08 July 2010

Foodies arise, for luscious fruits you've never eaten

At the supermarket:
"There's no smell to this peach."
"You want peach smell? Aisle 15. Body products."

The fruit for people who don't eat fruit, the most popular post on my blog, is found because people search under variations of "I don't like fruit". These people (often desperate and guilty parents) all live in the West and gather their food from supermarkets. We now have a distribution system as inefficient as the Soviet system proved to be, and with as much disdain for quality, freshness, and consumers' taste and choice. We even have adopted the People's irony, with terms like "birthday apples" to mark the staleness of fruit bred for color and keeping "qualities". So my mouth watered, and so did my eyes, at this:
The world's largest scientific repository of fruits and berries, outside St Petersburg, Russia, could be bulldozed later this year to make way for new [holiday] homes … more than 4000 varieties of fruits and berries, including 100 examples each of gooseberries, raspberries, and cherries, almost 1000 types of strawberries from 40 countries, from which most modern commercially grown varieties are derived.
Vital seed store set for destruction, Fred Pearce, New Scientist, 26 June 2010
Cary Fowler at the Global Crop Diversity Trust called for scientists to intervene, but calls from scientists these days are as welcome as roaches at a banquet. Still, the Independent's Michael McCarthy picked up this story and ran with it, also talking about a sort of Noah of plants, the great N.I. Vavilov himself–a ripping yarn kind of guy–adventurer, explorer, collector, visionary who should be both a romantic figure and a Nobel laureate, or better–cool to kids.
The station is part of the Nikolai Vavilov research institute, named after one of Russia's greatest 20th-century scientists, who died in Stalin's labour camps in 1943. Vavilov was the man who conceived the idea of the seed bank – a repository of seeds of every different sort of plant, to be held for future generations.
from "World's biggest collection of berries and fruits faces axe"
Chekhov's famous cherry orchard also got the chop – also cut down for development. So I woke up Chekhov's ghost. "All that I wrote came to nothing, after all," he yawned, almost smiling in his supremely Russian depression. And really, how could I argue. He lived before "Let's organise!" came and went.

Revolt against revolting 'food'
We foodies of the world are being diddled in the present, and the future dodo'd. So I'm calling now to those of us who don't want to think about needing scuba gear if we live in London, but just want to eat a peach; who remember gooseberries; who know that strawberries were once treasured, and yearn to taste (and smell) why.
Periodically we stopped at a roadside stall to inspect a hammock or buy fruit. (Freshly picked pineapples and mangos here taste surround-sound flavoursome compared with what we get at home.)
—Jennifer Cox, from the UK, in Honduras: Central America's road less travelled, The Guardian, 10 July 2010

I recall best the garden-grown starfruit of a family friend (who also reared bees). The commercially available ones are less juice, more fibre. Similarly for papayas (Hawaiian imports are detestable, tasteless chunks of tendon-like pulp). And bananas... smooth and bland Doles and Del Montes are slowly killing off the succulent (and stained-skin and therefore 'ugly') local strains used for fritters, chips or desserts, which are barely a finger in length but possess a caramel sweetness and melt-in-your mouth texture that fewer seem to savour today.
— Budak, from Singapore, in answer to my question: You have so many wonderful fruits, so what would be a list of your favourites?
We need to unite and save this fruit and berry collection, selfishly and with saliva running – for us, and for our children who are otherwise likely to savour the difference between 147 different flavoured snax and drinks, and only know a fruit as something Government says you should take at least once a day.

"Instead of food, we’re consuming “edible foodlike substances”.
Michael Pollan (A Hero of the Revolution) In Defense of Food

Maybe it takes ridicule
Russian authorities from the power duo down, are acting like dills. They fail to recognise the commercial significance of this collection, and in doing so, prove themselves as useless as the directors of consumerism that mandates socks with no elastic, and bra. They also fail to see that this collection and its originator should be considered by Russia a great source of national pride. Indeed, this is what World Heritage should be about.

I say this because in my experience dealing with the Soviet Union and then post-Soviet Russia, I learned that the authorities are convinced that Russia doesn't really have anything to be proud
of (which is why they did up the palaces so grandly and are willing to help Iran go nuclear for a few rubles) and nothing much to sell except for oil and the like. I've written about this attitude of Russian authorities to worth (and to consumers) in fiction, both in my short story "The Shoe in SHOES' Window" and in my novel Crandolin, where I called staff members of the Institute (by another name) "fanatics"—I admire them greatly, for they are fanatics of the best kind, having worked for pickles, for years. Chekhov laughs. Even the most respected or popular fiction can't do what you can now.

