WHAT FOODS CONSIST OF A MEDITERRANEAN DIET
I am bewildered when I come across websites, articles and recipes about the “Mediterranean diet.” The reason for my confusion is that the diet is frequently promoted as vegetarian or mostly vegetarian, with “typical” dishes said to feature salads, salmon, nuts and fruit.
According to my real-life, hands-on experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The mainly plant-based pseudo-Mediterranean diet that I see propagated on the Internet and elsewhere does not resemble the diet I have savored and the culture in which I have been immersed while living in the Spanish Mediterranean for nearly two decades. I am dumbfounded as to why the meat, dairy and animal fats that abound in the Mediterranean diet have been put on the chopping block.
PLENTY OF ANIMAL FOODS IN MEDITERRANEAN DIET
The Mediterranean covers an extensive area and various countries; my remarks are limited to what I know—the Spanish Mediterranean. I began my Spanish adventures as a student in Madrid in the 1980s, and it was there that I was initially baptized into the Iberian Peninsula food culture. There, in the bull’s eye of Spain, people did—and still do—consume plenty of beef, lamb, pork, goat, poultry, game, animal organs, seafood, whole dairy, animal fats, legumes and yes, also plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits.
Around that same time, consumers in North America started eating more and more processed foods and following the lowfat dietary trend. Rewinding back to the 1980s, I can see how some of Spain’s culinary traditions likewise experienced corruption by global food industry advertising and the promotion of processed foods as easy, convenient and lowfat—as if those features made the food healthier or the consumer thinner. This propaganda has no doubt continued to weaken Spanish customs, offering an air-brushed version of Spain’s legendary, nutrient-dense, meat-friendly food culture.
At the time of my arrival in Madrid, I and other study-abroad students were lucky enough to live with a Señora who prepared a hot lunch for us every day. Lunch always included meat, fish, poultry or eggs from the local market, along with some kind of cooked vegetable and a basic salad dressed with salt, vinegar and olive oil (applied exactly in that order). Traditionally, Spaniards do not use bottled dressings; I initially found the plain Spanish dressing boring but later grew to prefer it. The Señora also typically prepared hand-cut fries, and we always enjoyed freshly baked bread (a type of baguette called a pistola) that we dipped in olive oil and salt. Finally, dessert was usually seasonal fruit, or sometimes flan (a type of egg pudding). For our beverage, we drank water without ice (ice is a hilarious topic for another day).
THE SPANISH MEDITERRANEAN DIET
I later married into a Spanish Mediterranean family and moved to the island of Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands. Over the years, we ended up splitting our time between Barcelona and Mallorca.
My experience in both settings indicates that the Spanish Mediterranean diet encompasses a wide variety of meats and animal fats, and these are not restricted to just a couple of days a week. The Balearic Islands and the Catalonian coast each have unique regional recipes, typically including different locally harvested meats or local catches. A basic list might include beef, lamb, white or black pork, goat, poultry, game, rabbit, organ meats, shellfish, whole dairy, butter, animal fats and again, lots of vegetables, legumes, fruit, olives and freshly baked bread. Even when my Spanish mother-in-law prepared a semi-plant-based dish once a week, it generally was a mixed vegetable soup that featured homemade chicken broth as its base.
Did I mention olive oil? Olives are everywhere, and olive oil is used in and on just about everything. For example, the world-renowned Spanish tortilla—made from eggs, potatoes, onions and salt—is cooked in olive oil (kept below the smoke point), with chopped regional spicy sausages or peppers commonly added to jazz it up. [Editor’s note: For a different perspective on the role of olive oil in the traditional Mediterranean Diet, see “Fact or Fiction? Uncovering the Fats of Italy’s Past” in this issue.]
Use of lard (manteca) is also widespread. In Madrid, I learned to fry my breakfast toast in lard, which you could buy in freshly cut chunks at the market. Mallorquins and Catalonians, too, often fry bread in lard for breakfast and dip it in their coffee with milk.
