We went a bit off topic after the point where I left off, so, getting back to things…
Olivier: We can’t get to everything in one day, you should come back this summer, to see the mill and the other things we have going on here.
Me: You use a stone mill?
Olivier: Yep, stone mill, it’s about five kilometers from here, at my friend’s place. I use that, I can’t do everything here by myself so I’ve got Raphael (his neighbor) and his mother and father who help with things.
Me: Do you make bread too?
Olivier: Not really but I can. We’ve got flour here after all! I’ll give you some before you go, I can give you a bag of durum flour.
Me: Really! I’d love that. (Note: I was sent away with three kilos plus two bags of the pasta the intern was weighing out. The flour’s already been made into dough, slow-proofing in the fridge right now to be baked this afternoon. Report to come.)
When we left off, Olivier and I had started talking about multinationals’ hold on the free exchange and cultivation of seeds.
Olivier: I’m possibly going to have an opportunity to go to Iran. Apparently there’s a phenomenal museum there with a rich amount of information on the history of agriculture. We’ve got to discover those things.
Me: I was in Armenia this past August, and apparently there are fields of wild wheat somewhere —
Olivier: Oh right, Aegilops? It was Aegilops?
Me: I think that’s right. There was a conservation program during the Soviet era, and with the end the program was left to one side with all that happened after the fall. But it seems from what we found that these fields are still somewhere between Yerevan and Ararat. We went out looking for them, a bit blindly, and didn’t find anything. But that’s the story as we understand it, that the fields are out there practically on the side of the highway.
Olivier: Aegilops, it was most likely that. You know it’s the same thing with apple trees. The apple trees in Azerbaijan, there’s a fantastic genetic reserve, I’ve heard it’s really something.
Me: So the seeds you use here? You’ve got to start by getting them from somewhere established…
Olivier: National conservatories. Now they’re doing something else, with the seed banks. It first happened in the US, more of this bullshit. The big businesses, they go pick up seeds that are accessible for the public at large — it’s a common good. The corporations take the seeds and make a genetic profile of them, they file a patent, and then nobody else can use them without paying. Patenting a form of life.
Me: How do they justify that? They don’t change anything in the genetic makeup.
Olivier: They influence the state, they have lobbying power. They’re more powerful than the state.
Me: But wait — if I’m understanding correctly, they take seeds to do tests and make a genetic profile, and with that they say —
Olivier: That they own it.
Me: That’s insane! It’s like they take me and —
Olivier: Exactly, they take you, they do your genetic profile, and they say, “We own her. She doesn’t own herself, we own her.” It’s unbelievable. If you had told me this sort of thing five or six years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that such idiocy could be happening. It’s an instance of a fiction becoming real. But with these sorts of things, we can’t be afraid. We have to work together, pool our resources. Above all to not be alone. With us farmers, we’re there, we’re outdoors working, and the more we work together the more autonomous we become.
Me, personally, I’m looking for autonomy. I can’t quite do it yet because I have to work. In the current financial system, we’re obliged to do so. But we can still do things. I’ve got two hands and a head. And land, and forests, good land. That’s capital. And I’ve got seeds, and food, everything. I have an enormous potential. A richness in diversity. That’s what we don’t realize. It’s not necessary to have 10,000 square meters, but with an area of 5,000 or 10,000 square meters you can do big things. There are a lot of openings. It works if you’ve got two hands and a lot of motivation, and a vision of life and a future that’s open.
We must reappropriate knowledge, because we’re going to need it in the future. We think we’re all big and strong now, we think we’ve mastered everything. The reality is that civilization has never been so vulnerable. You don’t know how to make your clothes, feed yourself.
Last week I spent an afternoon hanging out with Olivier, a farmer who grows ancient varieties of wheat and other grains, some of them existing since the time of the Gauls, in a little village outside Romont, Switzerland. I took the train out, he picked me up at the station, and we rode out to his farm to discuss wheat, bread, seeds and agrobusiness.
Olivier: So here we have a ton of pasta. I prepare packages of 400 grams. The pasta’s made by a friend of mine who does organic cultivation next door, and uses my flour for the pasta. I don’t have a mill at the farm, but he has a big machine that he bought for making pasta, and a mill, we can go see it, it’s part of the process.
