top of page
Endpaper cropped_edited.jpg


28 items found for ""

  • Criollo Cacao

    CRIOLLO CACAO Extract from Part Ten: Sweet Criollo Cacao – Cumanacoa, Venezuela In the spring of 2017, I travelled to Venezuela on a near-empty plane (most other people were attempting to make the journey in the opposite direction). There were protests on the streets, little food in the supermarkets and the city was being described as one of the world’s murder hotspots. The economic crisis was pushing the country to near collapse. I was here to meet with an inspirational chef and chocolate-maker, Maria Fernanda Di Giacobbe, who believed Venezuela’s rare and prized cacao, criollo provided one answer to the crisis. It was time, she believed, to remember how important cacao had been – and could be again. She had grown up in a family of cooks and trained as a chef, but when the economic crisis hit, she had been forced to close her restaurants. This was when she started to make chocolate. For all of its cacao history, Venezuela exported the best cacao beans in the world for others – mostly Europeans – to turn into bars and confectionery and so reap most of the economic benefits. Di Giacobbe began experimenting, designing a DIY chocolate operation with borrowed equipment and the fridge from her home. In search of the best cacao, she took to the road and travelled thousands of miles, seeking out the few farmers left growing the highest-quality native criollo, learning how they fermented and dried their seeds to achieve the best flavours. She sold the bars she made in small quantities, mostly in Caracas, but she managed to smuggle some out of the country wrapped inside clothes in suitcases. This way the world started to learn about her work and the rare chocolate she was making. But instead of just focusing on her own business, Di Giacobbe started to encourage other Venezuelans to join in her mission. Her little factory became a training centre where women from across the country could learn how to make chocolate: roast beans, winnow them into broken ‘nibs’, grind them down, ‘conch’ them into a smooth paste and temper them into shiny bars of chocolate. Plenty were interested; many had lost jobs and, too often, so had their husbands. Revitalised by their new skills, the women fanned out to other communities, teaching more women what they’d learned. Word spread, and by the time I met Di Giacobbe in 2017, 8,000 chocolate makers, most working from home, had joined the network. That year she was given the prestigious Basque Culinary World Prize, awarded to chefs making a wider social impact through food. ‘She is affecting every aspect of cacao and chocolate in Venezuela,’ said one of the judges, the food writer Harold McGee. ‘By helping farmers tend their trees, improve the way they process the beans, Di Giacobbe has given communities a chance to benefit from the chocolate.’ The movement was a radical one, not only because it was launched during a crisis, but also because the transformation of cacao into chocolate has usually rested in the hands of large corporations. Di Giacobbe’s work has continued through the worst of the economic crisis and the years of food shortages. When finding sugar, a basic ingredient for the bars, became a challenge (with even Coca-Cola’s factories in Venezuela struggling to get enough of it) Di Giacobbe’s network of chocolate makers created an alternative supply chain, sharing what they had. Sitting inside the theatre in Caracas, a new band of recruits were listening to this story, absorbing every detail of how they too could start making chocolate in their communities, setting up their own businesses, taking criollo cacao from bean to bar. This was a rare chance to regain some independence and help bring more of Venezuela’s cacao farms back into production. Making a chocolate bar might not at first seem like a life-changing act, but hearing Di Giacobbe describe it, it definitely is. ‘Cacao gives us a chance to make a new country with a new economy, and to win back some dignity,’ she said. I spoke to one of the hundreds of Venezuelan women who had already followed Di Giacobbe’s vision and was making chocolate. ‘We can forget our problems for a little while and work,’ she told me. ‘Cacao is something real, we can touch, taste and smell it. This was not the case with oil.’ If Di Giacobbe does succeed in helping to change her country for the better through chocolate, it will be a case of history repeating itself. Venezuelan cacao has been a revolutionary food before. Maria Fernanda Di Giacobbe Drying cacao at a farm in Cumanacoa With Maria near Caracas BACK TO ALL

