A long history of imperial colonization and international trade has been the fundamental reason behind the Mediterranean and it’s shared culture and agriculture.
It includes the Mediterranean Sea but also the climate and terrain surrounding it which are roughly the same throughout the region: dry, hot summers and cool, breezy winters.Dividing the region into three culinary regions, North African, Eastern Mediterranean and Southern European, at the gastronomic core of each is olive oil. Historically considered a Mediterranean peasant food, the olive was not part a refined Europen cuisine but it’s now regarded as one of the hottest foods today, praised both for its culinary properties and for its health profile.
Marseille is the home of Bouillabaisse, where once it was nothing more than a stew made by poor fishermen to use up the leftovers from their day’s catch. The small bony rockfish or Scorpion fish rejected by market customers remain the basis of the authentic Bouillabaisse along with onions, fennel, shallots, garlic, Pernod and dry white wine. Aside from the Bouillibase, you can regularly find dishes such as ‘Shrimp Risotto’, an aromatic pasta with squid or regional soups such as ‘Soupe au pistou’, which is usually consumed during the summer, and is prepared with bean, green bean, tomato, pumpkin, potato, and vermicelli.
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It’s also Marseilles’s Vieux-Port (Old port) of the city that attracts many visitors to Marseilles. Guarded by its ancient forts: the 12th-century Fort St-Jean on the north bank, and on the south, Fort St-Nicolas, built to maintain control over the rebellion supporting the independence of Marseille. The nearby marketplace is where you will find the best of the John Dory, monkfish, red mullet, gurnard and rainbow wrasse but equally important are the conger eel and the rascasse and chapon – the rockfish responsible for the flavour and texture of the Bouillabaisse.
Second in size only to Paris, Marseille is the oldest city in France but it is also the most un-French with influences going as far back as the the Ligurians already living there at the time, Phonecians who arrived in 600BC then taken over by the Greeks in 540BC finally being conquered by the Romans 2000 years ago. Today, no city in Western Europe has a higher proportion of Muslims (roughly a quarter). In the busy, chaotic quarter of Noailles, immigrants from Algeria, Morocco and Senegal crowd impromptu markets in back alleys.
<h3><span style=”color: #993300;”>MORROCCO</span></h3>
Without question, one of the most colourful and flavoursome cuisines of the world with influences ranging from Spanish and Arabic to French. Moroccan cooking is synonymous with spices and intriguing flavour combinations. The Northern African cuisine typically includes rice and wheat with chicken and lamb and fish along the coastal areas and peppers, eggplant and zucchini are a mainstay of many meals though the culinary aspect that most sets this area’s cuisine apart form others is the spice mixtures of cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger and turmeric cooked with onions and/or tomatoes, olives and salted lemons.
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A classic Moroccan dish is the tagine (or tajine) – a slow-cooked stew flavoured with fruit, olives, preserved lemons, and spices in an earthenware dish known by the same name. Inexpensive cuts of meat are commonly included then commonly served with Couscous, a staple of countries of North Africa. The Kefta tagine is a perfect example of this with beef or lamb mince cooked with garlic, fresh coriander and parsley. Cinnamon and ground coriander are rolled into balls and cooked in a tomato and onion sauce then just at the end eggs are cracked into depressions in the sauce and are soon cooked to perfection.
There is no better place to sample the the range of street foods of Morocco than Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech. Along with the standard kebabs, calamari and grilled sardines, there are the meat of sheep’s head or spicy snails in a broth. Highly recommended are the Makouda; little deep-fried potato balls made for dipping in the spicy harissa sauce
Where deserts are concerned the B’stilla, a great example of Fassi (from Fez) cuisine involving paper-thin layers of pastry containing a combination of pigeon meat, almonds and eggs spiced with saffron, cinnamon and fresh coriander then lightly covered with icing sugar and cinnamon.
