Great food that can save your life

I feel like a character in some medieval Italian painting. Here, in a tiny square in Altamura, men in white aprons, their faces streaming with sweat, run from the roaring wood fire with huge tomato and ricotta-filled panzerotti pies while others hack up the giant volcanic-looking crusty loaves for which this Italian town is famous.

Amidst platters of herb-flavoured table olives and cherry tomatoes as sweet as candies, rare cordoncello mushrooms and zucchini flowers sizzle in olive oil over a brazier while a vigorous red primitivo wine (ancestor of zinfandel) flows.

"Ah," sighs Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who writes about food for the New York Times, "here there is still real food!"

Our purpose in coming to Puglia, a region on the heel of the boot of Italy that is little visited by Canadians, is not simply to enjoy the wonderful food — although I’m not complaining. The issue is health — yours and mine.

Puglia, is the heart and soul of the Mediterranean diet, and today the Mediterranean diet is big news. Yet another study confirmed that, thanks to a diet strong on fruits and vegetables, legumes, grains, cheese, fish and olive oil, and light oneat, people around the Mediterranean live longer and are less prone to heart disease and certain cancers.

It’s a message that’s finally registering with millions of health-conscious North Americans and Northern Europeans: consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is climbing. The man most responsible for this re-awakening is the unlikely visionary leading our charge on the fiery baking ovens of Altamura today. At 60, K. Dun Gifford, a well-connected Boston lawyer and former Kennedy family aide, increasingly resembles John Wayne. Sporting a red windbreaker and a walking stick (due to a knee operation) that half the time is hooked jauntily in his back pocket, Gifford deploys not a six-shooter, but simply double-barrelled charm.

It all started from a 1987 visit Gifford made to China. He discovered that a whole generation of Chinese chefs — and priceless ancient cookbooks — had disappeared, scattered or were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Back home in Cambridge, Mass., it occurred to him that ancient diets were under threat in many parts of the world. It was not just a question of cultural loss. World Health Organization figures were showing people in the south of France, Spain, Italy and Greece had far fewer heart attacks. Yet people in these regions, like people everywhere, were being pressured by the food giants to discard their old ways of eating in favour of the junk food that is shortening the lives of so many North Americans. Out of this revelation, the non-profit Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, was founded by Gifford, Jenkins and others.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, olive oil and the red wine that accompanied Mediterranean meals are, it turns out, the wellsprings of healthy living. Many of them contain generous amounts of antioxidants, which are potent disease-fighters in the human system. But how to get the message out? That, of course, is the genius of Gifford and the trusty Oldways organization.

It was no good simply buttonholing people at the local McDonald’s and urging them not to eat french fries. Eating habits had to be changed at the top, with the elite, and then allowed to filter down. Thus the Oldways Chefs’ Collaborative, a loose grouping of 1,500 chefs — many from top restaurants in Canada and the U.S. — all dedicated to healthier eating, many of them even prepared to go into schools to teach youngsters about good food.

Oldways developed its own Mediterranean food pyramid (it now has Asian, Latin American and Vegetarian pyramids) as a direct challenge to the ubiquitous U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid. Oldways’ pyramid, the validity of which the USDA has finally acknowledged, puts less emphasis on meat and dairy products. For its efforts, Oldways has been described by Encyclopedia Britannica as "the pre-eminent common sense food organization." Perhaps its most remarkable initiative has involved exposing Canadian, American and British food opinion-makers to the healthful — and threatened — diets of the world. Regularly, Oldways — backed now by more than 400 sponsors, including several governments — takes food and health journalists, cookbook authors, nutritionists, doctors, key people in the specialty food business and chefs, for intensive week-long immersion sessions to Mediterranean countries like Spain, Morocco, France, Italy and Greece.

