Fricot Feature | A Sustainable Food Future?

The Swiss town of Martigny with the cantonal valley in the background, rows of vines in the foreground at Martigny Croix

Biodynamic grower and Fricot traveller Robert Allen wonders whether we are seeing a change in local food production and the beginnings of clever sustainable practices


In Marcel Pagnol’s Water of the Hills, Parisian taxman Jean de Florette inherits a farm and decides to seek the ‘authentic’ with his wife and young daughter. He grows pumpkins to raise rabbits for the town market. His neighbour Ugolin harbours a dark secret and a desire to cultivate carnations for the same market.

Retold by Claude Berri in film, the story is at first a paean to the romance of country life, until reality sets in and the greed and stupidity of people is revealed in a tragic ending that is sad beyond belief.

Something similar is now happening in reality, in France – not too far from Pagnol’s imagined Provence, and in many countries where the desire to seek the ‘authentic’ has become overwhelming.

One hundred years have passed since the fictional Jean and Ugolin were united in sorrow by their naiveté, and in that time local food markets have had to survive the impact of global forces. Some countries, like Switzerland and Turkey, have clung hard to the integrity of their food market traditions, while others, like France and Ireland, have had to reinvent the wheels of the cart that brings the food to market.

Markets born out of a will to create ‘a space of conviviality around local food products’ should exist in every city, town and village, yet the food market generally faces unchartered futures. This is obvious from the different realities.

I must be honest, I never gave the basic street food market any thought until I spent time in Martigny in the 1990s and saw something I had never ever seen – a place filled only with local food, fresh indigenous produce and the artisanal products of the Valais canton. Today, a generation later, you can go into the Coop supermarket in nearby Sion, take a coffee in the cafe and stare at a wall with several declarations about the fidelity and proximity of the local produce.

This wasn’t an accident.

At the turn into the 20th century the Valais / Wallis (valley) canton was isolated from the world. It had survived a cholera epidemic in the 1830s because it was self-sufficient. Confined to their homes, the population relied on the stable foods of the land. Out of that adversity a traditional dish emerged – a pie called cholera – in the Goms valley, above Brig. Made with apples, cheese, leeks, pears and potatoes, it survives today to remind everyone of the importance of sustainable food security.

Three generations later the route out into the world was made easier when the world’s longest railway tunnel was opened under the Simplon Pass in 1906. It linked Paris via Lausanne, Montreux and Brig with the Italian lakes and the Po Valley, the metropolis of Milan and the lagoon city of Venice. Following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 the Orient Express was routed alongside the Rhône River Valley and the curious ones discovered its delights – fruits and nuts, summer and winter vegetables, wine and cheese and dried beef, and a rye bread that defined the art of bread-making.

Martigny became an epicentre of this activity. At the last count there were 176 apricot growers continuing a tradition that started 200 years ago when it was decided that fruit trees would soak up the melt water in the flood plain. The warm, dry climate has remained perfect for the sensitive Luizet variety. Planted on the south-facing embankments, apricot trees thrive in the alluvial soil. These growers supply two-thirds of the one million kilos needed to make approximately 120,000 bottles of 70 centilitres of Abricotine at the distillery in Martigny.

The soil around Martigny, in the neighbouring villages of Fully and Saxon is perfect for seasonal asparagus, and for a range of leaf and root vegetables. This is also the reason for the rye bread, because rye is the only cereal that can tolerate the extremes of the Alpine climate and grow on marginal land. And if you like the idea you can sit close to the apple and pear plantations and watch the bees visit the trees in bloom, eating your slices of air-dried beef, cheese and rye bread, drinking a local wine made with organic grapes.

The air-dried beef and rye bread of the Valais / Wallis (valley) canton in southern Switzerland

Street markets are woven into the fabric of city, town and village life, going back thousands of years. Those that have survived, like the market in the Place du Marché in Vevey, share a common denominator with other modern markets. Françoise Lambert, curator of the Historical Museum of Vevey, explained. ’Being so close to the lake with a lakeshore, easily reachable, the expansive square was an important crossroads from north, east and west and linked Vevey to several villages and important cities. Everything helped the development of the market, which was known in the whole region.’

Tuesday was market day. An attempt to bring it inside the city walls in 1470 was rejected, but this led to the establishment of smaller markets in the city on Thursdays and Saturdays. Several trade fairs were launched. Goods were sold on different days at different times, butter at 7am, wheat at 8am, for example. Now the market is held on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and the trade fair of St. Martin on November 11 continues to thrive.

Local produce, such as mushrooms, and artisanal activity, such as bread, attracts a regular clientele. This morning the bread woman and the mushroom man across from each other, have long queues and it is now 11 am, so we will go and see what the traders from Savoy across the lake have to offer.

