Articles in Community
A battle is raging over where to buy your fish in Seoul, and the outcome will determine the fate of one of the city’s most iconic food markets and tourist destinations.
The sprawling Noryangjin Fish Market, on the south banks of the Han River, has been where fish sellers, buyers and simply the curious have been congregating since 1927. It’s also one of Seoul’s top tourist destinations.
Conan O’Brien visited, and played with the squirting “sea penises” on American TV. A thousand Chinese tourists visit a day, according to Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper. Fox News rated it the third-best food market in the world, and when Conde Nast Travel ran a photo essay of the best markets in Seoul, 10 of the 20 photos were from Noryangjin.
Battle to remain open
Today, though, the market is quiet. There is graffiti on the top floors that reads “Demolition.” On the main floor, the fish sellers are wearing red vests that read “Together we fight.” Banners hang from the walls, and there is a militant atmosphere throughout the market.
Parent company Suhyup wants the fish sellers to move across the street to a new market. The new market is smaller than the old one, fully indoors and air-conditioned, and resembles a department store. It is also mostly empty, since most fish sellers refuse to move there, despite orders from Suhyup.
“After they built the whole new building, we didn’t get any notice or have any meetings,” said one fish seller, who refused to give his name but has been selling fish at Noryangjin for 30 years. “On March 16, 2016, we got a notice to move. After we checked the new site, we saw it didn’t match our needs, so we chose to stay and fight.”
Mixed reactions to new
Suhyup says the old building, now 45 years old, is unsafe and unsanitary. But fish sellers have a litany of complaints about the new building, chiefly that the allocated lots are too small. They say the floors are slippery (I almost fell twice), the aisles are too narrow, the rents are too high, they weren’t properly consulted and, most important for visitors, that it lacks any of the atmosphere the old building has.
The corporation, meanwhile, says the fish sellers were perfectly well consulted, rents and lot sizes are the same, and everyone signed an agreement to move as far as back as 2009.
“We have to face the fact they’re not going to rebuild the traditional site,” says Song Young-hi, a fish seller of 39 years who reluctantly moved to the new building. She complains the lots are too narrow, and that it’s “almost impossible” to display the fish. Still, she doubts the company will back down, and she has to make a living. “I have to do what I have to do,” she says. The dispute is now with the courts.
Modern, but will tourists come?
A favorite activity among tourists at Noryangjin is getting the fresh seafood cut up right in front of them and served in one of the market’s many restaurants. In the old building, all the restaurants have been shuttered and sprayed with graffiti, their electricity and water shut off by the company. In the new building, the restaurants are open, but with fewer customers.
Stella, a tourist from Toronto who didn’t want to give her last name, bought fish at the new market to eat at one of the second-floor restaurants. But she said she would rather have gone to the old market, and was under the impression the old one was closed.
“My friends showed me pictures of the old one. It seemed to have more choice,” she says.
In the old market, Achuko and Yoko from Japan look at crabs and discuss the two markets. “I like the new market,” Achuko says. “It’s so clean.” But, she adds, “It’s impossible to move all of [the fish sellers] there.”
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She admits the old market is more traditional. “The old one is cheaper and a bigger market,” Achuko says. “So Koreans like this style, I think.”
Jang Han Gi is a fish seller who splits a 24-hour shift with his brother. It’s hard work, but after 25 years, he’s used to it. He says there’s no way he’s moving to the new market.
“The customers prefer the open site and the open style of this building,” Jang says.
Jake Yoo, a local tour guide, agrees. He says there just isn’t time to visit both markets on a tour, and the old one wins with tourists, hands-down. “This is traditional-style here, and it’s better.”
Main photo: Fish sellers, in the old market, wear red vests that read “Together we fight.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner
We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.
“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.
Cultivating an agrihood
It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.
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“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,” Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”
Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.
A cornucopia of crops
“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”
The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.
Enjoying the fruits of their labor
The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.
Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.
Rural life, redefined
When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.
