Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Saturday 30 January 2010

Choice cuts (Καλή μπουκιά)

The beef and pork stood out at the meat counter of the supermarket, which always looks splendidly full on a Saturday morning, and especially inviting on a cold winter's day, when most people are trying to decide what they'll be cooking at home during the weekend.

french beef beef and pork
French beef is sold in large multinational supermarket chains (INKA, the locally owned supermarket, sells only Greek beef); I bought a kilo each of beef (left) and pork (right).

But take note: the beef displayed here is not local food; this beef is imported from France. We prefer French beef to the locally reared beef, mainly because the locally reared beef is very stringy and fibrous; it takes ages to cook, and never seems to have that melting quality about it that French beef has. France has a longer history in raising beef; Crete has a tradition in pork and lamb/goat, but not beef.

Whole onions, preferably small ones (scallions), are a traditional feature of Greek stifado.
beef stifado

For the beef, I decided on Souvlaki for the Soul's stifado, a stew cooked in the traditional Greek style, with dry spices and lots of onions. Stifado is often served with fried potatoes in Greece, but it also goes well served on a bed of rice or mashed potatoes. We had this with some green salad, sourdough bread to mop up the sauces, and some imported English ale, which is now becoming easier to buy - competitive supermarket price and product wars are all part and parcel of the more globalised place that Crete has now become.

pork and quince
This is what the pork dish looked like when it went into the oven - we forgot to photograph it once it was cooked!

For the pork, I sliced up a ton of onions, placed them in a baking tin and laid the pork in thick slices on top of the onions, filling in the gaps with quince slices, which gave the whole dish an enticing aroma. There was no real recipe to this; its simplicity won over in terms of taste. Quince cooked with pork is a popular combination in Greek cuisine.

This kind of cooking style is typical of my Sunday meat dishes. They are usually simple, but they are always cooked with olive oil, using high-quality fresh ingredients.

*** *** ***
When shopping, I usually go to a range of stores. It isn't uncommon for me to go to two different supermarkets on the same day if I'm searching for food items that I know are only available in the one or the other. For example, we like the bread found at the local supermarket, but prefer the beef at a branch of a multinationally-owned supermarket. Here's what the meat counters looked like at two different supermarkets on the day I bought these cuts of meat.

the local super the local super
Above: the local super. Below: the multinational super.
italian chickens the multinational super the multinational super

Notice how animal's tail is still attached at the local store. That's how people buy their meat in such a store: this way, they know it's a goat and not a lamb. Likewise, they ask about which village or farm the animal was raised, what it was fed on, and if the animal was a male or female(!). This kind of information is clearly not available in the multinational store, where all meat is displayed in an almost packaged form. To be global, or not to be global, that is the question these days...

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Thursday 28 January 2010

WOW salad (Σαλάτα WOW)

I don't know why my life has suddenly become so busy. These days, I don't have time to do much more than go to work, prepare and cook meals, and do a general clean up of the house. Sometimes I eat spectacular meals, but I don't have time to tell you about them. This post may seem a bit rushed, but I am sure it will inspire you to try out this amazing salad, which doesn't really have a name, but everyone who tried it thought the same as I did: "Wow".

Here I present a spectacular vegetarian salad that probably everyone will enjoy, because they will all find something in it that they particularly like to eat, be it sweet or savoury. The chef at MAICh, John Apostolakis, makes this salad often in the winter, although it looks a little different to what I have presented here; he serves it up as student nosh, so it looks quite functional, but that feeling disappears when you try it. Eaten with some good quality sourdough bread, it is a complete meal.

You need:
some Cos lettuce, shredded (torn leaves don't work well here)
some citrus segments (chef uses orange segments cut in half, but grapefruit, tangerine or mandarin - which is what I used - also work well; make sure you remove the pith, as it spoils the texture of this salad)
some mushrooms, sliced thinly (canned mushrooms don't give the right flavour, but they will also do - I used some, ultra-expensive foodie-gourmet dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in white wine)
grated cheese, preferably something like Cretan graviera or regato
olive oil
balsamic vinegar
salt (optional)

Place the prepared lettuce and citrus fruit in a bowl. If using canned mushrooms, they must be drained very well before being added to the salad. The mushrooms (either fresh or canned) may be lightly sauteed in a little olive oil (like I did here) before being added to the salad, so that they wilt slightly but retain their shape and texture. Add them to the salad. The dressing depends on your personal preferences. Pour a few drops (or tablespoons as we would do in Crete!) of olive oil, and a little balsamic vinegar over the salad. Sprinkle with salt, again to your liking - warning: the cheese may be quite salty! Toss the salad lightly so that the ingredients are mixed well but the salad keeps its fullness.


