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The cream of the culinary crème was in London to attend the annual San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards and find out whether Chef René Redzepi’s Noma could retain its title as world’s best restaurant for a fourth year (it couldn’t: the three Roca brothers, of El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, knocked him off the throne into second place, while Italian chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana moved up to take third place).
Several special prizes were given out during the April awards ceremony, held in London’s magnificent medieval Guildhall, which rocked with loud music and pink lighting for the occasion. The prizes included the Sustainable Restaurant and Best Asian Chef awards to Tokyo’s Yoshihiro Narisawa; the Highest New Entry to Australian restaurant Attica; and the coveted Chef’s Choice Award to Grant Achatz.
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“Cooking is like art, it stirs the emotions,” she said as she smiled out across the sea of chefs and food professionals. “Like poetry and music, it creates a harmony of soul and mind. Food is the best way to meet and enjoy the world.” She also mentioned cooking’s need for team spirit: Since her marriage in 1974, Nadia Santini has cooked in her husband’s family’s restaurant alongside her mother-in-law, Bruna, who at 84 still helps with the daily food preparations. Antonio Santini, Nadia’s husband, runs the dining room and its outstanding wine cellar. Nadia Santini was first awarded three Michelin stars in 1996 and has retained them ever since, a record in Italy.
A few hours before the 50 Best dénouement, an intimate champagne lunch was hosted in Belgravia by Veuve Clicquot to honor Nadia Santini. It was held at Ametsa restaurant in the Halkin Hotel, across the street from Buckingham Palace. The clean-lined dining room overlooks a leafy garden and was a fitting setting for the meal’s modernist food. The restaurant, whose full name is Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, is under the guidance of Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter, Elena, of the award-winning Arzak restaurant in San Sebastián, Spain. They have entrusted the London kitchen to three chefs who worked at Arzak in San Sebastián.
Elena Arzak won the Best Female Chef award in 2012. I asked her whether we really need a separate award for female chefs today.
“There are two things,” she explained as we were served a signature Arzak dish of langoustines with crisp rice noodles and corn salsa that went beautifully with Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2004 — part of a flight of five rare Champagnes. “Madame Clicquot, who lived 200 years ago, was a pioneering business woman and innovative visionary before her time. So it’s an honor to receive an award in her name.” (The Champagne house also honors women in other fields of achievement: Their Business Woman Award this year went to architect Zaha Hadid).
“I’m Basque, and we live in a matriarchy where women have always been the mainstay of our families and society,” Elena Arzak continued. “Our restaurant, which opened in 1897, was in the hands of women cooks until my father took over in his generation. Most of our chefs are women, too.” Her father asked her advice about food and created dishes with her from an early age.
“I’ve been lucky to grow up in an environment in which women are respected even if they are sometimes behind the scenes, working as well as bringing up children. I cooked alongside my parents and never felt discriminated against because of my sex. I wish it could be the same for all women,” she said. “However, I am sure it’s just a question of time before there will be more young women in lists such as these.”
She was sitting across the table from just such a woman. Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava is a young Thai chef whose restaurant, Bo.lan is in Bangkok. She recently won the Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef in Asia award, when the 50 Best produced its first all-Asian list. Songvisava works with her husband, Dylan Jones, and features only locally sourced, seasonal produce in their menu.
“In Thailand, women are known to be great cooks, so it’s not hard for us to be accepted,” she said. “Perhaps the biggest difference between men and women is not their imagination but their strength, as professional kitchens can be very physically demanding.”
Nadia Santini agrees. “Cooking is hard work, but I’ve always been very happy to be in this profession. It’s important for women to express their own sensibilities and bring these differences to what is, after all, a universal love of food.”
Top photo: Chefs Elena Arzak (left), Nadia Santini and Bo Songvisava celebrate. Credit: Carla Capalbo
It’s 9 a.m., and I’ve just been poured five glasses of inky purple wine from bottles labeled only with question marks. It’s primeur time in Bordeaux, and I’m sitting in a quiet room in a Médoc château overlooking just-spring vineyards, about an hour’s drive north of the city.
