Sunday, 17 May 2009

Over-production (Υπερ-παραγωγή)

I recently read that Mexico City eats its way through 50,000 pigs a week for its 20 million inhabitants. In fact, the pigs can be seen crammed in trucks, being driven about from the pig-making factory to (presumably) the slaughterhouse (the pig is not seen after that; in any case, it then becomes pork). Apparently, Mexico is not a champion pork eating country; of the 18 greatest pork-loving countries in the world, it comes second-to-last, beaten mainly by countries that are known to have a higher, more technologically based standard of living. Pig farming in this case has to take place on an industrial scale, making it big business. But when did Mexico begin to have the luxury of breeding 2,600,000 pigs a year just for the capital city? When to eat approximately 1/2lb a week of pork for each citizen doesn't sound like too much, but when did Mexico City's citizens start placing this demand on pork supply?


In the past, presumably, Mexicans used to rear a pig (or pigs) for the needs of the family, in the same way that most commodities are grown and raised all over the world. This kind of subsistence agriculture is still taking place in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. But it's practically been wiped off the GDP of Europe and North America, where anyone can eat anything when they want without producing it themselves. I have recently taken a liking for coppa, a cured meat of Italian origin. It's been available in most supermarkets of my small town since the beginning of the year. I bought it once to try it, found that I liked it, and have continued to buy it. If it weren't on sale at the supermarkets, I wouldn't be buying or eating it now. Interestingly enough, I never really liked cured meats in the first place; my coppa purchases aren't replacing any other purchase. The coppa makers are now going to have to produce more coppa to satisfy a new demand, which they (or their promoters) introduced to a small non-coppa producing town.

For people to be able to enjoy so much variety in their food, food that they would never have been able to eat if it weren't for the ease of availability, industrialisation must be playing its role too, and this no doubt has an effect on the environment. In the case of more meat products being available to everyone, the UN says livestock is responsible for nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

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This discussion led me to thinking about how easy it is these days in Greece to produce olive oil. In older times, the villagers would each have their own olive trees, but not necessarily orchards full of them; industrialisation has helped immensely towards this purpose. Never in the past has there been so much quantity, because there was never an easy means of transport. Olive picking was sporadic, and everything was carried to the olive press either on the back of a donkey or on one's own back, with everyone in the family helping to produce the olive oil they they consumed. In other words, people were producing enough olive oil for their own use, with only a few privileged people in the position of producing large enough quantities to sell. Then along came industrialisation, which helped even the small landholders to produce more olive oil, not just by the easier methods of harvesting, transporting and pressing olives into oil, but also with the more efficient methods of clearing scrub land to grow more crop-producing trees in what was once otherwise difficult and inaccessible terrain, notably on the steep sides of mountains. Land that was never used to grow trees - it may have been used for grazing or to grow grains and animal fodder until the 1960s - suddenly became a forest of olive trees.

olive plantation in hills hania chania
The whole hill seems covered in low bushes - save one patch which has been cultivated with olives.

Olive oil also gained worldwide recognition at this time, creating a market for excess production; virgin olive oil is highly prized in Western cultures. There was now a reason and a way to produce more olive oil than was needed in the family. The average Cretan family survives off olive oil produced from the family landholding, producing enough to last a family for the whole year. The oil is usually kept in large plastic vessels in a storeroom in a village. Apartment owners (who lack such storage spaces) are likely to have a place to keep their olive oil in a village (usually the paternal home). Any excess oil that the family will not use up until the following year (in which there will be more production) is sold to an agricultural cooperative which deals with commercial sales of olive oil.

Greece has never been able to keep up with the rate of industrialisation, which is the main reason why, despite being one of the world's olive oil market leaders, its high quality product is often sold under non-Greek labels. Greece is still exporting half its crop (in oil, not olives) to Italy, which mixes it with other olive oils (presumably of a lesser quality) and sells it as a product of Italy.

Olive oil once fetched high prices at the farmer to wholesale level, which is why so many people got into the act, clearing scrub land, buying up more properties, and turning them into olive groves. Once Greece entered the European Union, farmers began to be subsidised for planting new trees and producing certain quotas of olive oil. A decade ago, the farmer was receiving approximately 6.00 euro (including subsidies) for each litre of olive oil he sold to a cooperative. In those days, olive oil was regarded as liquid gold, a lucrative business. This year, the selling rate of olive oil at the farmer to wholesaler level was approximately 1.50 euro (and there are no subsidies any longer). Storage space is running out, yet peopl still keep producing more and more olive oil. Given the state of the market, there is a trend to return to the production quantities of the past: produce enough for your family and no more, as the price does not warrant the work.

morning olive harvest
A winter scene from the olive harvest

Yet, in the winter, pick-up truck after pick-up truck can be seen on all the roads of Crete, every morning and every afternoon, carting the same equipment in the back carriage - olive reaping tools, a power generator, black plastic mesh, hessian sacks - and I often wonder how a visitor to my island would interpret this sight. The 'farmers' are now also in other employment which is usually their main job (office work, tourist-related jobs, state employee, etc), they do not live near their olive growing land (due to urban drift), and they are using their annual leave to harvest olives. In the past, farmers didn’t even own a truck, let alone a car; how sustainable is this situation?

