Couscous is a well-known Mediterranean item, often paired with meats and vegetables to form a complete meal.

Perhaps no other region of the world currently elicits such a rich and romantic food heritage as the Mediterranean. One has a mental image of rolling Tuscan hills, pastoral fishing villages tucked in the clefts of mountains and ancient ruins on the terraced cliffs of sunny Greek islands. In his bookA Mediterranean Feast, Clifford A. Wright tells us, “The portrait of a historically bountiful Mediterranean is a false one created by romantically minded food and travel writers who believe that what they see today is what must always have been.”

The grandeur of the Mediterranean has led to the concept of a culinarily rich Mediterranean that in reality is a late 20th century development based on centuries of evolution. It is precisely this evolution that, over many centuries, defined what Mediterranean cuisine would become. The intermittent confluence of cultures, food supplies, agricultural techniques and cooking technologies all influenced the emergence of many regional cuisines. While all these foods centered on the Mediterranean trinity of bread, olive oil and wine, their distinctive characters came from the use of unique spices, vegetables, fruits and nuts. It is the application of these that identifies a cuisine’s “flavor print.”

Mediterranean foods use items such as olive oil, vegetables, fruits and nuts in combinations that differentiate them from country to country. This raisin lamb curry pizza is presented on flatbread--another Mediterranean staple. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CALIFORNIA RAISIN MARKETING BOAR

The Cuisine

Mediterranean cuisine is not simply Spanish, French or Italian. It is a mixture of regional food, culture, religion and diverse geography. Today lemons, oranges, potatoes, tomatoes, rice, peppers and coffee might be considered essential elements of Mediterranean cuisine, but they were not cultivated in the classical Mediterranean era. At various points in history, they were brought from Asia, Arabia or the New World, then traded and distributed around the coast over hundreds of years.

The tomato is a classic and stunning example. The red fruit was brought back from the New World by Columbian expeditions in the early 1500s. Nearly three centuries later, the first literary reference for tomato sauce appeared in 1790. It was not popularized in Italian cuisine until the late 19th century. The classic Italian red sauce was 400 years in the making!

The Flavor Prints

The flavors of the Mediterranean are at once diverse and embracing. Beyond its core of olive oil, bread and wine exists a number of herbs, spices, vegetables, fruits and nuts that define each unique regional flavor print.

Mediterranean cuisine is typified by five major techniques. The first is the use of olive oil and garlic, which is integral to the cooking, basting and marinating process in all regions. Secondly, vegetables, sometimes with spices, are combined and caramelized for complex flavor combinations. Some are standard procedures of the cuisine, such as mirepoix and sofrito. Others, like ratatouille and caponata, are vegetable stews.

Thirdly, named blends and pastes of herbs and/or spices with defined ratios are commonly used to flavor preparations and widely identified with a specific cuisine. Some examples are herbs d’Provence, ras el hanut, za’atar and tabil. Anchovy paste and gremolata could also fit in this category.

The fourth technique involves the use of fruits and nuts, which can be combined and cooked in stews or couscous preparations, or used as a topical garnish. Finally, two types of sauces are often employed: 1) Classical French, which involves the use of stocks, and 2) Olive oil-based, often thickened with bread or nuts. Versions of the latter would include pesto, hummus, salsa verde and romesco.

The Challenges of Authenticity in Manufacturing

Adhering to authentic Mediterranean flavor prints in a commercial kitchen is not a difficult challenge for a trained chef. However, because traditional manufacturing environments typically do not lend themselves well to authenticity, interpreting nuances into a manufactured product requires experience, knowledge and the ability to meet challenges through innovative thinking.

Olive Oil and Garlic

Many operations use vegetable oil instead of the more expensive olive oil, or they use a third-pressed (solvent extracted) olive oil. This enables label claims, but offers no flavor attributes. The aromatic qualities of garlic are totally lost in commercially processed garlic. Sometimes a really good garlic flavor or oleoresin is a better option than commercial pastes or chopped garlic, which can have objectionable off-flavors--often metallic in nature. The same maxim applies for olive oil. Excellent olive oil flavors are available to add authenticity to the product. Even a low-fat product can have that fruity olive oil flavor, or it can be used to boost the flavor of cheaper, more cost effective oils. Certain parts of authenticity can be constructed while maintaining integrity.

