Poets in Parma

Parma Tommasini StopWe spent five days in Parma, retracing some of my old steps and doing what we could to boost the economy: consuming ample Parmigiani fare and combing markets and shops for Christmas presents and bits of finery.  It was good to have a chance to refresh my memories – the kindness and courtesy of the people (an Italian Victoria?), the pastel buildings with their fine metal detailing, the microscopic lifts in the old marble-staired buildings – if you’re lucky enough to find one, the gleam of cobblestones after rain, the sulfuric stench of the water, the roar and bellow of Italian teenagers at lunchtime, and of course the wonder of the food. It’s no place for vegetarians, and would be challenging for the gluten or dairy intolerant, but omnivore heaven. Lots of dogs around too, in and out of shops and all over the market.
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This was my second stay at the comfortable and perfectly situated b&b La Pilotta which gave us an excellent view and handy access to the Christmas market, just setting up a day or so after our arrival. We also stumbled upon a market in Oltretorrente, the other side of the river, and had a good perusal, warmed by a little cioccolate calda.

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Commerce not being our only mission here, we stopped in at Parma’s duomo, where our entrance coincided with some music from the organist, practicing for an evening concert which featured five choirs, a small orchestra and some popular soloists. The centrepiece was l’oratorio die Kindheit Jesu by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach – which left the impressive 50 member choir standing around for far too long. And I’m afraid only affirmed in our minds the superior skills of JS Bach. Still. It was Christmas and it was music and the heavily accented rendition of Go Tell It On the Mountain will linger on as a cherished memory. The duomo’s nativity scene was charmingly random and featured, if I am not mistaken, a watermelon seller among the gathered figures.

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Moving out the doors of the duomo and across the piazza, the Battistero awed me now as it did on my last visit some years ago.

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Finally, on our final drizzly morning in Parma, I managed a warm reunion with one of my former classmates, Amy, who with her husband Corrado have just hit the Michelin guide for their fusion osteria in Suzzera, Mange Bere Uomo Donna. One to check out next time!

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Poets in Paris

ParisPoemsDes4SaisonsSo finally the Iambic Cafe dusts itself off and drags itself to its weary feet, slightly jetlagged but coming round. Sunday’s arrival in London was enlivened by the rather leisurely delivery of my baggage, but after that it was clear sailing and I was greeted by faltering sunshine on the cobblestones.
ParisGargoyleOff to Paris on Tuesday, arriving by Eurostar in good time, and then an evening of bilingual readings at the Delaville Cafe, courtesy Ivy Writers Paris, comfortably accommodated and efficiently organized by expat poet Jennifer Stills. It featured Belgian poet Constance Chlore and Parisian Dominique Maurizi, as well as Saskatoon’s own Mari-Lou Rowley, shown here with Christmas tree..
ParisMariLouReading2 We passed a relaxing Wednesday afternoon wandering around the 18th arrondissement, mostly towards Montmartre, admiring the food in the windows, prowling its shops and pausing for a leisurely coffee. Hills and steps there are many, but the sun came out from time to time and warmed the way.
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Entertainingly, we passed a couple of goats gnawing on a grass fence we’d passed several times – and found we’d discovered a little pocket of urban agriculture, apparently lush in the summer but a bit bare now, with chickens pecking trackside near Porte de Clignancourt. ParisClignancourtGoats+Chickens

Our wanderings ended with a delightful dinner at the Bistrot Poulbot. Pour moi, saumon tartare, dorade , and (how could I not) a lovely confection involving lashings of my namesake Valrhona chocolate.

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Kelp, acid-alkaline, omnivorous environmentalism & brain food

KelpPeopleIt is possible to leave a nutrition conference freaked out about the state of the world, and in dire need of a good remineralizing kelp treatment. But ditto an environmental (literature) conference or just about any other kind of conference nowadays I suppose. Still, we must make the best of where we are, so a nutrition conference is a good place to take in ideas about both cautions and actions to get our bodies through. (And to get a kelp treatment if that will help you in the meantime.)

Chris Kresser has evoked much hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing in his cogently-argued dissection of the acid-alkaline theory, which has been the foundation of much nutritional training over recent decades. The theory holds that: (1) the foods we eat leave behind an ‘ash’ after they are metabolized, and this ash can be acid or alkaline; (2) we should eat more alkaline foods than acid foods, so that we end up with an overall alkaline load on our body, making us less vulnerable to conditions such as cancer and osteoporosis; and (3) that the pH of our blood can be determined by testing pH strips in our saliva or urine.

It is worth noting that although there is little agreement on which foods are acid and which alkaline (a red flag there?) the alkaline lists tend to heavy on fruits and vegetables, while acid foods include animal products, so the theory is a particular favourite with those who advocate vegetarian or vegan diets. And those would emphatically not be people attending a Weston A. Price conference (poles apart: see the veg view vs the WAPF view).