(a huge racket made by pouring out the dried pasta into a big plastic bowl for measuring) And there you go, this is great. We have a finished product, and there’s no middleman, nobody between us and the consumer.
(speaking to the farm intern who sat with us at the kitchen table filling up bags of pasta while we talked) So you put the bag there on the scale, take the scoop and measure out 400 grams into each bag and staple it shut, okay?
Student: Okay, great!
Olivier (to me): Anyway so I was saying there, there are 200 varieties of ancient wheat. We grow various kinds, and with them we arrive at a mixture of these different varieties to have a genetic potential that’s diversified. Mixtures are going to be more balanced because there are different sorts of wheat, each of which is going to contribute something. So it’s a question of letting nature do its thing. I don’t select, I don’t go looking for the stalks of wheat that I like —
Me: So wait, you don’t keep specific seeds from the year before — ?
Olivier: Exactly, I keep everything, all of it, seeds from the planting across the board. I’m not looking to make a particular selection myself. Let nature do the work.
Me: Letting it evolve on its own.
Olivier: Exactly. Of course, back in the day people chose seeds from certain stalks of wheat to keep, and that gave us the now established varieties. So now, I let it go on its own. The natural conditions are imposed — by the soil, by the environment, which is going to create a space that reinforces the conditions for growing, and for us. We live in this space, so we eat what grows in the region, which corresponds to our conditions of life. It’s a logic, a natural logic. That’s why I don’t intervene.
(taking one of the bags of pasta the intern was filling) That’s a good bundle, 400 grams. Pass me the stapler please? Voilà, finished.
Me: And you sell this in shops?
Olivier: Not at all. Not interested in being controlled. The best way to kill agriculture is with the law, specifically laws on hygiene. European laws are dismantling everything how it once was. (holding up the bag) You see, no labels, but there’s no need, this’ll keep for a year.
Me: You started talking a bit before about the story of how you got into doing all this …
Olivier: Right. And like I said, you need to know the story of where you came from in order to know where you’re going. The roots.
Tuesday evening Natalia Borissova gave a mushroom cultivation workshop in the back of the garden in a pre-cleared bed under the shade of the trees. It was my first encounter with mushroom growing and it seems to be a lot easier than you’d think, and can even be done indoors or on a balcony. Natalia in fact is used to growing them in containers or balconies, and the workshop was part experiment for her to see how her methods of cultivation would work outdoors in the garden. Different mushroom species don’t like competing with each other, and so she was interested to see how they’d manage in side by side beds. Would this spark a war or will we be eating mushroom risotto in a few months? Time will tell.
Another object of the experiment was to see how the mushrooms would do living more or less in a natural environment. Most commercial mushrooms are grown in sterilized laboratory settings because we humans are obsessed with sterility and cleanliness, and also because bacterial growth can kill the mushrooms and thus the profits of the people growing them. Since we’re interested in experiment and not profit, Natalia wanted to see how mushroom spawn would grow if given more space and freedom to roam.
I read the above essay this morning and decided to post it here because it’s a question that fairly regularly comes up in my life, the degree to which we make efforts to avoid wasteful or toxic products, and by extension how “green” (whatever that means) we are. I’m one who believes that individual actions and desires are a big part of the web of reasons why we’re on the road to who knows what climatically. (By the way, I’m reading World Made by Hand right now and it is not helping my general level of optimism that the world will avoid such a scenario.) That said, the fact that you (the plural you) don’t compost, or even recycle, is not going to in itself cause global climatic catastrophe, though yes, the amalgamation of our actions does carry a massive amount of weight, toward the continued production of throw-away consumer goods, the destruction of ecosystems in order to meet the public’s demand for a certain way of life, combined emissions from cars, etc. But the bad guy is not just us, or even the guy who tosses beer cans out his car window and into a sanctuary for piping plovers, and so I believe it to be counterproductive to make environmental consciousness into a pissing contest to see who’s doing the most to save Earth.
