Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A few global food trends (1 of 2)

This is a modest essay about a few global food trends.

I have been reading media reports about overfishing, rising global demand for meat, and environmental damage resulting from the way we eat food. All these ideas seemed abstract.

Over the holidays, my family traveled a second time to southern Spain. Our travels helped me understand some of these food trends better.

Trend #1: scarcity is making seafood a luxury food in Europe

The Mediterranean is where civilization began. From the time of the Phoenecians, these people have eaten seafood. It is hard to emphasize how important fishing and seafood is in southern Spain and Italy.

In Southern Spain, we found seafood much more central to the diet, particularly in fine restaurants, than here. And restaurants serve a much wider variety than we see in Houston. For instance, I have a hard time imagining the Sevillian sea snails above on most Houston menus.

The death of the Mediterranean

Like many of the world's seas, the Mediterranean suffers from overfishing. It's serious. Overfishing may soon extinguish local stocks of tuna, mackerel, cod, and swordfish. According to the Independent, overfishing and pollution are turning the Mediterranean into a "graveyard."

We found that the price of wild seafood had increased dramatically since our last visit four years ago.

The rising price of European seafood

This bowl of monkfish in a thick egg-based soup was one of the least expensive seafood dishes at El Caballo Rojo in Cordoba. It cost over $30.

In Sevilla, we returned to La Isla -- a restaurant known for wild-caught seafood delivered fresh from Galicia and Huelva. We ordered a platter of simply grilled seafood including swordfish, monkfish, salmon, squid, clams, shrimp, and a few other shirmp I can't translate. It costs around $60.

The real shock occurred in the small port town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Casa Bigote is a seedy sailors' bar with a small restaurant attached. It is a foodie destination known for langoustines -- small lobsters that seem more like very large shrimps.

The menu did not list the langoustines' price. When I ordered in beginner's Spanish, the waiter tried to communicate with me about the size of the order. I made the mistake of ordering "la plancha."

The enormous platter that arrived was one of the most decadently wonderful seafood dishes I have eatern. And, as I learned, the most expensive.

Words can't describe the salty-fresh sea flavor of these creatures. As the rest of my family carefully fished out the meat, I was grabbing the heads to suck out all the delicious juices.

Overwhelmed by the plate, I tried to tell the waiter that I had ordered "demasiado" and to cancel the other dishes we had ordered. But we still received some deliciously crispy small fried "gambas" or shrimp. They were fried whole, which is exactly how we ate them.

Finally, we received te bill. The langoustines alone cost $150. I have never paid that much for any plate of food.

After this inadvertent splurge, our food budget was exhausted. For the rest of the trip, we stopped ordering seafood. And as we switched to meats, vegetables, and grains, our meals became cheaper.

The future of American seafood?

In the U.S., we have a greater supply of seafood. And prices are lower. Yet a report in Science suggests that, if current trends continue, there will be virtually nothing left to fish from any of the globe's seas by the middle of this century.

In short, even here, wild-caught seafood will soon be a short-supply luxury item. In ten years, it may not be that rare to find a $150 plate of seafood in Houston.

This is my ethical dillemma: do I try to do my part to conserve and eat less seafood? Or do I eat as much as I can now, before prices go up more?

This plate of fried sardines from Sevilla isn't making my choice any easier:
Next: The villagers turn to meat. The urban rich turn to peasant food.


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