The sheer joy of the Mediterranean diet

August 2, 2018 6:32 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Are you in beach-reading mode? Indulging your taste for brightly coloured novels with a parasol and a pair of sunglasses on the front cover? Well – read on. We’d like to tell you the real-life beach-novel story of Elizabeth David.

Elizabeth David is the person who brought the Mediterranean sun into the austerity years of the 1950s and 1960s in Britain. Born rich, one of four sisters, she studied art in Paris in the 1930s. Throwing it in, she became an actress and, after sojourns in France, Corsica and Malta, ended up sailing off with a married man into the Italian sunset. Following the confiscation of their boat under suspicion of spying, the couple moved onto Greece, where they narrowly escaped the German invasion, eventually arriving in Egypt, where they lived in Cairo.

By day, Elizabeth was a prim librarian of reference material – by night, in spangled caftans, a devotee of Cairo’s exotic nightclubs. Her relationship didn’t last – neither did a subsequent marriage (or, indeed, her career as a librarian) – but an abiding love of all things connected with the sunshine, vitality and food of the Mediterranean did. It was this that Elizabeth brought back with her to England, as the second world war ended.

It wasn’t a happy landing. Elizabeth later described the food:

‘There was flour and water soup seasoned solely with pepper; bread and gristle rissoles; dehydrated onions and carrots; corned beef toad in the hole.’

Stuck in a rainy hotel room one day, she began to write.

‘Hardly knowing what I was doing … I sat down and started to work out an agonized craving for the sun and a furious revolt against that terrible cheerless, heartless food by writing down descriptions of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking. Even to write words like apricot, olives and butter, rice and lemons, oil and almonds, produced assuagement.’

At the age of 36, Elizabeth published A Book of Mediterranean Food. Her recipes included ingredients like aubergines, figs, olive oil and basil, which at the time weren’t mainstream in Britain. More important than the ingredients, however, was the underlying ethos of the book. This was writing that celebrated food: its scents, flavours, properties and sheer deliciousness. It recognised the importance of fine, fresh ingredients; rejected the efforts (prevalent in wartime) to disguise second-rate ingredients as something else (‘mock duck’ made of sausagemeat, onions and apples, for example); and took as its guiding principle the need to: ‘search out the best, insist on it, and reject all that was bogus and second-rate’, as her biographer, Artemis Cooper, put it. Elizabeth insisted on the importance of doing the very best you could with the ingredients available to you, even if these consisted mostly of a couple of stringy pieces of meat.

Abroad, Elizabeth had lived a culinary life of wonder: octopus stew with wine-dark sauce and mountain herbs in Greece; spiced pilafs and kebabs grilled over charcoal with mint-flavoured yoghurt dressings in Egypt – and everywhere, dishes made up of fresh, bright vegetables, pulses, oils and herbs. Simply reading her book was, for many in the 1950s and 1960s, as good as a two-week holiday in the sun. As sales of the book grew, the hard-to-find ingredients became gradually easier to find – and the horrors of wartime food receded.

Even today, the Mediterranean diet entrances us. The food remains a major draw for a holiday in Greece, France, Italy or Spain. The freshness of the fruits and vegetables, swollen by the sun; the irresistible scent of sizzling meat and fish; the sharp brightness of the herbs; the seafood, the sauces, the thick yoghurt – it’s the food we so often dream about in the dark winter months at home.

The gold standard for health

Of course, the Mediterranean diet is widely recognised, too, for its health benefits. Working out precisely which elements are responsible for these benefits has proved tricky over the years, as has separating out the effects of the cuisine from the general ‘feel-good’ factors of climate and sociability. However, there’s now greater clarity.

The ‘Mediterranean diet’ is a diet that incorporates plenty of vegetables, fruit, pulses, wholegrain cereals and grains, including wholewheat bread, pasta and brown rice. It includes some dairy produce and a moderate amount of fish and meat. All of these bring their own health benefits – the combination of them has a beneficial effect too.

The major health benefit is brought by the type of fat found in this diet. Olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, plays a big role in Mediterranean cooking: in its extra-virgin form, it contains high levels of antioxidant-rich protective plant compounds. In addition, the fats found in Mediterranean nuts, seeds and oily fish, rich as they are in Omega-3 fatty acids, are vital for good health.

Overall, a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of developing conditions like Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. This in turn lowers the risk of developing heart disease. Overall, the diet appears likely to extend life and to make our older age healthier.

NGF does the Med

If you know anything about Naturally Good Food, you’ll know that we sell plenty of the things you’ll need to cook a Mediterranean diet. We’ve got organic herbs and spices – potent and pungent, nothing like the dusty little pots on the supermarket shelves. We’ve got the most amazing cold-pressed organic oils, thick with the sun. We’ve got nuts of all kinds, crisp and crunchy; seeds large and small; and dried fruit that’s bursting with natural sweetness. All of these ingredients will do you good, bringing you a comprehensive range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fatty acids.

Even more importantly, at Naturally Good Food we recognise the central messages of Elizabeth’s books. Use good ingredients. If you have ingredients that are below-par, work carefully with them, and with supplementary ingredients, to transform them. Understand what makes a foodstuff the very best it can be and seek it out wherever possible. Don’t settle for second-rate. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that something bogus is satisfactory. And if you’re obliged to work as a librarian by day, slip into a spangled caftan in the evening.

All that glitters is not gold. At Naturally Good Food we join with Elizabeth David in urging our customers to seek out the true gold in real, wholly natural, organic products. They’re the gold standard of health, the gold stars of nutrition and taste, and the golden memories of a holiday (and life) lived in the sun.

Naturally Good Reads v2

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This post was written by Yzanne

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