Spain: the pleasures and ethics of consumption and production

Travel consumes us, just as we consume the material and philosophical artefacts of the destinations of our desire. We bump onto foreign soil and commence imbibing difference with all senses, some more pleasant than others. We eagerly osmose saturated blue skies, reluctantly inhale the sourness of the unwashed on the train, and happily let the sweet and salty depths of jamón melt on our tongue…

Stuart and I have spent our entire shared life consuming culture, learning our way into other lands by eating churros in Madrid, gazing at Rembrandts in Paris and listening to sitars in Varanasi, reading Machiavelli and Balzac in the Tuileries, and ambling through centuries of Gothic flying buttresses and villages and cities planned and unplanned for habitation. 20 years ago we would read all the relevant novels we could lay hands on before traveling to a new country, and I would commence reading recipes and trying them out on family and friends even before our adventures, only to come home and improve on those dishes after having tasted their distinctions in situ.

So engrossed was/am I with understanding the ways in which we consume culture in pursuit of connectedness, and of a cosmopolitan ethic, that I spent eight years working towards a PhD on the topic, the formal study of which I’ve since abandoned, though it remains a lifelong preoccupation.

Since before becoming a farmer, my interest in consumption logically shifted to a more primary concern with production, ipso facto consumption’s supplier. Our recent trip to Spain, the home of jamón ibérico, exemplified this, as we searched for the roots of jamón, not just the taste. I’ll write more about our findings on jamón in a later post, as here I’d like to share my thoughts on our other observations throughout Spain.

We spent a scant 18 hours in Madrid, and in that time noted:

  1. carnicerías are everywhere in the centre with ceilings and walls lined with jamón,
  2. there’s a bottle of Spanish olive oil on nearly every table,
  3. Spanish olives are standard on tapas menus, but the quality is anything but standardised,
  4. the smoky spice of pimentón is as distinctive to Spanish cuisine as jamón.

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Where and under what conditions is all this produce grown?

As we dashed south out of Madrid in the motorhome we dubbed the Slothvan (unfair really as it was quite speedy on the autovía but lumbered around curves in a not-unpleasing sloth-like fashion), we couldn’t help but be struck by the endless monocultures of olives, seemingly Spain’s equivalence to the central valley of California’s almond groves without the obvious ecological disaster of irrigating a thirsty tree in a drought-prone land. There were rarely water pipes in sight, but also absolutely nothing but olive trees for hundreds of kilometres – no grass between the rows, no shrubs – just thousands and perhaps millions of trees dotting the rocky soils.

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I wondered who owns these orchards and just how big are they? What impact of the growth of Spain’s olive oil industry has there been on the land and local communities (let alone the Italian and Greek industries?) Surely the consequences are the same as anywhere agriculture scales up and smallholdings are lost – more chemical inputs in the name of efficiency and yield, subsequent land degradation, and reduced employment for rural communities who once relied on the viability of many small-scale farms… though a quick bit of internet research reveals that while Spain’s olive orchards are on average bigger than their neighbours’, they are still relatively small by Australian or American standards at 5.3ha (compared with just 1.3ha in Italy!). According to what I read though, lack of control of the value chain keeps the farmers from prospering, just as it does worldwide (the FAO has an entire workstream dedicated to connecting smallholders to value chains).

Dotted amongst the olive groves are huge solar and wind farms – in a dry, rocky land, the Spanish are very wisely harvesting the natural resources of which they have plenty – sun and wind. Something I read when we visited the windmills made famous by Cervantes’ madly tilting Don Quixote suggested the locals worked out a long time ago to harness these resources as their only reliablemainstays – if only Australian policymakers were so wise.

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As we rolled into the steep slopes of the southern tip of Andalucía, the olive groves shrank and seemed to welcome the presence of other species – aberrant oaks and life-giving figs poked up amongst the olives with an appealing diversity after so many homogeneous kilometres. Even grass is allowed between rows in many of the smaller farms, surely a welcome cover for hungry soils under the harsh Spanish sun.img_0178

It got me reflecting back on the abundance of Spanish olive oil available throughout the country (and indeed, in Australia and elsewhere) and wondering where the artisanal local oils are to be found? You know, that whole ‘just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s good’. For example, the region in which we live in Victoria has an abundance of potatoes, most of them grown in big monocultures and sprayed regularly – not what I’d prefer to feed my family… (fortunately it is easy where we live to access the organic and chemical-free potatoes grown by the many lovely small-scale farmers with which we’re blessed).

