In-Depth Study: A True Mediterranean Table

By Veronica Lavenia, author of The Vegetarian Italian Kitchen.

The following is an in-depth explanation of the Mediterranean Diet as well as a few points that argue the many stereotypes of "true Italian cuisine."

The invention of the Mediterranean Diet (of which the Italian cuisine is part) is due to the American scientist Ancel Keys. In 1951, in Rome, he took part, as president, at the first conference on the state of nutrition in the world. Here, he discovered that in Naples heart disease did not constitute a health problem.

Amazed by this discovery, Keys organized a research period in Naples on food consumption that would provide comparative data to those collected by him in the United States, in relation to the risk of cardiovascular diseases. It took a few months to determine that the diet in Naples, was low in fat and that only those that had access to more ingredients (those with a fattier content), than staples, suffered from heart attacks

Veronica Lavenia.

In 1958, Keys developed the "Seven Countries Study", a comparative research of the diets of 14 samples of subjects, aged between 40 and 59 years, for a total of 12,000 cases in seven countries on three continents (Finland, Japan, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, United States and Yugoslavia). The data collected left no doubt: between the populations of the Mediterranean basin, which subsisted mainly of pasta, fish, vegetables and used exclusively olive oil as a condiment, the mortality rate from ischemic heart disease was much lower than that observed among populations such as Finland, where the daily diet included a lot of saturated fats (butter, lard, milk, red meat). The publication of results that demonstrated the existence of a relationship between high rates of coronary heart disease and consumption of saturated fat in seven countries, made him famous worldwide.

A love for Italy inspired him to move to the south of the country. In Cilento, he built a house where he lived with his wife for over 40 years, alternating stays between Italy and the United States (where he died at age 101). In his Italian home, testing each recipe, Keys wrote ‘How to Eat Well and Stay Well, the Mediterranean Way’, the book that has made him the father of the Mediterranean Diet. It was also thanks to his studies and to those declared Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

If it is true that the Mediterranean diet is for everyone, due to the easy availability of its simple seasonal ingredients, it is equally true that only the high quality of the same makes the difference. The real Mediterranean table includes seasonal food; meat (in limited quantities) and fish from organic farms raised, without stress or antibiotics; desserts (to eat rarely) prepared with unrefined flours and sugars, with no artificial aromas. Lunch at home is a tradition of the Italian and Mediterranean lifestyle. No matter if you go back home to eat a salad or a more substantial dish. The key is to return home, leave the worry or stress of work out the door long enough to put together a lunch based on what you have in the pantry. No matter how great your cooking skills are, because it counts to have control over what you eat.

Sharing meals with the family is an act of love and it is the way to communicate that passion for life which is the essence of being Italian. The pot mumbling on the fire, while cooking the soup is one of those reassuring habits to which Italians do not give up on cold days. The scent of tomato sauce which roams the streets and lanes of the Southern Italian cities in summer, from the early hours of the morning, is a hymn to joy, waiting for the pranzo (lunch).

One way to know if it’s true Italian at the table is by debunking the many stereotypes about the Italian Mediterranean cuisine. A tourist takes notes of these only when visiting Italy, eating in a restaurant or at an Italian home.

Here are ten stereotypes that do not belong to the Italian Mediterranean culinary culture:

1. Finish the meal with a cappuccino.

- Only coffee can finish a meal, while the cappuccino is drunk at breakfast.

2. Put ketchup on pasta or pizza.

- The tomato sauce is only strictly fresh (when tomatoes are in season) or, in winter, one of the preserves.

3. Eat pasta and rice as side dishes.

- They are main courses.

4. Add the olive oil when you boil water for cooking the pasta.

- True Italian pasta, made with durum wheat, or with the old fine Italian grains, does not stick to the pot.

5. "Fettuccine Alfredo" is not a national dish, it is a delicious recipe that, in Italy, you will find in Rome, only at the eponymous restaurant "Alfredo".

6. Spaghetti Bolognese.

- Pasta with meatballs and Pepperoni Pizza are not Italian dishes and you will not find them in the real Italian restaurants.

7. Canned macaroni cheese is anything but Italian food.

8. Pizza is not a container where one puts everything. On the contrary, it is the beauty of simplicity and, as such, requires only few top notch ingredients.

9. A Sandwich is not a Panino (plural for Panini).

10. The true Mediterranean diet, of which the Italian cuisine, is representative, does not make you fat. On the contrary it is an elixir of life, as Key stated with his studies, more than 60 years ago.