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Sunday 24 January 2010

Cheese pie - Tiropita (Τυρόπιτα)

Dina hates cooking. She readily admits that she isn't a good cook, and even I can vouch for that. A few Christmasses ago, she invited us to a party she was giving to her friends and relatives on Christmas Eve. There were more than 40 guests, and that number didn't include the children. There was plenty of good food for everyone, but none of it was cooked by Dina. Whoops, I tell a lie - in fact, Dina did cook one dish that night: macaroni and cheese. Two huge tins of it. For a Christmas Eve feast.

Dina's despicable cooking skills are not actually a sign of slovenly laziness on her part. She may hate cooking, but her house is clean, her teenage children are good students at school and have very polite manners, and Dina is a highly respected Greek literature high school teacher. She works in a busy lower secondary school with a large roll, and even though she has only 16 teaching hours a week, she is at school for more than 30 hours weekly, due to administrative duties. At the end of the working day, which never really finishes for a teacher, she comes home and prepares lunch for her family. (It might be a simple meal, but she does make the effort, apparently). The afternoon is taken up driving her kids to their after-school lessons around the town, waiting in the car until they finish their class so that she can take them to the next one, before they all finally go home. If she had to name a passion, it would be education - and she really does want the best for her children.

When the family finally gets home in the evening, there is really very little time left for Dina to prepare an evening meal. For a start, the children need help with their homework, the house needs a quick tidy-up, and there's her own students' homework and essays that need to be marked and class preparation to take care of before the next day begins. Most of the time, the evening meal is pre-prepared and store-bought. Unless she has some time to make something simple, like a self-crusting cheese pie.

I visited her one day when she was in the middle of making this tiropita, and it was cooked in time for my family to try it out. Yes, it's true, I did worry somewhat about how my digestive system would react to it, but I felt reassured as I watched my own children relishing Dina's tiropita that it must be edible, so I asked her for the recipe, because this tiropita really did look very easy to prepare, and I must admit that there are times when I get frazzled by the day's business, and I don't always have time to cook something that is easy, healthy, wholesome, tasty and nutritious all at the same time for my children.

To make the easiest, and at the same time, tastiest cheese pie in the world, even if you believe you are the worst cook in the world, you need:
1 litre of milk (if you have some leftover cream or yoghurt, you can also add that; it makes a smoother looking filling)
1 cup of fine semolina
200g melted butter or margarine (you can also use those novel butter-yoghurt spreads for a healthier version)
3 cups of a mixture of grated/crumbled cheeses, one of which should be feta (the others could be regato, gouda, emmental, etc - I added the local curd cheese, mizithra, for a creamier texture)
2 eggs, beaten

Grease a baking tin or pyrex dish well with olive oil. Pour the milk into a large saucepan and add the semolina. Stir well to smooth out any lumps, heat it till the milk is warmed up, then switch off the cooker. Add the melted butter (or add it to the cold milk and stir constantly while the milk heats up, melting the butter simultaneously), cheeses and eggs, mixing well to blend the ingredients. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, and let it cook for an hour in a moderate oven. The pie top will take on a golden brown colour, and you can test to see if it is ready by inserting a knife in the middle, bringing it towards the edge of the tin; if it feels like it has set and slices cleanly like a cake, then it's ready.

tiropita cheese pie
A square tin would probably be more appropriate if you want the perfect slice. But look at how cleanly the slice comes out of the tin; the pie was still warm when I cut it.
tiropita cheese pie

Working mothers really don't have it easy these days when it comes to cooking healthy meals for their family, so a pie like this, with its nose-punching aroma while it's cooking in the oven, is a good solution for a quick and easy evening meal. It slices well even when it is warm, comes out clean from the tin (no need to scrape it clean), stores well in the fridge, and can be heated up as a leftover meal the next day. For some variation, you can add thinly sliced mushrooms and/or roughly chopped ham or boiled eggs to the mixture without altering the recipe, which makes a more substantial pie, so you will need a larger baking tin.

tiropita cheese pie
And the same cheese pie mixture (minus the margarine) can be used as a filling in a crust pie. This crust was made with a simple flour-water mixture with a pinch of salt and a few drops of olive oil to make the pastry more elastic. The pyrex lining was cooked blind, then filled, topped with another sheet of pastry and sealed. The top was brushed with beaten egg.

You really don't have to be a spectacular cook to feed your growing family. If you care enough for them, you'll make sure, in whatever way you can, that your family will eat something healthy and filling to satisfy their hunger after a long working day. Your food will be prepared with love, and your kids will not forget that.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Monday 18 January 2010

The Ministry of Food - Part 1 (Το Υπουργείο Τροφίμων: Μέρος 1ο)

While I'm getting ready to visit the Ministry of Food exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, here's a taste of the what the Greek version could be like if I were running it. This post definitely needs to be taken in small bites...

Dear Mr P,

First things first, belated congratulations on taking office and heading the country. I trust that you will endeavour to steer our country in the right direction. Let me tell you that, as a loyal Greek citizen, you have my full support in your work, and that I will not allow the Year of the PIIGS to taint my beloved country's name with its stigma. As instructed by your team, I have been demanding and collecting all the receipts for all my purchases and placing them in a specially labelled box (which has, to my dismay, already started to fill up)...

