Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Slow Food UK - You ask, they answer

Interesting Q&A from Slow Food UK this week on the Guardian's Green Living blog. I managed to sneak in a research-related question about new farmers at the top.

Go here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/green-living-blog/2010/jun/28/you-ask-slow-food

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

'People really like the things I grow, and it's a good example of how small-scale farming can feed communities.'

This article is a couple years old but somehow it popped up in my Google News Alerts this morning. Anyway, it's the first time I've seen it and thought it was an inspiring story, a good example of how a knowledge of food production can help to overcome other social and economic disadvantages.


Thursday, 3 June 2010

Vote Bee!

For those of you outside the UK, perhaps a very short preamble is needed. Since full jackpot wins on the National Lottery are relatively rare, the money earned from ticket purchases but not distributed in payouts is distributed to various arts, science, health, education and community projects. Some initiatives can receive extra funding through the annual 'Good Causes Awards', which are voted on by the public.

I'd like to encourage everyone to vote (you can do this even outside the UK) for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's application for £49,000. As many of you will already be aware, we face a very serious ecological threat from declining bee populations. While the science of colony collapse disorder is still developing and full of uncertainties, the need to protect bee species and habitats is urgent. Bees are the most efficient pollinators we have, making both managed agriculture and fragile wild ecosystems dependent on their continuing work.

Please vote for the Bee Conservation Trust's important project here.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

I Contadini Nuovi - Raw living at Il Granello

Romano selects herbs for the market

Though the focus of my research has always been on new farmers, or contadini nuovi in Italian, some farmers I've worked with are much 'newer' than others. Romano and Elisa Manni are a young couple with three children who relocated to rural Emilia-Romagna three years ago to begin an entirely new life as farmers. Romano had previously worked as a marine geologist and spent much of his working life offshore, a lifestyle he felt was taking a toll on his family commitments and real ambitions. Elisa, originally from Bologna, trained as an environmental engineer, another career requiring regular dislocation. A few years spent in Puglia in the south of Italy gave them time to incubate some ideas as they tried to find a path that would combine family stability with their interests in ecology and botany.

After long periods of fruitless searching for an affordable home with enough fertile land to accommodate organic agriculture, Elisa and Romano eventually discovered the property that would become Azienda Agricola Il Granello, squeezed between high Appenine hills about 20km from Bologna. The house was badly neglected and the land was worse. When they arrived their two hectares were completely smothered by weeds, requiring a total restoration effort. This is still a work in progress that will take a lot time and plenty of help from WWOOF volunteers. Still, they set to work immediately and have achieved an impressive amount in the short time that they've been here.

Their main focus is on herbs, both medicinal and culinary, and they grow a staggering variety of them. In the week I spent working with them I was introduced to several varieties of sage, multiple types of mint and many versions of thyme, marjoram, chives, tarragon, basil and parsley. They also grow potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower and zucchini as well as unusual varieties of lettuce, chicory and other greens. In addition to their vegetable and herb production, they keep hens, geese and ducks for eggs, raise rabbits and chickens for meat and have some of the oddest pets I've encountered anywhere in Italy, with a special mention going to Pancetta the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and the miniature Tibetan goats (actually used for grazing around the perimeter of the property to keep unwanted growth in check).

It's an impressive transformation of what was simply a vast field of weeds just a few years ago. There's still a lot of experimentation going on, and Romano admits that he never knows how a plant is going to take to their emergent ecosystem. He repeatedly emphasises that you can only learn so much about agriculture through theory – you need to get your hands dirty before any of it starts making sense, and you'll inevitably find outcomes different to expectations. Just under half their property still needs recuperated, and the organic methods they insist on are labour-intensive and time-consuming.

Il Granello was a massive task for a young family to take on, one that a lot of people would probably write off as an impossible fantasy. Their efforts, however, are paying off. WWOOFers provide an immense help, and their big country house can host up to four volunteers at time. During my week with them I seeded, weeded, cut herbs, fed the animals, transplanted seedlings and helped organise their stall for the Wednesday and Friday markets in Bologna. Organised by a local farmers' association, Campi Aperti (Open Fields), the market has been a major financial lifeline for the family. Their unusual herbs and vegetables sell well and they've had swift success in stamping an identity onto their produce. The challenge for them, says Romano, isn't finding people who want to buy their produce – it's producing consistently and in quantities that can satisfy demand. Their stall at the Campi Aperti market was noticed by the coordinator of Bologna's Mercato della Terra, a weekly market in the city sponsored by Slow Food. Vendors must demonstrate a strictly monitored commitment to high-quality food, with many specialising in rare or 'endangered' products. Preparations are being made by Romano and Elisa to start selling at the Mercato della Terra in late May.

The Subaru loaded for the Campi Aperti market in Bologna

One of my main research questions concerns how associations such as WWOOF and Slow Food facilitate back-to-the-land migration. It's been something of a revelation to see it put so clearly in the Il Granello example. I'm finding the value of these networks constantly reinforced, enough to make me despair at the thought of where people like Elisa and Romano would be without them. The word that keeps coming to mind when I think of their situation is 'raw', though I hope that doesn't sound critical or even undesirable. They depend on the simplest forms of market trading for their sustenance, not to mention amenable weather and plentiful help from volunteers and family. Plant seeds, hope they'll grow, sell the result at the market, carry your weekly earnings home in a cashbox... This is a tense existence, but they've managed to stay positive and optimistic throughout.

