Apples

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One of my early memories is of waking up, opening the curtains and seeing the large apple tree in our small back garden newly cut down. Now in a relationship with a tree surgeon, perhaps it’s time that I forgive my Dad for choosing to cull the tree. Apparently he did a deal with his mate ‘John the wood’ in the pub. My parents didn’t have the time to deal with the apples, and the tree was apparently overbearing in the garden that my little sister and I played in, so they chose space over apples. Even if I still feel sad about that tree, I appreciate the point about time…

Time is the latest ‘secret ingredient’ of cooking, or the lack of it. A food writer called Jenny Linford recently wrote a popular book making the point loud and clear: the missing ingredient is time. [1] Flavours take time, fermentation takes time, even fast reactions take time to practise and to perfect. The average British person now spends only 31 minutes a day cooking, down from an hour in the 1980s. [2] So, that means that meals need to be ready to go, and the supermarkets are meeting that need with not just ready meals, but also cooking kits, where the lettuce is already chopped, the carrots are already peeled, the meat is sliced, and the rice is portioned up.

If the time dedicated to cooking is lacking, then this is just the tip of the time iceberg. Time and the market for short cuts is the big bargaining chip of retailers at the moment. We are tempted by one-hour delivery although this is not actually what it sounds like as it usually refers to ‘one hour slots’ not delivery an hour after you order – unless perhaps you live in the very centre of London. However, same day delivery, door to door from all supermarkets and also new entrants to the market mean that we can save time by not even leaving the house. Yet it goes deeper than that. What about the time it takes to produce the food in the first place? This is where the apples come in.

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As someone researching work in food production, I’m slightly ashamed to say that one of the few things in my diet that I actually pick myself are apples. I should of course have an allotment, or a veg patch. My excuses for not having one are many: the uncertainty of how long I will live in my house (veg patch excuse), this city (allotment excuse), the lack of skill and experience (even my raspberry plant died) … I could go on. But really, the reason is time. It’s very difficult (not impossible) to be an active player in a competitive work environment, in a tough economic context and grow your own veg. And that’s why I understand people buying ready meals. And I also understand why calls for a four day working week [3] might do more as much improve our diets as a ‘fat tax’ because it would give us more time to grow and cook food.

The thing is the apples aren’t even mine. Not only because my house is rented, but also because the trunk is in the neighbour’s garden. Once my housemates and I have collected them from windfall, or stood on the ladder, or climbed up the tree though, they are quite literally: the fruits of our labour. Delicious, tart and juicy for eating and cooking, for making crumble and pie, for stewing and freezing, for chopping and grating and even… for mixing with chocolate and turning into a squidgy sweet, added-sugar-free chocolate brownie! [4]

For most people who pick fruit and vegetables in the intensive horticultural system, the fruits of their labour are not what they pick or the value of that, but a wage that is so low it keeps the producers in profit (just) and maintains a price that satisfies consumers with very modestly valued apples. I deduce that this means for my neighbours, it is cheaper (time-wise) and easier to buy apples from the shops than to pick the ones in the back garden. And it’s only because they don’t care about the tree that we get a free harvest. We just have to hope they don’t decide to chop it down.

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[1] Jenny Linford, 2018, The Missing Ingredient: The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour, Penguin. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/291/291455/the-missing-ingredient/9781846148972.html

[2] According to market research by Kantar. The full study is behind a paywall, this is an excerpt. https://pork.ahdb.org.uk/media/74830/convenience-is-key.pdf

[3] Now an active part of public debate and calls. See, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/11/four-day-working-week-tuc-proposals-workers-rights and, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-45750920

[4] For the brownie recipe try something like this: https://www.feastingonfruit.com/easy-vegan-fudge-brownies/ I usually search vegan chocolate apple brownie and make something based on the different advice given and the ingredients I have to hand.

Olive Oil production in Morocco: so many questions

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No standard salad would be complete without olive oil. Our friends the lettuce, tomato and cucumber now come automatically accompanied by the vinegar and the oil, the oil and the vinegar. Perhaps in a bottle, perhaps in a sachet, perhaps in some kind of over complicated vinaigrette processed by a supermarket near you, along with lots of salt and some corn syrup, a 21st century salad in the Western world would be naked without an olive dressing.

This weekend, after an intensive academic seminar in Morocco[1], we studious seminar attendees were rewarded with a field trip. So I was taken out to visit three agricultural holdings in action. They all grew olives, but apart from that, had little in common. These three: large, medium and small producers in turn gave us a hugely insightful opportunity to witness agricultural change in action. Since the turn of the millennium the large site, on previously colonial, then state-held land had been an apple orchard and had now turned to olive oil. The medium one had been focused on cattle, making use of previous common land, that was now enclosed land, and was now diversifying with oil, watermelons, and more. The small producer produced a full range of things including olives for their own oil and most recently had established a side income in both fish and honey production.