PM's orders...

... to ensure that I will get the full tax rebate you have so generously allocated to every Greek citizen when I fill out my tax papers next year. When the Brussels sprouts from the European Commission come to check up on us again, to ensure that we aren't doing any (more) creative accounting and reporting a fiscal deficit only half as high as we now know to be the case, you can tell them to come to my place, and I will let them look into that little box, so that they can see that whoever sold me whatever has been charging the customer ΦΠΑ* and they've paid their dues to the taxman, and our country can once again stand tall and take pride in our achievements, such as winning the Eurovision song contest and the Euro Cup, organising the most successful modern Olympic Games ever to be held without an incident of terrorism marring the event, and the recent opening of one of the world's greatest museums in the world.

Waiting for their kidnapped sister to be returned...

They can
then leave us alone and concentrate on more pressing matters, like putting their money where their mouths are, in the more urgent issues of the failures in the economies of Dubai and Iceland, which the United Kingdom has invested in so heavily - may God grant them grace, as He has done so many times to our own precious land.

Babylonian profiteering - there was never a hint of sustainability in this project.

But I mustn't tire you with such banter, Mr P, because I know that you are a very busy man. In any case, my forte is not economics in the strictest sense; I should not be dabbling in the country's affairs in this sector and just leave this job in the hands of your expert team. Thus, at this point, I will immediately set upon the purpose of my writing to you: as a conscientious citizen, with skills, knowledge and expertise to offer, I would like to give my services to our country - yes, OUR country, and we don't need to be born here to claim that, as both of us would know - in the sector of home economics, via the Ministry of Food.

I know you have often come to my hometown in Crete on official duties, Mr P, and probably the best of Crete has been laid out for you to indulge in on all your visits. You were probably served dackos and hohlioi for amuse-bouches,

dakos made with home-made bread snails market athens

xidato and boureki as entrees,

xithato xidato boureki

pilafi and vrasto for mains,

wedding pilafi and vrasto

with ascrolimbi as a salad,


and kalitsounia drizzled with honey for dessert,

mizithropites kalitsounia ellanion fos argiroupoli hania-rethimno

all washed down with a few sensual glasses of Kotsifali wine.

lunch at maich kotsifali wine

You would have noticed that we Cretans know how to eat well, without having to resort to molecular gastronomy and hi-tech plating to make our food look more appealing; none of that pretentious mumbo-jumbo for us, no sirree! Did all your senses come into play as you indulged in those Cretan meals you were offered as an honest guest? The kaleidoscopic array of colourful fresh produce, the luxurious aromas of the food as it makes its way to your table, the superlative tastes of the products, the rustic charm of your hosts' Cretan accent, almost a pre-requisite to proving its authenticity, as if the food could not taste so good if it were served by someone who did not pronounce their yia as jia, or their tis as tsi, and the hedonistic, if somewhat messy, feel of the kokkalaki. Good meat is like a woman, Mr G - it needs hands; your late father must have taught you something about that. You'd be surprised at how much we have in common on that point!

greengrocer hania chania
A greengrocer's in the town centre

You know how good we have it here: high quality food, raised in a mild temperate Mediterranean climate, where the rays of the sun never seem to be lacking, quickly thawing our early morning winter frost in the colder months. Don't get me wrong, Mr P, I'm not trying to acquire more subsidies for Cretan farmers (although you will recall how scroogy the last ones were, and how you yourself were treated when you came to support us in our rallies). I am just trying to remind you of the greatest boon to the epicureans among us: our food is practically all local, George. Can you believe it - in the globalised world we live in, the largest island in the Greek state can produce more than enough food to feed itself as well as other parts of the country without having to resort to foreign imports?

There are times when we all feel like indulging in something different from our traditional culinary regime...

