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By now, we’ve all heard about the benefits of the “Mediterranean Diet,” and there’s no better example of this healthy way of eating than the cuisines of Southern Italy-where the inhabitants have enjoyed the bounty from the land and sea around them for centuries.
This is the essence of “locavore” living, which is a trendy phrase in food circles these days. But the Italians have been blithely embodying that concept through countless generations of farmers, fishermen, and hunters. Each region has evolved its specific dietary emphases based upon what grows, lives, and thrives there-what can be raised and harvested and caught.
The linchpin for these southern regions is the golden green pressings of the fruit of the olive tree. Olive oil is present on every table, generously lavished on and added to a multitude of dishes-and even used for beauty products and treatments. Exports of the oil provide a sound basis for local commerce. And many studies suggest that the health benefits of this monounsaturated oil are central to the efficacy of the Mediterranean way of life.
The components that make up the so-called Mediterranean diet are the natural result of a balance and harmony that flows from the combinations of available foodstuffs that create each regional cuisine. Whole grains, vegetables, and fruits predominate, embellished with proteins specific to each area and climate.
The mountainous interior regions, such as Basilicata and Abruzzi, feature lamb and goat as their primary protein sources, as well as the glorious cheeses that accompany them. Coastal regions such as Puglia (the “heel” of the Italian boot) and Calabria (the “toe”), with their extensive coastlines, rejoice in a plenitudeof seafood-from red mullet and swordfish to mussels and squid. And throughout the countryside you can find abundant fields of wheat for bread and pasta; vegetables such as eggplant, artichokes, and fennel; and fruits and nuts, including pistachios, citrus, and grapes.
The philosophy of food here is clean and straightforward-simple combinations of fresh, high-quality, locally sourced ingredients. The cuisine is inextricably entwined with patterns of nature, and is dictated by seasonal offerings and daily life.
And this, I think, is the real lesson for those of who want to improve their health, lives, and world through a Mediterranean style of eating. First and foremost, source foodstuffs locally as much as possible. Then, seek out the freshest and best ingredients available; focus your diet on vegetables, grains, and fruits; give proteins a costarring role in your meals instead of placing them in the lead; and most importantly, just keep it simple.
You don’t have to live in the south of Italy to enjoy the benefits of this way of life. Just follow their centuries-old signposts to healthy living-and never skimp on the olive oil!