Bit of a mixed bag this time, so let’s start with possibly the most useful news of the past two weeks: New test could guarantee the perfect avocado. No more wondering whether you pressed too hard, no more scrambling around for a paper bag and a banana when you get home. Cranfield University engineers have a system that taps the avocado, and then uses laser Doppler vibrometry (I don’t know either) to measure the resonant frequency of the fruit, which drops as it softens. I guess it is a high-tech version of thumping a watermelon and listening for that particular kind of bong.
At the moment, 30% of avocados are wasted as a result of damage during testing, and another 5% lost at retail. A problem worth solving.
Last time, I pointed to stories from agricultural economist Jayson Lusk about the structure of the US meat market. This time, The Counter is doing a good job of keeping up the flow of meat market news, and what looks good for chicken farmers is not so good for smaller slaughterhouses.
The hundreds of smaller farmers who make up 10% of the US poultry supply are having to hustle, but The Counter reports on some who have adapted well, finding different markets and different delivery channels to move their birds along. Some even talk of doubling production, which probably seems very tempting right now. If it were me, I would be very careful about that.
Smaller slaughterhouses which, yes, are probably too small and too few to make up the missing capacity of the huge operations, are in any case up against the ghost of the big meat packers. The legal situation is complicated, but in essence the Wholesome Meat Act (I kid you not) of 1967 creates three parallel meat streams depending on the inspection in place at the slaughterhouse.
Giant meat packers, who have full USDA inspection, can sell their products (and any ancillary pathogens) anywhere in the country. Smaller state-inspected facilities can sell only within their home state. And the smallest slaughterhouses can sell only to people who bought a share in the animal while it was still alive.
Meat inspection is a cracking example of the capture of regulatory authority by the largest players, and it is by no means unique to the US. And according the The Counter, the bigger processing plants are getting more favourable treatment even during the Covid-19 emergency.
Two stories of ancient grains. First a lovely piece about the revival of the grains that the ancient Greeks called zea.
In classical Greek literature, we find references to a grain called zea or zeia (as distinct from the more common sitos for wheat) which may hark back to these earlier wheat varieties. For Homer, zea was a byword for fertility: the epithet zeidoros, meaning “zea-gifting”, is used in the Iliad to describe fertile land. However, it is not entirely clear whether zea was grown for human or animal consumption. Certainly Herodotus thought it worth mentioning in his Histories that the exotic Egyptians preferred zea to wheat or barley.
So what is zea? The article isn’t absolutely clear, though it strongly suggests that it is Triticum dicoccum, often known as dinkel. Or maybe it is spelt. But the writer also flirts with disaster in identifying Italian farro as emmer, while conceding that various naming schemes “often caus[e] confusion among grain purists”. Touché.
And then there’s a long piece in The Guardian about Bruce Pascoe, who believes Aboriginal Australians had a complex agricultural practice before the arrival of the Europeans, and who has gathered the first harvest of what his people call mandadyan nalluk. I really don’t know enough to judge Pascoe’s claims and I have not read his book. I do, however, want to know what mandadyan nalluk is.
The article says that “Translated from Yuin, the language of the country, it means ‘dancing grass’.” Not much better. On Twitter, someone said “Looks like what we call Weeping Grass (Microlaena stipoides)”. Maybe it is.
The Cherokee have their Trail of Tears bean. Perhaps Bruce Pascoe prefers to celebrate the positive.
Modern Farmer reports that Canadian hop growers are complaining, very politely, that the free market is stacked against them.
Craft brewers can source the hops they want more cheaply from their big neighbour down south. They can chuck a couple of buckets of Canadian hops into a tun full of imported stuff and claim that they’re brewing with local ingredients. Hop farmers want to see provincial governments reward brewers who use more than a trivial amount of local ingredients, just like they do in New York state.
Says one Ontario brewer, who makes a point of using exclusively local ingredients:
“Most of the beer industry, especially in Ontario, has this identity crisis, and we’re essentially chasing the trends that the breweries in the United States are setting. If we want our own identity, we need to forge it for ourselves. That’s how new beer styles essentially evolve.”
A Canadian identity crisis? Say it isn’t so. I seriously hope more craft brewers in Canada do the right thing.
Those lacklustre brewers could do a lot worse than attempt to emulate the performance of their fellow citizens at the 1992 Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany, where they took the gold. And no, this is not really a spoiler; why would Granta publish an extremely long account of “the Canadian Native Haute Cuisine Team … the first team of Indigenous chefs to ever compete at the Culinary Olympics” — if not because they managed something extraordinary?
Knowing that the team won does not detract from Zoe Tennant’s thoughtful and detailed account, brought to my attention by Rachel Roddy. Congratulations to her for winning this year’s Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Award for best cookery writer.
Anyone doing home-schooling on the Egyptians? This one’s for you.
All the best, and take care,