Dec 152010
 

In the November 2010 edition of the Italian State Railway’s magazine La Freccia (distributed onboard its luxury high-speed trains), one could find an article entitled “Le vie dell’olio” (“The Oil Routes” was the best, albeit still awkward, translation I could come up with). The article offered production background and geographic indications for the peninsula’s best olive oil, giving some specific mills to visit in each of the main olive oil producing regions.

As if we’ve never heard it before, the article sounded the tired trumpet to the tune of the Mediterranean Diet:”one of the fundamental products of the Mediterranean Diet, apart from being a food, olive oil has been used over the course of the history for medicinal purposes, for skin care and personal hygiene, for lighting and as a form of currency.” Telling the fact that only this paragraph was translated into English (the rest of the Italian text remained silent for anglophones).

I have to confess that my skepticism about the “Mediterranean Diet,” reinforced by reading Patricia Crotty’s article on the subject, is developing into a healthy suspicion. While I love olive oil, and I agree that it seems more nutritious than some other fats, I am wary of the idea (driven ahead as gospel by this article and many others like it) that the MD is actually some sort of artifact of a simple life of long ago. Olive oil was until very recently (read: the the early twentieth century) a luxury item inaccessible to most Italians. To take a simple example, the average Umbrian peasant diet of the late nineteenth century was based on polenta, a limited range of garden vegetables, and (twice a year!) meat. This data comes from the parliamentary inquest known as the Inchiesta Jacini, carried out between 1881 and 1886.

Jacini found that for the Umbrian peasant, the average number of grams of fat per day was between 20 and 30 (roughly a tablespoon). We can put aside the fact that likely all of those grams were fat from pigs: assuming that even half of that fat was from the luxury food olive oil, we can estimate that in a year the average Umbrian peasant ate between 3,650 and 5,475 grams of fat. Assuming olive oil has a mass of about 970 grams per liter, we get a total yearly consumption of between 3.8 and 5.6 liters. My mother, a 68 year old woman of Irish-German stock who has only just recently begun to use olive oil in her cooking, uses about a bottle (750mL) every two months, for a total annual consumption of 4.5 liters. How fundamental, then, can olive oil have been to the diet of the vast majority of poor Italians (and, by extension, poor Europeans) in centuries past?  (Gian Paolo Collacciani, “Le vie dell’olio,” La Freccia, Anno II, Numero 10, November 2010)  ZN

See a summary in English of the Inchiesta Jacini here.

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