Macambo as a solution. Chapter 2: Creating community

We told you in a previous post about the potential that Macambo seeds (a cousin of cacao) have to become a nutritious and delicious food that the Ecuadorian Amazon can share with the world (read the article Macambo as a solution. Chapter 1: The proposal).

We are not talking about just any superfood, but about one that supports the economic activity of a group of indigenous farmers of the Kichwa nationality who cultivate in a respectful way (within ancestral agroforestry systems) for their own consumption (and for sale) while conserving the local ecosystems and thus protecting the Amazon.

This type of agriculture can represent an alternative to mining, intensive agriculture or logging.

In the photo we see Emma and Patricio, two macambo producers on their farm where they peel macambo and other fruits. Photo by Ana Buitrón, courtesy of Canopy Bridge.

We also told you that we are trying to connect these producers with a group of consumers who support the annual purchase of 200 Kg of dry macambo seeds that justify the import by sea from Ecuador to Italy once a year after the harvest. We thought that perhaps chefs attentive to these arguments might be interested in embracing and valuing macambo, a rich and nutritious product with identity and positive social and environmental impact.

Slightly toasted macambo for Sara and Cinzia’s preparation. Photo by Benedetta Stefani (@maledetta.stefani) courtesy of Lucrezia Ganazzoli.

This proposal began to take shape after my meeting with Sara Nicolosi and Cinzia De Lauri, two chefs from the vegetarian bistró AlTatto in Milan. Their cooking philosophy highlights vegetables, quality, seasonality and where food comes from. They loved the idea of valuing a product belonging to the culture of the Kichwa indigenous people of the Amazon region of Ecuador. They gave me the contact of some colleagues who they thought might be interested in creating a community, to discover and make this Amazonian seed and its history known to the people of Milan.

After some meetings, calls and a little time, on Monday, October 2, AlTatto opened its doors to welcome the culture behind Macambo. The cooking philosophies of 6 chefs, Simon Press (Contraste), Denis Lovatel (Denis pizza de montaña), Francesco Costanzo (Pasta Madre), Aurora Zancanaro (micro panificio Le Polveri), Mutty and Sara and Cinzia (AlTatto), praised this distant guest.

Photo of the people who participated in the event in honor of macambo and his people (chefs, waiters, ideators, supporters, doers).

The event began with a short introduction of the project followed by a reinterpretation of “chucula”, a delicious drink made with ripe plantain served with ice. Meanwhile, people asked questions, read about the project and saw the photos that told this and other stories of indigenous communities from the Ecuadorian Amazon and their fight to conserve this magical place full of life.

The story of Nemonte Menquino, indigenous leader of the Waorani nationality, tells how together with her people, they defend their ancestral territory, culture and way of living. The story goes on to talk about how in 2019, they obtained a historic victory against the Ecuadorian government to protect half a million acres of primary Amazon rainforest from oil exploitation, setting a precedent for the rights of indigenous people throughout the region (more information).

Nemonte Nenquimo, guardian of the Amazon rainforest, first female leader of the Waorani people. Recognized by Time as one of the 100 most influential people of 2020.

Another story was the long fight to protect the Yasuní National Park, one of the places with the greatest biodiversity on the planet and home to various indigenous communities, including groups that live in voluntary isolation, Tagaeri and Taromenane. In 2007, the Yasuní ITT initiative proposed to the governments of several rich (polluting) countries to grant compensation of 360 billion dollars over 10 years for leaving Yasuní oil underground (half of the expected profit from sales). The proposal did not materialize and oil exploitation began in 2013. After 10 years, in the referendum of July 23, 2023, the citizens of Ecuador decided to suspend oil extraction in the Yasuní within a period of 1 year, a unique precedent in the world (more information).

Block 31, Petro Amazonas building “Ecological Trail” into the Yasuni Park South of the Tiputini to most likely “pave the way” to tap the ITT. Yasuní National Park, one of the places with the greatest biodiversity in the planet also has oil under the ground. Photo by Karla Gachet taken in 2012. The full story can be seen here.

Little by little, small tastings with the chefs’ creations arrived in the room: Sara and Cinzia decided to respect the purity of the macambo seed in its essence, consistency and aesthetics. They toasted it lightly and added two flavor enhancers: caramel flavored with fig leaves and salt. Delicate and delicious!

Photo taken during the event by Benedetta Stefani (@maledetta.stefani). Courtesy of Lucrezia Ganazzoli.

Francesco proposed a macambo crumble with goat cheese and fresh seasonal figs. The crumble was made using the Sicilian tradition (Francesco’s region of origin) which normally uses almonds. He hydrated the macambo and then made a cream with it. Latter he added only rice flour and oats to prepare the crumble, no animal fat! Sicily embraces and welcomes macambo, a delight!

