Articles in Environment

Galicia on Spain's Atlantic coast is a land of scudding clouds, rocky shores lashed by furious waves and seafood-rich estuaries fringed with vines. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Galicia in Spain’s northwestern corner is so dramatically different from any other part of the Iberian Peninsula, it can be hard to imagine it belongs to the Spain of popular imagination, characterized by intense heat, smoldering flamenco dancers and blockbuster red wines.

This is Atlantic Spain, with the famed pilgrimage center of Santiago de Compostela at its heart, a land of scudding clouds, emerald-green pastures grazed by some of the country’s finest beef cattle, rocky shores lashed by furious waves and seafood-rich estuaries fringed with vines.

Wines from here are principally white, with the racy, zesty Albariño variety in pole position, closely followed by peachy Treixadura and full-bodied, mouth-filling Godello. Many vines are more than 50 years old, plants which — thankfully — no one thought to tear out when more fashionable “international varieties” began to make inroads into Galicia. Some red wine is also made from local specialties, with names such as Caiño, Brancellao and Sousón.

In the coastal Rías Baixas region that stretches all along the western edge of Galicia, the climate is cool and humid. Rain falls heavily and persistently, and vines are trained high on pergolas suspended between chunky, head-high granite posts, as if gathering up their skirts to keep them out of the water and the mud. This is Albariño country par excellence — at least 95 percent of vines planted here belong to this now-voguish variety.

Inland in the Ribeiro region, it’s a different story. Here, where rainfall is half that of the coastal regions, midday summer temperatures routinely reach into the 100s, with a marked difference between midday and nighttime temperatures, an important element in the production of quality white wines. Vines are stacked on steep, well-drained terraces that rise above the three rivers that traverse the region (Avia, Miño and Arnoia) and equipped with drip-irrigation systems to combat water stress.

The region’s trump cards, according to Pablo Vidal, technical director of DO Ribeiro, include a range of distinctive grape varieties, great granite-rich terroirs and a climate that is significantly less humid than the coastal region. Ribeiro has been on a roll since the 1990s, when a number of local visionaries determined to resurrect the area’s long-established but lost reputation for fine wine and set about reclaiming terraces, restoring dry-stone walls and vineyards and planting new vines.

Here are seven estates in Galicia whose wines are worth seeking out. Some are in the cooler coastal region of DO Rías Baixas, others are inland in DO Ribeiro. Check for your nearest supplier of wines from Galicia.

Casal de Armán

Casal de Armán's limited edition Finca Os Loureiros, Ribeiro, Galicia -- note the bay leaf motif (loureiro, in Galician) on the label. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Casal de Armán’s limited edition Finca Os Loureiros, Ribeiro, Galicia — note the bay leaf motif (loureiro, in Galician) on the label. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Casal de Armán is a 20-hectare (50-acre) estate in the heart of Ribeiro, founded 16 years ago by four brothers — José, Javier, Jorge and Juan — of the González Vázquez family. The eminently quaffable, entry-level Casal de Armán white (“our visiting card,” says José) is made mainly from Treixadura with a dash of both Godello and Albariño, while Finca Os Loureiros, their prize-winning, single-vineyard white, features the straw-gold, peachy Treixadura in starring role and is aged in French barriques.

Finca Viñoa

Finca Viñoa's superb four-grape blend, Ribeiro, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Finca Viñoa’s superb four-grape blend, Ribeiro, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Finca Viñoa is an impressive new venture with vineyards set high above the River Avia, which flows south through Ribeiro and into the Miño, which forms the border between Spain and Portugal. Rows of impressive terraces have been carved out of the granite hillside, which is streaked with seams of schist. Here they have planted Ribeiro’s four signature grapes, Treixadura, Albariño, Godello and Loureira, which go to make up Finca Viñoa’s single, satisfying white blend, recently tipped by Financial Times wine critic Jancis Robinson as one of her top festive white wines for the holidays.

Coto de Gomariz

A range of Atlantic red wines from Coto de Gomariz, Ribeiro, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

A range of Atlantic red wines from Coto de Gomariz, Ribeiro, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Also in Ribeiro is Coto de Gomariz, an impressive 28-hectare (62-acre) estate whose owners have devoted the past 30 years to resurrecting historic sites, acquiring new plots and restoring swathes of terracing. Lately they have adopted some biodynamic practices — a tough call in Galicia’s predominantly cool, damp climate. Surprisingly (because Galicia is known for its white wines), reds traditionally outnumbered whites in Ribeiro. The estate is now flying the red flag once more with a super range of new-wave, Atlantic red blends, alongside its impressive collection of full-bodied whites.

Quinta de Couselo

Parasol pines and pergola-grown vines at Quinta de Couselo, Rías Baixas, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Parasol pines and pergola-grown vines at Quinta de Couselo, Rías Baixas, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Quinta de Couselo winery is housed in a gorgeous stone pazo, or manor house, at the southernmost end of the Rías Baixas, watched over by a pair of parasol pines, which are featured on its elegant labels. They make two alluring, aromatic white blends, Quinta de Couselo (winner of an award for the best white wine in Galicia in 2014) and Turonia, in which Albariño’s angularity is fleshed out by discreet amounts of Loureira and Treixadura.


Centenarian vines in Zárate's El Palomar vineyard, Rías Baixas, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Centenarian vines in Zárate’s El Palomar vineyard, Rías Baixas, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Zárate is a family-owned bodega in the small seaside town of Cambados, self-styled capital of Albariño and home to the Festa do Albariño, a lively street party held annually the first Sunday in August in honor of its now famous local grape. The entry-level Albariño is a pure delight, while the single-vineyard El Palomar, grown on ungrafted centenarian vines and trained in traditional style along pergolas supported by granite posts, has greater complexity and elegance.

Pazo Baión

A glimpse inside the cellars at Pazo Baión, Rías Baixas, Galicia: "new wine in an old setting." Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

A glimpse inside the cellars at Pazo Baión, Rías Baixas, Galicia: “new wine in an old setting.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Pazo Baión is a magnificent 30-hectare (75-acre) estate just south of Santiago, whose origins go back to the 16th century. After a succession of owners, including most recently an Argentine drug baron operating off Galicia’s coast, it was confiscated by the Spanish government and sold at auction to the Condes de Albarei group. Investment in the property has been impressive and includes renovation of the vineyards that surround the house, installation of spanking-new cellars and a superb, architect-designed tasting cellar. “New wine in an old setting” is the device of manager Xavier Zas. They make a single, fragrant, fleshy Albariño with wonderful mouthfeel from its six months spent on the lees.