Firstly, we learnt how to make money. Morocco’s heavily financed agricultural development programme, Plan Maroc Vert, which aims to intensify the agricultural system into a new-age competitive beacon of the modern food system, offers attractive incentives to spruce up agriculture in the country with new machines. All you need is to write a proposal (a report), have money to invest (from bank credit perhaps) and an impressive part of your money will be returned to you in state subsidies within two years.

So, for example, all three of the small, medium and large producers we visited, had benefited from a 100% state subsidy for irrigation of their crops. In the case of the ‘super-intensive’ large producer this meant state funding for the irrigation of 65,780[2] olive trees from groundwater on a rapidly declining water table. Some of the more landscape-savvy of the seminar group reminded us that olive trees had been grown in the region for centuries precisely because they did not need this kind of constant watering but could grow deep roots and access scarce water themselves. This, however, is not of interest to the ‘super-intensive’ producer. This producer is simply interested in the logic of economic growth, which in this case says: plant the trees closer, and add the chemical nutrients to the water while you’re at it. And so, these 65,780 trees are watered with the addition of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and ammonium, yet no studies are evident of what all these substances may be doing to the groundwater. By any other logic this would be a big concern, nitrogen pollution, particularly. Nitrogen pollution of water supplies, or more simply, of the nitrogen cycle, is one of the only planetary ecosystem boundaries that we have already crossed as a human race. This was not relevant in the lesson of how to make money.

Yet, I work with people, so where were they in the Moroccan olive grove? Well, it seems they have been replaced by a machine in this super-intensive oil production. The company, with links to power as far up as it goes, has invested in a machine that drives over the trees like a bridge. It shakes their branches and collects their olives.  So much for an investment in rural employment.

Some new olive trees defy the machine but are pretty un-reliable as employers too. These trees that the machine can’t manage provide jobs for only a very precarious seasonal and short-term workforce. I was told that 100 people would be employed for a space of around 200 hectares, and these jobs would last 2-3 months. The company assured us though that these workers would get both contracts and, in order to have those contracts, bank accounts. Thank goodness the banks aren’t losing out.

I should be kinder in tone about the small and medium sized farmers that we visited. Not only did their olive oil taste a lot richer, but they invited us to tea, and allowed us to share their experience of oil production more closely.  They humoured our partial language skills and our many, many questions. This was the second major thing we learnt on the trip – we were a team. We were a slightly chaotic, and erratic team, but really quite effective. A little like slugs on a cabbage, we chewed up every bit of information every which way.

Releasing a group of 13 researchers at a family farm, was a bit like inviting children to a playground, or providing clowns with an audience. Each of us found something to play with, interact with, reflect upon and smile. Some of us looked at the trees or identified the plant specimens. Others wrote notes, or took pictures, or carried out semi-formal interviews with whichever family member we felt most comfortable with. Others played with material toys, climbing ladders, smelling fruit or knocking on enormous oil containers to discover them empty. As we found the olive branches, force-fed powder food through irrigated pipes, or in the smaller farm providing shade for some resident chickens, this seminar group grew together, discovering the knowledge of the peasant farmer.  This experience was far richer and engaging than any power point presentation or report.

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[1] “Workshop on Agricultural Labour and Rural Landscapes in the Arab World” Organised by the Thimar collective and supported by the École Nationale d’Agriculture de Meknès, the Leverhulme Trust and the London School of Economics.

[2] Calculated based on 286 plants/hectare in a cultivated area of 230 hectares, this was the details of the holding advertised by the company.

 

 

Sugar

sugar granules

Sugar, sweetness, rush. Smile for the beet and the cane, but too much sugar and you get just a black beam, with the sugar-lump-like teeth gone from the grin. Ah, teeth. Just a smile can reveal so much about social status, about struggles and tastes. There is that typical top and bottom post-braces smile of those with the private dental plan and the private education. Then there is the embarrassed closed-lip smile of the four-year-old in my fieldwork site who has already lost all her front teeth to a diet of sugary tea, bread and donuts.

It’s time to write about sugar. Not just because I am bouncing off the walls with the stuff in its caffeinated accompaniments of tea and coffee. Not just because sugar in the UK provides such a clear comparison to one of the key cultural ingredients of life in Morocco. The main reason that I have come to be thinking so much about sugar in recent days is that I have been taught about it: by my students.

I’m not sure that there is sufficient recognition in academia, or in education in general, that teachers learn from students. You might already be an expert in climate change but surely if you get 60 essays considering the same data from different perspectives, and filling in the gaps, you’re going to come away all the more confident that you know what you know.