During the primeur week, the top châteaux present their unfinished, unbottled wines from the most recent harvest to wine critics for assessment and evaluation. This helps them determine how the wines will age and their opening prices on the market, as if they were futures. (For more about how this works, see my article Bordeaux Primeurs’ Primer).
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The 118 French and international wine writers invited to this annual ritual are divided between those who taste blind — about two-thirds of us — and those who prefer to know what they’re tasting as they taste it. The blind tasters get the list of producers after they’ve finished; it’s more fun that way. The only clue we’re given by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) — the federation that comprises the 131 top châteaux and organizes these tastings — is the appellation where each wine is produced.
The appellation divisions are geographical, as are the tasting sessions. On Monday, we start with the year’s crop of dessert wines, from Sauternes and Barsac, before moving to the Garonne River’s Right Bank for Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, then back to the Left, tasting and spitting our way up through the Graves area to the Médoc. We end on Friday at Margaux, one of the world’s most iconic production zones. Most of the first-growth châteaux send their wines to the group tastings; others only pour their wines at their château by appointment.
So what’s the point? After all, these are wines that won’t be released for at least another year and may take 10, 20 or more years to reach full maturity.
“The tasters’ first task is to form an opinion about the quality of the vintage,” explains Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at Bordeaux University. “Beyond that, the object is to assess the wines of individual châteaux, giving them scores and valuations ahead of the châteaux’ price declarations. The aim is to decide which wines are worth investing in.”
That sounds straightforward enough, but there’s a catch. These are wines in their infancy whose exuberant fruit and often harsh tannins can easily mislead mouths more accustomed to the finely tuned balance between nose and palate of well-aged wines. Tasters trained in Bordeaux have developed ways to judge the wines fairly and objectively.
Bordeaux Primeurs and the secret to wine
“There’s no magic wand: A wine can only become great with age if it was great in its youth,” says Jean-Marc Quarin, an experienced Bordeaux wine critic who writes a successful wine blog and publishes a vast guide to Bordeaux’s wines (soon to appear in English too). “One of the secrets to understanding wines this young is to concentrate on what happens in the palate rather than in the nose.”
His approach is analytical and instructive: If the nose can deceive at this early stage, the experience of the wine once it’s in the mouth — including its structure and impact — shouldn’t lie and can be a more reliable indicator.
“You have to focus on each stage of the wine’s passage through the mouth, from the initial attack, as we call it, to the mid palate and the finish,” he says. “That’s when you can spot the differences between rough and fine-grained tannins, hollow and full bodies, and short and long finishes.” Quarin gives each wine about 10 seconds in the mouth when he’s tasting, and analyzes every sensation carefully to pick out wines whose potential will be fulfilled over time. It’s a complex art, but his method is helpful.
So how did the 2012 vintage fare? The year’s weather conditions were not simple, but some terrific wines were made nonetheless, especially by estates with the means — in financial and manpower terms — to carry out a lot of extra work in the vineyards to counter the erratic climatic effects. This went from removing under-developed bunches in summer to selecting the ripest berries — one by one, if necessary — before the winemaking.
The new president of the UGC, Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier, emphasized this ability: “Bordeaux’s viticultural know-how and winemaking skills have come a long way in recent years,” he said. “We are now able to make very good wines even in difficult vintages such as this one, by making choices about how to adapt to the climate’s impact. It takes a lot more effort to produce these good wines, but those who rise to the challenge are seeing very good results.”
Professor Dubourdieu concludes: “Key factors in Bordeaux are our range of soils — from well-draining pebbles to moisture-retaining clay — and our diverse grape varieties: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in smaller quantities. They give us the flexibility in our blends to adapt to the vagaries of the weather.”
