Category Archives: Food

Why Europeans don’t get fat

European men and women are less fat than American men and women (stop the presses), but why? Well, as far as I can tell, there are four main reasons—and diet is last on the list.

1. Walking. Good luck getting everywhere by car in densely populated Europe. Even if you have a car, it’s probable you’ll have to climb the stairs to your apartment occasionally, something which never happens out in the burbs. In the end, you do a lot of walking and working off your blubber in Europe. Oddly enough, Europeans do less hardcore exercise than Americans (you don’t see very many joggers and the gyms are less full of the well-to-do) but walking around all day burns a lot of calories.

2. Inconvenience. Things are small in Europe. Cars, bathrooms, beds, metro chairs, plates. They all affect your perception of yourself and the amount of space you’re taking up. Being fat in Europe is a true day-to-day trial. Try fitting on a European toilet seat in a tiny European bathroom after going down small European stairs. Which segues neatly into the next one.

3. Shame. Europeans aren’t very fat accepting. Not only is it a pain to get around, but everyone looks at, you have a hard time making friends and people shun you for being fat. I hate to say it, but shame is social tactic that works damn well. Also, since you’re around people a lot more, on the metro, walking around town, you’re made aware a lot more often of how you compare to others, which won’t happen to you in a car.

4. Diet. Europeans don’t eat all that much better than Americans (contrary to popular belief) but they do sure eat a lot less. They also talk a lot, drink with food, and smoke a lot, all of which facilitate the burning of calories. They don’t exactly count calories or go on diets as much, but they don’t mind going without a meal now and then and hardly ever snack when they’re out and about.

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Posted by on May 23, 2011 in Culture, Europe, Food, USA


Coffee or tea? A national choice

Why does one nation choose coffee and the other tea? The British, Indians, Russians, Chinese and Japanese are all tea-drinkers, while the Italians, Americans, Spaniards, Germans, Scandinavians and French seem to prefer coffee. The Arabs invented coffee, the Turks disseminated it, but both groups swing slightly in favor of tea, a Chinese invention. The Irish follow the British in their habits, as do the Polish the Russians, and South Americans prefer coffee (when they drink either), following the example of the Portuguese and Spanish colonists.

I’ve wondered why a nation picks one over the other and have come to no clear conclusions. In some countries, like the US, coffee is classier than tea (though tea’s making a huge comeback) because it costs more, requires more processing and equipment. In England, however, tea will always be classier, and will always be a stronger expression of patriotism and status. Coffee does seem to be the more democratic drink, when you look at the nations which prefer it. Coffee drinkers abound in places that never had, or have toppled, their aristocracies, or were always quite egalitarian to begin with, whereas tea is the choice of nations with a history of centralized aristocracies and a lack of regional competition, like England, China, Japan and Russia.

Climate is another factor. Scandinavians drink the most coffee and Canadians drink a lot. So do Americans where it’s coldest and rainiest, but in the sunny Arab and Indian lands choose tea, which can help to relax you in the warmth. Then again, Southern Europeans don’t really drink tea, but love coffee (I think it might also be a personality thing at work), as do their colonial descendants.

Oddly enough, both of these drinks are rarely drunk in Africa or South America. A little bit in SA (they prefer their unique yerba maté) but considering their output, you’d think they’d enjoy it more. Coffee there has not really ever caught on as a national habit. Nor in Africa, where it originated, and is widely grown. And in India, it actually took the British popularity of tea to make tea once again a national pastime, but the Indians didn’t like it the soft British way, nor the even more delicate Chinese way. Like everyone else, they had to modify it to fit their tastes and make it their own: they liked to add lots of sugar, honey, spices, heavy milk, and served it hot and intensely brewed. And this has caught on in Southeast Asia as well.

Which would just be too vulgar for the Japanese, who are now spreading the super light powder tea matcha around the world.

Europeans couldn’t handle coffee or tea the original Asian ways (coffee with a lot of grain and strong, with no milk or sugar) so when they sent the Turks packing back to Anatolia they added milk and sugar and filtered it to soften the bitterness. They did the same to tea, but for some reason never really liked green tea, which they thought too grassy-flavored and weak to drink (and it didn’t keep well on voyages). But today, Europeans can’t understand American coffee, which they think is too weak. They don’t seem to get that you have it to be able to drink it over a long period of time, while you work or converse.

Me? Well, I prefer the intensity of coffee to tea, especially an espresso or a cappuccino, which are really the perfect ways to drink the stuff, but I like tea on occasion, plain black, or a fancy cup of matcha is always good. But more than anything I drink regular American drip coffee because, for some reason, unlike an espresso, which can knock you out a few hours later, it lasts quite a while and keeps you energized for a long period of time. It might also have something to do with nostalgia.


