Food Justice

 Spice souk in Aleppo



It’s difficult to write about the state of the Aleppo Pepper given the horrific civil war in Syria. With over 400,000 people starving, disease spreading, hundreds of thousands dead, and more than six million Syrians who have fled their beloved country, I feel uneasy writing about a place I’ve never visited but have come to know only through travel books, cookbooks, and now the devastating images seen on the nightly news. But because this is a baking blog and spices are the focus of this issue, I will try to give you an understanding as to what has happened to the Aleppo pepper.

There was a time when Syrian souks (marketplaces) were filled with textiles, teas, and spices. Chefs and shops from all over the world imported the many diverse Syrian goods. But it is the Aleppo Pepper that the culinary world gravitated toward and used in their various cuisines. The Aleppo Pepper is flakey, slightly oily, deep red, with a nice heat. The Aleppo Pepper, so intimately linked to Syrian history and whose food is their multicultural language, seems all but lost because of the war. For Syrians, their food is their history and it is not superficial to link the two. Some might argue that this connection is one of several ways to preserve Syrian identity and culture.

It’s significant to note why the 2011 peaceful uprising in Syria took place. Though not popular with climate deniers, one of the many contributing factors to the uprising stemmed from Syria’s long-term drought due to climate change. The farmers water sources are the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, both of which are drying up. Sixty percent of the agricultural farm lands in Syria dried up and because traditional farmers could no longer make a living off the land, many left and moved to the city. Jobs were scarce and many did not have the skills to get the work needed to support their families.

Image by Free Republic

Ethnobiologist and nature writer Gary Nabhan wrote: “In the past three years, 160 Syrian farming villages have been abandoned near Aleppo as crop failures have forced over 200,000 rural Syrians to leave for the cities. This news is distressing enough, but when put into a long-term perspective, its implications are staggering: many of these villages have been continuously farmed for 8000 years. As one expert puts it, this may be the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.”

Without work and struggling, the people peacefully took to the streets to protest but they were confronted by the Shabila, (paramilitary loyal to the royal family), and the army- both started firing on the protesters. They even fired on those mourning the loss of their loved ones at funerals. The Syrian government took control over the city and many of the UNESCO heritage buildings, beautiful Islamic architecture as well as the Umayyad Mosque dating back to 1st CE were destroyed.

In 2014, as the conflict further escalated, Aleppo seeds started to disappear and soon none were exported. Many in the science and culinary world believe that most of the Aleppo pepper sold in the US today is either fake or old.

While some Syrians have migrated, and moved their operations to Turkey, it doesn’t guarantee the Aleppo pepper has the same color, flake, and taste of Syria. Places such as Harvest Thyme Food Farms in Staunton, Virginia are trying to replicate the distinctive flavor of the Aleppo pepper. The effort to preserve this pepper is honorable but difficult.

Because exporting spices out of Syria is unpredictable, the culinary world is substituting different peppers, such as Urfa Biber, in place of Aleppo pepper.

One can only hope that the Syrian conflict will end, that peace will be restored, that families can heal, that goodwill, kindness, compassion, and health rebound, that the drought will end, and that farmers can return to their land and re-root themselves in the rich soil of Syria.










Why Is Vanilla So Expensive?!

In March of 2017 Hurricane Enawo tore through northeast Madagascar and displaced over 500,000 Malagasy, most of whom live in poverty. That includes vanilla farmers, which is troubling, because one might assume economic stability for vanilla farmers considering that 80% of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar. But this is not so.  Because many vanilla farmers struggle with poverty some of them have taken up guns and machetes and rarely leave their property for fear of vanilla flower theft. Death is a possibility if the farmers, protecting their property, try to stop thieves.

Photo: Reuters                  Photo: Internaute          Photo: Financial Times

Also, rumors abounded that many vanilla pods were stored before the storm hit Madagascar but were stolen. That and damaged flowers have caused further crop instability all contributing to skyrocketing vanilla prices. Adding to this is that it takes about three years for a vanilla bean plant to mature.  The agricultural damage to the vanilla crop will economically play out on the consumer as well.

Currently, a four- ounce bottle of Nielsen and Massey organic vanilla extract is priced anywhere from $25.00 – $30.00 dollars.*  High quality vanilla beans equal expense. Mexico, the origin of the vanilla orchid, does not have the large crop it once had because of corruption, climate change, and the cartels.  Though the majority of vanilla beans are claimed as “Mexican” vanilla beans;  most are brought into the country from Madagascar. There is hope that the Mexican crop can make a comeback, albeit small. Neilsen- Massey Mexican Vanilla Bean Extract is around $30.00 for a four ounce bottle.* Tahitian Vanilla whose fruity floral aromatic beans are grown mostly in Papua New Guinea, are around $10.00 a bean.* One Morton and Bassett vanilla bean can cost anywhere from $10.00 to $16.00.*  Don’t expect prices to come down anytime soon.

*The prices listed are my purchase experiences.