The classic Mediterranean diet is hailed as one of the tastiest and healthiest on the planet. But there's no need to leave Godzone to enjoy the freshest of Tuscan, Greek, or Provencal fare.
World-class olives and grapes are produced in NZ's own 'Mediterranean' climates (those with hot dry summers and mild rainy winters). Citrus prosper in all but our coldest climates, and when it comes to veges, the best of the Med can be grown with ease in most kiwi backyards.
Late Summer Harvest
Originally from Mexico but inextricably Italian, tomatoes continue to ripen until the first frost. In late summer, snip off the top of the plant and remove any flowers. This directs the plants energy into ripening existing fruit. If you need to pull tomato plants out to make space, hang them in a cool dry place and fruit will continue to ripen.
Don't store unripe tomatoes in the fridge as this reduces ripening and flavour.
To preserve the flavour for winter, tomatoes can be dried, bottled, frozen whole or turned into delicious pasta sauces for the freezer. Cooked and sun-dried tomatoes are a more concentrated source of antioxidants than fresh tomatoes.
Sweet peppers and hot chillies are ripening fast now. Sweetness and heat are enhanced as they colour, but peppers deteriorate fast when past peak ripeness so pick them often. Strung together in decorative 'ristras', chillies will slowly dry for winter use. Peppers can be sliced and frozen or turned into chutney.
Now is also the time to enjoy delicious roasted aubergine (eggplant). Aubergines will keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator crisper. A good way to preserve excess fruits is to make aubergine dip and freeze it.
Autumn is planting time for a wide range of fruits and vegetables, especially where winters are mild. The Mediterranean classics include some familiar old favourites:
Fava beans, aka 'broad beans', are a truly underrated vegetable, possibly because many of us were served up the tough grey-skinned version as kids. Eaten fresh and young or with their outer skins removed after cooking, they are an entirely different vegetable. Beans are ready for picking three to five months after sowing. In windy areas plants can be held upright with stakes and string. The leafy top shoots are nice in stir-fries.
Radicchio ('red chicory') has pretty red and white leaves and a crunchy texture. It grows best in cooler weather, which also brings out the red colour, and in frost-free climates it makes a great winter crop. It can be eaten cooked or raw. Stir-frying reduces bitterness.
Brassicas reach peak flavour when colder temperatures cause the sugar content to rise. Broccoli, which was first developed in Italy, is available in many colours and forms, including new mini forms and some distinctly Italian varieties, such as cone shaped Broccoli 'Precoce Romanesco'. Kale is the most strongly flavoured brassica, and also has the highest nutrient levels. A non-hearting green, it is very easy to grow and a top ranking anti-cancer food, well worth developing a taste for.
Silver beet (known elsewhere as Swiss chard) and beetroot are both cultivars of the wild beet, Beta vulgaris, a Mediterranean native. Beetroot has a higher sugar content than either carrots or sweet corn. It is highly nutritious when eaten as a raw salad vege, and delicious as a sweet roasted vegetable. Globe shaped varieties are ready to eat in the shortest time. Baby varieties are attractive served whole. Roots are ready for harvest within about two months of sowing, but young salad leaves can be picked after a few weeks.
A Mediterranean staple, garlic is well known for its culinary brilliance and easy to grow, even in a pot. Purchase locally grown garlic (not imported supermarket bulbs). The fat, outside cloves are best for planting. It is traditional to plant garlic on the shortest day and harvest on the longest. However, in mild coastal climates we can plant in autumn. In coldest climates it's best to wait until spring. Plant cloves about 2.5cm deep and 10cm apart. The soil should be moist and well drained, not cold or wet.
Subtle, sweet and sophisticated shallots offer a delicate flavour, unbeatable in French-style sauces. They can be grown from seed or from cloves planted, like garlic, in autumn or early winter.
Globe artichokes are a familiar delicacy in Italy, France and Spain. Fresh artichokes are expensive and not common in our supermarkets, but they're easy to grow in a mild winter climate garden. They do need at least a square metre of sunny, well-drained soil, but if you savour the subtle nutty flavour they're worth finding space for and highly ornamental. The silvery foliage makes a striking accent. Plants grow quickly and remain productive for about four years. Cut off the first spring's flower heads to encourage a strong root system. In late autumn, mature plants can be cut down to 15-30cm above the ground to promote strong growth the following spring. In cooler areas artichokes should be planted in spring, after frosts. Protect roots in winter with thick straw mulch.
The dry tolerant perennial herbs, rosemary, thyme (especially pizza thyme!), sweet marjoram, oregano and winter savory are must-haves in any serious Mediterranean cooks garden. They're also great grown in pots. Fennel is another classic, while lemon balm is fabulous with fish and chicken, or try it as pesto.
And of course every Mediterranean garden needs its sweet bay tree, whether you plant it as a potager centrepiece, a potted topiary or a lush fragrant hedge.
Fruit of the Med
Olive trees are perfect if you love the Mediterranean look, worth planting even if you're not planning to pickle your own olives. Olives can also be espaliered against a wall. Different cultivars vary in growth habit as well as their fruiting. Dwarf 'Signore' is great for small gardens or tubs.
Citrus trees were introduced to the Mediterranean centuries ago and along with olives have now become part of the landscape. They can be accommodated in the smallest of gardens and can be grown in pots. Plant citrus not just for their fruit, but for their beautiful evergreen foliage, and flowers that fill the air with their fragrance.
Train a grapevine over a pergola so you'll have summer shade as well as grapes. The leaves can be used to make classic Greek dolamades - delicious peasant food that's fun and easy to make. In warm climates select a disease resistant variety.
Fig trees don't have to take a lot of space, if you grow them as an espalier or container specimen. They need a long hot summer to fully mature so plant them where they'll get maximum sunlight.
Beautiful quince trees are native to the Middle East. They have large blossom flowers and fragrant golden fruit, ideal as feature trees in small gardens. Their low chilling requirement means they'll fruit well in warm climates. The sweet quince paste 'Membrillo' is a delicious Spanish invention, perfect with cheese.
Sorry kids, it isn't all about pizza, pasta and gelato. The healthy 'authentic' Mediterranean diet features oily fish, eggs, goats cheese, yoghurt, one or two small glasses of wine a day, nuts as snacks, lashings of virgin olive oil, and loads of fresh fruit and vegetables. Carbohydrates are un-refined (not white flour and sugar). Dairy products and red meat are eaten only sometimes.
Baba ganoush (aubergine dip)
For each medium sized eggplant:
Roast eggplant in oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until soft. Cool, then scrape out the pulp and puree in a food processor with the other ingredients. Serve chilled with French bread or pita chips. Note: Baba ganoush freezes best without the lemon juice. Stir it in just before serving.
Aubergine - eggplant