Pazo Señorans

A table set for a tasting at Pazo Señorans. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

A table set for a tasting at Pazo Señorans. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Pazo Señorans is one of Galicia’s most immaculate properties, complete with its own superb hórreo (granary), a private chapel and cypress trees, all three of which are necessary components for a property to qualify as a proper pazo. Owners Marisol Bueno and Javier Mareque and their four children together run the 21-hectare (52-acre) estate, once a kiwi plantation and now a noted center of Albariño excellence. Choose between the entry-level Pazo Señorans (lovely rose petal nose, good structure) and the Selección de Añada or vintage selection, a special cuvee from selected grapes (mineral, spicy and long-lasting).

Main photo: Galicia on Spain’s Atlantic coast is a land of scudding clouds, rocky shores lashed by furious waves and seafood-rich estuaries fringed with vines. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in The Aeneid. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If the heel of the Boot, Apulia — Puglia in Italian — has long lagged behind other Italian regions in terms of modernization, parts of it have nonetheless become havens for the likes of royals, film stars and cognoscenti. How could it be otherwise for a peninsula surrounded by 500 miles of coastline and lapped by the pristine waters of two seas? Still, its heart beats to an ancient tempo, heedless of the increasing tourist invasions. This is Greek Italy, and it is steeped in its past. Nowhere is that more striking than at the Pugliese table.

Once upon a wine

The historic casks in the monumental cellar at Torre Quattro date from the era when Puglia's wines were exported in bulk. The casks are about 10 feet in diameter. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The historic casks in the monumental cellar at Torre Quattro date from the era when Puglia’s wines were exported in bulk. The casks are about 10 feet in diameter. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

On a recent tour of the region’s wineries with an American delegation of importers eager to learn about the ambitious undertakings of a new breed of producers, I found vintners at once devoted to the preservation of their traditions and determined to make unique world-class wines. Whereas previous generations geared their production toward volume of output for foreign markets (mainly France as well as northern Italy) at the expense of quality — a practice that goes back to the Phoenicians — today’s winemakers tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside the immediate area. The consensus among the dozen buyers in our midst was that the wines were good — some very, very good — while selling for less than other wines in their class.

Terroir, terroir, terroir

The organic vineyards and 800-year-old olive trees at Vigneto Amastuolo have been the focus of an ambitious restoration of Martina Franca, Taranto, an important 15th-century agricultural center on the Ionic side of the peninsula. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The organic vineyards and 800-year-old olive trees at Vigneto Amastuolo have been the focus of an ambitious restoration of Martina Franca, Taranto, an important 15th-century agricultural center on the Ionic side of the peninsula. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Climatic conditions vary throughout Puglia. On the northern plateaus, known collectively as the Murge, the winters are temperate and the temperatures cooler than they are in the Salento, the bottom of the heel, which can be convection-hot in summer, though cooled somewhat by the play of sea currents and breezes blowing across the Adriatic from the Balkans. But overall the region is perhaps the hottest in Italy, baked by the favugno, as the dry wind that blows in from Africa is called here.

If the soil is productive, it’s due less to topography than to the stewardship of the terrain over centuries. For millennia, the Pugliese have supplied the lion’s share of Italy’s three principal staples: wine, wheat and olive oil. They still do, and grow enough table grapes, olives, almonds, cereals and vegetables to feed the rest of Italy and export abroad.

In step with their forebears, many of the vintners I met said that, by working with the natural conditions and the native grapes that thrive there — such as Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia — they avoid the soil-punishing practices of modern growing techniques. “We are linked to the traditions of our area,” said Dr. Marina Saponari, sommelier at Valle dell’Asso in Santeramo in Colle, Bari, a limestone plateau in the Murge. “We don’t irrigate or add water at all, because too much humidity causes fungus; we work with the soil, not against it, (plowing) in a horizontal direction to retain the moisture naturally.” “Besides,” said Giuseppe Bino, an oenologist at Vigneto Amastuola in Martina Franca, “organic methods are so much better for your health. And when the wines are aged naturally, you taste real grapes.”

Filippo Montanaro of Vigneto Amastuola, on the Ionian side of the peninsula, described his family’s dedication to organic practices as a way to at once revitalize abandoned agricultural lands and recover an indigenous archeological site that dates to the Bronze Age. Subsequent civilizations inhabited the same high plateau, a strategic point overlooking the Gulf of Taranto from which, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Greece and Calabria. Amastuola’s vines and fruit orchards today carpet the soil in which the Greeks planted grapes and olive trees 2,000 years ago. On the estate, a 15th-century masseria — an ancient Apulian farmhouse where raw ingredients were processed into everything from wine and oil to dairy products, salumi, bread and preserves — is being restored to function as it once did, said Montanaro, whose father, Giuseppe, acquired the 100-hectare estate (almost 250 acres) in 2003. The family has launched an ambitious restoration, including the revitalization of long-neglected 800-year-old olive trees. “Family tradition is very important,” said Giuseppe Sportelli, commercial director and husband of Ilaria (one of three Montanaro siblings that help manage the property), explaining that the monumental project was not just work but a “passione.” Giuseppe Montanaro himself finds that explanation inadequate. “It goes beyond enthusiasm,” he explained, “It is the desperation that the man of the south feels that makes miracles like this happen.”

Food of the ancients

Making the traditional pasta of Puglia, orecchiette, on the street in Barivecchia. Pensioners like this woman sell their pasta from home to supplement their incomes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Making the traditional pasta of Puglia, orecchiette, on the street in Barivecchia. Pensioners like this woman sell their pasta from home to supplement their incomes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Like these winemakers, local chefs also honor the past, looking to the ancestral cooking of their grandmothers for inspiration. I learned the Pugliese mantra of “homegrown and homemade” early, from my paternal grandparents — poor emigrants to America from the very landscape I have described. Some things have changed since they abandoned the fields of Toritto, in which they had toiled as sharecroppers, for lack of enough food for themselves. And some things have not. “Our cooking is based on a paisana (peasant) tradition,” said Anna Gennari of Conzorzio Produttori Vini Manduria, a 400-partner cooperative of Primitivo grape growers in Manduria. “The cooking was simple and not much different throughout the provinces because Puglia was poor,” said Saponari, who is not only a sommelier but also a well-known cooking teacher in Bari.