  • Memang Narang

    MEMANG NARANG Extract from Part One: Wild Memang Narang - Garo Hills, India In north-east India, close to the Himalayas and the border with Myanmar, Bangladesh and China, is the state of Meghalaya. It’s an area of exceptional biodiversity. Scientists believe that within the wild forests here there could be genetic traits that we’ve lost from the world’s commercial citrus crop and which we may well need for the future. In the densely forested Garo Hills of Meghalaya grows a wild citrus called memang narang (scientific name: Citrus indica). The fruit is a reminder that flavours as well as precious genetics can become endangered. But the forests are under threat… As medicine, memang narang is used as a cure for ailments such as colds and stomach aches and even (the ojha believe) smallpox. Tonics made from citrus can be found across Asia, particularly where the fruit still grows wild and so has a long history (in Myanmar as well as north-east India, and south-west China). Beliefs in the fruit’s medicinal powers travelled with it across the world; citrus features in ancient Greek medical texts and famously was used in the nineteenth century by the British Navy to combat scurvy. Today, all over the world, people feeling under the weather take citrus-flavoured vitamin C tablets and drink glasses of orange juice for their health. The Khasi and Garo tribes also enjoy wild memang narang as food. The fruit is about 5cm in diameter and scarlet red when ripe, with a thin, soft skin. It looks like a mandarin but has the broad leaves of a citron, and to most of us, its taste would seem pretty extreme. ‘There’s an appreciation of sourness and bitterness in these communities the rest of the world has lost,’ says Phrang Roy [a renowned expert on Meghalaya’s indigenous cultures]. In fact, we didn’t just lose sourness and bitterness, it was methodically removed from our food. Plant breeders in the twentieth century, especially after the juice industry took off in the 1950s, focused on producing larger and sweeter oranges that could be transported around the world. The orange varieties selected had low levels of phenols, bitter-tasting (but also health-giving) compounds. This meant they appealed to the increasingly sweet global palate, but left the global crop more vulnerable to pests and diseases because the bitter chemicals present in wild citrus such as memang narang are a big part of the plant’s natural defences. As we reduce these compounds in our quest for more sweetness, farmers have to compensate and protect the fruit with more chemical sprays. Much of the Garo Hills are still unexplored by botanists and seed collectors, and it’s likely there are more citrus species here yet to be catalogued by outsiders. In the 1930s, plant explorers who reached the hills, and further north into Assam, described seeing immense landscapes of undisturbed wild citrus trees…But researchers on field trips in the twenty-first century no longer find the same level of diversity. Illegal logging, road building and agriculture have decimated vast areas where wild citrus grew. The genome of Citrus indica is yet to be sequenced by the team researching the origins and evolution of citrus. ‘We know it’s ancient and it could be a critical link in the citrus story,’ says Fred Gmitter, a world authority on citrus at the University of Florida and a member of the team doing the genome work. ‘It could even be the original ancestor of all citrus.’ photo by Francesco Sottile photo by Francesco Sottile BACK TO ALL

  • Kavilca Wheat

    KAVILCA WHEAT Extract from Part Two: Cereal Kavılca Wheat - Büyük Çatma, Anatolia Over thousands of years, various cultures and empires have claimed the soil of Büyük Çatma, on Turkey’s eastern border. But while different people came and went, a rare source of continuity has been a particular type of grain, Kavilca, an emmer wheat, one of the first plants domesticated by Neolithic farmers, which still grows in the fields around the village. Kavilca is now endangered, but it has been grown over centuries for good reason – it has qualities we can’t afford to lose. It was harvest time, and the last uncut field of golden-yellow Kavilca formed an oasis against the backdrop of the grey-green mountains. The mature ears of wheat were now so heavy they bowed down, their long, protective bristles waving in the wind. Dasdemir walked among the chest-high stalks, picked off an ear and broke it apart. The grains were encased in a tight-fitting, protective shell, a glume. He rubbed it between his fingers. ‘Most wheat gives up its grains easily,’ he said. ‘Kavilca is stubborn.’ Kavilca also produces lower yields than modern varieties. I was starting to wonder why it hadn’t gone extinct long ago. Resilience is part of the answer. The land around Büyük Çatma is high and harsh, a tough place to live, for people and plants. At an altitude of 1,500 metres, temperatures drop to below –30°C in the winter, and heavy snow can close the village off for weeks. During the spring it rains and the air is damp, an invitation for all kinds of diseases to attack crops. Few crops do well here. Kavilca is an exception; it evolved in this environment over thousands of years, adapted, survived and thrived. Dasdemir and the other farmers viewed Kavilca as an inheritance, handed down by their ancestors. ‘We have an emotional connection with this food,’ he said. ‘We love the way the wheat looks in our fields, and the smell and taste of the grain when it’s cooked.’ From the field, we went in search of the only local miller stubborn enough to still work with the stubborn wheat. Erdem Kaya looked tired when we arrived at his mill on the outskirts of the village. During harvest time, he finishes work at one o’clock in the morning and starts again at six. A beanpole of a man, dressed in a green overall, unshaven and melancholy-looking, he lives and works alone. His father had been a miller, he had been born in the mill and it was all he had ever known. The grey-stone mill stands beside the Kars Çayi River, the source of the power for the two large circular grinding stones inside. A sweet smell hung in the air like freshly baked cake. Kaya disappeared up a ladder and pulled a long wooden lever to start the flow of water. The whole room seemed to creak and then sigh as machinery juddered into life, a series of belts slapped into action and the giant stones began to turn. Modern bread wheat is free-threshing which means its naked grains easily come loose from their ears, ready to be milled into flour. Because of their tough hulls, Kavilca grains have to be milled twice. The first step removes the husks. After these outer shells have been separated (winnowed away), a second round of grinding breaks the grains into tiny pieces, leaving it looking like fine shingle on a beach. It is the most difficult wheat Kaya works with, but also the most satisfying. ‘When they cook with it in the village, I can smell it from the mill,’ he said. ‘That’s not true with the other grains.’ He handed us a sack of Kavilca and we left him to his work. The aroma Kaya described wafts from a variety of traditional Anatolian dishes that feature Kavilca, one of which was cooked with the grains we had collected from the mill. Back in the village Erdal Göksu and his wife Filiz, also farmers, roasted a goose on top of the cracked wheat so that its fat dripped down and cooked the grains. Filiz moved around the kitchen, a white, embroidered scarf covering her head, and added bowl after bowl to the table: cream and soft cheeses, pickled cabbage, peppers stuffed with spiced lamb and, at the centre of it all, a large dish piled with Kavilca shaped into a ring, its brown grains glistening with the fat and juices from the goose, with flakes of tender, buttery meat in the centre. The grains tasted rich, nutty and satisfying. ‘This is a taste we recognise deep within us,’ Filiz said, ‘we feel it in our bodies.’ Standing in a field of Kavilca in Eastern Anatolia Kavilca wheat Erdem Kaya, the miller Erdem's mill BACK TO ALL