“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”
Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann
When you visit the Smithsonian, you see Julia Child’s kitchen literally enshrined. It is surrounded by plexiglass, but you can see all of it and even “step inside” at places, while the kitchen itself is surrounded by videos of Julia. You get a sense of the real Julia, while you are also awed to be in the actual space inhabited by the First Lady of Food Television. Her seminal series “The French Chef” has just been re-released on the online TV site Twitch — bringing Julia once again into the public spotlight.
I was reminded of the cultural status of chefs at the Smithsonian’s Food History Gala. It was a public event to present the first ever Julia Child Award to Jacques Pépin. Taking place in the grand hall of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the location made it clear where chefs stand today in the pantheon of American greats. They stand right next to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Literally.
Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation, felt the space was appropriate. “It was very meaningful to be in the flag hall,” he said “under the image of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”
An ‘anonymous labor’
Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” reminded the distinguished guests that “being a chef was an anonymous labor for a long time.” Their high-flying cultural status is newfound. Even the evening’s celebrant, Jacques Pépin, spent the early part of his career as the corporate chef for Howard Johnson’s.
And it’s not just food stars, but food itself that has become a cultural touchstone. The Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend, kicked off by the gala, was followed by two more days of events and workshops that showcased innovation in American food culture. And the conversation didn’t stop with the weekend. The Smithsonian has embraced food history with the American Food History Project. It features monthly events that place food culture on the same level with such celebrated icons as Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers.
But there was a wistfulness underpinning the gala dinner. Many of the speakers of the evening — including the celebrated Chef Pépin — remarked on the strangeness of being cultural superstars. They all seemed to feel a sense of concern: being “enshrined” can also mean losing touch. A classic artifact like Julia’s Kitchen must be preserved by plexiglass. But a chef shouldn’t be. Superstars can find themselves living in a bubble, and it takes work to avoid this fate.
A sense of fun
Most of the pantheon at the gala seemed to be deeply aware of this. Sara Moulton pointed out that Julia’s real métier was television — the great leveler. In Moulton’s first job in television, Julia Child told her: “smile for the camera.” Now on her own television series, Moulton keeps that smile and counsels her guests to “smile constantly and for no particular reason.” It’s not an act — it’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the joy of food. While setting up a food demo on a set, Julia said to Sara: “Aren’t we having fun?” Moulton had to think about it, then the truth dawned: “Yes, she said, “Yes, we are!”
It’s the sense of fun, the sheer joy of preparing food, which made Julia Child an icon — the first food superstar of our culture. The joyous face of Jacques Pépin as he accepted the Julia Child Award made it clear that he is a fitting inheritor. Perhaps there’s no better recipient than the man who has been creating food television since 1997. As Marcus Samuelson put it: “Julia started it. Jacques caught the baton.”
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I got a sudden shock of the humanity of our great chefs on the last day of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend. I was leaving the American History museum when I ran into Anne Willan and Todd Schulkin coming in the doors. Willan, of course, is the founder of the iconic cooking school École de Cuisine La Varenne and author of “La Varenne Practique.” I was delighted to see them, and Willan explained she was coming to the Smithsonian to experience Julia’s Kitchen. “I’ve never seen it,” she said. Then she stopped with a frown, “Well, I have, of course, when I cooked in it with Julia. But I’ve never seen it…” She stopped again. “I’ve never seen it behind glass,” she finished.
The Smithsonian and the Julia Child Foundation are well aware of the danger of putting something behind glass. “Enshrining” both preserves — and distances. So on the same floor as Julia’s Kitchen, children can now interact with a miniature version of Julia’s Kitchen at the “Wegmans Wonderplace” exhibition, allowing them to grab pans from the famous pegboard wall and whip up a hollandaise sauce on the pretend stove.
Events like Food History Weekends, and awards for populists like Jacques Pépin, can keep food culture personal, intimate and connected.
Main photo: Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History
South Korea is in the middle of a food revolution. Led by expats, returning Korean-Americans and Koreans who have fallen in love with food overseas, once unheard-of dishes are now being served up all over Seoul. Spinach and artichoke pizza, pulled pork sandwiches and Spanish paella were just exotic dreams 10 years ago, but today they’re widely available, though price and quality can vary enormously.