Indeed, we found silky Merlots that were wonderfully ripe yet not lacking in freshness on the Right Bank, and elegant white wines in the Graves: This was a good vintage for the whites. As for the Left Bank Cabernets, they varied, but in the terroirs where they achieved good maturity, such as at Haut Bailly, in Saint-Julien and parts of Pauillac and Margaux, they have produced finely textured wines when blended with the sweet Merlots. Many of these wines will be at their best in five to 10 years, so we won’t have to wait too long to enjoy them.
Photo: Bottles for blind tastings. Credit: Carla Capalbo
“Don’t ask for your T-bone steak well done!” The sign, handwritten on ocher butcher’s-block paper, makes me smile. Nothing has changed at Trattoria Mario since I first ate there in the late 1990s, when I spent three adventurous years researching my book “The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany.” On a return visit to three of my favorite Florentine restaurants, I am reminded of the different facets of Tuscan cuisine, and its enduring traditions. Mario’s is such an integral part of Florence’s central food market’s bustling neighborhood that it closes when the market does. True to Italian form, the most compelling dishes here are handed down from one generation to the next, changing little along the way.
Take the T-bone steak, or bistecca alla Fiorentina, as it’s known. “In Tuscany, ‘la Fiorentina’ is always eaten rare: Any other way is sacrilege!” says Romeo Colzi, one of the late founder’s two sons, as he serves a thick, juicy, freshly grilled steak. His father, Mario, used to say the same thing. The brothers run the busy restaurant with as much enthusiasm as Mario once did, cooking Tuscany’s equivalent to short-order cuisine in the narrow kitchen that flanks their cramped dining room.
The rest of the menu is unaltered too. Mario’s features the rustic dishes of Tuscany’s cucina povera: humble vegetable and bread soups, polenta with ragù, roasted pork liver with onions, Florentine tripe stewed in tomato-rich sauce and simply grilled meats. The pastas — central to any Italian meal, yet rarely an end in themselves — are hearty affairs. Pappardelle sulla pernice are wide noodles tossed with a few spoonfuls of meaty partridge sauce. “This is one of our family recipes,” says Romeo’s wife, Patrizia, as she serves a steaming bowl to a young Korean couple. In the two decades since I first ate here, old Florence — la vecchia Firenze — has found itself a new world of admirers.
A few streets away, near the Duomo, there’s a different kind of Florentine lifestyle. The handsome, 15th-century Renaissance Palazzo Antinori is the headquarters of the aristocratic Marchesi Antinori family, whose members have been producing wine in Tuscany since 1385. They still possess large swathes of vineyards in the region’s most prestigious areas, from Chianti Classico to Montalcino to Bolgheri. On the palazzo’s ground floor is Cantinetta Antinori.
“Landed families like mine traditionally sold produce and wines from their estates directly to the Florentine public from small windows in their palazzi,” says Marchese Piero Antinori, one of the Italian wine world’s most dynamic figures. “In the 1950s our Cantinetta was a simple place where people could drink our wines.”
In recent years it’s become a sophisticated restaurant and wine bar that attracts the city’s well-heeled citizens. Despite somewhat grander surroundings — the high-vaulted dining room features a polished wooden bar and multiple vintages of the family’s prize-winning wines — the food remains true to its country origins.
Crostini are not adorned with foie gras but with wilted Tuscan winter cabbage (cavolo nero) or white beans. The egg pasta is handmade: tender maltagliati con cernia are triangular pieces “badly cut” from a pasta sheet, dressed with a light sauce of Mediterranean grouper. They’re refined yet uncomplicated, as is the best Tuscan cuisine. The menu shifts with the seasons: Some of the Cantinetta’s produce still arrives from the family’s farms. As for the winemaking operations, they’re now mainly run by Piero Antinori’s three daughters, Albiera, Allegra and Alessia.