  • Wild Forest Coffee

    WILD FOREST COFFEE Extract from Part Nine: Stimulants Wild Forest Coffee - Harenna, Ethiopia All of the coffee grown around the world can be traced back to the wild forests in the highlands of southern Ethiopia. Scientists believe that knowing coffee’s past could be an important part of securing its future. The most important species for coffee drinkers – Arabica - is not only vulnerable to the effects of climate change but it’s under threat from a devastating disease called la roya. The wild coffee trees in Ethiopia’s highland forests and in a small area of neighbouring South Sudan are the main storehouse of genetic diversity for Arabica (just as the wild trees around the Tian Shan in Kazakhstan are the gene pool for the apple). At its simplest, these forests are split into two main regions, east and west of the Great Rift Valley. In the west are the Wellega, Illubabor, Tepi, Bench Maji, Kaffa and Jimma-Limu coffee areas, and in the east, across the Rift, are Sidamo, Bale and Harar. In each of these areas, and in each of the forests, are genetically distinct populations of Arabica. Each area has a unique flavour profile, or even range of profiles. Coffee has an ‘origin’, in the same way the term ‘terroir’ is used for wine, to identify the difference between one vineyard and another. Each of the distinct populations of wild coffee trees has evolved and adapted to its own environment over hundreds of thousands of years. This diversity explains why, in the west in the Agaro region, in the Jimma-Limu zone, coffee may be sweet and subtle, with notes of citrus, tropical flowers and stone fruit (such as peach), whereas coffee from the Bale Mountains is usually fruity and floral but with added notes of vanilla and spice. Each of these coffee areas is also home to different communities. One of the lesser-known wild coffee forests (and one of the hardest to reach) is Harenna, 250 miles south-east of Addis Ababa, set within the Bale Mountains which has some of the highest peaks in East Africa. This is a biodiversity hotspot; thousands of plant species can be found here, along with endangered punk-haired Bale monkeys, lions and the rare Ethiopian wolf. Much of the mountain forest here has been so inaccessible that this biodiversity remained largely undocumented until the end of the twentieth century. Harenna is dwarfed by the Bale Mountain massif, which has peaks of over 4,000 metres, and even in the dense forest where the coffee grows (at 1,500 to 1,800 metres) there’s often a cloud of mist above the high canopy. Harenna might appear to be completely given over to nature but within the coffee forest are villages, hamlets and single smallholdings. The forest is currently home to around 3,000 people, and for most of them coffee is their life. Their livelihoods depend on gathering beans from trees that can be completely wild or semi-wild (tending them makes harvesting easier). The wildest coffee grows on wiry branches of tall, spindly trees; the red, cherry-like fruits are picked and tossed into long, cylindrical straw baskets draped over shoulders. Some of the wild coffee is sold on to traders, but much of it stays in the forest. …But just as we’re realising the value of the coffee genetics in the Ethiopian highlands, the wild coffee trees are under threat. photo by Michela Lenta photo by Michela Lenta photo by Paola Viesi BACK TO ALL

