A couple of days ago I posted a photograph on Facebook with a comment that “after a hot day of collecting data there’s nothing better than a nice big Tenerife paella!”:
My wife Karin and I had ended up in the small town of Candelaria, tired and hungry after sweating our way through the Malpais de Guimar counting and measuring plants. Big plates of hot food were just what we needed!
After I posted the image a Spanish colleague commented that the dish was “closer to being an arroz con cosas than a paella”. The term translates as “rice with things” and is used to convey the fact that the original Valencian dish of paella has been bastardised and changed across the Spanish-speaking world, and no longer reflects its culinary tradition. Knowing nothing of that culinary tradition I took a look at the Wikipedia entry for paella. It makes for interesting reading, not least the fact that in the original dish one of the main ingredients was the meat of water voles and that the dish was cooked on an open fire fuelled by wood from orange and pine trees to give a distinctive smoky flavour. There was also a lot of geographic variation in the dish, so what constitutes an authentic paella is debatable.
Although there was no sign of rodent flesh or naked flames in the dish that we ate, it was certainly delicious! But the comment about arroz con cosas got me thinking about shifting baselines in cooking and conservation.
The idea of a shifting baseline is that expectations of what is “correct” or “normal” or “natural” change over time depending upon what each generation has experienced. It’s been mainly applied in conservation; for example, the Lake District of England is seen by many as a “natural” landscape of rolling hills and low mountains, but originally it would have been covered in deciduous forest. Likewise large parts of Tenerife contain a high proportion of alien plants (such as agave and prickly pear) but local people and visitors see this as natural. The baseline of “naturalness” has shifted for people. Returning these landscapes to their original condition would mean a drastic shift in the composition of the vegetation. And what point do we return that condition to? One hundred years ago? One thousand? Ten thousand? It’s an issue that is widely debated in the conservation literature, especially in relation to rewilding.
Likewise, over time paella has evolved and been adapted by different chefs, and what is currently cooked in restaurants only partially reflects how the dish was originally cooked. Other than for epicurean purists, our culinary expectations have changed. There’s been a shift in the paella baseline.
Anyway, enough metaphorising, here are some photographs from out trip. To set the context, University of Northampton students and staff, including Pablo Gorostiague who is visiting from Argentina, and colleagues from the University of Sussex (Maria Clara Castellanos and Chris Mackin), were out with us last week. Then we bade them farewell on Sunday before moving on to do some field work.
Field work on the lava fields at Santiago del Teide:
The landscape of Malpais de Guimar, which actually probably hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years:
Howe many people can you fit around Pino Gordo, the largest Pinus canariensis on the island:
The endemic Tenerife Blue Chaffinch:
The cold, damp laurel forest:
Team Nicotiana! Helping Chris with locating Tree Tobacco populations for his PhD work:
Pablito takes a break: