The Mediterranean diet is in the news again, this time because a recent study suggests that a diet high in olive oil, tree nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and wine can reduce heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease. This uplifting news comes on the tail of disheartening reports that almost any amount of alcohol increases our chances of developing cancer.
The last time the Mediterranean way of eating enjoyed this much celebrity was in the early 1990s, when the Harvard School of Public Health, Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust and the World Health Organization teamed up to create "The Traditional Healthy Mediterranean Diet Pyramid" as an alternative to the USDA's food pyramid and the claims that it was compromised by various lobbying groups.
The first Mediterranean wave carried some great techniques and ingredients into the center of our culture, especially extra-virgin olive oil, all manner of bruschetta and jamon serrano, the Spanish version of prosciutto. At the same time, a lot of people took the favored status of bread and pasta as license to indulge in bountiful daily quantities.
What is important about all this? Two things, I think, in addition to the reaffirmation of the diet's overall positive impact.
First, when you look at the traditional diets of the 20 or so countries that ring the Mediterranean Sea, you find people eating a locally-based seasonal diet — as you found everywhere up until maybe a century ago. Olive trees, walnut and other nut trees and grapes thrive throughout this region, so it's not surprising to find olive oil, nuts and wine as part of the daily diet, nor is it at all unexpected that a seacoast results in people eating a lot of fish.
Cheese and, to a lesser degree, butter, are important, too, as are chicken, goat, lamb, pork and, in some countries, beef.
But there are other healthy populations in the world, the Maasai of Africa, for example. They are a nomadic people, so local and seasonal means something quite different; their food needs to travel with them. The Maasai exist primarily on raw meat, blood, milk and urine from their Watusi cattle, a diet that has yet to find mass appeal, despite the fact that the Maasai are considered among the healthiest people anywhere. No one ever asks, for example, if we'd like a shot of blood with that glass of milk, and it's unlikely anyone ever will.
The difference is obvious: The Mediterranean diet appeals to us. What's not to like about it?
Of equal importance to Californians is our climate, which resonates with the Mediterranean climate. The North Bay is at roughly the same latitude as Sicily. Recently, we've seen increased plantings of grape varietals that thrive through the Mediterranean instead of the cooler regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Other Mediterranean plants — artichokes, cardoons, walnuts, fennel and, of course, olives — thrive here, too.
Anyone who has visited the countryside of Tuscany and Provence, parts of Greece, Spain, Sicily, Morocco, Israel and Turkey understands, viscerally, the similarities we share. When we eat close to home, sourcing most of our foods from local farms, ranches and waters, the California diet naturally mirrors the Mediterranean diet in myriad ways. It's yet another reason to love this place we call home.