Photo taken during the event by Benedetta Stefani (@maledetta.stefani). Courtesy of Lucrezia Ganazzoli.

Aurora prepared a delicious puff pastry with salted macambo frangipane. Frangipane is a cream made from almond flour. Aurora uses flours that come from small artisanal mills in Italy and she seeks to rescue old cereals abandoned over time to rediscover lost tastes… and discover new ones with the same attention.

Photo taken during the event by Benedetta Stefani (@maledetta.stefani). Courtesy of Lucrezia Ganazzoli.

Simón explores a lot with the memory of taste in his cuisine. But aware that macambo taste is unknown to both him and the Italian public, he decided to play with geographically familiar flavors. Thus he used black corn, guajillo chili, passion fruit and cocoa beans in its creation. To create a flavor contrast, he added a product of Italian tradition, mullet roe. Very good and interesting!

Photo taken during the event by Benedetta Stefani (@maledetta.stefani). Courtesy of Lucrezia Ganazzoli.

Mutty made a Mediterranean-style macambo canapé by blending the macambo seeds with eggplant, tomatoes and basil. On top of this she placed a bean cream and fermented lemon, this last one to create a contrast of flavors. Finally, it was sprinkled with dried blueberries (mirtilli) and mint powder. A delicious Mediterranean welcome for macambo!

Photo taken during the event by Benedetta Stefani (@maledetta.stefani). Courtesy of Lucrezia Ganazzoli.

Denis proposed a semi-integral pizza-focaccia with “fior di latte” (a kind of mozzarella), mountain herbs, chutney with berries (forest fruits), granulated toasted macambo, misticanza (meadow) salad and a green apple vinaigrette to cleanse the mouth in the end. This pizza is a journey through mountain flavors. The crunchiness and final taste are given by the macambo.

Photo taken during the event by Benedetta Stefani (@maledetta.stefani). Courtesy of Lucrezia Ganazzoli.

His idea was not only to play with consistencies and flavors but to unite two distant communities with similar philosophies of life: the forest of the Italian alpine mountain of Bergamo and the Amazon rainforest. Both are small communities, circumscribed (isolated) within a specific ecosystem, with lifestyles and rhythms different from those of the city. They are both places where food is grown for self-subsistence, where food is harvested respecting nature rhythms, where food conservation methods are important to survive and where resources are used efficiently (avoiding waste).

In the end, Rosa Linda Yangora Pichama, a Shuar indigenous woman (another indigenous nationality from the Ecuadorian Amazon), told us a little about her culture and what the rainforest means to the Shuar people, reminding us how important it is to conserve cultures that live in harmony and respect with nature.

Photo taken during the event by Benedetta Stefani (@maledetta.stefani). Courtesy of Lucrezia Ganazzoli.

We have not yet met the 200 Kg demand target that guarantees the efforts to import macambo this year. Our deadline to make the first import is October 27, 2023. If this happens, macambo will leave Ecuador in November and will arrive in Italy after 6-7 weeks. If you are a chef in Italy and are interested in purchasing at least 10 Kg of macambo, please contact us ([email protected])!

The transport of small volumes (<300 kg) by sea appears to be uncommon. If we manage to activate the import we will tell you what the process is like to import Macambo in Italy. Stay tuned!

By M. S. Gachet

Community-supported agriculture

In June we had the opportunity to spend 10 days in Siena, a beautiful city full of traditions in Tuscany (Italy).

Looking for a place to stay, we found a small apartment inside a very old farmhouse in the hills outside of Siena. A community farming project was mentioned in the site description. We thought this looked interesting and so we booked it!

Not just a country house

Upon arrival, we entered the property through a small path lined with pointed cypresses (typical of Tuscany), olive trees and some fruit trees. At the top of the hill, we found a large, very old brick building.

We were greeted by Pietro, who, before taking us to the apartment, showed us the “oven room” on the ground floor. He informed us that Andrea comes three days a week in the morning to prepare bread for the cooperative and that if we see smoke we should not worry; the oven room becomes a bakery.

View from Pietro’s house. Characteristic landscape around Siena.

I love making bread, so I would not leave without meeting Andrea.

Before leaving, Pietro invited us to stop by the orchard that is at the base of the hill any day of our stay and,  if we were interested, he would tell us about the project he is working on.

When we asked him for some vegetables to cook in the following days, he told us that the vegetables were collective and therefore to get them we would have to go to the cooperative store. How curious, right?

The next day, at the cooperative store, we bought vegetables from the orchard (delicious!) and in the evening we visited it (in Siena in June it gets dark after 9:30 p.m.).

Photo of the orchard courtesy of MondoMangione.

The orchard is cultivated in an area of 1.5 hectares (107,639 square feet) and is home to 2 retired horses, one of which passed away during our stay (RIP).