I know a girl who’s vegan (well, I know several, but I’m talking about one in particular). This in itself doesn’t bother me at all because it’s her personal choice, she can eat or not eat what she wants. I don’t eat meat (for a variety of reasons) but I do eat dairy and eggs; however, I fully understand why someone would not want to. The thing I don’t understand is the angry judgement that some people project onto others who do not make the same choices. This person is someone who will crinkle her nose and look away when someone next to her is eating a chicken stir-fry, and should you inquire as to what she’s eating for lunch, she says “TOFU” and honest to god you can see her muscles tensing up as though preparing for a fight. Calm down. I witnessed this exact scene, and then the following day also witnessed her unloading a sack of groceries to start cutting up an avocado and mango salad. I can say with the utmost certainty that the mangoes and avocados we get around here come from South America.
So who’s living in gray zones of good and bad? I can’t say, but what I can say is that I have never once witnessed someone respond positively to a personal attack on his or her lifestyle. Maybe you have — if so, please do tell because the person behind the attack might have discovered the magic approach to forcibly changing another’s subjectivity. But I really don’t think that it’s helpful to our world’s problems at large if we the people argue among ourselves about the details of our daily lives. It creates rifts where we should be creating links.
Alvaro’s and my roommate is decidedly less interested and concerned about the sorts of things we talk about all the time, and the roommate and I were talking the other day about friendships that cross political lines. He’s right-leaning, loves buying stuff, takes airplanes all the time, and maybe one in three times does his plastic, metal and paper actually make it into the recycling bin instead of the garbage pail. This makes for occasionally interesting (read: heated) dinner talk. But he said to me when we were discussing our differences that he appreciates that I’m not like him and also that I don’t lecture him for the things he does, and that we can be friends despite it all. I agree, it’s nice to be friends — though he said that he feels we need people all along the scale of politics and beliefs and actions, the real bad guys included, because it makes the world more diverse and interesting. That’s where I don’t agree — I would really love it if everyone in the world lived lightly on the planet, and I want the bad guys to disappear. But in no way do I believe that we’re going to get there by strong-arming people to change.
How then? I am not for erasing guilt, for being like him and saying that we need all sorts of people living all along the spectrum of personal action (environmentally speaking), and that I should not feel bad about getting on an airplane every so often because I do this that or the other so it all equals out.
Corporations depend on our rationalizations: it absolves them of doing anything wrong and it creates guilt-free consumers. That’s why they run all the ads that tell us, “What, you worry?” Falling back on wasteful or toxic products not only has its perverse pleasures, but it can seem “natural,” especially if those products are featured in ads with wild animals and awe-inspiring landscapes.
My personal guilt over some of my choices makes me think critically about what I’m doing, and not having any guilt over how I live could very quickly lead to not caring about anything, planet and people included. My guilt forces me look for alternatives and test my comfort level for new ways of living, and I want that.
The question that follows is to get beyond the “me,” those mantras of “first change yourself” and “small actions lead to big changes” and to figure out what comes next….
In other news, Plantopic has invited an artist who yesterday evening did a workshop on mushroom cultivation. I’ve got loads of pictures and diagrams and explanations coming, but that’ll be for next time because right now I’m heading out to the countryside to see a guy about some wheat.
My friends, I have reached a milestone. I have made jam, and canned it.
We’ve just started getting semi local strawberries here — they’re from farther south in France, so it entailed a little bit of transportation to get them to us in the Rhône-Alps region, but they are very definitely real strawberries that smell and taste as such, not watery and flavorless like the ones you get when “strawberry season” hits the big chain grocery stores in late February. I will never understand why people buy strawberries so far out of season. There is no pleasure in a winter strawberry.
If I had to pick one food to survive off of for the rest of my life, putting aside questions of whether or not that food contains all the essential nutrients, I would pick strawberries, no debate on that. And because I will not buy out of season strawberries, I am only able to enjoy my favorite food ever for one short window of time throughout the course of the year, and so of course I take full advantage of their presence, i.e., I gorge myself on them — straight up raw, mixed with yogurt, paired with scones and whipped cream, whatever. We bought two kilos at the farmer’s market on Saturday morning and they were all gone by Sunday night. (I had help. Some.)