Tuscan ingredients can also stimulate creativity. In the part of town called Sant’Ambrogio, another large food market specializes in local growers. It’s a lively residential quartiere whose culinary pioneer and star has long been Chef Fabio Picchi. Picchi’s empire straddles a crossroads: on one corner, Cibrèo restaurant and trattoria share the same kitchen. Across the street, Caffè Cibrèo too relies on the main kitchen: the waiters duck the traffic with their trays. A few doors down, Picchi also runs the Teatro del Sale, a members’ club (anyone can join) in an ex-theatre that now features his colourful cooking, with theatrical entertainment in the evenings. For Picchi, food is always convivial.
At the refurbished Cibrèo Caffè, I’m tucked into a cosy table on a red plush-velvet chair that I suspect once sat in the Teatro’s stalls. Fabio Picchi is host here, running the dining room as he explains the dishes with his distinctly Tuscan accent. The antipasto sequence is exciting. Picchi takes some Tuscan classics — sliced tripe, hand-carved local prosciutto, salame — and combines them with more unusual starters. I’m smitten with scordiglià, a firm paste of Sicilian almonds loosened with olive oil and a hint of vinegar. “Spoon it generously onto organic bread to start the meal,” Picchi suggests, unmissable in his bright red cardigan. The procession of small plates includes home-pickled carrots and sun-dried Gallipoli tomatoes. Picchi is currently championing a decidedly non-Italian ingredient: turmeric. I love his silky little budino made of yogurt and lemon with a hint of the spice as well as very subtle black pepper with a long finish. “I’m adding turmeric wherever I can for its anti-cancer properties,” he says.
Picchi has long taken a stance against Italy’s culinary mainstay, pasta. “I love pasta, but it’s easy to cook and best eaten at home,” he says. I’m intrigued by his dumpling-like gnocchi: Thin oblongs of roast potato are rolled in day-old breadcrumbs before being baked and browned in a delicate sauce of ricotta, spinach and turmeric.
When a manly oxtail stew arrives, Picchi demonstrates how to de-bone it. It’s followed by a large, “drowned” Mammolo artichoke filled with a runny egg yolk and served over mashed potatoes. A novel approach — with Tuscan soul. The meal ends with a bitingly bitter grapefruit and orange cheesecake with lingering citrus notes, brought across the street by Fabio’s son, Duccio. “I’m still full of ideas, but I’m enjoying relinquishing some of the reins to my children,” Picchi says. “After 33 years at Cibrèo, I can afford to let go a bit, as long as it’s in famiglia.”
Top photo: Romeo Colzi cuts a freshly grilled T-bone for serving at Trattoria Mario. Credit: Carla Capalbo
It’s 4:50 a.m. and I’m standing on a still-darkened street corner in an unpromising part of Hong Kong with a handful of elderly Chinese men. I got up before dawn to visit the city’s wholesale fish and vegetable markets, which are just finishing business at this hour. I’m not sure whether the others waiting here are market workers or simply early risers. Unlike me, they are habitués of Tak Yu, a historic Hong Kong eatery from the 1920s famous for its dim sum. At precisely 5 o’clock, a small door in the steel siding opens and the line of men disappears inside. I wait for the main door to open, a few minutes later, before following them upstairs to the large dining rooms on the second floor.
The tradition of dim sum, or yum cha (literally, “drink tea”) as it is also known here, began in 18th-century Guangzhou, in southern China. Teahouses there competed for their clients’ business by offering small dishes to accompany the tea. Over time, these developed into an elaborate repertoire of over 100 recipes that could easily be shared, like tapas. Many are steamed or fried.
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At this early hour we don’t want many dishes, but Dorathy Yu orders a few classics, from wide, steamed beef meatballs (牛肉球) served on fine bean-curd skin, to steamed rice-noodle rolls with sliced chicken (雞絲粉卷), and char siu bao (叉燒包), a popular bun filled with barbecued pork and baked with a light sugar glaze. The most intriguing are the taro dumplings (芋角), in which mashed taro root is combined with diced shiitake mushrooms, shrimp and pork before being deep fried. Their unusual spiky, crisp batter makes them resemble little fluffy animals. There’s nothing refined about this food: The meats ooze with fat and flaunt their richness. These are the earthy flavours of China as they have been maintained for decades at this ever-popular restaurant.