And so I now know about sugar. Over thirty student reports into the connection between Bristol and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade have left me in no doubt that the wealth of this city (Bristol) is at least in part founded on the trade in sugar, and slavery. Bristol, with its access to the Atlantic via the Bristol Channel, its shipbuilding trade, and its merchant class, not to mention its burgeoning financial sector, was a hub for commerce of all kinds that linked back to the slave trade.

Bristol managed to find its corner in this ‘triangular trade’. We can hold Bristol ships and merchants to account for selling an estimate of 500,000 Africans into slavery on the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean. That was 1/5th of all British slaves. This put Bristol in a perfect position to develop a sickly trade and a sweet tooth. The sugar processing, the rum, the glass-blowing for the rum bottles. These and many other industries were helped along by these ventures and the money that sloshed up the Avon with them.

I would point out, that like any good academic, I am not simply relying on the things that I have learned from my students, but on my first hand research. That’s right, I have been eating a lot of sugar and visiting a lot of buildings which were built on the shillings of the sugar merchants. It’s not hard in Bristol. I don’t have to even leave my own institution in order to find an example of that trade on which it was at least partially founded. The University doesn’t explain the providence of its founders’ wealth in its own narrative history though, so we’ll have to be more specific.

The Cabot Institute and the Wills Memorial Building are both named after philanthropists who were slavers first. Wills dealt in tobacco rather than sugar, but it’s not such a big difference. Too much sugar and you are sick. Too much rum, the same. Too much tobacco and your teeth are stained rather than rotten. Bristol is sick of the sugar. There is a petition at the moment to change the name of at least one of those magnets that brings people to Bristol year around: Colston Hall. The national media are even interested in the debate (Guardian, Telegraph, BBC).

Perhaps it could be re-named. Why not? Hally McHallFace could work well. If that doesn’t go down well with Bristolians, I think I know a group of students who could come up with some very good counter proposals. One pointed out that the Hall wasn’t even built and named until well over a hundred years after Colston had died. So, so much for editing history, this seems to be more about revising the bad revisionism that led to the Hall having this name in the first place.

With sugar on the brain it’s quite difficult to write a thesis. Teaching though, is every bit as much a part of the PhD process as is thesising. Too much and you get very tired. A little and not a lot of teaching, like sugar, is a welcome luxury that takes the bitterness and the loneliness out of the 80,000 words: to be written.

Lettuce con courgette spaghetti

courgette-spagetti-tescoAs it is valentine’s day, I will start with something very un-politically correct in the post-grad-researcher world. We are naturally expected to complain, over-heat like any over-used computer and more than anything, suffer for our doctorate. Well I defy you culture of suffering, this is fun. On a day of love and emotion, I admit it: I love my PhD.

Yes, OK, I am in the post-fieldwork honey-moon period, pre-thesis and post research proposal; no, I haven’t yet entered the hell of synchronising data charts with pages of contents, and no, there are no chapters ready to go in the book. Let’s be honest, there are pretty much no chapters at all. That, however, my PhD and more normal friends, is not the point. The point is, that even though hard days in this relationship are still to come, I am still interested.

This last month or so, everyone else is interested too. There has been a #lettucecrisis and a #courgettecrisis and questions are being asked. “Why are Tesco rationing lettuce?” people are asking. “What can I do without courgettes for my veggie no-calorie lasagne?” And (big jump here), “Why are we even eating all this salad in the middle of winter?” And so the nation makes the mental jump from Tesco over to the greenhouses of Southern Europe, perhaps even beyond.

Now, since I don’t yet feel ready to move on to serious data analysis, I thought I’d go and do just a last little spot of fieldwork: a research trip down Park Street, in Bristol’s city centre. Sites visited were: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose. Clearly the limitation of the study is that Park Street is not representative of an average UK shopping street because it is big and really quite posh. Nevertheless, let’s see what we find.

A man in Tesco confirmed the national news, and what I have personally verified about summer vegetables really and truly depending on the situation in Southern Spain and not just on what we expect to see all day, every day, without exceptions. “Haven’t had lettuce for about six weeks” he said. Now lettuce is interesting to me, because it is counter-seasonal. That means that it is grown for us abroad at exactly the time when we can’t grow it here. So we can forget about seasons altogether and pretend that lettuce just is. Full stop. Thought stops there.

But no, during these last six weeks, the thoughts haven’t stopped there and in the UK people have been thinking about where their lettuce comes from and even briefly considering how the farmers of our food produced at the wrong time of year might be struggling to do that. But even more than that, there is discussion and help on how we might deal without lettuce in February. Personally I’d prefer porridge on the beach in August, but I’ve already admitted I like my PhD so we shouldn’t let my proven-radical opinions deter anyone from the crunch of an iceberg whilst shivering next to the radiator.

