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Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat

Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat

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Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat

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Lançado em:
Nov 13, 2007


Today the average meal has traveled thousands of miles before reaching the dinner table. How on earth did this happen? In fact, long-distance food is nothing new and, since the earliest times, the things we eat and drink have crossed countries and continents. Through delightful anecdotes and astonishing facts, Moveable Feasts tells their stories.

For the ancient Romans, the amphora---a torpedo-shaped pot that fitted snugly into the ship's hold---was the answer to moving millions of tons of olive oil from Spain to Italy. Napoleon offered a reward to anyone who could devise a way of preserving and transporting food for soldiers. (What he got was the tin can.) Today temperature-controlled shipping containers allow companies to send their frozen salmon to China, where it's thawed, filleted, refrozen, and sent back to the United States for sale in supermarkets as "fresh" Atlantic salmon.

Combining history, science, and politics, Financial Times writer Sarah Murray provides a fascinating glimpse into the extraordinary odysseys of food from farm to fork. She encounters everything from American grain falling from United Nations planes in Sudan to Mumbai's tiffin men who, using only bicycles, carts, and their feet, deliver more than 170,000 lunches a day.

Following the items on a grocery store shopping list, Murray shows how the journeys of food have brought about seismic shifts in economics, politics, and even art. By flying food into Berlin during the 1948 airlift, the Allies kept a city of more than two million alive for more than a year and secured their first Cold War victory, appealing to German hearts and minds---and stomachs. In nineteenth-century Buffalo, the grain elevator (a giant mechanical scooping machine) not only turned the city into one of America's wealthiest, but it also had a profound influence on modern architecture, giving Bauhaus designers an important source of inspiration.

In a thought-provoking and highly entertaining account, Moveable Feasts brings an entirely fresh perspective to the subject of food. And today, as global warming makes headlines and concerns mount about the "food miles" clocked by our dinners, Murray poses a contentious question: Is buying local always the most sustainable, ethical choice?

Lançado em:
Nov 13, 2007

Sobre o autor

Sarah Murray is author of Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat. A longtime Financial Times contributor, she lives in New York City.

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Moveable Feasts - Sarah Murray



Pluck a cluster of green peppercorns from a vine, put one of the tiny berries in your mouth, crunch it between your teeth, and something curious happens. A small explosion of flavor travels at speed through your body, first around your head, and then through your veins and arteries (or so it seems). It is a remarkable sensation. Pain and pleasure intermingle in a heady rush of piquancy. It is not only pepper’s flavor that has a propensity to travel, however. As a valuable commodity, this king of spices has been shipped around the world for centuries, covering tens of thousands of miles in the hands of everyone from Arab traders and Venetian merchants to European colonizers. Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, battled for two years across twenty-seven thousand miles of ocean in his search for Christians and spices, landing on India’s tropical Malabar Coast in 1498. There he found the spices, if not the Christians, and soon after, an ancient global trade was brought under Portuguese control, fueling the growth of the first European empire in Asia.

Today, pepper is conveyed in industrial-size shipping containers on cargo vessels, trains, and trucks. As an ingredient in so many foods—which in turn cover enormous distances—it remains one of the best traveled of edible commodities. However, the voyages made by pepper differ little from those embarked on every day by much of what we eat. Grapes bought in Des Moines, Iowa, might have been on a long and complicated voyage that began in Chile by the time they end up on the supermarket shelf, heading north by ship to the port at Los Angeles or through the Panama Canal and up the east coast of America to Philadelphia, where, after a short layover, they are trucked another several hundred miles across several U.S. states. After a long and arduous climb up a wooden trellis, green beans may well feel they have traveled quite far enough. That is, unless they were grown in Kenya, in which case they will be rudely plucked from their vine, blast-chilled, packed inside a refrigerated container, and flown thousands of miles by jet plane to London, where the British call them French beans.

In China, affluent consumers now enjoy everything from Italian olive oil to Japanese noodles, Belgian chocolates, and French cheeses, all of which have undergone lengthy journeys before reaching their destination. In fact, most of what we consume travels thousands of miles from its origins to its grand finale on the dinner table. How on earth did this happen?

