Three Traditional Ways to Buy Food in Istanbul

By Kristin Larson (Istanbul)What is it like to navigate bustling food ways in an ancient city? Who are the people carrying on Istanbul’s traditional ways of food retailing next to sprawling supermarkets and even online grocery services? Kristin–originally from the U.S.–takes us through a neighborhood market, a weekly bazaar and, finally, to her front door step where she buys boza from her regular street vendor in Istanbul.

Traditional food ways in cosmopolitan Istanbul

A peddler’s cry on a chilly Istanbul night, the pungent smell of vinegar hanging in the air of a family-run pickling shop, freshly-picked fruits and vegetables from Anatolia’s rich soil. These are the common sights, sounds and smells of Turkey’s traditional food retailers, which remain important to the contemporary food system.

In the United States supermarkets became the name of the game–particularly after the meteoric rise of the A&P in the 1930s–when it came to buying food. Without a doubt, supermarkets are also a popular form of retail in Turkey especially for the ease and convenience they offer–some even offer online grocery shopping–but surprisingly Turkey’s neighborhood bakkal (small corner shops selling only the essentials) make up almost 1/2 of all grocery store sales, a figure that has only recently started to decline. This industry make up is a significant contrast to the US where traditional supermarkets account for 48% of the grocery market, supercenters 23%, and convenience stores–the closest equivalent to Turkey’s bakkals–just 14%.

Yet, even with chain retail becoming more common in Istanbul, the city’s food patterns are not altogether different from what they were decades ago. In Midnight at the Pera Palace, Charles King writes, “A traveler today can go from a morning simit, a pretzel-like bread covered in sesame seeds, to a grilled fish or stew at midday, to a sludge-bottomed coffee in the afternoon and still approximate the food ways-and caloric intake-of average Istanbullus of the past.”

As an expat in Turkey, I found the traditional feel of Istanbul’s food retailers incredibly different compared to the large, stream-lined supermarkets I grew up with.

I encounter my food from three distinct retailers all of which are a far cry from a supermarket: Neighborhood markets, local bazaars, and wandering peddlers. I’ve explored my favorite ones and the human beings–picklers, porters and peddlers–that continue these traditions.

The Kadıköy neighborhood market

Istanbul has a vibrant neighborhood culture, and the çarsı area, or neighborhood market, forms the nucleus of many Istanbul neighborhoods, particularly in the older districts. One of the most well-known neighborhood markets is the Kadıköy çarşı located on Istanbul’s Asian side. Like other çarsı areas, each shop is specialized in a particular good: a green grocer for fruits and vegetables, butchers and fishmongers for meat, as well as bakeries, delicatessens, spice shops, herbalists, and other speciality stores, including one of the most iconic, a third generation family-run pickling store.

In Turkey, pickling is an art passed down through generations, and anything is fair game: cucumbers, hot peppers, cabbage, lemons and even sour plums. Pickled goods are traditionally consumed to aid digestion while eating heavy dishes, but pickling is also an important way of preserving food throughout the seasons.

Established in 1935, this pickling shop is one of the most popular stops in Kadikoy market.

Established in 1935, this pickling shop is one of the most popular stops in Kadikoy market.

Meşhur Özcan Turşu, the pickling shop in Kadıköy çarşı, has been in business since 1935. Ahment Özcan now runs the shop. At the shop’s entrance, a pungent smell of vinegar and garlic welcomed me. The day I visited, Ahmet and his brother were manning the counter, and there was no break in the steady flow of customers, munching on pickles and selecting an assortment to take home.

News clippings decorate the walls of the famed pickling stall in Kadikoy market.

News clippings decorate the walls of the famed pickling stall in Kadikoy market.

During one lull, Ahmet walked me along the interior of the shop, pointing out family portraits hung on the walls as well as various newspaper clippings detailing the history of the family business, or in some cases, lauding the health benefits of pickles, claiming them as the cure-all.

The Beşiktaş Bazaar

Just like carsi markets, most neighborhoods in Istanbul have their own weekly bazaars as well, occurring on the same day each week and often referred to simply as the “Thursday bazaar,” or whichever day the bazaar happens to fall on. The bazaar is a staple for city-dwellers looking for fresh, cheap produce including fruits, vegetables, dairy and eggs, and even non-food items such as kitchen items, clothes, and various knickknacks.

