Re-educating Our Palette

Imagine a culture that sets sail for a new home. It takes with it just some basic food supplies (bread, cheese, ham, butter and marmalade) and some seeds. Who would imagine that 500 years later this outpost would become a spirited, independent country but still dependent on those simple few foods? The colony that Spain once founded half way around the world in Cuba, is still consuming mostly bread, cheese and ham yet it cannot grow wheat, has few diary cows and is economically restricted due to the USA embargo.

April and (left) Vilda Figueroa (right)

Cuba’s ‘dietary dislocation’ is typical of most nations of the western world. Most of us are eating food that is not indigenous or able to be grown easily in our bio-region.  Re-education of the palette is the single biggest hurdle for permaculture.

We can all grow a vast array of foods, every home can have abundance of fruits and vegetables yet still we have a world population of hungry people who find it difficult to try new foods. In addition to this we have an epidemic of western families who have lost much of their cooking skills in just a few generations. The recent cooking-skills loss follows the loss of gardening skills and other crafts from our heritage.

Vilda Figueroa (a qualified bio-chemist) and Jose Lama (an engineer) founded the Proyecto Communitario Conservacion de Alimentos in the 1990s. is an organisation that strives to show people through their television and radio programs and hands-on workshops that they can easily grow and process native foods such as Cassava/Yucca. We were lucky to have a private meeting with this amazing couple during our visit to Cuba for the International Permaculture Conference.

The main processing technique is simple and inexpensive: wash, peel and thinly slice the cassava (and do the same for many other foods), put it in a solar igloo covered with fly netting for just 3 days to let it dry out. Put it in a blender to turn it into flour.

They also teach about ferments and fermentstress the importance of nutrition in permaculture teaching. There is wealth of information in a project such as theirs.  The success of their project is that they have trained  many others and are generous and kind. They have trained farmers to value-add to their products, families who enjoy the better foods and children in schools who have been inspired to try new foods and rediscover ancient foods.

My main mission was to learn what they are doing in their project, how their project became so successful with so little funding and to get some practical answers to old nagging questions that I had. Primarily, I have always wanted to know how do we grow more carbs in an intensive urban permaculture garden? Bill Mollison talks about never needing carbohydrates in our diet. He argued that “carbs are just to fill us up” but I am not happy to give up on carbs, I think permaculture needs to meet the mainstream diet at least part of the way and integrate carbs in the food forest.

In Cuba I found an answer to my quest on how to grow more carbohydrates. We can simply grow more root crops and starchy fruits such as plantain (savory bananas).  Vilda and Jose showed me how we can easily dry them as chips with a solar dryer and then put it in a blender or crush it to make flour.  This also suits gluten-free diets. Vilda has developed the secret of using whisked egg white to help cakes rise.
I also had another question about Cassava/Yucca. I had heard that it was lower in nutritional value than wheat, but, as Vilda pointed out, Cassava is very easily digested and so the nutrients become available easily. At the permaculture convergence I saw farmers showing slides of their crop with tubers bigger than a man’s thigh! that is an impressive amount of food per plant. Cassava has a far greater food potential than Cubans may realise and I hope they develop a taste for their native food before fast food chains claw their way into the country and demand potato and wheat.