A few weeks ago, I leaned off my balcony trying to catch a glimpse of the woman singing flamenco in the bar below and instead got a dose of nostalgia for how much more local and container-free our lives used to be.
While I never saw the singer, I got an earful from my very friendly neighbor Carmen who popped out onto her balcony to wax on about the good old days in the neighborhood when old ladies sat outside knitting and people used to talk to each other (today, our neighborhood is a mix of people who often don’t speak each other’s languages: our building alone is filled with English, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Flemish, an Indian dialect and Italian) and when the now-mostly-shuttered storefronts were each a different shop (butcher, baker, even a scrap metal buyer).
When cows were urban
I found out that the local (storefront) below our building was a vaqueria (a milk store) that had their own cows and supplied the neighbors with fresh milk, straight into their lecheras (their own, reusable containers).
As with any piece of new environmental ethnographic material I pick up from near strangers, I went to my mother-in-law for confirmation. “Did our neighborhood used to have milk shops with actual cows in them?,” I began.
“Claro“, she replied, while frying onions, tomatoes and peppers for the lunch’s samfeina, “that’s how everyone used to buy milk.” Not one to overly nostalgize the past, she added, “they smelled.”
I wanted more. I explained my interest in buying from places where you could reuse your container. That got her started. “Oh, we used to go to the bodegas to buy wine. We’d bring containers made of animal skin”, she continued wrinkling her nose in disgust, “me daban asco.” She often uses this phrase to describe her aversion for something, though I found it interesting that while using pig skin for a wine container bothers her, it doesn’t for making sausage or chorizo.
“It wasn’t a very fair system. The wine merchants would add water to the wine and there was nothing you could do. Of course, they couldn’t do that with olive oil.” True to form, she was adding details I wouldn’t have thought to ask.
Milk, wine, olive oil… it was once all container-free.
I hate my recycling
Back in my kitchen after Sunday lunch, I stared at my recycling wondering how I could shrink it. I’m frightened by where all those plastic milk and yogurt containers will end up (how many recycled plastic park benches do we need?) and by just how much energy it takes to turn juice bottles into new glass.
Following the law of the three “R”s, I try to reuse or reduce instead of simply recycling. It works for plastic bags, but I just can’t seem to get around using some containers.
My most plentiful item is milk containers, and it’s gotten worse this past year now that my daughter is drinking the terrifying amount of nearly a liter a day (though since her doctor actually warned she shouldn’t drink more than a liter, I’ve started to water down her sippy cups).
Looking at my bag-full of empty tetrabric containers as I walked the 5 blocks to my neighborhood recycling bins this week, I became nostalgic for New York and Chelsea Market’s Ronnybrook Farms with their returnable glass bottles. (Their milk is also pesticide, hormone and antibiotic free, not to mention it’s not homogenized so the cream floats to the top).
I decided someone in Barcelona/Catalonia had to be offering to reuse their bottles. With a bit of research, I discovered a small farm in Girona province that began organic/biodynamic farming in 1981- before official certification existed- that offers returnable glass bottles.
The problem is Raphel Lladó is a small operation with just 11 happy cows on the grounds of a 17th Century masía (villa). There’s more demand for their milk than their animals can sustain, but the owners aren’t interested in growing. They say their cows don’t have mastitis because they’re not stressed and it’s also important to them to treat their little piece of the planet the best they can.
With such limited production, Raphel Lladó can’t reach the economies of scale of the big producers so when I found one glass-bottled liter in the organic supermarket Veritas I hesitated before the 2.50€ price tag and turned away empty-handed, after calculating just how much more this would cost me per week. At 59 cent/liter for my husband’s and my 4 liters of conventional milk/week and 1.35 cent/liter for Inés’ now watered-down 3 & a half liters/week of organic, I spend about 7 euros on milk per week. If I were to buy all 7 & a half liters of Lladó- if I would even get my hands on that much-, I would spend 18.75 € per week on milk ($23.60), or 611 euros ($770) more per year.
Making America’s “sacred” food at home
I decided to focus on other areas of my recycling. Given Nico and Inés’ habit of eating peanut butter by the spoonful, lately we’ve been piling up glass empties of this American basic, which my husband has surprisingly rapidly embraced (it’s no surprise a product with the awkward Spanish name of mantequila de cacahuetes– mahn-teh-kee-yah duh cah-cah-weh-tays- wouldn’t catch on here).
I wouldn’t want to discourage this meat alternative from their diet- I just learned that peanut butter became “an American icon” due to the meat shortage during WWII- so I went looking for a DIY option.
I googled “homemade peanut butter” and, as proof to just how easy it is, the first entry is a recipe for kids that takes just 10 minutes with just 2 ingredients: nuts and peanut oil.
It’s embarrassing that after decades of eating lots of peanut butter- the average American eats 3 pounds per year- I’d never once considered making my own. Given it’s expense here in Spain- about 6 euros for a large jar- it didn’t take much to motivate me to grind my own.
I bought a kilo of peanuts for less than 2 euros and since peanut oil is not something that has entered mainstream Spanish supermarkets I decided to go for an oil-free recipe. Since Spanish peanuts have more oil than most, they supposedly don’t require additional oil so my “recipe” was to simply throw nuts into a food processor. Two minutes later I had what could be defined as peanut butter, but was more aptly crumbled peanuts. I’ll blame it on our very old and very cheap food processor (for a visual of my experiment, see the video How to make a cheap and container-free peanut butter).
