6 Things I Learned About the Mediterranean Diet in Greece
Olive trees, sun-drenched beaches, ancient ruins, friendly people, delicious meals…just a few glimpses of my recent trip to Greece. It was here, in the 1950s, that Ancel Keyes began studying the Mediterranean diet, discovering that people in Greece lived longer than those in other industrialized nations. And since then hundreds of studies have linked this plant-based diet with health benefits. As a dietitian, I’ve been entrenched in the Mediterranean diet for years. But to travel to Greece and spend time in the countryside—sampling food in rural locations, shopping in grocery stores, talking to locals, and visiting the farmers market—I gained fresh understanding about this beautiful food culture. I saw so many active, older people walking the streets, shopping at the farmers market, and coming bag with huge bags filled with produce. No wonder people live so long here!
Unfortunately, the Mediterranean diet is starting to evaporate in Greece—burger places are popping up, tourist restaurants have placed Western fare on menus, such as steak, and obesity rates are rising. But you can still see the bright thread of the true Mediterranean diet ring through at every meal. I learned a lot of new things about the Mediterranean diet while spending time in Greece. Here are my top six new discoveries.
1. Local means really local. When I was in Greece, I enjoyed a simple salad—tomatoes, onions, cucumber, olives and olive oil—at lunch and dinner every day. It was divine—I mean divine. What made it so good? First of all, the tomatoes were perfectly ripe. They weren’t hard, cold, woody tomatoes that you often get at a restaurant at home—even in the summer. Every single salad featured ripe, amazing tomatoes. Secondly, the cucumbers were sweet, and succulent, as were the onions. And thirdly, the olive oil was truly nectar of the Gods (see #3). I saw all of these ingredients in a classic Greek salad growing all over the countryside, in home gardens and small farms. It really struck me that most Greek traditional foods feature these ingredients, as well as a few other ones you see growing along the roads: eggplant, beans, zucchini, citrus, herbs, and nuts. It really is a plant-based diet, and it’s all about the foods that grow their best. In fact, from island to island, food traditions change. You might see a few different dishes and ingredients available, based on the location you are in. For example, Santorini produces amazing capers, so you find them in nearly every dish. While Crete produces an amazing array of wines, featuring hearty, ancient red grape varietals. Many of these wines are available only on the island. The bottom line: local is a huge part of the Mediterranean diet.
2. Grow food in your community that works. On many days I drove through the countryside of Greece, spotting small kitchen gardens. In fact, I talked to a Greek woman selling her goods in front of her house in Santorini, and I got to snoop around her garden. I couldn’t believe that her tomatoes, zucchini, sunflowers, and onions were growing in such sandy, dry soil. I learned that there is a specific Santorini tomato that is grown and revered in these parts. I’m sure that tomato is perfectly suited for the growing conditions in this hot, dry climate, and nobody would bother trying to plant a different tomato variety that would require pampering in order for it to produce. The same goes for pistachios and fig trees that literally grow wild by the side of the road. And miles and miles of olive trees—which are planted and then survive the elements—as far as the eye can see in Crete. No irrigation, little fuss, only harvest. We all live in our own unique growing environment. And maybe we should focus more on what types of produce are best suited for our environment, rather than trying to shape our environment with water, heated greenhouses, soil applications, and more to get it to produce pampered goods.
3. It’s all about the olive oil. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a fan of olive oil. I have toured olive oil farms in various countries, learned how to taste olive oil with the best, and have sampled my share of award-winning olive oil. But the olive oil in Crete was the best I’ve ever tasted. It was drizzled on everything—salads, vegetable dishes, breads—and I wanted to lap it up with a spoon at the bottom of my plate at each meal. It was peppery, rich in color, with green notes—qualities I love. I think that’s why the simplicity of Greek food shines—the olive oil finishes off the dishes, imbuing just the perfect mouth feel, complexity, and aroma. And when you see the miles of olive trees in Crete—there must be 10 olive trees for every person—it really strikes you just how big a part olive oil plays in the diet here.
4. Let legumes shine. I didn’t know there were so many traditional Greek dishes based on legumes. Fava is a very typical dish served in Santorini. It’s not made of fava beans—instead it consists of split yellow peas which are cooked into a thick paste and seasoned with onions and olive oil. I loved this stuff! Combined with a salad and rustic barley bread, I was in heaven! Another legume dish I enjoyed was broad beans simmered in a rich tomato sauce. I also had hummus a few times—and it was a rustic, thick, garlicky version served with barley bread (yum!). And I had a fresh black-eyed pea salad with tomatoes, onions, and pepper. In a food store, I spied lots of legumes—lentils, beans, peas—that grow in Greece. And in the farmers market in Crete, I saw chickpea plants sold by the stem and I sampled a fresh chickpea straight off the vine.
5. Simplicity is good. The best dishes in Greece are so simple, yet so good. That’s the culinary aesthetic—rustic dishes without fuss or over complication—with a dedication to quality and freshness. The variety of fresh salads that are served, which focus on greens such as arugula, tomatoes, olives and capers with a perfect drizzle of olive oil. The classic horta—greens that are simmered with olive oil and lemon (so good!). Stuffed peppers with a simple, herbal rice. Whole grain, dried barley and sesame breads for breakfast. A platter of watermelon served as dessert in a restaurant. Country wines from the specific region that cost little more than bottled water. Need I say more?
6. Waste nothing. I was struck by the ingenuity and frugality of the Greek when it comes to food traditions. After all, you have to remember that Greece was a poor country, yet their “poor man’s diet” actually turned out to be a healthy one at that! The people learned to eat every part of the plant. The women selling goods from her Greek garden in Santorini sold me pickled bell pepper leaves. So good! I also had pickled caper leaves. The leaves of many vegetables we normally throw away—beets, for example—are turned into dishes. Grape leaves are used to fill an herbal rice mixture. They also use dried breads and crumbs in many traditional dishes—a habit that originated from using up old bread. Thus, you have dried barley husks in the classic Cretan salad (the original crouton!), which adds a wonderful, hearty element.
Images: Sharon Palmer, RDN