Frank Lloyd Wright Landscaping, Farmers Market
Spring with traces of winter still

Mediterranean Foods and Gardening

I have been giving talks entitled "Mediterranean Climate Food Gardening" in which I lay out a food gardening year that makes heavy use of the wetter half of our California year. I've been telling about our cool season crops, the ones that thrive into fall and winter or that can be planted in late winter, and explaining that so many of them are native to the Mediterranean Basin, where they were first domesticated. As wild plants, they began to grow with fall or winter rains.

Right now I'm reading the book Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen, by Sonia Uvesian, who grew up in Lebanon. She is writing about food in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, in the area now occupied by Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Syria. In this region, the time of peak rainfall is in winter, as it is in California.

In tonight's reading, two subjects struck me:

The first is that there was traditionally in this region many kinds of syrups made by boiling fruit juices. The word dibs  means a molasses made form grapes, pomegranate, dates, or carob. The author describes watching grapes being crushed and boiled. Whole villages were "infused with the sweet, irresistable scent of grape juice seething in huge copper caldrons (dists)." "Sitting under an indigo sky, diamonded with close-hanging stars, I would feel as if I were witnessing some mysterious ancient rite, so engrossed were the grown-ups in stoking the fires and stirring the boiling grape juice in the caldrons, their figures silhouetted against the flames."

From a nutritional standpoint, these syrups were, of course, better than purified sugar syrup, which has had all substances removed but the pure sucrose, or than the high fructose corn syrup we are  not being fed by the food industry, which is likewise pure sugar. I think that Italian sodas must have been made with such fruit syrups, and suspect they are now flavored cane sugar syrup.

I was also struck by a seasonal list of vegetables available in a market in the 18th century, when lack of rapid transport meant that fresh foods in the market probably came from nearby.

From November to the end of March: cabbage, kohlrabi, spinach, Swiss chard, endive, radish, beet, carrot, and turnip. Cauliflower came in about the end of January and lasted till mid March. In April and May, came Romaine lettuce, fava beans, peas, artichokes, and purslane. Sounds very familiar to me, from what I can grow in my Central California mediterranean garden in fall and winter!


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