A quck reminder of the Oxford Food Symposium’s Kitchen Table on Wednesday of this week. Join Elizabeth Yorke, Anusha Murthy, Ken Albala and me for an open discussion about how can we find reliable sources of information about food. Details and link to tickets
Alarming to read that the river Po, which waters the fabulously productive plain north of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Bologna, is currently almost dry. You can see the effects in this map of soil moisture as the band of intense red running horizontally across the top of the country.
Euronews paints an alarming picture. Low water levels in the Po mean that salt water is penetrating upstream from the Po delta, badly affecting crops. Farmers are being urged to switch to using pipes instead of spray irrigation, which is less efficient because it promotes evaporation. Although the removal of water from the river for irrigation and urban use is partly to blame, the real problem lies up in the Alps, where snow cover is well below its 20 year average.
There is a lot more in the Euronews story, about how this is bringing the impact of climate change home in Italy and prompting people to rethink the way they treat the Po. Unfortunately, the site’s linking policy is bizarre beyond belief, so it is hard to follow up.
In my youth, I liked to scuba dive, and spent a memorable week surveying underwater life around the Small Isles of Scotland. The most memorable dive was the one where we discovered a bed of scallops and abandoned our survey to hand catch bags of the beauties to enjoy back on board during a long northern evening. Even before that, I was conscious of the huge destruction wrought on the seabed by the conventional practice of trawling for scallops (and everything else; see this report) so although I love scallops, I could enjoy them only if they had been diver caught or (more recently) farmed. Imagine my delight, then, when I saw a report in The Guardian: Accidental discovery that scallops love ‘disco’ lights leads to new fishing technique.
Long story short: scientists at Fishtek Marine were experimenting with small LED lights to attract crabs and lobsters into pots, rather than the usual bait of fish. They discovered that not only did the lights improve the catch of spider crabs, but also “king scallop (Pecten maximus) swim into crustacean pots when illuminated”.
The story starts when they asked a commercial fisherman to put one of their little lights into his pots and just observe what happened over a month. It had no impact on lobsters or crabs, but whereas the fisherman said he caught probably five scallops a year from about 35,000 pots, during the trial he nabbed 10 scallops per 50 pots, “an approximately 1400 fold increase”. All this in an area “not renowned for scallop beds”. On the basis of that observation, Fishtek Marine carried out the more extensive experiment, which they say makes it worthwhile to continue to refine the lights and the pots to optimise the harvest. Bottom line:
These novel findings present fishers and marine managers with an exciting opportunity for the development of a new, low impact scallop fishery.
We still need to know what impact the lure of disco lights will have on scallop population levels, and there’s a lot more work to be done before the new harvest comes to fruition, but I am hopeful.
Experimental archaeology can shed light on ancient activities, not least when it comes to food. You may have heard Farrell Monaco talking about ancient Roman bakeries and how her work to recreate the Roman panis quadratus informs our understanding of how the bakeries operated. Now comes an experimental approach to ancient olive oil. Loads of old texts praise olive oil, but how exactly did people extract the oil from the fruits? One possibility is that they used torsion, putting the crushed fruit into a bag and then twisting the bag to express the liquid.
Egyptian wall paintings show different ways of twisting the bag, but they do not say specifically that torsion was used for olives as well as grapes for wine.
Emlyn Dodd, Assistant Director of Archaeology at the British School in Rome, shares his efforts in The Conversation, using a bag made of cheesecloth in the absence of any indication of what the historical bags were made of.
The successful jars produced a delicious olive oil. Sharp, bitey and with hints of pepper – just like a nice fresh-pressed extra virgin oil.
So, the Egyptians could indeed have used torsion bags to make olive oil. But did the ancients enjoy it as we do now? Probably not. Dodd points out that Pliny the Elder praises “wine inside and oil outside” the body, and there’s little evidence of oil being consumed regularly until relatively recently. In that connection, I can do no better than point you to Carl Ipsen, who won the 2021 Sophie Coe prize for writing in food history, with his article “From Cloth Oil to Extra Virgin: Italian Olive Oil Before the Invention of the Mediterranean Diet”. Ipsen’s winning article is due to be published; until it is, here is a video of a lecture on the subject.
Local, that is, if you are in British Columbia. Montecristo magazine pays gushing tribute to rhubarb’s journey from the Fraser Common Farm in Aldergrove, less than 2km north of the 49th parallel to markets and high-tone restaurants around Vancouver. I’m just jealous, of course. Rhubarb (along with parsnips) is a specialty crop here and commands a specialty price. There are compensations, of course, but still.