Actually, globetrotting fodder is nothing new. Long before Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India, food was being hauled over great distances. The ancient Silk Road, the trading conduit for, among other goods, tea and spices, was at least seven thousand miles long. The Romans moved food all over their empire—British archaeologists recently discovered a two-thousand-year-old food jar with a label showing it once contained fish paste thought to have been shipped to Carlisle from Cádiz, Spain, more than fourteen hundred miles away.

Some might ask how Roman officers in a Celtic corner of ancient Britannia acquired a taste for fish paste, or what accompanied it at dinner. My question would be how exactly did the paste get to such a remote corner of the Roman world? What sorts of containers did it travel in and how, in the absence of refrigeration and vacuum-sealed packs, did the fishy concoction not go bad during its journey?

Food has always been among the more difficult commodities to move around. Unlike other tradeable goods, it is often liquid, messy, or perishable. Shipping it across the world has challenged the ingenuity and technical resources of engineers and inventors from the earliest times. As a result, the things we eat have traveled inside everything from humble wooden barrels to atmosphere-controlled shipping containers; from sleek nineteenth-century tea clippers with sails billowing at the mast to wide-bodied jet planes traveling at five hundred miles an hour. Collectively, these vessels and machines underpin the global food system. They are the essential tools in getting things from farm to fork.

Some trips appear at first glance to make no sense at all. Today, fish is often frozen and sent on a ship to China where it is defrosted for filleting before being refrozen and returned to the United States and Europe. Yet this improbable round trip makes perfect sense to fish sellers, because container shipping and high-tech refrigeration have combined to make ocean-borne transport so cheap and efficient that they can cut their labor costs by processing fish on the other side of the world. Such bizarre journeys are not what we usually think about when browsing the supermarket aisles. But these are exactly the sorts of voyages this book will describe.

Shifting food around has at times altered the nature of the food itself. Farmers in Japan have developed a means of training watermelons to grow in square form so they are easier to pack, move, stack, and store. In use for millennia, the barrel is a sturdy, watertight container that is easy to roll, despite its weight when full, but it has also been responsible for changing the taste of its contents. For winemakers, the barrel is now a powerful element in the creative palette. Alcoholic drinks such as wine, rum, whiskey, and port have all had their flavors manipulated by the oak staves of this efficient moveable container.

Foods, too, have benefited from storage and transit in wood. Balsamic vinegar is, like wine, aged in oak barrels. Fish produced by the four-hundred-year-old Cornish pilchard industry once relied for its flavor on being cured in dry salt, then pressed to extract the excess oil and water and packed in pine casks before being shipped, mainly to Italy, where Salacche Inglese della Cornovaglia added a tangy bite to plates of polenta.

But the story of transporting food goes beyond the filling of stomachs. Take those peppercorns. Vasco da Gama might have found India woefully lacking in Christians, but while profiting from the spice trade, the Portuguese soon took up the task of converting the locals, spreading the religion into Asia. In Central America, seismic shifts in the political landscape were brought about when refrigerated steamships helped transform an unknown tropical curiosity into the poor man’s fruit, giving U.S. companies the economic clout with which to manipulate the banana republics from which they harvested the yellow fruit of what is actually a giant herb. In 1842, when a nineteenth-century entrepreneur named Joseph Dart introduced a system of mechanical elevators that speeded up the transshipment of grain in Buffalo, New York, he helped transform the city’s fortunes. What he did not know was that years later, the mammoth structures housing his remarkable machine would provide sparks of inspiration for an entirely new theory of architecture: modernism.

Many things have shaped the world—science, democracy, art, war, philosophy, politics—but the odysseys of food have rarely made it into the history books. Moveable Feasts will redress the balance. It will show that the movement of food, often over vast distances, has for centuries been part of human life—an inevitable consequence of the quest for sustenance. It will explore some of the complex technologies and systems used to deliver dinner. It will survey mankind’s ingenuity (driven at every turn by his stomach) in devising ways of shifting sufficient quantities of the things we eat and drink from their origins to our tables. It will romp through history in search of eccentricities in the moveable food chain, whether in Italy, Spain, India, or Mongolia. It will demonstrate that the ability to send food across international borders benefits not only those sitting at the dinner table but also farmers such as the Kenyans who are now selling their beans to London supermarkets. It will also look at some of the complex trade-offs that emerge as we try to ensure that our food supply, one that now relies heavily on fossil fuels, is sustainable.