Pietro lives on the property together with his partner, their young son, and some chickens and goats. The goats help to keep the grass down.

Pietro with the two retired horses outside di orchard. Photo courtesy of MondoMangione.

He told us that in addition to the orchard, the cooperative has planted fruit trees and that they have bees, the latter cared for by members of the cooperative.

The property is large and next to the orchard there are crops of wheat and olive trees (given in concession to third parties).

When we arrived, Pietro was leaving so we agreed to have dinner together another day. We would still have to wait to find out about the project and the famous cooperative.

A baker in the house

In the following days, we met Andrea the baker, a young man from around Siena who, seeing our interest in his bread, invited us to come at 5 in the morning the day after.

Andrea preparing bread. Photo courtesy of MondoMangione.

When I arrived, it was after 7 o’clock and Andrea was cutting the already leavened dough to prepare about thirty one-kilogram loaves for the members of the cooperative. He was very worried because the bread was not the right shape; it was a bit flattened.

To make bread you need: flour (various types of wheat or other cereals), water, yeast and salt. There are two types of yeast used to make bread:

brewer’s yeast bought on the market is a monoculture of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and,
sourdough yeast, which is a symbiotic culture of yeasts naturally present in the environment. Contrary to commercial yeast, the amount of sourdough necessary to prepare a certain amount of bread must be cultivated prior to its preparation. 

The process of making bread is relatively simple. You mix the flour with the water, then add the sourdough and, at the end, the salt. The mixture is then kneaded for a certain time, left to leaven (or ferment)* for a set time at a certain temperature and at the end it is baked at the appropriate temperature and time.

*During the fermentation of the bread, the yeasts consume the gluten that is the protein of the flour and release carbon dioxide (CO2);  yes, the same gas that we exhale during respiration. When we knead the bread dough, we create a gluten mesh that retains the CO2 that, trying to get out, causes the bread to inflate, or rise.

To obtain good quality bread, one needs to control the raw materials (flour, yeast, salt and water), temperature and time. Just a few variables, right? It cannot be that hard. In reality yes, mastering them requires the skills and knowledge of a specialized craftsman.

Andrea was very worried about the bread, so we made a “checklist” together.

Not just any bread

Andrea told me that the flour he uses comes from a farm that is growing cereals from an “evolutionary” population, meaning, made up of seeds of different varieties, mostly indigenous, that are sown and allowed to grow together.

The idea is that over time, the varieties that have best adapted to the climatic conditions of the soil in which they are found will prosper. Thus, the composition of the population that survives will be resistant to changes in climate and capable of sustaining high levels of productivity without the need for chemical products that are harmful to the soil.

The cooperative buys all the production of “resistant wheat,” which this year will be doubled. FYI, the evolutionary population of cereals is carried out together with the University of Siena.

Andrea used the same flour before the problem appeared, so the problem could not be the flour.

The knead is done manually by him, so it should not be it.

The laboratory where he works (the oven room) does not have an air conditioning system and the wood-fired oven is inside… additionally room temperature those days was high. It had to be the temperature that was influencing the growth of the yeasts.

Andrea was controlling the temperature all the time and reducing time of leaven to compensate for the higher temperature, but the bread was still flat…

Andrea is young and loves making bread. Surely with time, study and automating some variables, he will be able to obtain resilient bread even in the hot summer months. Yes, the bread was a bit fat but it was delicious!

Bread ready to be delivered. Photo courtesy of MondoMangione.

Finally “the cooperative”

A few days before leaving, we met Piero who, during dinner, told us about his famous MondoMangione Cooperative Society, of which the orchard and the bread are part.

MondoMangione is a cooperative of conscious consumers that was born in Siena in 2004. It has created a small organized distribution of local, organic and fair trade products. The cooperative has the objective of establishing an economy based on the direct and transparent relationship between producer and consumer, respecting the territory, the environment and peoples work.

In 2019, they started with the OrtoMangione project, a collective orchard structured as a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) that has recovered 1.5 hectares of abandoned land. In 2021, the Il Pane dell’Orto (bread in the orchard) started as a collective baking project, also structured as a CSA.

CSA Model

The CSA model is practiced in Japan, United States, Canada, England, Italy, Germany, Austria and other places.

In Italy, there are three CSAs: Arvaia In Bologna (9 years of activity, almost 500 partners, 7 working partners, 47 hectares), Semele in Florence (70 partners) and OrtoMangione (the most recent).

In this type of agricultural cooperative, all resources (installation costs, equipment costs, labor costs, management costs) are provided by a group of people, who, in compensation, receive a part of what the orchard produces every week. They cultivate using natural methods.

The CSA model presupposes an active and participatory community.