  • Perry

    PERRY Extract from Part Eight: Alcohol Perry Pear - Three Counties, England If lambic beer is the burgundy of Belgium, then perry is the champagne of England, but it’s another drink that has teetered on the brink of extinction, kept alive by the knowledge and stubbornness of just a handful of people. The story of perry is as much about ancient landscapes, tenacious trees and rare fruit as it is about recipes and craft. If we lose this drink, we will not only lose a source of pleasure but also more of the world’s biodiversity. Just a tiny number of producers are carrying on the tradition of perry making today. One of the best is Tom Oliver. When I visited him, it was late September and autumn had arrived. Oliver had invited me to spend a day with him collecting fruit and (if we found enough) making perry. My timing was good; after years of holding back, one of the rarest perry pear trees in England, a Coppy, had decided to bear fruit. ‘This single tree is so rare it should be considered a living monument,’ he said. ‘For people in the know... it’s as important as Stonehenge or the pyramids.’ To find it, we drove to an abandoned orchard, the location of which Oliver keeps a secret. In this rural part of Herefordshire, all farmers once kept an orchard or, at the very least, a cluster of apple trees and maybe even a perry pear tree or two, to make their own cider and perry. Most of these orchards had been grubbed up by the 1970s as perry went out of fashion and cider became more industrialised. And so, for years, in his spare time Oliver has explored the county, wandering through fields, knocking on farmers’ doors and checking out abandoned orchards, just in case something special had been left behind. In 2010, he made his ‘once-in-a-lifetime discovery’ in the abandoned orchard we were now standing in… From a distance, I could see the last remaining Coppy in all its monstrous proportions – sixty feet in height and width. As we got closer, I noticed a red-and-yellow- coloured carpet of perry pears spread out on the ground around it. From the branches above there hung thousands of small, red, conker-sized fruit. ‘Imagine the weight of all that,’ Oliver said, looking up at the clusters of pears still on the 250-year-old tree. ‘The only thing capable of killing this tree is itself. One year it’ll produce a crop so big it’ll fall.’ We started picking fruit off the ground. The fact that they had fallen from the branches above was proof enough the fruit was ripe for perry making. It smelt sweet and intoxicating under the canopy, a mix of burnt sugar and heady ethanol. ‘That’s bletting,’ said Oliver, explaining how the sugars in the pears were already breaking down. Bletting is good, rotting is bad, he added, and we were just in time. We gathered the fruit to the steady beat of more ripening pears thudding to the ground from above, birdsong looping around us. It was a dewy morning and the fruit was glistening. An artist would have struggled to capture all the colours and shades. After filling five buckets, my back was aching. ‘Don’t worry,’ Oliver said, ‘it’ll be worth it.' [Later that day] I helped to crush and press the Coppy pears we had collected in the morning along with sacks of other varieties that grew on Oliver’s farm. By the end of the afternoon, we had filled two barrels. When I returned a year later, we sat down to drink a little of what we had made. ‘Lovely slab of pear in the middle,’ Oliver said as we sipped, ‘like soft velvety wine.’ And at the end of the glass he smiled and said, smacking his lips, ‘That’s it. Chewy.’ Tom Oliver, one of England’s best perry makers I helped Tom make perry – enough to fill two barrels We called the drink ‘Writer’s Perry’. It was delicious. BACK TO ALL

  • Sievers Apple

    SIEVERS APPLE Extract from Part Six: Fruit Sievers Apple - Tian Shan, Kazakhstan Eat an apple and wherever you are in the world, whatever its shape, size, colour or taste, its origin can be traced back to the Tian Shan, the mountains that separate China and Central Asia. As the birthplace of the apple, the biodiversity of the Tian Shan holds the past, present and future of one of our most popular fruits. Oxford plant scientist Barrie Juniper was one of the first Western scientists to visit the forests after the collapse of the Soviet Union and over the next fifteen years he documented as many wild apples as he could. He was the first scientist to confirm that all domesticated apples originate from the Tian Shan, that it was the gene pool for all the world’s apples. On a sunny autumn morning, I met Juniper at his orchard in Wytham, a picture-book Oxfordshire village with an abbey, thatched cottages and a 600-year-old pub. Completely hidden behind tall walls was a secret garden of one hundred apple trees, some fifteen feet tall, others more like thick untamed bushes. As we moved from tree to tree, picking fruit, Juniper introduced each one: the Newton Wonder, a chance seedling that had been discovered growing alongside a Derbyshire pub in the 1870s that went on to become a popular cooking apple; thin, conical apples named Lady’s Fingers; and Brownlee’s Russet, an apple from the 1840s with an intense acid flesh that tasted of fruit drops, all hidden beneath a scaly, rough skin. ‘Wonderful apple,’ said Juniper, rubbing one clean against his jacket. ‘The perfect balance of sweet and sour and with a skin so thick it kept until Christmas.’ We ate apples that tasted of pineapple (Ananas Reinette) and bit into small russeted varieties that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 . ‘“There’s a dish of leather-coats for you,”’ Juniper quoted as he picked out one of the apples. ‘Ugly and rough it might be, but in the sixteenth century this apple was sold from every barrow in London.’ While some varieties became popular because of a chance discovery of a single tree, others were the creation of skilled nurserymen, masters in the art of cross-pollination. By the end of the nineteenth century, people in Britain could eat or drink from a different kind of dessert, cooking or cider apple every day for more than four years and never have the same one twice. The apples in Juniper’s walled orchard capture a big part of the fruit’s great appeal: its diversity and seasonality. In the 1920s, the nurseryman and fruit expert Edward Bunyard wrote The Anatomy of Dessert , providing an eater’s guide to the tastiest varieties, from the strawberry flavour of a Worcester Pearmain to the ‘melting, almost marrow flesh, abundant juice and fragrant aroma’ of the James Grieve. And then there was the Blenheim Orange, an eighteenth-century apple grown from the pip of a discarded apple core that had grown next to the drystone wall of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Luckily, the tree and its fruit were discovered by a tailor named George Kempster (which is why the variety is also called the ‘Kempster’). This apple, said Bunyard, has ‘a nutty warm aroma ... and in this noble fruit [there’s] a mellow austerity as of a great Port in its prime’. Bunyard’s descriptions provide a glimpse into a wealth of diversity that no longer exists. By the 1970s, apple eaters in different parts of the world had the nagging feeling something was missing. ‘Apples, apples everywhere and hardly one to eat,’ declared a newspaper article that went on to say, ‘The big red and yellow plastic spheres, waiting in the market for the unsuspecting, are so suspiciously, so blatantly, thick skinned and shiny, it is easy to pass on by. What we must live on is the memory of what good apples taste like.’ Barrie Juniper in his walled orchard, 2018 BACK TO ALL

