No story on the glories of the Mediterranean would be complete without a trencherman’s helping of gastro-porn. If the blue skies and blue seas enjoyed by the people of the Mediterranean, or the languorous ease of their lives, don’t already inspire envy, the food they eat will do the trick. Few modern aspirations are as seductive as the Mediterranean dream of the whitewashed villa in the coastal village, the overstuffed produce market, the cooking of the day’s catch, and then washing it down with delicious, and cheap, locally made wine.
For convenience, the countries around the Mediterranean can be divided into three broad regions: southern Europe (France, Italy, Spain); the Levant (Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria); and North Africa (Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia). If the ingredients used are ubiquitous, the results are distinctive, even within regions.
Across the board, the pillars of Mediterranean cooking are the indigenous olive and the imported tomato. The olive has been eaten for thousands of years in the Mediterranean, and people, without exception, cook their food in olive oil. In this way, the cooking in the south of Italy, for instance, is closer to that of Morocco or Lebanon than it is to the north of Italy, more influenced by the classical French reliance on butter or the German emphasis on meat. Other constants include the widespread use of garlic and fresh vegetables, particularly eggplant, herbs such as basil, mint, fennel and parsley, lamb instead of beef (sheep and goats also provide milk for yoghurt and cheeses) and, for obvious reasons, seafood, particularly shellfish.
The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, as opposed to the artery-clogging sauces of French haute cuisine, are well-established. But of greater appeal to romantics is the conviviality of Mediterranean mealtimes, the endless rounds of appetisers (tapas in Spain, mezze in the Levant, antipasti in Italy, or crudités in France) that foster conversation.
Take in the beauty of Mediterranean foods. The green of the olives; the shellfish spilling out of Provençal bisques or Catalonian paella; the plum-coloured wine; the orange of a Moroccan lamb tagine...
The pearl of Provençal food, bouillabaisse is, like its hometown Marseille, not so much sophisticated as it is vibrant. Originally the sort of dish fishermen threw together with the scraps and refuse of the day’s catch, bouillabaisse is now an elaborate dish of various kinds of cooked fish and shellfish enhanced with tomatoes, orange peel, leeks, fennel, bay leaf, thyme and, above all, saffron. Eat it with toast spread with rouille, a spicy, garlicky mayonnaise.
The east of Spain, facing Italy — specifically the region of Communidad Valenciana — is the home of the paella, arguably Spain’s most recognisable dish. Paella, named after the large, shallow pan in which it is cooked, is a rice dish; rice and saffron, another key ingredient, were introduced to Spain by the conquering Moors. Paella is usually made with vegetables and either fish or meat. Everything from mussels, langoustines and lobster to rabbit or chorizo is used in paella.
Like bouillabaisse, cassoulet, from the south of France, is a hearty and rustic stew. It is made with white haricot beans and meat rather than fish, typically a combination of fat, spicy pork sausages, goose, duck and bacon. Some people use mutton in cassoulets, though this is reviled by others; in France, the cassoulet inspires fierce provincialism.
A French dish that makes liberal use of the tomato, the one Mediterranean staple that isn’t indigenous, ratatouille is another Provençal stew, though this time made with vegetables. Apart from tomatoes, ratatouilles are made with the classic Mediterranean vegetables: aubergine, zucchini and bell peppers. Ratatouille is versatile, doubling as both a main course and, if you have leftovers, a cold hors d’oeuvre.
5. Pizza margherita
The much-abused pizza’s Neapolitan origins have been long forgotten in its charge towards world-domination as American fast food. “Pizza with pineapples?” as one bemused Neapolitan chef reportedly sniffed, “that’s a cake.” A genuine Neapolitan pizza (and there is a legal standard) is round and the crust cannot exceed a certain height. The dough is kneaded by hand. Only extra virgin olive oil can be used and buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes from the Mount Vesuvius region.
Ciuppin, a Ligurian word for most kinds of fish stew, has recently gained currency because of the popularity of cioppino, a Mediterranean-style Italian-American dish from the Bay Area. Ciuppin, like bouillabaisse, was originally a throwaway dish, a soup made from unwanted fish scraps that has evolved into something far fancier. In a Genoese ciuppin, the fish and the sauce is passed through a food mill before large pieces of fish, squid or cuttlefish are added to it.
7. Pesce alla marinara
The Italian love affair with the tomato finds its expression in marinara sauce, quickly put together and made with lashings of garlic and chilli peppers. In this simple dish, white fish is poached in a sauce made with sweet plum tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and parsley.
A sort of Provençal pizza, the pissaladière is often served in France as a starter or eaten at picnics. The base is a chewy bread dough topped with sautéed onions, dark, bruised purple kalamata or Niçoise olives, garlic, thyme and anchovies, either whole or spread as paste. The anchovy paste is known as pissala and gives the dish its name. Like the pizza, once the pissaladière’s toppings are layered, it is baked in a brick oven.