First, let’s go shopping. Basket in hand, I have picked up a series of items, one of which will appear in each chapter. Some are protagonists in the modern food industry. Others are part of centuries-old trade routes. Now, where was I? Oh yes, olive oil. Ranks of bottles confront me on the shelves—everything from a chic, minimalist brand from Greece to Tuscan bottles with elaborate old-world labels. But I am going for the extra virgin from Andalusia in southern Spain. Think about it for a moment: I am about to take home with me a liquid that has been crushed out of olives grown in a Mediterranean grove far away from this supermarket. By the end of my shopping trip, I will also have in my basket a pound of Norwegian salmon; a tin of plum tomatoes from San Marzano, Italy; a packet of chewing gum; a preprepared vegetarian curry; a bunch of Guatemalan bananas; a tub of low-fat yogurt whose origin is hard to determine; a bottle of California chardonnay; a box of tea plucked from bushes in southern China; a carton of Spanish strawberries; a packet of flour milled in the United States; and a corn on the cob.

Collectively, the items in my basket have traveled tens of thousands of miles before reaching the supermarket. More to the point, they have left a trail of footprints in their wake, stirring up economic, social, and political change along the way. For some, the phrase moveable feasts refers to religious holidays, such as Easter or the Chinese New Year, that fall on different calendar days each year, their dates governed by anything from theological calculations to the position of the moon. For others, a moveable feast is a task or decision that can be altered to suit changing circumstances. This book will use a more literal interpretation: the idea that the things we eat and drink are eminently (and sometimes against all odds) moveable.






Oil derived from the fruit of the olive tree

ORIGIN Mediterranean region

ETYMOLOGY Latin oliva, from Greek elaia

LEGENDS According to the Romans, Hercules was given the task of spreading olive trees. Roaming the Mediterranean shores with his olive staff in his hand, he would strike the ground, sending out roots from which trees then grew.

Professor José Remesal Rodríguez holds a piece of pottery up to the sunlight. He is standing at the top of Monte Testaccio, a small, unassuming hill on the southern fringe of the Aventine, a short ride from Rome’s city center and within sight of some of Europe’s greatest monuments. The Pyramid of Cestius and the Protestant Cemetery are nearby. In the distance, the majestic dome of the Pantheon, Borromini’s extraordinary spiral tower at the Church of St. Ivo, and the pompous Monument to Victor Emmanuel II rise up above the low-slung buildings of the city. It is an impressive display—a visual excursion through Italian history from Roman times via the Renaissance and on to nineteenth-century unification.

But the professor is not paying much attention to the view. He is too busy examining the chunk of clay in his hand. It is pale brown and bears a deep mark that appears to have been stamped into the clay while wet. There is nothing refined about this thick fragment of earthenware. Its form is clumsy; its surface rough. It was clearly not part of any sort of decorative or ceremonial object. It is in fact a piece of a Roman transport amphora—a ceramic pot about the size of a small barrel that almost two thousand years ago carried food to Rome, capital of an empire stretching from the lowlands of Scotland to the deserts of Africa, from Spain to the Persian Gulf.

It is Baetican, of course, pronounces the professor. Baetica is today’s Spanish province of Andalusia, the southernmost region of the Iberian Peninsula, home to flamenco and known for a simple, unpretentious cuisine that includes gazpacho, fried fish, and cured ham. Spectacular Andalusian architecture such as the Mezquita in Cordoba, a cathedral that was once a mosque, provides a reminder of the presence of the Moors, the Muslims who ruled from the eighth century to the fifteenth.

Long before that, however, the Romans were in charge. That was when Baetica was part of Hispania—an area now occupied by Spain, Portugal, Andorra, and Gibraltar. Roman soldiers first arrived there in 218 B.C., and as direct imperial rule was established, Hispania became a prized part of the empire. Three emperors—Trajan, Hadrian, and Theodosius I—would be born there.

