In the Mediterranean the food is legendary. The Mediterranean diet is known for being one of the healthiest diets in the world. Comprising a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetable, pulses, fish, dairy products and a little meat, it is boosted by that ancient magical ingredient, olive oil. Rich in monounsaturated fats, olive oil helps reduce LDL cholesterol (bad) and increase HDL cholesterol (good), which works to remove the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries. But, it is still oil and therefore fattening, so it should be used with some restraint.
It’s the taste though, that makes it such a popular choice and no Mediterranean dish would be complete without it.
Olives too, appear with regular frequency. Black or green, they are eaten as an accompaniment at any meal including breakfast when they are served with toast or plain bread (no butter) a slice of cheese and a tomato. In the past, shepherds and those who worked the fields would take a handful of olives, a piece of bread and sometimes a slice of cheese to work with them. It was enough to sustain them through a long hard day.
Salad also appears with every main meal… and we’re not talking about a couple of curly lettuce leaves and half a designer tomato. This is a big bowl containing enough vegetation to feed a large dairy farm! Everything that’s in season gets thrown in. Crispy Romaine lettuce, fresh coriander, spicy rocket, mild cabbage, tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes (locally grown beef tomatoes are unbelievably good), crunchy cucumbers and spring onions and the dressing? Red wine vinegar and…you guessed it, olive oil!
Cheese and dairy products are a primary source of protein. Yoghurt in particular is served with many dishes both sweet and savoury. Greek-style yoghurt is thick and slightly acidic. As a dessert, it goes particularly well with honey and chopped nuts. As an accompaniment to savoury dishes it is almost always served with stuffed vegetables, moussaka, vegetables cooked in tomato sauce, and with rice or bourgouri (bulgur wheat) pilaf.
Mediterranean cheeses are almost as famous as the olive oil. In Greece, perhaps the most well known cheese is Feta, which is also produced in Cyprus and known as fetta, with two t’s. It goes very well with spinach and green peppers and is great diced and sprinkled over a salad. But Cyprus’ most famous cheese by far is Halloumi. This is a semi-soft, almost waxy cheese that is adored by adults and children alike. The kids call it ‘squeaky cheese’ because it squeaks as you bite into it. Halloumi is extremely versatile and, because it keeps its shape when cooked, can be served in many ways. Fresh, it is enjoyed with olives, or sliced in sandwiches with tomato and cucumbers; it can be grilled or fried; grated and added to sauces; or used as a topping for gratin dishes; it can also be diced and added to hot soups. Needless to say, it’s a firm family favourite. There are many other delightful, white and yellow cheeses to try, including Anari, a soft ricotta-type white cheese, which is used in both sweet and savoury pastries, and Kefalotyri, which is a hard Graviera that is an excellent after-dinner cheese.
Fish is very popular with just about everyone. Unfortunately though, the eastern end of the Mediterranean doesn’t have a lot to offer, but what does turn up in the fishermen’s nets is good, albeit somewhat expensive. Red mullet is wonderful, as are other locally caught fish as well as octopus, calamari (cuttlefish), and soupies (squid). Fortunately, there are several large fish farms nearby that produce a plentiful supply of excellent Tsipoura (Sea Bream) and Lavraki (Sea Bass). There are also fish farms in the mountains that supply fresh trout.
Meat rarely made an appearance on the traditional Mediterranean menu, as documented in the Mediterranean diet pyramid. It was reserved for special occasions, such as religious holidays, weddings and other celebrations and then the meat of choice would be lamb or goat. Most rural families kept a few chickens (mainly for eggs), a few sheep or goats (mainly for milk and cheese), and a pig that would be fattened up throughout the year and ceremoniously slaughtered at Christmas. The meat would then be cut up and carefully preserved for use throughout the coming year. Bacon, hams (chiromeri), lountza (smoked loin), sausages (loukanika), every part of the animal would be preserved – either by salting and drying, or by soaking it in wine and spices and then slowly smoking it over a wood fire. The results were delicious. Today, some of the villagers still prepare these delicacies – although they are no longer permitted to slaughter their own animals!
Things are different now and meat has become a more regular feature in our diet. Most prominent is the ubiquitous kebab (souvlakia). This favourite take-away is small cubes of tender pork, chicken or lamb, cooked on skewers over charcoal and served in pitta bread with salad. Amore formal version is Souvla – a Sunday lunch time meal of larger chunks of meat (lamb or pork) slowly cooked on the barbeque. Souvla is always prepared by the man of the house, usually when guests are invited. His way of cooking it is his very own closely-guarded secret, which he will probably take with him to his grave. A word of warning…do not interfere with a man and his souvla – even if he appears to be making a ‘pig’s ear’ of it!
Pulses are still a firm favourite in every Mediterranean household, just as they were in the Middle Ages. Dried beans, chick peas, black-eyed peas, lentils and broad beans still appear with regular lunchtime frequency. They are usually simply boiled, sometimes with a vegetable such as spinach or chard, and served with salted herring, sardines, tuna fish or boiled octopus, a bowl of salad, fresh village-style bread and, of course, lots of olive oil!
There are literally thousands of different recipesthat make up the Mediterranean cuisine but what distinguishes the taste is most probably the type of herbs used in the dishes. Rosemary, basil, oregano, coriander, mint and parsley are all there, each casting its own particular spell over our taste buds. Garlic is there too – but this is not a time to be faint-hearted.
by Dina Wilde – Courtesy of Cyprus Airways in-flight magazine, SUNJET