Posted by on May 19, 2011 in Culture, Food


Careful what you say

The other day I asked for a pan tumaca for breakfast and was met with an insolent stare by the short, half-bald elderly Spanish barista.

“Pan tumaca is catalan, here in Madrid we have pan con tomate (bread with tomato).”

“Pan con tomate, then.”

A quick lesson it was to me on the regionalism of Spain.

Though, of course, the guy wasn’t bad-natured, and as I went on to explain to my friend what he was saying to me he smiled and laughed and said that it wasn’t a big deal, just a common error that for some reason had spread far around the world.


Posted by on May 17, 2011 in Food, Madrid, Politics, Spain


Pasta: not a Chinese invention after all

This was news to me when I read it, though perhaps it had already gotten around to most that the story of Marco Polo bringing back noodles from China was a myth. The Chinese did indeed have noodles when Marco Polo got there, but the Chinese did not have durum wheat, the base of pasta, and thus could not have invented pasta as it is known. Linda Civitello in Cuisine and Culture explains:

“For hundreds of years, it was accepted ‘fact’ that Marco Polo discovered noodles in China and brought them back to Europe. Now, in his masterwork, A Mediterranean Feast, food historian Clifford Wright states flatly that there is no truth to the story of Polo and pasta. Wright unravels the tangled strands of the origin of pasta and takes it down to its basic ingredient: hard semolina or durum (Latin for ‘hard’) wheat. This makes pasta different from bread, which is made from soft wheat. The Chinese did not have durum wheat. Wright places the origins of ‘true macaroni’ – pasta made from durum wheat and dried, which gives it a long shelf life – ‘at the juncture of medieval Sicilian, Italian and Arab cultures.’”

The Chinese, of course, had noodles, but they were made from other forms of wheat or buckwheat. From all the other given theories, it is plausible that it was an Arabian or Sicilian invention sometime after the 5th century (Sicily was invaded by the Arabs who might have brought it over, later to be spread throughout Italy). The Arabs, after all, did have durum wheat as their staple.

More than likely, pasta was introduced during the Arab conquests of Sicily, carried in as a dry staple. The Arab geographer, Al Idrisi wrote that a flour-based product in the shape of strings was produced in Palermo, then an Arab colony.

Some historians think the Sicilian word “maccaruni” which translates as “made into a dough by force” is the origin of our word. Anyone who has kneaded durum wheat knows that force is necessary. . . .

But this theory suffers from a blaring deficiency: there’s no evidence elsewhere of pasta being invented in the Arab world, so why would it have made it to Sicily, only to pilfer out in the rest of the Muslim lands?

So, it could have been invented by Arab colonists in Italy, or by native Italians later on, during the Middle Ages. Either way, Italy would eventually become the world’s premiere pasta producer, making some artful designs and adding sauces to form the foundation of the Italian diet. The reason why Italy turned out to be the best place for pasta production is its geographic location, which allows for the growing of durum wheat in large quantities as well as the ability to dry pasta. A lot of this is pretty recent history. A History of Food says the following,

“the first production of pasta on any kind of industrial scale was indeed in Naples in the early fifteenth century. However, this pasta did not keep well, and it was not until 1800 that the process which would make it really asciutta (dry) was discovered. It involved natural drying alternately in hot and cold temperatures. Perfect conditions were found at Torre Annunziata, some kilometres south of Naples itself, where the climate changes four times a day, to a regular pattern. The macaroni of Torre Annunziata is the ne plus ultra of Italian pasta.”

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Posted by on May 16, 2011 in Food, History, Italy


Jamon Iberico: Healthy Snack

Most people have been hypnotized by the MSM to believe that ham is evil, bad and unhealthy. Fat and protein? Bad. Sugar, starch and tub margarine? Eat your heart out (literally).

Well, turns out the quality Spanish hams (especially jamón ibérico and jamón serrano) have some formidable health benefits—see here and here—or just look below for snipets of each article.

The fat of Iberico bellota ham contains over 55% oleic acid (a mono-unsaturated fatty acid). Rigorous scientific studies have shown that these fats exercise a beneficial effect on cholesterol in the blood by increasing the amount of good (HDL) cholesterol and reducing bad (LDL) cholesterol. Only virgin olive oil has a higher oleic acid content.

The total proportion of unsaturated fatty acids in cured Iberico hams that have consumed a diet of acorns is over 75%, making it the most “cardiohealthy” of all animal fats, even healthier than some fats of plant origin. The breed of pigs is not the only explanation; their staple diet of acorns and grasses also plays an important role.

In addition to its beneficial effect on cholesterol, Iberico ham provides proteins, vitamins B1, B6, B12 and folic acid, all highly beneficial for the nervous system and proper functioning of the brain. It is also rich in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and in minerals such as copper, essential for bones and cartilage; calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and finally, selenium, which has been attributed with antiaging properties.