Cutting-edge Michelin-starred restaurants have been making headlines in recent years for pioneering menus sourced from their local terroir, but Pugliese chefs have always done so. They are weaned on the ancestral flavors and seductive bitterness of wild dandelion greens, mustards, hyacinth bulbs (Muscari racemosum or lampascioni) and other native plants. Unlike in other regions where the tourist routes are more deeply worn, the heritage foods of Puglia — what the Italians call piatti tipici — persist, whether in hotels, simple trattorie or private homes. These include durum-wheat pasta, either fresh or dried, characteristically flavored with cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), simple tomato sauce, or chickpeas; fava-bean purée eaten alongside cooked bitter greens; the ring-shaped breadsticks called taralli, sweet or savory; calzone-like panzerotti and a panoply of other breads and pastries, baked or fried; vegetables, vegetables, vegetables (but little meat); milky fresh cheeses; and fiery peppers — all dressed, naturally, with the numinous olive oil.

Chefs riding the trend for recycling “trash” food could learn something from these old ways: take the traditional pane arso of the cucina povera (“the poor kitchen”), a dark bread made by blending the flour of charred hard wheat with semolina. The custom of incorporating the two harks back to the feudal-estate system, when peasants collected the scorched grains that remained after the post-harvest burning of the fields. Rich-tasting, with a seductively bitter edge, the bread packs 4,000 years of the people’s history into one bite.

Pranzo della domenica: Sunday supper

At a welcome dinner for American wine buyers, we cleaned our plates of traditional local fare. TerrAnima proprietor Piero Conte is standing in the back. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

At a welcome dinner for American wine buyers, we cleaned our plates of traditional local fare. TerrAnima proprietor Piero Conte is standing in the back. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

It’s on Sunday — a customary day of feasting — when Puglia’s cooks pull out all the stops. This is when the meat dishes come out, and the pasta is sauced with ragù, meatballs and braciole.

Gathering together in Bari with the wine buyers, I ate just these braciole — which the locals call bombette (“little bombs”) in the delightful TerrAnima, a Slow Food-endorsed restaurant dedicated to the dishes of the region (its name translates as “Earth and Soul”). If they sound heavy, perish the thought! They are delicate little rolls of meat, lined with pancetta inside and out and stuffed with cheese, garlic and parsley before they are bundled, tied and roasted.

Here’s to the spirit of the pranzo della domenica. Bring on the bombette and by all means, pour the Primitivo!

Bombette (Little Bombs): Stuffed Meat Rolls

Bombette, a Pugliese obsession: strips of meat rolled with pancetta, parsley and caciocavallo cheese. Traditionally made with horsemeat, my version substitutes veal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Bombette, a Pugliese obsession: strips of meat rolled with pancetta, parsley and caciocavallo cheese. Traditionally made with horsemeat, my version substitutes veal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Total time: About 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Note: These appetizers are traditionally made with horsemeat (not for the likes of former equestrians such as myself), but veal or beef are also used. Whichever you choose, ask the butcher to flatten the meat as thin as possible (1/8 inch is ideal) without tearing it — or pound it yourself if you know how.


1 pound cutlets (scaloppine) from top round of veal, cut into 4 thin slices about 4 inches by 8 inches and pounded to no more than 1/8-inch thick, or 2 half-pound pieces boneless beef top round, pounded to 1/8-inch from 1/4-inch thickness

Extra virgin olive oil

1 small garlic clove, peeled and bruised slightly

Fine sea salt

Freshly milled black pepper

16 thin slices of pancetta

2 tablespoons  fresh minced parsley leaves

3 ounces fresh, semi-soft caciocavallo cheese, cut into 8 matchsticks

Toothpicks for serving


1. Preheat an oven to 400 F. Select a broiler-proof baking pan large enough to accommodate 8 meat rolls without crowding and grease it lightly with olive oil.

2. Use paper towels to blot the meat dry. Cut each piece horizontally into smaller pieces to yield 8 pieces of meat that are about the same shape and size (about 4 by 4 inches). Rub both sides with the garlic clove (which you can then discard) and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.

3. Sandwich 1 piece of meat between two slices of pancetta. Sprinkle one side with some of the parsley and arrange a matchstick of cheese crosswise on the center. Beginning at one end, roll it up, gathering the pancetta along with it as you make the roll and tucking in any meat edges that stick out. Secure the bundle with a toothpick and transfer it to the oiled baking pan. Repeat the procedure with the remaining 7 pieces of meat and place in the pan.

4. Slide the pan onto the middle rack of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and change the setting to broil. Turn the rolls over and place the pan under the broiler to color them lightly, about 2 minutes. Take care to keep the pan juices from flaming. Remove at once, pour any remaining pan juices over the rolls and serve immediately.

Main photo: Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in “The Aeneid.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales


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Despite a bad harvest, plenty of quality olive oils are still available if you know where to look. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: By now, lovers of extra virgin olive oil have heard the unhappy news of this season’s harvest in Italy, Spain, and France.

zester new

Severe, ongoing drought cut the Spanish harvest in half, which is even more drastic when you consider Spain is responsible for almost half the olive oil consumed worldwide. In France and Italy, it was the dreaded olive fly, Bactrocera oleae (formerly Dacus oleae), that wreaked havoc. Both countries had significant losses. French oil, a minor player on the world scene but beloved by many, was harder hit — a 50 percent loss over previous years, according to the usually authoritative Olive Oil Times. With few exceptions, much of the Italian peninsula was devastated. Central Italy, including Tuscany and Umbria, where much high-quality Italian oil is produced, was particularly hard hit. Total national production is expected to drop by 35 percent over the previous year.

I witnessed much of this from the mini-farm my family maintains high in the hills between Tuscany and Umbria. We have just 150 trees and ordinarily count on producing upwards of at least 125 liters of superb oil. But this year, our resa (yield) was down to 8 percent (in other words, 100 kilos of olives will produce 8 kilos of oil). We usually expect a resa of at least 12 percent — and our total was lower than expected. Not devastating, no, and the oil was exceptional. We were lucky, though, probably because at our altitude, about 2,000 feet, the olive fly has a hard time surviving.

Let me sidestep quickly to explain the olive fly, la mosca. It’s a chicken-and-egg story, so I’ll plunge into the middle. When the soil warms, between March and May depending on climate and weather, tiny adult female flies emerge from their underground pupal stage and soon start seeking maturing olive fruits in which to deposit eggs. The larvae are monophage, meaning they can only subsist on olive flesh, so mother flies solicitously seek the right environment for their babies. A female may deposit 10 to 12 eggs daily, one per olive. And one female may deposit several generations throughout the warmer months. That’s all it takes. The eggs hatch, the maggots feed on the olive fruit — tunneling through it and exposing the fruit to oxidation and rot — and then they drop and burrow into the earth to await another cycle.

