If you haven’t heard yet, the Mediterranean Diet is the only diet in the world with extensive scientific research behind it’s claims. What does it claim? It claims to help with weight loss, a decreased risk for heart disease, diabetes, depression, and dementia! In other words Western diseases and conditions. There is no one militant Mediterranean diet to follow like many trendy diets offer, simply because there are many eating patterns spread across many cultures living in the Mediterranean region of the world. This makes it the best flexitarian diet in the world too. One we can all get on board with because of it’s flexibility. But there is a key common foundation of the Mediterranean Diet. It is abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and olive oil. It generally features fish and poultry—lean sources of protein—over red meat, which contains more saturated fat. Red wine is consumed regularly but in moderate amounts. And oh yeah, let’s not forget, they generally lead an active lifestyle, and I don’t mean Spinning classes at the Gym!
Today we focus on Greece and talk with Maria Benardis. She has published three cook books titled “My Greek Family Table” now released here in in USA/Canada this month and previously released in Australia in 2009 by Penguin Books which won the Gourmand World Cook Book Award 2009 – Best Mediterranean Cook Book in Australia and “Cooking and Eating Wisdom for Better Health’ published by Balboa Press. She also has an ebook titled “A Greekalicious Feast”. Founder of Greekalicious she has offered cooking instructions and coaching at many venues both in Australia and the USA. These include the Intuitive Well in Sydney, Australia, The Brooklyn Kitchen, NYC, The Natural Gourmet Institute, NYC and Haven’s Kitchen, NYC. I am so honored to have her back, as some of you you might remember I named her WWB ICON in 2014. A true World Wise Beauty dedicated to advancing wellness culture. Learn more about Maria and her beautiful journey to wellness through cooking below…
Welcome Back Maria! I am so happy to feature another of your wonderful cookbooks! More than just a cookbook, this is really a personal memoir and tribute to your Greek heritage and family. Through your memories and stories we really get a sense of the Greek culture and how important food is to the people of Greece. You are truly a World Wise Beauty having lived on 3 continents. I bring this up because your book is also a story of immigration. You shared so many touching parts of your childhood in the book. I can imagine through empathy what it was like for you as a child to suddenly have to move to another part of the world and all by yourself on a plane. I will let you tell our readers why you moved from Australia back to Greece as a young child.
Maria Benardis: When I was 3 ½ years old, my younger sister and I went to live on the island of Psara, Greece. My mother was very ill with cancer and my father sent us to live there with his mother, Katina. We didn’t know it at the time, but our mother succumbed to cancer shortly after we left. If I board a plane today and happen to see children traveling unaccompanied, my mind travels back to that first flight to Greece with my sister. Even though it was such a traumatic time, I can’t help but smile at the memory now.
Lauroly Q- What a heart-breaking experience Maria and so glad you can smile now for those two brave little girls on their journey. Despite the turmoil and displacement you were in some ways blessed to live with your Grandmother and had the opportunity to soak up the beautiful culture of Greece. I love how you created your own private sanctuary growing your own herbs and vegetables as a young girl. Tell us about your little Garden on the island of Psara, Greece…
Maria Benardis: I loved to go on walking expeditions around the island. One day, while on one of my regular walks, I stumbled across a small enclosed, deserted area, with just a few weeds growing. I decided that it was now going to be mine and that I would create my own magical fruit and vegetable garden. I decided not to tell anybody about it, especially my grandmother. To create my garden, I took some of the herbs and vegetables my grandmother grew and planted them there. I grew all sorts of things: small tomatoes, thyme, oregano, wild greens, zucchini, chamomile leaves, and native flowers. It was an extremely colorful and happy garden and it became my favorite place on the island—somewhere I could escape to, to dream and be free. I derived great joy from watching my plants grow.
Lauroly Q- Your upbringing is so foreign to many Americans who grew up with packaged meat, and processed food sources. Only those who lived on farms can relate and understand your experience. Yet this may be what’s missing today–a real connection to our food sources. While living with your grandmother you had chores every morning that included feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs, milking the goat, and picking the herbs and vegetables. Sounds so simple, yet it’s hard work! You ate mainly seafood and vegetables, which seems to be the mainstay of the Mediterranean diet. You referred to meat as a rare luxury in the book. Tell us more about this and how your Greek family viewed eating animal meat…
Animal meat was considered sacred and before any animal was sacrificed for our enjoyment our island priest would bless it. We ate meat on special occasions only such as Easter, Christmas, when someone got married on the island, birthdays etc. In Greek Orthodox culture, many people may not know that we have meatless Wednesday’s and Friday’s amongst other days in the religious calendar in any case. Additionally, we closely aligned our eating habits to those of our ancient Ancestors. As many would know in Ancient Greece many were vegetarians, vegans and fruitarians.