Shopping at a neighborhood bazaar is not for the faint of heart. My own neighborhood bazaar, the Beşiktaş bazaar or Saturday bazaar takes up a large car park in the center of the city, next to the municipality’s wedding hall. On Saturday mornings, one has to weave between the parked lorries of the bazaar vendors and the weekend wedding traffic before even setting foot in the damp, tarpaulin covered car park. In the early mornings, steam rises off the vendors’ tea glasses and shoppers munch on freshly baked simit.

The Besiktas Bazaar, or Kristin's "Saturday bazaar" is not for the faint of heart with a sea of competitive vendors and hungry shoppers hunting for a bargain.

The Besiktas Bazaar, or Kristin’s “Saturday bazaar” is not for the faint of heart with a sea of competitive vendors and hungry shoppers hunting for a bargain.

Fruit neatly lined up at the Besiktas Bazaar.

Fruit neatly lined up at the Besiktas Bazaar.

Woman shopping at the Beskitas Bazaar.

Woman shopping at the Beskitas Bazaar.

Competition is fierce at the bazaar. Vendors attract attention, yelling ‘buyrun, buyrun’–a catchall term for “here you go,” “yes,” “please, look at this”–and advertising their deals on makeshift cardboard signs. Once I find my stalls–I usually frequent the same each week–the vendor tosses a large basket or plastic tub over the table allowing me to pick out my own produce, fill up the tub, and pass it back for weighing. After I pass a few coins across the counter and drop the produce in my bazaar trolley, I start to make my way through the throngs of other shoppers, usually Turkish teyzes or aunties squeezing past each other, in search of the best deals, or porters equipped with oversized baskets wandering through the bazaar offering their services to lighten one’s load.

Porter carrying goods at the bazaar, offering to lighten shopper's loads.

Porter carrying goods at the bazaar, offering to lighten shopper’s loads.

With a little bit of patience and persistence, it’s possible to score cheap produce by the kilos for a household’s weekly grocery needs. The vendors are themselves the producers, which cuts out the need for a middleman, keeps prices low, and ensures goods are locally produced or in the case of Istanbul–brought in from nearby agricultural areas.

The wandering boza seller

The most striking of Istanbul’s traditional food retailers is perhaps the presence of wandering street peddlers. Unlike Istanbul’s street food sellers, which have a permanent location and who the municipality strictly regulates, wandering peddlers travel the city on foot selling their goods. It’s a way of life and despite it being illegal, many individuals continue to ply the trade, some even arriving in Istanbul specifically for this type of work, staying for a few months and returning to their villages in the off-season.

In my own neighborhood, the cries of Hasan, one of these wandering peddlers selling boza–a fermented wheat drink–ring out as soon as the sun sets. Walking up and down the neighborhood streets in the dead of winter, his coat pulled up against the rain and snow, he yells out a long, low BO-ZA. I can always hear his voice loud and clear from the adjacent street well before I can see him. On nights when I want to fill up a pitcher with boza, I poke my head out the windows, yell “good evening” to Hasan below, and run downstairs to meet him at the front door. From the large canister he carries by hand, he fills up my container and offers small baggies of roasted chickpeas and cinnamon to top off the drink.

In the dim light and cold, wet weather, Hasan pours and sells boza--a fermented wheat drink--at Kristin's doorstep.

In the dim light and cold, wet weather, Hasan pours and sells boza–a fermented wheat drink–at Kristin’s doorstep.

Despite the difficulty of his trade, the boza seller is always friendly, joking about how the interest in his work has skyrocketed with the release of Orhan Pamuk’s latest book about a boza seller from Hasan’s village traveling the streets of Istanbul. Everyone–he says–wants to interview him and take his picture. After posing for another, he bids me farewell and walks on into the night. A loud, clear “BOZA” hangs in the air behind him.

Two ends of a spectrum?

While Istanbul will likely continue adopting globalized retail, and perhaps U.S. grocery stores will move away from the one-stop-shop model, for now the small retailers of Istanbul have their place in the fabric of the city and how it feeds itself.

One winter evening not long ago, I was surprised to hear an unfamiliar cry of “BOZA” in my own Beşiktaş neighborhood. Another peddler had started to compete with Hasan for his route; surely, a testament to the vibrancy of traditional food vending in cosmopolitan Istanbul.