Elisa sets up the Il Granello market stall

I'm very grateful to all the WWOOF hosts I've stayed with so far and haven't had a bad experience yet. I've learned loads from everyone and have always come away with a lot of admiration for what they're trying to achieve. I particularly want to salute Romano and Elisa, though, who've created a worthy and potentially very successful project from origins riven with disadvantages. Also, another special mention goes to Romano's parents, who arrived from Puglia for the week in a car crammed with incredible Pugliese treats – cakes, biscotti, sweets, cheese, fresh homemade pasta, marinated anchovies, octopus salad, limoncello and more. La nonna's cooking was some of the best I've ever had, and somehow magically served whenever I was at my hungriest. Grazie mille!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

AP article about WWOOF

The Associated Press published a good overview of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms yesterday. Despite its exclusive focus on US farms, there are strong similarities with what I've been doing in Italy.

Read it here.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

On decapitating my dinner...

Until I turned 26 I'd been mostly vegetarian for 13 years. I abstained from fish until I was about 18, and once I became a pescetarian I still avoided meat until I was converted by a roast duck breast in orange sauce. A delicious one. I don't regret spending so long without meat, nor do I feel guilty about consuming it now. The meat industry-sponsored lie that vegetarianism is unhealthy has no factual basis at all, while militant vegetarianism is both fatally unrealistic and often equally bereft of meaningful first-hand information.

One challenge that vegetarians often ask of carnivores is whether they would be prepared to kill their own dinner. Since I started eating meat again, and perhaps because I came to it later in life, I've tried to educate myself about the processes of livestock rearing, slaughter and butchery so that I can make well-informed decisions about meat consumption that favour humane and sustainable methods. I'm still hugely ignorant of the butcher's art, so I want to know exactly where certain cuts come from, what happens to the leftover parts of slaughtered animals, and which methods of killing are best for all parties. Inevitably, this includes exposing myself to a bit of gore. Through exposure I've become more educated and less squeamish, and it seemed an appropriate next step to participate in a killing, to not only witness but become participant in the delivery of death that gives us meat.

I don't believe that every person who eats meet should necessarily have to kill their dinner, mainly because this is unrealistic. It's akin to demanding that vegetarians only earn the right to eat vegetables once they've grown their own. However, few would dispute that growing your own provides a lot of educational and gastronomic value, prompting consumers to appreciate the risks, inconsistencies and economics of food production, not to mention almost always providing optimal freshness and nutrition. The same values are imparted through participating in livestock slaughter, with the added benefit of providing a real insight into the ethics of meat production. Depending on others to slaughter and prepare meat assumes a degree of trust, and where free range and organic produce is concerned, we may rely too readily on certification systems whose stamps of approval rub salve on our doubts. It is entirely possible to raise certifiably free-range, organic chickens using highly mechanised, industrial methods. These meat products may meet official welfare standards (often agreed after consultation with industry lobbyists) but would they meet your personal ones? There's no better way to find out than taking part in a slaughter yourself. As I said, I'm not so extreme as to say that anyone unwilling to do this is unworthy of the right to eat meat, but it should least bring them to question why they would ingest something about which they have such little intimate knowledge. What, truthfully, does passing the dirty work onto someone else actually bring the consumer? If the answer is willful ignorance of uncomfortable facts, then I think it is right to challenge their consumption choices because these decisions have real impacts on the environment, rural economy and animal welfare.

I was offered a chance to help with the slaughter of five chickens on my second day at Cascina dei Frutasè. Simone, Bruno's elder son, had to choose five of the fattest of their couple dozen chickens and kill them for use in the family's restaurant, with leftovers eaten in the house. I'd built up the event to signify something important, some rite of passage that would leave me forever changed. In actual fact it was over quickly, five chickens squawking and pecking one minute, all dead about half an hour later. I wasn't profoundly changed by it, so can't offer any reflective wisdom. It's just a mundane farm task, one that nobody really likes but is essential in a food economy that places a high value on top-quality meat. First they're alive, then they're dead. The best I can offer is to explain how it happens:

Simone brings me into the coop and casts about for the largest birds. They're given plenty of space to cluck around outdoors, but all are kept inside while the best ones are chosen. There's a slight sense of panic as Simone and I move around, and the chickens do appear to express fear, especially when Simone shoots his arm out to grab a chosen bird by the legs. The captured chicken is quickly turned upside down, where it goes into a strange kind of repose as Simone carries it out of the coop by its feet. Possibly frozen with fear, or maybe just confused, it remains completely still, wings folded tightly, while Simone fixes a little noose around its feet. I carry the bird by the string and we go outside, to a mesh fence where several hooks await. The bird is hooked onto the fence by the string around its feet, and Simone shows me how to hold its wings. It will jerk and panic, he warns, and its wings need to be held tight to prevent it from spraying blood or injuring itself further in its last seconds. We lift the wings up and I hold them together where the joint meets the shoulder. I instantly recognise this part of its anatomy – it feels exactly like a naked chicken wing you'd prepare to cook: a large joint, thin layer of skin and tender meat beneath. I don't know why but this is the strangest moment of the whole experience, my hands recognising a consumer product while my eyes see a living animal. Simone takes a very sharp knife, used exclusively for slaughter, and explains that he needs to slit a vein in its throat, not an artery, or else the blood will spray and squirt. He begins sawing into the red skin of the chicken's neck while the bird remains silent and still, as if it knows there's no point in resisting. Success is marked by the sound of a sizeable tear into the skin, followed by the steady flow of blood onto the concrete block below. It comes fast enough to give the chicken a quick death but, as Simone had hoped, flows smoothly rather than splutters. Its fight or flight responses kick into gear and it tries to flap its wings. I hold it steady, hating that I'm winning such an unbalanced fight but conscious that its fate will be worse, its death more gruesome and prolonged, if I allow it to flap away, hanging upside down with its throat cut. I look more directly at it before it dies and see it mechanically opening and closing its mouth, trying to take breaths that will never come. Its body swells and deflates, still searching for air, still employing its instinct to keep living, until it all stops, forever.