Gemma Wardle, 31, is the self-described “fat girl” from England (though she lost significant weight two years ago). She is dedicated to documenting the Korean food revolution through her blog, A Fat Girl’s Food Guide to Eating in Korea. In four years, the Fat Girl’s Guide has become the go-to resource for foreign food in the Korean capital.
“I have been fat all my life,” Wardle says, tucking into a slice of macaroni and cheese pizza at Maddux, a new by-the-slice pizzeria near her apartment. “And I’m a person who loves to eat.”
The beginnings of a blog
Wardle began running the blog four years ago, after eating and shopping her way through the city. “I had this wealth of information, and people were always asking me, ‘Oh, how did you make this?’ or ‘Where did you buy this?’ or ‘Where’s a good date restaurant?'” Wardle says. “And I was just sick of saying the same things over and over again. So I started writing it down.”
Today it gets over 100,000 unique views a month, and advertisers are flocking to it. Wardle describes the blog as a “kimchi-free zone” that focuses on the influx of foreign food into this once isolated, now rapidly diversifying country. Though blogs covering Korean food are legion, there is little that focuses on the expanding foreign food market.
“I felt, as a Westerner living in Korea, I didn’t need to find Korean food. It’s everywhere you look,” Wardle says. “For those people coming up to Seoul a couple times a year, I wanted to say look, come here, this is the place you need to eat at.”
An international city
Though Wardle covers the whole of Seoul, she focuses mostly on the central neighborhood of Itaewon. Located near the gates of Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison, for decades it had a reputation as a sleazy, U.S. Army camptown, the place only soldiers, and the prostitutes who served them, would visit.
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But beginning in the late 1990s, Itaewon started to gentrify — the number of soldiers was drawn down, and those left were put on tighter leashes. Foreign businesspeople, English teachers and migrant workers began hanging out and opening businesses. Finally, Koreans themselves, eager for an “authentic” foreign experience in their own country, started visiting and investing their money. Today, it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city.
“It’s become more of an international kind of city,” Wardle says, a phenomenon she attributes to Koreans traveling more and developing more of an international palate.
Cocktails — which Wardle adores — have also become popular, in a country where a few years ago the only way to get liquor at most bars was by the bottle. Wardle says today’s other big trend is American comfort food, like barbecue, meatloaf and hamburgers.
A boom in restaurant growth
There has also been a liberalizing in trade laws that allows you to get nearly any ingredient you want, provided you can pay for it. A lot of the blog used to be recipes to make hard-to-find items from scratch, like cheese and yogurt. Today Wardle does much less of that, since almost everything is available on the shelves.
“I will still do a recipe now and again,” she says. “And I used to do a lot more where-to-shop posts, and I will still throw one in if there’s something worth doing. But I’d say the bulk now is restaurant reviews, where we used to be a bit more evenly split.”
Every week there is at least one, and often up to four, new restaurants to review, a rate of growth unimaginable a few years ago. There are currently at least 300 restaurants listed on the blog — Wardle doesn’t know exactly how many.
Wardle continues to teach English part time. She’d like to only write the blog, but the money just isn’t there yet. In the meantime, she plans to stay in Korea at least two more years before contemplating a return to the UK.
“I’ve loved living here, and I’m very happy writing here,” Wardle says. “I just wish I’d started it sooner.”
Main photo: Gemma Wardle is the voice behind the blog A Fat Girl’s Food Guide to Eating in Korea. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dave Hazzan
Boasting 567 entries, “Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City” serves up a feast of foodie knowledge for the Gotham native and novice alike.
Edited by Andrew F. Smith
Oxford University Press, 2015,
“Mention New York City food, and most people think of the white-hot restaurants of the moment, with their media-savvy celebrity chefs, glittering patrons and sky-high prices. Upscale restaurants have long been an exciting part of the city’s foodscape, but they are at one far end of the broad, colorful spectrum of New York eateries,” Smith says in an introduction. “Inhabiting the starry heights are temples of haute cuisine, such as Per Se and Le Bernardin; at the low end are hot dog carts and old-school Mexican taco trucks. In between, over the past 300 years, have been all kinds of eating places: cafeterias, diners, luncheonettes, drugstore counters, fast-food chains, delis, cafes, coffee shops, juice bars, doughnut shops, ice cream parlors, cocktail lounges, dive bars, and corner sweet shops, not to mention theater snack bars, supermarket delis, farmers markets, social club dining rooms, kiosks and vending machines. Today, New Yorkers have more 50,000 eating places to choose from.”
