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Cooking classes in Palermo.
It's more than artichokes and red wine! Enjoy learning to cook classic, and not so classic, Sicilian dishes with the staff of one of Palermo's finest restaurants. More than artichokes. Discover real Sicilian cuisine!From market to table! Visit our site for more information. (Above: Fritella, made with fave, artichokes, peas and virgin olive oil)

The Mediterranean Diet
It's nothing new, but the "Mediterranean Diet" has become more popular with recent nutritional research and the greater public awareness of the advantages of a diet high in vegetables, fruits, grains, monounsaturated fats and various complex carbohydrates but low in cholesterol and certain forms of saturated fat. The Italian brand of the Mediterranean Diet is surrounded by as much myth as fact. You'll find more information on our Food, Restaurant and Recipe and Pastry pages.

How did the Mediterranean Diet originate?
Do most Sicilians follow the Mediterranean diet?
Why did it take so long for the Mediterranean Diet to be (so to speak) recognized?
Are northern and southern Italian diets different from one another?
Is pizza healthy?
Where can I find out more about the Mediterranean diet?

How did the Mediterranean Diet originate?

The traditional eating habits of Mediterranean peoples are based on the livestock, fishing and agriculture of their region, which has a long growing season and rather mild climate. It's that simple. The traditional diets of Greeks, Sicilians and Tunisians reflect distinct cuisines and culinary practices but naturally have a great deal in common. Some authors have suggested that the Mediterranean diet was rooted in some way in regional "poverty." In fact, ancient Rome and medieval Sicily were Europe's most prosperous regions. Certain foods, such as bovine meat and butter, were never very popular in the Mediterranean region because the climate has not always favored the expansive grazing lands required to raise large quantities of buffalo and cows, though both have been raised in these countries for centuries. It so happens that most cheeses made from sheep's milk are lower in cholesterol than those made from cow's milk, while olive oil, with its monounsaturated fat, is healthier than colesterol-laden butter. Mediterranean peoples historically consumed fish, poultry, game, lamb and kid rather than beef. The meat of sheep, goats and even chickens contains some fat, of course, but Mediterraneans usually consumed less meat than their northern European neighbors. Wine, which has certain cholesterol reducing effects, is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, and regions like Italy and southern France have historically produced more wine than England and northern Germany.

Do most Sicilians follow a Mediterranean diet today?

No. The idea that such a diet is still the norm in most Mediterranean countries is a myth. It's fair to say that Sicilians follow a greatly modified Mediterranean diet. Just as Brits and Americans now consume more Mediterranean foods, today's Italians eat more northern European and American foods than they did fifty years ago. A visit to a supermarket in any Sicilian city would be more than sufficient proof that Sicilian dietary practices are now quite similar to those of North America and northern Europe, with an increased consumption of beef, butter and various cooking oils. Whole wheat bread and pasta, for example, are not widely consumed in Italy, though they're becoming more popular. Nevertheless, Sicilians' proportionally greater consumption of vegetables, olive oil and wine, but less meat than most Americans, is certainly indicative of the influence of the traditional Sicilian diet. However, obesity and heart attacks are not unknown in Sicily, and many Italian adults smoke. That said, there is a growing organic farming movement in Sicily.

Why did it take so long for the Mediterranean Diet to be recognized?

On a scientific level, the answer is a complicated one. The health risks of high dietary cholesterol have been known - and debated - for a long time, and examined in the confusing context of research indicating that most cholesterol is produced by the body's own mechanisms. Based on autopsies, the American medical community (which leads the world in medical/health research) knew that alcoholics typically had very low levels of arteriosclerosis, but since the United States had a statistically serious alcohol problem, even among teenagers, it was considered ill-advised to recommend that most people consume a glass of wine daily as this could indirectly encourage excessive alcohol consumption. Yet, alcoholism is virtually unknown in southern Italy, where moderate wine consumption is normal even among teenagers. (Italy only recently instituted a minimum age for alcohol purchase.) While certain Mediterranean and Eastern Asian diets are low in cholesterol, and considered healthy, they were sometimes criticized based on inconclusive research that associated, for example, high sodium levels (from salt, prevalent in the Japanese diet) and other conditions with widespread health problems, such as hypertension (high blood pressure).

In the United States, in particular, there was also a political aspect to the debate. The American dairy and meat industries had a vested interest in promoting the nutritional benefits of their products. Even the makers of breakfast cereals (especially those prepared with milk) fought hard to discourage legislation which might diminish milk's importance in the government's dietary suggestions. Milk certainly has its place in a healthy diet, especially for young children, but Italian adults hardly ever consume milk except in the form of cheese and yogurt.

Sadly, a social bias was present almost from the beginning of the public debate. To many people, "meat and potatoes" were considered somehow more "American" than spaghetti and meatballs. By the 1950s it was unpopular to officially advocate conflicting nutritional practices from other nations, especially places like Italy and Japan (whose opposition to the United States in the Second World War was still fresh in the minds of most Americans). Today, California produces almost as much wine as Italy or France; that wasn't the case in 1960, when the American demand for fine wine was rather small, with few Americans regularly consuming wine. The American wine industry as it exists today was founded by Italian and Spanish families. (Genetic studies confirm that the California grape known as Zinfandel is actually the Sicilian Primitivo.) Part of the global awareness of "foreign" diets may be attributed to their gradual introduction in countries like the United States and Australia by immigrants from Italy, Greece, Japan, India and elsewhere. On a cultural level, "ethnic" foods as diverse as olive oil, pasta, sushi and tofu all suffered in popularity based on the same social bias. Fortunately, this has changed. Southern Italian foods, such as pizza and pasta, are popular everywhere.

Southern Italian? Are northern and southern Italian diets different from one another?

Historically, they were somewhat different. Italy's Alpine and sub-alpine regions produce more livestock (cows), and fewer olives. That means more butter and lard and less olive oil. In the past, corn (maize) and rice (such as arborio) were more popular in these regions than pasta. In the inland cities (Milan, Turin, Bologna), fish was more expensive than it was in coastal cities (Genoa, Venice), and therefore consumed in lesser quantities. Even today, fish and fresh fruit cost much less in Naples and Palermo than they do in Turin and Milan. Similar geographical and culinary distinctions exist between northern and southern France. Regional tastes, and even conditions such as lactose intolerance (though rare, still more prevalent in Mediterranean regions than northern European ones), may be associated with simple geographic realities.

Is pizza healthy?

There are all kinds of pizza. In Sicily, there is "modern" pizza and traditional sfincione. When it's made with the right ingredients, it's one of the healthiest foods you can eat, essentially a meal in itself - with plenty of protein, vitamins and carbohydrates and only moderate quantities of sodium and cholesterol - and poses no health risk for most people. The pizza served in southern Italy's better pizzerias is much better for you than what you'll typically find in the United States and Canada, where popularization of pizza and pasta (and the sale of these foods via large restaurant chains) has compromised the cuisine. The "health experts" who unequivocally condemn pizza obviously haven't spent much time in southern Italy, where it was created. We suggest that they visit Naples, Palermo, Bari or Catania to inform themselves of the facts before criticizing a cuisine with which they are unfamiliar. But then aren't these the same folks who used to criticize the Mediterranean Diet?

This information is interesting, but where can I find out more about the Mediterranean diet itself?

You'll find some good Sicilian recipes on our Recipe page, and some cookbooks on the Book page. But the web is full of good information. Just try a search engine search using the search phrase "mediterranean diet." Also, there is a specific Mediterranean diet plan for people looking to lose weight at the Diet Channel.

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