As we eat, Dorathy explains more about dim sum culture. “Dim sum is quite common in Hong Kong. Many people enjoy it for family gatherings: I go to dim sum restaurants once a week with my parents, usually on Saturday or Sunday morning. We are rarely able to relax together during the week, but at the weekend we make time to eat and talk. Dim sum is not cooked at home — there are too many dishes to prepare. We select the restaurant according to our mood: Each is known for different specialities.”
Comparing dim sum
Later that day I go for dim sum again, at a much higher end of the dining scale. Lung King Heen is one of Hong Kong’s most exclusive restaurants and is known for fabulous dim sum. It is located in the luxurious modern Four Seasons hotel and was the world’s first Chinese restaurant to earn three Michelin stars. The elegant dining rooms offer panoramic views over Victoria Harbour. Chef Chan Yan Tak — known as “uncle” — creates a seasonal dim sum menu to complement the restaurant’s more formal Cantonese cuisine; there is a list of premium teas for those who don’t want wine. Chef Chan is not a media-seeker. He insists that success comes from using quality produce and the team’s hard work.
As with all Chinese food, the ideal here is to go with at least two friends to be able to share and compare lots of dishes: China is one country where eating alone limits your chances of enjoying as many taste experiences as possible. I begin with a few of the chef’s summer dim sum dishes. If the characteristic dim sum trolleys have been banished at Lung King Heen, the food arrives beautifully arranged on trays, set like jewels in sleek silver steamers. A clutch of organic vegetables is beautifully wrapped in translucent green rice dough for the zucchini dumpling: It’s crunchy, fragrant and refined. Beside it, a steamed lobster and scallop dumpling is topped with a plump river shrimp and reveals itself succulent and pure. Condiments for the dumplings include broad bean paste, chili oil and spiced soy sauce. The chicken and abalone puff is baked as a two-bite pie with crisp short pastry. It’s piping hot, and displays the prized shellfish beneath a hearty poultry glaze.
Chef Chan excels at barbecue. I opt for a sampling, and I’m presented with three pieces, like little poems of texture and taste. The barbecued pork combines fatty and complex lean meat with subtle honey notes. My suckling pig’s skin is arranged like a crisp caramel layer over the soft meat. A small portion of goose conjures up the vision of the whole bird roasting in a wood-burning oven, and goes well with its clean-flavored plum sauce. After this, an obligatory bowl of soup fills the palate: double-boiled tomato and potato, with fish tails and pork. I wish I had room for more of these excellent dim sum: I’d be drawn to dumplings of bird’s nest and crab roe, and to barbecued pork buns with pine nuts. Alas, I’ll have to wait for my next trip to Hong Kong to find out how they taste!
Top photo: Steamed dumplings at Lung King Heen, Hong Kong. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Whenever I’m in Pisa, on the Tuscan coast, I stop in to see Paul De Bondt, one of the world’s top chocolate artisans. He and his partner, Cecilia Iacobelli, have long been in the vanguard of chocolate flavour and design, and their ideas for chocolate have been copied the world over.
In their small chocolate factory, where everything is still done by hand, Paul is working with white chocolate on the day I visit.
“Try a little,” he says.
“Thanks, I’m not crazy about white chocolate, but since you made it, I’ll taste a piece,” I reply. I should have known: As with everything he makes, it’s delicious. Not overly sweet, not overly milky, with the clean finish that is one of De Bondt’s trademarks.
“Guess what? It’s sugar-free,” he says, as he continues to fill the molds of his trademark bars. I am amazed. I’ve tried sugar-free chocolate from time to time, just to see what it tastes like, and I’ve always found it unpleasant: sickly sweet, often with the metallic taste of artificial sweeteners and low-quality cocoa. How could this be sugar-free? What kind of sweetening agent is in it?