Combining food history with current culinary trends, the text richly explores New York City’s diverse food cultures, as well as its contributions to global gastronomy. A hefty volume that even dons a New York bagel on its spine, it makes for a smartly dressed member of any foodie library sure to be referenced again and again. (Full disclosure: I am one of the book’s contributors.)
Here’s just a taste of “Savoring Gotham”:
A delightful amalgamation of dessert foods, baked Alaska is a sponge cake topped with ice cream and covered with delicate peaks of meringue, browned in the oven. Although named for what would become the United States’ 49th state, baked Alaska found its name in New York City. The igloo-shaped dessert was first christened in the late 19th century by Charles Ranhofer, French chef de cuisine of Delmonico’s, one of New York’s most prestigious restaurants from 1837 to 1923. Baked Alaska’s naming was purportedly to honor and commemorate the United States’ purchase of Alaska in 1867.
Whether topped with ham, bacon, salmon or spinach, all signs point to New York City as the origin of brunch favorite eggs benny. While it is unknown for which wealthy Benedict the dish was named, the velvety and savory dish probably originated at Delmonico’s or The Waldorf in the 1890s, though New York’s Hoffman Hotel and Union Club both lay claim to it as well.
Ellis Island Food
What did the millions of immigrants who entered the United States at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 eat for their first meal on American soil? Most likely they purchased a boxed lunch for 50 cents or a dollar, depending upon the size. Some boxed meals included roast beef, ham, cheese or bologna sandwiches, while others featured foods like a loaf of bread, sardines, sausages, apples, bananas, pies and cakes.
By the mid-18th century, taverns increasingly served as centers of community life. In fact, General George Washington dismissed his troops at the end of the Revolutionary War at Fraunces Tavern. Built in 1719, the tavern is now a museum and restaurant in the financial district open for Gothamites and tourists alike to visit.
The creamy roots of America’s best-selling mayonnaise are also in Gotham. While Richard Hellman began his food career with his wife running a delicatessen between 83rd and 84th Streets in Manhattan, he also developed the first shelf-stable mayonnaise. He began selling it in 1912 in glass bottles affixed with a label featuring three blue ribbons to indicate its “first prize” quality, which can still be found on supermarket shelves today.
Often overshadowed by her successor, Craig Claiborne, Jane Nickerson was The New York Times’ first food editor from 1942 to 1957. Her daily column was titled, “News of Food.” Writing with a strong sense of ethics and news, her reviews paved the way for the Times’ expanding food coverage.
Manhattan Clam Chowder
Although its name might suggest otherwise, Manhattan clam chowder actually has no real connection to New York City. An important dish in early American cuisine, chowders made effective (and delicious) use of New England’s plentiful seafood resources. Manhattan clam chowder’s defining (and highly contentious) characteristic is its substitution of tomato broth for milk.
Well-known as the location of Meg Ryan’s famous faux orgasm in “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), Katz’s was founded a century earlier in 1888. Serving sandwiches topped high with cured meats, Katz has been turning swift and savory business ever since. Figures from the 1950s claimed the deli served more than 10,000 sandwiches a day. Today, Katz’s is even open all night long on weekends for those looking to order “what she’s having.”
Main photo: The iconic Katz’s Delicatessen is known for its sandwiches — and a starring role in a movie. Credit: Copyright 2013 Thomas Hawk
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With Europe on edge after the bombings in Paris, it is good to be reminded of the joy of sharing a meal with strangers. But what happens when you don’t know anyone at a dinner party, not even the host?
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During a recent evening in Brussels, I rang the doorbell of a complete stranger’s home promptly at 7 p.m. His ground-floor apartment was in an art nouveau-style row house built in the 1930s. The door opened, and Maher, an Egyptian political science Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University, gave me a warm welcome. (He, like other hosts of such dinners, chooses not to publicize his full name.)
