Mare Nostrum connecting cultures

Author: Marco Negro

Analyzing the history of food brings us to the numerous points of contact between the peoples and nations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Today, markets move at different speeds, despite a shared past that could unite, starting from the table.

Green olives on a branch

The Romans used the expression “mare internum” to indicate that, in any way it was navigated, the marine basin their power faced was circumscribed, found a limit, a closure. Until the 2nd century BC, Latin peoples were not skilled sailors. The Roman naval fleet made a leap in quality when it became a military instrument, with the goal of defeating the Carthaginians. The annexation of new North African territories and large islands led to the expression “mare nostrum“, asserting control over lands bathed by the same sea. The geopolitical strategies of the Roman Empire influenced the history of food: the same power owned the fertile lands of Egypt, and military control of sea trade routes. Bread was guaranteed to the great Roman cities, and food exports, including oil and wine, provided substantial revenue to the state treasury.

While Central Europe navigated through the complicated Middle Ages, the lands facing the “mare internum” experienced the enlightened management of the Arabs. The history of European food in those centuries saw the use of honey, the birth of a precursor to pastry, alcohol distillation techniques, and sorbets, the refined flavoring of snow. Mediterranean peoples exchanged ingredients; their recipes have always been a grafting of new elements onto local cuisine. With colonialism, the gastronomic traditions of many nations bordering the “mare nostrum” enriched themselves with new European elements. With globalization, French organized retail extended its reach, bringing multinational-produced colorful snacks and Italian pasta to the edges of the Saharan desert.

The Mediterranean diet

We often speak proudly of the Italian dietary regimen, mythologizing its millennia-old roots. However, not everyone knows that the “Mediterranean diet” is a nutritional model studied by the American biologist Ancel Keys in the 1950s. He was convinced that the low levels of cholesterol in the blood, observed in his travels along the shores of the Mediterranean, were associated with a reduction in heart diseases. Certainly, eating lots of vegetables, preferring olive oil, and reducing the consumption of red meat are healthy nutritional recommendations. But the situation Ancel Keys encountered in his travels was that of post-war Southern Italy and the Greek islands: poverty compelled average families to follow a diet rich in homegrown vegetables as there were no funds to purchase fats and meat.

At the foundation of this model’s famous pyramid are elements that unite and share the Mediterranean nations. At the same time, individual identities are well-rooted and distinctive. Bread, for example, takes on different names, shapes, and techniques: Greek pita, Provençal fougasse, Tunisian tabouna, Lucanian panella, or Piedmontese grissini. The same applies to fresh vegetables and seasonal fruits, so different as latitude and climate vary. Similarly, we could continue with dressings, wines, cheeses, and fresh dairy. Large French and German chains have been present for decades in all European, Middle Eastern, and North African markets—from huge hypermarkets to neighborhood shops, all now affiliated with the same brands. Yet, the dietary model has been saved from standardization and flattening.

A dish full of fresh ingredients, vegetables and fresh cheese

The Mediterranean homeland

Let’s delve into the topic with Tunisian journalist and writer Soufiane Ben Farhat. We agree that political events have created borders, dividing peoples. Soufiane remarks, “We all belong to the Mediterranean civilization. From Syria to Spain, from Liguria to North Africa… when we sit at the table, we have so many things in common! Of course, you Italians have developed more than anyone the centrality of food as a national identity element. Italian cuisine has become universally appreciated. Going back through the millennia, we can better identify the four pillars that united the shores of the ‘mare nostrum’: the olive, the vine, the bee, and the sheep. The great port cities of this sea, over the centuries, have always simultaneously hosted Greeks, Arabs, Genoese, Gypsies, Jews, and Muslims. Each people contributed with their trades, arts, and recipes to the concept of the Mediterranean homeland.

A dish full of falafel

Our conversation with Soufiane Ben Farhat confirms that modernization has indeed brought the same beverage, pasta, sweets, and beer brands to all neighborhood shops, both on the affluent shores of the French Riviera and the less affluent ones in the Middle East and North Africa. But it is also true that globalization has failed to standardize traditional dishes, those cooked by homemakers. The Westernization of consumption has absorbed some consumer goods. But there has been a natural limit that has preserved cultural identity: bread, dairy, the fish market, and local vegetables. These ingredients resist the narrowing of choices caused by large chains. Soufiane Ben Farhat concludes, “The concept of the Mediterranean homeland is not an illusion. People living around the coasts of this inland sea share many common habits: the sharing of food, moments of conviviality with family and friends, the pleasure of spending time with friends over coffee. We Mediterraneans are lively and joyful people. We remain deeply connected to the value of family traditions, uniting us beyond national borders”.

Trends

Markets along the Mediterranean, with their distinct identities not yet entirely “globalized,” can be incubators for new trends. Consider, for example, the so-called “alcohol-free” sector. The religious prohibition on wine consumption, respected by tens of millions of practitioners, also aligns with the health trends of North American and Northern European consumers. A visit to the biennial international Gulf Food fair in Dubai reveals how major French and Spanish wine brands have been ready for this type of offering for years.

Similarly, the concepts of halal and kosher, pertaining to foods prepared according to the purity rules of Islamic and Jewish laws, respectively, have found unwitting admirers among those who do not practice these faiths. Both certifications do not settle for a simple self-certification by the producer or ingredient suppliers, as is common in vegan, organic, and “organic” supply chains. The necessary separation of production lines and stricter control of ingredient and packaging supply chains make halal products simply more controlled than a similar product without this certification. Similarly, the presence of a knowledgeable rabbi during the processing stages of a kosher product instills confidence in any consumer. Halal and kosher certified products are thus interesting even for customers who appreciate extraordinary control over ingredients and supply chains. The choice to produce pasta, tomato sauce, or a food preparation with these additional certifications can be a new opportunity for some producers. An example: the most well-known Moscato d’Asti DOCG in the United States is actually a kosher-certified product. Who consumes it? Americans of all backgrounds and origins, not just practicing Jews. Once again, gastronomic delights bring people together!

With the sharing at the table, which lowers walls and borders, the “mare nostrum” could be more peaceful, more human, and without lines of division.

30th November 2023,

Marco Negro

Picture of Marco Negro
Marco Negro
Expert of communication of Italian wine. He has a knack for connecting people.
Picture of Marco Negro
Marco Negro
Expert of communication of Italian wine. He has a knack for connecting people.

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