Greece

UN Adds Mediterranean Diet to Intangible Cultural Heritage List

 
THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET has been added to UNESCO’s representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, four years after Spain, Italy, Greece and Morocco first petitioned for its inclusion. Here are excerpts from the UNESCO citation (emphasis added):
The Mediterranean diet constitutes a set of skills, knowledge, practices and traditions ranging from the landscape to the table, including the crops, harvesting, fishing, conservation, processing, preparation and, particularly, consumption of food. [It] is characterized by a nutritional model that has remained constant over time and space, consisting mainly of olive oil, cereals, fresh or dried fruits and vegetables, a moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat, many condiments and spices, all accompanied by wine or infusions.
 
However, the Mediterranean diet (from the Greek diaita, or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction, since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events.
 
The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity, and ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing and farming in the Mediterranean.
 
Women play a particularly vital role in the transmission of expertise, as well as knowledge of rituals, traditional celebrations and the safeguarding of techniques.
UNESCO started the list in 2003 because “cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects, but also includes traditions or living expressions” passed from generation to generation. Culinary arts were included as an element of cultural expression for the first time this year. (The gastronomic meal of the French and traditional Mexican cuisine have also been added.)
 
I browsed through the list of 166 practices and traditions—songs, dance, crafts, festivals, healing arts—and before I knew it I’d whiled away more than half an hour watching videos on Sardinian pastoral polyphonic singing, Azerbaijani carpet-weaving, falconry and Catalonian human towers. It gave me a little of the same feeling I get whenever I look up at the biodiversity wall at the American Museum of Natural History: awe at how many different weird and wonderful expressions life—and human culture—can take. And a reminder that they are worth safeguarding.
 
Here’s the promotional video for the Mediterranean diet entry (French only, but the visuals are the best part anyway).
 
 
 
Of course there’s been grumbling about criteria for the UNESCO list, how the choices are made, or even whether they should be made at all. Is honoring culinary heritage in this way a good idea? asks historian Rachel Laudan in her Soapbox piece over at Zester Daily, suggesting it may just be part of a “pervasive culinary nostalgia.” Provocative and interesting reading. Don’t miss the comments section; cookbook author Marcella Hazan has a few views of her own.

Foraging for Olives and Feta in Astoria—and Coming Home with Way More

I went on a field trip to explore Greek Astoria this week. I’d been hearing for ages about Titan Foods—“America’s Largest Greek Specialty Food Store.” I’d even taken a virtual tour of its olive and cheese counters with Michael Psilakis, founding chef at haute Greek pioneer restaurant Anthos (and chef/owner of Kefi, Gus & Gabriel Gastropub—will Williamsburg be next?)
 
You can take the tour, too:

 
Now that I get that it’s tee-TAN foods—to rhyme with Han, as in Han Dynasty—and not tī-tn, as in “tighten,” I think I’m ready. More to the point, I have a queue of Med recipes waiting for olives and/or feta before they can be made.
 
With all the talk of how huge Titan was, I guess I’d imagined a Walmart-size Greek grocery store. Well it’s not—and that’s good thing. But with a Greek flag flying from the roof of the white stucco building and a mural of Greek monuments (think Parthenon) overlooking the small parking lot, it certainly has a presence.
 
Inside, the grocery store aisles transport you straight to the Mediterranean: rows of different olive oils in tins, grains, beans, packages of cereal with Greek labels, dried fruits, nuts, a cooler full of, well, yes, Greek yogurt. Almost none of the products here can be found at my regular NY supermarket. Even the pasta is different. The olive section doesn’t disappoint. I select some dark ones from Cyprus and Morocco—just because I haven’t tried them before.
 
 
At the cheese counter (above), which in Greece, as Psilakis points out, is really all about feta, I decide on the Arahova, a sheep’s milk feta. The EC, after some dispute, gave the Greek brine-cured cheese a P.D.O. (protected designation of origin), which means all feta must come from Greece. I learn later that Greeks apparently eat more cheese per capita than any other nation (yes, even France)—75% of it feta.
 
Also in my basket: dried apricots, orange blossom water (from Lebanon), gigante dried beans, orzo and olive oil soap. The staff I talk to are all very helpful: One man valiantly tries to explain what mastiha is—and I get that it is sweet—but I still had to look it up when I got home. I discover that the Chios Mastiha Growers Association has a whole store of mastiha products, including a cookbook, in the East Village. Clearly I’m behind the curve here; I’ll have to drop by next time I’m in the neighborhood. Maybe I’ll even be a brave taster, as my sons’ nursery school teacher used to say, and bring home a jar from Titan next time I go. Maybe.
 
Titan Foods doesn’t sell fresh produce. For that, I walk along 30th Avenue. The stretch between 31st Street and Steinway reminds me of the Italian and Portuguese neighborhoods in Toronto where the produce stands of small green grocers spill right out onto the sidewalk.
 
 
 
At United Brothers Fruit Market, I find red swiss chard—crisp and beautiful—for $1/pound; at Elliniki Agora a couple of doors down, fresh fava beans. Tinned sardines from Croatia at Cyprus Deli and I’m done. A small but satisfying haul, with a shopping list already started for my next visit.
 
Getting there: N train to Astoria Blvd or 30 Av
 
Titan Foods
25-56 31st Street
718-626-7771
www.titanfood.com
 
United Brothers Fruit Market
3224 30th Ave.
718-728-7011
 
Elliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetable
32-12 30th Ave. 

718-728-0751
 
Cyprus Deli
3410 30th Ave.
718-278-4679
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