First of all, what is the role of the Basque Culinary Centre in the DELICIOUS project? Who comprises your team?
(LVA) Basque Culinary Center’s technological gastronomy center, BCC Innovation, has the role of studying, compiling, reviewing, and proposing various recipes belonging to Mediterranean gastronomy in DELICIOUS. Additionally, we formulate and develop new healthy snacks for children in the different countries forming part of the consortium.
The BCC Inn team consists of researchers from various fields (sensory analysis, nutrition, sustainability) and a team of chefs experienced in international cuisine. Throughout the different tasks and work carried out in the project, chefs and researchers collaborate to try to stay true to the gastronomic culture of each country we work with, seeking commonalities and singularities in the ingredients and recipes that make the Mediterranean diet so rich and diverse. After researching potential improvements to increase the younger generation’s acceptance of traditional gastronomy, the chef team modified a wide range of recipes, seeking healthy, sustainable alternatives that would be more appealing than the initial proposal, always maintaining the foundations of the Mediterranean diet.
Do you think sustainability or health carries more weight when reformulating these recipes?
(LVA) Health and sustainability are intertwined concepts that cannot be observed separately, so one cannot be considered more important than the other. For instance, many recipes have been reformulated by increasing the proportion of seasonal and typical regional vegetables. This type of modification is both healthy and environmentally advisable. Focusing on sustainability, we recommended culinary techniques that promote water conservation or waste reduction, always keeping in mind that such practices will have a positive impact on everyone’s health.
What changes has your team made to the recipes to make them more sustainable and healthier? Was it difficult to find alternatives for some ingredients or processes? Any specific cases?
(NP) Modifying recipes to make them healthier wasn’t too challenging since it was sufficient to consider basic concepts, such as substituting refined flours with whole grains, drastically reducing the use of sugars and syrups, significantly increasing the proportion of vegetables, balancing recipes so that the proportions of carbohydrates, proteins, and vegetables are healthier, or changing cooking methods by avoiding frying and increasing grilling, boiling, or grilling. However, making the recipes more sustainable wasn’t always as straightforward. We considered water consumption and waste generated in each recipe; we measured the exact water needed to cook legumes, pasta, and cereals, and also aimed to use some whole vegetables without discarding the peel. Regarding the environmental impact of the ingredients used, each country is very different and has its own products; ingredients that might be less sustainable in a neighbouring country. In countries like Egypt, they don’t have the same variety of fruits and vegetables as in Spain, Italy, or Portugal. Therefore, a particular fruit or vegetable might be very sustainable in one of these countries but not as sustainable in Egypt or Lebanon.
How did your team consider ingredient accessibility and cost when reformulating the recipes for the general public?
(NP) In general terms, we tried to use ingredients accessible and recognizable by anyone, with some distinctions, of course. In Lebanon and Egypt, ingredients like okra, freekeh, dried fava beans, molokhia, etc., are very common, but in the other countries in the project, they are fairly unknown ingredients. On the other hand, some seeds like chia or flaxseed used in making healthy snacks have been challenging to find in popular markets in Lebanon or Egypt.
We tried to ensure that most ingredients are accessible in all countries, providing some alternatives in case they were not available. However, considering that some products were less known, we also viewed it as positive, as it could encourage people to search for information about new Mediterranean ingredients and products that are not so well-known, inspiring them to cook outside their comfort zone.
What are your top 5 favorite recipes from this list?
(NP) Honestly, it’s very complicated to choose from so many recipes. Thinking of one recipe from each country, perhaps these would be my favorites: Koshari, barazek, Spaghetti all’amatriciana, Oven baked sole and thyme potatoes, Feijoãda, each for different reasons—some for their flavor, others for their originality, or because even being a very simple and easy-to-prepare recipe, the result is very interesting.
Do you believe these reformulated recipes can be as tasty as the original ones? Have you conducted consumer tests to obtain feedback?
(LVA) All the recipes were cooked at least twice before and after reformulation, and the team of chefs and researchers tasted them daily to identify possible improvements or corrections that would optimize the dish from any of the objective perspectives (health, sustainability, sensory). Consumer studies will be conducted in the last task of the work package, in 2024. There, we will obtain the real opinions of schoolchildren in a real context where the menus are served in school canteens and dining rooms.
What advice would you give to people who want to adopt a healthier Mediterranean diet at home? Is there any ingredient or cooking technique you would particularly recommend?
(NP) From my point of view, the main issues currently present in dieting involve the incorrect proportion of vegetables compared to other macronutrients, leading to an overabundance of animal protein and carbohydrates consumed. I would undoubtedly recommend that in each of our meals, we meet the Harvard plate’s proportion, with 50% vegetables or fruits, 25% high-quality protein, another 25% carbohydrates from 100% whole grains and pseudocereals, complemented with good-quality fats like nuts or extra virgin olive oil. Besides this, I would avoid cooking techniques like frying or processes that generate an excessive formation of undesired compounds, such as glyco-toxics, preventing products from browning too much when cooked. A slower cooking at lower temperatures will always be more favorable.
Do you think Mediterranean cuisine promotes sustainable food systems? Why?
(NP) Generally, if applied well, yes. The Mediterranean diet follows marked seasons, promoting the consumption of products at their optimal maturity, fully enjoying them. The production and consumption of fruits and vegetables in the Mediterranean basin have historically been substantial and have had a significant role in our diet. It is also true that times are changing, and the consumption of fruits and vegetables has declined in favor of low-quality carbohydrates and ultra-processed proteins, something we should avoid at all costs. From my point of view, we still have time, and we are fortunate to inhabit an area where there are still the tools and knowledge to enjoy a varied, rich, healthy, and sustainable diet.
The DELICIOUS project is formed by a multicultural and multidisciplinary consortium with 10 partners from 5 Mediterranean countries. The objective is to promote the Mediterranean diet across Med countries, and this wouldn’t be possible without the support and funding of the PRIMA programme and the Horizon 2020 Programme of the European Commission.