Basics of the Basin

Surrounded on all sides by southern Europe, northern Africa and southwest Asia, the Mediterranean Sea touches 21 separate countries and island nations, making for a highly complex culinary melting pot.

It’s common for Mediterranean food to be thought of in terms of pasta, pizza, Greek salads and falafel, but the culinary range and diversity of dishes actually transcend these iconic Italian and Greek standards to include specialities from Spain, Turkey, France, Croatia, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco — to name a few.

For centuries, the Mediterranean Sea has been used to transport produce and spices between the nations that ring the nearly one-million-square-mile body of water, paving the way for these neighbouring countries to explore cooking techniques, ingredients and flavours otherwise unknown or unavailable to them.

Whilst the cultural influences within Mediterranean cuisine is vast, there are a few commonalities, including: olives, grapes and grains; staple seasonings found throughout the region; and simplicity in food preparation.

Flavourful Trio

There are three ingredients that are most celebrated in Mediterranean cuisine: olives, grapes and grains. Olives play a significant role in Greek history. Legend has it the Greek goddess Athena bestowed humans with the olive tree; it was a gift that provided fruit to eat, fuel from its bark and shade from its leaves. The tree’s long lifespan was also a symbol of power, prosperity and peace. Some even speculate this tale is the reason why olives are considered a delicacy in Greece even though they are widely available.

Today, olive groves are found as far as California and Japan, resulting in more than 600 species of the fruit, which can be consumed as olive oil, pickled salad toppings or on their own as part of traditional Mediterranean recipes.

Wine, too, has a long history that dates as far back as 6000 BC, making appearances in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and later in the Bible. The Mediterranean’s consistent, balmy climate provides the ideal conditions for grape growing and, therefore, unparalleled wines as well. Italy, France and Spain have historically been the region’s wine-making leaders, but Croatia, Romania, Greece, Israel, Lebanon and Albania have also been produced their share of smooth merlots, malbecs, cabernets and pinot noirs, as well as golden chardonnays.

The most widespread crops in the Mediterranean are vegetables and legumes — chickpeas, eggplant, lentils, cucumber and more — followed by grains. Wheat forms the basis for the crusty breads and ubiquitous pastas, as well as flavourful couscous, polenta and rice.

Pure and Light

The simplicity of Mediterranean cuisine allows the ingredients to shine, with spices used to heighten aromas and overall flavours. Garlic, saffron, fresh herbs, figs and dates are all staples of a Mediterranean diet. When rich sauces are used, say in Italian pasta or Moroccan stews, preparation and primary ingredients remain minimal. As an example, shrimp alfredo penne has only two main ingredients, as does a Berber Tagine with lamb and vegetables.

In addition to the vegetables and legumes that abound in all the Mediterranean culinary traditions, all kinds of meats are consumed as well, beef, goat, pork and lamb. Fish and other locally sourced seafood also fare prominently in a number of well-known dishes from the region.

A Culinary Melting Pot

Over 150 restaurants representing the Caribbean, U.S., Canada, England, Europe, Asia, Australia, Central and South America, and the Mediterranean are based in the Cayman Islands. It’s no wonder the country is widely considered a “Culinary Capital of the Caribbean.”

The Cayman Islands is a cosmopolitan melting pot, home to some 100 nationalities, including many from the nations that make up the beautiful and delicious Mediterranean region.

For decades, people from numerous Mediterranean countries have brought the flavours of their homelands to the Cayman Islands’ culinary scene. In some cases, recipes are prepared with strict adherence to tradition. In other cases, chefs have embraced their Caribbean setting, fusing Mediterrenean recipes with locally sourced ingredients and creating entirely new cuisine. In either case, Mediterranean eateries often dominate the lists of best eats in the Cayman Islands.

Check out our top five restaurant recommendations, and start your culinary journey today:

Chef’s Counter at Avecita

From traditional Spanish tapas like smoked almonds and artisanal meat and cheese boards to modern interpretations of classic plates like lamb tartare and chickpea and chorizo stew, Avecita offers a varied menu. The star of the show is the exclusive — and ever-changing — Chef’s Counter dinner, which consists of an unforgettable multisensory experience served in five courses.

Fresh Catch at Agua

Boasting a swanky interior at its new Camana Bay location, Agua restaurant has long been highly regarded throughout the Cayman Islands. Its Italian menu inspired by Peruvian cuisine features the freshest ingredients prepared so as to highlight the natural flavours in the dish. Case in point: the Ligurian snapper with tomato, potato, olive, pine nuts and parsley.

Orecchiette at Ragazzi

When it comes to authentic Italian cuisine, Ragazzi sets the tone for excellence in the Cayman Islands. Homemade noodles form the base of every pasta dish on the menu, whether it is ribbons of linguine, gnocchi dumplings or the charming ear-shaped orecchiette that is sautéed with shrimp, broccoli, garlic, parmesan and butter, a light and filling favourite.

Paella at Blue Cilantro

Easily one of the most popular Mediterranean dishes, paella is one of the best known comfort foods from Spain. At Blue Cilantro, this aromatic dish is prepared traditionally with a sublime blend of saffron Valencia rice, Spanish sausage, lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels and scallops. It’s an impressive-looking and flavourful meal that is truly unlike anything else.

Casual Fare at Kirk Market

A grocery store is likely not the first place you’d think to visit if you fancy something Mediterranean, which is why it’s worth mentioning the extraordinary selection of meats, salads and more at the Kirk Market Mediterranean Bar. The menu changes daily but usually includes cold pasta with salmon and grilled vegetables, poached shrimp salad, couscous with sultanas and cucumber, and arugula dressed in lemon and olive oil.

Photo: peasandcrayons.com

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