9. Zarzuela de pescado
Catalan cooking has a strong claim, whatever the French might say, to being the Mediterranean’s most sophisticated dish, blending the techniques of its European neighbours with distinct Arab influences. This stew teems with clams, mussels, lobster, shrimp, squid and several varieties of fish. The fish and shellfish are cooked separately in olive oil, washed in brandy and tossed, first in a tomato and onion sauce and then in a picada sauce, made with almonds, garlic, fried bread and sometimes bitter-sweet chocolate.
10. Arroz abanda
This is the standout Spanish rice dish. Paula Wolfert, the food writer who has made the Mediterranean her life’s work, once described a Spanish man who burst into tears when tasting a particularly fine arroz abanda. The rice is boiled in a fish broth containing everything from sea bass to squid. The rice is then served separately with ‘ali-oli’, an olive oil and garlic dressing, followed by the fish with which the rice was boiled.
Wine, olive oil, cheese and bread are Mediterranean staples. And while wine obviously plays a greater role along the Italian and French coasts than it does in the diets of Arab Muslims in North Africa, the former French colonies of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have nascent wine industries. Cyprus meanwhile stakes a claim to producing the Mediterranean’s oldest wine, archaeologists having discovered evidence to suggest wine was being produced in Cyprus over 5,500 years ago. Commandaria, the island’s famous dessert wine, is made from the Mavro and Xynistery varieties of red grapes. Retsina, Greece’s resinous wine (an acquired taste) is, along with the anise-flavoured ouzo, the national drink. Israel produces wine in the Golan Heights. Lebanon too makes wine, notably the Chateau Musar. And Turkey’s Kavaklidere winery produces the fruity, ruby red Yakut; the country’s most popular red is Villa Doluca, produced in Thrace. The Mediterranean’s biggest wine producers are, of course, France and Italy, followed by Spain. Increasingly, in the south of France, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, vintners are planting such varietals as merlot, cabernet and viognier. Provence, famous for its rosés and table wines, also produces the prestigious Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine. In Italy, many of the wines on the Riviera are not export quality but rather good nonetheless. Sicily’s most famous wine is the red Corvo. The Penedes in Catalonia produces almost all of Spain’s ‘champagne’, Cava.
Versions of moussaka, a lamb and aubergine casserole, exist throughout the Levant. The Greek version, arguably the country’s best-known dish, consists of three layers — a bottom layer of sliced aubergine sautéed in olive oil, a middle layer of minced lamb cooked with tomatoes and a top layer of creamy Bechamel sauce. Zucchini or mushrooms are often used in addition to aubergine.
Yet another dish of which we’re giving its Greek name for the sake of convenience. The gyro — which could mount a persuasive argument for being considered the world’s best sandwich — is known in Turkey as the doner kebab and in the Middle East as the shawarma. Strips, usually lamb, are sliced off a piece of meat roasting on a spit and put into pita bread containing tzatziki, tomatoes and onion and anything else the owner of the sandwich shop wishes to throw in.
Souvlaki, like the gyro, is a classic Levantine fast food. Indeed, souvlaki and gyro are sometimes confusingly interchangeable terms. Normally, though, souvlaki refers to small pieces of skewered meat and vegetable marinated in lemon juice and olive oil. In Athens, souvlaki is often referred to as kalamaki to distinguish it from the gyro, which is referred to as souvlaki.
The baklava is only nominally Greek. Its purview actually stretches across the Balkans and the Middle East into South Asia. The baklava, of course, is made with layers of phyllo pastry, each coated with walnuts, pistachios, dried fruits and sweetened with honey or a sugary syrup. The pastry is usually cut in squares or, as is traditional in Lebanon, diamonds.
From the Turkish dolmak, meaning ‘to stuff’, the dolma is yet another pan-Levantine food, as likely to be eaten in Cyprus or Lebanon as it is in Albania. In Turkey, all stuffed vegetables, and even stuffed mackerel and squid, are referred to as dolmas, while the wrapping of vine or cabbage leaves around a filling is called sarma. This distinction is not made in Greece, where dolma refers to stuffed vine leaves, or Lebanon, where it is called warak inab.
Kibbeh is the Lebanese national dish and a presence to be reckoned with on any mezze platter. In its most common, basic form the kibbeh is made with minced lamb, the parboiled, sun-dried wheat known as burghul (or bulgur in Turkey) and spices, stuffed inside burghul pastry crust and fried or sometimes grilled. In Lebanon, the raw mix of mince and burghul is often served as an accompaniment to arak, an anise-flavoured alcoholic drink. Lebanese immigrants have taken kibbeh as far afield as Brazil and Mexico, where local versions, called quibe and kipe, respectively, are popular.
