Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Why is Food in Italy So Amazing? A Puglia Grower Talks Local Farming and Eating Culture with LGG

Greetings!

Meet my very good friend Michelle! She recently left her job, sold her house and went on an unbelievable trip around the world.

Michelle in Bali

And in Japan

After visits to Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand she made a stop that made my heart leap out of my chest...to Bari, in the Puglia region of southern Italy, for several days of cooking!

In Puglia, making eggplant and balsamic onions

Michelle's photos from a market in Mola di Bari

With her farmstay hostess Rita, eating squid and sea urchin

Michelle visited Bari in Puglia, on the heel of Italy's boot

Note to Michelle: we are all jealous of you!

Michelle graciously let LGG poke around her Italian vacation a little about something that has baffled us for years.

WHY IS ITALIAN PRODUCE SO...PERFECT?

When the economy hit the skids I was blessed enough to live at home to save money, and I took a trip to Europe in 2013 to see if I could meet some new people and open some new doors for myself. It was then that I discovered the joys of eating fresh fruits and vegetables in Italy.

While consuming standard American produce can be a chore that crushes the human spirit with its lack of sweetness and flavor, Italian produce is a dream come true. I was speechless at the outstanding quality of some of the foundational, everyday ingredients I came across, like lettuce, oranges, olives, olive oil, parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar. You could have lettuce with balsamic vinegar for dessert every night of the week in Italy and basically die happy.

Prepped Italian vegetables. Produce in Italy needs little in the way of added fanfare. 

I was not in the area Michelle visited but it sounds really interesting. Puglia has been an agricultural region for millenia and produces wine, olive oil, fruits, vegetables and wheat for pasta that are all distributed throughout Italy. It has a long history of outside occupation and poverty that seems to have resulted in a culture of growing one's own wares to get by—exactly what LGG has done to survive these trying times.

Puglia's food is reported by some to be spectacular. One traveling foodie blogger says it's her favorite place to eat in all of Italy and that the produce has more intense flavor than that found further north.

AND! High five from LGG on this one, Puglia: the town of Altamura put a McDonald's out of business. The locals gave it a chance but pretty much stopped eating there, opting instead for their own local foods and breads—one of which is protected by EU regulations as being "unique".

Masserias, or farmstays, are popular places to stay here. Michelle's cooking classes took place at a very cool one called Masseria Serra dell'Isola. Check it out.

Masseria Serra dell'Isola



Rita, owner, farmer and cooking instructor at the masseria

Rita owns this masseria and is a former journalist on agricultural and environmental issues. Thanks to Michelle, Rita has kindly agreed to talk to LGG about why she thinks Italy produces some truly outstanding fruits and vegetables. I'm really excited to have her with us today!

LGG: Hi Rita! It's really cool to meet you. This is so exciting! So, I am dying to know why some of the produce and simple ingredients of Italy are so perfect. I think it all blows even our organic food out of the water by far and is some of the best in the world. What do you do on your farms in Puglia?

Rita: There are a few potential reasons, and these are just my opinions!

1. Most of the farms here are very small. This is based on how historically families who inherited big plots of land decided to sell them. Because of this, there is very little use of insecticide. Insects are attracted to large fields of crops, not small ones.* So the soils aren't as polluted.

2. Also in a small farm, you can plant things next to each other that don't attract the same kind of bug. Example, the bugs that like garlic don't like celery—so you would plant garlic and celery next to each other. (That is just an example—not specific to garlic and celery.)

3. There is little to no industrial activity in my area here in Puglia. It's generally confined to a small section that has an iron plant and another plant. Because of this, there is little to no pollution in the soil, water, rain, etc.

4. Culturally, certain foods are important to this region, like tomatoes, garlic and olives. So doing things that would change the taste of these plants would be considered a very bad thing. For example, if you make tomato plants grow bigger tomatoes or grow faster, but it impacted the taste, then that is something that people generally wouldn't want to do. So culturally there is a natural aversion to doing things that would weaken their strong connection to food.

Rita's focaccia with tomatoes

5. In about 1950, it was discovered that Puglia is so rich of underground rivers. The water make the difference, and the richness of our red soil in the area of Mola di Bari. Some areas in Puglia have sandy soils but here in Mola we have very good red soils.

Mola's red clay soils—terra rosso—contain iron and limestone. 

And of course also in agriculture we don't waste water. We were for centuries a land with no water because no rivers and so only the few water arriving from the sky. Until 1950 the vegetables were grown with the Arab techniques, it is a bit difficult to translate, but you don't waste water, and here the habit is that even if you clean your teeths you close the water. If you go in Northern Italy you immediately notice the difference of crop irrigation. Here we use drop irrigation.

6. Also, along the sea there were wells of spring water, and the far past, similar to the wells that you could see in the desert oasis. That kind of water is still used, a bit salty, for our tomatoes. When we prepare the "salsa", the tomato sauce for winter, we use, here in Mola, that kind of tomatoes. Of course when you grow tomatoes with this water tomatoes are a bit salty and with much flavor, much savory. And any vegetables too, eggplants, zucchini, cauliflowers, rapini and so on.