The whole process, from capturing the chicken in the coop to taking it off the slaughter hook, hasn't lasted more than a couple minutes. There's no doubt that those last moments of its life are awful, having been lifted from relative freedom to captivity and dispatched by a knife to the throat. I can't pretend that I can sense animal emotion, so I won't offer anything as glib as a reassurance that it led a happy life. I have no idea what chicken happiness would look like. What I can offer is an invitation to look into the condition of birds in high-density factory farms if you find what I've written above, or these photos, upsetting. What I can infer about animal emotion would hold that the freedom to walk in open space, eat a mixed diet and experience regular sunlight is something that Bruno's chickens are naturally inclined toward. Factory farming gives animals a death which is probably no more or less traumatic, but subjects them to a traumatic life.

I understand why the up-close reality of animal slaughter is upsetting. It asks us to confront death and our complicity in causing it. As meat eaters we are complicit in death on an enormous scale, and though I wouldn't expect everyone to kill an animal to prove their worth as a carnivore, I would insist that our choices about meat are considered with these factors in mind. If they make you uncomfortable then you may want to rethink those choices, because the more distance you put between yourself and the source of your meat, the uglier the processes which bring it to your table are.

All photos were taken by me, just after the slaughter and during their preparation for butchering.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Farewell to my farming buddy

Laura's health hasn't always been the greatest while we've been in Italy, and on a recent trip back to Glasgow she decided to stay behind and get some treatments done. She's made a big improvement in many respects, so it's proving to be a good choice. She's also been offered a job in Glasgow, meaning she won't be faced with perpetual unemployment after returning from my fieldwork. Again, it makes sense for her to stay. So it looks like I'll be going back and forth between Scotland and Italy a little more than originally intended, and hopefully Laura will get a chance to come and visit me a couple times over the summer. The trick would be for me to find a WWOOF host between a beach and an airport...

Sensible as it all sounds, I'll miss having a buddy to do this with, especially as Laura was proving a dab hand with the slop bucket and manure shovel. But she's convinced that cleaning a chicken coop is a job best experienced only once. After that it just becomes routine.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Cascina dei Frutasé - Maximum diversity in a small rural space

Long time no update...

Don't worry, loyal readers, I haven't given up on the blog. I've just been doing a lot of work-related travelling lately and haven't managed to get much written.

My fears of gulag-style labour in blizzard conditions turned out to be unfounded; in fact we got the first real scent of spring in Cumiana, Piedmont, about 30km from Turin and 60km from the French border, where Laura and I spent a week in March doing WWOOF volunteering with the Zaro family: Bruno, Milena, Simone and Matteo.

A common but vital strategy for back-to-the-land migration involves the diversification of economic activities. I've seen this put into practice in various ways, but Bruno's family offers the must successful example that I've been able to document so far. Bruno and Milena both lived and worked in Turin until the start of the 1990s, when they decided to uproot to the local countryside. Both were tired of the time restrictions imposed by their regimented work cycles, and put faith in the idea that a rural relocation would offer greater personal freedom.

The donkeys of Cascina dei Frutasé: Ettore, Fillipo, Chan and Bierba

They began growing wheat, spelt and lesser-known grains traditional to the Alps, milling the cereals themselves and baking bread for retail at the farmers' markets of Pinerolo and Turin. This was their primary activity for about 10 years until they purchased Cascina dei Frutasé, a former fruit orchard that had fallen into neglect. Here they began to diversify their operations, designing terraces for growing leafy plants such as lettuce, cabbage, radicchio and valerian, as well as onions, garlic and other vegetables. At the top of the hill on which their house sits is a vegetable patch (known in Italy as an orto), where Laura helped plant this year's crop of onions and peas.

She can't train her husband, but Laura sure can train a hedge

Few of these vegetables find their way to local markets, however, as most get used by the family and in the restaurant they built as part of the house. Only open on weekends, the family prepares (with just a little outside help) a fixed-price menu, usually consisting of salad, antipasti, pasta or rice, meat, cheese and desert. They aim to offer mostly organic meals, with as much as possible grown on the property. On the Saturday night that Laura and I stayed there we were treated to the same food given to paying customers, all of which demonstrated the best of rich Piemontese cuisine. I think we ate something like a ridiculous 10 courses (all of them small, but we still had to call it quits before Milena started making crepes for us) but I remember being particularly blown away by the gallantina of rabbit and a warm local tomino topped with chestnut honey. Tomini are small rounds of cheese, usually drizzled with a light sauce or strong honey. The one Milena served was produced by a friend of theirs, and had a similar if less stringy texture to fresh mozzarella. Like mozzarella it had a very thin skin, and when punctured it oozed a soft, gooey interior. Simplicity and indulgence, perfectly harmonised.

