Much of the charm of traditional Mediterranean food comes from its largely peasant origins, a simplicity that has been seized upon as an antidote to the complexity of haute cuisine. Ever since Elizabeth David excited austere post-war Britain with her alluring story ‘of sea and sun and olive trees’, the ingredients and cooking of the countries around The Middle Sea — as it was called in ancient times — have enthralled Northern Europeans. The food of the sun is vibrant, heat-tinged and forceful. It uses ingredients which are of a climate that both differentiates and defines them: the freshest grilled fish, intensely flavoured ripe tomatoes, warm basil, hot chillies, limpid green oil of first-pressed olives, elements of a diet now thought to be the healthiest in the world. Once these were foreign ingredients and difficult to obtain, but now year-round availability has moved them within the everyday reach of the supermarket shopper. This is cooking where marinated meats and fish are frequently plainly seared over charcoal. Salads are simple, redolent of the pungent herbs of unwatered and harsher landscapes. It is a world where the use of ovens is limited.
The topography of the countries that border the Mediterranean offers a convenient way of describing the food emanating from it. Being essentially local in character, on the one hand this reflects a highland inland culture and on the other a fish-based coastal resource. It is therefore of both the mountains and the sea. The internationalism of smart society at one end of the social scale and mass tourism on the other may impact on indigenous restaurant fare around the Mediterranean. However, we can still be entranced by its food traditions, which can be enjoyed - with subtle variations - little changed to this day, for these countries are still not great importers of global produce. Seasonal variation and proximity to source materials are more likely determinants of what people eat.
This is a book about a journey, not a literal passage around the Mediterranean but a deliberate culinary voyage inspired by the foods of the sun. It is about remaking recipes not to impose change for its own sake but for better taste, texture and appearance. It is about stripping away preconceptions and not cooking from habit. Then you can make a dish with the excitement of a novice but with the benefit of understanding the consequences of your actions. This is not invention but a conscious deconstruction and reconstruction of dishes that have stood still for a long time, unquestioned perhaps for hundreds of years. It does not mean our version is better, but it does mean a different slant, and sometimes you have to push things to the limit to be able to see the start point afresh. The idea of inventing dishes is nonsensical, for all recipes are in reality the product of a seamless development that is more historic than original. It is not about revolution but evolution, incremental improvements and modifications that are driven by a conception of food that is essentially simple, where flavour always comes first. The result is inevitably idiosyncratic for food is very personal in its interpretation.
Rolling away the rock of time and allowing the sun to shine anew on the ground this reveals carries risks as well as excitement. There are rules that have to be broken, but not before the reason for their existence is understood. This is strategic redefinition, a sympathetic procedure that allows us to celebrate the most exciting food fusions in the world. Hopefully, there are no surreal combinations, just harmonious marriages. Serendipity plays its part, too, since there are happy accidents as well as planned effects. What happens to be to hand will always influence a cook’s thinking.
Rather than take the well-trodden Western path, our exploration emphasizes the Eastern road as we believe this aspect of Mediterranean food will exert the most profound influence on cooking in the next few years. Its influence is already being felt in California and Australia, is beginning to affect chefs here and will soon impact on domestic cooking internationally. Many of the dishes you will find in these pages reflect the historic cooking of Greece, Turkey, the Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco - countries whose culinary influences have cascaded throughout the Mediterranean. You do not have to look hard to find Middle-Eastern references in Italian, Spanish and Provençal food.
This book is essentially a practical work in which the emphasis is on what can realistically be achieved by the private cook working in a domestic kitchen. The reader will find specific national references, but our themes are most clearly expressed through naturally sympathetic groupings of dishes, allowing a menu to be eclectic without being dissonant. For example, Greek food has had a notoriously bad press, often for no better reason than prejudice, so all the more reason to look at it again. It. was fun to return to basics, stripping out the mediocre, eschewing bad practice and emerging on occasions with something that pleased us by its refreshing difference. You might not find the dish in the country that inspired it, but frankly, so what?
Wherever the national start-point, clean tastes and fresh uncomplicated flavours rule. This food can be a picture on a plate but only in the sense that what you see is what you taste, because no fripperies, frills or artifice get in the way. Mediterranean food imposes discipline in uncomplicated presentation, for its beauty is in natural austerity: a plate of fine plump beans dressed only with olive oil and salt; a skewer of marinated lamb grilled over wood, and flat bread which is to be eaten immediately it comes from the oven, still ballooned from the heat. A bowl of brilliant roasted peppers can be perfect, glistening with olive oil and sun splashed with basil. The idea of a garnish is alien: all that is on the plate is to be eaten.
People wonder about how two people write one cook book. Of course, only one of them actually writes the text but they both have to be sure they agree with what it says. In our case we started with talking about Mediterranean food for three months before arriving at a definition of what aspects would be most interesting to explore. Having arrived at the same vision we then worked separately; putting together dishes that fired us individually, before looking at what the other had done. At times there was an uncanny overlap, sometimes they were about as far apart as you could imagine. We cooked each other’s recipes; were in turn rude, dismissive or enthused by what the other had been doing. Everything went into the melting pot and was changed in some way by the process. In the end we found we had each contributed half of the recipes. It was not planned that way, but that was what shook down.
The result? For better or worse, a fresh look at Mediterranean cooking.
© 1995 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.