Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Wispy light and more

The first time I ever caught the sense of a conversation going on around me in Spanish was on a bus in Granada. I'd always thought that Spanish conversations were probably about Goethe or something equally profound but that one was, in fact, about whether peas should or should not be an ingredient of some stew. Food is a topic of conversation close to the hearts of many Spaniards.

One of the things that crops up in those food conversations is the Mediterranean diet. If you were to ask me what the Mediterranean diet I'd have to say that I'm not quite sure. I know that it includes more fish than meat, cereals, pulses, nuts, vegetables, fruit, wine and lots of olive oil but I'm a bit hazy on the details. We live pretty close to the Mediterranean. In fact yesterday we were in Santa Pola and if we'd chosen to we could have gone for a paddle, so I should know what the diet is but I don't. One of the confusing things about it is that lots of what seem to be traditional Spanish foods look remarkably unhealthy. Surely things like chorizo, the white bread sticks, the deep fried pescaitos, the peanuts dripping in oil, the cheese, the croquetas and all the rest can't really be part of a healthy diet?

Back in Santa Pola I asked if they had any sangre, blood, to go along with the beer. I'm not sure what sangre contains exactly apart from blood and onions but it looks like liver and it tastes yummy (though Maggie disagrees). It's not so available away from the coast which is why I was taking my opportunity. There wasn't any so I asked for Russian salad instead. Ensaladilla rusa is a staple in lots of Alicante and beyond - a sort of potato, egg, tuna, carrot and pea salad held together with mayonnaise. Tasty certainly but healthy?

Actually, I know exactly what I think of when the Mediterranean diet is mentioned and it has nothing to do with the food. The Mediterranean diet is a bronzed Anthony Quinn peeling and eating fruit directly from his pocket knife, it's him eating, and laughing with his friends as he drinks copious quantities of wine around a sun dappled outdoor table against the azure blue background of the sparkling sea.

I read an article in el País yesterday which seemed to reach a similar conclusion only they made no mention of Quinn nor Jean Reno in the Big Blue who would be my other point of reference.

El País told me that back in 1953 an epidemiologist called Leland G. Allbaugh published a paper about the, then, normal diet on Crete. Cretans ate a very basic diet yet they were healthier than Americans. A medical doctor, Dr. Ancel Keys, saw the research and spent years trying to work out why. He did research in seven countries and, to oversimplify, came up with the  conclusion that saturated fat in diets was a major conditioner of heart disease along with cholesterol and high blood pressure. Whilst he was involved in the early years of the survey Keys and his wife published a book called Eat Well and Stay Well. Later, in 1975, they published a second book called How to Eat Well and Stay Well: The Mediterranean Way. It was, apparently, that book which led to the term Mediterranean diet coming into everyday use. But the “Mediterranean Way” was more than particular foods and cuisines or eating patterns. It involved aspects of lifestyle and the economy, such as walking to and from work in physically active occupations like farming, crafts, fishing and herding, taking the major meal at midday, having an afternoon break from work. In short the food was only a part of the traditional Mediterranean  lifestyle.

In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority published a position document arguing that it could not establish whether the Mediterranean diet was healthy or not because it was unable to find a clear definition of what the diet was. The Authority also noted that the inclusion of quite a lot of wine in all of the versions made it technically unhealthy. The Mediterranean diet though does feature as an intangible cultural heritage on UNESCO's list - just like Flamenco or the Fallas celebrations. The definition is not about the food it's about agriculture and tradition, about sharing food and about cultural identity. The full definition is at the bottom of the page

The newspaper article writer argued that the Mediterranean diet was actually more of a process of four decades of hype than an actual dietary regime. Like I said, Anthony Quinn, the suntan, the cicadas singing, the shared bottle of wine. The laughter. Now that was all around us as we ate the ensaladilla rusa in Santa Pola yesterday.


UNESCO definition: The Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food. Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is a moment of social exchange and communication, an affirmation and renewal of family, group or community identity. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes values of hospitality, neighbourliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity. It plays a vital role in cultural spaces, festivals and celebrations, bringing together people of all ages, conditions and social classes. It includes the craftsmanship and production of traditional receptacles for the transport, preservation and consumption of food, including ceramic plates and glasses. Women play an important role in transmitting knowledge of the Mediterranean diet: they safeguard its techniques, respect seasonal rhythms and festive events, and transmit the values of the element to new generations. Markets also play a key role as spaces for cultivating and transmitting the Mediterranean diet during the daily practice of exchange, agreement and mutual respect.


Anonymous said...

El País is not a health reference. Who was the reporter who said that? And in August , newspapers are written by trainees.
Mediterranea diet is (was) not only eaten in the Mediterranean coasts.
And it doesn't include chorizo.
Mediterranean diet was a precious diet. Lots of pulses, wholegrain cereals, (a little of) red wine, nuts, vegetables.... It was the food that poor people could afford. And they were healthy and slim.

Chris Thompson said...

