I’d hazard a guess that the foods most closely associated with a Mediterranean diet would be tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. In fact, it goes wider than that. Most often quoted is Dr Walter Willett of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, who described in the 1990s, the emphasis on “abundant plant foods, fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert, olive oil as the principal source of fat dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt), and fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts, zero to four eggs consumed weekly, red meat consumed in low amounts, and wine consumed in low to moderate amounts…”
Those abundant plant foods would certainly include tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, aubergines, courgettes, and beans and pulses, the last often preserved by drying. The fresh produce on this list are of course readily available in shops all the year round, although this loss of seasonality seems to be accompanied by a corresponding loss of flavour. Even in season, we appear to prefer to source our peppers and aubergines from Holland rather than the heart of the Mediterranean itself.
You can of course, try recreating a little corner of Greece or southern France in your own back garden by growing your own Mediterranean vegetables. They may not be ideally suited to the UK climate, but with a little care and by making the most of our comparatively short season, you can grow your own Med produce. And there are plenty of reasons why you should:
- The fruit and veg themselves are delicious. Your own tomatoes, sweet peppers, etc, will taste better than those you buy in the shops …
- … and so they will remind you of holidays and travels to the Mediterranean region. To me they are always redolent of summer and sunshine. That sweet tangy burst of tomato juice, the fragrance of thyme, a squeeze of lemon juice over a salad … it all says summer.
- I think there’s an element of wish fulfilment in growing fruit and vegetables that should really do better in warmer climates. We’ve had a succession of mild but wet summers in the last 5-10 years, but if you can raise a crop of aubergines, perhaps you can kid yourself that our weather’s not so bad after all. There is definitely a sense of achievement to be had in growing these tender crops.
Individual foods are discussed below, but there are some general principles that hold true for all:
- Choose a suitable variety. There are varieties of tomato from Siberia, chillies from Poland, aubergines that have been bred to thrive on northern Italian hillsides rather than Sicilian glades. Bear this in mind when browsing the nursery catalogues.
- Mediterranean veg like warmth and light. Give them as much as possible. Don’t expect them to do well on a north-facing slope. Try a south-facing patio instead; against a sunny wall; in a greenhouse, even if it’s a soft plastic version.
- Don’t overwater them. They won’t like being drowned in a wet English summer. This of course is good news as we labour under a hosepipe ban. But not even tomatoes like too much water: it will make their skins split.
- Do give them a long season. I sow my Mediterranean vegetable seeds in February, and I don’t expect aubergines before September, peppers before August (usually) or tomatoes before August – with a few exceptions that we’ll come on to later.
|Sungold tomatoes, freshly harvested.|
The UK climate is not really conducive to growing tomatoes. Too cool, too humid, too short. Tomatoes are prey to a number of disorders and diseases which are beyond the gardener’s control.So a lot of the work involved in raising tomatoes is done to combat the effects of growing them in a hostile climate.
- In pots, you can position the tomatoes in the best place to get the best of the sun. They will need regular watering, perhaps daily in the height of the summer.
- Grow-bags are an easy option: buy the bag, cut a top in the top, plant the tomato and off you go. They can also be positioned where you want them. But staking and supporting the tomatoes can be a problem with grow-bags if they are placed on a patio or a deck, and they will also need very regular watering in summer. Grow-bags are also, to my mind, rather unsightly.
- In the open ground, the tomato plants can send down roots to find moisture. They won’t need as much watering – which is good news in this time of drought – or as much support. However, this assumes that you have a bed free in a sunny sheltered position, otherwise it may be too windy for your plants. You may also get more in the way of soil-borne pests.
You can also try grafting your own tomato plants – we included a grafting session in Sunday’s Secret Garden Club and guests were surprised by how uncomplicated an operation it is. See here for a step by step guide to grafting tomatoes.
|Caldero peppers, a hot-but-not-too-hot variety.|
Sweet peppers and hot peppers, or chillies, are varieties of the same species, Capsicum annuum. Like many other vegetables that we think of as Mediterranean, peppers came to Europe from the Americas.
- A sweet red pepper has a Scoville rating of 0.
- A jalapeno, quite a mild chilli, is between 2,500 and 5,000.
- Habaneros, some of the hottest peppers, are around 300,000 Scoville Heat Units.
- Recently, there has been much interest in developing the ‘hottest’ chilli, and giving it a suitably macho name. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the hottest chilli in 2011 was the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper, at nearly 1.5m SHU.
- Do shop around: check the catalogues and online. There are 100s of sweet and chilli varieties available.
- The seeds will need to be sown early in the year, in January or February.
- They will also need heat. If you have a heated propagator, that’s ideal. If not, then identify a sunny warm windowsill where the heat will be fairly consistent.You can start your peppers off in seed modules to save space, or in 3-inch pots, which will save you one potting-on stage later on.
- Fill the module or pot with seed compost, soak it well and let the water drain.
- Sow two seeds per module on top of the compost, then sprinkle with dry compost so that the seeds are only just covered.
- Cover the pots – with the clear propagator lid or a polythene bag attached firmly to the pot with an elastic band.
- Then leave them be. They should germinate after 10-14 days, after which you can remove the covering and the bottom heat if you used a propagator.
Green chilli peppers won’t be as hot as the ripe versions, whatever the variety. Chillies also develop heat as the summer wears on, so that an early red chilli picked in August will be milder than one from the same bush picked in October.
|The white aubergine variety Tango is firm-fleshed and sweet.|
Aubergines are a little trickier in the British climate. While I’m happy to grow peppers outside, I prefer to keep aubergines under cover. Even in high summer, I’ll have them in a soft plastic greenhouse with the door open.
|Courgette Romanesco ripening in the sun.|
It seems perverse to talk about courgettes as a Mediterranean vegetable and not pumpkins and squash, but while there are lots of recognisably Med things to do with courgettes, pumpkins seem to belong to a more northern European and American tradition.
Basil, on the other hand is much leafier, and likes a rich, moist soil. I prefer to grow basil indoors where it can be cossetted and produce lush emerald green leaves.
There’s more on Mediterranean herbs and herbs in general elsewhere on the Secret Garden blog.
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