Possible purchasing systems used by people living in cities.

Siena’s CSA

In the case of OrtoMangione, production is organized on the basis of business risk sharing, respect for food, waste reduction and support for worker members (Pietro and his colleague’s salary).

The “co-producer partners” (around 70 members) pay an initial fee of €75 as a contribution to the cost of setting up the orchard (75% as a donation and 25% as an association fee) and an annual fee of €750  (single payment or in 4 installments). They use the donations to finance necessary supplies, for example they plan to use the donations raised in 2021/2022 to fund a greenhouse and a new chicken house.

With the annual membership fee, partners receive a 5.5 kg box of vegetables (designed for a family of 2-3 people, with at least 5 varieties per week and 30 varieties of vegetables per year) for 45 of the 52 weeks of the year, and have the possibility of participating in the different activities of the orchard.

This cost may seem high, but for the economy of an average Italian family, considering that we are talking about healthy vegetables which are regenerating soil and generating jobs, it is an affordable price (€19 for a box a week). Costs have to be adapted to local realities.

As it is an active community, the partners commit to carry out at least one of the following activities:

work in the garden (harvesting, planting, storage, maintenance of outdoor spaces, etc.) once a month for a minimum of 2 hours
participation in the committee (1 meeting per month) or in working groups (administration, communication, events, etc.
help with the distribution of vegetables on harvest days (minimum 2 hours per month).

Two members of the CSA OrtoMangione setting up the net to grow the cucumbers. Photo courtesy of MondoMangione.

What about the bread?

In a similar way for the bread, a group of people with an annual subscription pre-finance the preparation of a 1 Kg bread that they will receive once a week. In this way, the members guarantee the maintenance of an artisanal activity (Andrea’s salary) and the use of the wood oven.

The “co-baker partners” collaborate in the management and evolution of the project, and can participate in activities to share and learn how bread is made. Thus, the oven is open to all members, even to bake a mold of biscuits or a good cake using the oven that is still hot.

Projects like “the orchard” and “the orchard’s bread” give the opportunity to be part of a group of people who collectively care for a piece of land, create resilience and support tradition.

Pietro told me during the first year of production there was a fungal infection due to an error in the management of the greenhouse that compromised the entire tomato production. A lot of work and resources were at risk of being lost!

Due to the magnitude of the problem, the advised solution was to use a fungicide. The partners of the cooperative got together and decided that if the plants were sick, they had to be cured and thus they used the fungicide.

When tomatoes were ready, partners were informed about the previous fungicide treatment and people had the choice to take or refuse the tomatoes; some people refused the tomatoes.

By telling me this story, Pietro wanted to point out that we shall not blind ourselves on preconception.

Being part of a community can help us to stay open-minded, to understand the problems faced by our farmers and artisans and to be open to solutions to solve those issues.

Let’s create or be part of a community that stimulates exchange between people who live in the same place, producing essential goods, generating jobs, human relations and a redistribution system that eliminates waste and allows us to be informed!

Let us be part of a citizenship that actively creates the community in which we want to live! 

Volunteers from the Segantini Park Association (APS) in Milan, Italy, after cleaning the creek in the naturalistic area of the park. A mentally disturbed person polluted the creek for months with plastic waste and glass that he accumulated from bars near the park. Finally, thanks to the joint action of the APS, other citizen associations and the municipality, it was possible to give medical help to the person responsible and to clean the area.

By M. S. Gachet

Macambo as a solution. Chapter 1: The proposal 

It is discouraging to see how the Amazon is being destroyed due to the need for the governments of the Amazonian countries to obtain money to improve the quality of life of their population by creating services such as education, health, work, transportation, industry, etc.

The Amazon region is one of the places with the greatest biodiversity on the planet. It is also the source of raw materials (oil, minerals, wood) and the space to raise cattle and produce soy. 

In today’s world where money allows people to live (buy food, clothing, housing, transportation, education, etc.) it is not very evident that the most essential human needs are: air, water and then food.

Air and water are natural resources or services that we get from nature. And yes, food is also a natural resource. If we think about it, we live thanks to the living beings that nourish us (plants, animals, fungi, algae, bacteria) and the interactions that these have within the different natural ecosystems that keep air, water, soil and living beings healthy.  

Everything in nature is connected! (read the article Nature, Agriculture and Respect).

Healthy jungles and forests not only produce oxygen and store carbon dioxide (CO2) but also maintain a balance that even purifies water. In the Amazon region flows the largest river on Earth, the “flying river“, that regulates the climate of our planet.

But, in the Amazon region, there is not only diversity of life but also a diversity of human cultures that live in harmony with nature.

This fragile ecosystem is in danger and preserving it is a task that concerns all the inhabitants of the planet.

