Middle East Online
Dec 1 2004

What's so special about Mediterranean food?


Paradox of how Mediterranean became source of chef's inspiration,
temple for gastronomy.


By Dominique Ageorges- PARIS

The Mediterranean region has grown into one of the main inspirations
for cook books over the years, claiming a prominent place on
restaurant menus, but the phenomenon is somewhat of a paradox.

The region around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, poor
agriculturally, has succeeded over the centuries in turning itself
into a temple for gastronomy.

Italian food is most often conjured up as the Mediterranean diet but
the region stretches from southern Spain to Lebanon.

With its islands and rivers, the Mediterranean region is the cradle
of three religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- and "was a
basin where basically only vines and olive trees grew", said Paul
Balta, author of "Boire et Manger en Mediterranee" (Drink and Eat in
the Mediterranean).

But he said several plants originating from China acclimatised in a
number of central Asian countries, such as almond trees in
Afghanistan and apricot trees in Armenia, before spreading to the
Mediterranean basin.

"What is quite extraordinary is that little by little this
Mediterranean formed itself into a way of life, a gastronomy, by
adopting products from China for example, and adapting them and
exporting them itself," Balta added.

In the seventh century for example, invaders from Arab countries took
oranges and watermelons to Spain. Later, red beans and potatoes came
from the American continent.

Over about 10,000 years, the region of the Mediterranean Sea has
never stopped being a "crossroads for exchanges" in trade and
culture, he said.

Renowned French chef Alain Ducasse has since 1987 celebrated
Mediterranean cooking in his Three Star Michelin restaurant in Monaco
and counts among his books "Le Grand Livre de Cuisine de la
Mediterranee", a reference for this style of cooking.

"Nowhere else have as many civilisations and therefore cuisines
succeeded, clashed together and accumulated," he said.

"Everywhere there remain the traces of explorers, invaders, warriors,
religious figures, travellers who have enriched, changed, transformed
the original dishes of each," he said.

Couscous or tapas are examples of where dishes from different
cultures have crossbred. "Jewish people added meatballs to couscous,
a formula then adopted by the Arabs," Balta said, who was born in
Egypt and specialises in the Arab world.

Lebanese mezze, Spanish tapas and French appetizers "reflect a love
of conversation, a conviviality that is typically Mediterranean", he
added.

Guy Martin, chef of the Grand Vefour restaurant in Paris, hails from
Savoie in southeast France, a region that was once Italian.

He said he grew up eating lots of nuts and olive oil but that the
Mediterranean for him also conjured up the idea of a wide variety of
brightly coloured vegetables.

Oscar Caballero, an Argentine journalist who has just published a
book on the restaurant of Spanish chef Ferran Adria, El Bulli, said
the taste for the Mediterranean was recent.

"Twenty years ago in Catalonia you would never have seen a bottle of
olive oil on the table of a restaurant," he said, adding it was
thanks to chefs like Ducasse who "showed the way".