books food transport

Moveable Feasts, by Sarah Murray

Italy exports over 60% of Europe’s olive oil, but only grows half of it. How can Italy export more than it grows? Because it imports it from Spain and Morocco, puts it in a fancy bottle with a Tuscan landscape on the label and sells it on as Italian. It makes more money that way, although the Spanish are less than impressed.

It’s one of dozens of odd little stories about food and the way it travels in Sarah Murray‘s book Moveable Feasts – the incredible journeys of the things we eat. Our supermarket fish may have been caught in Norway, sent to China to be filleted by cheaper labour, and then sent back to the UK for sale. Sometimes it works the other way. China has a passion for ‘imported’ English tea brands such as Twinings or Yorkshire tea. It is grown in China, shipped to the UK to be boxed and branded, and shipped back to China for drinking.

Fossil fuels may have made these kinds of indulgences commonplace and available to everyone, but they’re hardly new. In the 19th century it was noted that Madeira wines exported from Spain to America tasted better for the journey. Apparently the months of sloshing around in warm temperatures actually improved the flavours. Colonists who returned from the Americas found the local wines weren’t as rich, and wine manufacturers ended up paying for their wines to be sailed to the equator and back to replicate the flavour.

Food imports go back a long way. Moveable Feasts begins in Italy, on an ancient Roman landfill site where millions of broken amphora remain as a testament to the city’s love of imported olive oil. From here, the book explores the development of a global food network through the stories of various foodstuffs, from the aforementioned fish to strawberries flown from California. The book also charts the technologies that make these journeys possible. Refrigerated lorries and ships, grain elevators, the history of canning and tinning.

There are some very good stories here. There’s a chapter on the development of the barrel and how wine-makers came to appreciate the flavours oak can impart to the wine. There’s a chapter on US army rations, a diversion into how Buffalo’s grain warehouses inspired the Bauhaus architectural movement, and a history of the Berlin airlift. My favourite chapter was on the network of curry delivery men in Mumbai. It’s an eclectic and entertaining read, and I found it fascinating.

If you’re after the detail of air miles and out of season indulgences, there’s some useful environmental and fair trade information here, but it’s not a book about those things per se. It’s far more interesting than that, full of surprises and diversions and well worth dipping in and out of.

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