The community of Noneno is located along the Shiripuno River, Yasuní, Ecuador. Omentoke Omene and her baby girl, go to the field to plant plantain saplings and to cut down some smaller trees to leave room for their yuca (manioc) to grow. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here.

Why Ecuador?

In Ecuador, there are more than three thousand species of trees, 658 species of amphibians (307 of which are endemic or only present in Ecuador), 460 species of mammals (54 endemic), 498 species of reptiles, more than ten thousand species of birds1  and 13 indigenous ethnic groups that in Ecuador are known as nationalities because they have their own language and social organization and live in a defined territory. Eight of these nationalities live in the Amazon region2.

I had the opportunity to get to know Canopy Bridge many years ago. Canopy Bridge is a global network that helps suppliers and buyers of sustainable crops and wild products find each other, build relationships and learn more about natural products and the people behind them. One of their wild products in macambo.

Macambo (Theobroma bicolor) is the fruit of a tree related to cacao (Theobroma cacao). It is grown traditionally in diversified agricultural systems (or agroforestery) by associations of indigenous Kichwa producers from the Ecuadorian Amazon in chakras or family gardens. Its seeds are very nutritious (high in protein, fiber and omega-9) and, when toasted, acquire a delicious caramel flavor and a crunchy, unique texture.

The Amazonian population traditionally consumes macambo and shares its tradition with us.

The Cofán Indigenour etnia knows it as Macabo. Estefanía Baldeon of Canopy Bridge finds macambo fruits (unexpectedly out of season) on a visit to Zábalo, province of Sucumbios province, Ecuador. This and many more fruit trees surround the houses in an edible and cultivated forest. Photo courtesy of Canopy Bridge.

All Amazon countries such as Ecuador live from export of raw materials and this happens because there is a global demand, especially from industrialized countries. Perhaps this globalized system could become a solution, right?

For Ecuador, the export of products coming from “Perennial forests” (perennial= which lasts forever or a long time) could represent a concrete solution to conservation because they are a sources of income that in the future could replace extractive activities and intensive agriculture.

Why Italia?

I have lived in Milan, Italy for almost six years. I thought that perhaps the people of Milan might be interested in buying macambo once a year (during the harvest) and thus actively contribute to the protection and regeneration of the Amazon rainforest.

If we buy a constant volume of macambo every year making sure that this macambo comes from diversified family farming systems characteristic of indigenous communities, we will be able to guarantee the economic sustenance of the families that carry out this activity. This could motivate other families of producers and create jobs that respect the cultural identity of the ancestral peoples (creating a positive social impact) thus protecting the Amazon rainforest (creating a positive environmental impact). An Amazon taste for culture and biodiversity.

Italy is a country that is both rich in culinary tradition and also boasts the greatest biodiversity in Europe. Here, food is at the center of family and cultural life. Thanks to its lifestyle, it is one of the longest-lived countries in the world.

Italy is considered a developed country, one of the richest in the world and although is only slightly larger than Ecuador, 3.4 times as many people live here.*3

Throughout history, Italy, and the entire European continent have welcomed and integrated food. For example, corn, tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins, arrived after the “European discovery” of the American continent. And yes, its reception and integration was not always immediate; for example, corn in Italy is known as “Turkish grain” because the Italians of that time would not have used it so easily if they knew it came from America.4 Today, polenta, made with cornmeal, is a traditional dish from northern Italy.

Stefania and Paola are cleaning the collected garlic in the second orchard at Parco Segantini. The Segantini Park in Milan-Italy, is a park designed and created by citizens together with the municipal administration. Inside the park, citizens take care of three orchards of 1,000 square meters each and 15,000 square meters of reforested area.

But Italy has not only welcomed foods that grow in its territory and are now part of its tradition, but also welcomes within its culture other products that grow in countries like Ecuador such as coffee, cocoa (with which chocolate is made) and the banana.

Recently, UNESCO is considering to declare espresso coffee culture in Italy as cultural human heritage.5 Fascinating, no?     

Why Macambo?

Macambo could help to conserve a small part of the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle. Here we have a delicious and nutritious product along with a network of producers who are sharing a seed that is part of their culture and that grows in their chakras in a respectful way.

Will Italian consumers be interested in accepting this proposal?

Step 1: Tasting

With this in mind, I brought in my suitcase from Quito to Milan 8 kilograms of macambo so that the people can try it. I organized two dinners:

The first with the friends of the Segantini Park Association (about 25 people). It was a beautiful summer night where, together with the fantastic Gabriela, Laura and Melani, we cooked a delicious pasta prepared with vegetables from the orchards. On the menu was 3 types of zucchini (raw and blanched (or boiled for a few minutes)), blanched green beans (or vanitas), basil and a little garlic. The pasta was seasoned with saffron, Parmesan cheese, salt, olive oil and lots of love. The crispy touch of the pasta was given by the macambo.

