Vive La Différence
More of a travelogue than a normal blog post this week, as I’m on holiday in Normandy. Globalisation has seen off many of the cultural differences between France, the UK and other European countries, but there are still some distinctions. Small supermarkets still have the aroma I remember from my youth, which I take to be the combined smell of all sorts of fresh produce open to the atmosphere. There have been many technological changes since I worked in the fruit and veg department of a grocery store in Switzerland during university holidays, some relating to how food is packaged, some relating to temperature control and some relating to the types of produce sold and how far it has travelled to reach shoppers’ baskets. It is noteworthy, though, that when Aldi and Lidl first opened in the UK they still had that smell, but it has now all but disappeared. Some of it still lingers on in Normandy at least, where even a hypermarket retains something of a local market feel in the grocery section.
Travelling round in an electric vehicle, there are plenty of wind turbines to be seen, some of the output from which was perhaps powering our journeys. France has a fairly low-carbon grid, with nuclear and hydro being long-standing contributors to the mix. Nuclear is not without its controversies, of course, but there is a growing contribution from other renewables than hydro as can be seen in the picture below. The wheat harvest has taken advantage of the same heatwave conditions as the UK has seen over the last couple of months, although whether overall yields have weathered the conditions remains to be seen. The fields of maize that have always been such a feature of the French countryside look less exotic in these days of energy crops being grown across England for anaerobic digestion.
The contrast from last year’s rain is striking. The annual YNOT festival in Derbyshire was cut short in 2017 because of a waterlogged site (see photo below), whereas this year the ground had more in common with the mid-West dust bowl of the 1930s than the quagmire that it became last year after thousands of pairs of feet had trudged to and fro through the waterlogged fields for 48 hours. The rain broke the weeks-long dry spell during YNOT 2018, but the parched ground simply soaked up the moisture.
In the realm of food and drink, Normandy is probably best known for Camembert and Calvados, but there is plenty of other local produce including pastries, seafood, sausages and beef dishes and many more types of cheese. The town of Neufchatel en Bray is even named after a type of local cheese (the characteristic heart-shape of which can be seen in the picture below). All of this and more can be found at Dieppe’s huge Saturday market and others across the region.
By coincidence, the case study on the LCA course I mentioned in the previous post (see ‘What Goes Around…’) was the production of cider using data from France and Italy. Visiting a smallholder cider apple orchard and cider maker was, therefore, an almost obligatory research trip. The reality of the activity on the ground shows the limitations of LCA as a technique and why it is difficult to generalise from limited data sets. This particular farm, started by the owners 22 years ago, has 15 different apple varieties (all of which will have differing pest and disease resistance characteristics) and a mixture of high-stem and – predominantly – short-stem tree forms. Cattle are able to graze under the branches of the high-stem trees but under the short-stem trees, grass and weeds have to be kept in check by other means. Access to the orchard is along a narrow high-sided track (a relic of the characteristic Normand bocage) making access nigh-on impossible for large-scale agricultural equipment. This particular combination of varieties, husbandry, geography and the philosophy of the owners is unlikely to be exactly replicated at any other cider producer in Normandy or elsewhere, so any LCA applied to the operation using data collected from another producer could only be a guide rather than a definitive reflection of what is done there.