Not wanting to leave my kitchen, for round two I decided to try an olive oil peanut butter recipe, this time it was closer to the real thing, but still a bit overly crunchy (see video Homemade peanut butter with olive oil). I think my mistake was not adding the oil after first blending the peanuts, but Nico and Inés still ate it on top of crackers so I decided to take a break from perfecting this sacred substance (at least according to American Senator Tom Harkin)
A cheap & convenient tapa
One Sunday morning last month, I realized I’d invited my in-laws to lunch and hadn’t shopped while the markets were still open Mon-Sat for the requisite appetizer tapas (typically, jamon serrano, cheese and olives). Deciding to work with what I had I pulled soaked garbanzo beans out of the fridge and resurrected an old recipe from my single days (For a video of my recipe, see How to make hummus without preservatives or plastic)
Living alone, I used to rely on hummus as a staple- on toasted pita with tomatoes for lunch or with carrots as a snack while editing- and I’d always hated the plastic containers that piled up fast. Once I discovered how to make my own- while on a visit to Seattle where it seems every grocery clerk has a hummus recipe to share-, I began to appreciate how extremely cheap homemade hummus can be (using dried beans, a tubful of DIY costs me much less than a dollar, while a large plastic container at the supermarket runs about $4).
Pre-in-law visit, it’d been awhile since I’d made, or eaten, hummus, but luckily I had leftover pre-soaked garbanzos from that week’s lunches (see video “Accidental vegetarians: the faircompanies family 2 years in“). I simply dumped some into our food processor, along with garlic, salt, lemon and tahini (a gift from an American expat friend who had just just passed it along to me before moving home, but if you want to avoid this container, there are recipes which substitute tahini with cumin).
It took me less than 5 minutes to chop the garlic, cut and de-seed the lemon and to blend it all. For a garnish, I grabbed a bit of parsley from our terrace (thanks to my mother-in-law I have plenty of this herb that seems to grow without any care and to regenerate as I continue to pick off shoots) and then I topped it with a bit of olive oil. Since I didn’t use a recipe, I was afraid it was too garlicky, but my sister-in-laws (the family’s hummus eaters) ate it up.
Bubbling your own water
My brother, perhaps because he has spent so many years in Manhattan, is a seltzer addict (aka carbonated or sparkling water, for those of you outside the Big Apple), but also an environmentalist (he recently left his comfortable job as marketing director at WebMD.com to start the “WebMD of green“).
Concerned by his growing collection of plastic bottles, a year or two ago he invested in a home seltzer maker (see video for his demo of his “Penguin” machine). While my brother is very happy with his $250 Penguin and it’s glass bottles, there are cheaper alternatives- from makers like Liss ($65), iSi ($73.95) and Mr Fizz ($149.50)- or to avoid continually refilling your CO2 cartridges, you could go all out and pay a few thousand to install a restaurant counter soda fountain under your sink.
Even more retro-green-cool, if you live in Silicon Valley or New York, you can have seltzer home delivered from Redwood City, CA’s Seltzer Sisters or Walter the Seltzer Man (718-468-4047). With Walter, a 3rd-generation seltzer deliveryman, who delivers in reusable glass bottles “some of which date back to when his grandfather made his rounds through the Lower East Side in a horse-drawn wagon”.
The problem with juice
I am so obsessed with precycling that I have been adopting secondhand glass bottles from a friend and have been using them to store my bulk beans and rice and oatmeal. Though now that I’ve reused all I can, I’ve considered buying her a juicer. (For under $100, you can make freshly-squeezed orange, grape or tomato juice, or whatever you feel like juicing).
Though I’m a bit conflicted about the environmentally-friendliness of drinking too much juice (or some types anyway), as it takes about a pound of oranges to make just 8 ounces of juice. So instead, I’ve thought about talking to my friend about the unnaturalness of drinking your fruits. According to The World is Fat author Dr. Barry Popkin juice concentrates sugars and removes the appetite-satiating fiber and bulk of the fruit. “An eight-ounce glass of juice from oranges, apples or grapes has about five to eight teaspoons of sugar. Calorically and nutritionally, it’s much better to eat the fruit.”
Waiting for the cows to come home
Not to deflect attention from my own recycling piles, I do admit to having a milk problem. I’d like to just cut out dairy from my diet, but having had a grandmother with osteoporosis, I worry about getting enough calcium. I try to eat dark green leafy vegetables and take calcium supplements, but my doctor sister argues your body doesn’t absorb calcium as well this way, so for now I haven’t completely given up cow-sourced calcium.
The other day while walking through the Raval (the neighborhood adjacent to ours now dominated by hipsters and recent immigrants), I stopped short on seeing a storefront with the sign vaqueria overhead. For a few seconds, I held my breath hoping to hear a moo. But peering inside I saw books and chairs and realized it was not a place to buy hyper-local container-free milk, but more likely someone’s office.
It turns out urban cows aren’t part of just a distant past. Barcelona’s last vaqueria was closed in 1984 due to changes in public health laws though vestiges of the site remain. If you stop in at what is now a modern store selling dairy products (all safely packaged) in the city’s hip Gracia neighborhood, you can still see the old milking stalls and metal milk pails.
It’s doubtful that they’ll be bringing cows back to our neighborhood anytime soon- besides the legal issue, the area is now mostly filled with bars catering to young tourists-, but perhaps some 3rd-generation milkman or woman will resurrect the milk bar tradition in the same way Walter the Seltzer Man continues his grandfather’s tradition. Though even Walter recognizes that this way of life may be outdated. “This job was anachronistic 30 years ago. Now it’s like a resurrected ghost.”
In this time of carbon-footprint consciousness, perhaps it’s time to resurrect old ghosts and bring the cows home. For anyone willing to battle city hall, I guarantee a live cow or two would draw the tourists.