The water make the difference, and the richness of our red soil. And not so much pesticide, who destroy the life of the soil.

7. Here in Puglia, my opinion, we still have a great and healthy food because of a almost vegetarian habits: we eat many vegetables and many legumes with pasta.

Some dishes: spaghetti and fagiolini (green beans) or spring beans, pasta e cime di rape (broccoli rabe), pasta e cauliflowers, pasta a fagioli (white/brown/red beans), pasta e ceci (chickpeas), pasta cicerchie (grass peas), and many times we add also some vegetables, pasta chickpeas and bell peppers, pasta cicerchie and mushrooms.

And also our tielle (made in terracotta pans): patate e cipolle (onions), patate e cicorie, patate e carciofi (artichokes), patate e funghi (mushrooms), patate e fagiolini (green beans). I could continue for hours, with a long list of things that don't need meat or fish, in any season.

Tielle de patate e cicorie, a la Rita

Rita making tielle dishes

Is something that the new generations sometimes forget because the habits are changing, women now don't stay at home but they work, and so the time to cook is less than before, you could tell me. In my opinion this is wrong!

LGG: Hmm. I think it's challenging for everyone to find the time to cook and pay attention to our food lives in this day and age to the degree that we should. But what choice do we have? Our health depends on it. My food life is something I try very hard not to sacrifice. 

What do you do to your soils? How do you compost?

Rita: We put all kinds of things in compost, any kind of fruit and vegetable, and egg's shells. But it's important not to use food things or things with fats. Like no meat scraps or nothing with olive oil, butter or dairy, etc. Also, you don't want to use anything that has flour, like bread or pasta because the fermentation is different. In addition to food scraps, you can use paper towels or toothpicks as long as they don't have the items above on them. There is also paper, little pieces of wood and leaves. They all absorb the liquid of vegetables and fruit. Also you can use ashes from a fire.

LGG: Interesting. Okay, I'm curious—do you think it is possible the ingredients I had further north (Florence, Umbria) that were so delicious were from Puglia? The oranges I had that were so out-of-this-world were from Sicily, which is down in your neck of the woods.

Rita: Our vegetables and fruits, of my area are sent in Rome, Milan and also out of Italy so it is possible.

LGG: Interesting. I wish I'd paid more attention to that. Next time! 

Okay Rita, really fantastic, this is all giving me a lot to think about. I'm so in love with Puglia now and I really love and respect how much you and others there love your food. Thank you so much for talking with us, I'm really excited we have connected. Hopefully I will visit your masseria sometime soon and have a few amazing days of cooking with you!

Rita: It was a pleasure for me too, you are welcome here any moment Lisa! Nessun luogo รจ lontano, ricorda—remember, when people have so much in common no place is so far. Ciao!

What do you think of all this? Between soil, water sources, watering techniques, pesticide usage, industrial pollution, farm size, planting strategies and the impacts of people's love of their fruits and vegetables on farming, Rita has put many potential ideas on LGG's table for why some of Italy's produce is so spectacular.

What do you think of these speculations? What can we surmise from all this?

Add a piece to the puzzle below!


*LGG had major problems with aphids last summer in our little plot, so bugs do feast on small crop areas. Still, we think Rita's point is a good one that deserves further exploration.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Why We Try To Save On Food—And Why It's A Terrible Place To Budget Money

Food, money, inequality, the inability to make ends meet. Sigh. Where do we begin when discussing these issues?

Western industrial society is crumbling before our eyes, and the seeds of whatever system humanity is going to build and rely on next are now only blowing in the winds of the chaotic wilderness that is our current cultural moment.  Many of us are just wandering around lost in this dystopic place in human history, suffering with salaries that are too small in the face of bills that are too high, forced to live in and pay for modern infrastructure that we can't afford, with no real way out of the mess.

So, it's hard to know where to start on the topic of food and saving money. My dream is to not have to discuss it at all, and to create a system where we all have access to organic and grassfed food without the exchange of money. I don't know if this is possible. But it's my dream.

At any rate, let's talk about saving money on food, why it sucks that we have to, and why it's a bad call.

We all feel excited when we can save money on food. A big bag of oranges on sale, cereal for a dollar off, opting for whatever has protein in the Trader Joe's freezer section over real chicken.

How good does it feel knowing we are doing everything we can to save money? Making our underpaid lives (sort-of) work out? That our own savviness and responsible shopping habits are resulting in a few more dollars in our bank accounts and extra food in the fridge? We found food we can afford! We chose to buy it! We are eating this week for less money! We are winning the game! THANK GOD THERE IS FOOD TO EAT!

Saving money is probably most of the reason why many of us buy conventional foods and GMO products. It's why I did. These foods allow us to get good deals, without which many in America cannot survive. This is where our capitalist food system is in need of change.

FOOD IS THE ONLY EXPENDITURE WE HAVE WHERE THERE ARE REAL OPTIONS FOR SAVING MONEY

Let's take a look at the average human being's required/mandatory expenses in modern American society.

