October 23, 2010

Persimmons and Poverty

Driving between Ferrara, the medieval city in which I grew up, to Arqua' Petrarca, a village in the Euganei Hills where rosemary grows in bushes the size of a Vermont brown bear and pomegranates hang heavy from graceful tree limbs until they are so full that they split open and spill their seeds on the square cobblestones of the tiny roads that wind between ancient stone houses, I noticed many small gardens filled with a wide variety of trees and shrubs. Even though there is not much space for growing food in Italy, a peninsula dominated both by the spine of the Appenine mountains running North-South and the Alps covering the northern quarter of the country, people make the most of it.
Some images of Petrarca's village:





The further my father and I traveled, the more similarities I began to see between home gardens. Many display a lush tree with shiny, dark green leaves laden with huge fruits that look like rugged oranges. I wondered aloud what those fruits might be received the prompt reply, "cacchi, persimmons". Aha! I forget that, although Vermont and this Parmesan cheese-producing region of Italy are at approximately the same latitude, the Adriatic Sea's mitigating effects make the Italian climate far more temperate. I am awed by the gigantic persimmmons, originally from Japan, that thrive here. The ones I see gracing the produce shelves at the local coop for two or three rare weeks each fall are about a third of the size of these. They are delicious with chestnuts, which seem to be roasting on every street corner here this time of year.
Here is a fruiting persimmon tree:

After we reached our destination, home of the medieval poet Petrarca who, as those times required, was also a priest and a public officer, we walked past enough fruit and nut trees to feed a caravan of gypsies. Grapes are already ripe and fresh wine is available everywhere. Almonds are falling off the trees and tumbling with hollow echoes on the stone sidewalks. Olives are turning black and await harvest and pressing into olive oil during the first week of November. The pomegranates call Persephone into the darkness of winter as their crimson seeds fall everywhere, feeed the birds, rest among the thick, fragrant spikes of lavender and rosemary bushes, which are flowering their second annual round of tiny, lilac-colored blossoms. My father picks branches of the ones that grow out of seemingly groundless cracks in the tall rock walls. If that were not enough, the jujubee trees are also producing their rich, crunchy and sweet red-green fruits. They are delicious as is or fermented into a syrupy liqueur, which, judging from the dark-colored bottles for sale out of quiet front doors, seems like a popular way to consume them.\par
I wonder how much the local people take advantage of the abundance that comes their way each fall. While the earth is giving so many nourishing gifts before it rests for the winter, Vandana Shiva, an Indian biodiversity activist who runs Navdanya, a seed-saving organic farm and educational institution in North India, is speaking at the Terra Madre, Slow Food International's conference in Torino. This annual gathering is hosted in one of Italy's richest wine regions, from which the thick, tannic wines like Barolo and Barbaresco hail.
Vandana Shiva speaks about access to food resources at this year's conference:

As attendees gorge on local food and drink that is being offered by two convention center halls filled to the brim with purveyors from across Italy and the world, Vandana Shiva speaks of food poverty and unequal resources, which can make it challenging for certain local groups of people to enjoy the bounty of their own foods. At times, she explains, those who harvest this abundance must sell it to anyone who will purchase it so that they can earn enough money to support themselves and their families. When people lack the resources to meet basic needs such as procuring clean water and healthy food and must resort to selling the fruits of their own land in order to to do, the imbalance that propagates poverty becomes starkly evident. However, many of us turn our backs to this evidence and continue to spend our dollars and cents, unknowingly robbing local people of the nourishment that was once their birthright.
How can we find a greater balance between the disparity of people who have food and those who have buying power? We must return the food to those whose land produces it. Sounds simple enough, but large-scale economies make this intention relatively impossible. It is the small producers, who fight to maintain the local character of their products, that herald this change. When people become proud of the land that houses them, feeds them, reflects their cultural identity, and provides a backdrop for community exchange, then there is potential to re-define wealth so that it is valued not only as legal tender but also as fruits, nuts, legumes and grain. Until more people choose to eat locally and support their food sources, there imbalance will continue, certain regions will wilt from over-production, and others will suffer from malnutrition.
May the richness of the foods I eat today with my father, gleaned from the hills outside my home, nourish us into remembering that every region offers its own unique nourishment. When we savor the food that comes from our bio-region, we take in the local soil with every bite and eventually become native to the place that feeds us.
With the intention for earth-based inter-dependence and reverence, I set out on another journey with child's eyes open to the learning that may come today.

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