Monday, June 16, 2008

Let them eat petrol

Last week all over Spain truck drivers went on strike. The reason was simple: Gasoline prices are ballooning; working now actually costs more money than many workers make.

Andrés and I don’t pay much attention to the price of gasoline. We don’t have a car. Hell, he doesn't even have a driving license. We live in a city with a decent public transport system and we really only use it when we don’t feel like walking or biking, which isn’t very often. Of course, though, the current rise in oil prices manifests itself in other places. Our flights home this year were unmentionably expensive. And, of course, the prices of most commodities have gone up.

Last week, the transport sector decided they had had enough. For five days they refused to pick up or deliver anything. They spent that time sitting in the right hand lane of every major highway in Spain, greatly disturbing traffic patterns. This in a country that thinks the number of wheels on the road is directly proportionate to its ranking in the first world.

So, for five days: Nothing picked up, nothing delivered. Not even the mail.

Photos in the local papers showed farmers in Galicia dumping milk into the fields; fruits and vegetables left to rot in warehouses; and tattooed truck drivers sitting stubbornly in the cabs of their great trucks, refusing to budge.

Naturally, people panicked.

By Wednesday every supermarket in Barcelona had been picked clean. I went to the Sant Antoni market and it looked like Sunday. I went to Bon Preu and I was met with an apocalyptic sight. The produce section contained nothing but empty fruit crates, a rotting head of lettuce and, oddly enough, a few organic avocados and tomatoes, which I promptly decided to buy. The meat and poultry section loomed in iridescent whiteness at the back of the store. The shelves containing rice and pasta had been picked bare. There was no bottled water, no cartons of milk. The remaining jarred and tinned goods stood like solitary figures on the desert landscape of the preserves aisle. It looked as though people were preparing for war. (Or at the very least a snowstorm in the North East).

But Andrés and I didn’t panic. In fact, we spent the greater part of last week picking our own cupboards bare, endeavouring to produce good meals without actually purchasing much of anything. And it was fun.

It did become frighteningly clear, though, how inexorably tied we are to oil; how powerless we are in front of our dependence on oil, and how little we have done to protect ourselves from the consequences of that dependence. Oil is inextricably tied to our most basic needs and we've just sat back and watched it happen.


Things are back to normal today. Prices have been jacked up three times what they were nine days ago. The businesses are merely trying to make up for the losses they suffered last week.

But the lessons of last week do not forebode well; they linger. One of the most disturbing images of the ‘crisis’ was a police escort for half a dozen oil tankers, provided by the government to make sure the service stations continued working as normal. There were no special trucks employed for food or water. No police escort. As far as sustenance goes it would appear that petrol trumps all.


Here are some of our favorite recipes from last week. This section is titled "Scavengers' delight".

Black Bean and Orange Soup
We always have plenty of dried or jarred pulses on hand. The dried are mostly for slow cooking; the jarred to prepare hummus for unexpected guests or whip up a quick lentil soup. This being Spain, there are always oranges. The soup gets thick once it cools. It can be re-heated and served over rice or used as stuffing for a fajita or burrito.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon ground clove
2 15 oz. cans black beans
1 teaspoon orange zest (optional)
1 cup orange juice, preferably freshly squeezed
1 bay leaf
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven, over medium heat. Add the onion and salt and saute until soft, 10-12 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, cumin, and cloves and saute until fragrant, 1 minute.

Add 1 cup beans, orange zest, orange juice, and 1 cup water. Mash the beans with a fork. Simmer, uncovered over medium-high heat, until liquid is reduced and thickened, five minutes.

Add the remaining beans, bay leaf, and 6 cups water. Simmer, uncovered, for 25-30 minutes, until soup is fragrant and somewhat thick.


Pumpkin, Red Pepper, and Zuchinni Curry

We had a zucchini and half a red pepper lying around. And the only thing left at the veggie stand on Mistral was a small pumpkin, which I thought was funny.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoons turmeric
1/2 teaspoon clove
1/2 small pumpkin, peeled and cubed (about 1 cup)
1/2 red pepper, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1 can coconut milk
1 zucchini, cubed
Basmati rice

Heat the oil in a large deep frying pan or wok over medium heat. Add the onion and salt and saute until soft, 10-12 minutes. Add cumin, turmeric, and clove and saute until fragrant, 1 minute.

Add pumpkin and saute until browned, 5 minutes. Add red pepper and saute for 2-3 minutes.

Add coconut milk and simmer, partially covered over medium heat, until liquid is reduced and pumpkin is soft, 15-20 minutes.

Serve over rice.

Quick Tomato Sauce

I gave Andrés a pasta maker for Christmas and every Saturday or Sunday we have homemade pasta, which requires nothing but egg and flour. I usually make the sauce. Last Sunday all we had was a large can of whole, peeled tomatoes.

1 can of chopped tomatoes, including juice
4 large cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup red wine
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

In a medium saucepan over medium heat combine tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, red wine, thyme, honey, fresh ground pepper, and salt. Simmer, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes.

Serve over pasta with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.


Steve said...

Nice. I love the image of the ravaged market.

Reminds me of something from the not to distant post-nuclear future: food riots, gas wars, radiated mutants roaming the streets.

What's the deal with commodities these days? Prices are out of whack, investors are stockpiling grain, buying warehouses and farmland in places like Germany and Utah.

Seth said...

I can't even imagine the feeling of walking into a barren grocery store, the shelves picked clean. That's a potent image.

The image of the police escorting the truckers to the gas stations--that, too, seems unimaginable.

I could probably survive for weeks with the food I have in my pantry. I'd start getting pretty cranky, though, after only a day or two of no fresh meat, fruits, or vegetables.

I think experiences like this prove the intelligence and sustainability of supporting local agriculture...

Suzanne said...

I agree, Seth, with your last statement. In fact, the first place in the neighborhood to get back on its feet was a fruit and veggie stand around the corner. They bring all their stuff into the city themselves from a nearby farm.

Karen said...

Very interesting blog, Suzanne. I read about the strike online last week. One article had an image of a small child in a market in Madrid, behind him a vast expanse of empty produce shelves. It looked strangely apocalyptic.

Seth is right that we could probably survive for weeks with what's in our pantry. I have often thought of forgoing grocery shopping (except for fresh produce and meat) to see if we could clear it out and save some money. Hmmm...

xysea said...

Hi all,

Thank you for this blog. We haven't had strikes as you, but with the rising prices of fuel I am trying to make fewer trips to the market and stores. That means learning how to be more creative with what you have at home, on the shelf.

Also, learning to be comfortable with a bare cupboard, which -I confess- gives me some anxiety. It think it's a residual from years of poverty where I ate a lot of low quality pasta and canned goods; I hate to see those empty shelves because it makes me feel poor again...

But I digress.

I can't wait to try the curry; I have some left over coconut milk that I couldn't figure out how to use! Thanks, and cheers, xysea

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