Kresser allows that foods do metabolize into ash, but dismisses the idea that what we eat affects our blood pH (except in metabolic disorders such as ketoacidosis, aka DKA, not to be confused with ketosis). And although the pH of saliva and urine may indeed be altered by diet, their pH has nothing to do with blood pH, which is regulated by the kidneys. He suggests that health improvements may follow any improvement in diet (and it’s pretty easy to work out what those are – fresh, whole foods vs refined carbs) rather than being caused by acidity or alkalinity of what’s been consumed.

For the full explanation, I recommend reading Kresser’s two-part article on the subject. He was, inevitably, asked why – if it is so obviously flawed – the theory is still taught and promoted, and he replied that it takes time for science to nudge belief into change. And not least when there are vested interests at work. He quoted Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Speaking of (former) vegans, Lierre Keith (The Vegetarian Myth) revealed that her talk last weekend was the first she’d done that had not inspired pre-event death threats. She was there to make an impassioned plea for environmental responsibility, a cause that should straddle, but instead divides, vegetarian from omnivore. She described human agriculture as the “death of the living world” – its destruction of ecosystems and soil fertility, the biological corners cut to improve financial returns on large scale production, and the misuse of farmland to grow crops for factory farming or fuel.

When you buy a soyburger, she observed, “you’re actually giving money to the people causing the problem.” In the Weston A Price way, she referred to the health of traditional peoples as proof of the damage we’ve done to modern bodies: how  European explorers noticed the good health of the populations they encountered, and how poor health inevitably follows modernization of our diets. “Cancer, like insanity, spreads with civilization” (Stanislas Tanchou)

Mark Schauss gave a couple of interesting talks. His research into nutrition and cognitive decline was comprehensive and detailed. One of his big messages was on the consistency he sees in research findings about the role of the two most heavily consumed excitotoxins (MSG and aspartame) in plaque development in Alzheimer’s. Both of these are hard to avoid if you eat processed or packaged foods, since manufacturers play shell games with the naming. For MSG, see the comprehensive list from Truth In Labeling. For Aspartame, beware NutraSweet of course, as well as its new name, AminoSweet.

He repeated an idea I’ve yet to see proven, that artificial sweeteners cause an insulin response similar to ingesting sugars, and lead as surely to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. While I think there are lots of good reasons to stay away from artificial sweeteners, I await compelling evidence for this one.

Few could argue with his main message though: the more artificial the diet, the worse the gut, and a bad gut means poor communication along the gut-brain axis. Which means poor cognitive function. And of course, daily exercise is the first best thing you can do to keep your mind fit and healthy.

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Nourishing Indiana

StairwellHere in the curious world of the conference hotel, if you can find the stairs, they won’t necessarily take you where you want to go. And they are bleak enough to discourage the faint-hearted. I enjoyed a good fifteen minute cardio workout yesterday, travelling with a well-intentioned Marriott employee who tried in vain to help me find the elusive “up-stairs” to get one floor above.

Never mind, there are plenty of long hallways to cover finding my way from FridayDinnerroom to meal to conference at the 51st instance of the Weston A Price annual conference in Indianapolis, where we “Focus on Food”. Which is invariably excellent and plentiful at these conferences. Here’s the happy queue at last night’s turkey dinner – birds donated by Fields of Athenry Farm (the farmers and producers are always credited in the menus found in our programs) and replete with several ferments (sauerkraut, fermented cranberry relish, sourdough bread, fermented herbal tea) and grass-fed butter.

Yesterday’s sessions were mostly all-day affairs. I spent most of mine fiercely concentrating on the rapid-fire thoughts and slides of Stephanie Seneff, whose talk covered Pesticides, Antibiotics, Vaccines & Pharmaceuticals at dizzying speed (see her web page to download her slides, as well as find links to  her research).

She walked us through research papers a-plenty to illustrate her points. She is a strong advocate of sulfur - it’s one of the least discussed yet most common mineral in the body after calcium and phosphorus and plays a huge role in amino acid development (essential, in short, for protein in the body). The American population tends to be deficient in it (esp. vegetarians and those on low protein diets), and chronic acetaminophen (Tylenol) use further depletes sulfate.

Glyphosate (Roundup) is implicated in many conditions, contrary to studies which claim it to be harmless. For licensing purposes, glyphosate is only tested in isolation, but Roundup contains many other ingredients designed to enhance its effects (up to 1000x); and of course it’s only studied for 90 days, whereas its health effects are cumulative. Seneff had tracked some interesting correlations: glyphosate use tracks closely with autism rates, anemia, sleep disorders, breast cancer rates, kidney disease and more.

Glyphosate has been found in breast milk, urine and water. That it hasn’t been found sooner is probably a product of the few labs willing to test for it.

Seneff explained that the reason glyphosate affects human health is its effect on beneficial gut bacteria, which serve a protective role in the body. Glyphosate blocks the production of tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine – three essential amino acids formed on the shikimate pathway. This pathway, the argument goes, “is only found in plants and microorganisms, never in humans” – however, it is found in our gut bacteria, which help to synthesize amino acids. Glyphosate also inhibits cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes which in humans help to break down toxins.