I now touch upon the point that I wanted to make to you, George. Have you checked out the fresh produce section of the supermarket lately? Don't ask me which supermarket I was in; to my knowledge (gained from being my household's shopper-in-chief), they do not differ on this point. I beg your pardon - I apologise for assuming your ignorance on this topic, but as I already mentioned, I know you are a very busy man, and you probably do not have time yourself to do the food shopping in your household, but you might like to get a report on what is happening in these establishments from your staff (unless your wife would like to inform you about the situation herself during her weekly shop). I was in the supermarket the other day (you will find me in one of those establishments at least two or three times a week), looking to buy some crisp apples for my family, when I almost had a heart attack: as I was searching the fresh produce section to select some crispy apples for my brood, my eyes were dazzled by the array of foreign produce that passed before them:
baby corn from Thailand, radiccio and prickly pears from Italy, boiled beetroot from France, papaya from Ecuador, baby potatoes from Cyprus, pomegranates, kumquat and Medjoul dates from Israel, mango from Brazil, coconut from Sri Lanka, Brussels sprouts from Holland, radish from Israel, asparagus spears from Peru, plums and mini pineapple from South Africa, and large pineapple from Costa Rica.
We are constantly bombarded by so much choice that we are literally drowning in it. We cannot choose due to the abundance of choice, despite the fact that most of these products are out-of-season, not local, and possibly a tad inappropriate in our lifestyle. We have lost our sense of proportion when we feel the need to buy ready-boiled beetroot from a village supermarket; pray tell me - is it asking for too much from the average home cook to boil them themselves in their country kitchen? Hania is drowning in pomegranate production, while we are being offered imported ones! Poor Kerkira has been trying for years to make her kumquats more marketable, yet we are being sold such products by a country that does not even have enough water supplies to keep their plants growing! And what can one say about Holland, who grows a whole host of vegetables that they import all over Europe, even though she herself lacks land surface and grows everything hydroponically; she's even the top European distributor of citrus fruit - and she doesn't even grow any herself!!!

kumquat tree
This kumquat tree in urban Hania was laden with fruits, at the same time (early January, 2010) that the supermarket was selling Israeli kumquat for 5.97 euro/kilo. The fruit was at its prime; it was a little bitter, but quite juicy. It isn't peeled - you bite into it as it is. Only the lower fruits on the tree had been picked - the rest will presumably fall onto the ground, unused. Kumquat is grown commercially only on the island of Kerkira.
kumquat kumquat

And what's this with the pineapple? Even size seems to matter when choosing what foreign imported non-seasonal produce we are going to buy; perhaps this is because we have learnt to be more vocal about demanding our freedom to basic human rights (you should be proud of your grandfather's achievements in this respect), one of which is freedom of choice: when other people are fighting for their human right to have access to clean water, medicine and decent accomodation, our compatriots are saying**:

Μικ-PA! Με-ΓA-λα! Τα θέ-λω Ό-λα!
(Big! Small! We-Want-Them-ALL!)

And to think, we don't even cultivate the product ourselves! How on earth did we so quickly turn from snail-foraging war survivors to instant gratification pleasure seekers? By George, George -we're beginning to sound like the British: "I can bloody well eat what I like when I bloody well feel like it"! On top of that, we find ourselves in the midst of an economic crisis, and yet, supermarket giants proudly display provocative price tags, such as Peruvian asparagus spears at 7.94 euro/kilo! Last, but not least, have you ever tried imported fresh produce yourself, George? Perfect to look, tasteless to eat, which I discovered after falling into the temptation myself of gluttony. Did I really need to eat pomegranates after our own pomegranate season had ended?

imported products in hania chania supermarket
Peruvian asparagus and Dutch radicci0 - the prices are a little scary...

And that's not all your (wo)man in Hania has noticed going on food-wise in the birthplace of the world-famous Mediterranean Diet. Our restaurants have stopped serving "mama's food"; they're now calling it "yiayia's food. And what's the outcome of all this new-fangled culinary fashion, George? For a start, there's the death of the Mediterranean diet, supplanted by a globalised food culture; obese Cretan children, who get little physical exercise and are raised on low-quality produce; a once food-based society now showing a lack of food knowledge; the loss of traditional culinary skills since cooking is not being passed on from one generation to another like it used to be; food fashions replacing food traditions. The list is too long to write up here, George; we need to form an expert team to address the issue, with special measures to protect us from such outcomes.

yiayia's kouzina
Eggplant with xinohondro, xidato, lamb in the wood fired oven, boureki in the summer (or artichokes with broad beans in the winter), pork with celery - if yiayia is the one cooking all these Cretan dishes, what is mama cooking these days???

That's why you need me, Mr P: I'm a mama with primary school-aged children who are eating "yiayia's food" still being cooked by their very own mama! There's a clear need for mama's cooking to be introduced back into the home, otherwise can you imagine the implications of that phenomenon? The youth of today (our country's future, don't forget that!) are starting to be raised on the assumption that grandmothers cook, while mothers don't because they go out to work and don't have time to do this anymore. Before you criticise me for my anti-feminist sentiments, hear me out: mama's kouzina could easily be re-named papa's kouzina - equal rights for all!

