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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Proper Spanish Lunch

menu-del-diaThe proper Spanish lunch is no small or fast affair. It can’t be eaten with one hand, nor at your desk, and it isn’t accompanied by a cappuccino. The Proper Spanish Lunch is composed of two main courses, as much bread as you need, a glass of wine, and dessert. If you also need coffee, you can swap your dessert for one or pay the extra, but don’t assume it’ll come with chocolate sprinkles.

The Proper Spanish Lunch is a meal that symbolises an in-between space in my research, and, naturally, in my life. It is eaten with people who have helped me get from one place to another, and with whom I’ve enjoyed the time (moments and years) in between.

You don’t get anywhere without in-between spaces. If you go from a place you know to a place you absolutely don’t understand, you’re lost. But if you have a stepping stone, you can follow the familiar paths into the unknown space. That’s my route for weaving my way from understanding English and Spanish into French. It’s also the route I’ve used to reach Morocco: using what I understand about Spain to help me cross the Euro-African cultural divide. When you start from Spain, that distance is only 8 miles.

Lunch in Spain is quite literally called ‘la comida’ The Food. This is a very accurate description, because if you play the eating times game well, ‘la comida’ will be The Food of your day. Lunch is at about 2pm. For your first course (equal to the second in size) you have something like an enormous salad/lentils/soup, therefore meeting the RDA* for vitamins (hopefully). For your second course you have something of higher protein and prestige accompanied by even more vegetables, and even more bread. An example of this is the magnificent fish my friend effortlessly whipped up for us even just for a hungover Sunday lunch. Follow with dessert: either choose one of many different variations on the theme of ‘custard’, or alternatively a piece of fruit. Finally, coffee, to help you move again after The Food.

After Proper Spanish Lunch you are absolutely free until about 10pm because if you followed the instructions above, you won’t be hungry until then. Hence, if it’s a working day, far from being lazy, you can work until 6, 7 or 8pm, and then go out for a drink afterwards and then get home for 10pm to have dinner. Amazing. This only happens in the UK one day of the year, Christmas Day, when we indulge so much in the accompanying drinks we are good for nothing by the time it gets dark.

So what’s the relation with Morocco? Well this is where Northern Europe meets Northern Africa. Remove the alcohol and Proper Spanish Lunch looks less like Christmas Day in the UK and more like the salad or beans followed by Tagine in Morocco. More importantly, as in Morocco, time is made for eating in Spain. Someone has also made even more time: this is properly cooked food. I have yet to have a Proper Spanish Lunch with boil-in-the-bag rice, a pot noodle or boxed sandwiches.

Finally, the ‘in-between’ role of Spain, not only in my life, but also in my research, came into real relief this past week. It is extremely difficult for a Moroccan to get a UK visa, however, for some, it is not so difficult to get to Spain. Spain is part of the Schengen Area and so the close ties (linguistic, business, educational, family) mean that many Moroccans can get long term visas of several years to travel to countries like France and Spain with whom there have been very long term ties, and therefore the wider Schengen Area.

So although I had said goodbye to Morocco for the time-being following fieldwork, I was able to meet my Moroccan colleagues at a seminar last week in the very fitting, and in-between, Spanish context. So I’ve done a bad job of coming home from Morocco and staying put (the first week of term might have been easier without such opportunities to keep the doors open to research and maybe my sister should have confiscated my passport after all). Yet I can also see that Proper Spanish Lunches, and particularly this time with my Moroccan colleagues, are going to be absolutely key to keeping my research alive, and to keeping me going, perhaps until 10pm.

*Recommended Daily Allowance

Crisps

balsamic-vinegar

My food landscape has drastically changed. I have been back in the UK for 3 weeks and there are still things of the reverse food-culture-shock that grab my attention. OK, ‘shock’ is an over-dramatic word, but re-encountering food in the UK offers plenty to chew on. So the blog will continue into my brave post-fieldwork research world.

Both my mind and body are adjusting to the return from North Africa. I had become used to the feeling of being full from bread, and now even things like a stir-fry and rice seem to be lacking a broken round loaf spread about the table. Drinking water from the tap is still a luxury. I have a slight sense of doing something borderline wrong when drinking alcohol, like getting into a pub when you are still under-age, you’re fine, but secretly hope that a friend of your parents doesn’t walk in and catch you.

The biggest change though is that I’m not researching alone anymore. I am still alone on my PhD project because let’s face it that’s the nature of the beast, but I’m surrounded by others and their counterpart theses. Back in the office theories are being considered, data is being crunched, chapters compiled. It might not have the scents of mint tea and the spices of tagine, but this new research environment is by no means food-free.

We have snacks. At 10.55am there is a rustle of foil. There is the crunch of a crisp. We have lunch. At 1pm there is the twinkling of packets, catching the light in the common room as these little features of lunchtime in the UK formulate the third element of the corporate balance of a ‘meal deal’. We have drinks. At 5pm one is torn open, splayed across the table and shared in the pub. At the weekend I had friends over for dinner. Three of the big special packets arrive with the guests. The ones that you buy for other people, as a treat, to share, to mark your contribution to the feast and which bear the hallmarks of taste.