And then we visited the lovely mountain region of La Vera in the northerly part of Extremadura and saw firsthand how small-scale growing can be aggregated, scaled, and become ubiquitous and still delicious and fair… through the collective model (which of course the olive growers also utilise). La Vera is the most famous pimentón (Spanish paprika) producing region in Spain (Murcia being the other). Back in 1937 the local growers formed a syndicate, and then in 1938 established a cooperative to reduce competition amongst themselves and to create an entity with a real opportunity for export.

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Drying and smoking sheds for the pimenton

img_0465 A niche artisanal (arguably non-staple) product like pimentón can quickly saturate a solely local market, and given it is sold as a dried powder in a tin, it is readily transportable without refrigeration – the perfect product for the age-old spice trade. And witnessing the relatively small-scale fields growing the crops and the old drying sheds where the pimentón are still taken to be dried and given their irresistible smokiness was heartening – I’m heading home with 3kg for my chorizo making – happy meatsmith!

But of course cooperatives aren’t all fair to everyone just because they’re fair to their members. At the recent launch of the Farm Cooperatives and Collaborations Pilot Program in Australia we heard from a number of very large case studies, including CBH, the huge grain cooperative in WA with an annual revenue of over $3 billion that export more than 90% of the grain produced, largely for livestock feed and fuel. We also heard from TSBE in Queensland, a cooperative with $5 billion in revenue that owns feedlots, intensive pig and poultry sheds, and apparently got its start with CSG revenue (food and agriculture are only 15% of their turnover if I noted that correctly).

We ate quite well in Spain – we had ready access to fresh fruit and veg and a variety of interesting Spanish cheeses (such as the lovely, stinky Torta del Casar and the plentiful queso de oveja – curado is much nicer than semicurado) – and made many of our meals in the Slothvan with beautiful views of the wealth of castles that litter the landscape.

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Foraged figs & grapes from a monastery we camped next to, paired with fried potatoes with smoked piment and white anchovies…

The milk was uniformly awful (we could only find UHT, as is the norm for much of Europe sadly), and aside from rare exceptions the bread was mostly terrible. Truck stop food was inspiring – made fresh and with obvious care – there are carnicerías in the truck stops (!), and vast deli options for local cheeses as well as the meat offerings. Of course the meat is almost entirely factory farmed, but with artisanal touches in the processing… more on all of this later in the jamón post.

Truck stops were the best road trip food!
Truck stops were the best road trip food!

Our time in Spain was too short and research was mostly observational and influenced by combining a learning trip with a family adventure, but driving across its vast, dry landscapes from which water must surely be rung out of stone to produce 50% of the EU’s olive oil was certainly more informative than merely scanning and devouring the menus of its cities as we did in previous lives. While consuming food is a central and critical part of life, focusing purely on taste can too easily get stuck on the aesthetic rather than the ethic, whereas following the chain back to where your food is produced can tell you so much more about the communities who grow it and the quality of what they grow.

Having just been to Slow Food’s Terra Madre and braved the crowds at Salone del Gusto in Torino, I have many more thoughts on the problem of privileging the aesthetic aspects of food over the ethics… as well as on the importance of democracy in the food sovereignty movement to effect real change… but just now the cliffs of Cinque Terre beckon. 😉

The Regulation Diaries (6): Winning the Salami Wars

Just over two years ago, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon before an early flight to France and Italy to research the old traditions of charcuterie and salumi making, inspectors from the Victorian meat industry regulator PrimeSafe rolled up our driveway and destroyed all our personal salamis.

Early this year we received a letter from PrimeSafe with a vaguely threatening instruction not to run our popular Salami Days. At least three others (that we know of) who run similar workshops received nearly the same letter, and I momentarily despaired that the vibrant and delicious skill of salami making was about to come to a sad end in Victoria.

But I never despair long, and I soon requested a meeting with PrimeSafe. And so late one morning after an abattoir run in April Stuart and I parked the aromatic stock trailer out front of the South Melbourne offices and went in to meet with two members of PrimeSafe staff. The good news is that The Inspector we’ve dealt with is apparently absent for now, and the staff we now deal with seem much more earnest at fulfilling their duties, and much less interested in standover tactics. Promising days.