I was the first to arrive for his “Egyptian Evening” (dinner and a movie), and as I took off my coat in the entryway, I resisted the temptation to blurt out that famous quote from “A Streetcar Named Desire”:
“I’ve always depended on the kindness (and in this case, the cooking skills) of strangers.”
BookaLokal — a new dining experience
Maher is just one of nearly 1,000 BookaLokal hosts in 47 countries, in more than 100 cities around the world. BookaLokal is a group dining website. To sign up for a dinner, go to bookalokal.com, choose which city you wish to dine in, browse the dinners, choose one and pay online.
The site was founded in 2012 in the Brussels kitchen of Evelyne White, a 32-year-old harpist, travel enthusiast and former investor from New York. I got to ask her a few questions before the dinner. Here’s what she told me about this unique dining experience.
How did you come up with the idea for BookaLokal?
Evelyne White: “I was inspired by the success of ‘sharing’ companies like Airbnb. If people can open their homes to strangers, why not open their kitchens and dining room tables?”
How does BookaLokal differ from other group dining sites?
Evelyne White: “BookaLokal has the widest range of hosts, from amateur hosts to professional chefs. Whereas some of our competitor sites only allow top chefs to join the site, we believe the best experiences can sometimes come from people like you and me, who are just passionate about hosting and meeting new people.”
This was certainly true of Maher, who is also the former editor-in-chief of The Daily News Egypt. He was an engaging host who gently steered us through the evening as if we were all old chums. We were a cozy group of eight in all (if you include one guest’s toddler), who hailed from countries such as Egypt, Portugal, Turkey and America.
Meals made with love
The homemade dinner, served buffet-style, was simple and delicious: baba ganoush and pita bread; vegetables (peas, zucchini and carrots) cooked in tomato sauce and flavored with pepper, cinnamon and lemon juice; and kebab halla (beef cooked in creamy onion sauce) served with rice.
After serving ourselves, we settled down in the darkened living room to eat our dinner in front of “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an entertaining, thought-provoking Egyptian feminist film from 1959, which Maher projected on his living room wall.
Maher isn’t the only host with creative dining ideas: From a recent look at what’s offered on the BookaLokal website, choices include “Dinner Served on a Vintage Boat, Docked in the Amalfi Harbor,” Amalfi, Italy ($55); “Pig Roast and Comfort Food,” Washington, D.C. ($50); and “Dinner Inspired by Famous Food Quotes,” given by a former opera singer in New York City ($100).
A variety of venues
In addition to dinner, some hosts provide a variety of other eating and drinking experiences, such as “Seville Tapas and Wine Tour,” Spain ($50), and “Indian Buffet and Bollywood Dance Lesson,” Belgium ($42).
Worried about language barriers? Languages spoken by each host are listed on their profile page. Maher speaks English and Arabic; Ester, who lives in Rome, speaks Italian, English and Spanish.
“Our hosts come in all shapes and sizes,” said White. “We have culinary students, experienced host families, supper club organizers, and people with a passion for sharing their culture and connecting with new people.”
What are BookaLokal’s plans for the future?
Evelyne White: “Although BookaLokal started as a social dining site (a place to meet new people), we are seeing increased interest in private dining. If a host serves amazing Portuguese food for groups of six to 10 guests, why not book the host for a dinner with your own group of 10 friends?”
After the Egyptian film, we helped ourselves to more wine and Egyptian black tea (with cloves), and had a relaxed discussion about the film, women’s rights and Egyptian politics. Talking with people you don’t know within the confines of dinner at a stranger’s house is oddly liberating — perhaps similar to the surprise and delight of striking up pleasant conversations with strangers on an airplane. BookaLokal is a great dining choice for tourists visiting a new country, expats living abroad, and anyone interested in being inspired — and maybe even transported to another culture — by good food and stimulating conversation. As the Egyptian evening came to an end, I was reminded of another quote, this one from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savairn’s book “The Physiology of Taste” (1825):
“Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together.”
