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SUSTAINABILITY Food co-operatives, Basque style

Outdoor Living
Tempting treats lined up on a bar in Bilbo (Bilbao) in Basque Country.
Tempting treats lined up on a bar in Bilbo (Bilbao) in Basque Country.

Food co-operatives, Basque style

Food matters
Chris Brown

With regulations as they currently stand, the selling of my hen’s eggs to a shop is a criminal activity, and so finding a place to sell the stuff I work hard to produce is not easy.
The fact that paid inspectors are driving around the towns and villages of Ireland with the powers to confiscate goods and prosecute unruly shopkeepers who don’t conform, enforcing the will of the European lawmakers, it appears I’ll have to find some other way to trade in eggs. Either that or get rid of most of my chickens and just gather enough eggs for the home kitchen – but it would seem a great shame to be forced to do this.
I’m sure that other European countries don’t accept this kind of command so readily, and with this in mind I set off earlier this year, when the days were short and the soil asleep, to find out. So off I went to the beautiful Bay of Biscay – to the Basque Country – to discover how they go about their business over there. Are they blighted with dictatorial, unnecessary red tape as we are here in Ireland?
Things looked promising whilst travelling through the mountains as I stopped for a little refreshment. A lady who’d been sawing logs for the winter fire with her husband brought me inside to her premises where a few local ‘skins’ were taking a rest and a glass or two.
Inside this gloriously ramshackle room my eye was taken by some chorizo sausages hanging on a nail behind the bar. My kindly hostess told me she’d made them herself when they last killed a pig round the back, and she was only too pleased to put one on a plate for me; with a lump of bread, a sharp knife and a glass of ruby red wine; just the job to keep me going for the afternoon.
With that done, she left to go back to chopping wood. As I bid her farewell to continue my journey I wondered whether things would be as relaxed in the city?
Well, the bars were of fancier design, and the bartenders weren’t covered in sawdust, but with wine by the glass at 90 cent a pop and a whole array of tempting foods lined up along the bar without a plastic glove in sight, things were looking good. This was down town Bilbo (Bilbao), the capital, on a Saturday night, and happy I was to be there.

Co-operative trading
I explained to some Basque friends that I was interested in how local farmers sold their food and whether they were hampered by regulations as we are, and was invited to visit a farm the very next day. It was at the heart of a co-op that organised the bringing of fresh vegetables to town.
This farm was high up in the mountains with fields that were steeply sloped, and it was immediately evident that lots of hard work had gone into setting them up for vegetable production.
The farmer and his wife, who were young, enthusiastic and hospitable, took some time to show me the three different areas under cultivation – the winter vegetables, the summer vegetables and the seed production field. Fascinating!
Here, at the top of a valley, from the rows of lush broccolis, cabbage and roots, to the production of seeds – the very cradles of life – was food of the highest order (and flavour, you have my word), destined for the tables of the co-op’s members, was something wonderful – sustainability!
No chemicals are used, just endeavour and a will to provide and eat the very best of nature’s bounty that involves growers and customers working together.
Could such a scheme work here in Mayo?

Next time Co-ops – how do they work?

Chris Brown is a food producer in Louisburgh. He has a particular interest in food miles and buying local.