I may be writing more articles on this subject because there are so many facets to living sustainably in which, though it may seem we are giving up something we need, we are actually enriching our lives. I invite others at DR to write their own articles for the blog telling of the ways in which living more simply and more sustainably can make our lives richer while at the same time reduce our impact on the planet.
Many people these days would have a hard time imagining life without refrigeration. No doubt refrigerators can be extremely useful, but somehow people managed, and even thrived, without them in the past. Over the past century, our food systems have come to rely more and more on refrigeration for preserving food, while many long-practiced traditions of food preservation have faded from our culture. Because refrigerated food can be shipped across the world and has made food production on an industrial scale easier, it has contributed to a steep decline in the diversity of unique local foods. With this loss of diversity has come a decline in flavor and nutrition. As well, modern chemical engineering has produced food additives to take the place of old methods of preservation, all part of an effort to extend the shelf life of industrially produced processed foods. Since refrigeration consumes a huge amount of energy, this trend has led to a bigger environmental footprint for our foods.
While reading my home cheesemaking book recently, I was intrigued by a recipe for a sheep’s milk cheese called Tomme d’Arles, which is a perfect example of an incredibly creative food designed by the need to preserve milk abundant during part of the year for times when milk was not available.Though it may not seem obvious to us in our refrigerated world, cheese was traditionally a method of preserving milk. Dairy livestock had a natural cycle of breeding that meant the females were producing offspring and thus milk at a time of year that was richest in available nutrients. Milk was produced from the grazing of lush spring pasture, so cheese was made at that time to be available for eating during the rest of the year. Modern methods of diary production along with refrigeration have taken away the seasonal nature of cheesemaking, and today we can get any kind of cheese at any time of year. But people who know good cheese know the best cheese is made from the milk produced during this spring burst of pasture growth. Our local organic dairyman down the road, who provides the milk I make my cheese with, says all his customers comment on the change in flavor of the milk when his cows are turned out to pasture in the spring after a winter of feeding on stored hay.
For Tomme d’Arles, lambs were raised on spring milk until they were sent to market in late spring, after which the cheese was made from the milk of still lactating ewes. The cheese was salted, dried, and stored in jute sacks. When you wanted to eat the cheese, you rehydrated it in a marinade of local brandy and bay leaves, then aged it in a cellar for 2-3 weeks before eating. Though the cellar is akin to a refrigerator, it uses the natural temperature of the earth to keep the cheese cool while allowing for the growth of microorganisms that add flavor to it. This cheese’s unique combination of flavors is the result of a cheesemaking practice that in no way requires refrigeration.
I mention Tomme d’Arles because it is an example of how great things can come from trying to accomplish a goal (preserving milk) without the use of fossil fuel or massive energy inputs. Those who invented this cheese, and the many thousands of cheeses in the world, were not consciously avoiding using refrigeration, because it was never available to them. But they were still able to accomplish the same goal, and in the end made a unique product that never would have come about had they been using refrigeration to preserve their milk.
Last year the Milkweed Mercantile hosted a workshop on fermented foods taught by Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation. Attendees, me included, learned about how people extended the life of vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy products without the use of strange chemicals or artificial refrigeration. One of the great things about natural methods of food preservation is that they allow us to make the most of our local foods. Instead of eating “fresh” produce or animal products grown out of season and shipped from across the world, we can eat our own local foods preserved as pickles, salted or smoked, or turned into dairy and meat products.
This fall I had an abundance of tatsoi, a mustard green, and to preserve it this winter, I’ve fermented it naturally in a brine (salt) solution with garlic, onions, and hot peppers. You just throw all the ingredients in a crock, or in this case a bucket, and let it sit in a cool place. No starter culture is needed as the pickle is fermented by local bacteria. This common Korean pickle, kimchi, is a traditional way of preserving fish (normally an ingredient), but it also uses Chinese cabbages and radishes. It is ready to eat in as little as 3 days, but can be stored in a crock in a root cellar for months. According to my pickling book, kimchi pickles produce bacteriocins, antibiotics that can target harmful bacteria such as listeria and botulism.These foods are just a couple examples of the diversity of delicious creations that are the product of the need to preserve food in the absence of refrigeration. The advent of refrigeration has led to a decline in the diversity of foods and flavors available to the average person, but do not despair. You can take part in the revival and rediscovery of traditional foods that is happening today by buying them from local producers or by making them yourself. Groups like Slow Food, with their Ark of Taste, are working to bring back traditional foods and employ artisans in producing them. Even in the United States, the diversity of farmstead(regionally unique) cheeses has grown dramatically over the past decade. Just imagine a world-renowned, regionally distinct cheese called Dancing Rabbit, or even Pittsburgh, instead of Cheddar or Brie.
To learn more about unique regional sustainable foods and food politics, I recommend BBC Radio’s Food Programme podcast. Every time they talk about food, it is with an eye to producing it sustainably. Though it is about British food, it is still relevant and inspiring in the US.