Calçots. Until I started coming regularly to Barcelona I was unaware of these delicious members of the Onion family. They are braised in vast bunches on great communal barbeques in community festivals that take place all over the city at this time of year. Smoky from the flames and sweet from the caramelization they are consumed in the thousands, dipped in a local Salbitxada sauce. These indelicate delicacies are then followed by roasted lamb or local sausages served with white beans and washed down with Vi Negra, red wine. As we wandered around the narrow streets of Gracia this weekend, our senses were massaged with wonderful mouth-watering scents accompanied with dancing, singing and the joyful chitter-chatter of well-fed and happy people.
These celebrations will last two or three weekends through the end of March and into early April then, like the onions they acclaim, will disappear for another year.
One of the joys of visiting Barcelona, indeed Europe as a whole, is the food. There is a different relationship to food than you get in most of North America, a different taste too. Here produce is local and seasonal in a way that is difficult to imagine outside the confines of the scattered farmers markets you find in my other home in Canada.
If you google Catalan farmer’s market the first few entries that you see are people named Catalan (mostly in Mexico and California) and a map of Barcelona with two or three markets highlighted. These markets aren’t strictly farmers markets in the North American sense, they are daily markets that are operated by the municipality. We have three within walking distance from our apartment. Our favourite, Llibertat, is a bustling series of local butchers, fish-mongers and green grocers all offering huge varieties of local produce, some year ‘round staples, but many seasonal ones too, that change depending on what time of year you visit. At the moment, along with the Calçots, there are half a dozen different types of tomatoes, most varieties I do not recognise, many will not be available in a month’s time. All taste divine, like I remember tomatoes tasting when I was a kid.
Growing up in the United Kingdom food was seasonal. The Salad Days of summer where that, literally. A fleeting time of ripe fruit, and fresh strawberries. Then, as summer blushed its way into autumn, the time of mists and mellow fruitfulness as Keats remarked, so the necessary produce for salads: lettuce; tomatoes; English cucumbers; steaming piles of buttered new potatoes, tiny and sweet, gave way to their troglodyte cousins. Soups and stews took over the familial sustenance duties; hearty food to keep out the oncoming damp and dark chill of winter.
Sometime over the last couple of decades produce became global in reach. Strawberries, no longer a brief joyful smile in summer, became a year ‘round commodity flown in from Mexico or (if you weren’t looking) China, and in doing so lost both cachet and flavour. Same with many other fruits and vegetables. The food became more uniform, larger and in many cases more bland.
Local farmers began to suffer too, as we switched from local shops to super-markets to hyper-markets to Whole Foods and Costco. Food prices have remained low, artificially low I suspect, having a devastating effect on farmers across the globe. This combined with a move by the fast-food restaurants to provide healthier foods which may, along with obvious health benefits, also have devastating effects on the varieties of produce that are being grown. Gary Yonge, the Guardian correspondent, was writing about the effect McDonald’s had on the Apple industry in the Pacific North-West as far back as 2005, where the pressurized switch from dozens of varietals to the two or three favoured by the restaurant chain was spreading fear across the industry.
We may be quick to forget, but the evidence of food scarcity, blights and disease are written into the very fabric of North American history through the effects of the Irish Potato famine in the 1840’s and the subsequent mass-migration to the US, visible in the green beer many of you will have just quaffed.
We all, through our consumer power, have the ability to purchase local seasonal produce. In Ontario we can celebrate the glorious Ontario summer fruits and winter vegetables. We can resist food that may have accumulated more air-miles than we could dream of in a year. We can support local farmers and local produce. We can cherish our food, and the people who work so hard to produce it. It’s better for the environment and mostly tastes better too. We all can crave that mid-December strawberry (I know I do), but we should consume it with our eyes wide open, or maybe, just maybe, try and wait until the real-thing arrives in our locality at the right time of year. Which I am pleased to say, it has, just, in Spain.