Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
 
 
March 27, 2017
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Mangia Bene

    The contrast between today's image of the Mediterranean and the actual Mediterranean that existed for centuries could not be drawn more starkly. The world of the Mediterranean past was one in which the climate was cruel and scarcity ruled. In A Mediterranean Feast I tried to give some idea of the daily life of the historic Mediterranean--a world of peddlers, vagrants, bandits, slaves, quacks, herbalists, jesters, deserters, prostitutes, saintly women, and supremely rich people luxuriating in excess while those around them starved. It is a world where nihil sunt res humanae, nisi umbra et fumus (human things are naught but shadow and smoke) and the human condition, in the words of one historian, cannot be extricated from the "relentless reproduction of the ineluctable catastrophe of history."*

     Our picture of today's Mediterranean, with its ribbons of land filled with vines and olive trees bordering the sea, the rhythm of life set by climate and culture, allows us to forget that the Mediterranean is a poor land without water. The Mediterranean climate is a creation of the Atlantic and the Sahara. The blowing sand and scorching heat of Saharan winds, winds so fierce they have names, affect the weather across the Mediterranean. One might consider these winds one demarcation of the Mediterranean, while another might be the northernmost limit of the olive and vine and the southernmost limit of the palm. This area extends between the thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth parallels, about six hundred miles at its widest. The January isotherm, the line on a map connecting different points having the same temperature at the same time, follows the general shape of the sea, cutting off southern Spain and southern Italy, with southern Mediterranean shores warmer than the northern.

     The lands of the Mediterranean, like the islands, were isolated from one another, but people always intermingled by virtue of trade, war, adventure, or immigration. Each region struggled to preserve its own flavor and character in the midst of an extraordinary mixture of races, religions, customs, and civilizations. On top of it all was the climate; the climate determined the harvest, and the harvest determined life.

     The climate speaks volumes about the history of the Mediterranean. Catastrophes are reflected in the growth rings of trees and in the rise and fall of the population. The fourteenth century saw a little ice age that affected cereal growing throughout Europe and the olive groves in Provence. In the Languedoc, a series of frosts killed the olive trees between 1565 and 1624, discouraging planters from attempting its cultivation.

    The Mediterranean trinity of wheat, olive, and vine was born of the climate and history. Throughout the Mediterranean one finds an identical agricultural civilization of farmers, peasants, and shepherds. Mediterranean cultures share the same traditional granaries, wine-cellars, and oil presses. Daily lives follow the same rhythm. As late as the nineteenth century, fruit vendors in the markets of Palermo and Cairo used the same curious cry to sell their oranges and other fruits so that one never really knew what was being sold. Orange sellers in Cairo yelled "Honey! Oh, oranges! Honey!" while in Palermo they cried out "Here's the honey," to sell their oranges.** There is a shared Mediterranean mentality-languorous, sullen, fatalistic, and dolorous, yet creative, hot-blooded, hospitable, loving, and hopeful. Maybe the inevitability of severe weather causes this mentality or maybe it's the religious passion of Mediterranean peoples. The Word of God, whether through the Talmud, the New Testament, or the Koran, speaks loudly throughout the Mediterranean.

(Right: Orange Seller, Algiers 1857, Eugène Napoléon Flandin, French, 1803-1876)

     In the sixteenth century, all the coastal regions produced wax, wool, and skins; they all grew mulberry trees and raised silkworms. The entire Mediterranean produced wine and had vineyards, even the Muslim countries, in spite of the Koranic injunction against alcoholic beverages. Muslim poets for centuries extolled the virtues of the vine. In Muslim Sicily of the tenth and eleventh century poets such as Ali al-Ballanubi wrote, "At sunset I drink a sunlit wine reflecting the aurora of its light."*** In Arabic there is an expression for the two favorite foods, wine and meat, known as al-ahmaran, "the two red ones."

     The Mediterranean climate gives us the impression of sea, sun, and fun--a deceptive image. The climate can be ferocious. Drought is common and irrigation is affected in this region of wadis and fiumari, the web of dried river beds. The growth of herbaceous vegetation slows with drought. The Mediterranean is a region of shrub culture and fruit-bearing trees, but it is also a bare land lacking an abundance of trees and in constant danger of desertification. The French historian Fernand Braudel noted that the only detail of daily life consistently mentioned in the diplomatic correspondence of the sixteenth century was news of the harvests. King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) was kept informed by his agents and ambassadors of changes in the weather from seed-time onwards. One can see that the price of bread dropped or rose in response to the amount of rainfall.

    Climatic change in the Mediterranean is more often associated with scarcity than abundance. If the hot Saharan winds blow, the sirocco or ghibli as they are known in Sicily and Libya, before harvest time, the wheat berries will dry up and drop uselessly to the ground. The sirocco is still feared today throughout North Africa and in Sicily. The heat and aridity of North Africa has always been the motivation for cooks of the Maghrib to prepare cool and refreshing foods. Cucumbers, recommended by medieval Arab doctors for their thirst-quenching effect, are popular both as a fruit juice and as a salad.


* Camporesi, Piero. The Land of Hunger. Tania Croft-Murray, trans. Cambridge: Polity, 1996, p. 9.

** Lane, Edward William. The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. London and Toronto: J. M. Dent; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1908, 327; Amari, Michele. Storia dei musulmani di sicilia. Catania: Dafni, 1986, (3) 3, pt. 5, 920 n. 5.

*** Ali al-Ballanubi, Ibn Hamdis, and Abd ar-Rahman di Trapani. Poeti arabi di sicilia. Francesca Maria Corrao, ed. Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1987, 55.