A wine event

François Rabelais University, Tours, France
and the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food, Tours, France (IEHCA)
announce the Ninth summer school in Tours, France
August 28 to September 4, 2011
Wine, economy and social norms
In most cultures, alcoholic beverages have a symbolic function. For various reasons, the place of wine is quite special. Consumed regularly, wine has profound economic and cultural connotations. The choice of a wine defines the nature of an occasion (solemn, official, convivial or intimate) and the relationship between drinkers. Whatever the occasion, the social and cultural meanings of various wines and “crus” are quite complex, following subtle rules (connected to ordering and context, etc.), such that the drinking of wine has given rise to its own vocabulary and related discourse. As a powerful marker of social status, wine choice and consumption may also be used as a means to identify oneself with a community, or nation. Drinking wine is therefore a means of affirming ones identity, as well as communicating, associating, and sharing with others.
Following on the proliferation of historical, anthropological and sociological works on the production, trade and consumption of wine, this Summer School will view wine through the lens of the long-term, exploring a range of methods and concepts while encouraging interdisciplinary approaches.
Thibaut Boulay, Maître de conférences, ancient history, University François-Rabelais, Tours, France
Allen J. Grieco, Senior Research Associate, Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Villa I Tatti, Florence, Italy
Marc Jacobs, Director FARO, Flemish interface centre for cultural heritage, Brussels, Belgium,
Peter Scholliers, Professor of History, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium
Harry West, Professor of Anthropology, Chair Food Studies Centre, SOAS, University of London,
If you are interested, please contact Marie-Claude Piochon at: mc.piochon@iehca.eu who will forward a program (latest update) and the registration forms.

Stop cow factory farms!

Big companies are planning to build huge ‘mega-dairies’ in Lincolnshire. These huge, US-style factory farms keep cows inside all year. The cows aren’t even fed on grass.

The local council will soon be voting on the cow factory farm plans. The deadline for the petition is the 11th January – on that day we need to present the council with a sky-high pile of signatures!

It would be a disaster to let these US-style factory farms come to the UK. These plans are bad for cows, bad for climate change, and bad for local farmers. There would be an increased risk of disease spreading, and the huge amount of waste that the cows produce can create real problems for the farm’s neighbours. And smaller, traditional dairy farmers could be put out of business.

If enough of us come together and sign the petition, we can push the local councils to kick out these plans. That would stop this particular plan in its tracks, and would help stop these kind of cow factory farms spreading across the UK.

Please sign the petition now, then ask your friends to get involved too:

click here or go to : http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/factoryfarm

Save our corner shops

Save our corner shops / NO to Sainsbury’s in Stoke Newington!!!


This is an old rant on corner shops, but surprisingly or rather NOT surprisingly, nothing changes, please say no to Sainsbury’s in Stoke Newington by signing this petition,just click here

Last week, I heard somewhere that if trends carry on as they are, the corner shop will disappear in a few years… I remember now, I heard this on Radio 4.  There was a slightly sarcastic comment saying that it will be a ‘shame’ to loose those shops that sell overpriced and dusty tins of rice pudding…

…the corner shop contains features that makes us remember dusty, half empty shelves of expensive items that are near their sell by date, and maybe the owners  of these shops will need to review their stock in more ways than one in order to keep their shop and not to sell it to a developer that will transform it to a ‘charming flat with a shop front feature’.

However there are other kinds of corner shops, and these are the ones that I feel we should support.  I happen to live in an area that thankfully has not yet been invaded by hypermarkets, supermarkets or their ‘city/express’ equivalent.  My nearest supermarket -if it can be called that, is an organic one where we can find fabulous produce and all eco-friendly-organic goodies that cost a lot of money.  There are as well a myriad of small shops that sell produce aimed at the local Turkish community, and it is these type of shops that I think we should try to support.  In my part of London these are mainly Turkish, but depending on the area where we live, these shops can be Indian, Bangladeshi, Greek or Portuguese.

