Friday, June 25, 2010
Had a breakfast of yogurt and Rocha Pear--a pear variety developed specifically for small scale production and year-round consumption (i.e., excellent storage capacity) in Portugal. I bought two yesterday for 15 cents in a little bodega on a picturesque street in the Old City. Sweet, juicy--out of season. Really, really out of season.
Went to have a little tiny coffee at 11. These coffees are amazing. They are like an electric shock to the heart. It's approximately 5 sips of coffee, but you won't need any more for about five hours. If that.
Monica's office at 12:30 for lunch with her colleagues. Got an invitation to come back to Lisbon and present a paper at the Institute for Social Sciences in November. To which I replied, no really, I couldn't possibly. I'm too busy. Dumbass. Let me try again. Yes, of course I would love to accept your kind offer and I will make it work.
Lisbon is amazing. I feel myself relaxing into this beauty and the easy going feel of this place and I really really don't want to leave. I am sure it is a facade and there is a difficult side to this country, like every other country, but I find it hard to hate a place that is constantly sunny, consistently 23 degrees C, endlessly supplying beautiful buildings festooned with laundry, cheap, easy transportation, great wine, amazing food, and beaches.
After the generous invitation that I turned down like a fool, (I am hoping it's not too late for me to come to my senses) we hopped on the subway at 2:57 to go to the beach for a few hours. The football match between Portugal and Brazil started at 3:00 and the tube was full of fans for both sides. Rowdy but jovial, the train emptied at a square broadcasting the game. I would like to know more about how these post-colonial relations really work. If only there was more time in the day.
After the beach we went to a Alto Bolto, a restaurant in a trendy part of town. The place took itself a bit too seriously, but had good food and a nice atmosphere. I had salt cod with onions in port wine, the restaurant specialty. Monica and I enjoyed a red wine from the North of Portugal and some nice Portuguese cheese. Later we met up with Yve, a graduate student with a rich life story, who is also interested in seed and food sovereignty and is a stewardess of a forest garden in the city. We went to a bar and had caipirinhas at a bar in her neighborhood. We talked about soil building, plant guilds and planting a fig tree for me in a garden overlooking the ocean.
Lisbon reminds me a bit of Manhatten. It has a very cosmopolitan and youthful feel. Just add colorful painted tiles from the 15th century on every beautiful building, luscious magnolias and bougainvillas festooned with flowers and mouth watering cuisine, and you have Lisbon. Um, yeah, pretty much a perfect city. Monica and I realized that the last time we had spent time together was in New York during the last World Cup. It is funny how these cycles of time bring us full circle. I'm in a very different place in life, and so is she, but the blessing of friendship is that we can share our lives, support each other and grow personally and intellectually together. Still. Again.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
I've discovered a wonderful secret to happy travels. In the past I have wandered around a bit thinking I have to absorb and enjoy the historic monuments, castles and miscellany that supposedly defines a place. It was always an exhausting experience for me, and I have never felt like a good tourist or traveler. This time, however, by focusing on food and gardens I have come alive as a tourist! Every time I see a garden I am filled with happiness like a surge of energy and I am fueled once again. Truly, my love is for gardens and growing things.
Monica, my friend and colleague is hosting me here in Lisbon and she also has taken seriously the charge to show me Lisbons gardens and foodways. Our first meal together was a traditional Portugeuse soup made from purslane (beldroegas). Now, most gardeners find purslane the bane of their existence. It's a colonizing plant and therefore will enthusiastically cover bare ground. Naturally. It's bad for dirt to be bare, so its important that plants like purslane cover it up. We can work with this need for covering the soil and enjoy the benefits of free greens too.
Beldroegas, as it's called here is actually for sale in the organic shops. One year I could have made a fortune selling the stuff that was growing in my garden. I started eating it because it was the only thing that was growing. I didn't know it was a delicacy, super nutritious or part of any cuisine.
This soup is simple, and according to Monica is made special with the addition of oregano and a salty, strong goat cheese that is reminiscent of queso fresco. The soup starts with a base of onions and garlic and the purslane is added and cooked in water til tender. Oregano, cilantro and salt and pepper season it, and the cheese is added at the very end. Serve with crunchy bread, more cheese, tinned fish and wine. Simple, healthful and with ingredients freely offered from the earth.
