To speak of 'Mediterranean cuisine' — to use such a catch-all classification for the wines and herbs of southern France, the intricate and bold spices of Morocco, the octopus salad of Greece, the cool yoghurt soup of Syria and the hearty fish stew of Italy's Liguria — is a fool's errand, writes Corinne Vella.
The geographical area that comprises the Mediterranean consists of three continents and more than fifteen countries. It is a region so divided socially, politically, religiously and economically, that the notion of a single cuisine being the unifying factor is a heart-warming but wildly inaccurate idea. There is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine. It is more accurate to speak of several types of cuisine within this region.
Commonalities do exist among the richly diverse range of culinary traditions found around the Mediterranean. The cuisines of the region can be roughly clustered into three groups: North African, eastern Mediterranean and southern European. But though there are some similarities within and between each group, they remain distinct, born as they are of differing cultures.
The misconception of a common culinary identity is possibly rooted in the idea that Mediterranean countries do share some things: their climate and terrain and much of their history of imperial colonisation and trade relations. Large swathes of the area have been variously influenced by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Turks and the Venetians, all of whom have left traces of their presence and the lingering impression of a shared regional identity.
Marry that lingering impression to the contemporary concept of a "Mediterranean diet" and you have the basis for a myth, the idea of the existence of a cuisine that persists in the face of evidence to the contrary.
A food could be considered normal in one culture but have shock value in another. No eyebrows are raised when wine is drunk with meals anywhere from Spain to Greece, for example, but no self-respecting Muslim community, of which there are several in the Mediterranean, would count wine as part of its cuisine. Tuscany gorges on pork products, something not done anywhere from Morocco to Turkey. Lamb, chicken and fish are typical there. Prosciutto crudo is not.
Many traditional dishes are centred on religious holidays and the practices associated with them. Certain foods, such as meat and dairy products, are prohibited at significant points in the religious calendars, giving the various cuisines at least some of their individual characteristics. Though that much seems obvious, the belief remains that there is such a thing as a Mediterranean cuisine that could be alternatively referred to as "the Mediterranean diet".
"Mediterranean diet" is not the gastronomic flipside of "Mediterranean cuisine", nor is the difference between the two terms merely semantic. The "Mediterranean diet" is a model of healthy eating, rather than a truly localised diet born of tradition. Its supposed widespread presence in Mediterranean countries is itself becoming a myth of sorts, given the inroads made by global fast food brands. Even if it were not, the "Mediterranean diet" could not be related to any cuisine in the anthropological sense.
A cuisine is not invented overnight, nor is it established in the space of a couple of generations, as the "Mediterranean diet" has been. Rather, it is the distillation of generations-worth of experience of making the most of, or making do with, whatever nature provided. Many traditional dishes from mountain villages, in Crete for example, are based on survival tactics and the art of foraging for food in the wild. The predominance of lamb, goat meat and poultry in Arab cuisine has more to do with the portability of the animals in question, and their ability to survive on meagre rations — an important factor among nomadic tribes — than it has to do with partiality of taste.
Seen altogether, Mediterranean cuisines are a colourful mix, vaguely connected when taken at face value, but, when viewed historically, as fractured and deeply divided as the region itself. It is in that sense alone, perhaps, that there can be said to be the merest shadow of a unified cuisine that is truly Mediterranean.
Corinne Vella. "The Myth of the Mediterranean Diet". Taste, November 2004.