Hi: The author of the article in el País was Juan Alfonso Revenga Frauca.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. He is a nutritionist, part of El Comidista team. I liked the article. (El comidista can be quite condescending with readers though) But it seems you understood the mediterranean diet is more of a social issue. The definition is not clear, as you also say, but I think it is because it was not designed by a nutritionist. It is just something that people did in the Mediterranean area for a long time, in the past. Now that they (we) are richer, we eat worse. Awfully. Mediterranean Diet only means fresh food, mostly vegetables, meat only in very special ocasions, fish sometimes, a little of wine with the meals, and the magic word: frugality.
What sounded most weird to me in the article: the capital of Mediterranean Diet in Spain: Soria!
Croquetas, ensaladilla rusa, chorizo,.... That is not mediterranean diet. It is just cheap tapas in tacky bars (80% of the bars). We have wonderful almonds and olives and we serve californian almonds from a plastic bag and olives from a can in the bars. I don't understand how people still come to Spain. I think it is because they don't know what we could give them if we tried a little bit harder. Good natural healthy tapas are so hard to find, and when you find them they are expensive and sold as a delicatessen. Even if the basic ingredients are so cheap. Mediterranean diet is the cheapest, but it has developed into a brand, just to steal a bit more money from customers. It always easier to make huge ensaladilla rusa and forget about everything else.
I discovered recently something interesting you may like. (If you still don't know) The plant Verdolaga (Portulaca oleracea) is just a weed. You can also find it at the local market, so cheap. And it's edible, but what is amazing is it has the highest concentration of omega3 fatty acids of all vegetables. Around here, nobody knows. That's why it is still so cheap.

Chris Thompson said...

Hi: Obviously the idea of a healthy diet, and a healthy lifestyle doesn't square with ensaladilla rusa or croquetas but that was part of what I said.

I agree with you too about the strange division between the quality food that is available in Spain and what gets served up. I'm not sure who but one of the world famous chefs said that an incredibly important part of good Spanish food is good shopping. Sourcing fresh and good quality produce. And all the time that becomes more and more difficult in Spain. The tasteless tomatoes grown under plastic in Almeria or Murcia, the lettuces that have never seen soil, the strawberries from who knows where are as tasteless as anything to be bought in the worst of British supermarkets. The fish comes from fish farms, the chickens are fed on fishmeal and so it goes on. There is plenty of good food to be bought but it comes at a price.

I'd have to disagree with you about chorizo being tacky though. The matanza and one of its main products, chorizo, is about as Spanish as Spanish can get. It may not be particularly healthy (!) but it can be very good. Mind you el Pozo and Campofrio are trying to change that too!

Thanks for the comments. It's always nice to know that someone reds the stuff I write.

Anonymous said...

This is a coincidence. I've just seen El Comidista has a new tv program. In La Sexta. He was telling the British embassador about the atrocities British people, including British chefs (James Olivier), do to the Spanish recipes. Tortilla de patata, for example. James Olivier puts chorizo in it! And coriander! And they say that is "being creative". But that is Not being creative, that is believing you can do whatever you want and call it tortilla de patata. How I hate that attitude.
The other day I saw a foodphotographer, also British, showing in Instagram (proudly!), her paella with chorizo!! And she had hundreds of (British) comments telling her how yummy and Spanish that was... There was a valencian girl among them also, almost crying, trying to explain with care. But nobody paid any attention to what she said.
It seems British people associate chorizo with being purely Spanish. Yes, matanza, I know. And yes, chorizo can be good. But "As Spanish as Spanish can get"? I am not so sure.
And it is true that you always find chorizo in the tackiest bars of Spain. Fried. Greasy. The stalls in the Feria, for example, the other day I saw a man frying 30 or 40 chorizos and piling them up in a tray. It was disgusting. My artheries clogged at the sight.
El Pozo y Campofrío? I thought you were talking about real chorizo! :)
Among all the Spanish food, chorizo is the brute. I don't think you'll find it in elegant meals. It is something you eat and makes you feel a bit guilty and uncomfortable. You don't put it in tortillas or paellas, you don't mix it with anyhing but lentejas or the like. Winter food. For people who worked phisically hard... No we are sitting on a chair all day.
As for what you say about the tasteless products, it can be true. We export our best and keep the worse. So sad. My dad has almonds. The best looking, bigger, healthiest almonds go directly to France, they told us in the cooperative.
But you can find quality products if you know where to go. And they are usually much better and tastier and cheaper and abundant than in the best British supermarkets... :-) Only a part of the fish in Spanish supermarkets comes from farms. Some is from our sea, near the supermarket. One only has to read the label or ask. The same goes with your other examples.
By the way, the British embassador, talking about British recipes, said the fish and chips that spaniards make are worse than the British. Everybody makes atrocities.

Chris Thompson said...

All true. Mind you, over in Salamanca, they do all sorts of strange things to tortilla with bechamel for instance. And Mercadona sells a tortilla with chorizo. It can't all be eaten by Brits.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of what Spanish kids say when some other kid tells them something they don't like: "Y tú más"