For anyone wanting to try the real Mediterranean diet, there are a few points and fun facts to ponder. First, in my circle of Spanish family and friends, I have never met a single vegetarian. This is not to say that there are no native Mallorquins who have chosen a vegetarian diet, but when they do so, it reflects a personal preference and is not the Mediterranean diet. There are many northern Europeans and other foreign residents on the Balearic Islands, and those residents and tourists are typically the ones to start and frequent the islands’ vegan restaurants.
Contrary to media portrayals of the Mediterranean diet, salmon is not the most common fish found on Spanish menus. We rarely, if ever, have it at home, and I cannot remember ever ordering it when eating out. It is available, but there is also an exquisite and bountiful array of other fresh fish and seafood. My favorite is the besugo (European red porgy), opened up and grilled with garlic and olive oil. Pulpo a la gallega (octopus with sliced potatoes, smoked paprika, olive oil and salt) comes in a close second.
SPANISH MEDITERRANEAN DIET REGIONAL SPECIALTIES
In Mallorca, one of the most famous Spanish culinary delights is cured ham, with the two main varieties being Jamón Ibérico and Jamón Serrano. They can be compared to Italy’s prosciutto, but personally I am partial to the Spanish meats. Mallorca’s particularly famous and gloriously mouth-watering version is produced from a “black” pig that feeds solely on acorns.
Sobresada is a soft spreadable pork meat made with salt, pepper and paprika. Mallorquins spread sobrasada on toast or crackers for appetizers or scramble it with their eggs for breakfast. When made from the acorn-fed “black” pig, it is a more expensive, black-label delicacy.
The most popular local Mallorquin stir-fry contains lamb and liver with vegetables (see Recipes).
One of Mallorca’s most famous culinary treasures is the ensaïmada, a spiral-shaped pastry baked with lard. (The word ensaïmada comes from saïm, which means lard.) It is common to see travelers carrying hexagonal boxes of this pastry tied with strings when departing the Islands.
Spain boasts of about thirty different amazing regional cheeses from cow, goat and sheep milk. The Balearic Islands have several of their own famous cheeses. Mahón, a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese with a buttery flavor, is my favorite. A common way of eating Mahón is sprinkled with black pepper, tarragon and olive oil.
Many of Catalonia’s most popular dishes are meat- and fish-based. Examples include stew featuring slow-cooked pig trotters; sausage made from the pig’s head, heart, kidney, rind and blood (and many other sausages); veal and mushroom stew with wild mushrooms; and salt cod. There are many other Catalonian specialties; you can look them up and find one you like.
A TRULY HEALTHY DIET
When I first arrived in Spain, I was hesitant about the increased amount of animal fats and olive oil in my diet due to my prior lowfat diet indoctrination. However, I adapted rapidly, noticing that I did not gain weight, develop high cholesterol or lose energy or health—quite the opposite.
Until a decade or so ago, it was difficult to find lowfat or nonfat dairy products in Spain. In the 1980s and 1990s, when one could buy only full-fat dairy products, I never saw an overweight Spanish person.
As part of a Spanish Mediterranean family, I have now lived and eaten the Mediterranean diet for twenty years and counting. Thus, I feel reasonably qualified to testify as to what the Mediterranean diet really consists of. Overall, some of the key descriptors of the diet would be: varied—fresh—seasonal—local.