As one of Hispania’s imperial provinces, Baetica was an important source of food for the empire. And this dry, mountainous swathe of land was the starting point for the piece of pottery Remesal is holding. The fragment is part of a second-century transport jar that set out to Italy from a vast agricultural estate owned by a wealthy senator at a time when Rome was at the height of its power. Produce from this fertile land would have been loaded into the jar, heaved onto a vessel by bonded laborers, and shipped to Rome. There, it ended up in the homes and palaces of everyone from philosophers and politicians to manual workers and freed slaves. It may be small and dusty, but this fragment of pottery is part of the endless patchwork that is the history of the Roman Empire. The story it has to tell is one of immense wealth built on trade in an essential commodity: olive oil.

•   •   •

Gathered around the professor on Monte Testaccio are students and archaeologists who have traveled from the United States, Spain, and Poland to join Remesal in his ambitious archaeological investigation of this modest-looking hill. It is not the best day for it. On an uncharacteristically soggy October morning, most of those present are wrapped in brightly colored plastic raincoats and fleece jackets. Umbrellas are at the ready. Below, the hum of traffic is accompanied by a cacophony of barking dogs, crowing roosters, and pealing church bells as the city slowly wakes. A rainbow arches briefly across the tempestuous sky as the sun attempts to break through the clouds. Softly, the rain starts to fall.

But a spot of bad weather does not trouble the professor. He is far too interested in what lies beneath his feet to worry about what is happening in the sky. A bearded, bespectacled Spaniard who seems at his happiest with a cigarette in one hand and a piece of pottery in the other, Remesal has spent the past couple of decades uncovering the stories hidden beneath Monte Testaccio’s grassy slopes. This is his stomping ground and, in blue jeans and khaki safari jacket, he looks entirely at home clambering over the uneven ground on the broken pieces of Roman amphorae scattered underfoot. I spend a month here each year and every time we come, we find something different, he says, speaking in heavily accented French. I’ve gotten to know this hill pretty well, but there are always surprises. Remesal talks with a deep, gravelly voice. It sounds as if, over the years, particles of dust from the pots he studies have become lodged in his throat.

The archaeological dig on Monte Testaccio is like no other. While most archaeologists spend days scrabbling about in the dirt in the hopes of finding something of interest, here they have no such worries. This is because the entire hill is made of archaeological material—there is no dirt here. What lies beneath the thin layer of topsoil is nothing but millions of broken pots. Each year, Remesal and his colleagues come here to carve a large square pit about ten feet deep into this archaic mound and study what they excavate.

Like the rings of a tree, each layer of pottery corresponds to a moment in time. In this year’s pit, they have got down as far as the reign of Marcus Aurelius, around A.D. 175. As the dig progresses, Italian contract workers in white plastic hard hats stand at the bottom of the hole, carefully chipping away at it and filling buckets with pieces of amphorae. Up on the surface, colleagues use a rope to heave load after load of fragments out into the fresh air and over to the center of activity—a collection of large plastic tubs filled with muddy water around which students and academics sit and gossip as they wash two-thousand-year-old layers of dust from the chunks of earthenware in their hands.

It is a busy scene. Dotted about the place are bright orange, yellow, and green plastic crates into which the shards are thrown—one box for each category of fragment. Some boxes contain those with form (handles, necks, or bases). Others store pieces on which stamped marks, rough scratches, or painted inscriptions are visible. Then there are boxes for the bulk of the pieces—shards without recognizable shape or markings known as no form. At a large table, several archaeologists are working on what must be one of the world’s more difficult jigsaw puzzles as they try, mostly in vain, to re-create entire pots by fitting together some of the larger pieces retrieved from the same excavation level.

At the end of the dig, much of what has been heaved up from below the hill’s surface will be thrown back into the hole. It is a strange phenomenon. A single one of these shards found in a field anywhere else would generate great excitement among historians and archaeologists. Here on Monte Testaccio, however, pieces of Roman amphorae are being heaved up from below the hill’s surface in bucketloads throughout the day. After washing the fragments, the volunteers casually throw them into the plastic boxes as if they were vegetables, scrubbed and ready for cooking. It looks as if they are preparing for a mammoth vegetarian feast.