There is also something sort of important about being in Belgium when making Belgian fries. As many ex-pats have come to find out (even if they bring the most important kitchen item--the deep fryer--with them on the train to England...) Belgian fries are not possible to make anywhere else. As a food geographer, I find this wonderful. As a lover of Belgian fries, I find this is a bit perplexing. I deduced that it has something to do with the variety of potato, but I suspect that it also has something to do with the soil in which the potatoes are grown. This warrants further investigation, and I shall apply for a grant to return to Belgium so I can eat more fries. I mean, study, fries.
So, this special variety of potato (unclear to me since I don't read Flemish, nor know anything about the Flemish potato varieties--hence a return visit to do "research") is peeled and washed in cold water and dried and cut into thin (or wide) strips. Karolien tells me that this removes some of the starchy residue from cutting and peeling, and leaves more of the starch in the tater to be exposed to the oil in the fryer. Yes. Do that. It seems to me that this is a medium starch, somewhat waxy potato, and if I had an extra set of arteries, I would experiment at home with which variety might work abroad, for all Belgian ex-pats. Since I don't, I'll just come back to Belgium.
There is also some debate in my host household about the proper width of good Belgian fries. Stijn likes them thick, Karolien, thin. Never completely resolved, like all domestic disputes, there is just compromise. Thin one time, thick the next. Karolien's fries were light, crispy and perfect. More perfect than any fries I've ever eaten. We ate them with a fried egg, salad and an almond tart for dessert. Decadent. Lunch. Nap.
So, for my last supper in Ghent, Stijn suggested a kind of carbonade flamande which is a simple tomato based stew of beef cooked in beer. Served with Belgian fries. Yes. I don't think I need to say anymore, and I will just share this picture. Both Stijn and Karolien ordered this as well...I am sensing that it's a favorite, and I understand why.
Afterward, we went next door to "Soul Food" (the name of which made me really happy for lots of wonderful reasons). This was an amazingly cozy, and according to Stijn, typical Belgian bar. It was an amazing cross-cultural experience with thick smoke greeting us as we came down the stairs, "Purple Rain" playing on the jukebox, American whiskey on the menu and the locals greeting each other with kisses and ribald Flemish jokes.
I had an amazing visit to Belgium and I can't thank Stijn and Karolien enough for their gracious hospitality. I can't wait to come back.
The third garden we visited is part of a community center in Schaarbeck, and is largely a product of the efforts of a husband and wife team who found a garden space behind the community center. They are both artists and provide programming on a variety of topics, many of which now include the garden space. Their philosophy is that people can be simultaneously delighted, educated and fed. I like these people.
One driving principle of their work is that space should not be a limitation to the productive possibilities of cities. Time and again we found large garden spaces available, but polluted. Or squatted and threatened with development. Or accessible only at the whim of the city or the state. These artists were innovating with ways to grow gardens vertically in small spaces on the side of walls. Beautiful, whimsical and productive, these experimental gardens are an interesting answer and solution to the problems of space.
The pair also "rescue" trees growing on buildings and in gutters and put them in pots in a nursery. They have a vision of a forest in the city, which is incubating in this little oasis of creativity and joy. The have also planted "miniature gardens" in the sidewalk. Each hole that is drilled in the concrete is home to up to 8 different kinds of plants.
Grow outside the box!
Like the garden in Ghent, this garden also has its roots in labor and industry. The garden emerged four years ago as part of an attempt to reclaim a garbage dump that had grown under a bridge in an old train yard near the port. It is also a mere stones throw away from the "Little Manhatten" of Brussels, a central business district that the city planned and developed from the 1970s. The high rises are visible across the industrial wasteland from the vantage point of the garden.
The gardeners are both local and from neighborhoods far away. Some belong to permaculture organizations, some are just curious and sympathetic and some like, Abdil, are unemployed and looking for productive and meaningful work. The woman pictured below echoed the sentiments of gardeners in the first garden we visited. The garden belongs to us all. I am just planting these leeks here because they are ready to be planted. The spirit of cooperation and sharing is striking. No one seems to claim any part of this space as their own and everyone is welcome to whatever they want, whenever they want it. Needless to say, they have not had problems with theft or vandalism. It also doesn't hurt that you would never know it was there unless you knew, or you just happened to read the small sign on the only entrance.
This garden also sports a composting toilet housed in this terrific little building. To the left is the toilet, and to the right is a work room, which also doubles as a seed bank for the garden. The building is constructed of wood pieces that are soaked in oil, which are then surrounded by an insulating material, such as cork and then plastered with a kind of concrete, the name of which I don't remember. It has a green roof, tiled floors and an incredible view. It also comes with instructions.
This garden has had the benefit of some longevity, and having a strong community of workers with many skills, and apparently some access to capital. There is a greenhouse that one of the gardeners built and also two rain barrels that address access to reliable water, one of most intractable problems of community gardens.