La mosca, we were always told, cannot survive at higher altitudes. I interpreted that to mean something about elevation being so displeasing to the bug that it would not climb to our high mountain valley. Olive fly damage, we believed, was restricted to low, marshy, coastal areas of Italy. But this year’s devastation put that theory to rest. Turns out it’s not the altitude but the climate — cold winters with freezing temperatures, which we normally experience in the mountains, kill off any olive grubs before they hatch.

Unfortunately, the 2013-2014 winter was exceptionally mild, the kind of weather that led us to say, callously, “If this is global warming, I’ll take it!” We congratulated each other on our good fortune.

That turned out to be a big mistake, although we were still lucky in the mountains. Our olives were damaged, but not as devastatingly as other growers even 100 feet lower.

Skeptical, I picked a sample batch and took it to the frantoio, the mill where we take our olives. Should we pick, I asked, or just not bother. “No, no,” said Mr. Landi, the miller. “These are fine. These are the best I’ve seen anywhere around. Go ahead and pick!”

Bad olives from the harvest. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Bad olives from the harvest. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

And he was right. I saw cartloads of olives turned away from the mill, in such bad shape — shriveled, moldy, half rotten, destroyed by the mosca — that Landi refused them. The frantoio, which usually operates 24/7 from roughly Oct. 20 till the end of December, closed down in early November. There were no olives left to press.

The inevitable question is: What can be done to prevent this from happening again? There are many suggestions, some fantastical and some deeply realistic, but simply waiting for the climate to re-regulate itself is not on the boards. The climate has changed, irrevocably, as it has throughout the world, and farmers have to live with it.

But an even more pressing question comes from consumers: What can we buy? Whom can we trust? Where can we get reliable oil? Or is there none available at all? (See the list below for my recommendations.)

Once we had our new oil back from the press, we celebrated as usual with an old Tuscan tradition, the zuppa frantoiana, a combined bean and farro soup that is a most elegant way to enjoy fresh, new oil. Coupled with bruschetta (or fettunta), a toasted bread crust liberally bathed in the new oil, it is as close to heaven as a Tuscan olive farmer ever hopes to get.

Tuscan Zuppa Frantoiana (Farro and beans with new oil)

Zuppa Frantoiana. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Zuppa Frantoiana. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

If fresh oil isn’t available, use a robust, well-flavored oil from Tuscany or Umbria; a Picual from Andalusia or a Coratina from Puglia would also be a good choice. This recipe is from my new book, “Virgin Territory,”  published in February by Houghton Mifflin.

Prep time: 20 to 30 minutes

Cook time: 1 1/2 hours

Total time: About 2 hours

Yield: 8 to 10 servings


1 1/2 cups dried beans, preferably speckled cranberry beans or borlotti, soaked for several hours or overnight

1 medium carrot, chopped

2 small yellow onions; 1 chopped, 1 left whole

1 or 2 bay leaves

1 1/2 cups farro (emmer wheat berries)

4 garlic cloves, divided

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 to 10 thin slices dense, grainy Italian country-style bread, preferably at least a day old

4 to 6 tablespoons olio nuovo (fresh new olive oil), if available, for serving

2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley, or more to taste


1. Drain the beans and transfer to a large saucepan with carrot, the chopped onion and bay leaf. Cover with fresh water to a depth of 1 inch, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, covered, until the beans are very soft, 40 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the age of the beans. Keep a kettle of water simmering and add more water to the beans as they absorb the liquid. They should always be covered with water but not swimming in it.

2. The farro should not need soaking, but rinse it briefly in a colander to get rid of any dust. In a medium saucepan, cover the rinsed and drained farro with boiling water to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the farro is tender.

3. When the beans are very soft, set aside about 1/2 cup whole beans. Discard the bay leaf and purée the remainder of the beans with all their liquid and the vegetables cooked with them. Use a food processor, a stick blender or put them through a food mill.

4. Drain the farro, reserving the liquid, and add to the puréed beans. Stir in the reserved whole beans.

5. Chop the remaining onion with 3 of the garlic cloves until finely minced. Sauté the onion and garlic in 1/4 cup of the oil over medium heat until soft. Add to the pureed beans and mix well. Taste and add salt if necessary and plenty of black pepper.

6. Lightly toast the bread slices. Halve the remaining garlic clove and rub the slices well with garlic on both sides. When ready to serve, set a toast slice in the bottom of each soup plate and dribble a liberal dose of fresh new oil over each slice. Spoon hot soup over the bread and add another dollop of new oil to the top, without stirring it in. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately, passing more fresh new oil to pour over the top.

What should I buy?

Despite this year’s calamity in major olive oil producing countries, there is good oil, even excellent oil, available from producers who were able to control the fly or were sufficiently protected by their microclimate. I’ve tasted these oils and can attest that they are superior, although almost universally a little bland compared to years’ past.

Healthy olives. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Healthy olives. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Keep in mind that oil from a year ago, the 2013-14 season, if it has been properly handled, is also still excellent. As you should do with any fine food product, check the labels, read the fine print and make sure you’re getting what you pay for. Stricter European Union labeling laws enacted in December 2014 require greater transparency and make it easier to determine where products originate. Dealing with online suppliers (see list below) is often better than going to a local gourmet shop, where they may not know much about fine extra virgin, even though they talk the talk.

Here are the oils I’ve tasted recently and unhesitatingly recommend:

Frescobaldi Laudemio: one of the few good Tuscans available this year, Frescobaldi is part of Laudemio, a consortium of top Tuscan producers of fine extra virgin. Imported by Manicaretti.

Titone: certified organic, from western Sicily, consistent award-winner in international competitions; imported by Manicaretti.

Olio Verde: Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily, made uniquely from nocellara di Belice olives, harvested very green; imported by Manicaretti.

Pianogrillo: made from Tondo Iblea olives in the hills north of Ragusa in east central Sicily; available from Gustiamo.

Il Tratturello: from Molise, made with Gentile di Larino olives along with other varieties, and harvested very early (usually late September); available from Gustiamo.

Cru di Cures: from Lazio, made with a variety of olives, including relatively rare Raja and Carboncella cultivars; available from Gustiamo.