’We find all the regional products that are not necessarily in the big supermarket, like the fresh fishes of the lake,’ said Françoise Lambert, who said that the amount of produce from France had increased since the mid-2000s. Like the cheese sellers and the salami sellers of Savoy, who explain politely to potential customers the origins of their produce. We are told the market is held in high esteem because the location (one of the largest natural squares in Europe) allows room for a diverse range of artisans and traders. At the mushroom stall, trade is both ways. That’s fresh!

A fruit and vegetable (and mushroom) seller at Vevey in Switzerland © Sebastien Staub

For many years we visited the street market in Domodossola, the iconic alpine town across the mountains from Brig in northern Piedmont. ‘Oh don’t go there,’ friends would say, ’it is a bad market.’ Somehow we always managed to arrive on a good day when traders from central and eastern Italy would set their stall out, selling the cheeses of the provinces, countless types of salami, dried legumes, dried mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, aromatic breads, seasonal vegetables and iconic cured meats. In the summer the mixed market would fill the streets, the area around the railway and bus stations, the small squares, the main street up toward the old town and its disused market square. Large custom-made trucks parked in the small squares, the aroma of hot food in the air would often complete the day-out if we decided to sample their delicacies.

Then it changed. The restoration of the Piazza del Mercato in the old town completed, the Saturday market was joined by different markets on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the cobbled square. Now the Saturday market flows through the cobbled lanes of the old town from the Piazza del Mercato into the modern streets at Piazza Tibaldi and around into the Piazza Arturo dell’Oro, where the food market has its own distinct space. Established in 1891 as a Saturday market, the Domodossola market is alive again throughout the week!

Every Saturday morning Giorgio and Claudia Battaglia park their custom-made food truck containing cheese, cured meats, olive oil, rice and salami in the Piazza Arturo dell’Oro, a small square off the main street up from the railway station. Sometimes, during the week, they can be found in the Piazza del Mercato. They now have a thriving business, and that is to be expected because this is a region that has immense pride in its local foods. Giorgio and Claudia know this. They arrived with their new truck in 2015 and tapped into that pride. Everything the food artisans and food producers of northern Piedmont have to offer they have in stock, like the absolutely delicious cheese and salami of the Ossola Valley.

Food market history in context at Domodossola in northern Italy

For more than a decade the food market in Carlow in Ireland’s south-east, where the climate is conducive to early vine fruit and leaf and root vegetables, presented a strong image to town and country, at its height attracting a turnover of half a million euros. Founded in August 2004 as the direct result of a local enterprise scheme to energise the community, John Hayden, the local rural resource worker put in charge of the project, had posed the question: ‘Would you be interested in a food-only / producer-only market, with handicrafts once a month?’

Consumers and producers alike said they would. It was agreed there should be two stallholders each of bread, fish, meat and vegetables – for variety and competition – because these foods were seen to be essential to the success of a food market. There were 16 stallholders. It got off to a good start. The town council adopted a hands-off approach. The original stallholders became Carlow Farmers Community Market, took out collective and individual insurance to indemnify the town council against claims (there have been none). They registered as a group with the revenue commissioners, acquired licences from the Health Service Executive to trade in the space provided by the council in the centre of the town. In turn the council passed a bye-law to allow the group to trade on a Saturday between 9 am and 2 pm. Local businesses supported the market.

Founded four years later, the food market at Grabels in the Languedoc region of the south of France was an initiative from the local authority, with the aim of ‘strengthening social ties and making fresh and affordable food available’. The major delegated a team to investigate how this should be done. Jean-Pierre Diet, who looks after agriculture in Grabels, remembers an ulterior motive. ‘The idea was to bring Grabels back to life on Saturday morning,’ as well as ‘support local small-scale agriculture over everything else as a way of being sure of having safe, fresh food’.

Agronomist Yuna Chiffoleau realised this was going to be easier said than done. ‘They became aware that there were almost no farmers left around Grabels, and no small-scale farmers in particular and learned that local artisans procured most of their raw materials from wholesale markets.’ Eventually the new market launched with 20 stallholders, selling cheese, fruit, olive oil and vegetables. There were five artisans and five retailers, but some had travelled a long way to sell their produce. There were problems ahead!

Carlow and Grabels markets received plaudits during their start-up years. Carlow certainly did better than Grabels, largely because there was transparency to the Irish operation. The produce was local, no more than 60 kilometres away and two-thirds was produced by the stallholders themselves.

To solve their problem, Grabels initiated a colour scheme – green indicated own produce, orange indicated produce sold by intermediaries. Stallholders displaying the orange label had to guarantee that they knew the produce and could vouch for it. In 2016 the people of Grabels celebrated the leitmotiv of International Market Day on May 29 — I love my market. Their market was a success.