There is also a small theater space in which children from the local community produced a play about nature. It is times like these that I feel the strictures of time and space. I want to be here for all of this, and to be there for all of that. I want to know all about this, here, and know all about that, there. I guess we just do the best we can, and this is me, doing the best I can to know about and share these imaginative, hopeful and joyful efforts of kind-hearted people.
Many times during this beautiful day of wandering through these oases of joy, we turned to say goodbye and our new friends were already lost to us, back in the bliss of tilling the soil and nurturing life. It makes my heart glad.
Thus, there is a large population of ethnic Turks in certain areas of Belgium, especially the Schaarbeek district of Brussels, where we ate Turkish pizza on Sunday after our garden tour. In this neighborhood (with densities of ethnic Turks as high as 40%), if you had not told me I was in Belgium, I would not have known. I became the subject of some light hearted ribbing when I said I wanted to eat Turkish food. Mind you, this is after I said I didn't like Belgian beer. My culinary requests thereafter were viewed with a certain degree of (well-deserved) skepticism and amusement.
Joeren recommended a good place, though, and somewhat to our surprise, we (Stijn, Cyrille and I) found ourselves in a pizzeria. Turkish food, because of the omnipresent kebab shops, are often seen by Belgians as "fast food" AKA cheap, convenient, sometimes good food, but potentially dangerous. Our meal consisted of a cold yogurt-cucumber soup and a hot lentil soup, cucumber and tomato salad and a variety of different kinds of freshly baked bread stuffed with vegetables, cheese and meats (and an egg...?). It was delicious and Cryille and Stijn concurred that this was "a proper Turkish restaurant," even though it was both Turkish and European in its influences--you will not find "pizza" in restaurants in most Turkish places.
There are similar hybrid foodways as a result of Jewish immigration and the now famous Reuben in New York, or Italian immigration and the now infamous cheese steak in Philadelphia. I imagine that the development of these kind of foods are a logical outgrowth of the experience of having small kitchens, a lively street culture in the home country, over-crowded housing, low-incomes and a longing for the taste of home. Maybe also in the beginning of this migration history, there were few women--who likely were the ones who knew how to to cook proper meals--and few grocery stores sourcing proper ingredients. Now, however, there are many generations of families in Belgium, but they still live in marginal situations. Their neighborhoods, like that of most migrants, are often in or near areas of poverty, crime and prostitution. Efforts to improve the situation of Turks (and other migrants) in Belgium have included the development of community centers, and in Ghent, a garden.
Let me be clear, however, that gardens are not the answer. These efforts do not remove, and sometimes they efface, the underlying problems of ethnic differences, systemic inequality and the intractable tensions around the perception of insider and outsider status. They also tend to assuage the feelings of guilt for Westerners around the history of exploitation, and do nothing to really change the situation of most migrants, which is directly related to capitalist labor practices. Ghent has a long, rich and glorious labor history. In the city center there is a large monument and building dedicated to a labor organization called "Voorhuit"--means "forward". For a variety of reasons, many of the Turkish migrant laborers have not been brought "forward" and still live in over-crowded derelict housing from the 19th century.
Social workers helped develop some gardens for the residents of this community (which houses both ethnic Belgians and ethnic Flemish) on an old industrial site. The soil is polluted in the whole area, but the gardens could be located in raised beds on the concrete floor of an old factory. It is a traditional community garden, with individuals having responsibility of separate plots. The garden has suffered from vandals and thieves, and I wonder if it isn't because the privatization of space within the garden invites (and perhaps even defines) theft. The community space also houses a soccer field and a public barbeque. Without intending to be a multi-cultural project, the garden has brought members of the community together in a shared interest in food and foodways.
Like all collective and community gardens, this garden is threatened by development. In this case, by the city of Ghent, which wants to build new housing here. The idea is to move residents of an even more disadvantaged community (largely composed of eastern Europeans of a variety of ethnicities and some Roma) into this neighborhood, rather than tear down the old housing and build better housing in its place. In addition there is a development project that will bring gentrification to the area, something that does not bode well for housing costs, open space or community cohesion. In the meantime, residents continue to use this "public space" to grow onions, play soccer, share meals and make art.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
That conference in 2004, more than any other for me, has influenced my life and career in unexpected and truly exceptional ways. I am in debt to the organizers and their efforts to generate the kind of social network that I now have as a result of that conference. Stijn’s work focuses on urban sociology of labor and urban renewal projects, and as such, he has little experience with my areas of interest, but… he just happens to have a new colleague, Barbara, who does. Let's here it for serendipity! Barbara put Stijn in touch with Cyrille of “Le Debut des Haricorts”—literally, the "start of the beans", and Jeroen of Auto-Suffisance (http://auto-suffisance.blogspot.com/). These two picked us up at the Brussels train station in a very organic VW and we were off through the streets of Brussels in search of "jardins collectifs".
