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FOOD & DRINK

Spain’s salad growers demand end to exploitation

In a vast sea of plastic greenhouses in southeastern Spain, dubbed "Europe's vegetable garden", discontent is growing among farmers who complain large supermarket chains do not pay enough and farm workers who live in poverty.

Spain's salad growers demand end to exploitation
A greenhouse worker outside his 'home' in Almeria. Photo: AFP

Since the 1980s, one of the largest concentrations of greenhouses in the world has developed on a coastal plain near the city of Almeria, spanning over 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) in a “sea of plastic” seen from space.

The region is so dry and barren that it was used to film dozens of “spaghetti western” films in the 1960s but with the advent of hydroponic systems that drip-feed fertilisers into grow-bags it now produces several tonnes of fruits and vegetables annually.

After decades of rapid development, though, export growth has stalled and growing numbers of people question the viability of this agricultural model.    

“We produce over 65 percent of the tomatoes, 80 percent of the cucumbers and 94 percent of the eggplants sold in Europe,” said Francisco Vargas, the head of the ASAJA young farmers' association.   

“But look at the prices we are paid. They are below production costs.”   

He blames a war between large retailers who try to hold on to clients by offering the lowest possible prices.   

“Multinationals are strangling us,” said Miguel Rubio, 60, who struggles to make ends meet with the produce he grows on four hectares of land in the “sea of plastic”.

He said farmers were forced to boost output because of the low prices paid by chains to try to make more money, which in turn creates bigger surpluses and pushes prices down even further.

“The system makes no sense,” said Rubio.

'Last link in chain'

Antonio Fernandez, meanwhile, talked with pride of the “sweet taste” of the red peppers he produces that are exported to northern Europe, and the progress made in recent years to reduce the use of pesticides.   

“But the price of everything increases – plastic sheets, seeds, power – except the price paid by supermarkets for produce,” he said as water drip-dropped in the background from his automatic irrigation system.   

Over 1,000 farmers protested in Almeria on February 4th to demand a “fair” price for their fruits and vegetables and allow them to work “with dignity”. 

 
Demonstration in Almeria on February 4th. Photo: AFP

But with profit margins squeezed, some farms have started exploiting staff that work in the greenhouses, mainly legal and illegal immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe who toil as day workers, said University of Almeria anthropologist Francisco Checa.

At night, they stream out of the greenhouses on their bikes, back to the packed, basic homes they share with other workers.   

“I work 25 days a month but on my pay slip only 10 days are recorded,” said Adama, a 34-year-old from Mali who has worked in the greenhouses since 2008.   

He said he was owed two months wages but was reluctant to complain – even though he has legal status in Spain – out of fear that his bosses would fire his colleagues who are in the country illegally.   

Most bosses do not pay farm workers overtime and they ignore a collective labour agreement that sets wages for day workers at €46 ($51) for eight hours of work, Checa said.

The provincial branch of the SAT workers' union receives daily complaints from farm labourers, many of whom live in two shanty towns located near the greenhouses.

'One-off cases'

Tensions between Spanish residents and immigrant workers boiled over in the region in 2000 after a Spanish woman was stabbed to death, sparking clashes in the farming town of El Ejido.

“Conditions of pure exploitation of immigrants have since worsened,” said Spitou Mendy, the spokesman for SAT in the province of Almeria.  

Mohamed, a 32-year-old Moroccan who studied economics before crossing illegally into Spain, lives in a shack made of wood and plastic with other farm workers in one of the shanty towns near the greenhouses.

“I earn 35 euros for eight hours of work, but others only get 30 euros,” he said.

Farmers and officials, however, say cases of abuse are not the norm.  

“These are one-off cases, not at all the general situation of the 60,000 greenhouse workers,” said Jose Antonio Aliaga, chief of agricultural services in Almeria for the regional government.

Fernandez, the farmer who exports red peppers, said “it is not fair to say that all farmers here are seen as slave drivers.”

The Romanian couple he employees describe him as a model boss who pays them a monthly salary of 800 euros for five days a week of work and provides them with free accommodation in a house with a garden.

But for the anthropologist Checa, it is all due to the slim margins earned by farmers.

“Growers can only put pressure on the last link in the chain,” he said.

 By Laurence Boutreux / AFP

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FOOD & DRINK

The best vegan and vegetarian Spanish dishes

These are two words that don’t often go together – vegetarian and Spanish, as most vegetarians and vegans will only know too well, however, it may come as a surprise to discover that there are a few Spanish dishes that naturally do not contain any meat or fish.

The best vegan and vegetarian Spanish dishes

Whether you live in Spain or you frequently travel here, if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan you’ll know that finding traditional Spanish dishes can be tricky. But if you don’t want to have to eat international food all the time, you will discover that there are several meat and fish-free dishes that are Spanish classics. 

Espinacas con garbanzos

A dish traditionally found in southern Spain in Andalusia, this is essentially exactly how it’s translated – spinach with chickpeas. The dish has a long history dating all the way back to the Moors, who ruled southern Spain for almost 800 years. Completely vegan, the spinach and chickpeas are made into a type of stew with herbs and spices like paprika and cumin. Often pine nuts and raisins are added to the mix too.