Capitalist efficiency (and choice) now
Strawberries grown at the Glasshouse Mountains on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland are purchased by Woolworths Supermarkets, are trucked to a warehouse in Sydney (over 1000kms) before being trucked back to the Woolworths Supermarket just 4kms from the farm, 3 weeks later. Another example of the failure of the current predominant food system is the Royal Gala Apple. Royal Galas are a half / half variety; that is, 50% red and 50% green. The supermarkets, working on the misconception that the consumer wants redder apples, asks farmers to produce 80% red apples. This means more inputs of chemicals and fertilisers and the end result is an apple that is redder, but not as crunchy, tasty or nutrient rich; all of which are actually important to consumers.
Australian Organic Food Directory
So that was a false statement by New Scientist about the derivation of our fruits. The strawberries here must be the result of careful crossing of styrofoam genes and wax. The apples, from potatoes, recycled beer coolers, rubber balls and grease. Central control diktats by supermarkets (Tesco sounds like a Dalek army) and the EU even make an interesting shape an enemy to be destroyed. I highly recommend Waste by Tristram Stuart, which tells the often amazing story of fruits and vegetables that don't conform. This book is no evil-tasting dose, but an often very funny read with excellent recommendations.
Commission officials, long mocked in the press for rules setting the appropriate curvature of cucumbers, are also concerned that at a time of high food prices and economic recession fruit and vegetables are being wasted "just because they are the wrong shape". . . EU An estimated 20 per cent of the British harvest is thrown away to comply with the EU regulations, rules which have been calculated to add as much as 40 per cent to the price of some vegetables, such as carrots.
EU to allow sale of 'odd shaped' fruits and vegetables by Bruno Waterfield,
The Telegraph, 12 Nov 2008
(About a quarter of the last banana crop in Australia had to be destroyed because supermarkets here refused to take the bananas because they were "too large".) But if there were one poster-fruit for the crazyness of our shrinking choices and the danger that we face because of that, that bland banana that looks like plastic and is everywhere, is the supermodel. (Read Johann Hari's column from the London Independent: Why Bananas are Parable for Our Times.)

One thing about diverse varieties. They have diverse shapes. And taste.

This year in our local supermarket we have a choice of 3 varieties of apples with as usual today, almost indistinguishably insipid taste, and skins as tough, greasy and fresh as the cheeks of an old actress. They're all bred to the specs of modern fruit, where it's what's outside that counts. Colour. They're cosmetic fruit. They're even what's called
"industrial apples", patented and licensed to growers. And it's not as if this slop to the masses is even cheap. We pay more for less.
[In Australia] Coles and Woolworths had a combined market share of about 80 per cent. "When you look internationally, it is our market concentration which explains why our grocery prices are rising faster"[Professor Frank Zumbo] said …" They operate as a cosy club where they shadow each other's prices."… According to OECD price data published this month, food prices in Australia have increased 41.3 per cent since the start of 2000. Spain had the next fastest rate of increase since that time, at 41.2 per cent. It, too, suffers from market concentration, the European Commission has said.
Why it costs 40 percent more to feed your family, John Rolfe, Adelaide Advertiser, Nov 8, 2009
It's ironic. The most popular shows on TV are all about cooking and eating. There are millions of us yearning to be free of fruits that have been ruined because they're grown for transport and storage considerations, and not food and flavour. We read food books for the pleasure of reading about eating something memorably good. This is nuts.

Literary fruit
I swear this is true. I was so surprised at the attitude of Russian authorities to this particular collection that I picked a random "Russian" literary journal off my shelf and stuck my finger in to a random page. And I swear to the Free Market, I hit this bit of food p*rn wrapped in a politically bland Soviet wrapper:
At the bottom, when Sanya was emptying the blueberries into the bucket, they were already moist and dark and seemed stifled. From there, from the bottom, you could at last throw a few berries into your mouth, feel faint for a moment at the sweetness and tenderly melting flesh as it spread out under your tongue and then, licking your lips, go slowly back to the berry patch and there, for ten or fifteen minutes, forget all about the can, abandon yourself to drinking up the drug, more and more of it without end. There is no berry on this earth more tender and sweet than the blueberry, and one must indeed by strong-willed to carry any out of the forest in a vessel.
— "Live and Love", Valentin Rasputin (translated from Russian by Alex Miller) from Soviet Literature: Modern Soviet Short Stories, The Writers' Union of the USSR, 1986)