We visited four gardens in a few short hours, and they all were magnificent and exceptional in their own way. The first was a collective of about 5-10 regular gardeners who share space for vegetable, flower and fruit production, community composting and cooperative food distribution. The vegetable beds are raised and mostly support the dynamic accumulators of permaculture philosophy--plants who make nutrients available for plants in the soil. Medicinal plants, flowers and fruit trees and plants, including kiwi vines, also abound. While we were there, two people planted Jerusalem artichokes and another two brought in buckets of compost to add to the heap. When I asked the two gardeners if they had a plot of their own, they said, No, it belongs to us all.
The garden sports a greenhouse, a central pavillion and a composting toilet. I *actually* paid to use the bathroom at the train station, not anticipating that I would have such great facilities to use! Cyrille offered to lend me a book and a few minutes of private time if I want to just enjoy the experience anyway... The garden is next to a magnificent 19th century house with a large walled garden of it's own in the back. The garden houses several fruit trees, including two massive old cherries, beehives and until recently, a couple of goats. The house belongs to a grocery multi-national, which plans to expand. That expansion will destroy the gardens. Of course. The gardeners resist, but keep growing anyway.
The main course consisted of potatoes, baked cod and sautéed chicon, also known as Begian endive. Chicon is the bitter green part of the super-plant chicory. Chicory has edible roots that can be roasted as a coffee substitute, produces healthful bitter greens, is used as a dynamic accumulator of nutrients in permaculture gardens and has beautiful flowers. These chicon were grown underground (as is traditionally Belgian) to prevent them from turning green, and have a delicate flavor. They were sliced, and the hard inner core removed, and sautéed in butter for a few minutes. They became a bit crisp around the edges and tasted buttery, delicate and slightly bitter.
Karolien mashed the cooked potatoes with a little butter, milk and egg. They were light, creamy and perfect in texture. The egg adds something mysteriously good! The fished was baked with tomato wedge and sprigs of sage (for no longer than 9 minutes, says the fish guy) and came out of the oven flaky and tender. We enjoyed the whole feast over a bottle of organic (or Bio, pronounced “bee-yo”) sauvignon wine. A delicious light and healthy repast! We ended the meal (although there wasn’t much room for it) with cubes of bread pudding and mattentart. I don’t remember much after this. The wine, the walking, my full tummy and my 36th hour of being awake and taking in the rich, wonderful world on two continents put me deep in dreamland soon after the table was cleared.
I am told that the Belgian government supports and actually *encourages* backyard chicken production. How civilized. Given the number of front and back gardens attached to houses, and the fruit trees growing in most of them, it seems that subsistence agricultural production has long been encouraged throughout the country, at least among the middle classes, as most of the working class housing has no gardens. There appears to be a recent resurgence in this, perhaps as a result of the economic downturn. Karolien saw a goat on a leash being walked in her neighborhood, and the monastery around the corner, although we visited and didn’t see them, has been rumored to hostel cows and goats in recent history—like the last few weeks. There is also a livestock market in Ghent, where you can buy laying hens for your backyard or live chickens for your stew pot. Or a goose. Or a duck. Or a rabbit. Guinea pig, anyone?
My first evening in Ghent, Karolien showed me how to prepare a traditional Flemish meal of baked codfish, asparagus soup, chicon and potatoes. While Karolien went to the fish shop and to buy the vegetables in the neighborhood, Stijn gave me a walking tour of Ghent, which included sharing with me the rich history of labor politics, migration and conflicts over territory in Belgium. Our walking tour included several stops for ingredients for our supper, at a cheese shop, a bakery and a mustard shop… (!). We also visited some community gardens and parks, which will appear in later posts.
Our first stop was at a cheese shop that makes its own cheeses 4-5 times per week from locally produced, organic milk. Cheese makers unite! Cheese eaters swoon. We chose the house specialty Pas de Rouge, which is a semi-hard, very flavorful, medium aged cheese. We also choose a mild, soft traditional Flemish cheese called Damse, which comes with or without herbs (in this case parsley) in the middle and on the rind. A third choice was a delicate and lacy blue cheese, made by the Hinkelspel cooperative and named Pas de Bleu...dressage and dance enthusiasts who love cheese will dig this.. There is a movement in dressage called a pas de deux, which is basically a dance for two horses/rider pairs. I couldn't resist. And last, a goat cheese called Cabriogand.
