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.