“For four years, we’ve been making a range of five sugar-free bars: three of varying degrees of dark chocolate, two different milk chocolate bars, and this white chocolate,” he says. “We have many loyal customers who asked us to start making chocolate for diabetic family members, so we developed this range. The sweetening agent is natural maltitol, and it’s quite different from synthetic and artificial sweeteners in taste and substance.”
The secret of sugar-free chocolate
Maltitol is a sugar alcohol with fewer calories than sugar. But unlike other sweeteners, maltitol has the same volume as sugar, so it doesn’t change the recipe to work with it. It has 75% of the sweetening capabilities of sugar (sucrose), but only 60% of the calories, and its glycemic index is 53% of sugar’s, Paul explains. That’s what makes it suitable for use in these “sugar-free” chocolates.
“For us, the structure of the chocolate — its mouthfeel — is important, yet that’s something many other chocolate producers don’t take into consideration. The maltitol works well for these bars because it behaves very much like sugar,” he explains. “Each person with diabetes has to find their own balance with food, so we don’t make any claims for how much of our chocolate they can eat, but the diabetics and dieters we know keep coming back for more,” he says.
Cecilia says the goal is to have each of the chocolate bars be complex and have a distinct character. “We also use pure, natural vanilla instead of the artificial vanilla so often found in commercial chocolates,” she says. “That may seem a novel idea to some producers, but we’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
I taste my way through the range of five sugar-free bars, going from the marvelously creamy white through the milk chocolate bars (with 36% and 40% cocoa) up through the dark bars (with 56%, 65% and 72% cocoa). As with all the duo’s chocolate bars, each is the result of a different blend of selected cocoas from various provenances. The 36% milk chocolate, for example, is made of three cocoa varieties, and is clean and balanced, with notes of milk and honey (though there is no honey in it); the 65% is a blend of just two types of cocoa, but has an intense character with notes of dried fruits; the 72% is darker in colour and tone, full-bodied yet with floral notes that stay in the mouth long after the chocolate has been swallowed.
This chocolate raises the bar for people who can’t eat sweetened chocolate. It’s so good you don’t have to be diabetic to want to eat it! Nor do you have to travel to Pisa to buy it (though Pisa is one of my favorite Tuscan towns, and far less touristy than Florence or Siena). De Bondt is in the process of setting up a new mail-order site, and will ship on demand. Some of the De Bondt chocolate range is also available from Buon Italia in Chelsea Market, in New York City.
Top photo: De Bondt chocolate bars. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Food-producing communities from 150 countries came to share ideas and experiences at the Slow Food joint Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre event this week in Turin, northern Italy. (Follow this link to my first report on it). Of the many food-related issues that were brought to the table at this extraordinary five-day event, one of the most pressing is land-grabbing.
TERRA MADRE AND
SALONE DEL GUSTO
Carla Capalbo reports from Slow Food's joint event at Turin, Italy, this week.
Part 1: Terra Madre's global fraternity of food producers
Part 2: Land-grabbing seizes the spotlight at Terra Madre
Land-grabbing is when private groups buy or gain control of vast areas of farmland in developing countries for producing food and biofuel crops for the first-world market. Africa, Asia and South America are particularly at risk in this modern land rush. Data compiled by the Land Matrix Project shows that 200 million hectares (772,000 square miles) — an area of land eight times the size of Great Britain — were sold or leased for foreign agricultural use between 2000 and 2010. Of these, 143 million hectares (552,000 square miles) are in Africa.
“Hungry for land,” a two-hour session on land-grabbing, brought together an international panel to discuss this serious and troubling trend that participants referred to as “neocolonialism,” before an equally international audience of farmers, students, journalists and other interested parties.
Stefano Liberti: ‘Just think of the so-called banana republics’
Stefano Liberti, who chaired the meeting and is the author of an Italian book on the subject (an English edition is on the way) explained: “There’s nothing new about the practice of using land in other parts of the world to facilitate food imports: Just think of the so-called banana republics of Central America.
