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.

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You say “tomato” and I say “Imma make passata every week for the next month”

I think that being an even mostly self sufficient household in the suburbs is a pretty mean feat to pull off. Some friends of ours two streets away are about 70% self sufficient in fruit and veg on their ordinary-sized domestic Canberra block, but goddamit, it’s a lot of work. Although it’s true that all veg you grow yourself is going to be a lot better than something you can find in the stupormarket, some things massively over-reward you for the effort you put in. That’s what we try to focus on in our own gardening – things that aren’t easy and cheap to get fresh, and that are particularly delicious when grown organically and harvested when perfectly ripe, like globe artichokes, asparagus, berries, etc.

Clockwise from 12 o’clock – Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese Basil, a flower and common mint.

We grow at least 20 varieties of culinary herbs, and at this time of year we eat something from the garden every day. The asparagus has finished long ago, but the eggplants are just flowering, and there’s rhubarb, sorrel, celery, beetroot, Malabar spinach, gherkins to preserve and chillies. Our Jerusalem artichokes have gone completely beserk and are more than 3 metres tall, twice the maximum height given in my new gardening book.

I planted three heritage varieties of summer squash this year to defeat the “omg I fucking hate zucchini” thing that happens when you are insufficiently vigilant.

But the classic big pay-off Summer crop is of course, tomatoes.

I eat a few cherry tomatoes occasionally out of season, and I eat preserved tomatoes year round, but there is a real tomato gorging going on around here at the moment. The kitchen garden crew made bruschetta for the parent information night at my son’s school last week, and I worked out afterwards there were nine varieties of tomato in the mix (on home-made bread, with a little very good olive oil and salt). People went nuts for it, as you can imagine.

Clockwise from top left: Black Russian, golden grape, tommy toe, green zebra, tigerella, an amazing yellow oxheart variety I don’t know the name of and black krim.

This year I’ve been experimenting with different ways to support growing tomato plants, in a quest to find the One True Method of Tomato Supporting. I made one metre round towers of 100 mm square wire 120cm high, but despite my high hopes they turned out to be pissweak and unable to cope with the weight of the ripening fruit. While picking was easy from the middle of the tube up, the bottom had way too much foliage and there was fruit on the ground which meant slaters and fruit flies and the deep sadness that is homegrown heritage breed tomatoes in the chook food.

I’ve also been experimenting with tomato preserving this year, and so far I have a frozen pureed roasted tomato sauce (with beetroot, carrot, bay, butter, red wine and vinegar), one precious cup-sized jar of tomato paste cooked down from a couple of kilos of San Marzano tomatoes I grew from Digger’s seedlings and most excitingly, several jars of passata.

Last year a lovely friend gave me a manual Italian tomato press, and I am in love with it. If you have to look after an end of Summer school holidays glut from a school garden, the “passatutto” considerably speeds things up. Even things like this:

If I were telling someone how to stock their kitchen, I would tell them to get a tomato press and a potato ricer and not to get a food mill. It is so simple a child can use it.

So if anyone who lives in Canberra would like my food mill, leave a comment.

Things got on a roll, as they do, and last Saturday morning my sister’s lovely elderly Italian neighbours invited us around to see how they did their tomatoes and to do some of our own. I’d read a squillion accounts of “passata days” but was still unsure how exactly to go about it. I knew that seeing it done by experts would be really helpful, and Angelo and Jenny were happy for us to join in.

They are completely delightful people, and the mental passata pieces fell into shape as I worked out what to do with the puree to ensure it was safe and would last the family a year. Put the puree into clean (not sterile) dark glass bottles, leaving a substantial air gap and cap them with crown seals (almost all home brewers will have ths equipment, and if you don’t know a brewer it’s all easy and pretty cheap to track down and use). Pack a large stock pot, Vacola boiler or 44 gallon drum with bottles laid sideways (aha! she says! sideways! that was the missing bit of information ! HOW VERY CUNNING!) with towels tucked here and there so the bottles don’t smash or make irritating jiggly-scrape-y noies. Bring it all slowly to the boil, boil for an hour and don’t remove the bottles until everything is completely cool – that might be the next afternooon.