7. Circassian chicken
A masterpiece of Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine, Circassian chicken is a dish served on celebratory occasions. Traditionally, the walnut oil dressing was extracted by crushing walnuts between two stones. The dish, flavoured with saffron and garlic, has a pleasing peppery, nutty flavour. The story goes that the pale colour of the salad was reminiscent of the colour of the Circassian beauties in the Ottoman harem.
Use of the chickpea is rife throughout the Mediterranean, most obviously in this classic Arabic (and Greek and Armenian) dip. Hummus is made of chickpea paste, the sesame seed paste known as tahini, and sometimes flavoured with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and paprika.
Israel has gradually twinned its Sephardic and Ashkenazi influences into an innovative, melting pot cuisine. Its appropriation (perhaps not the best word in the context of Israel) of the falafel is a good example. A popular Arab street snack, the falafel is a deep-fried ball made from chickpeas or sometimes fava beans. In Israel, like in Lebanon, falafel is eaten in a pita bread sandwich with hummus, salad and French fries.
Most Mediterranean cheeses — Italy’s hard, salty pecorino; labneh, the Middle Eastern yoghurt-cheese; the Cypriot halloumi; France’s famous mouldy, blue-green roquefort — are made using sheep or goat rather than cow’s milk. The most common Mediterranean cheese is the soft feta from Greece. Mozzarella, made from buffalo milk, is also a Mediterranean cheese. Provolone originated in the south of Italy, close to the Mediterranean, but is now a whole-milk cow cheese mostly produced in the north. Mascarpone and parmesan too are Mediterranean cheeses, the former now an integral part of northern Italian cooking. A particularly fine Mediterranean cheese is brin d’amour, a sheep’s milk cheese from Corsica covered with herbs.
1. Ful medames
The classic Egyptian breakfast, ful medames is made with fava beans that have been soaked for up to 24 hours and left to simmer on a low flame all night until practically mush. The beans are usually stewed with chopped onion, ground coriander, cumin, lemon and garlic and served with olive oil and aysh baladi, unleavened local bread.
2. Kaab al ghzal
The extravagantly named Kaab Al Ghzal, or Gazelle’s Horns, is a common dessert across Tunisia and Morocco. Shaped somewhat like a croissant, the Gazelle’s Horns is pastry filled with almond paste, topped with sugar and sometimes scented with orange. Another popular dessert is bits of deep-fried dough dipped into honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Tagine or tajine, the iconic Moroccan dish, refers to both the pot in which the food is cooked as well as the actual result of your culinary efforts. Tagine, thus, is a generic term covering any dish cooked in a tagine. Mostly tagines are made with anything that braises well, lamb being most popular, though chicken, beef or fish or even pigeon may also be used.
Couscous, or steamed semolina grains, is a Maghreb staple. References to couscous have been found in anonymous 13th-century cookbooks about the cuisine of the Maghreb and Andalucia. Arab traveller, Leo Africanus, described it as a primary among “all things to be eaten once a day... it costs little and nourishes a lot”. In North Africa, couscous is generally served as the base upon which is heaped stewed vegetables and meat.
5. Mint tea
If the southern Europeans and the likes of Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel drink wine, in the primarily Muslim countries of North Africa it is mint tea that reigns. Tea itself was introduced to North Africa in the mid-19th century, by the British looking for new markets. A Mediterranean touch was soon added with the mint leaves. Only green tea is used.
Fiery harissa sauce is the single-most important ingredient in Tunisian cooking. Made with chilli peppers and tomatoes, coriander, cumin, garlic and olive oil, harissa is often combined with couscous — adding spice, colour and flavour to an otherwise bland dish.
Originally Tunisian but popular throughout North Africa and parts of the Middle East, chakchouka is usually eaten at breakfast or as a light lunch. Red and green peppers, garlic, tomatoes and cumin are cooked in harissa and olive oil, followed by eggs which are fried with the vegetables.
This complicated Fassi delicacy combines pigeon and almonds wrapped in layers of warka, the thin Moroccan pancake. The resulting pie is a sweet, savoury wonder. The meat is mixed with eggs, spices, herbs and after cooking topped with cinnamon and sugar icing. The pastilla is undoubtedly Morocco’s most distinctive dish.
The olive tree, cited by the poet Horace as crucial to his simple diet, is native to Syria, Palestine and Iran, from where it spread west through Greece. According to Greek mythology, the goddess Athena created the first olive tree during her battle with Poseidon for the city of Attica. The olive is the iconic Mediterranean food and all cooking is done with olive oil. Unsurprisingly, 97 per cent of the world’s olive oil is produced in the Mediterranean. Italy produces the most varieties of olives, 80 per cent of them in the Mediterranean regions of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. Spain, meanwhile, supplies nearly a third of the world’s olive oil. The Greeks consume more olive oil than anyone else, and no wonder since Greece produces, as a percentage of production, more extra virgin olive oil than any other country. Extra virgin, an unrefined, natural product, is the highest grade of olive oil; look for the words ‘cold pressed’ on the label.