Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Food as cultural heritage

The Petrified Forest of Lesvos did not make UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. Greece has some twenty sites on that list, including the Acropolis in Athens, the medieval town of Rhodes, the Meteora Monastery, the monastery of Saint John the Theologian, its cave and historical centre (chora) in Patmos and the old city of Corfu. Even though the Petrified Forest was nominated, it was not elected.

So as far as UNESCO is concerned if you come to Lesvos now you will not find any world heritage. But this could change quite suddenly. Next time you may well enjoy some real world heritage: the Mediterranean diet.

This healthy diet might sound a little odd placed amongst all those ancient buildings but I have found out that besides its list of material objects, UNESCO now has items from the immaterial fabric of culture, known as the Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Here you will find all kinds of dance, music and carnivals — the Argentinian tango and the Brazilian samba; the carnival of Binche (in Belgium), the Kunqu opera and Dragon festival from China, a traditional musical from Azerbaijan, and so on.

Together, the countries of Greece, Italy, Spain and Morocco have proposed the Mediterranean diet be included on this list, and although they were knocked back at first, the rules have been changed so that the diet could pass the test and join the list of music, festivals (and lace making) later this year in November.

So my dear tourists, when you come here to Lesvos, I will not hear from you eating a pizza or souvlaki every day. Instead, why not profit from your stay here by enjoying a very healthy diet? I hear through the grapevine that many tourists still have no idea how to eat Greek. They may know tsatsiki and souvlaki, but prefer to stay safe and order pizza or pasta.

We are lucky on Lesvos because we have no foreign restaurants like Chinese, Indian or fish & chips. If we did maybe the tourists might never try Greek food at all and feed only fish & chips and pizza.

So, perhaps you should at least listen to what UNESCO decrees and believe that traditional Greek food as served in nearly all restaurants here on the island is the same Mediterranean diet and discover that it is incredibly healthy. It is not only the olive oil but the variety of vegetables, fruit, grains and fish (with a little meat) that together have a positive influence on cardio–vascular diseases, cancer and diabetes. And food is also eaten according to what is fresh and in season. What could be more healthy?

A Greek salad with a bit of meat or fish is not quite enough. At a restaurant here, first you look at the appetizers, which in truth the Greeks don’t eat as ‘starters’ at all. They are all put on the table together and everybody shares them, and they include a variety of vegetables. You can order dishes based on zucchini, eggplant dish, beans and salad and potatoes as well as fish and meat. And don’t forget a cheese dish. You start eating whatever arrives first on the table and you will see that gradually the table will be spread with everything you have ordered. To know more about these dishes read: Greek Dining for Beginners and when you think you know how to eat Greek you can move on to Greek Dining for Experts.

I realise that most tourists who come here do not speak Greek. That should not be a problem because you are always welcome to go into the kitchen to have a look at what they have because most restaurants have their dishes on display (behind glass). This is definitely not just for tourists because Greeks like to go into the kitchen to see what food is on offer. And do not be afraid to order something you do not recognise. You may not be familiar with a lovely dish made from zucchini flowers stuffed with rice or cheese and you should also know that there is often a variety of different kinds of salted fish. Besides the sardelles pastes they might have salted tuna (lakerda pasto). And don’t be put by the prospect of an enormous serving, because salted or smoked fish are always served on tiny plates, to stimulate your appetite.

Beans with chickpeas is a particular delicacy on this island. Just taste it and you will love it. It’s the variety that defines the Mediterranean diet, so order at least three different kinds of vegetables, or you can stick to ‘starters’ only. When you come home after such a good meal, you feel not only satisfied but much healthier.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

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