Sunday, January 24, 2016

Baking Back in Time

I've been spending a lot of time with flour lately. Between a bread-baking class, a sourdough starter standoff, and the Victorian Bakers on BBC, you might be surprised to hear I haven't yet developed a gluten intolerance. Something about making bread by hand is very satisfying, but also makes you realize just how much modern technology changed our relation to bread.
Episode one of Victorian Bakers saw the four professional boulangiers in a country village bakery, using primarily wild yeast, hand kneading, and long proofing times. Funnily, this labour and time intensive process is back en vogue with artisan bakeries. The overnight or multi-day ferments are highly prized (and the flavour is usually worth it), as is the rustic and slightly whole grainy appearance. I've come to enjoy this process immensely - the planning, the perfecting of hydration levels, the stretching and folding of the dough.
But by episode two, we had moved to an urban setting ... And witnessed the growing pains in the baking professions from rapid industrialization. This was the age of 'dough conditioners' and additives. Chalk to whiten the loaves as pearly pain became a sign of social standing. Bulking agents of questionable health safety helped to cut costs. And of course copious amounts of ash from coal fires and sweat from backbreaking kneading. Bread was a staple bordering on inedible. Yet, the cost cutters and substitutions are still prevalent among commercial bread manufacture. Somehow we don't seem to recoil from Wonder-bread or the typical hotdog bun.
Finally, lets talk flour and sugar. Apparently, the grains grown in the UK tend to be lower in gluten than the hard winter wheats of North America. So towards the end of the 19th century when imported flour was introduced in a big way, bakers all of a sudden had an easier time of making consistent and desirable loaves. While I get really excited about the prospect of using interesting heritage varieties of wheat (or even rye), I'll also readily admit that more glutinous flours are considerably easier to work with. The other interesting ingredient development, which surfaced in the final episode, was the expansion of sweet treats in the baking world. This came about as the British colonies allowed for a ready supply of sugar, lowering the cost and making cakes and tarts more widely accessible. For better or worse, this mainstreaming of cake breaks (along with tea, of course) is still a fixture to this day. 

Besides an entertaining hybrid of a history documentary and reality tv cooking show, Victorian Bakers proved thought-provoking an reflective on the evolution of our daily bread to this day.
And that's some good-tasty food for thought! 


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Pulse of the Planet: Vital Signs for Food & Agriculture

Road-side PulseIt's a good thing I didn't make any New Years resolution about blogging more frequently; I'm afraid I would have already broken it! So let's start the new year with setting the food stage a bit, shall we?

Time to get excited, kids, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has announced what 2016 is the international year of pulses! Yes, I know it will be massively difficult to beat 2015's International Year of Soils, so foundational, with such a deep profile. (If you're laughing a bit, please continue) But, pulses are an extremely important and yet under appreciated group of crops.

Now when we say pulse, we're not talking about that manifestation of your heartbeat when a doctor checks vital signs. Though, i would probably argue that their health, vigour, and abundance are vital signs of the well being of food and agricultural systems. Agronomically, pulses are annual legumes... That's beans and lentils if we get right down to it. As you might imagine these lil' guys are important, both for feeding the masses and for maintaining healthy agroecosystems. 

Let's start with people. Beans, peas, and other lentils are staple sources of calories and protein in many developing countries. While pulses comprise only about 3% of total calories consumed in developing nations, there is a wide range and they can actually make up close to 50% of protein intake (e.g. Burindi). Because they are cheap and high in protein, percentage of total calories will be much higher among the poor in these countries. And if you take largely vegetarian societies, like those in India, pulses feature prominently in nearly every dish - from lentil daal and lentil-battered pakora to chickpea curries. Plus, let's be honest, pulses are pretty culturally iconic - baked beans? rice and beans? hummus and falafel?