One of Bruno's synergistic growing experiments

We're still a long way from covering the full scale of Cascina Frutase's operations. They keep donkeys, 2 horses and a mule (used primarily for summer trekking in the local hills, as well as a little farm work), and about 50 hens for eggs and 50 chickens reared for meat. There are two polytunnels for growing fruit and veg, clusters of fruit trees whose annual bounty is transformed into jams and marmalades and various mounds built for 'synergistic' agriculture, where Bruno is currently experimenting with wheat, spinach and onions.

Rising dough in the bakery / workshop

A workshop sits next to the house where grain is milled and dough produced for the 80 loaves of bread that are baked every week in a traditional wood-fired bread oven. There are three types of bread – wheat, spelt and another Piemontese grain – all hand-produced and looking very much the traditional artisan loaf. A lot of work goes into the baking, but it seems to result in a good payoff.

Bruno and Simone, preparing the loaves

On Friday afternoons Simone takes the bread to Turin, where an organic food shop buys about 20 loaves and a GAS group (a self-organised buying collective, more on which some other time...) takes a similar amount. The remaining loaves go to markets in Turin and Pinerolo, where Bruno also sells his eggs, preserves, and occasionally any excess fruit or vegetables. As I've been told repeatedly by several farmers in Italy, though, the money is in trasformazione – processing the raw materials into a more consumer-friendly package, such as jams, spreads or baked goods.

Some finished rounds, minutes out of the oven

Sunday farmers' market in Turin

Finally, the family uses what spare space they have to offer bed and breakfast hospitality.

The Zaros have all these bases covered in a more comprehensive way than I've seen at any other farm. They still operate with a spirit of experimentation and optimism, but have also found a formula which allows them to extract maximum value from a small piece of land. My next WWOOFing dispatch will show what can be achieved on an even smaller patch of ground, and within a densely populated area.

Some products from Cascina dei Frutasé

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Next up: a masochistic endurance test in Piedmont

We're supposed to be going up to the foothills of the Alps later this week, in the chilly northern province of Piedmont. Here's a view of mild, temperate Umbria this morning, though, so I don't know what we're letting ourselves in for. Whatever happens, any trip northwards will be preceded by a stop-off at these thermal pools near Siena. Most of the hotels with thermal spas will give non-guests a pretty reasonable day pass, usually around €10, and I cannot wait to immerse myself in these steaming baths. Any time the slightest hint of spring arrives, we get dumped on with piles of snow or days and days of rain.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

In praise of... Agretti

I've been meaning to highlight some unusual vegetables I've discovered in Italy (or meats, for that matter... or condiments, seasonings, cheeses, liqueurs...) and thought I'd start with the magical cardoon (looks like a giant celery, tastes like the best artichoke you've ever had), but that's sadly now out of season. What is in abundance at the moment is even more of a revelation. Known in English-speaking lands by the far much less inspiring name of saltwort, agretti is a grass-like cousin of the common tumbleweed (which, of course, has to begin life as a healthy green plant before beginning its inevitable roll across a dusty landscape). Saltwort also has an interesting history of industrial use, having once been the primary source of soda ash, crucial to traditional soap and glass production.

Historically (but not by necessity) cultivated in Mediterranean salt waters, it does have a slight saltiness worthy of its name. Agretti in Italian, though, implies a slight sourness. In actual fact, it has a very balanced, earthy flavour, most akin to very fresh spinach, with the mature depth of asparagus and strong earthiness of beetroot. It can be eaten raw but I like it cooked in just a little salted water for 3-4 minutes, enough time to swell the stalks and bring out some colour while keeping its firmness.

Its flavour is bold enough to suit minimal accompaniment, so it would probably be fine with just some butter and lemon juice, or olive oil and garlic. I learned a great recipe for a dressing from Walter at Ristonchia, though, which is definitely worth attempting. In a food processor, blend 10 shelled walnuts, one clove of garlic, the juice of half a lemon, salt, pepper and plenty of olive oil. Bring it to the smooth consistency of an oily salad dressing, and if it's too thick just add more olive oil. This is a mouth-watering match for agretti, but I'm sure it would also work well with asparagus, spinach, cavolo nero or other greens.

Sadly, it's hard to find young agretti outside Italy (and my understanding is that mature saltwort isn't edible, or at least isn't worth the bother). I think you'd have better luck trying to grow it in the US or UK than ever finding it in a supermarket. This company offers some seeds, but claims that even the seeds are a bit of a rarity.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

ISEE Conference Discussion Session, Germany, 22-25 Aug 2010

I've just received the excellent news that my proposal to the biennial conference of the International Society for Ecological Economics in Bremen and Oldenburg, Germany has been accepted. I'll be chairing a discussion session on alternative agro-food networks for postgrad and early post-doc researchers, consisting of four short papers and then a long discussion with the speakers. I'm not an expert on ecological economics, which can get extremely technical on both the ecology and economic fronts, so didn't think my chances of acceptance were all that great. The feedback from the reviewers of my abstract was really positive though, so it appears my proposal was more relevant than I knew.

The next stage is to send out a call for papers on some mailing lists and then try to narrow all the submissions down to four presentations. I gave a 20-minute paper at the Royal Geographical Society conference in Manchester last year, but this is the first time I've chaired a discussion session so the responsibilities are quite different. Taking this role saves me actually writing a paper, though. And earns me a free trip to Germany!