The second dinner was organized together with Soul Food, a small gastronomy south of Milan in the Navigli area. Soul Food is a small business managed by Andrea, a person who is very attentive to the origin and method of production of the food he sells and a place where the work of producers who respect nature is valued.

Lucia, the cook for this dinner, prepared a menu considering the different flavors of which macambo reminded her …”a little chestnut… a little natural and roasted peanut… a little hazelnut”… Taking this into account, she prepared 3 plates.

In the first course, we were able to enjoy mashed and toasted macambo serve on the top of a pumpkin cream.

For the second course, Lucia turned the macambo into flour to prepare, together with a small amount of chestnut flour, grapes, pine nuts and rosemary, the macambo version of the “castagnaccio” (typical Tuscan chestnut cake). The macambaccio was served with kale-type kale chips.

The last course was dessert. Here Lucía made two preparations, the first was a vegan cake with 78% chocolate and macambo crumble, and the second was a decomposed “cheesecake” based on ricotta mousse and caramelized pears accompanied by a cream based on toasted macambo.

Both dinners were really delicious.

One of the things highlighted by the guests was the crisp and notoriously nice texture of the dishes. Macambo lends itself as the perfect addition because it does not overpower the dish. It provides a humble yet nutritious component to these culinary treats.

Macambo was not only tasted within elaborate dishes but also intact in one of its three available presentations (natural, salty and chocolate). About 70 people tried macambo and 47 of them gave their opinion.

Regarding taste, the majority (51%) of people consider the macambo itself (natural, salty and/or chocolate) “good”, 20% find the taste “indifferent”, 14% find it ” delicious” and 14% “did not like it”.

Almost all participants considered it is important: to increase the diversity of foods in the diet, that macambo is nutritious, that it has a positive social impact and that it promotes fair trade and the conservation of the Amazon forest.

In conclusion, they like the taste, they like the proposal but… nobody is crazy about buying it.

Step 2: How to make macambo popular?

I had the opportunity to meet the chefs of the AlTatto restaurant in Milan. Sara Nicolosi and Cinzia De Lauri are two fantastic women who cook at this small bistro where vegetables, quality, origin of food and seasonality are valued. They offer a delicious sensorial experience. If you live or come to Milan, don’t miss it!

After trying the macambo and knowing the proposal, Sara and Cinzia are betting on the project! They proposed to activate their network and invite 3 of their colleagues in order to make a purchase that merits the importation of macambo in Italy. They believe in the importance of directly supporting projects that have the potential to safeguard the environment. Also, they love the idea of being able to value a product belonging to the culture of one of the indigenous groups living in the Amazon region.  

The idea is that these 5 chefs cook and experiment together with the macambo to discover and introduce this Amazonian seed and its history to the people of Milan.

The third step is to find out the modes and costs of transportation, the import requirements and what is necessary to bring the macambo to Italy. The idea is also to be transparent with the price and the necessary steps to make this project possible. I will keep you updated.

Stay tuned!*In 20193: 1) life expectation in Italy was 83 years old while in Ecuador it was 71 years old; 2) gross domestic product (GDP) in Italy is 2.009 trillion US dollars while in Ecuador it is 108 trillion; 3) in Italy almost 60 million people lived while in Ecuador around 17 million people. The Italian territory is only 17.780 Km² bigger than the Ecuadorian territory (an area similar to the province of Sucumbíos (18.084 km²)). 

By M. S. Gachet

1 Platform BIOWEB
2 Ecuadorian Government, 2006. La población indígena del Ecuador
3 Data World Bank
4 Online course Semillas ancestrales, historia, cultivos y usos. Madre Semilla
5 Il Sole 24 Ore, march 23th 2022. Café espresso, Italia se suma a las candidaturas para convertirlo en patrimonio de la Unesco

A Milanese experience into an Italian Solidarity Purchasing Group. Chapter 1: The beginning

I care where food comes from for social and health reasons. This is why I have joined the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale (or G.A.S., in English “solidarity purchasing groups“).

I got to knowGAS by word of mouth. But, I could have searched Google for “gruppi acerto solidale Milano” to find this website that lists all the GAS in Milan or this one talking about them and explaining the concept of social economy in Italy. Just be careful because if you search Google for “GAS Milano”, you will gather all possible offers that supply gas to your home.

What are these GAS?

The GAS are consumers who get together to buy food and other commonly used goods directly from producers or from big retailers at a price that is fair to both.

These groups often share a critical approach to the global economic model which aims a less consumerist way of life. When purchasing, GAS priorities are the respect for the environment and solidarity between the members of the group, the producers and their workers and not savings.

