Photo by Patrica Esteve
Just as the bee made it
At a time when the supply lines of the food on our table are becoming evermore confused and convoluted, and when (according to some surveys) many children are completely ignorant of the fact that the breaded morsels on their plate come from living creatures, some of us are increasingly interested in buying and eating local, unprocessed and ecologically produced food.
While some food producers share these aims and are trying to supply increasing consumer demand, others are taking advantage of this new market and, wittingly or unwittingly, misleading the consumer. A post on Spanish food blog www.directoalpaladar.com, for example, complained last year that 80 percent of food products sold at a supposedly artesano market, were classified as from ‘industrial production’, according to the local chamber of commerce in Miranda del Ebro, where the fair was held. Commenters on the website complained that they had witnessed similar situations in other fairs and markets across Catalunya.
So what can consumers do to verify what they’re eating and what good or harm their shopping choices are doing? “The best way consumers can help is by asking questions in the markets, in the shops, actually seek out small ‘slow’ producers, find out about their products, how they’re produced and where you can get them,” according to the chair of Barcelona's Slow Food group, Italian restaurateur Daniele Rossi. “Demand limpio, bueno y justo (clean, good, fair—the three pillars of Slow Food wisdom) products in shops, markets, restaurants. And, join Slow Food!”
Slow Food describes itself on its website as “a non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organisation [founded to] counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.”
Slow Food was born in Italy, where it is now a hugely influential movement. Local products ‘approved’ by Slow Food and given what they call presidia status, are suddenly shot into foodie stardom and are the must-have products in fashionable and conscientious Italian kitchens. Here in Catalunya, Slow Food Garraf is trying to do the same with a range of native winter vegetables that were in danger of dying out due to the disappearance of small-scale farming in the area, and competition from cheaper, longer-lasting imports. This truly grassroots campaign was started by forward-thinking local smallholders who swapped information and seeds and promoted the veg through cooking competitions, before Slow Food joined them.
So what are the greens they’re championing? First are brotons, the leafy shoots of the col brotonera (a type of winter cabbage), which appear from October to December and are normally eaten boiled. The brotons start to go to seed from December to March, and become espigalls, which are a bit like purple sprouting broccoli. These are traditionally blanched in salted water, then sautéed with boiled potatoes and served with cured herring and bacon. Sharing the espigall season are the col paperina, a mild, small-headed cabbage, and the escarola perruqueta or cabell d'angel, an escarole lettuce that is more tender and sweeter than the harder, longer-lasting rivals from, say, Holland.
Although Slow Food is championing these vegetables, they don't yet have presidia status. However, two Catalan products have recently gained this honour: ganxet beans and malvasia de Sitges—a sweet wine from the Garraf. Slow Food Garraf coordinator Valenti Mongay points out that although ganxet beans are well known locally, the examples in the markets aren’t always of sufficient quality. The big producers just try and get them to market as cheaply as possible. Slow Food is working with small local producers who have greater experience in treating the product with care, ensuring a quality product which deserves the high price the producers need to earn. They’re also looking into ways of selling cooked beans without adding preservatives.
Slow Food also works with other local groups that share their values. Slow Food Barcelona recently organised an information evening with the ‘conscientious consumer’ magazine Opcions, which is published by the ‘alternative’ consumer’s association, Centre de Recerca i Informació en Consum (CRIC). This was to promote the Opcion issue focusing on meat, detailing how most of the meat we eat today is produced intensively.
CRIC believes an extensive model of animal raising is better for the farmer, consumer and animal. But how can one tell whether the chops in the shops are from intensive or extensively farmed lambs, pigs or cows? Well, unless it’s made clear otherwise, generally it’s safe to assume the meat on sale is intensively reared. It may be possible to identify extensively reared meat by sight—it generally has more visible fat (intensive has more fat but it is less visible). Also there are a number of logos and certificates that should give you more information about how the animal has been reared: ecological meat products must come from animals that have been given sufficient space and open air, are grazed, fed on ecological feed and given no or limited antibiotics. Look for the CCPAE (Consell Català de la Producció Agrària Ecòlogica, www.ccpae.org) certificate on Catalan products, which is the EU-regulated body for ecological certification in Catalunya.
Of course, buying from ecological shops is a good guarantee, but even here label-reading and question-asking is a vital tactic. Another certificate to look for is the IGP (Indicación Geográfica Protegida). Although this Ministry of Agriculture accreditation is not specifically related to ecological agriculture, it is commonly awarded to products of traditional, non-intensive, small-scale farming methods, generally using native breeds.
The ultimate solution to ensuring a right-on food supply, although one that’s out of the reach of many, could be to grow your own organic food. L’Era is a Catalan organisation that works for the preservation and promotion of traditional, local and ecological agricultural products. It offers resources and support to all those involved with and interested in ecological agriculture, and runs various courses, including one teaching families how to create their own organic garden. The next course is due to run in the spring.
So, to ensure you’re eating clean, fair and good food, the correct course of action seems to be to dig—dig into the background of the food you buy, and if you're still not happy, just get digging!
Cric Arc de Sant Cristofol 11-23, Barcelona, 93 412 7594, www.opcions.org
L'Era C/ Ramon d'Iglésies, 5-7 (Edifici FUB), Manresa, 93 878 7035, email@example.com
Slow Food Garraf
Valenti Mongay, firstname.lastname@example.org, is organising a special lunch in Sitges on 31 Jan and 2 Feb, consisting of the special seasonal Garraf vegetable. Dishes may include the likes of local escarola with poached egg tempura, or souffle of espigalls. The five-course meal with wine costs just €21. Reservations on 93 894 3712. You can also try espigalls, col paperina and escarola perrquera at local restaurants such as Salseta, C/Sant Pau 35, Sitges (93 811 0419), and Osmazomo C/Unio 7, Vilanova i la Geltru (93 814 0486).
There are a number of online retailers of ecological foods, to save you the trouble of traipsing around town to find them. Try www.ecoviand.com for Catalan ecological meat; or www.recapte.com for eco fruit and veg delivered to your door. De La Terra (delaterra.net) is a great source for information as well as an online shop for all kinds of eco products.