I found myself last spring coping with airline schedules disrupted by the war in the Balkans to get to Bari, Italy, just across the Adriatic from where NATO bombers were making their nightly raids. Frivolous to worry about food and health when, close by, people were being hound-ed and killed? Not at all. War and food help explain Puglia’s history. It has been over-run repeatedly — by Greeks, Turks, Arabs, Normans, Romans and French — as much for its bounteous food supplyas for its strategic position. The irony today is that these much-conquered peoples in this "deprived" area where meat was rarely eaten and where cows’ milk, because of the dry climate, was hardly known, are being sought out by wealthy nations for their culinary wisdom.

"I never thought," says Angelo Ricci, who, with his wife, Dora, and their children, run perhaps Apulia’s finest traditional restaurant, Al Fornello da Ricci, "that what we eat every day — a poor peoples’ food often made with things that are free — would be considered history."

"This is such a classic Mediterranean diet!" Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of Flavors of Puglia (Broadway Books) enthused one day as we watched women forming orecchiette, the little, ear-shaped pasta made here without eggs. "Magnificent fresh fruits and vegetables, the best bread in the world made with whole wheat flour, wonderful home-made pasta, a great seafood tradition, some damned good wine, and olive oil used with a lavish hand!"

In Puglia everything begins and ends with olive oil. They’re still pulling the pointed earthenware amphoras from the bottom of the Adriatic that were once used to carry Apulian oil all over the known world in Roman and Phoenician vessels And olive oil from Puglia still accounts for 43 per cent of Italy’s production.

In Puglia, extra virgin olive oil is tasted just like fine wine (warm the sample cup in your palm, let it roll to the back of your mouth, and then wait for the pizzica sting if it’s made with peppery coratina olives). Mild-tasting oil is best for fish and other food with delicate flavour, spicier oils for lamb or the strong-tasting Apulian vegetables like eggplant, pepper, squash, artichoke and wild greens. The mystery is how many tantalizing flavours the cooks of Apulia can extract from ingredients that might sound bland. Our multi-course meals often began with fave e cicori, a puree of fava (or broad beans) eaten with steamed wild greens or chicory. Sounds like something you’d get in boarding school. Yet dressed with olive oil, garlic, chopped red onion and fried black or green olives and almost whatever the cook has at hand, it was a dish I relished. Who could get excited about ciceri e tria — a homemade durum wheat pasta with chickpeas? But with about a third of the pasta fried in olive oil until crisp and brown, it takes on a crunchy consistency and an almost meat-like flavour, a nice complement to the hearty local red wine made from primitivo grapes, ancestors of zinfandel.

Potatoes are the plain staple of tiella, a distant relative, some believe, of Spanish paella. But taste them from lengthy baking in the oven with black mussels from Taranto and artichokes, zucchini or some of Puglia’s exotic mushrooms, and you will have a new respect for the lowly spud.

Our journey had a dual purpose: to bring back the word on the Mediterranean diet and, also, as Dun Gifford assured farmers, "to keep these ways alive."

As we travelled, some 80 of us, between little white-walled hilltop towns, past the stone beehive-shaped shelters called trulli and farms still fortified against long-ago invaders, I felt an increasing optimism. The secrets of health and long life so long hidden in this neglected region are finally emerging. Standing on the land his family has farmed for 200 years (and having a hard time being heard over the baying of two faithful family hounds), Giancarlo Ceci explained how he helped form a 2,000-strong Puglia consortium of organic farmers. Organic fruit, vegetables, wines and olives from the region are in increasing demand in heavily polluted Northern Europe.

"All European agriculture will be organic within a very few years," predicted Ceci, who lives with his family in a honey-coloured hilltop castle.

At Il Frantoio, a fortified farm near Fasano that dates back more than 500 years and fragrant this day with orange blossom, Armando Balestrazzi told me how he and his wife, Rosalba, drew on their own family heritage as well as asking old-timers for their recipes when, eight years ago, they decided to give visitors to Apulia a taste of the past.

Can North Americans ever beweaned from their steaks and burgers? Balestrazzi responded: "It took 35 years of government campaigning to cut the adult smoking rate from 75 percent to 25 percent. My target is moving 10 per cent of the people from bad diets toward healthier diets in the next 10 years. That will be an achievement!"