Bringing the Mediterranean diet home to the UK

Bringing the Mediterranean diet home to the UK

Food is plentiful and cheap in the UK compared to many places. Unfortunately our supermarkets take the stance that appearance matters more than taste. This means that Britons often have to suffer with poor-quality fresh produce - it is no wonder that many people prefer junk food. Inspired by delightful thoughts of foreign holidays, here are some ideas for ways to escape this trap by ‘eating Mediterranean’.

Good food is one of the major pleasures of a holiday abroad. All of us who are lucky enough to have visited the countries bordering the Mediterranean will remember the delights of a Greek salad bursting with flavour, or the wonderful mix of flavours that are the hallmark of a really good pizza. Real southern European food not only tastes better, but is a healthier way to eat. Rates of heart disease and obesity are much lower in countries such as Greece and Spain. Even the French are healthier than the British, despite the preference of the former for food higher in fat and their legendary higher smoking rate.

So what are we doing wrong? The reasons are still the subject of much research, but the main points for better health from ‘going Mediterranean’ are:

·         Eating less red meat

·         Eating a much larger quantity of seasonally fresh vegetables

·         Flavouring food with herbs and spices, not salt

·         Eating less dairy produce – these cuisines provide calcium from sources such as oily fish, poultry cooked on the bone and plenty of leafy greens.

·         Cooking from scratch – but using low-effort ways to do it.

As well as providing better nutrition, these factors help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol levels, strengthen bones and improve heart health. Southern European consumers also prioritise the taste and freshness of produce over its appearance. So their tomatoes may not be as perfectly spherical, and their bread needs to be eaten on the day that it is baked, but both have flavour and nutrition far superior to their UK equivalents. Finally, they tend to work shorter hours and so have more time and energy to cook!

We can’t move our country a thousand miles south – but we can learn some lessons and transport some of these ideas to our shores. Here are some suggestions.

Eat Fresh and Seasonal

Growing your own fresh produce is the best way to obtain fresh and tasty fruit and vegetables. Even if you are not able to do this yourself, find out if you know anyone who grows their own food. Perhaps you know someone that needs a hand with their allotment? Ask if they need help, and will be happy to share out the glut of vegetables that result.

UK supermarkets allow us to have access to any food at any time of year. This is a double-edged sword – those January salad vegetables may look good, but they will have been sitting in the cold store for months and will be tasteless. Alternatively, food is shipped or even flown from far-flung parts of the world. These excessive ‘food miles’ are obviously a bad thing for a world trying to reduce carbon emissions, and the well-travelled food will also not be at its best by the time it arrives on these shores. For better food, be selective – eat what is in season where you are, or foods that are grown locally.  Remember that the ‘organic’ label is meaningless if the food has travelled half-way round the planet!

Splash on the olive oil

Olive oil is subject to as many different tastes and standards as fine wine, and many varieties are available. Quality oils are the best for frying, as they will not produce smoke until raised to a very high temperature. Olive oil is a ‘good’ fat, helping to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and may even reduce risks of diabetes. So cook with it, splash it on salads and enjoy.

Make friends with herbs

Using herbs and spices to flavour food, rather than salt, is a great way to better flavour and better health. Dried herbs do work, but if you have a windowsill you can keep a couple of pots of fresh herbs. All you have to do is cut them with scissors and throw them in to the dish for instant authentic flavour.

Cook from Scratch

The archetypal Italian or Greek mama would be utterly horrified at the idea of ready-meals. However she also does not want to spend all day in the kitchen. These cuisines often rely on long slow cooking, so the dish is prepared in the morning and then left to cook slowly during the day. In particular, Greek food is ‘designed’ to be eaten warm, and the flavours are left to develop after cooking so that the moussaka or pastitsio will taste much better.

There are plenty of quick dishes such as the perennial spaghetti Bolognese or carbonara which can be made from a standing start in half an hour.  For more involved recipes such as lasagne, follow ‘mama’s’ example and cook ahead in big batches. Freeze what you don’t need immediately, and then you have a healthy and tasty ready meal available for those evenings when you are too busy to cook.

While we can’t be on holiday all the time, we have many opportunities to eat as if we are. All we need to complete the experience is the right weather!

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