READ ALSO: What did the Moors ever do for us?’ How Spain was shaped by Muslim rule

Spinach and chickpeas is a classic Andalusian dish. Photo: Xemenendura / Wikimedia Commons
 

Escalivada

A classic vegan dish from Catalonia, escalivada is a mix of slow-roasted vegetables, usually onions, peppers and aubergines. It can be eaten as a type of topping for large toasts called torradas and can sometimes have goat’s cheese melted on the top.

Calçots with romesco sauce

Another much-loved Catalan vegetarian dish is calçots with romesco sauce. Calçots are like a cross between a spring onion and a leek and are only available in the winter or early spring seasons. They’re typically grilled over an open fire until blackened. You must then remove the burnt exterior with a pair of gloves before dipping them in the romesco sauce. The sauce is a concoction made from toasted almonds and hazelnuts, tomatoes, garlic, toasted bread, olive oil, vinegar and dried ñora peppers. They can be a bit messy to eat, so restaurants will often give you a bib to wear too. 

READ ALSO – Recipe: How to make, eat and enjoy calçots

Try some calçots at a traditional calçotada. Photo: Esme Fox
 

Gazpacho

A dish that many are familiar with, this cold soup is traditionally from Andalusia, although it’s likely you’ll find it all over Spain in the summertime. It’s made from blended tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, bread, olive oil and garlic. 

Gazpacho is a cold tomato soup. Photo: Ирина Кудрявцева / Pixabay

Paella de verduras

Ordering paella in Spain can be tricky for vegans and vegetarians because the most traditional either contain seafood or rabbit, chicken snails and butter beans, like the ones from Valencia. Many places, however, now offer a paella de verduras, featuring only vegetables. Restaurants will use whatever is in season, whether that’s artichokes, green beans, peppers, asparagus, mushrooms or courgettes. The only difficult part is that many places will only do paellas for two or more people, so you have to hope your companions are willing to eat the vegan version too. 

A vegetable paella is completely vegan. Photo: Corophoto / Pixabay
 

Berenjenas con miel

This simple tapas dish translates as aubergines with honey and is essentially deep-fried aubergines usually dipped in bread crumbs or battered and then drizzled with molasses or treacle which is actually miel de caña, not the type of honey from bees. Although you can find it in many places in Spain, it’s typically from Andalusia and is very popular in Granada and surrounding areas.

A plate of berenjenas con miel is always a veggie favourite. Photo: Esme Fox
 

Patatas a lo pobre

Poor man’s potatoes might not sound very appetising, but this dish of fried sliced potatoes with onions, peppers and garlic is actually delicious. Again you’ll find it mostly in Andalusia, particularly in the Alpujarras mountains, just south of Granada.

Try some patatas a lo pobre in the Alpujarras. Photo: pxhere

Pisto

Similar to the French ratatouille, pisto is a stew made from cubes of aubergines, onions, peppers, courgettes and tomatoes. It comes from the region of Castilla-La Mancha and is often served with a fried egg on top. To make it vegan, simply ask for it without the egg.

Pisto is similar to the French ratatouille but is often served with an egg. Photo: Arnaud 25 / WikiCommons
 

Ajo blanco

This white garlic soup is a tasty combination of almonds, garlic, olive oil, bread and white wine or sherry vinegar. It comes from the areas around Málaga and Cádiz and like gazpacho is served cold. It’s sometimes served topped with grapes too. 

Ajo blanco is often served with grapes. Photo: cyclonebill / WikiCommons

Croquetas de boletus, ceps or espinacas

Croquetas are a favourite tapas dish throughout the country, and while many of them are filled with jamón (ham) or even squid ink, there are several vegetarian varieties too. Unfortunately, they are not vegan because they’re made with bechamel sauce, which contains dairy. The bechamel is mixed with various flavours and then covered in breadcrumbs before being deep-fried. Vegetarian varieties come in varieties such as boletus or ceps (types of mushrooms), espinacas (spinach) or cabrales cheese – a blue cheese from Asturias. 

READ ALSO – MAP: How well do you know your Spanish cheeses?

Try croquetas filled with spinach, mushrooms or cheese. Photo: Ralf Gervink / Pixabay

Salmorejo

Salmorejo is a cold soup similar to gazpacho, but it’s much thicker and creamier. It’s typically made from just four main ingredients – tomatoes, bread, olive oil and garlic. You can find it all over Andalusia, but it’s actually from Córdoba. Often it’s topped with ham and boiled egg, so simply ask for it sin jamón y huevo for it to be vegan. 

Ask for your salmorejo sin jamón for it to be vegetarian. Photo:Javier Lastras / Wikimedia Commons

Tortilla de patatas

One of the two only non-vegan dishes on our list is the classic tortilla de patatas, which you can find all over Spain and is definitely a meal you can rely on if all else fails. It is of course made from eggs and potatoes, but Spain is very divided on whether you should add onions or not. The Local is firmly on the onion side! 

Do you like your tortilla with or without onion? Photo: Luis MGB / Pixabay
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