Mr Organically cooks
Mr OC in the kitchen

In conclusion, before I exceed my talk time, I would like to present my manifesto, to prove to you how deeply I have considered these issues, with some practical solutions to overcome their negative outcomes:
  • PRODUCE BAN: There must be a ban on importing foreign produce that is growing seasonally in the homeland; we cannot be importing products grown in excess while ours are allowed to go to waste unsold, eventually being used for animal feed. In any case, imports must not exceed exports. calabrese fennel kohlrabi
    None of these products are available as local produce in Hania stores; they are always imported. Yet they can all grow in Hania - these ones are from my uncles' farm, a mile away from my home.
  • CULTIVATION: Greek farmers should be planting not only well-known Mediterranean species, but also hardy tropical species previously unknown to Greek soil; Mr Organically Cooked has managed to produce mango in our village - maybe you can also make use of him in some way in the Ministry (Greek politics have always been very much a family affair, haven't they, George?). mango tree fournes hania chania
    Our very own mango tree, growing in our orange orchard
  • PROMOTION: Greek produce must be given priority over foreign products. This can be achieved by displaying them prominently, advertising via the "home is best" slogan, and other ethnocentric ploys that many other nations in the world to promote their own products over other countries'.
  • A car sticker I spotted while visiting the Duxford Air Museum, Cambridge, UK in 2006.
  • EDUCATION: We need to get people to take more interest in the food they eat, by teaching them to eat seasonally (ie sensibly), and showing them how to create gardens in limited spaces like rooftops and balconies, dissuading people from creating lawns and flower gardens in more arid places receiving less rain (eg Crete). It doesn't just have to be organic to taste good! fresh produce october hania chania
    Everything in this photo is local food (except for the kiwifruit), but none is organic.
  • RATIONING: We must introduce a system of rationing imported goods. Everyone needs to carry a rations booklet, stating their imported food purchases: once they exceed their monthly limit, they will only be allowed to buy local produce. Fair trade is all part of the process by which we measure a country's progress, but enough is enough, don't you think?orange fournes Cheaper imports means that, often, Greek produce lies wastefully in the same place it was grown while people buy and consume foreign produce...
I trust, Yiorgaki, that you will take my considerations into serious account and get back to me once you have thought about how you intend to handle the situation. Until then, I leave my country in your strong hands. And if ever the Minister of Rural Development and Food, Mrs Katerina, or her deputy, Mr Mihali, decide that they cannot keep up with the demands of the job and aren't able to live up to the expectations of the tasks that they have been entrusted with, you know who to turn to, don't you?

Sincerely yours,
A loyal Greek citizen from the Megalonissos

PS: In case you were wondering which apple variety I purchased, I must admit I succumbed to temptation - Pink Lady, an imported variety from Italy. You will understand why I preferred them over the others - they were all bad apples!

pink lady apple italy
A Pink Lady apple (imported from Italy), standing next to another Australian invention (grown in Greece), the Granny Smith. Pink Lady is always unblemished and crisp - these are the kinds of apples I'd like to eat...

PPS: Forgive me once again for dabbling in matters that I am no expert in, but I hope you don't mind me mentioning that when you make major changes to our daily cost of living, could you at least try to make them during the day, and not during late-night parliamentary sessions when most people are sleeping and can't react to them? We're not all efoplistes, you know!

*ΦΠΑ = VAT = value-added tax
** Chant this in the tune of the well-known Greek slogan: Ψω-μί, παι-δεί-α, ε-λευ-θε-ρί-α!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Sunday 17 January 2010

St Anthony's (Ἀγιος Aντώνιος)

Here's an unusual food custom I came across in my reading and thought to share with you.

St Anthony was looked upon as a healer and was considered one of the first ascetics in Christianity. People presented him with bread in the shape of various parts of the body which were in need of healing. St Anthony cured their ailments with the power of faith.

Sfakia is a little too far away for me to get to right at this moment, so I leave you with a photograph of what the event looks like; the cave walls of the church are visible.

The custom of making human-shaped bread still survives in the region of Sfakia, Crete, where St Anthony is celebrated as a local saint.

A church is dedicated to him, built on the side of a cave, and a service takes place on the eve and the feast day of the saint, who is celebrated today on January the 17th. People bring breads shaped in human-like figurines, to be blessed at the liturgy, a tradition which is believed to be a continuation from antiquity.

(Photograph and information taken from 'The Roots of the Greeks: The Cretans', 2009, Pigasos Ekdotiki - Pegasus Publications, translated from the Greek)

For more bread-related customs pertaining to St Anthony, check out History of Greek food; Karen, and Peter give us the porkier side of St Anthony's life with pork-related food served on his feast day in Italy.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

The Mediterranean diet (Η Μεσογειακή διατροφή)

I rarely get my food cooked for me, and it is a real treat when I even get it served to my table. It's just the same with my writing. I write everything I post on my blog myself, but today, I'm going to present something to you that has been written especially for my blog by someone else. Coming from a Greek background, I can personally attest to the many health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. So can other Greeks, especially those who work in the health sector, where nutrition and holistic health are part of their work, so it only makes sense that I should introduce them in my blog. Matt Papa has been working as a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the School of Medicine in Washington University (St Louis, Missouri) since he got his Ph. D. from Patras University in Greece. Thankfully, his hard work has paid off as he was awarded two research grants from the American Heart Association to study the role of coagulation factors in cardiovascular diseases. Part of the results of this ongoing work have already been published in peer-reviewed journals. Here is what he has to say about the Mediterranean diet. He validates his claims with references that can be traced to scientific studies.