Benzas: made in Liguria, with traditional taggiasca olive that produces a much sweeter oil than most Italians; available from Gustiamo.

Castillo de Canena Picual: certified biodynamic and organic, made in Andalucia and a good example of what can be done with Picual, a problematic but widely used cultivar.

Castillo de Canena arbequina: made in Andalucia with Arbequina olives; like taggiasca, arbequinas tend to make a softer, sweeter oil.

California Olive Ranch, Limited Reserve: first new harvest oil from California, often sold out by March or April, but other COR olive oils are available in retail outlets and from California Olive Ranch’s online shop.

Séka Hills: made from Arbequina olives grown and produced by the indigenous Yocha Dehe Wintun nation in the Capay Valley, Yolo County, northwest of Sacramento; Seka Hills is also packaging in a 3-liter bag-in-box, a great, convenient way to maintain extra virgin in top conditions — see its website for more information. Available from Market Hall Foods and other retailers.

Morganster, Stellenbosch: a Tuscan-style oil from South Africa, imported by The Rogers Collection, available from retail outlets and online at Southern Hemisphere oils, harvested in spring, are available in the U.S. usually in summer.

Finally, while writing this I received a sample of RAW, an excellent Palestinian new harvest oil, unfiltered and with great spicy flavors, produced by Canaan Fair Trade in Jenin in the northern West Bank. The Eastern Mediterranean has a long history of coping with hot weather problems such as the olive fly — this may be where Italian and French producers need to go to figure out how to work with new climate challenges. Available from

Trustworthy olive oil importers and distributors

The following are importers and distributors whom I’ve learned to trust over the years. Some are online purveyors, while others distribute through retail outlets.

Gustiamo imports Italian food products, available through the company’s web site and in retail outlets.

Manicaretti imports and distributes Italian food products, available in many retail outlets.

Market Hall Foods retails fine food products, including imported and California olive oils.

Olio2go imports mostly Italian olive oils, selling through its website and at a retail shop in Fairfax, Virginia.

The Rogers Collection imports and distributes high-quality oils and other food products from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and South Africa.

Main photo: Despite a bad harvest, plenty of quality olive oils are available if you know where to look. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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A fish market in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual for fishermen plying the waters off Istanbul to land tuna weighing hundreds of pounds, or to have one of the massive fish leap out of the sea and over the prow of their boat. Dolphins cavorted alongside fishing vessels that hauled in lobster, oysters, razor clams, four kinds of crab and eight varieties of mussels.

“Fishermen in their 70s and 80s tell stories depicting Istanbul like an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s as if we’ve moved to a totally different place since then,” says Defne Koryürek, the founder of Slow Food Istanbul, which has organized an annual holiday to draw attention to the city’s rapidly depleting waterways and to try and reverse the tide.

Lüfer Bayramı celebrates the bluefish

Celebrated each October with fishing competitions, film screenings, children’s art activities, talks, and special meals, the holiday is named after one of Istanbul’s favorite fish, the fatty, flavorful — but now endangered — lüfer (bluefish). This Lüfer Bayramı grew out of a campaign the group launched in 2010 to get restaurants, fishmongers and consumers to stop buying, selling and eating juvenile lüfer that aren’t large enough to reproduce. (“Bayram” means “holiday” in Turkish.)

Many of the city’s best chefs have signed on, including Didem Şenol, the acclaimed founder of Lokanta Maya and Gram restaurants.

“I grew up in a fish-loving family. My father would grill lüfer on Saturdays, and we’d eat it with fish soup, pilaki [a bean dish], and vegetables cooked in olive oil,” Şenol says. “We weren’t rich, but fish was so cheap then that my father could buy lüfer in big batches at the early-morning fish auctions and give the extra to our neighbors.”

Prices of fish have gone up as stocks have diminished; data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that the amount of bluefish caught in Turkey has plummeted over the past decade, from 25,000 tons in 2002 to just over 3,000 tons in 2011. Other research suggests that dozens of species have already disappeared from the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea, two of the bodies of water on which Istanbul lies.


Fishermen on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Both waterways are part of the lüfer’s annual migration route, a more than 1,000-mile-long journey that gives the fish its strong, distinctive taste, according to chef Şenol. “Bluefish in the United States, where I studied [at the French Culinary Institute in New York], is not the same,” she says. “Our lüfer travels from the Mediterranean up the Aegean to the Black Sea and back. It’s a route with different climates and salinities, and all that really affects its flavor.”

Lüfer season in Istanbul begins in the early fall, when the fish start their trip back down to more southern climes after spawning in the nutrient-rich waters of the Black Sea over the summer. Too many, though, are caught while still too small to breed and are sold, depending on their size, under the name çinekop or sarıkanat.

“People didn’t even realize these were all the same fish, but it’s really just like the difference between a sheep and a lamb,” says Koryürek. “Catching this fish so young eliminates the possibility of having more of them in the future.”

Campaign nets converts to the cause

A lobbying campaign led by Slow Food Istanbul along with Greenpeace Mediterranean has resulted in the raising of the minimum legal catch size for commercially fished lüfer from 14 centimeters to 20 centimeters (roughly 5.5 inches to almost 8 inches) — a good step, according to Koryürek, but an insufficient one. More than 100 restaurateurs like Şenol have agreed to not buy lüfer smaller than 24 centimeters (9 inches), the size activists say would be a more sustainable limit.

“We only have lüfer on the menu at Lokanta Maya for a very short period each year, when it is most plentiful,” says Şenol. She was one of a dozen top chefs in Istanbul who participated in this year’s Lüfer Bayramı by serving a special bluefish-based dish for a limited period of time.

“Since lüfer is a very fatty fish, it works best when grilled so it stays juicy inside as the skin gets crispy,” she explains. “It goes well with stronger flavors, so I paired small portions of the grilled fish with a salad of radishes, arugula, and red onions pickled with vinegar and just a little bit of sugar.”

Şenol and her staff also went out with fishermen to catch lüfer on the Bosphorus, an experience she says gave her a new appreciation for how hard the work is and how difficult it can be to keep from inadvertently landing some undersized fish even when using correctly sized nets.

Slow Food Istanbul has likewise been careful not to demonize local fishermen in its campaign, instead working to recruit them as allies.

“These waters have survived for hundreds of centuries with small-scale fishing,” says Koryürek. “But since the 1980s, the boats and nets have been getting bigger, the technology has changed, and the number of fishermen has gone up dramatically.” She estimates that large commercial boats are now catching 90% of Istanbul’s lüfer, and too often take advantage of lax enforcement of regulations by fishing too close to shore, in illegal amounts, or with methods that are environmentally damaging.

