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.