But it's not just about people; pulses are crucial for the health of the planet. For one, as legumes, they have symbiotic bacteria in their roots that fix nitrogen from the air (rather than relying on humans to do that synthetically...). They are often used to improve soil fertility, planted as cover crops and green manures, and help the bioavailability of other soil nutrients while improving water infiltration. What's more, some pulses (e.g. pigeon peas) grow well where few other crops tolerate - in depleted soils and semi-arid climates. Leguminous crop residues help complete a closed looped farming system, providing idea fodder for animals.

If you look at traditional and indigenous American gardens, you can also get a sense of how well certain pulses integrate into an agroecological system. The three sisters form a multi-story farming system, with squashes at the ground level as a totally killer weed suppressor, maize growing high above, and beans fertilizing the soil and climbing up the golden stalks.

If you happened to have developed a hankering for some pulsey dishes over the course of this blog post, you're in luck. They're a vegan's best friend, so I've got a few for you to give a try.
- Curry Me Pumpkin
- A Practical Pulse
- Rocket Hummus
- Roasted Corn Farrotto
- Frijoles Refritos
- Beanie Butter Blondie

Top photo credit: Meena Kadri

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Another Decade another Degree

#IceWatchParis at COP 21
For over half a decade, I've recapped a year of blogging (and a year of living) on New Year's Eve. This annual exercise churns up the wealth of activity that takes place over 365 days, despite the alarming rate at which time seems to speed past. A year for the environment, 2015 paid homage to two topics close to my heart - soils and climate (and as always, food and agriculture). But it was also a year of transitions, putting to bed current pursuits and preparing for those to come. 

Let's start at the ground level, with soil. I rung in the International Year of Soil waxing on how it's all about the soil, replete with music video, infographic, and idyllic photo of sheep farming. Exactly eleven months later we came full circle with 'Not Just Dirt' (and of course complementary idyllic photo of a meadow). Sandwiched between these two, I had a bit of a baking adventure that resulted in musings on mud pies and a trip to the Great British Bake-Off Extra Slice.

I did do my fair share of baking over the year, with increasing frequency as a looming masters dissertation deadline and demands from a few jobs resulted in relatively high levels of stress, and associated 'productive procrastination'. This meant bread baking became a staple occurrence, and a newly cultivated sourdough starter yielded some make-shift banana bread during a week Living Below the Line! However, fewer than the usual number of baking exploits made it onto the blog this year, with Instagram providing a quicker option and instant gratification.

This is what happens when you graduate from Hogwarts...
Moving out of the kitchen... after two years in Oxford I managed to venture beyond the core of the city to neighbourhoods with real people and real challenges (and sometimes no kitchen). But travel seemed to occupy a central place in my mind. Early ruminations on the plight of a wanderlustful farmer turned to thinking about traveling outside one's comfort zone while whiling away the hours in a French train station. I couldn't get enough of trains, and so took one across the US (yay vast cornfields!) and then walked the Highlands in a pair of Chacos (yay vast heathland!) before snagging a train from Edinburgh to London. 

But friends, my time in this land of sheep and afternoon tea is coming to an end. They say your last year in a decade is one for big decisions. Well kids, I commenced my thirtieth year of life this July, so we're mixing things up again. At the end of next month, I'm heading off to (hopefully) catch the aurora borealis and maybe do a bit of glacial walking. Then it's time for transcontinental rail trip number two for some fond farewells, and a bit of adventuring in Asia. All this leads up to shackling myself into another 3-4 years of academia by starting a PhD in Australia! Because sticking to a straight path would get ever so boring, right?

Past Recaps:

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Not Just Dirt

"Soil is not just dirt" - words to live by - was one of the opening statements during Craig Sams' (founder of Green & Blacks chocolate) presentation at Food Matters Live a few weeks back. Where I had expected insight into growing a chocolate company, I instead was being treated to a lesson in soil science. And soil carbon sequestration was on the menu.

