Just a quick glance at a map of the region reveals a myriad of gastronomic heartlands with a huge diversity of styles, techniques and flavors employed to make some of the worlds truly great dishes: from the heavily spiced tagines of North Africa, to the rich, buttery, wine-laden recipes of France, the glorious, herb-rich meat kebabs of Greece to the simple and light pasta based dishes of Italy - where the ingredient is king.
There is so much to be discovered, one could spend a lifetime studying the dishes of any one of these culinary giants, but is it possible to bring the flavors of these great countries home without devoting an age to the task?
In decades past this was almost an impossibility, simply because the necessary ingredients to create some of the more exotic dishes were not readily available to the average Joe. Nowadays, however, even the smallest supermarket chains sell a good selection of herbs, spices and sauces from all over the globe. Furthermore, as the world's cultures become more deeply mixed, more and more specialist stores are springing up, giving yet more variety and allowing the chef at home to recreate almost any dish they have the inclination to attempt.
The essential ingredient is experience
Where to start? Cookery books and internet recipes are all very well and good, but there can be no substitute for experiencing the sights, smells and tastes of a place for yourself. My own personal culinary awakening was triggered by a short visit to France, where I discovered that food could be more than just a thing on a plate - it could be the basis of an entire culture. Taking away just a small piece of that culture in the four days I was there has helped me to better understand the food I have come to cook at home.
When it comes to the Mediterranean - unless you have exceptionally deep pockets - there can be no better way to take in all the diversity than on a cruise and what could be more fitting than a cruise line offering food and wine tours. There are plenty out there, many designed specifically with the foodie in mind, giving you the opportunity to immerse yourself in the traditions and cuisine at your chosen ports of call. This will give you a base from which to build, giving experiences which will - if you're anything like me - inspire you to recreate the dishes you have tasted on your own particular adventure.
Keep it simple while maintaining the flavors
Of course, it is impossible to become an expert on any culture's food in just a few short days. However, it can be more than enough time for you to discover just one or two favorite dishes from each location. You can then take them home with you, using the flavors you have experienced as a guide. It is then up to you how complex you want to make the dish.
A great example of a simple, tasty dish is the classic French chicken stew, Coq au Vin. Now, you can always go the full "Julia Child's", cooking the mushrooms, onions and chicken in separate pots and pans before bringing the whole ensemble together in a single casserole. But the recipe linked above is a little more straightforward - using just the one pan - but it still maintains the essential flavors of a gorgeous, winey, sumptuous Coq au Vin, just as you might find cooking in any French kitchen. The key is knowing the flavors you need to create before you start.
A little research of foodie websites such as The Deck Chef.com, or even a swift Google search will turn up endless recipes. However, without first-hand knowledge, how are you to know whether what you are making has that authentic taste?
Take this guide to the traditional Moroccan Tagine - what could be simpler? Just a few cooking stages, and nothing more technical than a little chopping and simmering. The key to the recipe is not a complex cooking process, but the experience to know what flavors make a great Moroccan tagine for you.
In the end there can be no substitute for going yourself, as without experiencing true Mediterranean cooking - or any other world cuisine - trying to recreate the iconic dishes of the region is like taking a shot in the dark. Why not make your next holiday a foodie holiday, and keep the taste of the Med with you well beyond the end of your vacation?
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