Over the last twenty years, more and more people around the world have adopted the Mediterranean Diet (MD) into their lifestyle. The MD’s association with longevity is supported by extended clinical research. Several studies have demonstrated that those who adhere to the principles of the MD are likely to experience a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer, and feel a lower impact of menopause and age-related cognitive decline.

The MD is a nutritional model that is based on the dietary values of those living in the Mediterranean basin, namely Southern Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal and Turkey. Back in 1966, the World Health Organization led a thirty-year study that noted the health and nutrition of 13,000 participants aged 40-59 [1]. The study concluded that Cretan men (people who live in the Greek island of Crete) had particularly low risk rates associated with heart disease and a longer life expectancy.* This stimulated interest around the world in the MD.

pulses ospria beans

The MD is not really a diet in the sense that it is not a weight loss plan. It is a nutritional model, a summary of the patterns of food and drink as observed around the Mediterranean basin. The MD itself is about eating healthy food in moderation. Main meals are made up primarily of whole grains and minimally processed foods, like couscous, pasta and legumes, fresh seasonal vegetables and moderate amounts of fish, poultry and eggs. Plenty of fresh fruit is also consumed along with a moderate amount of nuts. Low amounts of dairy, comprising of cheese and yogurt, are also included. Sweets including pastries, ice cream and cookies are eaten at infrequent intervals and red meat less often. Red wine is often consumed with meals, but usually not more than one or two glasses a day.

lunch at maich kotsifali wine

LONGEVITY: There is no one feature of the MD that will help you live longer. Instead, there are several beneficial components that work together to promote health and vitality. Across the board, many studies have shown that those who adhere to the MD experience longevity. One of the largest scale studies into the health benefits of the MD was the European Perspective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), which assessed a population sample across nine countries in relation to health and the MD. This study found that those who follow the diet live longer than those who don’t [2]. In America, the MD has been shown to have a similar effect on longevity. In 1995 the US National Institute of Health-AARP surveyed 3.5 million people across America on their dietary habits and followed their progress. Those who followed the MD were 20% less likely to have died from heart disease or cancer over a period of 10 years [3].

CORONARY DISEASE: What do they all have in common? Well, all of them are the biggest killers in America today. While genetics play a role in all of the diseases listed above, environmental factors, such as diet, have a huge impact on your risk factor for developing these illnesses. The MD lowers the risk factor for all of these diseases. Cardiovascular diseases are the number one killer in America today. In 2006, over 80,000,000 people suffered a form of cardiovascular disease including heart attack, stroke, hypertension or heart disease [4]. It has been observed that a low fat diet that consists of unprocessed foods dramatically reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Interestingly, studies have shown that the MD reduces this risk even further. The EPIC study assessed the effect of adherence to the MD (through a 10-unit scale) on survival among people 60 years old or older who had suffered myocardial infarction. Those who increased their adherence to the MD by 2 units showed an 18% lower overall mortality rate than those who did not [5].

olive oil MAICh

BLOOD PRESSURE: Following the MD can also reduce hypertension (high blood pressure). Nutrition is recognized as a contributing factor to hypertension. Increasing fruit and vegetables to the diet and cutting out salty snacks, and foods high in saturated fat, will make drastic changes to those who suffer from hypertension. It has been noted that the MD, in particular the frequent use of olive oil, substantially reduced the levels of blood pressure in Greek males [6]. In the EPIC cohort it was noted that eating plenty of fresh vegetables and olive oil correlated with low blood pressure.

METABOLIC SYBDROME (METS): METS is diagnosed in a person that displays 3 out of 5 characteristics associated with a high risk factor for cardiovascular disease. These are an increased waist circumference, elevated triglycerides, reduced HDL (good cholesterol), hypertension and elevated fasting glucose levels. It is estimated that 50,000,000 Americans are currently suffering from the metabolic syndrome. Studies have demonstrated that the MD reduces the METS across a population. The ATTICA study reported that a diet, like the MD, which includes a good amount of Omega-3 fatty acids, low amounts of trans and saturated fats and high amounts of grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, drastically reduces the clinical and biological markers linked to the METS [7].

heirloom tomatos variety of hania crete

: Many of the foods that make up the MD are known to have anti-carcinogenic properties. Tomatoes, which are used quite a lot in Greek, Italian and Spanish cooking, contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, which has shown to reduce the risk of some cancers [8]. Also, the presence of fish in the diet shows a correlation with lowered incidences of cancer. The presence of wholegrain foods reduces the risk of developing malignant tumors in the body. A high intake of fruit and vegetables is also associated with a lowered risk of many cancers occurring.

apple varieties in a fruit bowl

WEIGHT LOSS: An estimated 30-50% of the population in the United States is regarded as obese and more so as overweight. With the high risk factors of diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease associated with being overweight, working towards a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index) is more important than ever. Making the MD a part of your life can help you lower and control your weight. An antidote to many of the fad diets that have gained popularity in recent years, the MD is a healthy and sustainable way to achieve good health and lose weight at the same time. In Spain, those who followed the Mediterranean Diet were more likely to have a healthy BMI. The same study found that women who combined the MD diet with a light exercise program lost significant weight over a four-month period [9].