Posted in Istanbul

How a Mobile Soup Kitchen Feeds NYC’s Homeless

By Tove Danovich (NYC). The last mile that food travels within a city is often times the most difficult. Traffic, accidents, spoilage, delays and other miscellaneous obstacles all come into play, ironically when you are so close to the finish line. What is the last mile like when you not only have to move food–often perishable–through the dense and crowded passage ways of New York City, but also when you have to serve a population that inherently has no set address–the homeless?

How do you feed people who by definition have no home? While blizzards or heat waves often put the homeless on our radar, their day-to-day need for food is usually less obvious, but equally as critical. On streets and in subways you hear: I’m just trying to get something to eat. A quarter, some dimes, an apple. But even generous commuters can’t possibly feed the three thousand homeless who live on the streets of New York City.

Instead, the unsheltered homeless rely on a network of soup kitchens, free meals, and nonprofit programs that keep them fed and occasionally hand out sleeping bags, socks, and other necessities. The most unique is the Grand Central Food Program which bills itself as the “largest mobile soup kitchen in New York City.” Every night—even during the recent Juno blizzard that swept the East Coast—a fleet of vans filled with food from a kitchen in the Bronx drives throughout the city delivering food to those in need. Curious to see how the program worked, I volunteered for a night in January, running through the lower-Manhattan stops with two veterans of the route.

A line of men waiting to receive food from the Grand Central Food Program. GCFP distributes food to the homeless at several stops along three different routes in the Bronx and Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Food Program.

A line of men waiting to receive food from the Grand Central Food Program. GCFP distributes food to the homeless at several stops along three different routes in the Bronx and Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Food Program.

“I could be your Daddy I’ve been doing this so long,” says one of the two men who steer me through the two-hour ride. He laughs and adds, “Since the beginning of homelessness itself.” In fact, he started volunteering the same year I was born—1989—only four years after the Grand Central Food Program was started. Though the Coalition for the Homeless, the umbrella organization for the GCFP, has been around since 1981, they made food a priority after a homeless woman starved to death in the middle of Grand Central Terminal. Juan De La Cruz, the program manager, says the program was only one of many that started because of her death. “It was just such an amazing thing that someone could starve to death in a city like this,” he adds. The coalition wanted to do something to ensure that it never had to happen again.

In the first years of the Grand Central Food Program they only delivered food to two or three stops—places that already had large numbers of homeless nearby. Instead of the ten or twenty people who are served at one stop today, they’d feed two or three hundred at each. “Little by little it evolved into smaller stops so it was easier to serve everyone,” De La Cruz says, “We didn’t want people to travel from uptown to downtown just to get food.”

Before the volunteer shift started, I was handed a booklet listing every stop the GCFP makes in the Bronx and Manhattan. Each route—one for the Bronx, and another two for downtown and uptown Manhattan—has seven to eight stops, each stop hit at a specific time every night. When we arrived at the first stop there was already a crowd of about ten to 15 men waiting for us. While the majority of NYC’s homeless population consists of families, four-fifths of street homeless are men. New York State has the second highest homeless population in the country, yet NYC has a unique approach to caring for its homeless population. An unusual right-to-shelter law requires the city to provide housing for those without it. Yet for childless adults (most recently there was an average of 25,640 children sleeping in shelters) the problems of shelter life can outweigh the good. There’s stealing, bedbugs and parasites, long lines, and strict check in requirements that prohibit the working homeless from getting in. Those with companion animals would have to leave their dog behind. “Many of our clients have decided shelter life isn’t something they want to do,” De La Cruz says.

Snow falls as the volunteers at the Grand Central Food Program distribute food to the homeless in NYC.

Snow falls as the volunteers at the Grand Central Food Program distribute food to the homeless in NYC. Photo courtesy of GCFP.

The homeless receive food even in wintery conditions from the Grand Central Food Program.  Photo courtesy of GCFP.

The homeless receive food even in wintery conditions from the Grand Central Food Program. Photo courtesy of GCFP.

GCFP has found a way to work with the street homeless by bringing food and help to them where they live. Handing out food is a three-part process. One person goes down the line handing out plastic bags, another doles out Styrofoam cups of soup and plastic spoons and one or two cartons of milk as well. Another (this was my job) hands out oranges and bagels. “Sometimes we get other stuff too,” one of my fellow volunteers says. “A lot of times the ‘something else’ is something stupid like canned corn. I can’t see how homeless people really appreciate canned corn if they don’t have a can opener.” Tonight, at least, the menu is practical. There’s a method to the madness of piling loose food into plastic bags—the soup sits on the bottom so it’s less likely to spill and the orange, bagel, and anything else goes on top. The line moves quickly and space is tight. We’re in and out of the first stop in less than five minutes.

