Mmmm. A plate of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and goat cheese, drizzled with olive oil and herbs, with olives on the side. To me, that’s the quintessential Mediterranean meal. Simple, loaded with vegetables, unprocessed and delicious. You can make that sort of meal anywhere, but somehow it tastes better with the actual Mediterranean Sea nearby.
I recently returned from a trip to Greece, home of the Mediterranean Diet. Or at least Ground Zero for the original research that identified the health benefits of a diet based on local Mediterranean foods. During the 1960’s, Ancel Keys, from the University of Minnesota, conducted the Seven Countries Study, comparing diet and health of groups of men in 7 different countries: USA, Finland, Greece, Italy, Holland, Yugoslavia, Japan and Italy. At the time, health researchers assumed fat intake was linked to heart disease. But in Greece, despite a remarkably high fat intake from olive oil, heart disease rates were lower.
Olive oil is a key part of the cuisine around the Mediterranean, not just in Greece. The surprising findings led to years of research on olive oil, and the different health effects of different types of fat. Today the Mediterranean diet is recommended in part because of the emphasis on olive oil.
- Yogurt was always on the breakfast menu. The yogurt is served plain, but frequently is combined with fresh fruit, nuts and honey. I thought the plain yogurt was wonderful, like nothing I find at home, and not like the “Greek style” yogurt sold at grocery stores. It was lighter, almost with a whipped texture.
- Tomatoes everywhere, even at breakfast. Dressed with fresh herbs and olive oil.
- Olives and capers as garnishes everywhere. The capers were really good. I was known to eat all the capers on a shared plate.
- A wide variety of cheese, from feta to fresh soft cheeses, all of them great.
- Bread was not emphasized at meals.
- Surprising amount of meat. Menus included plenty of meat selections: pork, beef, lamb, chicken. And I thought the portions were pretty generous. Too much for one person in my opinion.
- Good espresso
- It seems that the beans used for filter and Greek style coffee are quite different from what I was used to. The coffee had a distinctly different flavor. Someone described it as grassy. I stuck to espresso.
- Gelato is a common street food. We didn’t do desserts with meals so much as an afternoon gelato + espresso break.
- Greek salad varies according to the locale, but typically includes tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, cheese and olive oil. I thought the portions were generous, more than enough for 2 people, or shared at a table for an appetizer.
- Fresh fish was prepared in simple ways that focused on flavor. At many fish restaurants, whole frsh fish is sold by weight. The customer goes back to the kitchen to pick the fish to be cooked, which is then weighed to determine the price. NOTE: not cheap. But delicious.
- Fava beans are a popular menu item. I wasn’t very familiar with them, but now I’ll be looking for a source. They’re really good.
In the land of the Mediterranean diet, fresh foods were the norm. The meals emphasized vegetables, fruit and cheese. Overall, I was surprised at the portions sizes and the general amount of meat being served.
Mediterranean on a plane
I expected to find Mediterranean foods in Greece. I didn’t expect to be offered a Mediterranean entree option on a long distance flight. Buy since the airline had made an effort, I had to try it out. Here’s what it included:
- A main dish plate with greens, a cooked grain that seemed to be bulgur wheat and some other darker grains that may have been flax seeds.
- A salad with cauliflower, grapes and some other vegetables
- A bowl of fresh fruit
- A brioche-type roll
- A small muffin with a chocolate filling
Technically, you could call this Mediterranean. You could also call it vegetarian or plant-based. Maybe not vegan, if the muffin contained egg. What it didn’t have was any dairy or meat, and what it didn’t seem to include was olive oil. So it was an interesting effort. Cheese, meat and fish are part of the classic Mediterranean diet, but this meal was trending vegan. If I had been advising that airline caterer, I would have planned a different Mediterranean meal.
Meanwhile on other long flights, the meal choices were either meat or vegetarian. I chose vegetarian both times. One entree was 2 squares of tofu, breaded and fried on a bed of greens and grains. The other was roasted celery root on a bed of grains, accompanied by a vegetable salad. I was OK with the tofu meal, but I thought celery root made for a strange entrée. The whole meal was vegetables and fruit. No protein.
Despite these oddities, I give the airline a A for effort. I overheard one flight attendant apologizing after they ran out of vegetarian meals on one flight. So the demand is there. The implementation could be improved, even within the constraints of mass-producing airline meals.
Mediterranean at home
Whether you call it Mediterranean or ‘Sometimes Vegetarian’, you don’t have to travel to Greece to eat this type of diet. Base your meals on vegetables, grains and legumes. Add cheese or eggs in modest amounts. Use meat in smaller amounts, or just less frequently. Use olive oil for cooking and dressings. Avoid processed foods and avoid too many sweets. Throw in a glass of wine and some espresso(s) and you’re all set.