Monte Testaccio is one of the world’s more curious ancient relics. It is actually a vast rubbish heap. For more than two centuries, olive oil amphorae were dumped here after their contents had been unloaded and distributed to consumers. As Romans used up more and more oil, the pile of shards grew, creating over two centuries a hill made up entirely of bits of pottery. Bases, handles, rims, necks, and body fragments all ended up here. Roman emperors came and went, battles were lost and won, and nations beaten into submission, but the mountain of pots kept rising. Some of the amphorae were shipped from North Africa, but at least 80 percent of Monte Testaccio’s unlikely treasures originated in Baetica. We are standing on Spanish territory, declares Remesal with a grin. And he is right: what lies below our feet is a gargantuan mound made from the clay of southern Spain, a chunk of foreign soil that ended up on Italian shores.

Today, few notice this bizarre monument to ancient Rome’s commercial might. After all, it is hardly located in the most glamorous setting. The modern district of Testaccio is one of the city’s seedier areas, now famous for taverns, gay bars, and nightclubs with names such as Caffe Latino Jazz Club, On the Rox, and Chattanooga—places where Rome’s night owls like to spend their time and money. But even these trendy establishments have a history rooted in the mountain of jars around which they cluster. In the Middle Ages, the hill became the focus for all kinds of religious festivals and secular revelries, and a collection of taverns and restaurants opened around Monte Testaccio’s slopes. From the seventeenth century, wine merchants who dug caves out of its slopes found that the dense ceramic makeup of the hill provided a cool atmosphere that was ideal for storing wine.

Today, disco music thuds out from the caves at the base of the hill and, in packed restaurants, hungry diners enjoy the oxtail stew and the sweetbreads that have long been popular in this district, which was once home to the city’s main slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, at the back of several of the restaurants, the pot fragments quietly watch over the proceedings, clearly visible behind glass walls.

Dining and dancing might be the order of the day now, but in the first and second centuries, all activity around here centered on waste disposal. There are several theories as to how it was organized. Some believe empty pots were hauled up the ever-expanding hill by mules—each animal might have carried about four amphorae—and then broken up at the summit. Others speculate the jars were smashed below before being taken up to their final resting place. From time to time, lime was poured on the broken shards to counter the smell of rancid oil and to prevent the spread of disease. With each cargo vessel that arrived on the banks of the Tiber, the hill grew bigger.

Today, by some accounts, the hill is about 165 feet high and it takes about twenty minutes to walk around. True, it is not much to look at compared with the Colosseum, the giant showcase for Roman cruelty, or the Pantheon with its mighty dome, but this man-made mound is one of the world’s most important archaeological sites—a critical corner of ancient Rome, offering a remarkable window on the empire’s economic life.

The nineteenth-century writer Rodolfo Lanciani certainly appreciated the significance of old trash. The hill itself may be called a monument of the greatness and activity of the harbor of Rome, he wrote in an 1897 description of Monte Testaccio, a quarter of a century after an Italian priest, Father Luigi Bruzza, and Heinrich Dressel, an Italian-Prussian professor, began to excavate the site. On a frosty morning in January 1872, the pair climbed up the slopes and set about analyzing what they found there. By the time their work was complete, Dressel had scrutinized and set down details of more than three thousand marks stamped onto handles of the amphorae, as well as nearly a thousand inscriptions written on the body of the pots by Roman insurance agents, ship’s captains, or customs officers. The amphorae assessed by Dressel’s project represent a fraction of the hill’s historical data. More than fifty million pots found their final resting place here. Today, while teams excavate more than five hundred cubic feet of material each season, they are barely scraping the surface of this remarkable dump.