The best way to avoid glyphosate is to eat certified organic foods, including many sulfur-containing foods (and have epsom salt baths – which allows you to absorb sulfur and magnesium through your skin).

She had a lot to say about statins as well – I strongly recommend anyone taking these have a look at her slides and do their own research. The gist was that they may protect you from heart attacks, but they will cause heart failure – a long and limiting way to go – as well as weakening many other body systems.

I ended yesterday with a talk by naturopath Louisa Williams, who spoke about antibiotic-resistant bacteria. She believes these to be causing many chronic disorders (pain, anxiety, depression, fatigue, movement disorders, memory loss, constipation/diarrhea) and contributing to others (cancer, Crohn’s meningitis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Pertussis, Sarcoidosis, Lyme’s…) . The gist is that antibiotic over-use has created resistant bacteria, which then mutate into cell wall defective (CWD) bacteria. These lack the structure that allows antibiotics and our own immune systems to recognize and deal with them.

Diagnosis is difficult. Treatment includes the usual detox protocols (removing environmental and dietary toxins); stop ‘feeding the fire’ by taking antibiotics except for acute conditions (even over-using microbial oils such as oregano will lead to problems); seek constitutional homeopathy remedies; and heal the gut with plant polysaccharides (mannose - though she felt the amounts needed exceeded what could be obtained through diet) and special probiotics.

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Nuts & Seeds

Blighty walnut

Blighty walnut

Already I am falling behind. Weekend before last was a nutty, seedy time, marked by intermittent rainstorms and – for my part – a missing battery from my camera, so the photos are few.

On the Saturday morning, some of the Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers went out to Bailiwick Farm, where Barbara Brennan led us round her nut tree orchard. We went nose to nose with a herd of alpacas, dodged the hanging fruits of a bumper kiwi crop, and got some honest advice about how not to make one’s fortune from growing nuts, .

Piñons , aside from being slow growing, yield sticky cones that are messy to harvest and whose nuts are difficult to extract and hull. In addition to which, despite advice to the contrary, the juvenile pines did in fact turn out to appeal to the tastes of the resident alpacas, so they were looking a bit nibbled.

Hazelnuts, on the other hand, are easier to grow and harvest. Maybe a bit too easy: the squirrels and crows got Bailiwick’s entire crop this year. The walnuts have done pretty well, and although the crows and squirrels helped themselves, there was still a fair crop left. Unfortunately some of that had been hit by a blight, so the Brennans were going to have to sift through the nuts that they had managed to harvest. And walnuts are not a huge money-spinner either.

The crop that was doing well for them was kiwi, which grows well in our climate, and our amazing growing season this past summer had yielded an excellent crop, still a couple of weeks from harvest. Kiwis store well, too, so can be sold right through the winter.

SeedsOfDiversityTableOn Sunday I went to Fernwood to join in the Seeds of Diversity Canada annual meeting which marked the organization’s 25th anniversary. It’s been an important presence in this crazy world where seeds have been removed from the natural order to become patented commodities, and there was much passion in the voices of members invited to pass their issues on to the board.

I attended a seed saving workshop in the morning, led by the very able Michelle Smith, from of Northwind Farm, Cape Breton. She talked about the value and principles of growing open-pollinated seeds. This practice offers plants a gradual adaptation to local conditions, strengthens the plant lines (since you save only seeds from the best plants) and frees growers from having to purchase hybrid seeds (which don’t grow true if harvested and saved).

Of course it’s not a simple process, since plants can cross (squash and brassicas for example will cross readily within their respective plant families) so there are planting or isolation distances to take into consideration; and you’ll need to know your plant families. Seed savers grow a number of the same plants (minimum population) from which to save seeds in order to preserve genetic diversity. You need to know if your plant is wind, insect or self-pollinating, as that will affect how it reproduces and what conditions you may need for producing seeds. And you’ll need to take season extension into consideration: seeds ripen well after most crops are harvested, so if you’re in a climate where the plants may freeze before you get the seeds, you’ll have to find ways to keep them warm or bring them inside.

The keynote speaker who followed an excellent lunch (ah the season of butternut squash soup…) was the always popular Linda Gilkeson, with a talk on all-season growing. She drew on her science background and peppered the discussion with notes on seed needs – for example, she warns that the number of winter cauliflower varieties has dwindled from over a dozen 20 years ago to only two at present. The story is the same for most vegetables: fewer varieties commercially available.

Most seed companies grow to sell in high volumes, and in reaching a wider market will grow seeds poorly suited to many climactic regions. Less profitable and harder to grow plants will fall by the commercial wayside. So the message to all backyard growers is that the seeds we save really do matter: our small work with local varieties helps to keep them strong and well-adapted, and most importantly, available within our regions.

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