  • Housing
  • Transportation
  • Health insurance
  • Higher ed (arguabley required.)
  • Food

These items are basically required just to get along. And the costs for the first 4 are major, and beyond our control. There is no place where much cheaper apartments are available if we're willing to forgo newer appliances. There is no gas station chain that's 50% cheaper than the rest. Our healthcare rates are set and must be paid. There are no cheaper universities.

WE. MUST. PAY. 

And we must pay A LOT.  So our income goes toward these expenses. Period.

Food's the only place where this isn't quite the case.

It is the one requirement on the list where we can make choices that can make a difference in our finances. This is where most of us turn to conventional foods. They're cheaper.

Yet this is arguably the LAST PLACE ON THE LIST where we should be cutting costs.

More expensive apartments won't prevent killer heart attacks. Better gasoline in our cars won't prevent diabetes or osteoporosis. And despite how deeply, DEEPLY I value higher ed, a degree won't prevent Alzheimer's or cancer. (At least not directly.)

We have nothing when we don't have our health. It is the fountain from which EVERYTHING floweth. How can we be there for our children when we have health problems? How can we use our degrees to work if we are sick? How can we pay for our apartments if we are in cardiac arrest? How can we drive an expensive car if we are busy undergoing chemo and barfing our brains out?

Yet I am pretty sure that more expensive food will prevent all these crises and more.

I am no scientist or certified health practitioner. I have no bonafide proof that organic and grassfed food is better for us. Perhaps it is not true, or even scientifically verifiable. I have not been to the doctor since I made these eating changes either. I only have my own experience.

But my experience of my body is that it has improved DRASTICALLY since I switched to organics and grassfed products. This food has relieved debilitating repetitive stress injuries in my hands and arms and allowed me to use computers again. My flexibility has improved. My muscles are stronger. My mind is sharper and clearer. I have more energy. I have no problem controlling my weight. I can only imagine it's done good things for my vital organs too, and I bet it is preventing cancer as we speak.

If there is any area of our lives where we should be able to get the best, it is food. Feeding ourselves outstanding food is probably the most important thing we do. Yet since it's the only area where we have cost options, we think of our wallets first and get what's cheapest because we must. And I believe, the most important thing to us—our health—pays the price.

It is a crime that we live in a society where we cannot afford to make good choices on this front.

I want us to live in a world where ensuring access to nutritious food is a major priority. I want optimum health to be within EVERYONE'S means.

Do you agree? How can we do this??!! Leave a comment below!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Summer 2016 with LGG

Welcome back to LGG!

It's summer 2016 and I've been through a lot since this winter. Most notably are major changes to my diet, which are going to impact my gardening and what goes on in this blog for the summer. Here is what is up.

A lot of stress and a few significant health problems forced me to take a serious look at my diet last year. While I have been pretty good about cooking and decent eating since about age 30, I really went off the rails in 2015 and let the Trader's Joe's freezer section take over in my kitchen.

Oh, night after night of glorious indulgence in TJ's dizzying variety of creamy cheesy pastas, the easily defrosted Americanized Asian delights and the cutely packaged cupcakes. As much fun as you all were, we had to part ways. 
Goodbye friends.
Because while these seeming wonders of modern-day food production do much to warm the heart and comfort the soul in these continuously troubled economic times, they do not, as many happy Trader Joe's shoppers probably know deep down, provide much in the way of nutrition. My body was really suffering as a result of this out-of-control dietary frat party. Monday morning always rolls around, and the health hangover I eventually found myself with from all the TJ's hoo-ha was killer. My body was in bad shape. I had to commit to change.

In January I began by finding and cooking the most nutritious fruits and vegetables I could find, cost be damned, which led me to eating all kinds of cool produce, and making a conscious commitment to organic foods.

Produce section at Natural Grocers. My new hangout.
After a couple of weeks of eating nothing but organics, I could not believe the bounce back in my health. 

My brain was sharper, my body felt lighter, my muscles got stronger (WITHOUT GRUELING WORKOUTS!) and my whole body began moving with incredible ease. I had sunny, sustained energy all day long – no crashes after meals and no mood swings. My skin began to glow. Wrinkles disappeared. If I had taken measurements, I think I would have proof that my limbs grew longer and I grew taller. No lie! I was even breathing easier. It was becoming a true joy to inhabit my body.

In short, organics rocked my world. Proper nutrition has been an amazing, consciousness-altering experience, one that I intend to keep building upon.

So, there is not going to be any gardening this summer. The blog is going to take a few new turns.  

I want to continue eating the amazing foods I'm currently buying, and learn more about what makes for truly nutritious produce before growing and eating any more of my own food. Because I believe growing food without pesticides probably makes the food better for you, true. But I also think nutrition has to do with SOIL QUALITY. How can it not??!! So, I'm going to explore all of this here at LGG, and hopefully visit some local Colorado farms to interview farmers about their practices.

Hopefully I'll come back at my farming with a whole new level of knowledge about nutrition, and produce some serious, mind-blowing produce.

In addition to nutrition and farming practices, I'm also going to blog more about the foods I eat now, and fun ways I have found to afford them. I might even be able to challenge the notion that organics cost more!



So, stay tuned for the upcoming extra-exciting installments on nutrition, farming and affordable organic living here at LGG! I am so excited! See you this summer...