Not all Roman amphorae were disposed of as they were here, in a great big pile. Elsewhere, in early examples of recycling, they were used for storage in domestic kitchens and warehouses, and even as urns containing the ashes of the dead. Smashed into pieces, they became part of the fabric of buildings. Packed into the rubble core of walls, they acted as insulation. In roofs and domes, they helped lighten the structure’s weight, and in the walls of theaters, the curved fragments enhanced the acoustics, amplifying the sound of music and voices. In short, these pots were extremely useful. So the fact that a mountain of amphorae accumulated in Rome, broken up, unwanted, and collecting dust, indicates the scale of demand for olive oil in the first and second centuries.

Rome was then the largest city in the ancient world with a population of about a million. It was tremendously crowded, made up mainly of residences, and had no industrial manufacturing or food production of its own to speak of. Romans were consumers, not producers, and most of what they ate had to be brought in from other parts of the empire—in extremely large quantities.

Olive oil was among the most important of the imports. An extraordinarily nutritious food product containing edible fats and high levels of vitamins A and E, olive oil was used by the Romans to fry, bake, and roast their food. It was a key ingredient in bread as well as in salad dressings. By night, olive oil lamps provided lighting in domestic households, temples, baths, and palaces. At sporting events, athletes smeared themselves with oil before competing, and olive oil was the base for most perfumes and cosmetics. Each Roman citizen probably consumed up to thirteen gallons of the liquid a year (by comparison, Italians today use 4.5 gallons a year) and larger homes or taverns stored hundreds of gallons in a dolium, a huge jar that was dug into the ground to provide a cooler storage vessel. So Monte Testaccio’s amphorae fragments are evidence of consumption on a massive scale. Some estimate that its well-traveled pots would collectively have carried an astounding 1.6 billion gallons to their destination (the same amount of liquid that would be generated by flushing a toilet once a second for thirty-two years).

Monte Testaccio has more secrets to reveal. A wide variety of markings on the pottery shards make the hill rather like a giant accounts book detailing the export and import of olive oil. Instead of ledgers recording income, expenditure, and accounts receivable, the stamps, scratches, and painted inscriptions tell of the estates producing the oil, the companies that shipped it, and the customs officials in Spain and Rome who checked the goods on departure and arrival.

The painted inscriptions are the most intriguing of the marks. The beauty of these strange and ephemeral hieroglyphs, with their elaborate flourishes and curls, is made more entrancing by the rarity of their occurrence elsewhere. When such pottery is found at other sites, exposure to light or moisture means any ink inscriptions have long since disappeared. At Monte Testaccio—a giant time capsule in which every shard has been protected and kept dry by a layer of topsoil and grass—details remain that allow us to trace each stage of a pot’s passage from the olive estate to the docks of the Tiber. The month a particular pot left Spain can be pinned down. The exact date it arrived in Italy is also recorded.

Here in Rome, we learn of the fortunes of the Spanish businessmen who profited from this valuable liquid. When a group of shards bearing the same markings are found at the same level, it becomes possible to start building a picture of certain families and the years in which their olive estates produced good harvests. The Baetican landowners and merchants made wealthy by olive oil had names like MM. Iulii of Astigi, a family at the heart of the trade for more than three generations, or M. Iulius Hermes Frontinianus, whose son M. Iulius Hermesianus followed his father into the business. It is often unclear whether these people were traders or producers, but what is certain is that they profited from olive oil in some way. Shipped across the empire, olive oil turned Baetica into Hispania’s wealthiest province, with architectural, political, and social structures that emulated those of Rome itself. Common coinage was introduced. Bridges and aqueducts were constructed. Latin became the province’s official language.

The landowners and businessmen immortalized by Monte Testaccio’s ceramic fragments lived in fine villas and led lives of luxury, surrounded by dozens of slaves and attendants. They hosted expensive private parties, staged theatrical shows, purchased works of art, and erected funerary monuments to themselves. Some Baetican oil traders made it into the highest echelons of the aristocratic elite, particularly if they used their spare cash to make donations to the collegia, voluntary associations that were part of the social fabric of the Roman

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  • (4/5)
    This book was interesting, but there were a lot of jumps where it was not clear why the author thought that two paragraphs belonged next to each other.The book includes a lot of UK information. More available, or an attempt to be useable on both sides of the Atlantic? Aha! A Brit living and working in New York. That explains it!