Though the bagels are donated from NYC’s numerous bagel shops, the rest of the food is bought or made. The oranges come from Hunts Point market—a large food distribution hub also located in the Bronx. The soups (and meals for the daily soup kitchen that the GCFP also runs) come from a kitchen in the Bronx where the organization employs three full-time staff members to prepare meals for the homeless. Sometimes, members of the GCFP even get feedback on the meals and change the menus accordingly. “We used to do chili soup and stew and most people didn’t like it,” De La Cruz says. “They wanted more meatballs and so we added a second dish.” With many food donation programs seeming to operate on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, this kind of attention is surprising at first. But there’s another benefit to keeping these people happy with their food. If the homeless were receiving the same food every night, some of them might stop coming. “The program is set up in a way that we’re bringing out the food, but the bigger mission is to encourage clients to come into our offices for services,” he adds. These services range from eviction prevention to job training. So, my help handing out food isn’t just contributing to full bellies—the meals are about gaining the men’s trust too.

As we drive away from the first stop, the guys in my van realize they forgot to hand out some extra socks they’d brought with them. We pull over on the entrance to an overpass—not exactly kosher but it works—and shout out of the window, “Hey, guys! Socks!” The men below catch them and wave thanks as we drive off from the mild traffic jam we just caused.

At the first stop and most stops afterward, the people we hand food to feel like regulars. They know who to go to first, what they like and don’t like. Some of them don’t take the milk, or take extra milk, don’t like bagels, or want as many oranges as we can give them. The volunteers with me joke about it later—that even people who can’t feed themselves will still be picky about what they eat.

There’s only one awkward moment during the two-hour route and it takes place at a stop near Chinatown. Unlike the other stops, the people in this line are mostly old women and few of them speak English. Even though we’ve given them the maximum amount of milk, oranges, and bagels—we need to keep enough in the van to get through the entire route—they keep asking for more. Then we realize they’ve been circling back for seconds and we were too busy handing and bagging to notice. “It’s always the sweet old lady who causes all the problems,” one of the volunteers says.

Since these stops became routine, they’ve been growing. Many of the newcomers may not be homeless (though they’re likely poor) but are taking advantage of free food wherever they can find it. Though I can tell it doesn’t sit well with the volunteers, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. No one gives you a homeless identification card so we have to take everyone at their word. Or rather, assume that anyone who would take free food from the back of a white van really needs it.

As simple as the program is, a growing number of cities are trying to make the practice of feeding the homeless on the street illegal. These laws came into the public eye because of a 90-year-old Florida man who was repeatedly arrested for doing just that. Arnold Abbott was serving hot food when he was ordered to stop. “A policeman pulled my arm and said, ‘drop that plate right now.’ Like it was a gun,” Abbott told the Sun-Sentinal. Bans on feeding the homeless have been enacted or attempted in over 31 cities, often out of fear that providing food will entice more homeless into public areas. The result just pushes the homeless out of sight and out of mind.

While starving people doesn’t make for good public policy, NYC’s inclusive laws aren’t much better. In 2002 the city’s independent budget office reviewed spending on homeless services, writing, “The city’s substantial spending on homelessness is characterized by an emphasis on short-term solutions and fragmented responsibility. This fragmentation may undermine effective policies to combat homelessness, and may waste critical resources.” Many people believe that increased spending for affordable housing—rather than shelters—is a better long-term solution.

In the city, the homeless are people you look away from while you’re walking from one place to another. Sometimes you give them a smile, a nod, some change, but they’re rarely more than an uncomfortable part of the urban scenery. Usually all I see are people who are huddled up, maybe with a sign, and one isn’t much different than the other. The best thing I can say about the Grand Central Food Program is that it’s different. Even though I’m volunteering for a charity, I didn’t have the sense that I was doing something special to help “the needy.” I was just handing out food to people who wanted it. Like De La Cruz says, “For the most part our clients are just like anyone else—they are going through a rough time and it’s a matter of getting them back on track.”

Posted in New York

Follow the Vegetable Box: How Britain’s Riverford Farms Works.