Here's the abstract for the session:

(New and emerging researchers) Seeding alternatives: politics and practice in alternative agro-food networks

Andrew M Wilbur

University of Glasgow

This session encourages postgraduate and early postdoctoral researchers to present and discuss recent research concerning alternative agro-food networks (AAFNs) as a component of broader trans-disciplinary investigations into ecological economics. The question of what makes any food system ‘alternative’ is regularly challenged in the literature of AAFNs (Marsden and Sonnino, 2006; McCarthy, 2006; Goodman and Goodman, 2007) and should not be taken for granted. Contemporary AAFNs are more often than not dependent on the infrastructure of capitalism to function. Yet the principles that underlie many AAFNs express well-defined ambitions alternative to unfettered economic growth, often favouring cooperative, community-based and ecologically sensitive models of production, distribution and consumption. The politics and practices of AAFNs are entangled at multiple levels, from localised questions of best practice to international regulation and competition structures. Therefore this session aims to take a broad and inclusive view of AAFNs, encouraging theoretical reflections, empirical analyses and speculative suggestions for further, possibly trans-disciplinary, research.

Researchers are invited to discuss research concerning AAFNs as they relate to several possible themes:

* ecological sustainability

* alternative economic exchanges

* politics, empowerment and resistance

* governance and regulation

* land use and resource management

* de-growth, Slow movements and (re)localisation

* indigenous technical knowledge

* ethics, values and contestation

This session will be chaired by Andrew Wilbur, PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow.

Works cited

Goodman, D and Goodman, M (2007) Localism, Livelihoods and the 'Post-Organic': Changing Perspectives on Alternative Food Networks in the United States. Alternative Food Geographies. Maye, D., Holloway, L. & Kneafsey, M. London, Elsevier.

Marsden, T and Sonnino, R (2006) "Beyond the divide: rethinking relationships between conventional and alternative food networks in Europe." Journal of Economic Geography 6: 181-199.

McCarthy, J. (2006) "Rural geography: alternative rural economies - the search for alterity in forests, fisheries, food, and fair trade." Progress in Human Geography 30(6): 803-811

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Anatomy of Self-Sufficiency (Part 1)


The Tuscan hilltown of Cortona was forever changed by Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun. Inspired by the book or film and determined to claim their own piece of the Tuscan dream, wealthy Europeans, Americans, Japanese and Russians have been buying up tracts of land and pumping up house prices in the area for a good couple of decades, making this one of Italy's most expensive regions. Still, a bit of careful exploration can reveal places like Ristonchia, where Walter Rossteuscher has lived since the early 1980s, creating a life of quiet serenity, surrounded by natural beauty, without the need for excess millions.

Ristonchia is a hamlet which has been almost completely abandoned, about 500m in the hills between Cortona and Castiglion Fiorentino. Once home to over a hundred people, only 5 households are currently inhabited. The gradual abandonment of Ristonchia both enabled – through cheap land prices - and benefited from Walter's stewardship of the surrounding land. Starting small after moving to Tuscany from Munich, Walter initially harvested some local olives and grapes and raised sheep. As more land his become available, Walter's agricultural activities have expanded to encompass 500 olive trees (some over 500 years old, on ancient terraces possibly built by Greek settlers during the Minoan period), a vineyard, chestnut grove, woodland for foraging, as well as chickens, guinea fowl, goats, donkeys and a horse. Walter also keeps bees and produces his own honey, and maintains a small organic vegetable garden. Walter is not completely self-sufficient, nor does he claim to be. His production and exchange of basic foodstuffs, however, have hugely reduced his dependency on market-rate products. For instance, goats love to graze on the leaves of olive trees, so the annual pruning of the groves provides ample food for the animals at no cost. Food waste from Walter's house also goes to the goats, who definitely live up to their omnivorous image. Heavier limbs from the olive trees are cut into firewood that will eventually find its way into Walter's stufa, or stove, which heats not only the kitchen but also the house's water supply and the radiators in other rooms. Manure, of course, is returned to the land as fertiliser. Nature has a value in places like Ristonchia that is seldom recognised in less remote parts – nothing is wasted, and a use can be found for nearly anything the land offers. This kind of mixed farming is, as Walter says, almost a closed circle. That is, it maintains a self-supporting ecological cycle with an in-built economy that generates value and disincentivises waste.

Walter is a veteran of the many left-wing experiments in communal living that occurred during the 1970s, and has kept many contacts with some of the more successful ones. He's also been active in several organic and small farmers' networks, including WWOOF, ASCI and a group he helped to found, APE. Products are regularly traded between farms, so that growers can fulfill their needs in exchange for an excess of their own products. This isn't a completely perfect system, and many farmers in the area will produce the same commodity crops, resulting in gluts and shortages. Small producers often find themselves with a glut of olive oil, for instance. They produce more than enough for their own use, but so do many of their friends and neighbours. For direct sales in small quantities, the cost of bottling and labeling oil for the retail market is rarely justified by the profits on the oil, leaving growers with more than they can sell and depressed wholesale prices. Walter, however, has been relatively fortunate in this regard. A small organic processing firm, a few hundred metres above Ristonchia in the Apennines, has been buying a couple hundred litres of oil from Walter for the past couple years to use in their products. His work with bees has been less successful recently; colony collapse syndrome has affected his honey production over the last two years, and he has had to resume buying a product that he once produced in abundance.