Considering we are drawing the International Year of Soils to a close (with yesterday celebrating the third World Soil Day) and in the midst of the UN climate negotiations in Paris, this seems like a pretty timely topic. Sams began by referring to the Dust Bowl as a period of major soil loss in American history, largely due to intensive cultivation and over-grazing by prairie homesteaders. Even at that time the importance of cultivating soil health was recognized, and the devastation of the 1930's spurred the beginnings of the soil conservation movement. Yet, humans have short-lived memories and quickly found uses for the nitrogen fixation technique developed for World War II explosives - synthetic fertilizers. While not inherently harmfull, the reliance solely on external inputs most often replaces ecological methods like adding compost rather than complementing them (like only taking vitamins and not eating fruits and veggies...).

What's in the soil that's so important? Complex soil ecosystems are colourful places; there are symbioses between roots and funghi - Mycorrhizae - that extend a plant's reach to mine the soil for nutrients. Micro-organisms serve as natural pesticides and antibiotics. Organic matter and critters like worms and ants create structure in the soil for water and air pockets. But much of this disappears under heavy chemical use and practices that compact the soil, including the ability to sequester carbon (yes, soil mitigates climate change).

I remember a few years back, sitting in a room with a bunch of soil scientists, hearing for the first time about peak soil (not to be confused with peak oil). This was a disturbing concept, because our very ability to feed a planet full of people rests on this vital resource (and has done so for 10 milennia). And we're squandering it. Yes, this week and next the environmental world may have its eyes affixed to Paris and the climate negotiations taking place there. But climate change is just an added layer to environmental challenges we've known about and struggled with for ages. As Emmanuel Faber, CEO of Danone, reminded us during the Global Landscapes Forum plenary, soil is the basis of food and carbon is a nice integrated measure to assess how well we're doing in that space. 

So enough of my soabox musings. Soil, though obviously important than coco, is bigger than the chocolate that started this post. 

Related Posts:
It's All About That Soil
Can Biodiversity and Development Ever Get Along? 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Power of the Kitchen

This is the third Thanksgiving in a row (and the fifth in total) I've spent outside the US (and won't be the last). It's by far and away my favourite American holiday, but not because of what it historically represents (as John Oliver reminded us) or the endless Black Friday sales fueling our consumer habits. But rather because it is a perfect opportunity for reflection and taking stock of the good fortunes in one's life. But it's also a really conducive time for social critiques - like on income disparities in That Slice of Pie last year or the refugee and terrorism hysteria plaguing the media now. This year, I've been spending some time in communities experiencing food poverty, and have only fully begun to realize the power of having a kitchen.

Oxford is a strange place, though not unique in this respect. Amidst the elevated intellect and apparent wealth, there is considerable poverty and even homelessness. Where Oxford University colleges host lavish formal dinners, there are people on the fringes of the city who struggle to access food at all. In fact, it's estimated that nearly one quarter of children in Oxford live below the poverty line! But, what surprised me in chatting with people at food surplus distribution points (e.g. food banks) is that obtaining basic ingredients is not always the problem, rather a place to store and cook it is. Fuel costs - electric, gas, or even coal/wood on boats - or lack of facilities are major issues.

So now we come to appreciation of kitchens. Thanksgiving was just two days ago, and on that holiday food happens to be a cental fixture, a force that draws families together. And while a solid 10% of Americans will go for something other than a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner, gathering in the kitchen is still an important piece of the pie for many of us. In my observations, the kitchen is where the best socializing happens, where people flock to during parties and get-togethers despite more open space elsewhere. It just goes to show the power of a kitchen, and how it can also be an agent not just for eating fresh and healthy foods but also building community and social cohesion.

One of the men I spoke with during this project couldn't afford fuel to cook or a friedge to store perishables, or even food at times. And yet, his eyes lit up at the prospect of using a communal kitchen to prepare meals for anyone who needed. Generosity in the kitchen, from someone who has so little, is very telling. Sharing food fulfills a hunger that eating along won't ever satiate. I probably take a home-cooked meal for granted, and perhaps don't fully grasp the great fortune of having shared meals among friends on a regular basis. It is especially important to remember on days like Thanksgiving that this is not the case for everyone, and the absence of a kitchen has more resounding consequences than merely the loss of hot food.

There's some food for thought. Now go appreciate your kitchen and make some pumpkin pie!