I also picked up some rhubarb at the market, but an off quantity of it, not really enough to make crumble, which is the only dish I know to do with rhubarb. The only other thing I know that involves rhubarb is strawberry-rhubarb jam, which my grandmother used to make and which I ate directly out of the jar with a spoon when I visited her place as a kid. She was a child during the Great Depression, and my mother has a theory that Grandma’s food preserving and hoarding of everything from plastic bags to bulk dry goods is a direct psychological response to that experience of deprivation. At my grandparents’ old house, the one my mother grew up in, they had four refrigerators, one large industrial freezer, and an entire basement room lined floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with canned everything. My cousins and I used to go in there and play a game called Who Can Find the Oldest Preserves. If I remember right, the winner was Apricot Jam, July 1972.
So my grandmother was a thrifty woman, but the canning thing didn’t get passed on through my mother to me. Mom has never canned anything to my knowledge, and in general seems kind of wary of the practice — botulism and whatnot. Because of this I’ve always had a fascination with people who can, imagining them to have some sort of wizard-like capacities to be able to toe the line of bacterial food poisoning without falling on the wrong side. I also assumed a laboratory full of fancy equipment was needed, and that plus the botulism thing had scared me off trying it, until now.
Alvaro’s mom came for a visit last month, and one day putzing around the apartment she decided to sterilize a half dozen of the old glass jars she found at the back of one of the cupboards and put up a batch of tomato sauce. I met up with her and Alvaro that evening for a St. Patrick’s Day beer and when we got home I discovered her afternoon project cooling on the counter top. Needless to say I was astounded. I’m always kind of astounded by her. If you merged the homesteading powers of Alvaro’s mom and my mom, it would create an unstoppable Force of Mom that would no doubt rock the very foundations upon which our culture stands. I asked her how she had managed to do all of that canning without anything in the way of fancy equipment, and she clucked at my naivety and explained putting up produce in a way that suggested it was really not all that magical.
Since her visit I’ve had nothing in the kitchen crying out to be canned, until a couple of days ago when the strawberries plus rhubarb put me in a nostalgic state for my grandmother’s jam. I decided to just go for it. That’s what you need to do sometimes. I sat down and read everything about canning in my Joy of Cooking, and read up on boiling water canning on Food in Jars. This was also supplemented by what Marisa (Alvaro’s mom) told me, namely that per her instructions I reused old jars that had once held corn and peanut butter (not together). JoC says to always use new lids, but Marisa didn’t see this as being particularly vital, and since no one in her family has come down with canned tomato sauce-induced food poisoning I decided to take her word for it. Besides, food preservation using this method has been going on for generations, and I would hazard a guess that not everyone had access to brand new canning lids and so they would just reuse the old ones. (I’m not a professional so don’t take my word on this.)
Thus I began. First with two cups of chopped rhubarb and two cups of sugar, mixed together and left in the fridge overnight.
The next day, with the rhubarb good and soaked in the sugar, I brought it all to boil in a wide pan and then added a quart of washed, hulled, and halved strawberries.
I stirred it constantly while it simmered for fifteen minutes, until it had thickened up and the mass of foamy, liquid bubbles had subsided into a mass of tiny, gooey ones. Then I transferred it to a glass Tupperware, loosely covered, and put it in the fridge overnight again to plump up.
This morning I took it out and began heating it back up to a boil:
In the meantime, I washed several old glass jars in scalding hot, soapy water, rinsed them, and set them in a soup pot filled with rapidly boiling water for fifteen minutes. I used a metal spaghetti strainer to lower them into the water, and once the sterilization time was up I pulled out the jars one by one, filled them with the hot jam, leaving about a quarter inch of space at the top, and screwed on the lids. Then, full, they went back into another boiling water bath. I took them out after ten minutes, and as they cooled off a vacuum was created that sucked all the air from the jars and sealed the lids.
And there you have it, three jars of my strawberry-rhubarb bounty preserved for future toast. I can’t quite believe that this actually worked, but it seems to have done just that — the lids are on tight and don’t pop up when you press in the center so they are apparently good to get stored away in the pantry. It was a fair amount of work for three jars, but it was a fun sort of work that carried with it no small amount of joy in learning something new. I feel rather accomplished. And while the jam jars were boiling I mixed up a leaven (prepared last night) with flour, water, and salt, and right now it’s hanging out in the kitchen for its bulk rise before baking later today. Tomorrow’s breakfast is going to be the best in history.
