Treading the Olive Line

The Italian town of Bellagio sits at the tip of a peninsula that perfectly bisects the south part of Lake Como into two picturesque arms. I had the privilege in September of spending a fortnight staying there and living la vita Como. When I stood on the tip of the peninsula at la punta di spartiventi (“the place where the winds separate”) I noticed an olive tree a couple of metres out from the shore, its feet entirely submerged in the waters of Lake Como. Surely, I thought, this must be the northernmost olive tree in the world. After all, the Swiss border was only ten or so kilometres to the north and west.

But strictly speaking, I wasn’t correct. When I visited the town of Varenna on the eastern shore of the Lake and a kilometre or so further to the north, I found olive trees growing on the mountain side facing the Lake, even while alpine vegetation dominated the north side of the slopes.

The “olive line” is something to conjure with. That point north of which the olive tree won’t prosper serves, ideally, as the boundary of Mediterranean cuisine: beyond which, the cooking becomes butter-dominated.

Recently, UNESCO announced that the Mediterranean diet is going to be given world heritage status, joining a list of “intangible” cultural heritage that already includes the tango and Croatian lace-making.

But what is this thing called the Mediterranean diet? Most of us foodies would easily recognise the distinctions between, say, Moroccan cooking and Greek cooking and Italian cooking. There are parts of the Mediterranean coast where fresh and cured pork dominate the diet, and other areas of the coast where its consumption is nearly non-existent. Wine will be served in just about any Spanish café, but will rarely make an appearance across the Straits of Gibraltar in a Moroccan counterpart. What is it that could possibly link these cuisines?

It was Elizabeth David, I think, who was the first to popularise the idea of Mediterranean food as an ensemble, although the first edition of her A Book of Mediterranean Food was overwhelmingly a collection of French recipes, with a few Levantine ones thrown in from her wartime sojourns in the Greek Isles and Cairo. Other Mediterranean cuisines didn’t fair too well; she introduced paella with the observation that “it is the Spanish version of risotto”, which suggests a certain thoughtlessness as regards either Spanish cuisine or Italian cuisine, or both.

The origins of the “Mediterranean Diet” as some nutritional shibboleth lie in a study of the island of Crete after the Second World War by epidemiologist Lelan Allbaugh. But whilst his survey of the Cretan diet showed that vegetables and pulses were overwhelmingly eaten over meat and fish, most of those Cretans surveyed indicated this was more a matter of necessity than choice and that their favourite food was meat — particularly pork products — and they couldn’t get enough of it. Yet what we today evoke as the “Mediterranean Diet” probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. As I observed in an earlier post, up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine. Much of the Mediterranean makes for poor farming and the sea itself is comparatively poor in fish. Remember that a staple of the historical “Mediterranean diet” was air dried cod, imported from Norway.

Historically, as Clifford Wright observes, there were many Mediterraneans – at least two: east and west, Turkish and Spanish, Islamic and Christian. As he says, there is the Mediterranean defined by climate, another defined by sea, another defined by history. And there is the human Mediterranean defined by the movements of its people, which counters any static picture of the Mediterranean, including its diet. Since the fifth century the Mediterranean has seen the rise of Islamic civilisation, has shifted from feudalism to capitalism, and embarked on an age of exploration and conquest. Each transition has fundamentally altered the diet of those around the Mediterranean, especially the introduction of foods we now think of as quintessentially Mediterranean, such as oranges, lemons, eggplants and spinach by Arab agriculturalists, and tomatoes, capsicums and squash after Columbus’s footfall in America, with tomatoes making a particular late appearance in southern Italian cuisine.

But today a platonic “Mediterranean Diet” is ubiquitous, not just in cookery books but also in health promotion. It is merely one example of how, as anthropologist Sidney Mintz has observed in the North American context, every localised taste opportunity is taken by commercial enterprise and turned into some new national fad, made available without regard to place or season.

In 1993, Oldways Preservation Trust and the Harvard School of Public Health teamed up to introduce the Mediterranean diet to an American audience. They organized a conference to present the science, and unveiled a graphic – the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid – to make this approach easy to understand.