What I like of these shops is obviously the things they sell, in my case we can find large chunks of fetta cheese, wonderful yoghurt, freshly baked flat breads and the usual basket containing bunches of fresh dill, coriander, parsley, basil, mint and spinach.  These goodies sit happily next to neat rows of dried pulses, nuts and rice, Turkish tea and coffee as well as the usual -often dusty, packets of breakfast cereal and digestive biscuits.

The staff at these shops are usually friendly and welcoming, sometimes they give me free chillies, other times they let me pay later, once I was even able to use their fridge! These guys are always there, 365 days open from 9 to 9, many times they are glued to the blasting Turkish version of the Oprah show; other times they are just chatting to their mates and -especially in the summer, this seems an OK existence.  However what we don’t see is that in order to keep their shops running, they have to get up at 4 am and buy fruits, veg and herbs.  I have been to Spitalfields to buy fruit and veg at that time in the winter and I know that is not exactly fun.  Then they have to be there in the shops all year round.  For the place to look open, they need to have their doors fully open too and that means living in the cold for half the year.

Then, there is also the problem of prices, at markets like Spitalfields, the price of the produce varies everyday, so our friendly shopkeepers are constantly having to juggle with prices, often making very little money if any at all.  As an example, my local shop sells avocados at 70p each, he buys at 50p so his profit is hardly what we can call a profit.  The bullets that resemble an avocado in a supermarket -the ones that have obviously not been ‘ripened for flavour’ cost the same amount.  I wonder how much to they get these at? it is certainly not 50p, otherwise the profits would not be so healthy for these guys.

There is the question of choice, for some strange reason, we are led to believe that a large supermarket has a large range of items, well think again; next time you go into a supermarket look into the stock and ask yourself the question if there is really a large selection, or are you really being sold what they are telling you what you buy… I don’t want to portray large supermarket chains as evil guys that are planning your life, dictating what you should consume; however, it is extremely annoying to go to these places and then find that the only kind of cocoa powder they sell is their own brand, that you can only find ‘the most popular’ of meat cuts i.e. mince and two others, that their fish counter looks like a fishmonger but they cannot sell you the heads of the fish to make stock.  Instead they have oversized rows where they sell oversized ‘family’ bags of all kinds of flavoured crisps… if we are not careful our families will be oversized in a very short time.

We complain and mock that the stock at local shops is nearly out of date and that they don’t often have what we want, and the reason for this is exactly because we don’t buy enough stuff from them. It is very difficult to always have the same selection of produce if half of it goes to waste, when there is really no need for that to be so.  If we bought more from these shops, then the stock rotates more often and we will find more choice and fresher stuff as well.  Regarding choice, well, my local shop does not sell 27 varieties of tortilla chips but they sell amongst other things medjool dates, white onions, shallots and large white eggs by the piece (10p each), and frankly I prefer this kind of choice, I like my ‘totopos’ (Mexican for tortilla chips) plain thank you.

What I am trying to say here is that I think there is enough room for both kinds of shops to survive, yes it is nice and comfy to take the car and buy a whole year load of dishwasher tablets and toilet paper, yes it is nice to buy two for the price of one items like chicken breasts… although we should ask if this is actually an ethical thing to do… and yes it is nice to be able to get cashback when we pay and to buy very cheap wine.  But it is also nice, very nice to be greeted by the local shopkeeper and to feel like a human being there.  It is nice to find weird and wonderful seasonal produce, pomegranates in September for instance, but it is nicer to feel that one is contributing directly to keep somebody in business.  Next time you think that your local shop is a weird place packed with dusty and expensive items, think again, yes things might cost a little more, but not much more and also think that this extra price keeps these guys in business and this includes the community feel that these shops bring.

Yes, there is the question of lifestyle, of living busy, of our life being made easier by doing all the shopping in one go, but have we actually stopped and thought how little we need to buy in a week? how much waste we create by buying lots of veg in one go and then spending all week eating out or eating take aways? Maybe, just maybe if we divide our shopping and spend 10 minutes at the local shop we will end up buying things that we did not know existed and we are prompted to use our imagination, we might find things that we have not seen in years -white eggs for instance.  Just doing a little bit of shopping at these places will help save them.  So why don’t we do it?