(Note: If you’ve never done this and are interested in trying it, please do your research before leaping in full throttle. What I’ve shown here was the general process, not a detailed recipe, and there’s a lot of important information, precautions and terminology to get down first if you don’t know what you’re doing. Food in Jars is a great reference, as is the canning chapter in the Joy of Cooking.)
Rural Studio Turns 20 (The Bitter Southerner)
“At schools of architecture, very often I wonder why people aren’t more interested in housing,” Freear says. “And housing as a kind of an aggregation. Because it is a challenge, and it’s also difficult. And I think schools of architecture don’t do it because it’s not that sexy. It’s not going to attract students. Tell them we’re going to design a museum and maybe they’ll want to come do it.”
Freear pauses, leaning back in his chair to look at pictures of 20K Houses that cover the walls of his office.
“I’ll go to my grave believing it’s relevant,” he says after a moment.
DIY Homes: Build Your Own Community (Telegraph)
How Robots Can Change Architecture (the next step toward world domination…)
“Significance of the ‘Self-Build’ Movement,” first published in FREEDOM May 17, 1952. Republished in Why Work? Arguments for the Leisure Society. Vernon Richards, editor. London: Aldgate Press, 1983, pp. 125-126.
We have discussed several times in FREEDOM the growing movement for “self-building” houses.
In a broadcast talk on “Building One’s Own House,” last month, Mr. Fello Atkinson, the architect, said:
“It is a sign of the fearful complication of our times that building one’s own house should seem a new idea. What else did our remote ancestors do? And, of course, all primitive and pioneer communities build this way. Grandma Moses, that astonishing ninety-four-year-old American lady who has achieved such fame as a folk painter in the last few years, records in her memoirs how, in her young days, the men of New England wanting to set up home were given land and an axe and set about making their own log cabins. I am certain there are many places where the same thing still happens. The idea is certainly not new but only unusual in modern, highly industrialised communities where each of us, except possibly farmers and sailors, tends to specialise in ever-narrowing fields to the exclusion and even ignorance of all others. The responsibility for housing has now largely passed to government, and there exists a complicated and rigid pattern of planning and building permits, regulations and standards, financing and subsidies.
“But, in spite of this, groups of men are building their own houses in this country to-day; they have been doing so for some time, and they are building them successfully within this complex mechanism. And these ‘self-build groups’, as they are called, are growing in number.”
He went on to describe the activities of groups affiliated to the National Federation of Housing Societies.
This called forth (and it is an indication of the spread of “self-building”), a letter in the Listener from the secretary of a group, who wanted to draw attention to the 194 “self-build” groups affiliated to the London and National Self-Build Housing Association, Birmingham, and to “the difficulties and heartbreak of other groups, already fully trained, with considerable financial resources, who have been ready to build for eighteen months, and who lack one thing only — the cooperation of their local authorities to grant the necessary permission for them to go ahead and build.”
The writer has also paid tribute to the founders of the associations, who “without any prompting, and for no personal gain, have come forward and shown us, for the first time in our lives, how to help ourselves.”
For the first time in our lives, how to help ourselves. This is why we believe the “self-building” movement to be so valuable and important.
For non-French speaking readers, this is what he says:
The opening that I leave in the top of the bread, which we’ll turn over and which will become the underside when it’s in the oven, is what we call la clé* in bread baking.
Just now we were saying that for the leaven I use fresh flour, because I’m looking for a very high energy level. But actually for the bread I like to work with flour that has a bit of age, one or two months, six months or even a year, that doesn’t bother me at all. That’s what I like taste wise. But with the leaven we’re working with energy, and there’s something there that’s very, very energetic, like a kid who’s four, five, six years old, seven or eight years old. Meaning it’s overflowing with energy but it’s not at all controlled. We say, “Don’t do that,” and we turn around, and he goes and does exactly what we just said not to do. And well, flour, like kids, it’s like that. It’s what commands the bakery, it’s the boss in a way. With a flour that’s already a month or two old, we can start being able to work together with it. Like someone who’s forty years old, say.
(after the other guy covers up the loaves with the canvas, which reminds me, I seriously need to get some canvas for my baking): So now we’re going to leave the trays on the shelf, and the bread will rise until 11:30 or 11:45, we’ll see. I’ll check it in a bit, see how it is.