By Vivian Winterhoff (London). Vivian investigates how one popular vegetable box delivery scheme in London functions. How does Riverford Farms manage their deliveries? Who are their producers and who are their deliveryman? What does a model like this have to show us about the future of food movement? It’s a hard time to be a farmer (as if it ever weren’t). In the UK, population pressure from big cities is driving up land values, making it harder for farmers to resist selling to big developers. Meanwhile, supermarkets, the biggest sellers of both conventional and organic food in the UK, set the prices and contracts with farmers. Farming equipment costs are high and rising as technology becomes more sophisticated, larger and ubiquitous. Climate change is causing additional difficulties with extreme and unusual weather patterns. Immigration laws are ever changing and ever more strictly regulated, which affects agricultural laborers, a large part of which are immigrants, and imposes administrative costs on farmers. Imagine, then, being an organic farmer with higher operating costs, probably lower output (through smaller scale and less intensive farming), probably higher uncertainty about how much can be delivered in what state, and selling products at a relative premium (meaning there is lower demand).

Thinking Inside the Vegetable Box

Riverford farmers, a produce delivery service 25 years in the making is one example of not just cooperative production and complex distribution logistics, but also the opportunity for consumers to still feel connected to a local, organic farmer–something that seems increasingly important to city dwellers. Though supermarkets still dominate the organic food market with over 70% of market share, demand for organic food through organic box schemes, independent online shops and other home-delivery outlets grew by 11% in 2013. Riverford is one of the two big suppliers of organic food boxes, aka veg boxes, and is the veg box delivery pioneer in the UK: it was the first to take veg box deliveries to national scale. It is family-owned and was founded by Guy Watson, an international management consultant who returned to farming in his father’s footsteps. How is Riverford successful in not just producing, but also delivering the desired organic, local produce to Londoners? Riverford has a business model that includes smart logistics–using spoke-hub distribution—friendly marketing and diverse farming practices in order to stay present in the dizzying world of local and organic farming initiatives.
Where Riverford fits into my food web.

Where Riverford fits into my food web.

How the Box Comes to Be:

One thing that sets Riverford apart from other big players is that they produce their own food. Here is Riverford’s map of UK areas covered by their different farms. Produce from Riverford comes together from a network of organic family farms, small producers and cooperatives predominantly in the UK, though also occasionally from abroad. Perhaps encouraged by family history and connections, Guy shares and borrows farming equipment with 16 other farmers via his local cooperative, which keeps the usually tremendous cost of equipment as low as possible. Guy also owns and runs a farm in France, which gives Riverford a longer growing season and helps it plug “hungry gaps”, e.g. in early spring when the weather in the UK is still cold and crops haven’t developed sufficiently for them to be harvested. Moreover, box schemes now no longer only supply vegetables. Through Riverford, for example, you can buy anything from fruits and vegetables to meat and delicatessen to dairy products, desserts and even wine. Riverford also has a dairy, butchery, bakery and farm shop as well as a local “farm restaurant.” The diversity and cooperation in Riverford’s supply chain is important in an industry where resilience is key. Guy spoke of losing £500,000 (over $780,000) worth of crops on one farm alone in 2012, which is the sort of disruption food producers and distributors must prepare for.
My first ever Riverford meat box, insulated with sheeps’ wool and reusable ice packs, to be returned to Riverford the following week.

My first ever Riverford meat box, insulated with sheeps’ wool and reusable ice packs, to be returned to Riverford the following week.

A typical “veg” box from one of my March deliveries.

A typical “veg” box from one of my March deliveries.

How the Box Gets to Me:

Riverford uses a franchise model for its distribution (see this video). Food is produced and delivered through hubs—the regional farms/producers and delivery centers—and spokes—the local franchises, about 70 of them. Fedex famously pioneered this spoke-hub distribution model as an alternative to point-to-point transit systems. Riverford doesn’t have delivery slots like other delivery services. The box always arrives on the same day depending on where you live, but the time can vary slightly. Guy explained that Riverford’s environmental impact would double if they tried to meet different delivery slots in different areas. Giving customers a choice of delivery time would also pose a logistical challenge and cost the company more (more on this below). Riverford delivers close to 50,000 boxes per week with the spoke-hub system.

