The traditional Greek diet before the 1960s, especially the Cretan one, is regarded as the prototype MedDiet. The term was first used in the 1950s and became official in the 1990s, well after the diet suffered a severe decline. While the general composition of this diet is well-established, little is known of its practical details – what, when and how food was eaten.
The main features of the MedDiet are: breast-feeding of infants; ready access to locally produced plant foods; and full control of home-prepared meals.
Its main components are bread and vegetables that provide the bulk of the diet; legumes as main protein sources; salads as substantial providers of vegetables; olives, olive oil, vinegar, lemon, garlic, onion and herbs as major flavour enhancers; fresh or dried fruit and nuts as desserts, snacks or light meals; yogurt and cheese in small quantities for additional protein intake and flavour enhancement; animal-derived foods in small quantities were consumed mainly on Sundays and festive occasions.
What was not part of this diet is restaurant and fast foods; celebrities’ creations and inspirations; confusing labels highlighting nutrient content or health value of individual foods; processed and refined foods. Also, the term “health food” did not exist in daily life; modern flavours, from highly refined and industrially produced sp oils, margarine, highly refined stock cubes and refined sugars were absent; misinformation i.e. irrelevant, misleading, and incorrect terminology did not exist and neither deceptive marketing nor advertising.
Bread (called sourdough nowadays) was a staple food and consumed virtually with every meal, untoasted and without spreads. It was normally made once a week or once a fortnight using natural flour, salt, water and a piece of dough from the previous bread-making for the rising of the dough. Best flavour was developed on the second day after baking and lasted another two to three days. Eventually the bread became dry and hard and was softened by the customary dipping in food juices or water. On the rare occasions that other ingredients such as olive oil, olives, pumpkin or cheese were used added to the dough, the bread became a specialty bread and took its name from the main extra ingredient(s) used e.g., olive bread or cheese bread.
Vegetables and wild greens were eaten frequently and in large quantities – fresh or cooked. Together with bread, vegetables constitute the two most important foods of the MedDiet in frequency and volume. Although in winter not many cultivated vegetables were available, the wet weather provided wild greens which were eaten regularly – usually cooked.
Onion and/or garlic were used in most salads and in cooking for the special flavours they impart. Raw onion and garlic were also on the table for self-serving to accompany plant foods, especially legumes; and, occasionally, the onion was eaten with bread and olives for a light meal – often accompanied by wine. Although small in volume, the onion consumption made you feel full.
Legumes, mainly lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas, black eye beans and broad beans, were the main protein source. After soaking the legumes overnight, the water was changed and cooked until starting to split when the water was changed again. At this stage, the vegetables and the olive oil were added and soon after the tomatoes were added and cooked well on low heat. Salt was added towards the end. (Note: Tomatoes – due to their phytic acid – and salt, if added early, harden the legumes.) Double changing the water helps in: destruction of phytic acid; increased nutritional value; and, reduced flatulence. If in doubt, the legumes are over- cooked – for easier digestion and increased flavour. Legumes were cooked alternately (one type at a time) and were consumed a few times a week. They were always eaten with bread – which is essential for complete protein intake – and were served with a salad or with plain vegetables, raw onion and olives.
Fresh fruit was consumed regularly when fully ripe for best flavour as a dessert – often straight from the tree. Juicy fruits such as grapes and watermelon were occasionally eaten with bread and olives or cheese for breakfast or a light meal.
Dried fruit (mainly figs and raisins) were eaten mostly in winter, on their own, or in combination with nuts and even with bread as a snack or as a light meal.
Nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts) were eaten as snacks or dessert – alone or with dried fruit and sometimes with bread. They were deshelled at the time of eating, which is especially important for walnuts which oxidise easily due to their omega-3 content.
Olives (green, black, or shrivelled), in addition to being nutritious, were flavour-enhancers for plant foods. They were never eaten on their own; they were mainly eaten plain – without any dressing – not even olive oil. The dry salt-treated shrivelled olives, although a Mediterranean favourite, have now lost their former dominance. Surprisingly, in recent years olives are spiced and oiled and are even stuffed with spicy ingredients. (See olive section for more information.)
Olive oil, historically, was the main fat. It was used as a flavouring ingredient for plant foods, as well as enriching the food with strong antioxidants – even during frying. Importantly, olive oil, with its intense flavour, contributed to the high consumption of vegetables and legumes of the MedDiet. Oddly, the generic name ‘olive oil’ is now reserved for the industrially refined olive oil – a development that is deceptive and confusing to consumers and to scientists outside the olive oil industry. In order to obtain the original olive oil, one has to ask for virgin olive oil, albeit with reduced antioxidants from the customary use of water during production and the filtering that follows. (See olive oil section for more information.)
Modern olive oil, has been priced out of the MedDiet
– from inept production and marketing practices.
Lard was also used for cooking, especially in high-altitude areas where olive growing is difficult. Interestingly, lard is relatively high in mono-unsaturated fatty acids (about 45%).
Dairy (cheese, yoghurt and milk) was consumed only occasionally and in small quantities. Cheese bites were tiny, acting as a flavour enhancer to, as my mother said, “eat the bread to fill you up.” Similarly, a Greek friend recalls her mother’s advice, “by sprinkling feta cheese on the vegetable pie you feed the family with less cheese.”
Eggs were consumed occasionally as omelette or boiled or fried or used for the very appetising egg-lemon (avgolemono) dishes.
Meat (mainly goat, chicken and pork) was eaten once a week and often less than that. It was cooked with the bones for extra flavour and less waste. Often, the small pieces of meat were hidden among the vegetables they were cooked with. At the end of the meal the bones were very “clean”.
Fish was consumed in moderate quantities – almost exclusively in coastal areas or adjacent to lakes. The obvious question is, ‘How did inland Mediterranean people get their omega-3 essential fatty acids’? From plant foods such as purslane, walnuts, green vegetables and from the meat, cheese and eggs of foraging animals.
Honey, reduced grape juice and carob juice were the main traditional sweeteners and were used in small quantities – unlike the modern large portions of sweets and cakes overloaded with sugar.
Herbs, such as mint, parsley, dictamus, fennel, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme were commonly used as flavour enhancers and for therapeutic purposes.
Alcohol, mainly wine and grappa, was taken in moderation and always with food and never on its own – grappa first (if it was consumed), wine afterwards. No alcohol was consumed on Wednesdays and Fridays due to religious fasting – with minor exceptions.
Salt (unprocessed sea salt) was used as flavour enhancer and food preserver.
Water was the major drink. Herbal teas (e.g., sage, mint) and rarely a glass of milk was also consumed. Despite the plethora of fresh fruit there was no fruit juice.