Our next stop was to a bakery specializing in breads. I am told that bakeries, for unknown reasons, generally focus on breads or sweets, and not both. This bakery was one of the best in Ghent for bread, and had a line two dozen deep out the door. We got whole wheat flax seed bread for eating with our cheese—sort of cancels out the unhealthiness of the cheese, doncha think? Maybe it could cancel out everything unhealthy I have eaten…ever? For breakfast, we picked muesli bread (Karolien’s and now my favorite) that is studded with nuts, grains and gigantic dried apricots. Wheaties, eat your heart out—you are NOT the breakfast of champions. Also for breakfast, we tried a handful of white and “brown” (whole wheat) dried fruit “sandwiches”—small bun-like breads sprinkled with dried currants and those green, red and yellow fruit jelly thingees that populate horrendous rum fruitcakes at unfortunate Christmas gatherings. I was incredibly rude and picked them out of my sandwich when I ate them, but when I actually tasted them they were quite nice. Of course they were. Another conversion. But for the record, I will only eat those thingees in Belgium. For dessert (and a snack on the canal side, as it appears to be Stijn’s favorite) we got bread pudding (another amazing taste sensation) and mattentart, a pastry made with buttermilk, milk and almonds. OH MY GOD.
Next door, a specialty food shop featured artisanal mustards. Stijn bought me a small sample of some very spicy variety, and I have not yet tried it, but the smell of vinegar and spices in the shop was indescribable. I cannot wait to crack it open when I get home and slather it on some homemade bratwurst from Nature’s Harmony Farm. The shop made their own mustards and you chose which size of container you would like, and they filled it for you from their supply under the counter. You could even bring back your container for refilling. I look forward to doing that someday.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
It was strongly suggested to me tonight, in spite of the fact that this blog is about food, that I make some sort of public retraction of an ill-informed statement that I made last night... The statement went a little something like "I don't like Belgian beer". I regretted it the minute I said it.
I love regretting things when making up for it tastes this good.
My incredibly gracious hosts, Stijn and Karolien, have fed and watered me well in Belgium. Stijn has also walked my legs off, shared his encyclopedic knowledge of Belgian cities and along with Karolien, introduced me to Flemish cuisine (more later on that). Stijn has also introduced me to some really rad collective gardeners in Brussels. One of whom, Cyrille, would not allow me to leave Belgium without sampling some "real" Belgian beers. This effort led us to a neighborhood in Brussels with the beer store featured in the first photo above. There are Belgian beer aficionados in Athens who I know would drop dead in throes of ecstasy walking into this store. I walked in with my toes curled.
Cyrille, in attempt to get at why I didn't "like" Belgian beer, was amused by my response, "It's too sweet". So you want a light beer? Maybe an industrial product like Stella? He offered, sweetly, with a sly smile. Um...no. Maybe one with a low alcohol content? Really, no. Maybe some honey beer...? Gag. In the end and after being convinced that I really will like it, I made a rather large investment in a selection of Belgian beers to take to the party in one of the collective gardens. The diversity of beers was also Cyrille's attempt to ease me into liking the Belgian style beer. He succeeded. As evidenced by the empty bottles in photo number 2. My favorite was an 9% IPA. Um. Yea. What is not to love, really? We also enjoyed a goat cheese, spinach and walnut tart made by one of the collective gardeners, the remains of which is next to the remains of the beer.
So, this garden is cool as shit and totally worth a digression from beer, and another post later. It's composed of raised beds on wheels that take up as much space as a parked car and are used in public to demonstrate that non-car owners could have a right to public space the size of a parking spot for a car. Really flipping brilliant. (Third photo).The last photo shows one of the mobile beds and it's "license plate"--radish. These gardeners meet on Sunday afternoons and work in the gardens, share a meal and beer and grow up all kinds of good stuff together in the yard of an old school.
But, back to the beer. Allegedly, true Belgian beers are fermented with naturally occurring yeasts, which produce a high alcohol content after many years of fermentation. The American breweries doing Belgian style ales speed up this process by adding extra sugar so the high alcohol content is produced faster. Of course they do. Of course they cut corners on quality by cheating. That's the American way. The Belgian way--of brewing beer, growing food and sharing meals--is gracious with what is offered by nature, patient with the process even if it takes a long time and of seriously good quality.
I like it. A lot.