  • Bison

    BISON Extract from Part Four: Meat Bison – Great Plains, USA The mass slaughter of bison that took place on the American Great Plains in the nineteenth century was the greatest destruction of any wild animal witnessed in modern history. Work is underway to bring bison back. I think this bison story is one of the most moving stories in the book, a reminder to rethink our relationship with animals and meat. Although there are thought to be half a million bison in the USA today, only a small proportion of these are pure bison. This is partly a consequence of the early conservationists crossing the wild animal with cattle, a practice that continued into the early twentieth century in an effort to rebuild bison herds more quickly. Now, with gene sequencing and selective culling, cattle genes are slowly being removed. Many projects in which bison are being reintroduced to the Great Plains are on Native American reservations. One is a partnership between Jennifer Barfield, Professor of Animal Reproduction at Colorado State University, and the Kiowa and Navajo tribes. Barfield has spent years increasing the numbers of genetically pure bison. Before the animals are transferred to the Great Plains, members of the tribes give them a blessing. Barfield had been focused on the job of making ‘bison babies’ (her words) but watching some of the ceremonies forced her to re-evaluate her work. During one, she was standing beside a pen where the bison were being held before their release onto the plains. ‘The animals knew something was happening,’ she says. ‘They were restless and moving their feet.’ When the ceremony began and the tribal leaders started to sing their buffalo song to the beat of a drum, all movement stopped and the animals fell silent. She’d spent a year with those animals and knew them really well. Usually when the bison heard unfamiliar sounds, their senses were heightened and they became agitated, but all Barfield could see here were bison eyes peering intently through the spaces of the fence. They were completely still, transfixed by the drums. At that moment she knew she was involved in something that went beyond science, genetics and conservation. ‘A different kind of connection was going on between these animals and the tribe,’ she says. Perhaps that was palpable. Outside hundreds of people had gathered to watch the bison be released out into the open, some hiking for miles to get there, ‘and when the animals burst out into the open and started to run across the ground, people started crying’. In my own search for bison, I found myself on a sand dune in the San Luis Valley of south-west Colorado, the wind howling around me and grains of sand prickling my face. With thirty square miles of sand dunes, some that tower 750 feet high, the valley is part Lawrence of Arabia and part spaghetti western, where trails in the distance disappear through mountain passes…Right up until the 1870s, before Ute Indian tribes were moved onto reservations, Native Americans lived among the bison in this area, shifting their settlements around south-western Colorado as herds migrated through the grasslands. Today, this place is home to one of the most ambitious projects aimed at bringing bison back to the Great Plains. This is Zapata Ranch, a 100,000-acre reserve which was bought in the 1980s by a Japanese-American architect Hisa Ota. His original plan had been to turn the ranch into a high-end resort, but when he started reading about the history of bison in the area, he became fixed on the idea of helping bison return. Ota started buying up bison from private collections and bringing them to the ranch. By the late 1990s, Zapata’s bison herd was in the hundreds. This is when he handed it all over to the Nature Conservancy Trust, which now runs the ranch and takes care of the bison. The landscape around the ranch consists of high plains desert, dry creek sand beds, running springs, vast meadow and, as Theodore Roosevelt had once described, the ‘shimmering, tremulous’ cottonwood trees with their green leaves set against the dust. My first glimpse of bison was three females drinking from one of the creeks that did have water. Each was as big as a horse, with horns that curled forwards in a C-shape. Winter was coming and their chocolate-brown winter coats were becoming shaggy. They looked powerful but there was something nonchalant about the way they lazily lapped up the water, lifting their heads up every now and then to give me a short stare. ‘They’re checking us out,’ said Kate Matheson, who is Zapata’s ranch manager, adding in reassurance, ‘Don’t worry, they’re not aggressive.’ Their nostrils were wide and their long triangular heads were covered in fluffy hair finished with the tuft of a goatee. Although they look heavy and cumbersome, bison can, for a short distance at least, hit speeds of more than thirty miles per hour and outpace most horses. Driven by powerful haunches which rise to a hump and then slope down along their back, they look like prehistoric cave paintings made flesh. As we drove further into the expanse of Zapata Ranch, we passed four male bison calves, each the size of a fully-grown Great Dane, teenagers with awkward-looking twisted horns. Born in the spring, their orange coats were now becoming thick and dark, ready for the winter when temperatures here can drop to as low as –40°C. Nearby was a group of adult males. They would soon be moving off to spend their time in bachelor herds but for now they were still mixing with females, sniffing the air to check if any were ‘cycling’ and ready to breed. These bulky, tank-like animals weigh around 2,000 pounds. Further on, we stopped the jeep, and a thousand bison surrounded us. I watched spellbound as they looked up and stared, and then, ever so slowly, got back to the business of eating grass. The plan at Zapata is conservation through consumption. Each autumn an audacious exercise in herding takes place as a network of fences is erected around the ranch. Wranglers (modern-day cowboys and cowgirls) then use motorbikes and a small plane to round up bison. Seven of the animals keep Zapata’s log cabin restaurant stocked with bison meat for an entire year. The rest of the cull is sold to chefs across the state, raising money for the conservation project and helping to spread awareness of the bison. The meat is tender and a little coarser and gamier than beef, chewier (in a good way). BACK TO ALL