During this period, lucky people will be taken for a burn in a 94 year old Ceirano, one of two of that model remaining in the world, and the only one in working order.

Some more pictures from the day follow, and even more for the very keen here.

The electric machine is very sexy and cool, but they they cost exponentially more than the $40, entirely satisfactory, manual one. The manual one really comes into its own when you’re processing a couple of kilos of tomatoes each week as they become ripe rather than having a crazed tomato frenzy.

What I really noticed, apart from the smell of properly ripe tomatoes and the extreme comfiness of the backseat of a WW1 era touring car, is that there is a kind of learning that no amount of book-learnin’ will get you. You have to watch, and talk, and muck in and ask questions and then you’ll start to work out what’s going on.

Christmas Food Open Thread – Hits and Misses at table

Eating at this time of year is often spoken of as if it’s some kind of naughty thing – in a world where high fructose corn syrup invades every aisle of the supermarket, some are eager to pile shame on centuries old traditions of festive indulgence.

Well, they’re idiots. Give me the life where a family celebrates each other’s company with day after day of endless deliciousness or where a group of vegan friends build their own traditions, blowing each other’s minds with tables laden with goodness, year after year.

In this spirit, contributor Anthony has suggested an open thread on Christmas food failures and successes – he’s going to tell us about curing his own ham, which I’m pretty excited to hear about as it’s something I’d love to do.

As for me, this year’s failure was the Coffin Bay Oysters, which were not fresh enough. Boo! My sister in law had bought them (opened) the day before, they’d been in the fridge the whole time (wrapped) but they smelt odd and had a weird black slick on the shells. That’s why the flesh is still there under the piles of crayfish, served with butter melted with a touch of their mustard – sublime, and all the sweeter for the oyster disaster.

Despite being a bit crook (nothing serious, don’t worry) I still managed to glaze the ham, but instead of leaving it to marinate for hours and hours I whipped up something in five minutes. Fortunately I reaped the benefits of years of consistent kitchen-pottering and pantry-filling, basing the glaze on a tart apricot sauce made from our own apricots. Sadly, the aged tree has since had to be cut down and the sauce will never be the same – your own apricots always make the best sauce.

This year’s real triumph however was a masterpiece of Christmas leftovers, the ham and prawn bahn xeo:

All the virtues of using up the leftovers, with lots and lots of crunchy fresh things and a zingy sour-and-hot sauce. Perfect Boxing Day fare. Rather than include chillies in the sauce, they were on the side and the kids loved them too. Based on this Ottolenghi recipe from Plenty.

Open thread, so at it – what did you get right and wrong this Christmas?

Goings on around here

Although this blog has been horribly neglected since I started working more in July, my garden has been getting some attention. It’s a bit wild at the moment, need to pull out a few things and start planting more. The asparagus has gone to fern, but it’s giving us a big basket of greens each day and artichokes, broad beans, fennel and a very, very large variety of herbs.

I used Summer savoury and majoram in this terrine of ox tongue and pork that I made for my meat guy’s family. There was lots of brandy and mace, and sauteed garlic stems picked about 1 minute before they hit the chopping board. The pistachios I had wanted to put in were old and tasteless (not from the Co-op) so I used biodynamic almonds (from the Co-op). I think the skins left a little bitterness, but other than that I would say that this is pretty much one of the most delicious things I have ever made.

Here’s Jethro at the gate to one of the main veggie beds. Behind him to the left is my gardening bench, a clawfoot bath and a barbecue. There’s another big bed on the other side of the yard.

This one has lots of rainbow chard and some celery,

raspberries that are starting to fruit,

mizuna, lots of lettuces and some garlic hardening of before we pick it.

There’s also rhubarb, beetroot, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, peas and sunflowers.

Owy’s hops are doing well this year. The old fridge behind them has some Black Russian and Green Zebra tomatoes with chives and basil.

In the other bed a pear tree shades the herbs, so they stay really soft and delicious. Lots of varieties of Sage, as it’s my eldest son’s name and he demands we buy every variety we see. Pineapple sage has the best flowers, but not yet.

