Petition for permaculture

Since 2005 Richard Wallner has been developing 9 hectares of land in Charente in the west of France, following the principles of permaculture. In keeping with this he would like to construct a home and other farm buildings on his land so that he doesn’t need to use energy to get to work. He is supported by local politicians, including Françoise Coutant, the Green vice-president of the Poitou-Charente regional council. But the mayor of Wallner’s commune refuses to grant planning permission.  If you support his efforts to create an organic farm, producing and selling ecologically friendly eggs and vegetables, you can sign a petition here.

If you understand French and have a few minutes to spare, there’s a lovely video of Richard Wallner explaining how he cultivates his land, the joy he feels in working with nature to do this and his aims to create an ecologically friendly farm in all senses: to use renewable energy and ecological building materials as well as organic methods of food production; and to create a model for others in rural communities to follow.

In a world that is rapidly running out of fuel and cannot feed large numbers of its people, this kind of local initiative and example seems to me to represent the only sustainable future.

Food security

One of the first things we hope for from our food is that it will make us healthy rather than ill.  Over the past couple of weeks some scary stories have been appearing in the press and other media which suggest that this is not always achieved.  First there were the Spanish cucumbers, falsely, as it turns out, accused of causing an E coli outbreak in Germany.  Spanish cucumbers….in Germany?  Isn’t that rather a long way for cucumbers to travel?  Well, yes it is, but it doesn’t surprise me at all since whenever I pass near the motorway that leads through the Languedoc from Spain to the rest of France and then northern Europe the lorries seem to be almost nose to tail as they speed towards the lucrative salad market of the northern supermarkets.

There are so many issues raised by this trade in vegetables: the damage done to the environment by transporting them, the use of scarce water resources in southern Spain to feed the northern hunger for ‘fresh’ food and the exploitation of low-paid migrant labour in the polytunnels of Andalucia, to name but three.

For the moment, I’ll stick to just one other important issue, that of taste.  How can a cucumber, a lettuce or a pepper taste good when it has been transported hundreds of kilometres?

Today there’s another E coli story: seven children in northern France have become ill after eating burgers bought in a supermarket.  The meat to make the burgers is said to have come from France, Germany and the Netherlands.  Three countries, in one burger?  It sounds as though this too is very well-travelled food.

A few years ago I  read an interesting book by Gillian Tindall, Céléstine, about life in the Berry region of central France 150 years ago. Tindall discovered from letters written at the time that people in the village of Chassignolles very rarely went to the nearest town, La Châtre which was only 7 km away. The only things they needed to buy there were needles for sewing. Everything else was produced in the village. This kind of self-sufficiency is almost impossible to imagine now.  But it’s still important, I think, to eat as locally as possible and Lo Jardinièr and I try to eat only food that comes from within 100 kilometres of where we live.  That’s not always possible – I have never been able to find a substitute for the Italian coffee to make the three cups of espresso per day that I need, or for the occasional piece of chocolate to accompany the coffee.

But what we try to do, and what I think we should all attempt to work towards, is to grow as much of our food as we can organically, and to buy what we can’t grow locally in small shops and markets rather than in supermarkets.  That way, we know where everything comes from, very little of it is processed so we know exactly what it contains, and none of the meat we buy is made in industrial plants which use ingredients from three different countries to make something that really doesn’t taste very good.  Local food is safe because everyone knows where it comes from and if it wasn’t safe or didn’t taste good people wouldn’t buy from that producer.

IMGP0573

The only chemical we use in the garden – a little Bordeaux mixture or copper sulphate, which is allowed in organic agriculture and protects against blight and other diseases in tomato plants and vines, among other plants.

IMGP0912-1

Our cucumbers are safe to eat and delicious – straight from the garden and onto the table.  Most of our vegetables come from plants grown from seed we’ve saved from last year’s plants, or from friends’ plants.  These cucumbers come from plants that have travelled a bit further – we buy the young plants in the village market from a stallholder who brings them from the next village 3 and a half kilometres away.

>A Catalan break

>

I seem to have become a ‘weekend blogger’ – I don’t usually leave a gap of nearly a week between posts, but I have couple of excuses: first, I’ve been unable to connect to the internet for more than 15 minutes at a time since last Sunday night, something which has been resolved today by the installation of a new ‘Livebox’. And secondly, I’ve been away, staying for a couple of days in Banyuls-sur-Mer in the French part of Catalunya.

Banyuls is famous for its vin doux, a naturally sweet wine produced thanks to the amount of strong sunshine in that area. Squeezed between the Pyrenees and the rocky Côte Vermeille coast, the vines are grown in terraces anywhere on the slopes where there is space to make it worthwhile working the ground.

