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'A Mediterranean Feast' -- as much, or as little, as you want to know about Mediterranean food


May 10, 2000
Web posted at: 2:50 p.m. EDT (1850 GMT)

(CNN) -- Clifford Wright's "A Mediterranean Feast" contains a wealth of information about Mediterranean cuisine -- more than 800 pages and more than 500 recipes.

Small wonder, then, that it was named "Cookbook of the Year" at this year's James Beard Foundation awards. The awards committee called it "an important achievement in the field of culinary history."


And indeed, this encyclopedic tome is no ordinary cookbook.

Wright is, of course, a cook. But he doesn't call himself a chef, and his book is not written from the perspective of a professional chef. That means most of the recipes are simple and straightforward in a way that someone who likes to cook, but isn't a pro, can understand.

But Wright is also a researcher, and he applies his skills to explain the history of various dishes and ingredients, and paint a picture of life around the Mediterranean from its earliest times until now.

The range of texts he cites span from the Greek and Roman writers of the first century A.D. to contemporary cookbook authors like Elizabeth David, Ada Boni, and Paula Wolfert.

The book's endless detail can be taken in full or simply ignored, depending on our needs and desires.

We can, if we wish, explore the economics that drove the peoples of the Mediterranean to eat what they do. We can see the important interchange between food and religion. We can learn about the pervasive, and often subtle, influence of Arab cultures on Italy, France, and Spain.

Wright describes recipes from all three countries for spinach cooked with raisins and pine nuts -- a legacy of the Arab traders who visited these regions. Wright also say Arab cooks are masters of stuffed vegetables, and includes a recipe for stuffed cabbage -- a dish that would be found in any cookbook on Arab cuisine.

"A Mediterranean Feast" is exhaustively researched. Wright covers everything from the first recorded use of a fork in Europe (in the eleventh century in Venice) to why the Provence specialty "Soup de Poisson" doesn't have any fish chunks in it. (The fishermen who originally made this soup, he says, had sold all the best fish and typically had only bones and heads left.)

Or consider bottarga, a salted tuna or mullet roe now found in Italian specialty shops and served in some Italian restaurants. "A Mediterranean Feast" explains the origins of this salty treat and its name. It also describes how to make bottarga yourself.

But, of course, if this is all too much, a simple recipe is there ready to use. Wright suggests sauteing bottarga and garlic in olive oil and tossing the mixture with spaghetti.

"A Mediterranean Feast" entices us to while away an afternoon simply thumbing through its rich tapestry of information. It is wonderfully evocative of the region it describes and its recipes are accessible. How could anyone not be charmed?

James Beard awards highlight country's best chefs
May 9, 2000
Cooking with the Hazans: the best kept secrets of the Italian kitchen
May 5, 2000
Cast-iron cooking: Book chronicles history of mountain meals
May 14, 1999

William Morrow

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