Vegetable/Spice Complexes

If one grinds and blends spices, then mixes them with vegetables and cooks them together, something magical happens. The finished product is greater than the sum of its parts. This flavor could never be achieved by simply throwing the same ingredients into a kettle and pumping them through the Contherm. However, by combining high-quality commercial pastes with fresh vegetables and cooking rapidly at high heat so that caramelization occurs, it is possible to achieve a quality product that captures authentic Mediterranean flavor. Some operations make their own pastes in large batches on site using a vertical cutter-mixer (VCM).

 A common technique, especially in the eastern and southern regions, involves using ground/pulverized nuts or bread to thicken sauces, stews and soups. No starch or gum, alone or in combination, can mimic this unique texture and flavor. Often the bread is toasted first, resulting in caramelization and non-enzymatic browning reactions, giving a sweetness and color that otherwise cannot be obtained. It also imparts valuable flavors from the volatile compounds arising out of the thermal reactions of toasting. Grinding nuts also releases the oils, further adding unique flavors and textural components.

Cooking Techniques

While all of the above are critical steps to authentic flavors and textures, the cooking technique used may be one of the most commonly compromised areas. Most manufacturing facilities are simply not equipped correctly, especially if the plant is more than seven years old. Equipment is basically set up to mix, cook and deposit. Speed is everything. “Authenticity is for restaurant chefs,” as one plant engineer used to tell me (he now works in a different industry).

Recently, some high-tech manufacturing equipment has come to market that provides the high heat and high contact surfaces necessary to duplicate authentic Mediterranean cooking techniques. In an effort to automate the Chinese stir-fry process, Blentech engineers recreated the manual stir-frying technique used for centuries in preparing Chinese dishes and incorporated this technique into an automated mechanical process. A hot thermal oil system was designed to provide high temperatures (500°F) at low pressure to work in conjunction with the mechanical stir-fry device. The machine mechanically stir-fries food on a very large scale and still retains the product quality as if stir-fried by hand. The applications for this wonderful machine go way beyond just Asian stir-fry. The high heat of the oil allows for true caramelization and complex flavor creation.

In contrast, traditional steam kettle cooking is a low temperature, “soft heat” process. The resulting soggy texture is caused by the stewing of product in its own juices due to the low internal heat of the batch.

Heat and Control Company makes some high heat in-line and spiral equipment that, with a little innovative thinking, could produce great results. They also make an in-line fire roaster. Trolley cookers and cavern ovens, long used in the meat cooking/smoking industry, could also provide some alternatives to traditional (but inferior) steam cooking.

Mediterranean Food History

A very succinct chronology of Mediterranean cuisine: 

* 10,000 B.C.--Early Mediterranean agriculture brings wheat, pelt and rye cultivated from natural wild plants. Fishermen developed anchovy paste.

* 2,300 B.C.--Egyptians made large quantities of mainly unleavened bread and beer. Gardens produced lettuce, onions, garlic, leeks, melons, cucumbers, broad beans and lentils. Fruits such as figs, dates and pomegranate were cultivated.

* 1,700 B.C.--Persian trade with China brought rice and lemons to the diet. Indian merchants traded many spices. Middle Eastern cuisine used thyme, cloves, cardamom, chervil, rosemary and marjoram. Onions, mint, saffron, figs, dates, cherries and pears were cultivated.

* 1,200 B.C.--Sophisticated methods for oil extraction from olives are developed in Syria and Israel.

* 500 B.C.--Greek and Roman diets centered around bread, oil and wine. 

* 200 B.C.--Newer crop varieties included beans, carrots, cabbage, turnips and salad greens.

* 1,000 to 1,400 A.D.--The Arab influence advanced cooking techniques (grilling) and introduced spinach, zucchini, eggplant, beets, sour oranges and lemons to the northern Mediterranean. 

* 1,400-1,650 A.D.--The Italian Renaissance organized cooking and made it into the art we know today. Crops from the New World included maize, chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes, chilies and squash.