BONE METABOLISM: Across the Mediterranean there is a lower incidence of osteoporosis than in other parts of the world. This is considered to be in part due to dietary habits. A diet high in fruits and grains is thought to improve bone metabolism. Research has shown that an increase in fruit consumption prevents calcium loss from bones [10].

beach bbq

MEMORY: Foods that are rich in antioxidants have proven to be beneficial to the central nervous system, helping neuron function throughout the body. Specifically, the MD helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and even helps lessen the severity of the condition for those who already suffer from this ailment [11].

olive grove

Perhaps the most celebrated and well-documented aspect of the Mediterranean diet is the olive oil, which comes from the tree Olea europea. For centuries, olive oil has been an important part of the Mediterranean lifestyle. In Roman times, many people considered eating animal meat the act of barbarian nomads, and instead got their protein and fat requirements from fish and olive oil. Olive oil is a natural juice with hundreds of micro-components of biological significance. It contains high amounts of antioxidants and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which are known to decrease cholesterol levels as well as discourage inflammation and protect from cardiovascular disease.

Over 1/5 of the weight of our brain is made up of fatty acids, 20% of them being omega-3 DHA. Consumption of fish has been linked to brain and cardiovascular health. It has been suggested that a high intake of the unsaturated fatty acids contained in fish, as opposed to consumption of saturated fats, can improve cognitive performance. The omega-3 fatty acids, contained in sardines and anchovies, have anti-inflammatory and vasodilatory properties.

november harvest

Fruit and vegetable intake is also important. The antioxidant content of fresh fruits and vegetables has been shown to protect against heart disease and cancer. Specifically, the lycopene in tomatoes, which are a big part of the MD, has shown to ameliorate hypertension and cardiovascular disease, protect the skin from the harmful UV rays and lower the risk of many chronic diseases.

Wine, in particular red wine, is healthy for the heart. This fact has been well publicized over the last decade. It is noteworthy that studies into the benefits of wine have all reflected that intake should be in moderation. Once you increase your consumption past two glasses a day you start to lose the benefits.

Nuts are also an important part of the MD as another source of unsaturated fat. In a recent study, it was found that those who met the criteria for the METS helped alleviate symptoms by consuming roughly 30g of mixed nuts per day.

Sweet made from grape must

It remains unknown how the traditional MD increases life expectancy. Is it the antioxidants in the fresh fruits and vegetables? The polyphenols in the red wine? The healthy fats in fish, olive oil and nuts? The siesta (afternoon nap), which has been inversely associated with coronary mortality, or the exposure to sunlight? It is probably a combination of all these.

CONCLUSION: One of the most important studies on the “longevity” effect of the MD was conducted in 2004 by Dr Knoops and his group. They published the results of the HALE (Healthy Aging: a Longitudinal study in Europe) project. People who followed the MD had at least a 20% lower chance of dying over a 10-year period than those who were not on such a diet. And this was independent of their age, gender or body weight [12].

Keys A, Aravanis C, Blackburn HW, et al. Epidemiological studies related to coronary heart disease: characteristics of men aged 40–59 in seven countries. Acta Med Scand Suppl 1966; 460: 1–392.
Trichopoulou A, Orfanos P, Norat T, et al. Modified Mediterranean diet and survival: EPIC-elderly prospective cohort study. BMJ 2005; 330: 991.
Mitrou PN, Kipnis V, Thiébaut AC, et al. Mediterranean dietary pattern and prediction of all-cause mortality in a US population: results from the NIHAARP Diet and Health Study. Arch Intern Med 2007; 167: 2461–8.
4. American Heart Association
Trichopoulou A, Bamia C, Norat T, et al. Modified Mediterranean diet and survival after myocardial infarction: the EPIC-Elderly study. Eur J Epidemiol 2007; 22: 871–81.
Psaltopoulou T, Naska A, Orfanos P, Trichopoulos D, Mountokalakis T, Trichopoulou A. Olive oil, the Mediterranean diet, and arterial blood pressure: the Greek European Prospective Investigation
Panagiotakos DB, Pitsavos C, Skoumas Y, Stefanadis C. The association between food patterns and the metabolic syndrome using principal components analysis: the ATTICA study. J Am Diet Assoc 2007; 107: 979–87.
Unlu NZ, Bohn T, Francis DM, Nagaraja HN, Clinton SK, Schwartz SJ. Lycopene from heat-induced cis-isomer-rich tomato sauce is more bioavailable than from all-trans-rich tomato sauce in human subjects. Br J Nutr 2007; 98: 140–6.
Schröder H, Marrugat J, Vila J, Covas MI, Elosua R. Adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet is inversely associated with body mass index and obesity in a Spanish population. J Nutr 2004; 134: 3355–61.
Prynne CJ, Mishra GD, O’Connell MA, et al. Fruit and vegetable intakes and bone mineral status: a cross sectional study in five age and sex cohorts. Am J Clin Nutr 2006; 83: 1420–8.
Scarmeas N, Luchsinger JA, Mayeux R, Stern Y. Mediterranean diet and Alzheimer disease mortality. Neurology 2007; 69: 1084–93.
Knoops KT, de Groot LC, Kromhout D, et al. Mediterranean diet, lifestyle factors, and 10-year mortality in elderly European men and women: the HALE project. JAMA 2004; 292: 1433–9.