The essence of Moroccan food like much of the region is a communal style of eating either at home or in the marketplace.Hospitality is also very important and is part of the Islamic teaching. Upon entering a Moroccan home, guests are typically offered food and tea within seconds.
<h3><span style=”color: #993300;”>SPAIN</span></h3>
Few cities have as high a reputation for fine food as Barcelona. And with good reason: a perfect combination of the finest chefs with access to the finest ingredients, cooking for a people for whom a meal is not just a meal but a celebration. The general thought in Spain – and particularly in Catalonia – is that if a meal is not enjoyable there is no point in having it. And Barcelona truly strives to make every meal a thing to write home about.
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Tapas have become synonymous with this Mediterranean city. But don’t expect the skimpy over-priced portions that you can find in places like London or New York. No, these tapas are freshly made, generous and with particular attention to the quality of the ingredients and the preparation and then there are the local specialties, the kind that have been made by Catalan grandmothers since as far back as you can imagine: pa amb tomaquet, crusty bread with olive oil and tomato rubbed in; calçotada, grilled onions smothered in salvitxada sauce; crema catalana, a custard-like dessert very similar to the French créme brulée;
The Spanish Paella is a dish with originally created by the Moors during the 8th century and were mainly casseroles of rice and fish becoming a common dish by the 15th century. From the 18th century, Valencians used special pans to cook rice dishes for special occasions, and during times of prosperity, particularly in Valencis in the 19th century, the Paella’s ingredients changed to include more expensive proteins such as duck, chicken and rabbit.
There are essentially three main kinds of paella: Valencian paella (rabbit, chicken, white bean), seafood paella and mixed paella. The base of the dish is always sofrito (garlic, onion,tomato) The core ingredients include olive oil,rice, vegetables and some form of protein. Saffron, also common in Paella, gives the rice its golden yellow colour and floral aroma.
In order to earn the title of Paella, certain cooking methods must be adhered to starting with a layering of flavours and ingredients in a paella pan, which is a large, round and shallow dish. The rice and other ingredients are not disturbed during the final cooking process which allows the bottom layer to caramelize and build an intense flavor.
On the other hand, for something quick, local and cheap there are savory pastries always hand-made and filled with meat or vegetables known as an Empanada. The local favourite contains tuna, tomato, and peppers. The Mercado Central de Valencia, it’s a must stop for culinary travellers looking for local and regional food specialties, such as the famous ham/cured meat called jamon iberico.
Mediterranean and Catalan cuisines are not the only specialty of Barcelona – for a taste of Spain’s rugged North Atlantic coast you can quite easily partake in seafood cooked in the style and flavor of Galicia. The ingredients are fresh – usually the catch of the day – whether a starter of sea cucumber and chickpeas or a main dish of sole cooked in cava with shrimp.
<h3><span style=”color: #993300;”>ITALY</span></h3>
While Barcelona and Marseille may claim much of the seafood, the food of the land certainly goes to Italy and for many, it’s what springs to mind for most people when mediterranean is mentioned. It’s by far the most common in the anglicised countries, albeit with usually lower quality or freshness but less common knowledge is that the Italian regions were entirely separate entities until the mid-19th century when Italian unification began yet individual regions have retained much of their unique identity and distinctive set of flavours, recipes, products, and ingredients.
Because location is such a crucial aspect of food quality and reputation, laws exist to protect the authenticity of products made in a certain region such as vinegar. Modena Balsamic vinegar can only be labelled as such if it’s crafted in the town of Modenaa and the same applies with cheese labeled Parmigiano Reggiano. It must be produced in one of several provinces in Emilia-Romagna. Similarly in Greece only Feta produced in Greece can be labelled Feta under similar EU laws.
