Swiss “Tuscher” family ancestors.
By Sharon Tisher
MOFGA President – 1999-2000
I’m writing from Bern, the capital of Switzerland and home of our AFS exchange student, Simon Dalla Torre. I’ve been spending the last three weeks with our children in Paris and Bern. While we’ve done plenty of the usual tourist things, what I’ve most enjoyed is my informal and very tasty study of the European food system. I have a new appreciation of what it means to live – and to farm – in a country that devotes 20 to 25% of average per capita income to food – as opposed to 10% in the United States – one of the lowest percentages in the world. Do we have our priorities right?
The Europeans don’t think so. While one can easily find a McDonald’s in Paris, sales of traditional French baguette sandwiches from street vendors are once again outpacing the fast food burger. The European attitude toward American tastes in food is best exemplified in an ad appearing in this morning’s Bernese newspaper. The ad showed a well dressed European man seated in front of a lavish platter of lobster, salad and vegetables with the caption, “Now you can call London, Vienna, Paris or Rome for only 26 cents a minute.“ The next picture showed the identical picture, but with the man dumping a bottle of catsup all over the lobster. The caption: “… or North America.”
In one block of one street in the neighborhood of our borrowed French apartment we found the following (no kidding): a small supermarket, including in its regular stock fresh figs, 2-pound artichokes, whole smoked chickens, fine French wine ($2 a bottle) and Normandy hard cider ($1.20 a bottle) – the last two items were the only ones that were decidedly cheaper than their US counterparts – and three butchers selling a variety of beef, veal, lamb and rabbit, plus exotic fowl and organ meats never seen in American markets; two pastry shops exhibiting a sinful variety of fruit and chocolate confections, all-butter croissants and candies; three vegetable markets; three stores selling fresh rotisseried chicken, whole lambs and pigs; a Greek and a French deli selling a vast array of quiches, prepared meats and pates and prepared foods; a bread bakery offering a dozen varieties of bread; and last but not least, a cheese store selling over 100 varieties of fresh and aged sheep, goat and cow’s milk cheeses, eggs and huge blocks of fresh churned butter. Are you getting hungry? On Wednesdays and Saturdays these shops competed with a farmer’s market that occupied all of the next block. This was not the market center of Paris (that was a 20 minute walk away) – just an average upper middle class neighborhood.
In Bern, a city of 120,000, a central city square plus several additional blocks are filled two days a week with a farmers’ market attended by easily 60 vendors of locally produced fruit, vegetables, bread, cheeses and flowers. A single vendor often had more produce to sell than all of the Orono farmer’s market combined. Organic “biologique” farmers are represented but are proportionately fewer than in Maine’s farmers markets. Items that we are introducing to the Maine markets – mache, leeks, fennel, arugula – are staples of conventional farmers’ production as well.
We tracked down some of our Swiss “Tuscher” family relations, who are living in the same farmhouse that housed Tuscher farmers for the last 250 years. They have abandoned the traditional regional focus on potatoes and dairy, in favor of a modern, successful greenhouse operation producing vegetables and cut flowers for market.
More than half of their income comes from selling flowers to florists. The Swiss think nothing of spending $15 to $20 for a pretty bouquet of flowers. Our host family hardly ever goes out to eat because it is so expensive for a family. They estimate nonetheless that they spend 15% of their family income on food – 50% more than the average American.
Our Swiss ancestors left this region to find more land to farm – and the space, privacy and abundant natural resources they sought still characterize much of Maine. I wonder, however, if we are making the most of these resources. From this vantage point it seems that Americans, through the convergence of agricultural monoculture, corporate conglomeration, and dependence on fast and processed foods, have sacrificed diversity, quality and taste for economy and convenience. Is this a choice we would have consciously made if given the opportunity?
I am looking forward to returning to Maine to celebrate with all of you the taste, quality, and diversity of Maine’s organic agriculture. As I think of the things I want to show our Swiss hosts when they visit Maine, the Common Ground Fair ranks right up there along with the ocean!