And, additionally, the fact that jamon iberico comes from the Black Iberian Pig, gives its consumers a health boost.

Remember that this is a ham from an extraordinary pig who traces his lineage back to the time of the cavemen. The Cerdo Ibérico has quite a different DNA than the meat of run-of-the mill pink pigs you are used to buying. In addition, their diet of herbs, grasses and acorns are a significant factor.

But because ham is salty, cured and not very cheap, it’s best used as a snack (with tomato, bread, olive oil and oregano is always good) rather than a full meal.

Also, this is quality ham. The processed ham is going to be just as bad in Spain as in the USA. So buy quality, eat in light quantities and enjoy without any guilt. Ham, after all, is just as vital to the Spanish Mediterranean diet as wine and olive oil.

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Posted by on May 13, 2011 in Culture, Food, Health, Spain


Potatoes and Northern Europe

While I was eating potatoes and eggs for dinner tonight, I remembered a quote I had read about the importance of the potatoes in Northern Europe from Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.

When the potato got to Europe, it changed the course of European history. Before the potato, the northern tier of Europe, the population was relatively small and was held back by regular famines caused by failures of the grain harvest.

The further north you go, the dicier it is to grow wheat. And so the center of gravity in Europe, before the potato, was the Mediterranean, where you could grow grain more reliably. The potato did very well at the more northerly areas. It did very well in wetter areas, and it did very well in really poor soils.

So suddenly there was this vast new source of calories that could underwrite the growth of the population, such as never would have happened without the potato.

Since one individual can grow so much food, you need fewer people in the fields to support an urban population. So it’s really hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution proceeding as it would without the potato to kind of support it. This New World food remade the Old World.

Some evidence to Northern Europeans lack of ability to produce and harvest lots of wheat is the fact that Northern Europeans and their descendants are much more likely to have Celiac Disease than Southern Europeans, who rely a lot more on wheat, eating loads of bread and pasta.

So, the Spanish, bringing the potato to Europe from America, spawned Europe’s population growth which led the industrialization of the northern region and a subsequent shift of Europe’s power from Italy and Spain to England, Northern France and Germany—which remains to this day. Northern Europe’s success was—and still is—dependent on the potato.

Interestingly enough, it took the potato quite a while to catch on in Europe. It was initially used by only the poorest and by sailors, who found it could keep scurvy at bay.

Gradually, the Spanish realized that potatoes were perfect food for sailors on ships returning from Peru. . . . As early as 1570, potatoes could be purchased in markets in Seville, and, by 1573, they were being fed to hospital patients in other parts of Spain.

Through the first half of the seventeenth century, potatoes were eaten primarily by the poor and soldiers in Spain. . . .

From Spain, potatoes spread to all parts of Europe. Spanish ships carried the vegetable to Italy around 1560, making that country the first after Spain to eat potatoes on an appreciable scale.

The inventive Italians were quick to incorporate New World foods into their diet. It then spread throughout most of the world through Europe’s trading empire.

By 1600, the potato had entered Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Germany, and, most likely, Portugal and Ireland. Some historians claim that it was Basque fishermen who first brought potatoes to Ireland, when they came ashore to dry their catches on their return voyages from Newfoundland. Others maintain it was Sir Walter Raleigh who planted the first potatoes on his estate in Ireland. The potato was introduced in India, possibly as early as 1615, and had reached the most remote parts of China by 1643. Beginning about 1730, the Scottish Highlands adopted potatoes as completely as Ireland had.

But the potato would have to undergo de-stigmatisation before it could be fully disseminated. Many priests and peasants feared its evil nightshade power (as do our modern nutrition health gurus).

Aside from its odd, unaesthetic appearance and initially bitter taste, the tuber was feared for a variety of reasons. Since it was not mentioned in the Bible, it was often associated with the devil. As a consequence, in the north of Ireland and in Scotland, Protestants flatly refused to plant them. In Catholic Ireland, to be on the safe side, peasants sprinkled their seed potatoes with holy water and planted them on Good Friday.

Another source of prejudice against the potato was its membership in the nightshade family . . . So great was the fear that, when Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered his people to plant potatoes in 1744, they pulled them up. Frederick was forced to post soldiers to guard the crops. Ten years later, in 1754, the king of Sweden also ordered his subjects to grow potatoes. Yet, when famine struck Kolberg in 1774, wagonloads of potatoes sent by Frederick were rejected.

Frederick the Great really was great by the way. But I’ll save that for another blog post. It took the French, who also initially reviled the potato, to make it both acceptable haute cuisine and as a symbol of the republic’s dedication to liberte, egalite and fraternite.

The French were no more enamored of the potato at first than any other Europeans. Legrand d’Aussy, in his 1782 Histoire de la vie privée des Français (History of the private life of the French) wrote that the pasty, indigestible tuber should be eliminated from aristocratic households and left to the poor. . . . .