The northern region of Italy is known more for the creamy Risottos with use of polenta and cheeses as part of the recipe and are likely to include some sort of game or wild fowl such as rabbit, quail or grouse. Bright olive oil and tomato-based recipes rule the sunny South. The Florentine steaks of Tuscany originate from choice cattle raised in the Chianina Valley while the city of Alba and surrounding areas of the Piedmont region are a top source for expensive truffle mushrooms, particularly pungent white truffles. Of course access to both the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas makes fresh seafood dominant, though varied, throughout the peninsula.
A wide regional assortment of wonderful breads and pastas can be found throughout Italy and again, Italian breads differ significantly in size, taste, and texture between regions like the large, chewy ciabatta loaves of Lombardy’s Lake Como and the thin, crunchy grissini breadsticks of Turin.
<h3><span style=”color: #993300;”>GREECE</span></h3>
No other image encapsulates the Mediterranean way of life than octopus hung out to dry like washing and it’s a common sight. There are 227 inhabited islands in Greece out of 6,000 across the Aegean and Ionian seas so if you intend to visit and take in the local gastronomy, you’d be wise to clear your schedule. Each region in Greece, has its variation on the classic grape leaf-wrapped rice parcel known as dolmades. Eaten as a finger food, some stuffed vine leaves incorporate mincemeat with the long-grain rice and others strong combination of thyme, dill, fennel, oregano or pine nuts. Similarly, a baked dish such as Moussaka is found all around the Mediterranean and the Balkans but the real deal is based on layering: sautéed aubergine, minced meat, fried pureed tomato, onion, garlic and spices like cinnamon and all spice, a bit of potato with topping of cheese and béchamel sauce.
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A mainstay of any Greek meal are classic dips such as tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber and garlic), melitzanosalata (aubergine), and fava (creamy split pea purée). But the delectable taramasalata (fish roe dip) is a must. This creamy blend of pink or white fish roe with either a potato or bread base is best with a drizzle of virgin olive oil or a squeeze of lemon. And the cheese. Big barrels of creamy, delicious Feta often kept behind market counters and graviera, a hard golden-white cheese, perfect eaten cubed, or fried as saganaki. Bakeries and taverns are a great way to sample greek cheeses, for example tyropita (cheese pie) or salads like Cretan dakos, which is topped with a crumbling of mizithra, a soft, white cheese.
The classic baklava is a start, layering honey, filo and ground nuts. Or try galaktoboureko, a sinful custard-filled pastry. Simply, pour a lovely dollop of local thyme honey over fresh Greek yogurt.
<h3><span style=”color: #993300;”>CROATIA</span></h3>
Considering that the Dalmatian region of Croatia was controlled by the Republic of Venice for almost 400 years an influence of Italian cuisine in Croatia is to be expected and as they share the Adriatic, a mariners feast is assured.
Not far from Dubrovnik, the small town of Mali Ston is famed for its oysters from Malostonski Zaljev – the renowned Croatian oyster bay that produces the most sought after oysters in the country. Fish is also of premium quality in Croatia – from John Dory, turbot and monkfish to sea bass, cuttlefish and sea bream – as well as fine scallops and mussels while the best scampi come from the Kvarner Gulf and are best sampled in the gourmet mecca of Volosko should the opportunity arise. Dalmatian brodet (mixed fish stew) with polenta is a regional treat, as is the pašticada, beef slow-cooked in wine and spices and served with gnocchi.
Cheese is a major staple here and none more so than Pag cheese; a salty sharp cheese from the island of Pag near Zadara. The secret behind the pungent taste of this hard cheese is that intense winds spread the island’s salt dust onto everything, including vegetation meaning that only the most hearty, and coincidentally aromatic which the free-range sheep feast on while producing their milk.
An authentically Croation experience is Zagorski Štrukli, a cheese based dish made with thin pastry and layered with the local cheese, which is soft and almost like cottage cheese in texture. Served some additional cream and butter,
For an appetizer to remember, try paški sir (Pag cheese); Thin slices of cured and air-dried Istrian and Dalmatian pršut (prosciutto-like ham) are often on the appetizer list, served tapas-style with olives and cheese.