Main photo: The “Dinner at the Artist’s Home and Studio” in Amsterdam ($37 per person) featured ciabatta with salmon, crème fraîche, horseradish and dill; lasagna with pancetta and artichoke; and affogato al caffè. The hostess’s apartment is on the ground floor facing the IJ harbor, and when the weather is nice, she serves dinner outside on the quay. Credit: Copyright 2015 www.petrahart.com
It doesn’t matter where you live or what language you speak: Good food can bring strangers to a table and, in a short period of time, make them friends. But in Palmar Grande, a town in the Dominican Republic, it’s doing something even more powerful: It’s creating social and economic change.
In this country, 40% of the populace lives below the poverty line, and the average household income is below $6,000. For a group of 30 women who needed to work but didn’t want to leave their families in search of jobs, the solution was to band together: In 2008, they created Chocal. Cacao is a primary crop for area farmers, so making chocolate seemed a natural choice. Along with ready-to-eat artisanal sweets, they sell bolas, which are used to make hot chocolate, and even tropical wines in flavors like cherry, star fruit, tangerine and, of course, cocoa. I met many members of this women’s collective when visiting the area as a guest of the cruise line Fathom.
The nuts of chocolate-factory work…
Their rustic facility may not have the polished image that one typically associates with chocolatiers. It’s located off the beaten path on the island’s north coast, where travelers by foot and horseback comprise a regular portion of daily traffic. But it’s obviously loved and cared for, and the aroma of roasting cocoa beans lets you know you’re in the right place.
Making chocolate is nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds. Far from the shiny, modern kitchens of television cooking shows, Chocal has only basic machinery; much of the work is done the old-fashioned way. A group of gals sorting cocoa beans by hand while keeping a watchful eye on the roasting machines is the closest thing you’ll find to an assembly line here.
…And the bolts
The aluminum-like foil to wrap chocolate bars is cut by hand, using a sturdy piece of cardboard as a guide to ensure the size is right. After the foil covers are folded around hand-molded rectangular blocks, a decorative wrapper is secured in place by a steady pair of hands wielding a glue gun. The women smile as they talk about their work, and even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, it’s obvious they love what they do.
Some are here five days a week, others are part-time; Chocal isn’t the type of business that’s run by crunching numbers. When a big order comes in, many will pick up weekend shifts. And the night before an order ships, it’s not unusual to find all the women working late. When help is needed, whether on the factory floor or in the office, someone is always there.
Measuring sweet success
To an outsider, the odds of Chocal’s success might seem slim. Some of the women — who range from about 30 to over 50 years old — are unable to read or write, and none had culinary training when they began the company. But throw the classic business model out the window, and what’s left is a group of women who believed chocolate could be used to cultivate their community. “We wanted to change our quality of life,” founder Noemi Crisostomo told me through a translator. At 38, the mother of three children ages 15 to 22 has gone from unemployment to co-ownership in record time.
Over a decade, the collective has grown at a healthy pace. When it began, the women volunteered their time; today they receive wages, but a majority of their profits is being used to pay back a government loan that allowed them to renovate their facilities and invest in some machinery to improve production. Still, the pay they do receive is helping to make big changes in their lives and the lives of their families. Crisostomo is one of two of the women now studying at a local university; another’s son is also enrolled thanks to earnings from Chocal. Cement has replaced dirt in the floors of many of their homes. Their kitchens are stocked with better food, and their kids have new books and clothes for school.
A new opportunity for growth
Their sweet goods are now stocked on the shelves of a major local grocery chain. But growth means expanding into new markets and developing the flexibility to respond to increased yet still fluctuating demand. Chocal may have found a way to deal with both in cruise line Fathom.
The connection makes great business sense. Fathom is reinventing the idea of a cruise vacation by adding volunteer opportunities to the package. When travelers arrive at Amber Cove, the Caribbean’s first new cruise port in nearly a decade, they won’t flock to the beach — they’ll head to Chocal’s kitchen to help make chocolate.
With activities like sorting through cocoa beans and tempering chocolate, this field trip for ship guests sounds like a cooking class, but it’s actually a sweet community-service project. Chocolate-making cruisers have the potential to boost Chocal’s production and push an ambitious group of remarkable entrepreneurs to the next level of success.