So I noticed crisps. Are they a reflection of our country on the run, no time for the kitchen, in love with corporate promises? Or are they bought as part of our desire to share ideas? We buy a packet in the pub, tear it open and invite everyone to keep their thoughts going with a few calories and some salt, the salt encouraging the flowing of more drinks and more thoughts. I’m really not sure, so I thought I’d call on the advantages of being back in the office and working in company. Who better to contribute to a post-fieldwork exploration of crisps than someone else just back from fieldwork?

My fellow PhD friend Ed who was nice enough to let me interview him on the abnormal topic of ‘crisps and fieldwork’ admitted to being a crisp fan. His favourite brand: Monster Munch. He’d been back for just four weeks, and so the details of his experience were still fresh. He went to Brazil, he enjoyed it. There was “samba on every street corner and the beer was cold”. What did he eat? I was curious. “Meat, rice and beans. Buffet food sold by weight” he hasn’t found anywhere here yet where food is sold by weight. “Crisps?” I asked? “Did you eat any crisps while you were on fieldwork?” “Yes”, he said. He told me they were in big bags with flavours like “Churrasco”, “Pacanha”, the usual suspect brands, but with adaptions to their flavours to suit the particularities of the Brazilian market. The same was true in Morocco, big bags with local flavours, sold on trains and at service stations. They didn’t make it much into Thursday though. So did Ed find crisps in the same places in Brazil as he does in the UK? “No”. The big bag wasn’t gutted in the pub by many hands all at once. Instead the beer was shared directly, one big bottle and lots of glasses. Crisps reduced to their rightful status, junk food; “comfort food”.

I’d point out here that I quite like crisps, there is something slightly exciting about buying a bag of cut up potato slices. A bag containing a whole potato wouldn’t quite be the same. You could try sprinkling it with some culturally appropriate flavours, but there is something about the work being done for you, the cutting, cooking and packaging, that seems to fit in well in the UK. I wonder how long the excitement will last. I asked Ed if he’d be going back to Brazil. He told me, “Yes, I’m sure I will, but I’m not sure when”. I agree.

Harcha

ready-to-eat-1

Harcha. It’s made of a harsh kind of flour called smeeda. I’d wondered for a while what that was, but of course, it’s semolina, hence the name smeeda, which isn’t so different. Another type of durum wheat, another variant on the ingredient used for Couscous. So what is so special about harcha? Well, it’s a semi-sweet snack which usually comes with good company. For a slightly special breakfast, or an afternoon tea merienda.

In this case, I made it! I made it with a friend. A research friend, but a friend all the same. With a short time to go, I’m starting to tally up the things that I have and haven’t done, but more to the point, I’m starting to reflect on the connections I’ve made and whether they end here or not. A research friend is still a friend, just like a school friend, or a Uni friend, or a friend with any other descriptive word in front. So it’s nice to be able to say that I have not just done a little research, but I’ve also made a few friends.

There’s something special about these friends. Our worlds are so different that it’s difficult to imagine them in my context, or us in another context. We’ve made friends in this context though, so like a Uni friend might share their washing liquid or their lecture notes, here, we’ve made sense of each other through what we are doing now, and why. We’ve seen how we can help one another or accompany one another through our different daily challenges at different times. I’ve made dinner for friends who worked late and used to live in my house. Others have made me breakfast, or tea and explained how things work here. How the school system works, or the way people find a job, or why they have two phones. The insightful things and the practical things are often the small things.

Research isn’t just about making friends though. It’s also about stepping forward and going out and asking after your research topic. With a research topic that is on people’s minds there have then been more questions back to me and lots of opinions about where I should be. Surely, looking like a tourist, I should be somewhere more set up for tourists? Surely, I should be mixing with the ‘ex-pats’ and the middle classes, not people who buy their ingredients in little scraps of newspaper. Surely, I should be just a little further away from my research topic. An hour might do it.

If there is something that I have learnt from traveling and living abroad it is to be ready to change plans. There is no point in digging your heels in with fixed dates and fixed plans. Especially when those dates were plucked from thin air based on an understanding far more shallow than the one I have now. The first time I properly traveled I spent two months rushing from hostel to hostel, only to realise afterwards that I could quite easily have stayed another month. Money wise, time wise, flights wise. So now that the forces that be are pushing me away from spending much more time with new friends here, I’m learning from these previous experiences and have found out that it only costs £30 to change my flight. I won’t be changing it by much, but there is a limit to how long I fancy changing roles: from researcher to tourist, from friend to client.

Some friends last though. You might lose touch, you might not coincide again, but you don’t un-meet people. I might not remember the recipe. I might never make it. But the next time I see a harcha, I will know more than just how much it costs and how it tastes. I will know how it was made, and how to make it if I fancy sharing in good company.