The open-air market at Grabels © Ici.C.Local

Nadja Saralam, an Australian who works at the cheese stall, said much the same about Carlow. ‘It is a growers / producers only market. So everything is grown and produced locally, and you can talk to the vendors about their growing methods and environmental values, and be comfortable in what you’re buying. You’re dealing with the people who really do produce what they sell, and know the food terrain.’

‘I love grabbing a bunch of carrots, and knowing they were pulled from the ground only a few hours previously. You certainly can’t beat the quality of the food you buy there, and prices compare to supermarkets. I no longer bother to shop anywhere else.’

Saralam was full of praise for the local producers. ‘I believe one of the best things you can do for the planet is to buy locally from responsible producers, and primarily eat seasonal, non-imported foods. Despite Ireland having lost its cheese culture, there is still a really good selection of Irish cheeses on the market. The stall at the Carlow market is run by a cheese maker who farms and produces cheese just four kilometres from my house – you can’t get better than that!’

With 27 stallholders, who sell bread, champagne, cheese, chickens, condiments, eggs, fish, fruit, honey, jams, mushrooms, pastries, plants, snails and wine, Grabels food market is now firmly established. It is branded by the national Ici.C.Local (Here it’s Local) trademark – farm produce or local / regional produce – and supported by local, regional and national governments.

Carlow council, with support from the state, desperately needs to follow the example of Grabels and grow its food market. The ‘no support, no interference’ strategy from the local council is damaging the market, because Carlow now faces the same problem Grabels started with – a lack of local producers.

There is a strong feeling in Carlow and in Ireland in general that the attitude of the state towards small-scale producers who are not interested in the export market must be challenged, for the sake of local, seasonal food production – for food security. The Carlow market has an ageing population and hardly any young blood coming through. There is a shortage of bread and pastry makers, vegetable growers and artisanal producers. The group is shrinking. There are now only ten stallholders. Vegetable growers Charles and James Ryan had their growers license withdrawn over an auditing issue with new food safety guidelines that got blown out of proportion when arbitration would have resolved the problem.

There is a fear that more stallholders will be lost. Jimmy Mulhall, who sells organic meat and meat products, has been researching food markets, travelling to France to see their models and looking at the closed markets in Dublin. If he decides to move his business indoors there is a possibility he will not bring his truck to town for the open market.

Carlow cheese-maker Elizabeth Bradley at her stall in Carlow food market

Raw-milk cheese-maker Elizabeth Bradley has been under investigation by the authorities and is determined not to be forced out of business or out of the market, where she sells cheeses from Ireland, France and other countries. Other threats to the market include the town council’s plans for the space the stalls presently occupy, the lack of a manager to deal with bureaucratic problems (like the Ryans), logistical issues (like new stallholders) and marketing issues (like the website and general awareness).

Carlow and Grabels are unique because they are about the group and the quality of produce. Agronomist Yuna Chiffoleau understands this better than anyone. She was there at the beginning in Grabels and is there now to see the results of their careful planning.

‘From 2005, I became interested in assessing how direct sales and short distribution channels can help protect agriculture from economic and social duress. I am very serious about helping the agronomists of tomorrow understand how much their decisions will have consequences in society,’ she says without a hint of irony.

Down the road in fictional Provence there were consequences when Ugolin’s uncle persuaded him to plug Jean de Florette’s spring, and thus deprive him of the precious water he needed to survive, consequences that are now mirrored in modern Ireland. In Grabels the plug was never put in so there was no need to pull it out. In Carlow the plug is so embedded no one knows it is there. There is no such drama at Domodossola, because the people of the town desperately wanted to see their old market tradition re-established. The markets of Martigny and Vevey are exactly what you would expect them to be – short chains with long gains for the local producers.


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Paolo selling mountain cheeses from the Italian pennines at Verona market


A stone’s throw from Juliet’s balcony in the heart of Verona, tucked away in one of the linked squares, Paolo tempts customers with slivers of goat’s and sheep’s cheese. Deep in gothic Germany, in a converted stone building behind the ancestral seat of Hesse in Witzenhausen, Christine serves a tall glass of red cherry juice. At the Nar Restaurant, up the street from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul’s old town, Banu suggests layered walnut pastries to her guests.

These delights share a common denominator. They are artisanal, derived from indigenous produce — cheese from the milk of animals known for their environment, juice from the morello red cherries that characterise gâteau and kirschwasser, walnuts from Anatolia combined with the ancient method of rolling wheat flour dough so thin it becomes transparent.

Christmas markets have been a feature of continental Europe since the ‘dark ages’ and continue to thrive in every large city and major town, tempting customers with an array of traditional foods and handicrafts. Biscuits and cakes and sweets, cheeses of all types and shapes, cured and cooked meats, sausages and hot and cold drinks of festive cheer predominate in these markets.

Much of this produce is commercial, assembled or cooked or baked on a grand scale, but some is artisanal, made with sweat and tears and a whole lot of love, each cheese different from the other because it is hand-shaped, each batch of juice stronger, each pastry a little uneven.