  • Oca

    OCA Extract from Part Three: Vegetable Oca – Andes, Bolivia The world-changing tuber, the potato, was domesticated in the Andes 7,000 years ago. This is the centre of diversity for the potato, its birthplace if you like, and that of many other tubers too, including oca. No population anywhere in the world has as many diverse tubers as the people of the Andes. There are 4,000 Andean varieties of potato alone, which are grown in rotation with beans and corn. This diversity was created in many tiny settlements across the Andes, where each tuber adapted to a particular altitude, microclimate and soil. Preserved tubers became an essential food of the Andes. To see oca being preserved, I headed high up in the Andes to one of the historic Incan outposts, a small village 4,000 metres up the Apolobamba mountain range. Ayllu Agua Blanca is home to one hundred families who, for several months of the year, live surrounded by frost and fog. Dried khaya, oca, is their daily bread here. I followed a group of Quechua women from the village up a mountain path towards their fields. The altitude made it a struggle for me to keep up as they marched ahead. They were dressed in the traditional cholita outfit: heavy, multi-layered petticoats, blue skirts, dark brown bowler hats (the borsalino ) and beautiful woven red and yellow shawls. It didn’t look like an outfit designed for climbing mountains or for farming tubers, but they made it look effortless. The villagers plant tubers in fields and terraces spread around the valley. This might seem impractical, what with all the climbing and walking involved in getting from one plot to another. But this way they can spread risk; if frost or disease hits one field, they can fall back on another at a different altitude and soil. They also plant different crops each year, including oca, papalisa tubers, beans and quinoa. Across the community this adds up to a collection of hundreds of different varieties. ‘Rotation is important,’ one of the women said. ‘The soil needs to rest.’ At one of the fields, they harvested sacks of oca which they then carried on their backs to the Pelechuco River, a forty-minute hike. The riverbank looked as if it had been bombed; several metre-wide holes pitted the earth, each one dug so close to the other you needed to tiptoe along their narrow ridges to avoid falling in. Each of the pits was filled with water, hay and handfuls of muna (Andean mint). The sack of oca was lowered in and weighed down by stones where it would be left for at least a month. Over the loud rush of the Pelechuco, one of the women, Vasillia, lifted out some of the rocks, reached her arm into the cold water of the pit and pulled up one of the older sacks. Pinching a tuber that was losing its skin, she shook her head. ‘Not yet,’ she said, ‘another week.’ It needed to be soft and feel like a sponge. By then, the sourness of the acid would have leached away. From here, the oca that are ready are taken further up the mountain and spread out across the ground like chuño on the altiplano. For around a week, the oca goes through the cycle of freezing and thawing. ‘When they start to look as if they are rotten, we press them,’ Vasillia explained. And so, on the freezing mountainside, they walk barefoot to force out the last of the moisture. When they are dry, flat and dark in colour, the tubers are taken to the village. Inside a small kitchen, the women took pieces of dried oca – like charred pieces of blackened wood – and ground them down to make a dough. A strong, sweet smell of farmyard (a legacy of the fermented hay placed inside the pits) hung in the air as salt, herbs and sugar were added to the dough which was then moulded into mini-burger-sized pieces. Fried in corn oil, they became hard chewy discs that tasted part treacle, part liquorice and part barnyard. On the day I left the Apolobamba, the village held an atapi , a communal meal that brought all of the surrounding villages together. Some had walked for miles so they could swap news and share food. Spread over blankets were the various tubers the communities had brought with them; fifty or sixty types of oca, chuño, tunta and native potatoes of different shapes, sizes and colours. Each tuber was adapted to its village, some higher up the mountain, some lower, making the feast a celebration of diversity. At the potato market Cooked slices of preserved oca Tuber diversity grown in the surrounding villages Villagers gather with the tubers they have grown BACK TO ALL

  • Mishavine

    MISHAVINE Extract from Part Seven: Cheese Mishavine - Accursed Mountains, Albania Running along the northern border of Albania is a mountain range called Bjeshkët e Namuna, the ‘Accursed Mountains’. Until recently, major roads didn’t extend to the villages here, leaving this one of the most isolated parts of Europe. It’s also one of the poorest. For four decades, the country’s Marxist dictator, Enver Hoxha, forced Albanians into a secretive and solitary state, every aspect of their lives controlled, including their food. My guide here, in search of traditional food ways that had survived the dictatorship, was an Italian aid worker in his sixties, Pier Paolo Ambrosi. The higher up into the highlands we travelled, the further back in time it all felt. ‘This road is a link between the old world and the new,’ said Ambrosi, referring to a track still under construction that eventually tapered off into gravel. We passed people guiding horse-driven carts stacked with sheaths of hay and were forced to stop and wait as shepherds moved their flocks along the path ahead, the bells around their necks ringing out as they headed towards the mountain pasture. ‘They have right of way here,’ Ambrosi said as the sheep surrounded the jeep. Our destination was Lepushe, a scattering of houses made of wood and stone at the top of a glorious plateau, close to the border with Montenegro. Around us were miles of ancient pasture; wild grasses and flowers filled the vast open space enclosed by snow-capped peaks in the distance. It was here, on one of his early expeditions, that Ambrosi discovered a cheese that Neolithic farmers would have recognised, Mishavinë, a food that harked back to the very beginnings of cheese-making and dairy animals. Elsewhere in Albania food traditions had been wiped out along with religion; under the dictatorship there had been just two state-approved cheeses, ‘white cheese’ and ‘yellow cheese’. But in the highlands, Mishavinë hadn’t changed for a thousand years. Just three farmers were left making this cheese and one of them lived in Lepushe, a man called Luigj Cekaj. There, in the Accursed Mountains, Cekaj and his wife Lumtumire were keeping one of Europe’s most endangered food traditions alive. BACK TO ALL