Istanbul’s soaring population over the past few decades — from less than 3 million in 1980 to more than 14 million today — poses a threefold threat to the city’s formerly robust fish stocks. The unchecked growth means increased competition among fishermen, greater consumer demand, and more heavily polluted water and highly urbanized coasts.

“Lüfer is a symbol of all we’ve lost and all we may lose,” says Koryürek. “These fish are a natural resource that is diminishing; protecting them needs to become a joint effort.”

Main photo: A fish market in Istanbul.  Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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An Indonesion delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch

One major takeaway from Terra Madre 2014 was that that despite the unique culture and traditions that exist within indigenous communities across the world, we are all united by an undeniable web of interconnectedness.

Over and over again during the five-day event, you could see people bridging gaps and forging relationships over the ties that bind us, namely food and how it shapes communities and cultures.

Turin, Italy, was the site in late October of Slow Food’s Terra Madre, a biennial, global event. With a focus on indigenous communities and farmers, some 158 global food communities gathered to exchange ideas on sustainable agriculture, fishing and breeding with the goal of preserving taste and biodiversity.

It was powerful to witness this discovery of interconnectedness that exists despite the distances that separate various indigenous communities. Norman Chibememe, a farmer from Zimbabwe, said that before coming to Terra Madre he thought he was alone in the challenges he regularly encounters at home. “I’ve learned from my new friends from half way around the world that they, too, are working with the same challenges. I am going home with some new ideas of how to change things in my community,” Chibememe said.

Terra Madre unites people from across the globe

During workshops in the Indigenous Terra Madre salon and conversations at country stalls, people from indigenous communities engaged with each other and the public through a vibrant exchange of stories about the problems they face in their respective countries. A French couple I spoke with came to Terra Madre specifically to speak with delegates from African countries confronting security or health challenges. Unable to travel themselves to all the countries affected, Terra Madre gave them the opportunity to get an insider’s view on how food issues are affected by such conditions.

Participants were also surprised to discover non-food cultural similarities despite living on different continents. A Moroccan woman who produces argan oil stopped two young Sami women who had just arrived from their home in the Arctic to share her astonishment how certain elements of their traditional dresses were like those of the Amazigh people, also known as Berbers, of North Africa. From the color of their clothes to the threading used to the geometric patterns on their ankle coverings being identical to those used in making traditional Amazigh rugs, the similarities were striking.

This was the fifth visit to Terra Madre for Susana Martinez, a yacón farmer from Argentina who is proud to share her knowledge of this crisp, sweet-tasting tuber, also called a Peruvian ground apple, with those outside of Argentina. A farmer from Venezuela whose community has virtually lost all knowledge of how to work with yacón met Martinez and invited her to his region to teach younger farmers how to grow and process the plant. Shea Belahi, a farmer from Illinois who is looking for new crops to grow on her farm and is intrigued about the properties of yacón — it has low sugar levels, making it suitable for diabetics — discussed the growing conditions needed for yacon with Martinez. As she walked away, Martinez said these interactions are the magic of Terra Madre. They “help me in knowing that someone else cares about what I do,” she said.

The wealth of knowledge and the challenges faced by indigenous communities and global farmers, such as climate change, land-grabbing and resource management, were at the forefront of the five-day event and provided visitors the opportunity to gain new perspectives on issues concerning indigenous people around the world.


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The Northeast Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) booth serves as a part of the Indian Slow Food Delegation. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Phrang Roy, director of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, or NESFAS, discussed the need for a more inclusive approach that treats the custodians of traditional knowledge and modern-day researchers as equal and diverse knowledge holders. He said more than 350 million indigenous people populate the globe — a greater number than the population of Europe — and they form “a community of people connected to the land, with their own systems of connecting to nature. Basically, they are all agronomists.”

He announced that NESFAS, in partnership with Slow Food and the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, would be hosting the second Indigenous Terra Madre 2015 next fall in Megahalaya in northeast India, a region on the border of Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Under the theme of “The Future We Want: Indigenous Perspectives, Indigenous Activities,” the event plans to bring together representatives from more than 300 indigenous communities to showcase indigenous knowledge of local food systems and preserve biodiversity within their regions and discuss how to bring their knowledge and vision of food production into modern times.

The infectious energy, friendships and networks developed by the indigenous people and farmers at Terra Madre 2014 demonstrate there is an appetite for change growing among these communities and a global momentum to safeguard their wealth of diverse flavors and cultural knowledge to create a better world.

Main photo: An Indonesian delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo

When Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International, the global grassroots nonprofit association, launched the “1,000 Food Gardens in Africa” project in 2012, he could never have imagined that within two years the project would have doubled its results and increased its goals tenfold.

“We’ve already launched 2,000 gardens, and are now aiming for 10,000 to be established by 2016 in all 52 countries of the continent,” says Slow Food International vice president Edie Mukiibi, from Uganda, who has coordinated the project. (Californian chef and activist Alice Waters is the association’s other vice president).

Mukiibi was speaking at Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial five-day event which, with Salone del Gusto, is underway in Turin, Italy. Both are open to the public. Terra Madre is a global network of food-producing communities from more than 150 countries worldwide, and this year it brought hundreds of representatives from 2,500 of those communities to Piedmont to meet, share knowledge and exchange ideas.

Mukiibi explains how the African gardens project has been able to increase so fast: “We’ve set up a network using local radio stations and mobile phones to spread the word about the importance of this project in remote parts of the country.” The objectives of the gardens are practical, symbolic and political.

“We have a heavy responsibility to lift Africa from where it now is,” he continues. “Africa is an old continent in terms of its creation but now it has the energy and fresh ideas of its youthful population. This gives us lots of opportunities. Our generation has access to communications and education so we must act and react against industrial farming’s brainwashing. Biodiversity and sustainability must be priorities in the fight against the monocultures of the cynical, market-driven corporations that are trying to dominate the world of agriculture.”

Gardens benefit families and communities

The food gardens follow different models. The largest, of several acres, are community gardens, worked on by many members of a local tribe or village. Family food gardens are also being established wherever possible to increase self-sufficiency. School gardens are another important part of the project. As Alice Waters, who has long led the fight to put school lunch on the curriculum in the U.S. and to create food gardens in schools, says: “Food gardens breathe life into education.”

