them onto nets below. They are taken to the local olive press, where they are ground and pressed to release the oil mixed with the bitter juice of the raw olive. This is allowed to stand for a month or so until the green-gold oil rises, and the bitter watery residue sinks to the bottom.
The real Mediterranean diet, as I have experienced it, is way more than just pasta. I believe pasta for Italians has nostalgic value as the survival food that sustained Italy during the impoverished post-war period, along with beans, tomatoes, wild greens and olive oil. Those wild greens, once disparaged as “some weed the Italians eat” are now sold in the US in gourmet stores at fancy prices as arugula, broccoli raab, romaine lettuce, radicchio, and baby wild greens.