  • Skerpikjot

    SKERPIKJOT Extract from Part Four: Meat Skerpikjot – Faroe Islands On the Faroe Islands, in the north Atlantic, there’s a centuries old approach to farming which reminds us that it’s possible to have a more harmonious relationship with the animals we eat than is found in much of the world’s intensive farm systems. The Faroese practice of fermenting mutton (sheep which have lived longer lives) results in a preserved meat designed to be eaten sparingly through the winter. Without this food, surviving on these remote islands would have been impossible. ‘When we go inside, don’t panic. You’ll see mould all over the place and something that’ll make you want to run away rather than eat.’ The wind was blowing in this barren landscape, but luckily (I thought) I had been promised lunch. Stepping through the creaking doorway of the wooden shed, I glimpsed my meal in the half-light, hanging by a hook from a rafter. As my companion, Gunnar Nattestad, put it, ‘It looks like part of a dead animal I found in the road.’ The hunk of meat was coated in a thick layer of mould, with patches of creamy yellow, chalky white and an ominous dark brown. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll wash it a little before we eat.’ Nattestad is a farmer, shopkeeper, carpenter and butcher, his string of professions reflecting the inescapable self-reliance needed for life on the Faroes, an archipelago of eighteen islands in the north Atlantic. To the north is Iceland, further east is Denmark (of which the Faroe Islands are an autonomous outpost) and two hundred miles to the south are the Scottish isles. The 50,000 people who live on the Faroes are easily outnumbered by some 80,000 sheep. I was looking at a piece of one of these animals. From the shape of it, I recognised it as a leg, but its colour and texture made it look more like a mass of old parchment or decayed leather. There was a strange beauty to it, like a fallen rotting tree that had grown patches of moss on its bark. Two forces had exerted their influence on the carcass; one was time, the other was fermentation. The sheep had been slaughtered the year before, in September. It was now May and in those nine months, bathed in air salted by the sea, the meat had become dense and solid to the touch. This strange object meant survival to generations in a land where few crops could grow… Crucial to the process of preserving the meat I was looking at was the wooden shed itself, called a hjallur (pronounced chatler). This ingeniously designed rectangular building has long horizontal beams from which food can be hung, protected by the building’s sides which are made of vertical wooden laths with a thumb-sized gap between each one. Unlike every other building on the Faroes, the hjallur is designed to let in the brutal Atlantic winds. ‘The winds are exceedingly uncertain and violent,’ wrote one visitor to the Faroes in the 1840s, ‘storms ... overturn houses and ... move blocks of stone, making it necessary for the traveller to throw himself on the ground in order not to be carried away.’ And there was something particular about the Faroese winds, the visitor added, ‘sea mists of the Faroe Islands contain salt particles in considerable quantities . . . salt crusts cover the face after a trip in a boat’. The hjallur is designed to turn this assault from the sea into a means of preservation. Trees, and most other vegetation, stand no chance of prospering on the exposed landscape of the Faroes. With no trees, and therefore no firewood, it wasn’t possible to preserve sheep with smoke, or by boiling seawater to create salt. Instead, the islanders built their drying huts and fermented their sheep meat with the help of salt blown in from the sea. ‘Skerpikjøt wasn’t invented,’ Gunnar Nattestad told me. ‘It was given to us by the islands. They make this meat.’ Skerpikjot on the Faroe Islands Skerpikjøt was an essential survival food in the Faroe Islands BACK TO ALL