My Riverford Franchise

Cristina and Graeme are my local “Walton on Thames” franchise owners  and I can contact them directly with queries, such as when I requested information for this article. Much of my food comes from Riverford’s Wash Farm and vicinity. Produce from Wash Farm’s veg box packing hall is taken away on pallets by 10 to 12 contracted trucks at 1,000 deliveries per truck, which then go out to up to three different hubs. According to Graeme, my boxes are stored in “our cold store in Ashford, where they sit until morning, when we load up our vans and then deliver to households.” So my local delivery van driver, Jim, delivers to me within two days of the food being harvested.

My Delivery Guy: Jim

While I don’t normally catch Jim when he’s delivering, the one day I did speak to him he had 80 deliveries to make in the area between Staines and Kingston, towns that are located about 12 miles apart. That may sounds like a lot, but he explained that he thought this model worked well. In contrast, Iceland for example, a frozen food supermarket he once made deliveries for, had trouble with its delivery scheme because drivers had to cover great distances to make dispersed deliveries in freezer vans at delivery slots chosen by the customers. His guess is that this was inefficient and costly. Moreover, according to Jim, Graeme and Cristina take care of their drivers, and this could not always be taken for granted. Jim told me about another well-known specialist delivery company he worked for in the past: in their efforts to make maximum returns from deliveries, they were asking their drivers to work long hours and late shifts, with lack of time off for rest–a dangerous and inconsiderate approach.
Map of how food is transported and stored before reaching Vivian"s house.

Map of how food is transported and stored before reaching Vivian”s house.

Jim's delivery van outside my front door.

Jim’s delivery van outside my front door.

A peek inside the delivery van.

A peek inside the delivery van.

Riverford as a vertical, multifunctional business: the future of farming?

The multifunctional nature of Riverford’s business means that Riverford has a huge act of coordination and meticulous planning on their hands. They have to grow a wider variety of food in increasingly volatile weather, coordinate with other producers, and ensure it is ready to harvest at the right time, so it can go out in boxes together with the relevant recipes and news. This coordination, combined with all the functions needed to run a conventional modern business, suggests that it is difficult to operate a successful veg box scheme on only a small scale.

The Little Touches

A final quality of Riverford that sets it apart is a successful marketing ploy, as far as I am concerned. Recipes arrive in every box with witty and insightful “blog posts” from Guy on the back. Guy is clearly the face of Riverford, and on a mission to stir the passion for good, sustainably produced food in people, which is particularly obvious from these “blog posts”. I personally find it interesting to read about the effects of a wet winter, for example, when Guy explains that the carrots will be shorter than usual due to a dry summer, or that there will be fewer spring greens available because “a marauding herd of cows” broke into the field and chomped away at “half a million or so”, i.e. most of the crop. I feel that this gives customers a greater understanding of the challenges of farming and therefore makes them more amenable to certain produce not being as readily available or not looking quite as expected. Guy also explores political challenges related to farming, for example, the much debated TTIP that is currently being negotiated behind closed doors.

Future Promise and Challenges

Riverford faces a few particular challenges as a food producer and distributor. One such problem is a group of aging farmers with very few young ethusiasts to replace them. For example, only two of the 16 local Wash Farm coop members have definite successors. Part of the problem is that farming is hard work. So, to keep people taking care of crops as happy as possible Riverford started  a vertical working method in which a group of employees would take care of a particular crop from preparing the soil for seeding to harvesting. This structure means that a person’s work varies and that they understand the importance of doing a good job at every stage of the process. Maintaining local sourcing might be another looming challenge for Riverford. When I spoke to one of their regular suppliers recently at a local farmers’ market, it seems that Riverford has included some produce from further afield–Spain–to fill in gaps when suppliers drop out or aren’t able to find successors. While this is simply sourcing in the way that many supermarkets stock their shelves, the main premise and marketing point of Riverford is that they provide local produce. Riverford is an interesting player in the UK food system; as an alternative to supermarkets and their delivery schemes, but also in particular as a food producer and multilayered, vertical business. There are surely still challenges to overcome in technology and marketing, but, in a nutshell, I think they could be an interesting and hopeful model for  good business in the wider food system. Nevertheless, as Riverford grows, and when Guy retires, I wonder whether Riverford will maintain the basic principles that have got the business this far, or whether they will simply turn into just one more internet retailer and home delivery service.
Posted in London

Futuristic Food: Too Crazy or Just Crazy Enough?

By Hannah Walters (Boston).Hannah discusses Molecular Gastronomy and what Herve This, a French chemist and pioneer of the discipline, have to offer the future of food. Will our kitchens become more like laboratories as we respond to growing populations and environmental disaster?

