Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Mediterranean Diet as an Intangible Heritage

Food events in Greece are an integral part of the Mediterranean Diet, in the way that they exhibit the Mediterranean lifestyle. They involve a group of people - never one sole individual - who all play their own role in ensuring that a seasonal procedure goes according to plan. From the soil to the plate (or from the farm to the table, if you prefer to phrase it that way), each stage is followed, and a stage cannot be omitted. Omitting any stage in the process can sometimes be the cause of misunderstanding, but it can be altered to suit the conditions. The alterations to such seasonal activities are how traditions are formed, according to the time period.
The plan was to sit outdoors and have the meal...

Many of the lifestyle events involved in the Mediterranean Diet are one-off occasions  They cannot be repeated due to their seasonal nature, and therefore their results will be lost for the year if they are not conducted accordingly. When it doesn't go to plan, there is always a Plan B to follow, so that the ritual's offering is not wasted. The Mediterranean lifestyle revolves around the same seasonal activities that, at any given moment, are being done by different people at exactly the same time, and this is what is so special about the Mediterranean Diet, which is what UNESCO wants to protect when it labels it as Intangible Heritage. It is not just the food, but the way of life that the food revolves around which needs to be protected. Every different Mediterranean country has its own rituals and traditions associated with food, so there is no single diet. It just happens to revolve around similar food items that are combined in different ways according to many factors, such as one's locality, religion, available seasonal produce, customs, etc. The Mediterranean Diet has its base firmly grounded in the unique lifestyle, climate and landscape of the Mediterranean basin, combining festivals and celebrations related to the production of food. These events become the receptacle of gestures of mutual recognition, hospitality, neighborliness, conviviality, intergenerational transmission and intercultural dialogue.
The reason why the Mediterranean Diet needs to be protected as an Intangible Heritage is that it is now under threat from the forces of the globalisation and internationalisation of lifestyles. These movements cannot be prevented, nor is it desirable to stop them from taking place. But they are the main reason why the farming population is gradually being reduced and also why people lose contact with the land as they become more urbanised. These are accompanied by an increasingly homogenized and globalised food production system that disconnects food from its natural landscape.

We sometimes feel less secure about what we see on our plate because we don't always know its origin. This should not cause so much anxiety in a highly technologically advanced food system (except when things go wrong, but this is usually picked up quickly), but for some of us, it is matter of principle and pride to know where our food comes from, especially when our local food is directly linked to our identity and vice-versa. But our food is becoming more simplified and more processed these days, as we seek ways to reduce the time spent in the kitchen. Industrial farming is imposing new landscapes that are disconnected from the local people’s lives and the natural seasons, resulting in our alienation from our historical roots, and towards a change in diet based on rapid high-calorie sustenance.

The word 'diet' is associated in modern times with a low-calorie food regime; it can also mean the food that somebody eats on a reular basis. But the word actually comes from the ancient Greek δίαιτα, which means:
1. way of life in terms of nutrition, clothing, survival
2. what is required to survive, meal, food |food regime, specific nutritional program for health reasons, diet |medicine 
3. abode, residence |animal's abode 
Hence, the Mediterranean Diet is a way of life, not limited just to food intake.

It's now official: In a recent intergovernmental meeting held in Agros, Cyprus (a flagship community), on 28 and 29 April, Greece was given the task of coordinating the Mediterranean Diet as Intangible Cultural Heritage (as defined by UNESCO), and my workplace MAICh (www.maich.gr) will act as the coordination point for the Mediterranean Diet for this year until April 2015. Thanks are due to the Portuguese contingent, who used Greek letters for the logo design: the M stands for the mountains, while the γ for the sea should be interpreted as δ, which stands for Μεσογειακή διατροφή (= Mediterranean diet).

Can the Mediterranean Diet (read: Mediterranean lifestyle) be protected by institutions such as UNESCO? Cultural heritage does not end at historical monuments, landscapes or artifacts. It also includes traditions, customs and life expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts, and above all, a sense of community, which directly leads to a sense of identity. Fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.
I personally see it as a vital goal to promote the Mediterranean Diet in its place of origin (ie in the  countries of the Mediterranean basin) in the framework of a lifestyle. It is all very well to say that people can choose their lifestyle, but when our choices are gradually being eroded by the natural forces of internationalisation, we are forced to choose among alternatives that may not satisfy us (a bit like the state of Greek politics these days - we dislike the politicians we have, but we are required to choose someone among them to lead our country). In order to have good choices, we need to maintain what is dear to us, so that these choices will remain available, not just for us but for future generations too.

To better understand what is meant by the Mediterranean Diet, we can take as an example a food festival that occurs in the region. I will use the little feast that was celebrated on a completely local scale to make the world's biggest dakos, in order to make it into the Guiness Book of World Records. The fact that the feast centred on food was only part of the 'diet' - it involved the way the people congregated, every one setting out a chair to take part in the feast, watching the cooks prepare the dakos, then lining up (in the Mediterranean way - τουρλού τουρλού!) to be handed a piece of the dakos, making the meal communal, and finishing off the evening with live Cretan music and dancing made the feast a whole one.

The rain dampened the Plan A - Plan B was then executed (we went indoors).

The work that needs to be done in terms of safeguarding the Mediterranean Diet is to remind the older generation of their duty to the younger generation, and to educate the younger generation by encouraging a cooperative spirit among them and the local authorities who are entrusted with maintaining the cultural and traditional aspects of a community. The scientific community plays its part by ensuring that the modified food chain is traceable by continuous monitoring. At the same time, I don't believe the Mediterranean lifestyle will be completely lost if these actions are not taken, but every concerted effort helps to ensure that continued erosion does not destroy what we have. Our lives are becoming interconnected, and we are merging in many ways, but there are some things that will keep us distinct, and they are to be treasured, for that is where our sense of uniqueness comes from.
The photos were taken last September during the grape harvest to make the new year's wine supplies. The giant dakos was made at the end of August last year.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.