Last Saturday pm I had the misfortune to go to a large supermarket and just when I was feeling lost in the family size crisp department, amongst many upset people that looked more like lost robots than actual human beings; there was a cute Spanish girl having a fit, she said to her mother: ‘there is nothing I like about this shop and the only thing I like you won’t buy’.  Obviously she wanted to get some crisps, but what I thought interesting is that she did not like that place, and it seemed that most of us seemed unhappy there.  Then the question is, why do we carry on buying like if there is no tomorrow, when there is an option to buy stuff from our local shop? if we carry on like this, there won’t be a tomorrow for our little shops and we might come to regret that.

Chocolate issues

This is a bit of old news, it appeared in July, however the whole context of this kind of information is not new.   For centuries greedy people want to keep hold of all the stocks of a certain commodity in order to push prices up and then become rich quickly or plainly to stay very rich.  According to the Financial Times, Armajaro a London based hedge fund, has bought 240 100 tonnes of cacao beans, which is about 88% of available stocks at Liffe-registered warehouses (Source: Financial Times 16/07/10).

It does not require a large brain to realise what will happen soon… our beloved chocolate, food of ancient Kings and loved by All, will become just that:  A very expensive commodity.

Who benefits from this? Armajaro, who describe themselves as a ‘progressive and successful commodities and financial services business‘ , claim to have ‘traceability and sustainability programs in Africa, that assist growers to improve their profitability and working conditions’. (Source http://www.armajaro.com 11/08/10)

It is interesting that they seem to provide plenty of support so that growers can ‘enhance the returns they receive for their crop’ (Source http://www.armajaro.com 11/08/10). Does this mean that if Armajaro gives support so that a grower can produce a lot of cacao; and if the market price for cacao will rise as a consequence of Armajaro’s buying most of the stock available, then the beneficiaries would include those who grow the cacao in the first place? Lets wait and see what happens… I don’t know but somehow it seems to me that the champagne will flow in the City of London and not in the Côte d’Ivoire… but maybe I am a cynic.

On the other side of the coin, there is Mr Mark Green, founder of the Grenada Chocolate Company , who started his company with the aim of making ‘high quality Organic dark chocolate in Grenada’ (Source http://www.grenadachocolate.com’).

This company is not concerned with buying large stocks of raw material to sell later on, in fact they have a cooperative of cocoa growing farms on an area of  over 150 acres of certified organic land.  The produce travels one mile to a small factory and it is there where they make chocolate bars:

As you can see, the solar powered small factory follows old-fashioned methods for producing chocolate, and the workers are local people who get paid a fair fee for their skills.

Somehow it seems to me that the direct beneficiaries are the growers and producers of the product, as well as the customer who is ensured a treat when buying and delecting from one of these bars of equisite delight!

According to the company:  ‘The original impetus and principle of our cooperative company is to revolutionize the cocoa-chocolate system that typically keeps cocoa production separate from chocolate-making and therefore takes advantage of cocoa farmers. We believe that the cocoa farmers should benefit as much as the chocolate-makers’. (Source http://www.grenadachocolate.com 11/08/09)

This is the mission behind the company in pictures:

In the end, this seems to be an issue of dependency, the Grenadan producers are more able to control their destinies through their work whilst the people who produce for Armajaro seem to be dependent on market forces that –remains to be seen; might benefit from the future high cost of cocoa beans… lets hope that Armajaro is progressive enough to think of those who grow their crops and that the inflated price of chocolate that we all are most likely to pay in the near future benefits the producers, as it happens for those who work at the Grenada Chocolate Company.   If this happens, then the word progressive will be rightly applied to the said hedge fund, if not then there is nothing new under the sun.

An expensive Easter egg

An expensive chocolate Easter egg