Food production should treats the environment, plants, animals and people with respect.

What are the characteristics of the products purchased by GAS?

GAS prefer local products (to minimize the environmental impact of the transport), fair-trade goods (in order to respect disadvantaged producers by promoting their human rights, in particular small farmers, women, children and indigenous people) and reusable or eco-compatible goods (to promote a sustainable lifestyle).

If you want to find more information about these groups, we suggest the sociological study of Cristina Grasseni, and the economic analysis of Matteo Belletti and Lucia Mancini. 

Our GAS experience.

My husband and I decided to join a GAS based in the newly gentrified Milanese neighborhood of Nolo, which stands for “North of Loreto”, where we live.

Alessia and Martin learning to compost during the BIOintensive laboratory in Segantini Park.

This area of Milan was originally highly densely populated by migrants from South America and South East Asia and is nowadays more and more mixed with young Italians who opened art and design galleries, hipster-looking bars and shops selling both bikes and flowers. I will talk about the economic aspects of solidarity purchasing groups in Italy in my future posts. Stay tuned!

How to become a GASista?

May. A complex procedure to adhere.

The GAS we chose to join is maybe biggest in Milan: more than 100 members. Most of the members do not actively take part to the GAS meetings and activities, such as the organization of evening talks on the several topics such as the virtues of rye, Sunday afternoon bargain-based markets to exchange members’ second hand belongings or supporting not-for-profit projects that produce organic hop.

Because the GAS is very big, over the years its members have created a three step procedure to allow new candidate members to enter the group.

First, there was an interview with one senior member who explained to us (the candidates) how everything works. Our tutor emphasized the GAS’ five criteria to choose suppliers, which are also the leading values of the GAS:

1) bio;
2) local (as far as possible);
3) compliant with tax law obligations;
4) compliant with labor law obligations.

Based on the criteria above, the GAS general meeting regularly assesses producers’ requests to supply the GAS and choose one or two suppliers per category of product.

GASistas can then make orders for specific products within given deadlines set by the selected suppliers (every other week, every month, etc.). Products are delivered on Wednesday night, depending on the type of product, every week, every month or just once or twice per year.

Second, we were invited to participate in the monthly general assembly: a pretty chaotic, cheerful encounter of souls (I’m sure I’ll have other occasions to talk about them).

Third, there was an additional meeting where we have been requested to pay a small membership quota. If we were not very motivated, we would have given up after the assembly which ended up to be quite entertaining, after all.

June. Our first general meeting. We took part in our first mandatory general assembly on a warm evening at the beginning of the summer. There, we met the relatively few members that have been actively participating in the GAS life since its foundation: a bunch of seemingly-professionals and teachers in their fifties, led by a democratically elected coordinator who most likely works as a project manager and likes Excel tables.

Many members do not take part in the monthly general meetings and only show up at the GAS offices on Wednesdays night to collect their purchases. When one has kids or has obligations at university like exams or classes on Thursday morning, s/he does not easily give a Wednesday night away to GAS meetings. This is maybe the reason why, among the members participating in the general meeting, last Wednesday night, there were not many young gasistas, students and families.

GAS life is full of surprises. As mentioned, the range of services and activities supplied by our GAS turned out to be far wider than expected. The basic rationale of meeting once per month is sharing values, increasing awareness about healthy and organic products, promoting more sober and fair consumption habits among the members and deeper knowledge about how the food chain operates.  

Last Wednesday, at the GAS general meeting we discussed two main issues:

Shall we adopt organic hop plants?

The GAS had been asked to give financial support to a not-for-profit organization aimed at developing an organic hop garden by “adopting” some of their hop plants.

Thanks to the financial contributions of its supporters, the organization would then sell the hops produced to local breweries.   So, the question was whether the GAS was willing to adopt one, two or three hop plants and for how many years.

The gasistas seemed to forget that, by “adopting” some of the hop plants, the GAS was basically just making a simple donation. Instead, they discussed for about half an hour whether it was better to adopt one hop plant for three years – that is the maximum life span of a hop plant, after which the hop is going to be harvested – or to adopt three hop plants for just one year. Should the GAS adopt the hop plants for just one year, was there a possibility that these plants would be abandoned in the middle of street after the first year? Someone eventually asked if the organization would than send us some pictures of the hop plants we decided to adopt.

Briefly, we went home wondering if the whole thing was serious or fun.

The hop fruits give the bitter aroma to the beer and help to preserve it. The young sprouts are edible.

Let’s support our fisher!

In the second part of the general meeting, the GAS member responsible for coordinating fish purchases explained that the GAS’ reference fish producer was in trouble.

The women cooperative formerly supplying the fish had failed. Only a woman and her husband had remained and had been fishing the GAS’ fish in Liguria for the past couple of years.

