Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Olive Juice

“The olive-grove of Academe,
Plato's retirement, where the Attic bird
Trills her thick-warbled notes the summer long.”
-   John Milton (1608-1674)

I wish I were Plato.  His retirement home sure beats some geriatric country club in Florida.  Olives are one of nature’s little goodies.  They say you have to eat five olives before you enjoy them, but that wasn’t the case for my kid.  She ate a whole jar at the age of three.  Now we have to hide all the olive jars.
Lucky for her.  I didn’t grow up with olives or olive oil.  Just in case you need a geography refresher, South Korea is not a Mediterranean country.  And for many Americans, with exception of the West Coast, where olives have been growing for at least 200 years, olives were a nice garnish on your extra-dry martini.  While olives were a staple for many waves of American immigrants from Latin America, Italy, Greece, North African, and Western Asian countries, until Mediterranean cooking became part of the American culinary cannon in the 1970’s and 1980’s. [1] And no, Olive Oil from Popeye does not count as part of that cannon.
For most people, though, the olive is the domain of the Mediterranean. Seen the Godfather II?  Ah, those beautiful Sicilian hills with olive trees waving gently in the hot Italian sun.  Sorry to break into your daydream, but there is nothing remotely romantic about olive farming in Europe.  Parts of Spain look like the Nebraska except with olive trees. In Spain alone, there are approximately 5.6 million acres of olive trees.  Across the European Union, there is about 13.5 million acres of olive production – with most in the form of intensified modern plantations that directly contribute to soil erosion, desertification and water waste.  Traditional olive plantations do just the opposite.  They preserve the landscape and the wildlife that depends on it.  They control water run-off in upland regions. And because they are often on ancient terraces, they also prevent soil erosion.  But there are very few of these left – mainly due to the gross incentive structure of the EU’s agricultural policies.
Contrary to what we might think about Europeans, with their anti-GMO, McDonald’s bashing, greener-than-thou ways[2], the European Union is in cahoots with agribusiness.  As much as I like to criticize US agricultural policies, the European Union, despite its sanctimoniousness, is just as problematic with regards to agricultural practices and policies. And in the case of olive farming, this is especially problematic.  Olives and olive products (mainly in the form of olive oil) is big business for the European Union, and through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU only encourages the growth of industrial farming practices, at the cost of the environment, fair trade, and in the end, consumers’ pocketbooks.
But what is CAP?  CAP was initially introduced as a means to support European agriculture after WWII.  The reasoning went that if Europe supported its own agricultural resources, the famines and food shortages of the 19th and early 20th century would be averted through market incentives (this was part of the same rationale for US agriculture subsidies during the New Deal).  It didn’t work out that way, and now CAP makes up almost 48% of the total EU budget (CAP's total budget is around 23.9 billion Euros).  Almost the entire CAP budget for olives, 2.25 billion Euros (about 3 billion US dollars), is marked for production subsidies.  The more you make, the more money you get – in other words, agribusiness wins. And as small, independent, sustainable farms become less and less profitable with the CAP scheme, the role of agribusiness will snowball even further, putting more sustainable farmers out of business.
This is just one example of how CAP distorts the entire incentive structure for farmers towards unsustainable farming practices.  We could repeat the same story for sugar, milk, meat, etc. [3] In the end, the results are deleterious at every level.  Large scale farmers and corporations get paid for unsustainable agriculture practices.  Third World countries cannot compete on the open market because of exorbitantly high tariffs and artificially lowered EU commodity prices.  Small and local artisanal producers die. Corruption is rife because of poor accounting standards and oversight. Local landscapes and biodiversity are destroyed in the name of agricultural production. And the best part?  EU citizens are footing the bill, in the form of high grocery prices, for bad quality foodstuffs and environmentally harmful practices.
What to do?  Well, as in the US, the best thing for Europe is to destroy the CAP regime once and for all. Set up incentives for environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. Stop production subsidies.  Get rid of import tariffs on food trade. Reward farmers for better quality, not quantity, crops.   In other words, make EU farmers compete on the values that Europeans, and all eaters, should want most – quality and sustainability.  This way everyone wins - except for corporate agriculture and their political cronies.  They don’t deserve my tears.

            I served tapenande one time to a French scholar visiting our place.  He sniffed, “You know, only people in southern France eat this.”  (He is from Paris.)  Too bad for the Parisians.  Tapenade is a great hors d’oeuvre with some crostini, bread or croutons.  I use the leftovers over pasta and canned tuna (oil packed MSC certified please!).  You could also add some crushed tomatoes and some chili flakes to make a sorta-puttanesca sauce.  It’s dead simple and delicious.  Just remember to buy the best quality olives you can find and if possible, organic.  We don’t need a Sahara.

1 c. Niçoise olives, pitted (see note)
1 c. small green olives (Picholine), pitted (see note)
1/4 c. sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil and drained
1 tbs. capers
1 garlic clove
1 anchovy filet
1/2 tbs. roughly chopped fresh basil leaves
1/2 tbs. roughly chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tbs. roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 tbs. roughly chopped fresh oregano leaves
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1.     In a food processor, combine all ingredients, except olive oil. Pulse until coarsely chopped and well-blended.  Add olive oil slowly with short pulses until well-blended.  Store in a covered container in the refrigerator until ready to use.  Keeps for about 3 days in the fridge.
Note:  If you can’t find Nicoise or Picholine olives, don’t panic.  Just use any good quality olives that are available.  California is producing some AMAZING organic olives and olive oil these days, especially in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

[1] Before anyone gets on the politically correct train, I do realize that the generations of immigrants coming to America are the “true” Americans.  Unfortunately, most of the culinary press didn’t get that until much later, when Mediterranean cuisine (beyond pizza) became a new “trend” in dining.
[2] This, of course, refers to José Bové.  
[3] The EU’s own agriculture minister, Marianne Fischer Boel, is also an industrial farmer in Denmark.  Nobody seemed to have noticed the large conflict of interest in her appointment.  And fun trivia fact of the day: European cows receive more money in CAP subsidies than the average person does in EU Foreign Aid.  Pathetic.

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