For landscape architect and university professor Paulo Farinha Marques, the landscape is the visual expression of the Mediterranean diet, reflecting not just our lifestyle, but also what we choose to eat. It is said that the Mediterranean “stretches as far as the olive tree will grow”, but in the case of Portugal – Mediterranean by nature, but also Atlantic by geography – the taut lines of the landscape are home to a striking biodiversity.
INTERVIEW WITH PAULO FARINHA MARQUES
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT / ASSOCIATE LECTURER IN LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE AT THE FACULTY OF SCIENCES, UNIVERSITY OF PORTO
How does the landscape make our diet unique?
The landscape is the visual expression of the Mediterranean diet. The diet reflects the landscape we have today, and have had for practically two thousand years. It reflects what we eat. It’s as if we ate the landscape. And so everything that belongs to the Mediterranean diet has a tradition in the landscape. If we look around us we can see that the landscape was formed over many years as the result of our need for subsistence. The olive groves we have, the rice paddies, our fields of wheat and irrigated maize. The Ribatejo lowlands, where we have our bulls. All this reflects the way we live, but above all the way we eat.
What helped to shape the adaptability and resilience of portugal’s Mediterranean diet?
To start with, we live in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, between temperate Europe and the edge of the desert. So along that scale from north to south, everything can be found. On the other hand, in the specific case of Portugal, we have one of the poorest areas in the world, from the standpoint of food. So these two factors together oblige us to be highly creative. In terms of food, Portugal has never been self-sufficient.
This is a country which is extremely difficult to farm: the land is very hilly, we have only small quantities of soil, or soil of very poor quality, and so it’s not enough. That’s why the country sought to expand. The first step we took was necessarily to go after wheat and the wheat markets of Morocco. Hence the famous conquest of Ceuta, which had to do with supplying the country with bread. And of course we invented things along the way, exploring our own biodiversity and introducing a whole host of foods that don’t exist anywhere else into our diet.
The researcher compares the erosion of this knowledge to the extinction of a species.
What can we do to ensure that this historical knowledge is not lost?
There is real danger of knowledge being eroded. It’s like the extinction of a species. I still belong to very much a transitional generation in terms of food; I saw and experienced that diverse, but not opulent, culinary tradition with my own eyes. Produce was seasonal, people cooked every day, and they bought food from suppliers still closely connected to the land. These habits have today disappeared, traditional produce no longer enjoys the same status, and we’ve moved towards international fashions.
If we don’t know how to use the produce, if we don’t know how to cook it, we’ll inevitably lose the habit, or the habits will shift upmarket, into the gourmet segment, which is already happening. These days practically no one knows how to cook those completely everyday dishes, with a wide range of ingredients and produce. So we have to be careful, we have to stay creative and explore and also bring these things into our modern kitchens. We have to learn, tell people, we have to convince the market to make this more affordable for everyone.
What’s the role of the landscape architect in preserving cultural and immaterial heritage?
Landscape architecture is the art of organising and designing space to put nature in contact with human beings. And it is based to a large extent on the act of cultivation. It’s the skill of taking that nature and cultivating that nature in our immediate surroundings, so we can experience it. Like a farmer does, like a horticulturalist. If we know about our systems, our cultures, and are able to interpret and perpetuate them in our modern age, these skills will certainly flow. Flow from the past, through the present, into the future.
What’s your favourite dish in the Mediterranean diet?
There’s such variety in Portugal, it’s a challenge to pick a favourite, but I love some of the very traditional dishes, such as frango de cabidela and roast kid, which was a childhood favourite. As I had a grandmother from the Alentejo, I’ll add açorda alentejana, more commonly known today as sopa alentejana, which is really a dish from when food was scarce, a time verging on famine. As you know, it’s just bread, soaked in water, and liberally seasoned with garlic and coriander. It would be finished off with a poached egg or sometimes, if you were lucky, a little salted cod.