DSC02982
The vines were only just beginning to sprout this season’s bright green leaves, but these pictures show how close to the sea and the mountains the vineyards are.
DSC02998

The terraces are walled with local stone, with drainage channels leading down between them, and are sometimes wide enough for only two rows of vines.

DSC03008 DSC03018
DSC03023 DSC03015

The three variations of Banyuls – red, white and ambré (with added caramelised sugar to give a golden colour) – are all delicious apéritifs and can also be used in cooking. The chef at the restaurant at the Hotel des Elmes where we stayed was expert at this – two of the wonderful dishes we tasted were scallops and Catalan blood sausage with a reduction of Banyuls, and escalope of foie gras with a chocolate and Banyuls sauce. There’s more information about Banyuls on this website.

On the way home we stopped near Millas at the Moulin du Mas St Pierre where Monique and Joseph Planes decided some years ago to change their fruit farm into an olive farm. They now have 30,000 olive trees all of the Arbequine (Arbequina as it’s called in Spain) variety grown closely in rows, rather like the fruit trees in neighbouring farms. These Arbequine olives, grown mostly in Catalunya and Spain, are very small and Monsieur Planes told us that this gives them one great advantage over other varieties: the olive fly does not attack them because there isn’t enough flesh around the stone for it to burrow into the olive. This means that they have been able achieve organic status for all their production as they don’t need to use chemicals on the trees. There is a very modern mill at the farm and huge tanks where the oil is stored at a constant temperature of 18 degrees C to preserve the flavour of the oil. As always when we visit the premises of a producer of good food or wine, it was a delight to talk to someone as impassioned about his products as Monsieur Planes and, of course, to buy some of his wonderful oil to bring home. His passion and hard work have been rewarded, too, with a gold medal this year at the Concours Général Agricole in Paris. Madame Planes travels around the world – as far as Shanghai recently – to food fairs, so that now their oil is sold in many countries and even, M. Planes told us proudly, in Harrods in London.

DSC03027 DSC03028

>Organic food / La nourriture biologique

>

An article on the Guardian website today continues the argument as to whether organic food is healthier. A new report by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has reviewed the research for the past 50 years and found that there is no evidence that organic food is more nutritious than non-organic food. Whether this is true or not is a subject of debate, but I think that anyway it misses the point. For me, the importance of organic food is not what is in it, but what is NOT in it – the chemicals that are added to food produced by non-organic agricultural methods. The FSA study does not seem to take into account the long-term health effects of these chemicals, or the effects of these toxins on the planet. As the Guardian article concludes, an EU study found that: levels of nutritionally undesirable compounds such as toxic chemicals, mycotoxins and metals such as cadmium and nickel, were lower in organic crops.

Un article sur le site Guardian continue le débat autour de la nourriture biologique. Un rapport nouveau de l’agence des normes de la nourriture britannique (FSA) dit qu’il n’y a pas des preuves que la nourriture biologique est plus nutritive que la nourriture de l’agriculture traditionnelle. Je pense que ce n’est pas le point essentiel. Pour moi, c’est les produits toxiques dans la nourriture de l’agriculture traditionelle qui font du mal à la santé et à la planète à long terme. Comme l’article conclue, une recherche de l’UE a trouvé qu’il y a des niveaux des produits chimiques inférieurs dans les récoltes biologique.

I think we should be sensible about this when choosing our food. I would prefer, ideally, to eat organic local food and I do when I can. But I think it is better for the planet to eat locally grown non-organic food than to transport organic food long distances.

Je pense qu’il faut être raisonnable. Je préfère manger la nourriture biologique et locale, mais c’est mieux manger la nourriture locale et non-bio que transporter la nourriture autour du monde.

Of course, the best vegetables are those you grow in your own garden or those which are locally grown like the fruit which producers sell at the roadside near here or these wonderful basketfuls of produce we saw in Sant Feliu de Guixols market on our recent trip to Catalunya:

DSC07162 DSC07163

Shading the sorrel / Donner l’ombre à l’oseille

Our sorrel plants were looking a bit dry in the hot weather, so Lo Jardinièr had a good (and free) idea to shade them. Our local shop leaves vegetable crates outside for anyone who wants them to take them away, so he picked up two and used them to cover the sorrel plants. Just enough light gets in through the slats and the plants are now looking green and healthy again.

DSC07709
On a donné un peu d’ombre aux plants d’oseille avec des cageots de l’épicierie.
DSC07710