So working, you know, bread baking, our way, it’s a bit like tightrope walking. We’re tightrope walking bakers. We work with dough that is very, very soft, which means it doesn’t have a whole lot of hold. So it’s necessary that we use certain moves, that we concentrate the dough, that we handle it. And then working with it, since it’s so cumbersome, we don’t have a lot of leeway, maybe a space of twenty minutes when the bread is good to go in the oven, so the oven has to be at just the right temperature. So we’re juggling a bit, you could say. It’s fairly stressful. (checks the temperature of the bread) Okay it’s good.
(walks over to the other guy) Okay lower it to 29. So we’ll light the fire at 9:30.
Right, so the next stage will be lighting the oven. We’re going from fire to water, and then earth. Let’s go over to the oven.
(lights the fire) And there you go. One part of the four elements.
* clé literally means “key” — I wasn’t able to verify that we call it a “key” in English, but like he said it’s the spot where the dough is brought together when folding and forming the loaf
Did my Trade School class! I was pretty nervous the night before, didn’t sleep particularly well, and woke up at one point, around 1 a.m., to realize that I hadn’t mixed the sponge, so I shot out of bed and into the kitchen to mix up a bit of starter with flour and water before going back to bed and continuing to lie awake thinking and rethinking about how to organize the class. Since the process I use to make bread takes place over the course of a couple of days, I wouldn’t be able to do one loaf from start to finish in my two-hour time slot. So I prepared the various steps in advance to be able to at least show what the steps look and feel like.
As it turned out I had no real reason to be nervous. It went fine. The attendees were great, the bread came out pretty decent despite the weird oven and my apparently kaput cooking thermometer, and everyone left happily with a little bit of my starter, which I packaged up in a bunch of glass jars I had saved up at home. I didn’t keep close track of time but I managed to pretty much use the whole two hours — something I was worried about, that I would run out of things to say. At one point after mixing the sponge and the rest of flour and water for the dough, we had to wait about a half an hour for it to rest before adding the salt. I paused for a second and my mind raced through what we could do or talk about during that half hour, and finally I said, “Well, if you’d like I can talk a bit about how big agrobusiness has affected wheat cultivation and processing…” Everyone laughed and one woman shouted out “Ye-ah!” so I launched into my rant. The high point for me in all of it was when I mentioned that I’d run across a local collective of people, about twenty in the group, who have organized themselves to make sourdough bread. Once a month two people in the group pair up to make enough bread for everyone else in the group, which means that each person only has to bake once a month but gets fresh bread throughout the entire month. When I said this there was a glimmer in the eyes of a few of the people in the class who live in the same village, and one of them suggested to the others that they start the same sort of thing where they live. (No bakery in the village, she said. Horrors!) I really hope they get that started, and I asked that they keep me posted if they do.
Some photos from the class:
The dough I prepared in advance. I tried out something new with this one. When I prepared the leaven the Friday night before the class on Sunday, I also mixed together all the flour and water for the dough in a separate bowl, and left that to soak overnight. The next morning I mixed in the leaven and left the dough to ferment in the fridge for 24 hours. A girl in the Guattari workshop Mas and I organized last month, an avid baker, shared this tip that soaking whole grain flour prior to baking with it softens the grain, which makes it more digestible and also causes the bread itself to be fluffier, not dense like whole grain bread so often is. I’d been meaning to experiment with the idea, and after reading about it again recently in some information I found about whole grain baking, I was reminded that I hadn’t yet tried it out. I decided to give it a shot for the class — risking possible failure of course, but such is life when you’re learning something new.
The barter items they brought. To date: the chocolate is eaten, the music is listened to, and the mud mask is magnificent.
Mixing the leaven
Talking about wheat seed anatomy
Removing the bread from the pan. Some weird crust action there…
Breaking bread. The flour soaking thing is definitely going to be part of my process from now on — I’d never before had this kind of result using all whole grain flour and was really shocked at the difference you get when you soak the flour. The interior was fluffy like a muffin. The ten of us polished off one of the loaves at the end of class, and I cut up the rest and sent a chunk home with everyone. As for the starter I portioned out, I’ve already gotten feedback that it’s alive and well in its new homes.
A random salad of subjects, but I can’t stand having 800 tabs open all at once on my web browser so I’m filing them here.