At the African Food Gardens conference at Terra Madre, many Africans shared stories about their experiences. Moudane Hassan, from Somalia, explained that his people were originally nomadic camel herders who had never traditionally planted vegetables.

“We now have 54 gardens in Somalia, of which 19 are in schools and 24 in communities,” he said. “They are helping us get improve nutrition and free ourselves from dependence on international food aid.”

Julie Cissé, an activist from Senegal and founder of GIPS/WAR (a group of initiatives for social progress in an area called War), has another inspiring story to tell. She runs a network of 300 women who work the land.

“We’ve battled for women to become owners of the land they work, and we’ve had to ask permission for this from our elders and local administrators. We’ve even lobbied government.

“Our most effective argument is to explain that we want to re-create the kinds of vegetable gardens our grandmothers had, and that strikes a chord even with the most macho of men,” she says.

“We believe in sustainability, in farming the land without chemicals and pesticides or genetically modified crops. Now the men see just how productive we are, and how much we are bringing in as food and resources, and they are enthusiastic.”

The Senegal gardens are either family gardens of around 150 square yards, or much bigger, 15-acre community gardens on which up to 120 women may work. Slow Food helps by providing access to technical support and, in some cases, sponsorship from companies and individuals abroad.

Illustration of the "one woman, one chicken coop" concept.  Credit: Carla Capalbo

Illustration of the “one woman, one chicken coop” concept. Credit: Carla Capalbo

The group also came up with an innovative solution for city women and for those who have lost plots to land-grabbing but who want to produce food. Called “One woman, one chicken crate,” it involves wooden crates that are 1.7 square yards. The women can keep chickens in the crate and use the top to grow a vegetable.

“A crate or two can always be fitted into a courtyard or alley and provide the women with a source of healthy vitamins while supplementing the family income,” Cissé says.

Mukiibi agrees: “Our grandfathers fought for independence. We too must stand up and fight malnutrition and the neo-colonialism of land-grabbing and imposed monocultures. Let’s support the biodiversity of our food to save African gastronomy. Start by spreading the word.”

He might have added that this doesn’t apply only to Africa: Planting food gardens in our own schools, communities and backyards can turn the tide on junk-food wastelands and the health problems they are creating everywhere.

Top photo: Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discusses permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

What is the connection between conventional food systems, erosion and global warming? Climate change accelerates as industrial agriculture, with its heavy plowing and application of pesticides, sends carbon into the atmosphere. This creates soil loss and depletes the amount of carbon the soil is able to store. The Monsanto-sponsored Green Revolution in Africa and Asia was bolstered by the idea that we needed to find a way to break out of nature’s boundaries to provide enough food for a growing population. Yet decades of synthetic fertilizer use and industrial-style monocropping have created diseased soils, broken ecosystems and social instability.

Raj Patel, who has written extensively about the need to shift our relationship to food, says the problem with the food system is not that we don’t produce enough calories to eradicate hunger. Instead, it’s that the system puts a priority on profit and institutional consolidation. The upshot: More than 1 billion people are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight.

Perhaps the answer lies in the dirt.

The earth beneath our feet contains billions of microorganisms — huge quantities of carbon in the form of bio-matter. Organic farming, permaculture and other regenerative food-growing strategies enrich soils and restore their ability to store carbon.

I have spent the past eight years documenting regenerative design around the world, deeply motivated as a new mother to find solutions to our global ecological crisis. I’ve used my anthropology background to put together a book, “Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide.” A catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, it represents the work of a small army of about 100 contributors, including Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, inner cities as well as remote corners of Mongolia.

It also highlights permaculture training, which has been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. One innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews and Bedouins together for courses. The courses combine teaching practical techniques of natural building, water catchment and traditional agriculture with peace building.

“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training that I and my co-author Louis Fox attended in 2008. Israeli youth work at the center for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband, Chaim Feldman, began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers involving traditional agriculture. They have shared irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds and other permaculture practices that enable farmers with restricted land access to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.

“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the course.

Permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology, linking ancient and modern approaches. As an international movement, it reconnects native people with ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs more sustainably. Some call this approach permaculture. For many traditional people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told me, “It’s a practice, a way of life.”

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There they developed a Wounjupi garden, a local food-security project using ecological principles. He sees permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.

“This is the way to create a real Green Revolution and make change,” he told me.

Pine Ridge, long associated with native resistance, holds a unique place in the history of indigenous struggle. The reservation is among the most impoverished in the United States, with an adolescent suicide rate four times the national average, unemployment around 80% and many residents without access to energy or clean water. Although there is a good deal of agricultural production on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only a small percentage of tribal members directly benefit from it.

Local leader Wilmer Mesteth has been leading the development of the Wounjupi and systems for water catchment, grey water recycling, seed saving and composting. The organizers see local food security as a path to confront poverty and health issues such as diabetes, and have developed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A greenhouse has been built, medicinal plants are being cultivated and workshops are held for residents about perennial agriculture techniques. The harvest provides enough produce to give to families and elders in the community, and even share at an elders gathering in Montana.

Another advantage of biodiverse systems is they are more resilient. While grasshoppers destroyed many other crops on the reservation one season, the Wounjupi garden saw little damage, probably as a result of the permaculture technique of planting flowers that attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. “We’re seeing a major change in the soil due to the addition of organic matter,” Vasquez said. “It’s much darker and richer, and the vegetables are starting to grow really well.”

This kind of soil building also has larger positive implications. In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson suggests that the ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms that created our planet offers hope for pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it back into the ground. She documents a huge increase in the numbers of “soil farmers” within organic agriculture, and beyond.

In my part of the world in Northern California, soil farmers in the heart of Oakland are transforming soil tainted by decades of intense industrial pollution, building local community and creating social change at the same time. Oakland’s food security movement has brought fresh organic produce to what was a desert of liquor and convenience stores, and locals are raising bees that pollinate urban crops as well as provide local sources of honey.

The diversity of insect and bird pollinators is crucial to agriculture, and farmers require healthy ecosystems to grow food. Our choices about how our food is grown connect directly to issues of biodiversity, climate change and the survival of natural ecosystems across the globe. Organic and permaculture farms are significantly better at preserving agro-ecosystem biodiversity than conventional farming. With such systems, the number of plant, bird and insect species can often be 50% greater, so developing biodiverse systems should be a high priority. When we choose to eat locally-grown and organic foods, we are giving energy to a diverse and vibrant international cultural movement that is revolutionizing the food system.

And they taste better too.