By 1780, potatoes were the chief food of the Pyrenean highlands. By 1840, the potato was well established in French cuisine, making its way in through the soup pot, where it added bulk and absorbed flavors. . . .

In 1793, during the “Reign of Terror,” the French people celebrated potatoes as their republican salvation. Even the royal Tuileries gardens were symbolically converted into a potato field. . . .

Potatoes gradually acquired a place in haute cuisine. Collinet, the chef for King Louis Phillippe (reigned 1830–1848), accidentally created the famous pommes soufflées (puffed potatoes) when he plunged fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them when the king was late for dinner.

And then there’s one of those odd twists in history where the potato made its way back to North America by way of Europe, rather than directly through South America. It took the Irish immigrants to entrench full scale potato eating to America; and the common potato we eat is the Irish potato, a breed that’s undergone modification in Europe for almost 300 years now, and far removed from the much more colorful and flavorful Amerindian varieties.

These potatoes, of which there are thousands more varieties, are more nutritious than the European type; less sugary, starchy, with more flavor and vitamins. One downside, however, is that they do contain more of the harmful substances that the European peasants were so worried about and are more likely to harbor viruses. I’ve heard stories of people eating too many potatoes in the Andean highlands and falling into a deep 12 hour sleep with little memory of what happened due to the large amount of solanine in these potatoes, which was bred out in the European varieties eaten in most places around the world.

But even the Irish variety is a nutritious feast, despite what our health overlords will have you think. The only real downside is its high glycemic index—which means you should just eat it with an ample serving of butter or sour cream.

You can actually get all the nutrients you need to survive on a diet of potatoes, milk and oatmeal. Sounds pretty damn Irish to me. Actually, this guy argues that that’s what they were basically eating for quite some time, and that there were reports of them being quite healthy on that diet.

Before the Great Famine, the traditional Irish peasant meal consisted mainly of potatoes, milk, oats, beans, barley, and bread. Potatoes were the mainstay. As the years grew leaner, dairy products largely disappeared from the Irish diet, since poverty forced many farmers to sell their milk to pay rent. By the time the famine hit, the peasants were eating pretty much just potatoes, supplemented with some salt fish and oatmeal.

How did the Irish do on this diet? We can’t be certain — nobody was conducting nutrition studies in those days. But there’s reason to believe they were healthier than you might guess. In the century before the famine, Ireland had the highest birthrate in western Europe. Some credit potatoes, saying the availability of easy-to-grow, easy-to-cook spuds made it practical to raise large families. Telling evidence on this score, one historian writes, “is that the Irish in general and Irish women in particular were widely described as healthy and good-looking.”

Not that that’s the most scientific analysis, but the trio of Irish women I met the other night were certainly Celtic beauties.

The only downside to that monolithic diet was, well, first they stopped being able to afford milk and then they got hit by the potato famine, so that, even if Ireland had the highest birthrate in Europe (still does by the way) its modern population is only about half of what it was a couple hundred years ago.


Spain’s Olive Oil Industry

Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, producing twice as much as its greatest competitor, Italy. It’s also the second largest consumer per capita. Only the Greeks consume more than the Spanish, and I imagine they must use a lot of olive oil, because it’s customary in Spain to fry eggs and meat in a half-inch of olive oil and put a healthy portion on your salad. It also is eaten at breakfast with pan tumaca.

Admittedly, the olive oil most people in Spain use isn’t very high quality. It neither bad nor good, it’s just normal and incredibly cheap, apparently because they produce too much. A mediocre bottle of olive oil will cost you about 1 Euro in Spain. Even the stuff marked “extra-virgin” (whether it actually is, is another question) is only a 1-2 Euros in Spain. In America it’d be at least $10. For a higher-quality bottle you can pay about 3 Euros.

But artisan varieties, which are common in California, are actually quite hard to find in major cities. Olive oil in Spain is seen not as a luxury, but as a regular, daily product. Most of the production in Spain is done on a massive, industrial scale, and much of the olives are even imported from North Africa and the Middle East, where they are cheaper to grow. Spanish olive oil apparently suffers from high-acidity and much of it cannot be called “extra-virgin” on the international market, and their oil has less world-renowned reputation like Greek and Italian olive oil. Even so, Spain still grows some 260 varieties of olives and is, without a doubt, one of the most formidable olive oil producers in the world.

In smaller towns, especially in the south, there are still many traditional olive oil producers, but their future appears is bleak, as traditional methods of production have been shown to be unprofitable compared to industrial olive oil, which Spaniards are now used to buying. Still, the 6000 year old methods of traditional olive oil production are unlikely to disappear. Traditional olive oil production will likely persist as a vocational craft, similar to old-fashioned wine- and cheese-making methods.