“Two factors make the current situation very different: the speed at which it’s happening, and the type of people involved in the acquisitions. It’s no longer traditional agribusinesses or farmers who are buying up land in Africa, but speculative capitalists looking for quick returns: hedge funds, private equity, even pension funds now consider this type of action a safe investment. And they have been mushrooming at an alarming rate since 2008.”
In some cases, it is the governments of the African, Asian and South American countries that have enabled these acquisitions in an attempt to bring outside investment and capital into their countries’ coffers — at the cost of the local communities, which rarely see any of the benefits.
The attraction of lax laws, cheap labour and fertile land is proving irresistible in the run-up to the planet’s population boom and its growing search for food. Industrialised countries are increasingly supporting themselves from land outside their own geographical confines.
Karin Ulmer: ‘A very inefficient use of land’
“Globally, 70% of all arable land is being used to grow feed for animals,” said Karin Ulmer, Senior Policy Officer on Trade, Food Security and Gender at APRODEV, in Brussels. With the intensive industrial farming methods that are prevalent in Europe and the U.S. today, it takes 12 to 14 calories of cereal to produce 1 calorie of meat. “This is a very inefficient use of land, as opposed to grass-fed animals, sustainable and integrated farming. We need to source less from other countries.”
Liliana Marcela Vargas Vásquez, of Asociación de Trabajo Interdisciplinario-ATI, Colombia, agreed. “There’s been a huge increase of soya being grown in Patagonia to satisfy the ever-increasing demand in India and China for animal feed. Latin America is prey to land looters from within its countries and without, and life is becoming increasingly violent for many rural farmers seeking to defend their land against those who want to steal it.”
“Land used by local communities is being leased or sold to outside investors, including corporations and governments,” said Anne Van Schaik of Friends of the Earth Europe. In Africa, much of the land used by herdsmen is “commons” land, with no specific ownership, yet swaths of that land are being fenced off and converted to monocultures by and for the developed countries. “Access to land and water is a human right,” she declared. “We don’t need corporate control to feed the world. Unlike what we are being led to believe, 70% of the world is currently being fed by peasants, with 30% being fed by industrially produced food. The traditional models can work.”
Mwanahamisi Salimu: ‘farmers who resist are being evicted and killed’
Mwanahamisi Salimu, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager for Economic Justice of Oxfam Tanzania, gave a stirring account of the situation in her country. “Agriculture is very risky in Africa, as people may grab your land, and farmers who resist are being evicted and killed.” She highlighted the role of women in this battle. “Women farmers are heroes in Africa. It is very difficult for them to own any land due to the patriarchal structure of society, and they are always at the bottom of the totem pole, with no access to credit and few rights. Yet they do the majority of the work.” When they do have land, it is often the worst, least fertile land, on the margins of their villages. “Yet many courageous heroines are working the land despite the risks of violence they face.”
So what can be done? Several speakers encouraged the audience not only to spread the word about land-grabbing, but specifically to put pressure on their banks, funds and other financial institutions to disclose where their investments are being made. Often, individual investors are unaware their money is being used for this purpose, and object when they discover it is.
Terre de Liens in France: buying and restructuring abandoned farms
A speaker in the audience from Terre de Liens, a civil society in France, recounted how a group of French farmers, worried about the buy-up of French farms by outside investors, had collected 26 million euros (nearly $34 million U.S.) to buy and restructure 100 abandoned farms, thereby ensuring they remained in local communities and were run sustainably and organically.
“In rural communities of the developing countries, more efficient agricultural models must be developed for Asia, Africa and South America,” Liberti said. “Foreign investment in agriculture was initially encouraged based on the misguided assumption that it would aid local communities. The result has been the opposite. Local farmers must be supported and helped towards sustainable methods of agriculture, using modern technology when necessary for irrigation, storage and transportation, so they can be self-sufficient and retain their rights to their own land.”
Main photo: Mwanahamisi Salimu of Oxfam Tanzania. Credit: Carla Capalbo