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This whole discussion has now led me to a little problem of over-production recently experienced in our own home. We have a garden, huge enough to grow most of our vegetable supplies, a fact that we are very proud of. This year we planted broad beans (otherwise known as fava beans, not to be confused with the Greek fava dish, which uses yellow split peas). Broad beans are one of the oldest beans known to man, but have a low-class reputation, due to their likeness to the human big toe. They can also cause a toxic shock to the human system, as not all people can digest them. They are often used in European cuisine, as well as the Mediterranean diet, which is heavily weighted in favour of beans and legumes.

broad beans koukia broad beans koukia
Broad beans (fava beans) growing in our garden

Typical uses of broad beans in Crete and Greece are limited in range. There is never a copious supply of them in the market, but this is not necessarily due to their unpopularity; they grow easily (as we found out) and are often planted by the locals for their own use, so few people need to buy them. They are more popular at various periods of the year, especially during religious fasts. Freshly picked and shelled in their raw state, they are added to salads, or eaten as a meze with olives, cheese and rusks (the older male populaiton eat them like this at the kafeneion with their tsikoudia). They are also boiled (with the 'black eye' removed) and added to a warm salad of boiled leafy horta. During lenten periods, dry broad beans are soaked overnight and eaten with olives and bread, especially on days when no olive oil is permitted (during the Great Lent before Easter). Broad beans are also added to tomato- or lemon-based stews. They pair well with artichokes which are also in season at the same time.

broad bean stew
Broad bean stew in tomato sauce; the same meal can be made with an egg-and-lemon sauce, and potatoes and carrots can also be added to this dish. If the pods are very fresh and tender, they can also be eaten (cooked), otherwise they taste very bitter.

But that's pretty much it. Whether you love the nutty buttery taste of broad beans, or are simply mildly tolerant of them, choosing to add them to your meals as a token gesture of their importance to mankind and for the sake of the survival of biodiversity, you'll probably tire of them eventually, which is what happened in my family. But if broad beans are so easy to plant and grow, surely our ancestors ate them more often when there was a general lack of variety and quantity of food, most of which was home-grown or foraged. My husband's over-enthusiasm to plant them in the first place declined when he saw plate after plate of broad beans served up in traditional fashion. I'm wondering how I am going to use up the remaining 1,000 broad beans that I shelled from their pods and froze; this must have also made good animal feed in the days when all people kept animals for their food needs, but what do modern people do with broad beans in the instant gratification culture of our times?

broad beans shelling broad beans
Broad beans in their pods; shelling broad beans
removing black eye from broad beans
Once the broad beans are removed from the pod, they need to have the 'black eye' removed from their skin. If they are to be eaten fresh, the skin is also removed and discarded, but if they are cooked, the skin is left on. If over-cooked, broad beans become soft and mashy.

An internet search of 'broad bean' and 'fava bean', followed by country name produces an interesting wealth of fancy modern recipes, as well as the customary use of this bean in more traditional cuisines like my own. Here are some of my findings for the humble broad bean:
  1. The UK tolerates them. The broad bean is seen as a necessary part of biodiversity. It is mainly used as an addition to a main meal, notably a soup or salad.
  2. The US is just beginning to learn how to incorporate them more into their food, part of the slow but steady interest they are showing for real food and moving away from the fast food culture that has dominated their daily life.
  3. In Spain, China and other parts of Asia, fried broad beans are a favorite snack, eaten in a similar way as peanuts.
  4. Broad beans are Egypt's national food, made into the dish ful medames, a rich dip similar to the Greek fava; this cooking style is typical for broad beans in other African nations.
  5. Beans are often combined with meat in rich stews in the Mediterranean region. The broad bean makes a good alternative to potatoes and other chunky vegetables (eg peas, carrots, etc); it could easily be added to a mince chili dish instead of the usual red kidney beans.
Whatever you do with it, the broad bean will always be an interesting addition to a meal rather than the main ingredient. I may add them to a cheese pie, a bacon risotto and some hummus; all these recipes came from the BBC's GoodFood site which I've taken quite a liking to lately for their healthy looking recipes using seasonal produce.

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