Have you ever heard of Molecular Gastronomy?

I hadn’t until I attended Herve This’ presentation at Boston University last week. This (pronounced “Tiss”) is a French chemist who has pioneered the discipline of Molecular Gastronomy and emphatically builds new foods from fundamental compounds—proteins, startches, fats etc to which someone could add flavors ranging from black pepper to pineapple. This began his work over 30 years ago, and works as a scientist at Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Paris.

Herve This, famed molecular gastronomist, speaking at the Boston University Gastronomy department.

Herve This, famed molecular gastronomist, speaking at the Boston University Gastronomy department.

While taking my seat in the audience, I looked around at the crowd. I was sure that many of my cohorts for the evening were scientists, food professionals or, at the very least, ardent foodies. This confirmed my suspicion as he called on self-identified chefs, chemists and food scientists for questions. As the talk progressed, I began to notice distinct lines in the sand between food disciplines. Chefs are not food scientists. Molecular gastronomy is not cooking. Language, it seemed, was important and I sensed a Pandora’s box of potentially contentious definitions and technicalities separating food professionals.

I have more of an agricultural knowledge base in food—nutrient run off, soil erosion, irrigation, ecosystem services, pollination—but not so much about cutting edge trends and debates in food science and cooking. I was curious, while unfolding and refolding the program handout I nested in my lap: What is the history of molecular gastronomy (or what is molecular gastronomy. period. for that matter)? How is this discipline different than traditional food science?

What do molecular gastronomists like This offer for the future?

Cooks, scientists, pioneers, nomads—humanity, in general, really—have been playing with food for centuries. One Scientific American article outlines major benchmarks in human’s experimentation with food, which includes bread, beer and sushi. In her book Moveable Feasts, journalist Sarah Murray describes how Mongolians mastered the biochemistry of every kind of dairy fermentation process imaginable. Today, Mongolian nomads have developed so many varieties of yogurt, cheeses and kefir that they rarely need fruits or vegetables—they already receive all the nutrients they need. Food historian Robyn Metcalfe writes about the forgotten science of home economics. One long-lost home economics book she describes is from 1919 and is titled, A Laboratory Course in Physics of the Household. Each chapter contains an experiment relating to physical topics such as Mechanics, Heat, Electricity and Magnetism, Light, and Sound.

As long as people have been curious and hungry, it would seem, is how long they have been tinkering in the kitchen and around the fire, and perhaps Molecular gastronomy, which began in the 1980s, is the edgiest form of culinary experimentation today.

Back in BU’s demonstration kitchen, This made a “steak” in five minutes. He combined a powdered protein compound (albumin, I believe) with oil along with a medley of flavors—such as pepper—from glass vials he kept in a little box on the counter. He poured his fluid mixture onto a skillet, waited a moment and gave it a flip. This enthusiastically asked a chef in the audience to sample his “steak,” which looked like a golden brown pancake. Despite the concoctions very un-steak like appearance, however, the chef confirmed that This’ concoction did indeed taste like steak. This later explained that he could have run a plastic hair comb across the top of the uncooked steak fluid to create “fibers” or texture in his food.

When This creates a molecular gastronomic meal, he take a few elements into consideration: the basic compounds (protein, carbohydrate etc), the color, the texture, the flavor and the odor. This calls his practice of molecular gastronomy “note-by-note cooking,” and he creates his foods in just that manner. This combines the basic compounds and molecules of glucose, protein, sucrose and fats to make food that transcends the conventional limits of plant and animal tissue. His box of glass vials contains all kinds of flavors and aromas that may be either found in nature or produced synthetically. Limonene, for example, is a flavorless, odorless hydrocarbon that gives the taste of citrus. While the off-the-cuff example of “steak” This showed us at BU was not particularly pretty, he also shared images of his more deliberate meals—they were bright, colorful and composed of interesting shapes and textures. Many of the meals looked like miniature glass sculptures.

Here is an example of his demonstrations recorded by BBC.
A molecular gastronomy salad, with little red and green wafers that taste like tomato and cucumber.

A molecular gastronomy salad, with little red and green wafers that taste like tomato and cucumber.

Here are some additional photos of molecular gastronomy meals.

Outside of these demonstrations, This is credited with uncooking an egg, discovering the science of why soufflés rise and creating up to 1,000 liters of mayonnaise with only one egg yolk. As This explained, molecular gastronomy is not “cooking” but a science—physical chemistry to be exact.