Indeed all fruits–berries and cherries especially–are so important in Russian culture that they are symbols and milestones.
"He took aim, and his bullet went through my cap. It was now my turn. His life at last was in my hands; I looked at him eagerly, endeavouring to detect if only the faintest shadow of uneasiness. But he stood in front of my pistol, picking out the ripest cherries from his cap and spitting out the stones, which flew almost as far as my feet."
Aleksandr Pushkin, " The Shot"

Gogol's description in his short story "The Calash" of a man who had a daily glass of a drink made with dried gooseberries reminded me of Chekhov's story "Gooseberries" and my own grandmother's gift whenever she visited, of dried berries for our tea – a particularly Russian treat, and so much better than chicken soup for curing ills.

But who cares about ancient literature and quaint customs?
Let's get to the modern world, and to the under-developed Russia
"Fruit take the important place in a grocery basket of urban population of Russia. They are on the second place in a number of all products consumed in domestic conditions and on the first place among products, consumed outside of a house. Consumption of fruit is in the lead among ways to have a bite in domestic conditions, this product wins first place, outstripping chocolate, yoghurt, kefir, cottage cheese and even sandwiches, pies and sausages in the test."
Review of Russian market of fruit, Sistema di Interregionale Marketing Center

"In Russia consumption of fruit is characterized by the tendency to growth, as against the majority of the countries of the Western Europe where recession of consumption of fruit is observed."
Review of Russian market of fruit, Sistema di Interregionale Marketing Center

"In fact, despite continuing to capture business from outdoor markets and other independent operators, grocery chains still enjoy less than a 40pc share of food sales across Russia."
- Growth in store for big supermarkets, Russia Beyond the Headlines, Feb 23, 2010
In Russia going out to eat at a cafe will bring you to the realization that beverage choices are minimal at best. Beer, Kvas, bottled water, hot tea and Kompot! If you visit a friend and you do not drink vodka or beer then the Kompot will come out of the refrigerator. Kompot is a very popular drink and is made by all good cooks in the kitchen. So lets make some Kompot like they do in Russia.
* .5 kilo (half kilo) assorted berries . . .
A recipe from Russia: Simple kompot (traditional berry drink), Windows to Russia
Russia doesn't have to be doomed to catch up with us, though the signs are ominous.
"Summer is berry time in Russia."
– Darra Goldstein, Russian Life
This is морс. Морс is a juice made from cranberries (клюквы), prepared similarly to compote. It is very common, sold in the markets, groceries, at restaurants, and made at home. Russian cranberries are typically smaller and softer than American cranberries. At certain times of year, old women will sell them on the street or in markets to supplement their pensions. The pictures on this page are all suspiciously the same color. That’s how central berries are to the traditional Russian diet!
— Josefina, Weird Russian Fruit Drinks, Russian Blog
Not for long, if Coca-Cola and Pepsi have anything to do with Russian choices. As late as 1991, Russians obtained their fruits and berries mostly by growing them and by picking them in the forest, as popular as mushroom picking. The Russian Ministry of Agriculture and Food was then the principal producer of canned fruit and vegetable products in the Russian Republic (with foreign companies just beginning "joint cooperation"). The government-made products were packaged most often in large jars with hand-glued paper labels. The products tasted like any real home cook's who is habitually winning prizes at a county fair. Distribution was atrocious, as was the situation for all consumer items. So this was the reason windows were filled with pots of tomatoes, and that gardening and ingenious homemade greenhouses were as popular as mushroom hunts and berry picking. Between the train lines and badly built apartments were lovingly tended plots filled with produce. At one meal I attended, a feast of homemades and -grown was humbly offered. Gleaming white slices of pork fat were whisked before me and then away in embarrassment at this old-fashioned taste (I got a fork in first–excellent!) but the tomatoes bottled in home-pressed apple juice were presented with pride.