Of course, after a day of rolling up their sleeves and creating chocolate confections, the travelers turned freelance chocolatiers are sure to buy a few bars to take home. (I know from experience that it’s hard to resist.) As more cruise ships dock here, more tourists buy chocolate. It’s a vacation sugar rush that’s good for everyone involved.
Main photo: Inspecting cacao beans at Chocal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann
Few of the commuters, shoppers and office staff in Manchester’s city center in northwest England know the roof of their historic cathedral is also home to around a quarter of a million workers.
They might feel some concern if they learn these other drones are, in fact, bees. Or they might marvel at the thought of “rus in urbe,” the rural pursuit of beekeeping in the crucible of the world’s great 19th-century Industrial Revolution. They might marvel as well as at the heavenly quality of the honey produced in these sacred surroundings.
Up on the roof
The project to keep bees on the leaden roof of the cathedral, which has medieval origins, was originally encouraged by its dean as part of the “Dig the City” urban garden initiative in 2012. The project has grown each year, as have the honey yields.
For the greater good
Honorary Canon Adrian Rhodes tends his hives with all the devotion of a biblical shepherd for his flock. In the fascinating structure of bee society, he sees some parallel with medieval monastery life where one person reigned supreme, all had their allotted jobs, the community came first and individuals would sacrifice their lives for the greater good — just as a bee dies once it has stung.
It is a recent calling for the former hospital chaplain and psychotherapist of international standing known as the “Canon Apiarist,” who also keeps bees and makes honey at his suburban Manchester home.
A modern twist
Urban and suburban beekeeping is a relatively modern activity but one that increasingly makes sense as monoculture, chemicals and loss of habitat, such as wild meadows and hedgerows, dominate the agricultural landscape.
And, according to Rhodes, city bees provide the best honey.
Sweet treat for bees
Honeybees can fly up to a kilometer from their hives, and inner-city Manchester provides fine foraging. Many canals and railway lines, remainders of extensive Victorian industrialization, have untouched verges. Allotments also provide some of the best hunting grounds, and in return the bees pollinate the produce.
Add to that roof gardens, window boxes, parks and tree-filled squares, and Rhodes’ “ladies” have no need to roam far from home. One lime tree in flower, he explains, can have as much potential as an acre of field. And, although the invasion of the Himalayan balsam plant is cursed by many, it is a sweet boon to the honeybees.
‘You can’t run away’
The cathedral runs a program to help the long-term unemployed, and Rhodes mentors a trainee beekeeper to help him or her learn important life skills.
“You’ve got to turn up on time, take orders and show patience, courage and calmness. The bees must always come first,” he says. “When you get thousands of them buzzing around you, it can be a bit scary but you can’t run away or abandon them. You have to complete the task and learn how to think under pressure.”
Calm above the city
It’s not just the trainees who take away these life lessons. As Rhodes says, “Beekeeping teaches me to take time out from a busy life, and gives me a calm moment out of time.”
It may also be the effect of the aromatic church incense smoke he uses to distract the bees when he needs to lift the frames from the hives.
The honey may be blessed, but collecting it can also be a blessed nuisance. The hives have to be secured against wind (highly problematic on a building whose ancient structure is under government protection), and the heat off the lead roof can also cause the beekeeper problems in summer.
A lack of water supply on top of the the building makes it even more complicated. Access by narrow Harry Potter-style stone spiral steps is also a problem, especially when it comes to removing the honey-dripping frames for extraction. A good supply of plastic bags and a chain of volunteers is the answer.
The extraction is done in the cathedral, where they also jar and label the “Heavenly Honey.” It is neither pasteurized nor heat-treated, simply filtered, and the jars are sold to the cathedral community at a modest price, although there are plans to sell online.
The city’s symbol
Coincidentally, the civic symbol of Manchester is a bee: It reflects a city that is industrious, hardworking, innovative and community-minded, part of a region that also saw the birth of the great cooperative movement in 1844 to provide an affordable alternative to poor-quality and high-priced food and provisions.
The canon apiarist’s bees are part of a proud tradition.
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Main photo: Honorary Canon Adrian Rhodes with his beehives on the roof of Manchester Cathedral. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman