Monday, June 27, 2011

Mediterranean Diet

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).

                               Slow Food

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.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

olives, etc

October 2009        Olives, etc.
Every Thursday morning, there is a farmer's market in town.  We buy a lot of shell beans and make a big soups with the beans, tomatoes, dandelion greens (chicoria), pumpkin, onions, potatoes and cabbage. Dandelion greens grow in the fall as well as spring here.   All the fresh vegetables and fruits are local and seasonal.  When the peaches are finished, they don't import them from Chile.  They go on to the next season's fruit: persimmons, pomegranates, apples, and in winter we'll have oranges and tangerines.

We bought a lot of  fresh sardines, which are very cheap here, 2.50 Euros per kilo (about  $1.60/lb). All the other fish are a lot more.  The local fishermen catch and sell them the same day.    We pulled the heads off the sardines, split them open, took out the spine, then soaked them in wine vinegar for 1/2 hour and then lemon juice for 1/2 hour, drained them and covered with olive oil and they're ready to eat.  They don't even need to be cooked.  The acid replaces the cooking process.

Last month we collected a bucket of olives from the trees in our yard.  Frank pressed them one by one with his thumb to split them open.  Then we soaked them in salt water for a week, changing the water daily, to remove the bitterness.  Then we soaked them a few days in fresh water to remove the salt.  I'm reading a book called The Olive Route, by Carol Drinkwater, an Irish actress who has an olive farm in France.  She took a trip all around the Mediterranean to discover the origin of the olive tree.  She found a grove of ancient olive trees, still alive, in Lebanon that were carbon dated as 7000 years old!  She also found in Malta, olive trees planted by the Romans 2000 years ago that grow sweet olives that can be eaten right from the tree.  Normally olives are extremely bitter and have to go through a process like we did, to be edible.
A friend of a friend manages an olive orchard in Israel and told her that much of the Mediterranean olive crop had "failed" this year because it had not gotten cold enough for a certain hormone to be produced by the tree which assures the olive production.  She was so glad to hear that olives in my part of the world had not suffered from that fate. They are involved with "peace oil", a joint venture between Israeli and Palestinian olive farmers to press and market their olive oil together.  I didn't realize that olive trees needed a certain amount of cold.  I hope that global warming will not make that an ongoing problem.

We don’t have a washing machine, so we wash our clothes by hand, heating the water on the stove.  The stove works from a propane tank called a "bombola".  We can get hot water to take a short shower, but it takes a half hour to heat up.  You have to push a button and wait.  We prefer to get clean by swimming in the sea.   Frank and I still swim, in October, but we are the only ones in the sea now.

I'm learning to ride a bicycle again.  I used to ride all the time, 30 years ago.  I went to medical school on a bicycle, riding through the center of Philadelphia, to Hahnemann Medical School, (named for the father of homeopathy, but they hadn't taught homeopathy there in many years.)  I ride along the sea, not much in town yet.  They drive very fast everywhere in Italy.  Speed limits are considered "only a suggestion".  Gas is $11 a gallon here, so we don’t use the car much.  We had a big rainstorm a few weeks ago that washed away part of the beach, almost up to the road.  The "road", Via Del Porto, in front of our house and running along the sea, is unpaved, made of rocks and sand.  The storm washed away a lot of the sand, leaving the rocks, making it hard to ride a bicycle.

Frank wrote a letter to the town council about getting the road fixed, and we went around to all the neighbors to get them to sign it.  It was a good way to meet the neighbors.  They all make you sit down and serve coffee or tea.  Several of them keep chickens, and gave us gifts of eggs.  They also have cats, to catch the mice that eat the baby chicks.  One neighbor has about a dozen cats, all named "Mish”.   They don't buy cat food,  just give them leftovers from the table.  Apparently, Italian cats like pasta.

Trebisacce by the Sea 2009

                Bonnie Camo MD   Natural Medicine   Homeopathy
                                    Trebisacce, Italy

As promised, I am now writing from my new home in Trebisacce, Calabria, south Italy.  I arrived Sunday Sept 13 at Fiumicino, the airport for Rome.  Fiumicino means “little river”, and is actually a canal built by the ancient Romans, to bring food and supplies from the sea to Rome.  It is still in use 2000 years later, full of fishing boats.  The ancient Romans were master engineers, and built to last.  Some of the aqueducts they built to bring fresh water from the hills to Rome are also still in use. 
I will be writing from here about the real Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, as lived in this small fishing village on the Ionian Sea, the part of the Mediterranean filling the “arch” of the Italian boot.  My husband came here to live six months ago, when he retired from his career as a bridge engineer, although he is still working from here as a consultant by internet for his old company.  He had planted a garden in our yard and harvested copious tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, yellow melons, and watermelons.
For breakfast here we usually have fruit and some “pecorino” cheese, made from sheep’s milk.  (Pecora means sheep)  We bought some wonderful locally grown peaches, much more flavorful and colorful than even organic peaches in the US.  They don’t sell “organic” produce here, but they still use traditional growing methods that don’t rely on pesticides.  They eat locally grown produce in season.  Of course, the growing season is much longer here in the South.
The do have supermarkets even here in this little town, but most people shop at separate little shops each specializing in one thing, fruits and vegetables, cheese, breads, or meats.  There is a fish store on every block, with dozens of kinds of fresh-caught fish, shellfish, octopus, squid, etc, caught by local fishermen.  There is also a farmer’s market in town a couple of days a week.  Every yard has a few olive trees.  We picked about 2 quarts of olives from two of the olive trees in our yard this morning.  We have eight olive trees (called ulivo), but most of them are still too small to bear fruit.  We are going to soak the olives in salt water to remove the bitterness so we can eat them.  Olives right from the tree are extremely bitter and impossible to eat.  Olives, of course are known for their health-giving properties, like lowering cholesterol.  Even olive leaves are used (and sold in capsules in health food stores in America) for boosting the immune system.
We also have an apricot and plum trees.  Asparagus and artichokes grow wild in our yard.  There is a huge agave plant growing on the railroad embankment behind our house.  Agave extract is sold in your local health food store as a natural sweetener with a low glycemic index.  We plan to put in some lemon, orange and tangerine trees next spring.  Perhaps also figs, persimmons, and pomegranate trees, and of course, grapevines along the fence.  We hope to have a greenhouse soon, to grow salad all winter.  Our neighbor on the east side has geese, and the one on the west has chickens.  We plan to build a chicken coop and raise our own eggs.
Wild oregano grows on the eastern slopes of the hills in the near-by Pollino National Park.  Oregano, besides flavoring pizza and pasta sauce, has medicinal and health-building qualities and has been described as “the cure in the cupboard”.  It is also drunk as a curative teas, or tisane.  Most culinary herbs grow wild in Italy and other parts of Europe, and were brought to the US by early settlers.   Rosemary grows into a big bush and can even be used as a hedge.  Rosemary is a powerful antioxidant, once used to preserve meat, in the days before refrigeration.  It is good for the brain and helps preserve memory.
Wild greens like dandelions, chicory, arugula, broccoli raab, raddicchio, and Romaine lettuce, once disparaged in the US as “some weed the Italians eat”, of course grow wild here in Italy, and are now sold in the US at fancy prices in gourmet shops.  Wild greens tend to have a stronger, sometimes slightly bitter flavor, and are much higher in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals than cultivated salad greens.  Iceberg lettuce, as I’m sure you all know, is virtually devoid of nutritional value.
We have been swimming in the sea, which is right in front of our house.  We can probably absorb the minerals in sea water through the skin, if we don’t wash it off right away.  And of course, we get plenty of sun to make our own vitamin D.