Oldways is a non-profit education organization. It founded the Mediterranean Food Alliance (MFA) to “improve public health by raising consumer awareness about the health benefits of following the Mediterranean Diet”. The Oldways website goes on to explain, “companies that manufacture, import, and sell healthy Mediterranean products underwrite some of the MFA’s educational programs. A number of these companies also apply to use the easily-recognizable Oldways Med Mark on their qualifying products…The MFA benefits a company’s bottom line while it also benefits consumer health. Dues are low and on a sliding scale, so companies of all sizes can participate”.

And to convince MFA members and other Oldways financial supporters — which include the International Olive Council — that they’re getting value for money, Oldways points to “increased sales of Mediterranean foods” as its first KPI, noting that since its Mediterranean Diet campaign took off in the mid-1990s, U.S. olive oil imports rose more than 137%.

And let’s face it, the one thing that could possibly link the disparate, diverse and ever changing worlds of Mediterranean cuisine I referred to earlier is olive oil. So perhaps promoting the “olive line” is important in ways I hadn’t begun to imagine.

9 thoughts on “Treading the Olive Line

  1. What a wonderfully informative post Anthony. I have also wondered about tomatoes in the traditional Mediterranean diet, because they came from the New World. I guess their ubiquity was a function of the trade routes, but it’s interesting to think on that and compare spices and seasonings across the vast bowl. Thank you!

  2. yes thank you, a very thoughtful post. I particularly liked your point about east and west Mediterraneans. Having travelled a fair bit in the Med (not north Africa unfortunately), it is clear there are similarities to the east of Italy and then to the west/south of Italy. As you point out, this has a lot to do with history.

    Food is certainly another (fascinating) prism through which to see the impact of politics and economics!

  3. DrSO, the odd thing about the tomato is that although it would have been known in Europe after Columbus, it was really only adopted as a ubiquitous food (ie, tomato sauce with pasta) in southern Italy in the second half of the 19th century. I don’t know why this is the case. Initially it was the base for preserves etc. It was seen as a Spanish food for quite a long time, until the Neapolitans took it on board in the 19th century.

    Having been invaded by the north (aka Garibaldi’s “unification” of Italy), the south at least fought back and got everyone eating tomato sauce with their pasta

  4. There’s a Canberra academic doing work on a “60 year old diet”, based on the Cretan research. I’ve been reading Nourishing Traditions today, and it’s emphasis on the health benefits of saturated fat sits uneasily with the academic diet’s emphasis on olive oil – just as in your point about the Cretans really wanting to fang into the pork and lard as they faced down another plate of weeds!

  5. Hello mates! I want to start a new discussion about the influences teflon has on our health.
    We all know that teflon makes our pans easier to clean, as nothing sticks to them.
    We might even consider this as an advantage, as we require no oil so that food doesn’t become stuck on the pans, and less oil means a healthier diet.
    For all those that don’t know, teflon consists of carbon and fluorine molecules that bond so strongly, food can’t get a hold and just slips straight of a teflon coated pan.
    But few of you may know of the risks involved using teflon coated pans.
    Teflon contains a chemical called per-flouro-octanoid-acid also known as PFOA, which can cause cancer.
    If you over heat teflon coated pans, to 260 degrees Celsius, you get the risk of releasing that chemical…and this is a risk not worth taking.
    So although teflon coated pans are easier to use, they imply high risks on our health…so it is advised that they be used properly.
    The alternative to these pans is using copper pans, as they conduct heat quickly.
    I hope you found my topic interesting!

  6. Alex, I found your topic interesting about 15 years ago when I first heard about it. Like all sensible people I cook in cast iron frypans that I bought from the op shop. So you can take your copper pans and piss off.

  7. Copper pans, alfoil hat?
    DrSO and A, the other interesting thing about tomatoes in other non-Mediterranean parts of Europe is how they seem to have been associated with lust, sin, violence, and the base passions, for ages after they were imported in the Columbian way. I suppose, see also: Spain.

  8. Speaking for myself, I cook only by putting the tin in the microwave and eating straight from it with plastic cutlery, or a straw. It’s fresher that way—the fewer metals in contact with the food the better.
    Either that or chasing the animal down and tearing out its throat and entrails with my own teeth and fingernails, but I can’t often be bothered to do that on a weeknight.

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