Growing up, most of my family’s groceries were purchased from our local Meijer. My parents bought fresh produce as much as possible, and if anything we had frozen vegetables, fruits and meats. The only time we bought from local vendors was when we traveled up north/northeast to visit family in more rural areas. At times the idea of buying food on the side of the road was a little odd to me, but the strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries my parents would come back with left no room for argument. They were always better than what we found in the store.
In Chicago’s warmer months, we have access to neighborhood farmers’ markets where some vendors from the city (urban gardens) and suburban farmers come to sell their produce. Farmers markets are great assets; it always feels good to support small businesses and locally-sourced food. The only problem is that it is quite expensive to buy produce consistently from these markets, so I consider it more of a luxury to me. To live in a place where fresh food and produce is a standard, and purchased daily, is pretty amazing.
To investigate farming practices of Barcelona, we took a trip about an hour northeast of Barcelona to the Pyrenees Valley. There we met Alberto, a wine and cava guru, and Antonio, an olive oil magician.
Alberto operates his family-owned vineyard in the Pyrenees Valley, which is the largest producer of wine and cava in Spain. Cava is similar to French champagne: The methods adopted for its production are similar, but the two beverages are totally different because cava typically has little to no sugar added, while champagne does. Alberto has been working on his vineyards with his father since he was eight years old and is a master of his craft. We had the pleasure of visiting his vineyard, where he shared the process of producing Spain’s beloved cava and wines. I love wine so I have been looking forward to this venture, but I did not anticipate what insight I would return with. Alberto has a wealth of knowledge about wine, its history, and its production. What was particularly striking was a particular component of the grapes’ vegetation process.
Apart from pruning the young trees to give it its characteristic T-shape, there was an extra step farmers had to incorporate into their age-old practice starting from the year 1880. In 1862, France imported grape trees from the US, and with it brought an insect that destroyed French vineyards. The insect, Phylloxera, would eat the sap of the tree, the tree’s life blood, and devastated farms all over. There was no recovery in sight and the solution was perplexing. Interestingly, grape trees in the US had no issues with this insect.Two gentleman Jules Planchon and Charles Riley realized that US trees were immune to the insect, and thus they determined that by grafting (see photo) the stumps of US native trees onto their French trees, they would be granted immunity! It saved the vineyards all over France and Spain at that time, and is still the farming method still used today. The end product is amazing – we had an opportunity to taste their white wine and cava at the end of the tour. Needless to say, I went home with both!
When we went to visit Antonio at his olive mill, I really had no idea what to expect. Though I love olive oil, I had no idea how olive oil was made, and never gave it much thought until this excursion. Antonio, translated by Alberto, took us on a tour of the old and new processes of olive oil production. Like Albert, Antonio had been working with his father in his olive oil business since he was a child. Until 1946, standard practice utilized the old method of olive pressing, which included two large conical stones used to separate the olives from the olive mash. Antonio still has this old-fashioned setup, and it works, but the new method is efficient, which allows him to save time and money. With the old method, they are able to press 7,000 olives with four workers, and with the new olives they are able to press five times as much with one person! New methods allow for larger production, but Antonio’s main clientele are his neighbors, who have the opportunity to buy the olive oil directly from him.
When we asked which method he prefers, he told us he likes them both, but the old method is more sentimental to him, and a more romantic way of producing olive oil. At the end of the tour, he let us try each olive oil he made, one non-organic olive oil, one organic, and one using the old method. I absolutely loved the old method of olive oil – it was rich and creamy, like butter. I had never had anything like it before. I didn’t know olive oil could taste so good!
What made Alberto and Antonio special is that they shared something between them: They take great pride in their work, and go about it with great respect for themselves, their customers and the effects of their production on the environment. They want to keep their carbon footprint as small as possible, and take great measures to ensure this.
The major differences between these Antonio and Alberto and US farmers is that they are not solely concerned with profit, as the agricultural business is in the US. They are humble in their work, and produce high quality, low batches; They treat their customers with respect, maintaining a “I help you, you help me”, symbiotic relationship. Antonio and Alberto represent farming practices that are good for the environment, its people, and the future – they choose to conduct themselves in this way because it’s ingrained in their culture. Why sacrifice quality for quantity? Because farmers in the US produce their food for the masses instead of feeding locals. The food we buy in Illinois is not all produced in Illinois – in fact, most of it is produced outside of Illinois. US farming practices are set up for mass production, not small-scale, thoughtful, local consumption. The quality of our food suffers for the sake of these organization’s profit – they do not care for the effects of their farming practices on their environment or their people. As they say, “the proof is in the pudding”, or wine/cava/olive oil in this case. I hope that one day, as the demand for healthier food options increases, farmers and agricultural businesses will close up shop in their ways, and give the people quality produce and ethically sourced food they deserve.
Wine and Cava Tour Photos
Olive Oil Tour Photos