I won’t use space here on the initial agenda items regarding rillettes and cryovac-ing smoked hocks except to say it went reasonably well, and as soon as our supply gets back to normal (a story I’ll write up soon…) we’ll be getting those products approved in spite of last year’s difficulties over them.

Here’s how the discussion of salami workshops went (this is of course a paraphrase as best I remembered it when I documented it after the meeting):

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Me: So can we talk about our salami days now, please?

Officer A: Yes, Tammi, first I have to ask you, are you prepared to become an RTO [a Registered Training Organisation, e.g. a TAFE or similar]?

Me: No, that’s irrelevant. We aren’t trying to give anyone a qualification or certificate, so we don’t need to be an RTO. I was a Senior Risk Analyst for the regulator for higher education and am well aware of the role and requirements for RTOs and universities, and they don’t apply to what we do. We spend one day teaching how to transform a whole pig carcass into cured muscles and salami, we enjoy a long lunch with wine and a band, and it’s a really lovely day…

Officer B: So would you say it’s more of a festival than a workshop? Because that would be regulated by your council.

Me: Not really a festival, but sure, you can call it what you want if that helps. But we can’t be regulated by our council for matters you have an interest in as the regulator, as there’s a double jeopardy rule as you know. But we don’t believe you have jurisdiction over our salami days as we’re not processing meat for sale and none leaves the property…

Officer B: Okay, maybe it’s more of festival…

Officer A: But Tammi we still have concerns over you teaching people to make salami. What if one of them goes home and does it badly and somebody gets sick?

Me: Are you familiar with YouTube and Michael Ruhlman’s books ‘Charcuterie’ and ‘Salumi’? People learn how to make salami any number of ways, just as they do cheese and other cooking skills… surely you’d prefer your licensees to teach these skills as we are knowledgeable about food safety?

Officer A: Well, we still have concerns…

Me: Officer A, I have concerns over whether you had McDonalds for lunch but I have no legislative authority over whether you choose to eat that. So if you have something in the [Meat Industry] Act of which I’m unaware about the legality of our salami days, please let me know, because if there’s nothing there to stop us teaching people to make salami, I’m frankly not interested in your concerns.

Officer A: [crickets]

Officer A: Well, I guess ultimately it’s a matter for our CEO.

Me: Oh, really? Seems to me it’s a matter for the Instrument [aka the Act]. Here’s my plan – I’m going to run our salami days same as I have for the past three years. If you have new information you need to share with us you know where we are.

***

And here we are five months later, three Jonai Salami Days and many #youcantbuywhatieat potluck protests later, one Melbourne Salami Festa approaching, and on the eve of the King Valley Salami Festa

We’re sharing this story to give hope to others who have been harassed out of running workshops that maintain these beautiful old food traditions. We called the regulator’s bluff and found that there was no ace in the hole, nothing in the legislation to stop us hosting Salami Days.

Just don’t let anyone leave with meat processed outside a licensed facility and you’re well within your rights to teach more people the delicious joys of skilful curing of whole carcasses. And make sure you know what you’re doing – that someone with experience and knowledge of safe food handling has taught you best practice. We’ve been fortunate to learn from Australian farmers and butchers, Italian saluministi, and French charcutiers, and we’re about to add the Spanish masters of jamón making to our mentors…

It’s 3 o’clock the day before we fly to Spain and Italy on another research trip to learn more about the very old arts of jamón and salami making… so we’re just going to leave this here.

…but this time we’re leaving a resident lawyer at the farm while we’re away. 😉

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Food Sovereignty asserts the right of peoples to nourishing and culturally appropriate food produced and distributed in ecologically sound and ethical ways and their right to collectively determine their own food and agriculture systems.

This year the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance is fundraising to establish a Legal Defence Fund to support small-scale farmers and makers in their efforts to grow, process, and distribute food grown in ethically- and ecologically-sound ways, and eaters’ right to access this food.

We’ve currently raised over $22,000 and are looking forward to distributing some of the funds to the farmers most in need when we reach $25,000 (with an ambitious goal of $100,000 by the end of Fair Food Week 23 October!).  

If you want to protect your right to grow and eat nutritious and delicious food as you and your community see fit, join us today!