Learning the art of homemade ravioli

The degree of self-sufficiency that he's achieved – while not nearly complete – is more of a relaxed, simplified way of life than the strained asceticism that marks some experiments in self-reliance. Winters can be tough in Ristonchia, where the stone houses are several hundred years old, but Walter's lifestyle is characterised by good food and wine, all produced with high-quality ingredients, usually from local organic farmers. Staying with Walter doesn't feel like some kind of self-imposed exile to prove a point or score some ideological gain. The slow, quiet simplicity of Ristonchia feels more like a wise and creative choice than an angry rejection of consumer society. Nonetheless, it's a revelation to see a way of life so independent of the kind of consumerism normally taken for granted, and to see it work so successfully. And it doesn't cost the millions that the Tuscan Sun crowd seem to think is appropriate for an old farmhouse and some olive trees.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Wild pigs for Valentine's

I'm going away tomorrow for 10 days in a fairly remote part of Tuscany, where I don't think the broadband pipes have penetrated. So there probably won't be any updates until I get back. In the meantime, here's a parting gift. I cooked up this wild boar sausage stew today to accompany Laura's delicious saltimbocca. I sort of made it up and it's dead simple, provided you can get wild boar sausages.

4 medium wild boar sausages
1 sprig of rosemary
1 onion
2 chopped dried chillies
2 garlic cloves
1 bay leaf
1 can of tomatoes
1 can of borlotti or cannellini beans
Plenty of red wine

Chop the onion and fry them up in some olive oil for about 10 minutes, adding the chillies, rosemary and bay leaf about 5 minutes in. While the onions are frying, slice the sausages down the middle, then chop each half. You should get about 15-20 pieces out of each sausage. Toss them into the pan for about 6-8 minutes on a high heat. They don't release much fat, so add more olive oil if the pan starts to get dry and sticky. Add the garlic. Once the garlic has been browned, pour in a big glug of red wine and simmer for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes and beans and cook on a low heat for a good long time. If the stew starts to get really thick, add more wine. Don't be afraid to use lots. Once it's cooked for at least 45 minutes, it's ready to serve.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Snowball's chance in hell of pruning olive trees

I'm supposed to spend next week helping a guy prune his olive trees and vines. He's further north and at a higher elevation than where we are, so I'm not sure how it's all going to work, given that this was the state of our nearest olive grove today:

I think this video's dead. Here are some pictures:

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Four men and a pig

I feel like I haven't stopped yammering about meat since I started this blog.

No apologies, though. I've been really enjoying The Guardian's 'Four Men and a Pig' video series on their Word of Mouth food blog. Old-fashioned butchery the Italian way. Highly recommended if you want to understand just how valuable a resource a single pig can be.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Italy proposes horse meat ban

Full disclosure - I've eaten raw horse meat. It happened at one of those conveyor belt sushi restaurants in Japan, before I understood the Kanji character for 'horse'. I thought it was fish until I started chewing it, when I realised that it was definitely a four-legged land animal. That was the last time, and I don't really fancy trying it again.

That said, I can't help but feel a little ambivalent about the horse meat ban proposed by the ruling coalition in Italy's national government. I've never been convinced by the arguments of anyone claiming that one kind of meat is acceptable while another is not. Italian politician Francesca Martini claims that 'the dignity of horses should be respected'. Presumably this means that animals that she enjoys eating have no dignity. Meanwhile, Luca Zaia, quickly proving himself to be a hysterical lunatic of the first order, grants himself the philosophical authority to proclaim that horses should be 'considered just like cats and dogs.' I don't have any desire whatsoever to consume a cat or dog, but again, have never found the moral arguments against it - at least when coming from carnivores - to be persuasive. The appalling treatment of many animals reared for meat, on the other hand, is certainly worth fighting against.

Surely the dignity of animals should be determined by how they are treated in life, not what happens to them after death? In justifying his McItaly endorsement, Luca Zaia has no problem in referring to cows as 'units' for Italian farmers to profit from. I understand that this is the economic logic of agriculture, but it's deeply hypocritical to then pontificate about protecting another species' special humanistic qualities. What I think this reflects is the emotional disconnection from animals that industrial agriculture has produced. The controversy over horse meat essentially reveals that some people don't want to eat animals with which they think it's capable of developing an emotional bond. Fair enough. But this is an easy position to take when all your animal foods are raised, slaughtered, butchered and packaged by somebody else. In those conditions it's easy to forget about 'dignity'.

For what it's worth, I like horses and would rather they weren't killed for meat. But I'm a carnivore and one man's horse meat is another's filet mignon, so I can't logically condemn consumers of any other species. If consumption of horse meat declines I would like to see that happen through lack of demand, not politicians' decrees.

Monday, 8 February 2010

A weak defense of In Defense...

The recent and very public dispute between The Guardian's Matthew Fort and Italy's agriculture minister, Luca Zaia, provides an ideal backdrop for a review of Michael Pollan's 2008 book, In Defense of Food. Weighing in on the source of the argument, the McItaly burger, Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, pointedly distills many of the arguments against the industrial food system with characteristic good humour. Pollan, a UC Berkeley professor of journalism and author of several other books on all matters gustatory, is a Slow Food supporter, making a compelling case in In Defense... for a serious reappraisal of the Western diet.