As outlined in my other book/eBook “Cooking & Eating Wisdom for Better Health.” “In ancient Greece many people avoided animal flesh altogether. They believed that by eating the flesh of animals that had been slaughtered they would be ingesting pain and that this was detrimental to ones health. Plutarch ( Greek biographer and essayist) tells us: ‘Man is by nature not a carnivorous animal’. ‘It is not natural to mankind to feed on flesh, we first of all demonstrate from the very shape and figure of the body. For the human body no way resembles those that were born for ravenousness’. ‘Shall we reckon a soul to be a small expense.’ ‘Animal food is injurious: it clogs and confuses the mind’ and the ‘mind weak and feeble’. It operates unfavourably on character’. ‘If we must eat flesh let it be with sorrow and pity; not tormenting and abusing the poor animal before taking its life. Animals have senses’.”“Who knows the bodies of animals may contain the souls of deceased men.”
Lauroly Q- Thank you for sharing great wisdom we all need to revisit. There are so many interesting stories like “The Grape Leaf Lady’ weaved throughout the book, but we can’t forget the wonderful delicious recipes! I think I mentioned in our last interview together that Greek food is one of my favorite cuisines. I was fortunate to visit Greece more than once, and I have wonderful memories of eating. I think it was the simplicity of the food that worked for me and the aromatic herbs and spices. I remember going to a Greek restaurant outside the city of Athens and there was no menu! They just brought out various dishes of food to the table, as if we were family. They mainly served fish and vegetable dishes and it was all so delicious! What herbs and spices are commonly used in Greek cooking? I love how you call them healing ingredients as many spices are. Food really can be medicine don’t you think?
Maria Benardis: There are many spices and herbs still used in Greek cookery that were used by my ancient Greek ancestors. I cover their medicinal properties observed by them and now at the back of my book and throughout “My Greek Family Table”. They include basil comes from the Greek basilius, meaning “king” or “royal.” the king of herbs and the crowning herb in Greek cuisine. The father of medicine, Hippocrates, regarded basil as beneficial to the heart and prescribed it for the treatment of constipation and for the prevention of vomiting. Other include mint, dill, cilantro, Bay Leaf, Marjoram, Oregano ( is derived from two Greek words: oros (mountain) and ganos (joy) (i.e, “joy of the mountain”)), parsley, Rosemary, and Thyme. Laura, you are absolutely right Food is Medicine and in the wise words of Hippocrates “Let Medicine be thy food and food thy medicine”. I was ill for many years with cysts that were going to turn into cancer and the doctors were not able to help me. I turned to food and mind medicine and healed myself.
Photograph from ‘My Greek Family Table’ Book
Lauroly Q-My favorite part of the book ‘My Greek Family Table’ is where you talk about returning to Greece after living in Australia for a long time. It was on that trip you discovered your calling and true love of Greek food. Can you share a little bit of that story?
Maria Benardis: Yes, I have the whole story in my book. Briefly in August 2004 I went on a life-changing trip to Greece. It was my first visit back there since leaving Psara all those years before. While there, I visited Kalamata and many of the beautiful islands. However, it was on the island of Mykonos that my life changed forever, when I visited the small church of Saint Fanourios. It was there that my decision to pursue my passion for food was sealed and my destiny set on a new course. Saint Fanourios is a very small church on one of the main winding streets in Mykonos. Beautifully whitewashed, the church proudly hangs the Greek flag hangs proudly outside. It had an inviting look about it and I felt compelled to go in and light a candle. The church was adorned with beautiful icons painted with vibrant colors and finished off with gold and silver. In the corner there were many candles that had being lit that day by people who had passed by. I felt a peace in my soul that I had not experienced before, and the sweet fragrance of the holy basil heightened my sense of tranquility. Suddenly I experienced an epiphany and saw all that was about to happen in my life pass before me. I realized it was time for me to reinvent my life, and in that church I saw a new path set out for me to follow. I decided then and there that I was going to dedicate myself to bringing Greek food and culture to the rest of the world.
Lauroly Closing- Thank you so much for joining us Maria, I could ask you so many other questions, but I think your book is really special. Everyone needs to read your story while turning the beautifully photographed pages of your Greekalicious dishes and classic Greek tables. They will not only find delicious Greek recipes, but perhaps a fresh perspective on their own relationship with food. Thank you for sharing your inspiring story, and love of your Greek culture and heritage. Mission accomplished Maria! Greece will live on in you and now in us.
Maria Benardis Closing:
Thank you for interviewing me and for your time. In closing I would like to end with some words I have in “My Greek Family Table”
in the acknowledgments section. This book is for all the Greeks (and I believe we all have a bit of Greek within us all) over the world. You are all so fortunate to be part of a civilization that has contributed many things, such as democracy, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, theater, arts, healing therapies, and most importantly of all gastronomy; forgotten by the world but now time to be remembered.