Main photo: Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discussing permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

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Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Mexico is at the center of corn biodiversity, which strengthens the ecosystems that sustain the land and its inhabitants. Just as indigenous people, like the native Californians, possessed a deep knowledge of oak management and acorns, in Mesoamerica the same is true for corn. Zea mays, the Latin binomial for corn, is the literal foundation of many Mesoamerican cultures. Maize is at the core of many creation stories from pre-contact time to the present. Individuals are not only made of corn, but people make corn. Corn is one of the few staple crops that require human intervention to reproduce. Yet corn’s biodiversity is under siege.

“Dignity. Good white corn is part of a dignified life,” declared a Mexican store owner about the importance of corn in her culture, according to Elizabeth Fitting. Fitting is the author of “The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside.” She conveys the nuanced layers of the transgenic corn debate. And she shines a light on the disadvantages of neo-liberal trade policies in Mexico. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, she reveals — through story and data — how small land holding farmers’ ability to maintain biocultural diversity of Mexican corn varieties (criollos) is threatened.

Blue corn posole. Credit: Sarah Khan

Blue corn posole. Credit: Sarah Khan

Since the start of NAFTA, Mexico imports U.S. yellow corn to meet the appetite of its growing livestock industry. When local farmers do not grow enough of their preferred white corn — due to a lack of rainfall or access to well water or the effects of climate change — they purchase yellow corn, normally meant for animal feed. Making matters more difficult? Studies in Mexico have identified genetically modified corn strains mixed into the local (criollo) landraces. If transgenic corn spreads to multiple local landraces, the potential to wipe out the biodiverse base, and the corn industry, is real, according to Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz. (“Without Corn, There Is No Country” is a campaign, founded in 2007, that supports food sovereignty, in particular non-GMO foods, and the sustainable revitalization of rural Mexico.)

Mexican corn farmers fighting to keep traditional methods

The debate about transgenic corn has only escalated since the 2011 publication of Fitting’s book. Activists in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas declared 2013 the year of anti-GMO corn. To that end, a judge recently disallowed any trials of transgenic corn in Mexico.


This is the latest in a series on the importance of biodiversity.

More on corn:

Nixtamalized white corn, an alkaline soaking process to improve the nutritional quality of corn, is a sophisticated practice developed centuries ago and not transferred to Asian, African and European countries when corn colonized those lands.

For additional reading resources on corn cultures in the Americas, check out:

» "Masa Offers the Kernel of a Culture" by Julie Moskin

» "Retreat to Subsistence" from The Nation

» "Risking Corn, Risking Culture" by Hope Cummings

» Sin Maiz No Hay Pais

More from Zester Daily:

» Holiday tamales: A mail-order review

» Summer-perfect corn

» Mexico’s best mercado

» With a wealth of nutrients, acorns vital for Indians

Activists, farmers, academics, scientists and multiple non-governmental organizations know this is only a momentary victory. They argue the transgenic corn debate is a symbol of many unfair practices. Farmers, for example, want fair-trade reform so local white corn varieties are not more expensive to grow than imported yellow corn. They want to continue growing their preferred criollo corn varieties for the sake of taste and culture. Local farmers argue they are experts at growing and testing numerous corn varieties in multiple microclimates; they are fully aware that distant specialists belittle their traditional ecological knowledge. Finally, farmers and their families do not want to migrate, or work in maquiladoras, factories in Mexico run by foreign companies and exporting products to the country of that company. They want to remain on the land, in their homes, and make a livable wage.

Despite the extra expense, many, especially elder, farmers still grow their own corn in the milpa system for food security. (Milpa is defined as a field intercropped with three principal species: maize, beans and squash, often with other minor species, and in which edible leafy weeds, locally called quelites, are tolerated and harvested.) In a recent phone interview, Fitting reminded me of her conversation with the Mexican storeowner in the cradle of corn diversity, the Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, north and west of Oaxaca and Chiapas, respectively. “We grow [white] corn because we want to have good, soft white tortillas. They do not turn out the same in the city. In Mexico City (where yellow corn or non-nixtamilized yellow corn is used), a truck carrying masa (dough) comes around as if it were mud. It’s even uncovered! They say we live like animals here in the countryside, but in the city, they eat like animals!” Her words resounded with taste, dignity and self-reliance.

So the tortillas you eat, whether in Mexico or North America, might not be made of white corn flour anymore. Moreover, the nixtamilization process has been essentially eliminated in mass-produced masa flour. Not only do you get a different-tasting corn, but you also eat tortillas with less bioavailable nutrients.

Two Chicana professors, Luz Calvo and Catriona R. Esquibel, founded the Facebook page Decolonize Your Diet. During a Skype conversation with both professors, I learned their Facebook page grew out Calvo’s desire to help a student eat a more healthy diet and learn basic cooking skills. The page quickly exploded, and a blog followed. Calvo, an associate professor of ethnic studies at California State University East Bay in Hayward, Calif., says her students are predominantly first-generation Americans. On campus one day, students were selling Krispy Kremes to raise money.

Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Shocked, Calvo countered, “I’d love to support you, but how could you sell and eat such unhealthy food?” Her students rebutted, “But this is healthy, professor, there are no transfats!” From these exchanges, Calvo decided to teach a new course called Decolonize Your Diet. She described the class as “simply beautiful.” For example, she told of two Chicana sisters, originally from the state of Guanajuato in Mexico. “They made delicious sour tamales for a class requirement,” Calvo recalled. “Shaped like jelly rolls, the tamales overflowed with chilies and cheese.” Suddenly Calvo’s idea that only a few types of tamales could exist expanded.

Her partner of 16 years, Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, reminded me that in the Mexican codices, specifically the Florentine Codex, there are multiple descriptions of tamales with chia seeds, pumpkins or peanuts, shaped like seashells, or rounded. “There is no one way to make tamales in the codices,” she emphasized. “In fact there is a feeling of experimentation and joy in food expressed throughout. We both seek to remind, teach, revitalize and celebrate our ancestral foods.”

A gift that grows

Those same sisters gifted Calvo red-dent corn to grow in her Oakland garden. (You can hear Luz on a recent Latino USA podcast talk in her garden and kitchen.) Calvo is growing them out, drying most and saving some for the next planting season. Soon she will prepare nixtamalized red-corn masa for tortillas. If you can’t wait, read their article on how to nixtamalize your white or yellow corn and make tortillas. And like Calvo, a cancer survivor, perhaps connecting to your food from inside the earth to inside your body will nudge you just a bit closer to health and healing.

Top photo: Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

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