Trekking north, away from the sun, something happened that made vegetables of colder climates dance attendance upon meat. One could argue that choosing to eat vegetables in their own right is a contemporary luxury, since southern climes produced fruit and vegetables in colourful abundance in conditions where arable farming was and is impossible. People eat what they eat for historic, social, climatic and topographic reasons — determinants more significant than any conscious decision on the part of the consumer.
Whatever the reason, when it comes to vegetables the British have drawn the short culinary straw. Our food heritage brings plates overloaded with inappropriate combinations of meat and vegetables, jostling discordantly together, demonstrating a basic misconception and a failure to understand balance. There is, to this day, a popular restaurant in South London, famous for its huge serving plates of overcooked vegetables that, irrespective of season, always include roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and peas. These are served automatically with giant grey roast meats - an invariable menu that, bizarrely, has many devotees. In doing so, it promulgates the ancient perception of vegetables as bulk, the supporting act forever eclipsed by meat in the starring role.
In the Middle Ages, vegetables were the food of the poor. Rich people ate meat, dairy products, sugar and salt. With hindsight, it would be hard to imagine a more poisonous diet. Root vegetables were for pigs and the poor, while pulses were the last resorts of desperation. Oats - as Dr Johnson acidly remarked - were for horses, but in Scotland were eaten by the people. Yet, throughout the Mediterranean, fruit, vegetables, pulses and grains have always taken centre stage. Coastal regions have naturally featured fish rather than meat and where meat is eaten it is almost always in small quantities - except for those rare occasions, such as weddings and feast days, when meat consumption on a larger scale has symbolic importance, like the whole sheep served to honour guests in Arab countries.
Today, in the Mediterranean’s harmonious balance of fish and occasional free-ranging poultry, lightly cooked or raw vegetables and unrefined natural produce, we recognize a diet among the healthiest in the world. It is high in polyunsaturates and vitamins and low in saturated fats. The contemporary Western industrial scourges of heart disease and cancer do not visit these sun-drenched lands on the murderous scale with which they prematurely terminate the lives of Britons, Germans and, to a lesser extent, North Americans (who have in increasing numbers taken the healthy diet message on board and are now being rewarded by a reduction in heart disease).
© 1995 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.