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