For all that I respect Pollan and celebrate his penetration of the mainstream market with potentially subversive ideas, In Defense... didn't quite seem a complete work. I've read many articles by Pollan but this is the first of his full-length books that I've read, so I probably need to recognise that In Defense... may have been conceived as a concise position paper to introduce the themes Pollan has been working on throughout his career. Also, as a book intended for the mass market and published by Penguin, I know that certain 'niche' considerations had to be taken into account. Still, for all the book's insightful facts and cogently argued ideas, I felt on very familiar territory while reading it. In some ways, I guess, my reaction might parallel the suggestion made in the book that the kind of person who takes supplements tends to be more health conscious than one who doesn't, and therefore it's difficult to measure the impact of the supplements themselves on health. As someone interested in the politics of food, I'm more likely to be familiar with the critical arguments that surround them, making In Defense... seem more like an extra supplement of information that can't hurt, but may fail to deliver its promised revelatory impact. This isn't Pollan's fault, of course, and I really hope that his book awakens some readers who haven't encountered his central arguments before. These go something like this:

Humans have evolved in ecological balance with their surrounding environments, over the course of many centuries building sustainable systems of food procurement and consumption which depend on stewardship of their sources – sea, soil, rivers, trees, animals – to perpetuate their existence. General human stupidity and greed have periodically breached these rules and exploited resources beyond their capacity to sustain themselves, but for the most part, this is how human populations have managed to thrive, and how cultures have developed specific cuisines delicately balanced between seasonal gluts and shortages. The postwar industrial food system has induced a dramatic change to this centuries-old system, circumventing natural cycles in pursuit of year-round standardisation and global market penetration. As Cambridge anthropologist Jack Goody argues. This has been achieved primarily through innovations in canning and bottling techniques, artificial freezing (as well as the mechanisation of these processes), expanded transport networks and vehicle technologies, and the growth of branded retailing. To this list Pollan would add the adulteration of food with additives, as well as advances in grain refining technology. And on top of that, I would follow Carlo Petrini in mentioning genetic modification as the most naked example of nature and ecology being reconfigured in conformity with profit objectives.

Concurrent with the industrialisation of the food supply has been the increased scientific-ation of food, vividly illustrated in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. Pollan argues that anxieties about food and diet, initiated largely by those with a vested financial interest in worrying the public about both produce and production techniques that have served humanity well for tens of thousands of years, reaches its logical conclusion in the growth of nutritionism, the diet industry and spread of imitation food products. More directly, these are the adulterated, substitute-laden, low-fat, low-cholesterol, so-called 'healthy' options that have gradually replaced real foods on our supermarket shelves. Pollan characterises nutritionism as a reductionist pseudo-science, an ideology prone to internal inconsistency, food industry infiltration and a willful neglect of factors related to food beyond their constituent parts. The reductionist approach looks exclusively at the purported impact of nutrients – and their apparent converse, toxins – on the body without an adequate methodology for ensuring accurate monitoring, long-term evaluation or socio-cultural influences on consumption.

The real sting is that nutritionism, industrial food and the low-fat crusade have abjectly failed to make their target market any healthier. Americans generally have shorter life spans and more chronic illnesses (cancer, heart disease, diabetes) than other industrialised nations, the exceptions being populations which eat the most Americanised diets (e.g., processed, pre-packaged foods, lots of refined flours and sugars, heavy on substitutes and preservatives, light on fresh fruits and vegetables). It's no mystery as to why previously rare conditions such as chronic obesity and diabetes are on the rise in precisely the segment of the Japanese population most disposed to a Westernised diet. A regularly demonstrated health gap also exists between 'assimilated' Aborigines in urban Australia and their relatively autonomous counterparts in rural areas who still maintain mostly traditional diets. The same rule largely applies to sedentary v. traditional Inuit in Canada. And on and on, wherever you care to look. Whatever else its qualities, the Western diet, with its emphasis on long shelf lives, year-round consistency, mass production methods and masked geographical origins, cannot claim to do anyone any good with regard to their health. The evolutionary biology / historical anthropology approach taken by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel supports this claim, and illustrates it with far-ranging breadth. The human body has adapted its responses to food as an interdependent link in a complex ecological chain, one that the Western diet breaks apart and reassembles in a shape mandated by industry profits. America's public health profile shows humanity to be chronically maladapted to the chemically adulterated, geographically standardised foods that increasingly keep the country fed.

Pollan also echoes Carlo Petrini in describing this standardisation of the food supply as a gastronomic disaster, a pointless and destructive sacrifice of food quality on the altar of misguided 'advancement'. As culturally conservative as this sounds, it's a view bolstered by sound scientific and anthropological evidence. Relinquish your food traditions and watch your public health, social cohesion and rural economic base go with it. It sounds like an alarmist statement, but it holds up well to academic scrutiny. And it truly is alarming.

I agree with Pollan's thesis. His epidemiological approach is convincing, and there's very little evidence coming from the opposing camp which would persuade me otherwise. What lets me down slightly is that Pollan's book is almost de-politicised. His points are well-supported and fair, but in his efforts to avoid coming across like an ideologue, they lose some of their bite. Understanding the above arguments puts into perspective other issues that may initially seem distantly related. The decimation of subsistence or community agriculture in Africa, mandated by Structural Adjustment Programmes which appropriate land for the intensive rearing of export crops, is not unrelated to Western industry's demand for cheap raw materials for processing. People struggle to feed themselves so that those who need cheap food the least can process it into subsidiary products that leave us in the historically unprecedented condition of being undernourished and overweight. Maize growers in Chiapas, Mexico, far from being the restive savages ungrateful for the gifts of modern civilization (as the US and Mexican governments would have us believe), are fighting a very real battle for community survival. And this has much to do with the way rich countries' relationships with food have changed in just the last 60 years or so.