THREE HEARTY SPANISH MEDITERRANEAN RECIPES
FRITO MALLORQUIN (MALLORQUIN STIR-FRY)
- 1 large potato (peeled and diced into ½-inch cubes), 1 chopped onion, 3 large garlic cloves (crushed and chopped), and 4-6 baby garlic cloves (unpeeled and whole)
- 2 tablespoons dry white wine
- ½ red and ½ green pepper, seeded (½-inch pieces), ½ small eggplant and ½ zucchini (½-inch cubes), 2 chopped scallions, ½ cup frozen peas, and ½ small bulb of fresh fennel, diced (reserve fronds for garnish)
- 3 bay leaves and 2 chopped green guindilla, banana or Anaheim peppers
- 8 oz boneless lamb’s shoulder or leg (cut into ½-inch pieces) and 8 oz finely diced lamb or calf liver
- ¾ to 1 cup olive oil, lard or other animal fat
- Sea salt and ground black pepper
Heat generous amount of virgin olive oil or animal fat in a large wok or frying pan over medium-high heat. Add potato, onion, garlic and a pinch of salt. Fry for 10-12 minutes, until potato begins to soften and take on a golden color. Add wine, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, scallions, peas, fennel (saving fronds for garnish), bay leaves and half the guindillas. Increase heat just a touch; cook 12-15 minutes, stirring every few minutes to fry evenly without burning. Meanwhile, in separate frying pan, heat remaining fat over high heat. Add lamb and cook for 5 minutes. Add liver with a pinch of salt, stir constantly for 2 minutes, making sure not to overcook liver. Transfer meats to pan with the vegetables. Reduce heat to medium and stir. Finish with fennel fronds, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with the rest of the guindilla sprinkled over the top (or to taste). Serves four.
LOMO CON COL (PORK LOIN WRAPPED IN CABBAGE)
- 1 Savoy cabbage
- 2 butifarras (sausage made primarily from pork and organ meats)
- ½ cup (150 grams) sobrasada (check for this at imported goods meat market)
- Approximately 2 pounds (1 kilo) loin of pork
- 1 ¼ cup (300 grams) cured bacon or pancetta
- 2 large onions, 1 ¼ cup (300 grams) mushrooms, 5 vine-ripened tomatoes
- 3.5 oz (100 ml) red wine and salt and pepper to taste
- 8.5 cups (2 liters) water or stock, ½ cup (100 grams) raisins and 2 Tbsp (30 grams) pine nuts
- Olive oil, lard or other animal fat
Blanch cabbage leaves in boiling water with salt, drain well and remove the most fibrous stalks. Finely chop the butifarras and sobrasada. Season pork loin with salt and pepper and gently brown with oil, lard or other fat. Set aside. To prepare the parcels, flatten a cabbage leaf, placing a filet of pork loin in the center. Place some pieces of butifarra and sobrasada on the filet, wrap everything up and hold together with a cocktail stick. Put parcels in a stovetop-friendly earthenware dish, making sure they are very close together to prevent them from coming apart. Set aside. Cut pancetta or bacon into cubes. Peel and chop onions, slice mushrooms and peel and chop tomatoes.
Make the sauce by browning the pancetta or bacon in a little oil, lard or other fat in same pan used for the pork loin. Add the onion and, when golden brown, the mushrooms and tomatoes. When mixture is thoroughly cooked, add salt, pepper and the glass of red wine. Boil for a few minutes on high heat to evaporate the alcohol. Add water or stock, raisins and pine nuts. Pour sauce over the cabbage rolls (covered but not drowned in sauce) and cook stovetop on medium heat until cabbage is tender, about 15 minutes. Serves six.
GRILLED CHUNKY VEAL SIRLOIN WITH PADRÓN PEPPERS AND GARLIC (CATALONIA)
- 4 sirloin veal steaks
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped parsley, 1 cup white wine, salt and pepper to taste, olive oil
- 2 potatoes and 12 Padrón peppers (can substitute shishito peppers)
Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut veal into 1-inch cubes and put in a large bowl. Peel and chop garlic and parsley and add to bowl with meat. Mix in wine, salt and pepper; let sit. Pour olive oil on bottom of a cookie sheet with sides; season with salt, pepper and chopped garlic. Halve the potatoes lengthwise and place on the oiled cookie sheet. Bake for about 40 minutes, turning over for the last 10 minutes. Fry peppers in a separate pan by heating olive oil and frying until skin turns golden. Remove from heat and add salt. Heat more olive oil in a separate pan. When hot, pour in cubed veal with its marinade and stir-fry until meat is lightly browned. Do not overcook. Serve meat with peppers and potatoes on the side. Serves two.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2022🖨️ Print post