Recently, they had asked the GAS members to finance the buy of a small second hand lorry to distribute their fish in local street markets in Liguria. In return, the GAS members obtained a credit for the fish they would later purchase from the anglers couple.

Unfortunately, in the past few months the couple had not fished much as the water currents pushed the fish in the deeper waters. They also had troubles placing their fish in local street markets due to competition of lower-priced fish coming from Croatia, Greece and Turkey. For more information about this issue look here and to know more about the effects of imported fish on bream pricing in Italy here.     

Briefly, they have no fish to pay back the GAS members’ loan.

The GAS hence thoroughly discussed the option to adhere to the anglers’ proposal to recover their credit by participating to fishing trips organized by the couple on their fishing boat. Basically a fish-it-yourself-if-you-can package, priced as little as 70 euros per boat trip + dinner.

The Baihua family goes fishing near their community. They use a plant based substance which kills the fish and makes them float to the surface. The Huaorani community of Bameno is on the Cononaco River in the Yasuni National Park in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador. Hunting and fishing are still the main ways to obtain their food. Photo by Karla Gachet.

July, August and September. Some doubts.

During summer my parents’ vegetables garden literally explodes with all sorts of vegetables: courgettes, haricots, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes. Tomatoes are so special, fresh, ripe and tasty that, apart from making ketchup-like sauces and preserves. We are all happy with eating tomatoes in salad with just olive oil and basil every single day.

A cat sits on a display of tomatoes at the La Vega Central market. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here                                        

So, when adhering to the GAS, I was hoping that for the whole summer, I will be supplied with the same tomatoes I had at home and which supermarkets do not even imagine they exist.

Unfortunately, they explained us that between mid-July and August the GAS shuts down, as most members are on holiday and cannot take care of orders. Huge disappointment!

We couldn’t help looking forward to the autumn vegetables: pumpkins are my favorite. My husband still prefers salami.

We decided to continue.

Grilled squash for sale at the La Vega Central market. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here

October. Another general meeting.

The nice part about the monthly general meeting is that before the assembly, the GAS members have dinner together. They take something they cooked themselves and share it with the others. It is a way to get to know each other a bit more and to share preferably vegetarian recipes.

A surprise guest came for dinner. This time, Spartaco had dinner with us. He works at RiMaflow.

Maflow was an Italian multinational corporate entity with factories all over the world producing components for the automotive sector. In December 2012, due to allegedly financial speculation, the factory where Spartaco used to work shut down production.

Unexpectedly, in February 2013 this factory was occupied by the same workers who had worked just up till the day before and lost their jobs and Maflow became RiMaflow. To know more about this story click here.

Today, RiMaflow is a recovered factory where three organizations operate thanks to a gratuitous loan approved by the bank that owns the property. About 70 people work at the factory, carrying out different activities which include the coordination of a fair-trade and organic food network, carpentry activities and recycling e-waste (such as computers and electronic household devices) and other types of waste.

RiMaflow aims to prove that it is possible to realize a model economy that can affect standard market mechanisms, starting from building new types of producer-consumer relationships.

While writing this post, we found out that there are similar initiatives all around world. Have a look to the work being done in Argentina).

This diner was indeed very inspiring.

December. Some thoughts about our GAS experience so far.

GAS is a complex market within the market. Over these first few months we tried to understand the economics behind these groups and tried to explain ourselves why fair, organic and local food is expensive.

An objection concerns the users of GAS: GAS are in fact not for all users. On the one hand, they are undeniably pricey and exclusive and, on the other hand, due to the complex order-and-collect mechanism, little accessible markets.

Briefly, some work still needs to be done to make a mass market out of GAS.

Our GAS experience also raised some additional objections.

It is easy to understand how organic food – which is sometimes so much more vulnerable to pests and adverse climate conditions – and “fair” food – whose producer is compliant with tax and labor laws – faces high prices, but less so when food is produced very close to consumers because this food does not need to travel so far.

Also, sometimes we perceived some naivety in some little experienced farmers who supply our GAS. They seemed to be rather concerned about marketing their activity than delivering quality food: as a result, their pears were awkwardly small and little tasty but the events (such as lunch-parties at the cottage, Halloween bonfires, etc…) they organized over the past year at their farms, their websites and the design of their packaging were over-cared of.

Growing vegetables and breeding animals are hard, time and energy consuming jobs: they can hardly tolerate “extracurricular” activities and improvisation. Still, the GAS seems to select producers based on the dreamer farmers image that the producers manage to convey more than based on the quality of the food they deliver.

To sum up, we got the impression that our GAS still does not expect enough from its producers. This is just a first impression from our GAS experience which we will try to investigate and develop better later on this blog.

By A. Miranti
Full story of the cover photo can be found here