I'm sure Pollan knows all this, and could probably teach me a good few things. While I accept that the relationship between health and edible ecologies was the main focus of In Defense..., I don't think these issues are so neatly divisible from the more explicitly political arguments attempted by authors like Colin Tudge and Carlo Petrini. Indeed, refer again to the debate between Petrini, Matthew Fort and Italy's Minister for Agriculture. In Feeding People is Easy, Tudge makes many of the same arguments as Pollan but capably demonstrates how this has resulted in global ecological catastrophe, the clearance of masses of Brazilian forest to make space for soybeans for the American and Chinese animal fodder markets being one of the most excruciating examples. Joanna Blythman, in Shopped, exposes the ugly web of political influence exercised by supermarkets in dictating what kinds of foods the UK population can and can't have. Pollan alludes to the seriousness of these problems but presents them almost exclusively through a public health lens. Health is a vital consideration but it's also a relatively uncontroversial one – we can all agree that persuading people to eat real, nutrient-rich food is a worthwhile goal. How we achieve this is another matter.

Organisations like Slow Food have developed a large apparatus for dealing with the question of how to counter the prevailing trends. The people I'm studying as part of my PhD project are trying to demonstrate solutions to the problem as well, in their varied and unique ways. Pollan's book, in my view, just isn't quite comprehensive nor radical enough. His final section, while being absolutely loaded with reasonable advice, articulates solutions almost exclusively from a consumer perspective. Tudge and Petrini, on the other hand, attempt to conceive of far-reaching networks, inclusive of growers, chefs, retailers, writers and others, all of whom are necessarily consumers themselves. To quote Gianluca Brunori from the University of Pisa:

'To be well functioning, the [alternative agro-food] network should encompass farmers, consumers, retailers, input officers, extension services, researchers, farmers' organisations, certification bodies, public officers, consumers' and environmental movements.'

This may be unfair to Pollan, but it almost seems as if the differences in strategy are reducible to cultural tendencies in the US and Europe: one is individualistic and largely centred on consumption, while the other suggests experiments in community-building and collective enterprise. They might be overambitious and even utopian, but it's in the latter that I find the most hope for getting out of this mess.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Neapolitan pizza achieves EU protected status

The politics of the EU's Traditional Specialty Guarnteed status can be a bit tricky. On the one hand, it does an efficient job of protecting the market position of high-quality European produce from inferior competiton. This builds into market structures an incentive to preserve and protect Europe's agricultural biodiversity and perpetuate the use of traditional crop varieties and production methods. However, the bureaucratic heft of the designation tends to privilege producers with the existing resources to plow through the mountains of paperwork it requires, open their doors to regular inspections and submit the requisite application fees. Some have argued that the producers who least need the special protection are those most likely to benefit from it.

I am pleased to see that the Neapolitan pizza has finally earned its mark as a product with officially recognised qualities superior to its imitators'. Anyone who's been to Italy knows that pizzas anywhere else just don't really cut it, while many Neapolitans will argue that the same rule applies to any pizza made outside Naples. I wouldn't go that far (but then I haven't tried a traditional Neapolitan), though I'm pleased that the EU ruling at least sets a benchmark for competitors and recognises Naples's role in inventing and perfecting a food that many other cuisines have appropriated, corrupted and rendered just plain weird.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Del Fagioli - Tongue to toe dining

Yesterday I had the good fortune to take my lunch at the celebrated Del Fagioli in Florence, 47 Corso Tintori, one block behind the River Arno and about 10 minutes' walk from the Uffizi Gallery. Hats off to the Time Out guide to Florence for the recommendation.

As much as I want to avoid using a cliche like 'hole in the wall', this modest, casual restaurant looks completely unremarkable from outside, and would be easily missed by the average passerby, which is probably why so few tourists were found inside, despite its habit of satisfying visitors.

I wanted to try a house specialty, and with the bistecca all fiorentina far beyond my limited means, I went for the bollito misto e salsa verde, described as boiled meats (literally 'boiled mix') with green sauce, while my wife Laura chose the slightly more dependable sausages with with white beans. When the bollito misto landed on the table I can't say it made me salivate. The meats looked boiled to death, in the classic fashion of pre-war British cuisine, with a bleached chicken drumstick least appealing of all. Just take at look at these variations on the dish and tell me whether they tempt you with their long-boiled lure. I swallowed my reservations with a big gulp of Del Fagioli's gorgeous sangiovese house wine and tucked in after pasting the meat with plenty of salsa. The sauce was delicious, incredibly vibrant and fresh, and clearly made with high-quality olive oil. The meat wasn't bad at all, though I really had no idea what cuts I was consuming, apart from the chicken thigh. I thought I was sampling tripe for the first time, as there was a sort of white, squid-like meat loosely held together by a clear jelly. I can't say I adored it. It lacked flavour but certainly had a pronounced texture, if that makes any sense.

Despite the slightly off-putting appearance of the bollito, it was an excellent meal, and Laura's sausages were superb. I talked to the waiter after we were finished and told him that this was my first introduction to the curious pleasures of the bollito. He explained that few foreigners were willing to try it, on account of not liking veal tongue and foot. Mystery solved. I'd eaten ox tongue in a French restaurant in London, but this was definitely the first time I'd swallowed the cartilage of a calf's foot.

To be honest, had I known just what kinds of cuts constituted the dish, I probably wouldn't have ordered it. And if I go back I doubt I'll get anything so adventurous. I'm a big supporter of peasant food in principle, but sometimes, particularly at a promising restaurant, you just want something a little more refined. Bollito misto is hardcore Tuscan poverty cuisine. Del Fagioli does it well, but I do feel a duty to inform the hungry and curious about the true nature of the mysterious misto.