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In the main hall of the Royal Dublin Society, tucked away from the crafts, the stalls bump into each other. This is the food emporium of the now annual National Crafts & Design Fair.

At the corner of one junction, where there is amble space to linger or pass, three women offer slivers of cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s cheese to passers-by. Most will take the cheese and move on. Having paid a tenner entrance fee they are eager to sample everything. Only a few exchange notes and coins for cheese. Still, the vendors are happy. They are selling their stock.

A sign says, ‘meet the cheese makers’ and some of the people are prepared to engage in small talk. Those who know their Irish cheeses are delighted to put a face to the produce they have been eating for years. The small talk becomes large.

The cheese makers among the vendors take the chance to develop a theme that the European Union insists is part of their strategy to bring sustainable food security to its members and anyone else who joins in the research — agri-food chains and value food chains!

The cheese makers, however, are interested in only one element of these systems, the one that is known as a short chain. This is where the cheese maker meets and sells directly to their target audience, and gets the return they deserve and desire to keep on going on. No distributors, no wholesalers, no supermarkets, no space sellers and no one making a huge profit out of their blood, sweat and tears.

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Across the European continent the relationship between the artisan and the customer is generally commonplace, at fairs and festivals, at market squares and street corners. Demand and supply is met by supply and demand. It is not like a trist, and it does not cost a fortune to arrange the furniture and pay for the allotted space.

Artisans – whether food producers, food innovators, bakers or cooks – insist that their produce and products are not for those who need low-priced supermarket fare or for those who can afford to pay high prices. They are for those who want to enjoy a food product with organoleptic qualities and that usually means everyone. Price therefore is key. There is nothing new about this. Brilliant bakers, clever chefs and knowledgeable cooks have always sought good quality local produce and artisanal products. It is why we talk about New Nordic Cuisine and still go on about the Mediterranean Diet. These products are always based on fresh, local ingredients.

Family farmers, small farmers, agricultural co-operatives, artisanal producers, food grocers, food co-operatives and distribution co-operatives are part of the societal fabric of many European countries. It is not unusual to see shops and stalls in the cities that are run by or served by co-operatives, who share the cost of the premises or space, and can charge competitive prices to their customers, who know that they exist and what they sell.

For farmers, including cheese makers, this also includes farmers’ markets and farm shops, street markets and food-specific fairs. This is generally known as direct marketing, but it is not want the EU is talking about.

The EU wants ‘more efficient, equitable, sustainable and better performing [food] value chains’. It wants to strengthen the ‘farmers’ position in value chains through innovative approaches that enhance transparency, information flow and management capacity’. It wants to ‘limit the negative impacts of agri-food chains on the environment, climate and health’. And apparently it is prepared to fund anyone who can come up a plan to ‘enhance the capacity of actors within agri-food chains to design new processes leading to new business models’.

Jérémie Forney, at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, believes this can only be achieved with collective knowledge, a concept that has been around for a very long time and is now rarely applied in capitalist society. ‘Collective knowledge creation is not limited to farmers,’ he says. ‘The same attention to knowledge should be given to others with different functions and activities along the food chain.’

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New agricultural and food cultures should be based, according to Forney, on the ‘three dimensions of food, knowledge and autonomy’.

Rachael Durrant of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex in England argues that until the control of governance is resolved sustainable food security will be impossible.

She believes that the transitions to sustainability include grassroots innovation, where the provisioning of food responds to ‘local situations, interests and values’. She argues for ‘alternative systems of food provision [that] destabilise industrial food regimes, and for regime reform among mainstream businesses and public bodies’ to force them to ‘adopt and embed more sustainable configurations of technologies, practices and organisational arrangements’.

Unfortunately those in academia who advocate sustainable food security as community-led reside in the humanities departments and those who advocate it as business-led reside in the applied science departments. And those who study the academics’ approach insist that the two are incompatible.

Collective schemes like the non-profit organic agricultural co-operative in Malles | Mals in South Tyrol in northern Italy stand out like a beacon of hope for the type of sustainable futures that will be needed when global temperatures reach two degrees. A relatively new project, the Vinterra social co-operative is gradually building a sustainable food economy for the ‘common good, shared among its members and supporters’. With the establishment of a bistro the journey from field to plate is short, from the fields on the edge of the village. New land is being acquired to allow them to manage the soil and grow the indigenous crops of the valley.

With other collective schemes utilising the seven-storey biodynamic system and conventional farmers beginning to realise they need to add wilderness spaces and verges, it might not be beyond the realms of probability that we are seeing the reality of sustainable food security schemes.

There is nothing to stop villagers everywhere adopting collective non-profit organic schemes like Malles | Mals and towns adopting short chain systems like Grabels and both towns and villages colonising spaces to hold daily food markets like Domodossola.


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