  • Stichelton

    STICHELTON Extract from Part Seven: Cheese Stichelton – Nottinghamshire, England At six o’clock one morning, I stepped into a warm, white-walled dairy on the edge of Sherwood Forest to watch England’s ‘King of Cheeses’ being made, a Stilton in all but name. Joe Schneider works to an old recipe for the blue-veined cheese, but because he uses unpasteurised milk, he’s not allowed to call it Stilton. Rules passed in the 1990s mean the famous cheese can now only be made with pasteurised milk. To avoid prosecution, Schneider called his cheese Stichelton, Old English for the town that gave Stilton its name. From the large windows of the Stichelton dairy, I could see the cows returning to their field. A layer of yellow cream glinted across the surface of the morning’s milk as it settled in a long, rectangular stainless steel vat. This was the first step in the twenty-four-hour ‘make’ (farmhouse Cheddar can take as little as six hours). People have tried to speed up Stilton recipes, but it can’t be done; making Stichelton is a long and physical process. Just a minuscule (Schneider says ‘homeopathic’) amount of starter culture is added, to encourage the acidity to develop gradually, ensuring each step of the make (something of a slow-motion high-wire act) can be taken ever so gently. This is not a consistent cheese. Most often it is outstanding, but sometimes Schneider will make a Stichelton which is incomparable, up there among the world’s best. To create the blue veins that run through the cheese, Schneider adds spores of the fungus Penicillium roqueforti at the start of the make. Later, when the cheeses are maturing, holes are pierced into the centre, letting air in and activating the mould. This causes further breakdown of fats and proteins, adding sharper, more piquant flavours, making the texture softer and creamier and giving parts of the ivory coloured cheese its distinctive indigo blue veins. Before it became possible to manufacture Penicillium roqueforti, Stilton makers were said to have used old pieces of leather which they left hanging outside their dairies until they became coated in a delicate layer of mould. They then draped these through the vats to inoculate their milk. Five hours into that day’s make, the milk had coagulated, and the whey drained away. Schneider now had to move the warm curds from the vat and onto a long cooling table. Most Stilton makers now do this mechanically, but Schneider insists that it has to be done by hand, one ladle at a time. In a single motion he took a scoop from the vat on his right and swung it across to the cooling table on his left. For an hour, I watched him bend, turn and twist, heaving the curds from one side to the other. The room was silent except for the trance-like slip-slapping sound of moist curds falling onto the table. ‘Do it any other way and you’ll damage the curds and change the texture of the cheese,’ he said. I felt I was witnessing the last fragile link in a chain that had been forged centuries before, one that connected humans, animals, pasture and microbes; a beautiful and natural synchronicity. Science had changed that, casting nature as the enemy and giving the laboratory the status of saviour. In this dairy, I could still feel the sense of wonder for that other lost world. ‘To think,’ I said, as I watched the firm curds pile up, ‘a few hours ago it was milk.’ ‘And just two days ago,’ Schneider said, ‘it was grass'. Joe Schneider at work making Stichelton Stichelton cheese BACK TO ALL

  • Shio-Katsuo

    SHIO-KATSUO Extract from Part Five: The Sea Shio-Katsuo – Nishiizu, Southern Japan Yasuhisa Serizawa lives in Nishiizu, a fishing town on Japan’s south coast. He is the last surviving producer of one of Japan’s oldest processed foods, skip-jack tuna preserved whole, shio-katsuo. This is not a food for the faint-hearted and needs to be treated with great expertise and care. It’s a leathery, savoury and super-salty product. When I met him, Serizawa was holding an example of his craft, a half-metre-long tuna. Its silvery skin and white eyes were intact but its body was dry and coated in a fine dusting of salt. It was the most beautiful food I had ever set eyes on. Sprouting out of its mouth, through its gills and along its body, were golden bristles of rice stalks. The grass had been dried in the sun and softened with salt water so that the ends could be tied into large intricate knots. This artful threading of grass in and out of the animal’s desiccated body had been done with such skill that every scale on the tuna’s body remained pristine. Each fish takes Serizawa months to complete, and so he seemed as much an artist as a food producer. The reason the fish is given such an elegant outfit in its afterlife is that as well as being food, it’s also an offering to Shinto deities. At New Year, people in Nishiizu place the preserved fish in front of their homes and on public shrines. The woven rice grass represents a gift from the land to match the offering of the fish from the sea. ‘At the shrines we offer prayers to keep the fishermen safe,’ says Serizawa, ‘and we ask for good harvests in coming years.’ After the tributes have been paid, shio-katsuo becomes an ingredient; crumbled into a fine, savoury powder, it can transform the humblest of dishes. Fishermen bring Serizawa tuna, usually caught in September when the fish are in peak condition, full of fat and muscle from months of feeding. The guts and the gills are removed immediately to avoid any ‘off’ flavours, but because of the fish’s sacred status, the eyes are left untouched. The empty belly of the fish is then held open with bamboo skewers and salt is poured into the cavity and packed around the body, to slowly draw all of the moisture from the flesh. Two weeks later, the tuna is bathed in a special liquid prepared with juices saved from previous batches. This adds bacteria to the process and triggers fermentation, ‘which makes it taste a little funky’, says Serizawa. After the intense salting, pairs of fish are tied together and hung outdoors for several weeks under the shade of Serizawa’s factory roof. It’s then he’ll begin knotting and plaiting rice straws, threading each one in and out of the fish, a daily ritual that goes on for weeks. When shio-katsuo is disassembled from its ceremonial dressing, the flesh of the fish breaks into brown, yellow and silver flakes that glint. Added to rice and vegetable dishes, shio-katsuo adds big meaty flavours. Tiny pieces sprinkled onto a simple bowl of spinach can turn every mouthful into something unexpectedly complex. ‘One plus one becomes three,’ says Serizawa, describing the flavour transformation. And for more than one thousand years, just that sprinkle of shio-katsuo has helped turn ‘poor’ ingredients into noble ones. BACK TO ALL

bottom of page