Mediterranean Must-eats

Anthony Bourdain’s final book World Travel: An Irreverent Guide will be published this fall. It’s slated to be an illustrated collection of Bourdain’s reflections on his favorite places to visit and eat. It was his TV show that gave me the courage to explore places through food. While at home I am a finicky eater, but when I’m abroad I force myself to be as open as possible. When I’m anywhere in the Mediterranean, though, I don’t have to try that hard. Every. Single. Things. Is. Delicious.

History and tradition have shaped the cuisine of this region, from how olives are harvested in Sorrento to the way breakfast is prepared in Jerusalem. There is great national pride in the port wine that is poured in Lisbon, as every Catalonian in Barcelona will urge you to try their famous cream-based dessert. And friendly locals will graciously invite you to share a cup of Turkish tea, from Istanbul to Kusadasi.

Sweet Spain: Barcelona

Perhaps it’s the salt from the fresh sea breeze that gives you an insatiable sweet tooth while in Barcelona…or maybe it’s just that the desserts are to die for. You will find no shortage of sweets, like the perfect slice of turron, which is a crunchy nougat handmade from the local almonds. However, the queen of desserts is the crema catalana. This is a very old and very traditional dessert dish that was born in this region. In many ways it looks like a crème brûlée and the main ingredients are eggs and milk. However, it wouldn’t be wise to make that comparison to a Catalan. Unlike a crème brûlée, it is not baked but left to set and it is flavored with cinnamon and lemon peel, not with vanilla. Finished off with a crust of caramelized sugar, it is a must-try while in Barcelona.

Fruits of France: Provence

It is impossible to describe the pleasure of biting into a juicy Provençal strawberry – especially after dipping it in crème fraîche. You can try to come up with the proper words by attending one of the many strawberry festivals hosted by villages across the region. In Provence, spring is synonymous with strawberries and you will find them everywhere you turn, filling the cobbled streets with their sweet smell. The sunny climate of Provence is ideal for growing strawberries, in particular the most coveted varieties, like the Ciflorette that used in pastries and Garriguette, which is known for its beautiful aroma. As spring transitions to summer, the focus turns to the famed Cavaillon melon. As a starter or a dessert, melon is a refreshing fruit, a symbol of the summer in Provence, as they are harvested by hand from May to September. And te best way to indulge in the fruit is to raw with cured ham or Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise.

Port of Portugal: Lisbon

A source of great national pride, Portugal’s fortified wine is famous the world over. Hailing from the mountainous and picturesque Douro region in the north of the country, Port wine is made from the unique combination of local grape varieties unique to this landscape, which means it’s the only place in the world that Port can be produced. Yet, here’s no need to travel north to taste some of the best the country has to offer. There are many wonderful bars, restaurants and tasting rooms in Lisbon that offer a vast selection. One of the favorites is Solar do Vinho do Porto, located opposite of one of Lisbon’s majestic viewpoints, inside the Ludovic Palace in Bairro Alto. Resembling an old-fashioned smoking room, the plush, quiet surroundings are the perfect spot to spend an hour or two in the company of knowledgeable waiters, and several glasses of port from their huge range.  

Olive Italy: Sorrento

According to food writer Harold McGee, it was the Romans who most likely came up with the technique that put the olive fruit itself on the dinner table. Since those days, the fertile lands of Sorrento have been central to the cultivation of olive groves. But because these groves also contain lemon, orange, cherry, and fig trees, the olives grown here have a fruitier taste and scent, plus the color is an intense straw yellow, unlike anywhere else. During your time in Sorrento, you will also learn that no machinery is used in the harvesting of the olives themselves; all of the harvesting is done by hand. The care and hard work that goes into the harvest of these olives are reflected in the flavor, making it the centerpiece of the Mediterranean diet. You can certainly taste the difference in everything you’ll eat here.

Breakfast in Israel: Jerusalem

Don’t miss the opportunity to have a solid start (and the best feast) of your day by indulging in a traditional Israeli breakfast. This meal comes in many varieties, but most spreads feature salty white cheese, hummus and baba ghanoush, as well as pickled fish, olives and cottage cheese. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s more. The other wing of the breakfast consists of local vegetables and fruits like figs, dates, pomegranates, grapes, kiwis, bananas, apples, cherries, melons, and pears, plus still-warm breads and bourekas. This giant breakfast tradition began with kibbutz workers, who after working in the fields before dawn, were ravenous by breakfast time. Gathering around their communal table for a hearty meal, they’d eat whatever was available to them, creating buffet of varied dishes. And since the Israeli’s adopted this model and have now shared it with the world.

Grapes of Greece: Santorini

The Greek poet Homer declared that “Bacchus opens the gates of the heart,” harking back to the time when Greece was once one of the foremost producers of wine. As history tends to repeat itself, Greek wines are now reemerging as a force to be reckoned…or better said savored. In fact, these days Greece offers outstanding wines and there are many new varieties that will certainly expand your palate. Assyrtiko, one of the top wines in Greece, should be on your must-try list. It’s a white wine grape indigenous to the island of Santorini and widely planted in its arid volcanic-ash-rich soil. It’s unique because you can actually taste the land in your glass with notes of passion fruit, flint and lemon flavors, and subtle bitterness and saltiness on the finish. For wine adventurers with a taste for the elegant and exotic, Assyrtiko is clearly a love match.

Tea in Turkey: Kusadasi

At any moment of the day, you will be offered a cup of tea in Kusadasi…and it’s an offer you shouldn’t refuse. First, you’ll notice that the tea is made with two, stacked teapots. Water is brought to a boil in the larger lower kettle and then some of the water is used to fill the smaller kettle on top to steep the loose tea leaves, producing a very strong tea. Then, you are served your tea in a little tulip-shaped glass. Traditional Turkish tea glasses have no handle like a regular Western cup, so you’ll have to hold it by the rim using your thumb and index finger. When asked how much tea you’d like, here is a general guideline to follow: Half of a glass is very strong, while a quarter of a glass is considered normal, and less is light.

Be Like Bourdain

Wherever your travels take you, save room for the more unique dishes and drinks that are lesser known. After all food is an essential part of understanding the culture of a country.

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