And there are a lot of artichokes, all from one original heirloom plant from Diggers, divided and divided and divided:

We have so much mint it’s a little bit frightening, and horseradish carried home from Tammi’s house in March after the Eat.Drink.Blog conference. In the gap next to the fence I’ve started growing Jerusalem artichokes to choke out the nasty wandering ornamental thing coming through from the neighbour’s garden. We’ll build up the J-chokes there and gradually take them out of the main part of the garden. It doesn’t matter if it takes a long time.

Dr Sister Outlaw’s baking career goes bung …

Having written extensively on the magic of flour-butter combos (which includes fabulous pastry for scallop pies), the seductive powers of fine desserts like Lemon Delicious Pudding and the charms of Christmas pudding, I think I have established I have quite a thing for working with flour.

Of all my kitchen skills I am most grateful for my skills as a baker and pastry chef. Over three decades I have gained a keen sense of how to emulsify flour and liquids into elastic doughs, or puff flour and fat into gorgeous cakes and desserts. I have celebrated these skills most when I have someone to impress; at a “bring a plate” do or, as has not often been the case, when there is an appreciative man around. I’m a baking nerd with a real thing for gluten – I know how to use it and how to play with it. And of course I love to eat it, as I confessed in my post about my food crimes as a single woman.

But now find myself in a quite a sad situation. Those who follow me on twitter will realise that I have, of late, developed a strong and quite dizzy making crush. This of course is not sad at all, for it seems the crush is reciprocated. No, what’s sad is all my mad baking skills are wasted upon him. He cannot eat gluten. Worst of all, I have not spent that much time cooking for people who are gluten intolerant so I do not know how to bake or make much at all without it.

The only answer to this problem, of course, is to develop some skills and knowhow in the area of gluten-free baking and cooking, which is why I have turned to you, denizens of the lazy web. I know you wise and learned Progressive Dinner Party readers will have heaps of good advice about how to develop mad skills in gluten-free baking. So, this is an open thread on pitfalls and dangers, tips and advice and, hopefully, a really good recipe for gluten-free bread.

Dame Mint Pattie endures a long time between drinks

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Forgive the above title, it’s colloquial and catchy but aside from that complete bullshit. Our self-assigned mission to visit all the cellar doors in the Canberra region has meant that casa notional has been awash with local vino for more than 12 months.

What it has been a long time between, is fresh posts – something I’m aiming to rectify very soon. In the meantime, I’ve noticed Bryan Martin, winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, is now blogging a selection of his Canberra Times food columns and it’s well worth a look. Finally, if you’re after thoughtful wine reviews and reports* then Chris Shanahan’s site is the one to bookmark.

Meanwhile, if you’re browsing some of the cellar door lists for Canberra, you might come across England’s Creek and Four Winds Vineyard. Both grow grapes and Four Winds does produce wine under its Alinga label, but neither are open to the public.

England’s Creek grows contract grapes for the local wine market so chances are you’ve already gargled some of their produce.

Four Winds has deal with the Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive but I haven’t been tempted by their screenings lately, so I haven’t had a chance to try any (although Our MIC tells me he’s spotted them on sale at the Kingston IGA). You can order their wines online and you can also follow them on twitter.

*On the other hand, if you enjoy too many footnotes and weak jokes, then head straight to our notional archives.

Cross-posted from Our Notional Capital, where Dame Mint Pattie blogs with Our Man in Canberra; the rest of the series is here.

Emica gets new digs

ProgDins contributor Emica and her partner have left London, and are coming home the long way. The REALLY long way – via Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgrade, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel and finally back to their home in WA via NZ and the east coast.

Yeah, the list makes me cranky too, but in very happy news, she’s set up a blog to chronicle her culinary adventures as she travels. It’s called A Shared Table, and you should bookmark it.

She’s in Spain now, and has perfected gazpacho with help from a Sevillian friendship which began on the plane on the way there. Imma gonna make me some as soon as it gets over about ten degrees in Canberra!

Bon voyage Emica, to you and A Shared Table.