About the Author: Matt Papa, PhD, is a research fellow at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. Matt believes in sustaining a healthy lifestyle though nutrition and exercise. Born and raised in Greece, he has enjoyed the Mediterranean Diet his whole life, and also seen the benefits it provides first-hand. In his free time, Matthew develops his website where he provides information on best rated weight loss programs and offers a coupon for the Medifast diet. He also publishes articles on various weight loss procedures such as the intragastric balloon procedure in Texas.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Water, water, everywhere... (Kάι το νερό νεράκι...)

When you came to Greece on holiday, you probably took that jug of water, the first thing to arrive at your taverna table, for granted, because it was hot, which therefore deemed it necessary to be there. Just as you had sat down, a waiter would come to your table, set it with a plastic tablecloth, and plonk a few scratched water glasses on it, along with a large jug of water topped with ice cubes. After a satisfying lunch in the shade, while all around you singed of scorching heat, you'd go home, take a long shower to cleanse your body of the perspiration you had to endure while sitting under the Mediterranean sun. In the late afternoon or early evening, you'd probably find yourself sitting at a cool cafe by the sea, ordering a frappe, ice-cream or something more tipsy. What was the first thing that came to your table again? That's right, a glass of cool welcoming water, whether you asked for it or not.

falasarna sunset taverna

For many years, I took my water supply for granted, mainly because it was never disconnected, it was free, and it was always clean. It did surprise me slightly that I had to pay a charge in Greece for the amount I used, because in New Zealand, we could use as much as we liked without feeling that we were using too much.

In the beginning of my stay in Greece, I was taken by surprise with the frugality shown by my relatives in terms of their water usage. Because they had to pay for it, they turned the tap on to run slowly when they were washing, whether it was the dishes or themselves. A basin was always used to catch the running water from outdoor taps, which was subsequently used to water the flowerpots. No one took baths, everyone took showers. What alarmed me more than anything else was the ring of chalk that boiled water left on my pots and pans, the electric jug, and metal worktop in the kitchen where the washed crockery was drying; everyone told me that it was nothing to worry about, just a natural substance called alata.

Today is Epiphany, the 'day of lights', so called because it is considered the day the Christian Orthodox celebrate the baptism of Christ, and in this way 'enlightened' the people. It is also known in Greece as the day of the blessing of the waters. On this day, young men (women have been making an appearance in this event in recent times) dive into the wintry waters of our oceans and lakes (what a blessing it is for Greeks living 'down under', where the seasons are reversed!), to retrieve the cross that the priest threw into the sea as he blessed it. The winner is often presented with a small gold cross, and is bestowed with good luck all his life.

When Thou wast baptized in the Jordan, O Lord,
the worship of the Trinity made its appearance...
Photo: Angela Wylie

Things are very different now compared to what they were twenty years ago. Hania is blessed with a good water supply and there is plenty for all - or so it seems. Nowadays, our fresh water supplies are under constant threat. In the summer, we often suffer from disconnections, and the booming tourist trade has made unprecedented demands for greater supplies. Tourists need to bathe and shower constantly when on holiday, and they always prefer hotels by the sea equipped with a swimming pool (?@#*&$!). They also seem to have misconceived ideas about the water supply, hence the overkill on using bottled water, which entails the garish image of empty water bottles marring our beaches. They never get recycled, and the beach bins are full of them. Most people seem to think that tap water is bad - not so in my area...

swimming pool
One of the ugliest sights that my tired eyes must encounter on a daily basis is the filthy brown water of my neighbor's swimming pool, when it is unused (which is approximately 350 days each year). We live a 10-minute walk away from the sea, and these guys come and use this pool (complete with a lawn which needs watering in a town that sees rain once a month) every time they stay at their summer house, which is about a fortnight per year...

What with the desertification process already making great inroads in the Mediterranean, pretty soon, it will be water, water, everywhere, but not a drop that's potable. And will we ever say no to bottled water? I doubt it.

For a poignant read about the preciousness of water, have a look at what Carolyn has to say about the matter.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.