As a proponent of the so-called “Mediterranean diet” for its brain enhancing properties, I was keen to sample at first hand, what was on offer. The Mediterranean diet is based on fish (high in Omega-3 content which is essential for good brain cell function), green leafy vegetables for their high levels of antioxidants, olive oil, nuts, seeds and fruit. Plus of course, a little red wine to wash it all down with. Red meat tends to be consumed somewhat less frequently, as is dairy produce, although there are a huge variety of cheeses produced.
In Rome I soon discovered that it would be possible to spend every meal eating nothing but pizza. Every bar, café and restaurant appeared to offer their own varieties of toppings based on a thin crispy crust, some with a tomato base, some without. Not much to speak of here, in terms of green leafy vegetables and fish. But Italian pizza, when cooked properly, is nothing like the greasy, fat laden versions we get in fast food outlets here in Australia. A smudge of tomato, thin slices of mouth watering ham or salamis and a burst of basil or other fresh herbs. Yum.
By going beyond the tourist menu and searching out the smaller restaurants more frequented by locals, it was soon apparent that there was plenty of fish and seafood in abundance to try: cod, sea bass, turbot, mussels and prawns. “Big salads” of fresh lettuce with olive oil dressing provided lots of greens. The local markets were bursting with high quality fresh fruit and vegetables: zucchinis with flower heads still attached ready for stuffing, beans of different colour and size, watermelon by the bucket load, packets of pasta in all shapes and sizes, fresh herbs and spices.
In Barcelona the pizza was conspicuous by its absence. Here fish and seafood were on every menu I saw. Fresh anchovies, (that taste nothing like their salted counterpart and that I became completely addicted to), sardines, more cod, sea bass and turbot and of course calamari, prawns and mussels, baby clams and scallops. We feasted on fish and seafood everyday and loved it. Experiencing real tapas was also an absolute joy. Exquisite dishes of olives, chorizo, squid and my favourite marinated fresh silver anchovies. Paella here is the Spanish alternative to the Italian pizza. And it too comes in all shapes, colours and sizes: Paellas with different fish, calamari and prawns. Paella cooked in black squid ink or with fresh rabbit. Paella cooked with seafood which is then removed and served as a flavour infused rice. Again, fresh green salad was typically offered as a starter before the main course, and then there were grilled green peppers, bright capsicums and zucchinis. Spanish mamas know how to get you to eat your greens.
In both cities we ate extremely well. Our waistlines bear testament to that! The food was undoubtedly fresh. In Barcelona we asked for salmon fillets at a local fishmonger and the lady in charge brought out the most enormous curved chopping knife and with an almighty “thwack” suitable to decapitate anyone standing too close, cut us some of the freshest fish we have ever enjoyed.
I gazed into the shop fronts that were laden with Parma hams, exquisite cheeses, vats of olive oil and sampled giant green olives that tasted of warm sunshine. This is the type of window-shopping that I enjoy.
Yes, as a tourist I can happily say the Mediterranean diet is alive and well, at least in the cities we visited in Spain and Italy. Food there is still an important part of everyday life to be savoured and enjoyed. It may be good for the heart and the brain. I would say it is likely also to be good for the soul.