More interesting than lettuce however, to me and my counter-seasonal blinkered brain, are courgettes. Courgettes are vegetables that are not just counter-seasonal, but that are grown as part of the same supply chain as tomatoes. So in Spain from around the end of September until late June, and in Morocco from the beginning of November until the end of April, we get not just tomatoes but also courgettes, peppers, aubergines and more.

 

Tesco didn’t have any courgettes when I visited. Or did it? That depends on if we count the ‘courgette spaghetti’ that sat pre-prepared in a plastic box next to the loose veg. Sainsbury’s did have courgettes, for the quite considerably higher than normal price of £1.90 kilo, and also had the [ridiculous] spaghetti version too. Finally, Waitrose, rose above the spaghetti trend but also only offered the re-valued crop in semi-packaged form, this time in a nicely designed bag of three for the notable price of £2.59, or £5 a kilo.

The courgette spaghetti, or ‘courgetti’ is interesting – I can understand Tesco’s choice to prioritise its few courgettes for courgetti production because you get to sell it for a far higher price (£4 kilo) and perhaps just as importantly you can get away with absolutely no information about where the trapped and grated courgette comes from. So profit is accumulated in our humble convenience supermarkets on Park Street, and we don’t get any further forward in this radical process of thinking about where the courgette in the box is from, let alone who grew it.

Tomatoes will at some point get a blog of their own, but for the moment suffice to say that those I found on my little jaunt down Park Street were without a shadow of a doubt produced by firms and people that I encountered during my (proper) fieldwork in Morocco. The location confirms it, as do the codes on the packaging. We don’t know where the spaghetti courgette originates but I suspect it is from not so far away. On valentine’s day, I’m more than happy to think about this, and I’ll sacrifice the courgetti dinner for two.

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Coffee

coffee-to-goCoffee to go. I went. But I didn’t go without passing through the tourist Morocco that allowed me go to get here in the first place. I bought the presents, had the breakfast on the terrace, and in the airport I had a… coffee.

Coffee isn’t really a girl’s drink in Morocco. We’re supposed to drink tea, or perhaps a very milky Nescafe infusion. The modern Moroccans will disagree with me here, and they’re right, of course anyone can have a coffee, what decade are we living in!? Any woman who knows her place however, will also know to use discretion when choosing a coffee shop.

Coffee shops in Morocco are like pubs (were) in the UK. They are the place where men go to smoke, talk, get away from the house, relax after work, watch football and drink… coffee. At the language school last year I had to read a text which started, ‘between coffee shops and coffee shops, there are coffee shops’. A Moroccan joke which sums up the sight of rows of men in plastic chairs smoking and watching the world go by in small and large town centres. So of course we are allowed in coffee shops, but like a rough pub in the UK (a couple of decades ago?), or a dirty little bar somewhere else in Europe, you reflect on your gender before going into this particular ‘public’ space. I’ve been into a few of these coffee shops but being allowed in doesn’t mean you are comfortable. I’d far rather have a tea in someone’s (or somewoman’s) house, thank you.

So the airport coffee isn’t just a caffeine boost before a journey, it’s a place where my gender loses some significance and my mind begins to relax. Even the coffee cup speaks to me in English. It’s also a moment of loss. All that work, all that miming, all those words I’ve struggled to understand and build into comprehension, all that work is about to languish unused, for months and months. The rewards and sense of accomplishment after everyday interactions aren’t there when you return to your default self. But we are entitled to time off for a reason, and I think I need some.

I wasn’t going to write about coffee until I came back to work. It’s something I associate more with work friends and old friends and new friends, and even supervision meetings. Perhaps it’s fitting though that despite travelling between Morocco and the UK, two countries famous for tea, it is coffee is what comes across the globe with me. Not very original, I know. I was going to write about Harrira, a lovely warm soup with tomatoes and chickpeas and herbs. It’s cheap even when everything else is expensive, and would probably keep you alive if that was all you had. But I didn’t have my camera on me for the last bowl of Harrira. And somehow it hasn’t made the shortlist of ‘local products to be made available in the airport’. Not high-class enough, too much work, not admitted to ‘global’.

So coffee, with an imperfect colonial past (tea being no better), and an imperfect addictive future. Culturally though, it’s become a means, a code, a facilitator of better things, some of them really great, even precious. A means to connect, to think, to wake up, and most importantly right now, to have a break.

Out of Office

Thank you for your e-mail. I will be on an extended coffee break until the New Year with friends and family. Thank you for keeping me company with my research in Morocco.

All the very best,

Lydia

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