This explaining the science of soufflé.

This explaining the science of soufflé.

This also goes to what some might consider extreme measures to learn more about the chemistry of food. Here is an MRI of two onions slices, each cut with a different kind of knife.

This also goes to what some might consider extreme measures to learn more about the chemistry of food. Here is an MRI of two onions slices, each cut with a different kind of knife.

Although for explanatory purposes This had called his concoction a “steak” and he tried to use the flavors often found in steak, This carefully explained that he does not make “fake” food. His meals might taste or resemble steak or carrots or flan, yet they are not imitations, but instead “something the world has never seen before.” Accordingly, This always gives his dishes a new name—usually the surname of a famous chemist.

The dishes Herve creates are colorful, sleek and even flamboyant to look at; yet, with the sentiment, tradition and social ritual that surround cooking, why would people adopt note-by-note cooking, as This hopes they will? Well, as the description of This’ new book boldly reads:

“Cooking with molecular compounds will be far more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable than traditional techniques of cooking.”

Why, This asks, are we still cooking with pots, pans and flames—which are the same tools humans have used since the Medieval era—yet we no longer write with feather pens, but type on keyboards? This also pointed out that we listen to styles of music that have evolved in sound from Bach to The Beatles to Lady Gaga.

Why, then, don’t we embrace a paradigm shift in cooking as we do in technology and art? We could create foods with ingredients that don’t perish and are easy to transport. How would food supplies for refugees in war zones change if all people needed were a few powders consisting of targeted nutrients? How much less fuel would the world consume if we didn’t have to sustain secure refrigeration across entire continents or have to move dense ingredients thousands of miles overseas? Molecular gastronomy, This and proponents argue, liberates people from the physical constraints of plant and animal tissues while increasing energy efficiency and reducing food waste.

Objections of some kind or another might come up when you try to wrap your mind around this rather shocking vision: of kitchens becoming more like labs and humans becoming less dependent—or even completely independent—of the animal and plant ingredients we have always eaten. While it’s yet to be seen if note-by-note could actually inspire a revolution in food or truly be the answer to food shortages and waste, what is certain is that This is offering scientific ideas of an almost outlandish magnitude. That outlandishness could be objectionable; but, won’t we need to get a little outlandish to feed the world as energy becomes more scarce and our population bigger?

I am very sensitive to the urgency of the problems This presents—we do have an impending energy crisis to consider and we do have too many people starving in this world. Yet, I have heard of other examples of futuristic food technology before. At the 2014 SxSW tech conference, I remember listening to a presentation about synthetic meat—meat made from extracted cow stem cells or synthetic compounds produced in the lab. Logically, technology like this could solve a lot of problems. If we didn’t have to raise, feed and kill an animal for meat, methane and carbon emissions would decline. Vegans and vegetarians who refrain from eating meat for moral reasons could have more options. I—myself a vegetarian—could have bacon again (bacon, people!). Despite all that synthetic meat could offer me personally, however, the idea of producing pork or beef in a lab…offended me. I can’t explain why, it was just an immediate, gut aversion. I left that presentation in Austin early.

I didn’t have this reaction to This’ presentation. In fact, if the compounds he uses do require less energy to manufacture and produce than the energy required to produce plant and animal tissue and assimilate food waste, I think note-by-note could be a promising solution to some problems in the food supply chain.

But, others could easily feel the same deep-down aversion to molecular gastronomy that I felt at SxSW almost a year ago. Therein, I believe, lies the primary challenge facing note-by-note as well as other unconventional solutions to looming food crises. Comparing a paradigm shift in how we eat to prior paradigm shifts in music and art trends doesn’t quite convey the level of emotion and ritual that surrounds food. It seems that most debates that land on food—whether about nutrition or sustainability—are more often than not fraught with subjective sentiments and dogmatic conviction. I find it difficult to think of another area of life that is as hotly debated and close to the heart as food is today.

It will be interesting to see if note-by-note is more or less common in 10 or 15 years. Already, elementary schools in France have started using note-by-note. I wonder also whether other unusual food ideas, like lab cultivated meat or cricket farming, might become more widely adopted food sources as we face increasing environmental challenges on our warming planet. Although humans have always experimented with food, it seems that we may face a point where technology and food will have a battle with culture, unlike any other in our past.

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