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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Couscous

couscous
Couscous for three – with meat from the Hawli of Eid!

We think we know couscous. In the Moroccan sense though, I’m not so sure. So let’s start with a quiz:

  1. What day of the week is couscous eaten?
  2. How is it cooked?
  3. With what foods does it implicitly always come, when someone says, ‘we’re having couscous’.
  4. What is the dairy product that is often used?

When I say we, really what I mean is, ‘I’, these are just some of the important things that I’ve learned about couscous since I’ve been learning and immersing myself in Moroccan culture over the last two years. So the answers are: a) mainly Fridays b) it’s steamed above the meat and vegetables c) usually there is always lamb (or another meat) squash, courgettes, carrots, sometimes a few chic-peas and a rich broth-like gravy to be poured on top, not to mention the herbs and spices! d) a salty fermented sheep-milk butter called ‘smen’ is often rubbed into the couscous as it is separated. Smen, now there is an easy name to remember!

Twice now has couscous lived up to its Moroccan reputation for me. The idea of couscous in Morocco is something far from the quick-boil stuff that we imagine elsewhere. It symbolises a labour of love to be shared and enjoyed with family, friends and guests. Perhaps like a roast dinner, but maybe with fewer implications of stress. It is also a lot tastier than any couscous I’ve eaten in Europe. When it’s steamed the couscous itself takes on all the flavour of the meat, vegetables and spices.

The first time couscous lived up to symbolising Moroccan hospitality and good-will was in my friend’s flat in Rabat. We were invited to have couscous with the family living upstairs, but we’d already arranged to eat lunch with friends. Later that evening when I came back after a mini-mission around Rabat, the daughter-in-law came and said that they still wanted us to have some couscous. I said that they shouldn’t have, but thank you very, very much (or something to that effect in imperfect French). I was not expecting the small feast that descended from the big house above. It was about 9pm and I was presented with a steaming hot plate of couscous. The size of the gesture was quite literally far larger than what we knew what to do with. I carried the plate over to the fridge and sized it up against the width of the fridge – the plate was far too big for any shelf of the normal size stand-up fridge-freezer. We ate what we could and enjoyed it before the flies of the summer heat got to what wouldn’t fit in the fridge. That seems to be the kind of gesture that turns neighbours into friends, which is really what those neighbours are to my friend.

The second time the couscous really came as a welcome relief from the sometimes intensely stressful nature of travelling to do research. This was the picture above. This was couscous at the house of the academics that are helping me out here. I took quite a long path arriving to the place of my fieldwork and in a way I still haven’t arrived. The couscous at their house, rather than a sultry coffee in a meeting room, felt like a big hug of welcome. And like in Spain, following the meal, you aren’t shooed out the door, but invited to relax, perhaps to watch something that happens to be on a nearby TV, perhaps to sit back and have a tea.

So what can couscous tell me about research? It can tell me that it is personal. In Morocco this means that it doesn’t happen in meeting rooms and hotels. Real sharing of information happens where people are most comfortable, which is in their own homes. How I might repay all these cups of tea and meals of couscous? I’m not yet sure. I try to arrive with the small sweet biscuits that seem to be the European social equivalent of a bottle of wine. It isn’t always possible though. I think that I will be present shopping for more than just friends and family at the end of this trip.