In Europe, Local is the Norm





By Khaled Allen

In truth, the title of this article isn’t entirely true. There are lots of pre-packaged ice cream vendors, supermarkets selling bananas, and yes, McDonald’s in every major town. But for the two days I spent in the seaside town of Peniche, Portugal, it was pretty hard not to eat local.

The funny thing was that nobody even talked about the food being local or seasonal or fresh. It was assumed to be. But when my girlfriend and I started raving about how orange-y the oranges were, how plump and succulent the strawberries were, and how shockingly orange the egg yolks were, our hosts felt obliged to explain to us poor deprived Americans where these wonders had come from.

The oranges were grown just down the coast and only picked in season. The strawberries were grown all over the place, and we actually got to pick our own later that day. The sardines (oh the glorious sardines of Peniche!) were caught just off the coast and were grilled fresh. Every restaurant we ate at had their very own seafood display.

As for the eggs, no matter where we ate, they were always endowed with heavy, dark orange yolks. I don’t mean orangish-yellow. There was not a trace of yellow to be found in these yolks. If they had been darker, they might have bordered on red. Even when we ordered eggs at a cheap cafe in Porto, they were real eggs.

Bread was baked fresh daily. People made wines and liqueurs in their homes. Fruit and vegetable gardens were common, if not ubiquitous. Fish of all sorts, not just the ‘marketable’ kind, were on display at the supermarket, based on what the local fishermen had brought in that day. Some of them were pretty odd-looking creatures.

Food in Portugal is approached much differently than it is here in the States, and my experience with Switzerland suggests that this trend is not confined to one or another European country.

The American Excuse

The usual explanation of the discrepancy between American and European food systems is that the latter is economically unsustainable. It creates too high a cost for the consumer, and we won’t be able to get local food to everyone at a reasonable price. Over on our side of the pond, we have made the mature but difficult decision to forgo freshness in favor of providing cheap food to all.

Except, we don’t really. Americans still suffer from malnutrition as the result of over-processed, nutrient-depleted food. Sure it’s cheap, but it doesn’t even provide ample nutrition to keep us healthy, so what’s the value of the food? It would be better to eat less, more nutrient-dense food.

And the reality of Europe’s apparently local food system is not at all what most of us locavore’s think America’s local food system ought to look like. I didn’t see a single farmers’ market. Most of our food was bought in a grocery store or came through a restaurant’s supply chain. It was decidedly modern, distinctly unromantic, and very practical.

And it was not expensive.

Meals at restaurants ran about 30 USD on average for two people. There was plenty of food (none of those tiny portions you see at fancy European restaurants). We did one home-cooked meal featuring most of a chicken, peppers, onions, squash, mushrooms, grassfed (probably) butter, and rice, with some nice Portuguese wine, dried cheese, fresh baked bread, and sausage for the same price. That was enough for two meals, and provided us breakfast and lunch the next day as well.

But, if I am to be honest, 30 USD is a lot for most Americans to spend on that much food. I think Americans must have it in their heads that they are entitled to free food, or that food, a basic necessity, shouldn’t eat into their precious disposable income. Better to save money on food and spend it on clothes, electronics, and various toys. Americans spent only 9.5% of their income on food in 2008 (the most recent statistic I could find), according to the USDA. Depending on where in Europe you look, the numbers are similar or higher. The UK is pretty close at 12%, while Italy is 18%.

Here in the States, I get the impression that food is seen as an annoying necessity, something we have to deal with but which we’d rather not. If we can make it as convenient, cheap, and unobtrusive as possible, so much the better. Here in the States, there is a distinctive food-as-fuel mentality. When we eat, we are thinking of nutrition, calories, and convenience. We rarely sit down to eat and enjoy the food for its own sake and really savor the tastes and smells.

The food culture in Europe is very different, and I think that contributes a lot to the way food is produced and distributed. The family we stayed with was not at all the image of food-hippies, yet they knew where their food came from, and they cared that it was local, fresh, and in season. Even for those of us Americans who care, it is hard to find out, and most of us don’t care. At the risk of making a broad generalization, Europe seems to care about enjoying their food. Americans just want to eat it and get on with other things.

Attitude Matters

I noticed this difference in myself. When in Europe, I was perfectly happy to sit for hours and enjoy my meals. There was no rush to hurry and eat in order to get on with other more important things. Actually, eating and enjoying my food was probably the most important thing on my list of priorities. But as soon as I got back to the States, I caught myself rushing through meals in order to get to other things, or trying to eat while doing other things.

I think this lack of respect for food translates to other areas of how food is produced. When you don’t really accord food that much reverence, it becomes permissible to get it from factory-farmed cattle. It becomes acceptable that the tomato you’re eating wasn’t ripe when it was picked, or that apples were shipped halfway around the world, are out of season and don’t really taste like apples. When you don’t want to put effort into preparing a nourishing meal, it becomes sufficient to let big corporations prepare it for you by taking out all originality, all nourishment, and all value, and it therefore becomes okay that you’re spending nothing for food.

Because when you don’t expect anything from food, you don’t want to spend anything, and you don’t really get anything. All you get is the hollow image of what food ought to be. You get cardboard cereal in cardboard boxes. You get tomatoes that taste empty, even though they look plump and juicy. You get oranges that taste like water, instead of sun-ripened summer.

Which is okay for an American, because we’re still eating something that looks like a well-balanced breakfast, and at least we’ve saved enough money to console ourselves with distractions when our food fails to fill us up.

What was the biggest difference between the food in Portugal and the food here at home? I can’t really say it was the kind of food, or even the quality. It was the value accorded to food, and the joy and appreciation that went along with eating. That little thing—joy and appreciation—clearly had subtle but profound effects on the entire food system, from production to distribution to consumption. I don’t know if it’s something that we can implement here, but it is definitely something I’ll be trying to keep from my trip.


Contributed by Farm to Table