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FARMING

From Mauritania to the Jarama valley: Meet Usman, the alternative organic veg farmer

After spotting a poster for organic vegetables in the window of a local squat, Leah Pattem changed the way she bought her weekly vegetables. Here, she discovers the extraordinary story that lies behind the eclectic assortment of freshly grown produce she collects each week.

From Mauritania to the Jarama valley: Meet Usman, the alternative organic veg farmer
Usman on his allotment in the Jarama Valley. Photo: Leah Pattem / MNF

Usman is a Mauritanian organic vegetable farmer with an allotment in the Jarama valley – a beautiful bit of local countryside with clay, terracotta soil, which I know well because she finds it in the nooks of her freshly picked purple carrots.

After spotting Usman’s A4 poster in the window of an okupa (squat) in Lavapiés, I’ve now been buying my vegetables from him for just over half a year, and have watched Madrid’s seasons change on my dinner plate – from purple lettuce and bright-yellow cherry tomatoes, to sweet squash and cabbage that actually tastes like cabbage.


Tomatoes that taste like candy! 

FROM EARTH TO OKUPA

Every weekend, Usman heads out to his allotment right next to the Jarama river to tend to his vegetables. It’s hard work, but he’s making a living in a city where the odds of finding work are hugely stacked against him.

After Usman picks, cuts and digs up whatever’s ripe, his friend helps him bring back his weekly harvest to La Canica in Lavapiés, which is where his growing circle of customers (me included) pick up our 5 kg or 10 kg bags of mixed organic vegetables directly from Usman.

Those familiar with Lavapiés might remember that this community space used to be a bank.

The recent financial crisis forced it to close but it didn’t sit empty for long. The two-storey space was quickly opened up by members of the local community, who turned it into the anarchist neighbourhood space that it is today. Workshops, classes and local meetings are now held here, and it’s also where Usman sells his vegetables on Thursday evenings.

I look forward to every Thursday because it’s a little bit like Christmas day. I have no idea what I’m going to get this week: beetroot, squash, leeks or potatoes? Or red chard, purple carrots, cherry tomatoes and fresh oregano? It depends on what’s in season, of course, but also on whatever seeds Usman planted one year ago and how well they fared in this year’s weather.

What I love about not knowing is the way it challenges how I cook. Usman’s vegetables make for more adventurous meals and reconnect us with the seasons – something we’re increasingly losing thanks to year-round access to Mediterranean vegetables.

SPAIN’S DARK GARDENS

Many of us know that much of our supermarket vegetables are grown in Almería on the south coast of Spain, but what many of us don’t realise is that they were farmed by modern-day slaves, who fled their countries in hope of a better life.

A few years ago, on a trip around southern Spain, I took a bus through the city of greenhouses below. I saw a sea of white plastic tents that extended until the horizon dipped, and men living in slums made from wooden crates and old plastic sheets – the same sheets that cover the vegetables that they’re farming, which are the very vegetables sold in our supermarkets.

READ MORE: Illegal workers in southern Spain: unwanted but indispensable

Like Usman, many of these men are fleeing a climate crisis in their home countries. Poverty, slavery and fighting are day-to-day life for many, so being trafficked from Africa to Spain becomes an optimistic adventure. Once here, they struggle to find work, and many are roped into modern-day slavery, which is hard to escape.

Fortunately, Usman isn’t one of these farmers, and his vegetables are not sold in supermarkets, nor were they grown around pesticides, nor will they be rejected if they don’t meet industry standards of shape, colour and weight.

THIS IS WHAT VEGETABLES ARE SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE

Usman’s vegetables are organic, pesticide-free and chemical-free . They vary in shape, size and colour and, as my Dad always told me when cooking:

You don’t taste the shape, you taste the ingredients.

Usman’s vegetables are delicious: the tomatoes and carrots are like candy, and the pumpkins caramelise perfectly when roasted.

Watch this wonderful short video about Usman, his farm and his farm cat, Simba:

HOW IT ALL WORKS

Usman sells his bags of freshly picked mixed vegetables in either 5 kg (€12) or 10 kg (€24) bags. Send him an email to place an order, then he’ll tell you everything you need to know about where and how to collect and pay for your vegetables.

Usman will give you a heavy-duty bag for you to take them home in, but don’t throw it away: bring it back for the next time!

You can also collect your vegetables from Usman at various other places and times of the day or week – just arrange it with him. And you can visit him and his cat Simba at their sunny farm if you like – he’s there every weekend.

For more about Usman, check out the Huerto de Usman’s website. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram to watch the vegetables grow.

This is article has been wriiten by Leah Pattem, founder of Madrid No Frills. Follow her adventures on the Madrid No Frills blog, on Facebook and Instagram.  

IN PICS: How one British woman revived Spain's love for its own no-frills bars

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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