At that time, there were wonderful drinks available very cheaply on the street. Kvass better than any drink sold today in Australia, at least; and juice sold from dispenser stands where you dropped in three kopeks and a glass was filled with cold, cloudy, fragrant and flavorful pear juice. You drank up and put the glass back in the dispenser, where it was washed for the next person.
Kvass stand – worth the wait
That was in 1990.
By 2005:
Euromonitor highlights the fact that Russia is by far the biggest fruit juice producer in eastern Europe, and as well as being the largest consumer, it also the leading exporter - which means that a company with such an international distribution network as Coca-Cola could really develop a strong local brand in a number of countries. And Multon, the second largest juice producer on the Russian market, has a reputation as a strong marketer. Its Dobry brand, for example, looks somewhat old-fashioned but has played on this image to appeal to Russian consumers' sense of patriotism and nostalgia
Coca-Cola invades Russian juice sector, Food Navigator

Actually, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are competing to shape, literally, Russian taste (and availability of choice). By 2010, juice production in Russia became a matter of trading between
foreign entities. This is how things go in the developed world:
Odwalla is now owned by Coca-Cola. Almost as soon as Coca-Cola bought the company, it stopped selling the fresh-squeezed OJ that had made Odwalla famous and popular — fresh squeezed can’t last the days and weeks the juices are now in transit or on the shelf. Pepsi bought Naked Juice in 2006, in order to compete with Odwalla. Smuckers grabbed several juice mainstays from the health food store shelves: After The Fall, R.W. Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic.
Unhealthy companies behind some health foods, Vic Shayne, Nutrition Research Center (USA), April 29, 2009
Coca-Cola's promotion points clearly to a need for better food labelling so food and drinks can be seen for what they are, rather than allowing marketing spin to dress them up as something that they are not.
Obesity Policy Coalition, Australia

Cadbury Schweppes Pty Ltd . . . has been found to have breached the Trade Practices Act because two of its cordials did not contain any fruit. The Federal Court found pictures of the fruit, and the use of "banana mango" and the slogan "Go Bananas" on the label, would lead consumers to mistakenly believe the drinks contained the fruit. Cadbury Schweppes had argued using the term "flavoured cordial" was enough for consumers to realise the drinks did not contain any fruit.
Cordial case fruitless for Cottee's, Barclay Crawford, The Australian, 4 May 2004
Back to us sensualists
Wherever you are, if you like good food (or think you would if you had the choice), let's speak up and get this collection saved, for delicious' sake. Otherwise fruit with taste, and the very philosophy of the variety unencumbered by patents, licenses, and supermarket diktat, will die before we have a chance to value them again.

Moving is not an option
19 July update:
According to experts the Pavlosk Research station, comprising 910,000 square meters, is the largest genetic field bank in Europe. Just one of the plots of land at the site contains more than 5,000 samples of rare plants from all over the globe.

The institute’s acting director at the facility, Fyodor Mikhovich, said the task of transferring the specimen would be impossible, even if they were given three years instead of the three months that they have been granted for the task. He reckons it would take as long as 15 years to do the job properly.

The institute has stressed that the research conducted at the facility is of great use in research into the treatment of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

An other appeal has been filed but the chances don't look good, the hearing is scheduled for August 11.
World's largest field collection of fruits and berries to be destroyed, Nichola Watson, Fresh Plaza
The Vavilov Research Institute deserves to be world-famous amongst connoisseurs, and supported as such. As things stand, it is rumoured that it might be cherry-picked for Royal Dutch Shell. In fact, the Institute has already commercialised many varieties of plants, so they know a good thing better than the Russian Ministry of Economic Development. But that's no surprise.

The Pavlovsk experiment station, part of the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry is one of 11 stations, each specialising in different plants. Vavilov died for this most delicious cause. Literally. He died in prison because he fell afoul of the Communist equivalent of Creationism. This is how the Institute sums up his contribution, and his punishment.
Vavilov, the symbol of glory of the national science, is at the same time the symbol of its tragedy. As early as in the beginning of the 1930's his scientific programs were being deprived of governmental support. In the stifling atmosphere of a totalitarian state, the institute headed by Vavilov turned into a resistance point to the pseudo-scientific concepts of Trofim D.Lysenco. As a result of this controversy, Vavilov was arrested in August 1940, and his closest associates were also sacked and imprisoned. Vavilov's life ceased in the city where his star had once risen. He died in the Saratov prison of dystrophia on 26 January 1943 and was buried in a common prison grave.
The collections are not just Russian treasures worth far more than the painted palaces and the works in the Hermitage, but World Heritage collections, as we can all benefit from them as long as our species still has yens.

Some recommended feasts
(& ideas of places to spread the Revolution)

"Tangerines … for such food the Revolution took place, millions of people were killed, and prison camps were set up … To be able to eat food which the rest of the population has never even smelled … What a Victory!"

"It looks like tangerines on the black market and tangerines in the Kremlin come from the same tree," Stas quipped.

"The only difference is that for them, its communism, but from us, it's capitalism."

— Alexander Kaletski, Metro: A Novel of the Moscow Underground, 1985

No comments: