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The Canaries: Food’s Ellis Island : Symposium: The Canary Islands use the Columbus quincentenary celebration to assert their role in food history.

What do the Canary Islands have to do with polenta, gazpacho and the Big Mac?

Beginning in 1492, the year of Columbus’s first New World voyage, there was a cataclysmic interchange of food products that changed the world’s cuisines forever. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, corn, squash, chocolate and many other modern-day staples were brought east by Columbus and his successors; in turn, they introduced the New World to wheat, rice, sugar, chicken, lamb, beef and pork, as well as literally hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables, from the eggplant to the orange, the olive to the grape. The Canaries, a small archipelago off the southwestern coast of Morocco, was the way station for this monumental two-way migration, the rest stop for the raw ingredients that hundreds of years later begat the Big Mac.

It’s not that Columbus couldn’t have found another place to dock his boats before sailing off into history, but the Canaries were en route from Spain to the Americas, and so they found a place alongside the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria in the New World saga. And transantlantic sailors didn’t just stop off there for food and water: they planted and farmed. As well as serving as an experimental station for potential imports from the New World, the Canaries were an oversized nursery-cum-breeding farm for the propagation of European plants and animals destined for the Americas, particularly for the tropical regions.

This heroic period, and the Canaries’ place in it, was the subject of a symposium, “Canarias en la Ruta de los Alimentos” (roughly, “The Canaries as an Alimentary Crossroads”) May 4 through 8 in the Canaries themselves, half in Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife and half in Las Palmas on Gran Canaria.

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But there was more than history behind the staging of the symposium--there was politics. As Juan Manuel Garcia Ramos, head of the islands’ Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports, put it: The Canary Islands have been “ olvidado olimpicamente ,” or “Olympically forgotten,” by the Spanish government in the planning of the official observances of the 500th-anniversary celebration of Columbus’s initial voyage. (The Olympic reference is to the 1992 summer games in Barcelona.) The Canarians decided that since they were left out of the official schedule, they would celebrate on their own . . . a year early, thus upstaging the rest of Spain.

The organizers obviously wanted to do things right: Among the gastronomic and academic celebrities who were to have attended the symposium, either as speakers or as participants in the round-table discussions, were Umberto Eco, Jean-Francois Revel (author of “Culture and Cuisine”), American anthropologist Marvin Harris (“Good to Eat,” “Cannibals and Kings”), Mexican cooking teacher and author Patricia Quintana and American-born British food writer Paul Levy (“The Foodie’s Handbook,” “Out to Lunch”). Paul Bocuse was to have been among the chefs preparing the banquet that was to close the convocation.

As it turned out, none of them showed up. Levy, who has a bad back, reportedly decided not to come when symposium organizers refused him a first-class ticket from London to the Canaries. Bocuse’s place was taken by Michel Troisgros, young scion of the famed Troisgros restaurant near Lyon. The rest of the cast was something of a mixed bag, including as speakers (among others) an economist, a nutritionist, a viticulturist from Spain, a Costa Rican anthropologist, a Portuguese novelist, an Italian poet and critic, and me.

There were also a number of noted food writers (mostly from Spain and South America), but also a travel-guide editor from London, a glamorous Spanish TV anchorwoman, a Madrid-based Danish general-interest reporter and a gloomy Norwegian economic reporter, also based in Madrid, who announced privately that she wouldn’t be writing anything about the symposium because everything discussed happened “too long ago, too far away.”

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The first session, held in a conference room at the cliff-side Hotel Semiramis in Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife, was launched by Mauricio Wiesenthal, a Barcelona-based journalist and historian who has written on subjects as diverse as the construction of the Taj Mahal and Mexican dessert cookery, and who edits a Spanish wine magazine called Encuentros con el Vino (Encounters With Wine). He offered a vivid, impassioned paean to wine. A team of interpreters, gathered in a glass booth at the back of the room, provided simultaneous translations for the multilingual crowd.

Other distinguished speakers followed. There was Dr. Luis Hidalgo Fernandez-Cano, a professor of viticulture and enology from Madrid and president of the Spanish Union of Wine-Tasters. He and Sergio Allard, a Chilean who is director of Wines of Spain in New York, talked on the influence of the Canaries on early viticulture in Central and South America. Allard suggested that the famous Mission grape--the first variety planted in California--may well have been propagated originally in the archipelago.

Portuguese novelist and journalist Mario Ventura closed the session with remarks about the sugar trade in the 16th and 17th centuries. The round-table discussion that followed exposed what were to prove the major faults of the balance of the symposium: repetitiousness, and a tendency on the part of both the speakers and the round-table participants to meander, and sometimes to ignore completely the subject at hand.

On Sunday morning, most of the symposium participants clambered onto a big double-decker tour bus for an expedition to Mount Teide, the highest mountain in Spanish territory--a dramatic volcanic cone set in a striking landscape that suggests the Arizona desert crossed with Hawaii’s Kona Coast. Here, at the Parador de Las Canadas del Teide, we were offered a huge meal, including Canarian ham and cured pork loin, fresh local cheese, an unusual sweet morcilla or blood sausage (made with almond flour), salt cod empanadas and three or four other appetizers. Then came a hearty watercress soup full of corn, potatoes, and assorted sausages; rabbit in vinegar and garlic sauce with papas arrugadas and gofio (a kind of Canarian flour, and a variety of desserts--plus plenty of pleasant Canarian wine, white El Grifo Seco from Lanzarote and red Vina Norte from northern Tenerife, to wash it down.

When we returned to our hotel, the drawback to what had at first seemed like an eminently civilized symposium schedule--sessions were to run from 5 to 9:30 nightly--became apparent: Spanish lunches typically end at just about the time the sessions were supposed to begin. In this case, the bus disgorged us at 5:20--and when we finally did convene, around 6, our numbers had shrunk by at least a quarter. During the session, there was a fair amount of nodding off and glassy staring going on.

Sunday evening’s subject, in any case, was “Two Continents in Anticipation: Ancient and Medieval Europe and Pre-Columbian America.” Speakers included Barcelonan Nestor Lujan--a novelist, historian, and naturalist as well as a noted restaurant critic and gastronomic writer--whose paper ranged stylishly from gastronomy among the Greeks and the Romans to the early Old World reactions to American foodstuffs (“Europeans took a long time to start eating tomatoes; I still don’t like them myself”). He also managed to slip in a few comments on the relationship between famine and ogre legends.

Costa Rican anthropologist Jose Alberto Rodriguez Bolanos suggested that “a knowledge of the indigenous elements of the Costa Rican diet, for which we lack the documentation, would be an important element in rediscovering our identity as a people--especially in the face of the overriding influence of U.S. consumerism in Central America.” Dietrich Briesemeister, director of the Ibero-American Institute at the Free University of Berlin, spoke in flawless Spanish about semiotics, cartography and 16th-Century humanism as they related to the New World--and managed not to mention food or agriculture once.

Argentine journalist Tito Drago ended the session by noting that it was important for us to remember the negative effects of Spanish food products in the New World: “While the pampas of Argentina were greatly enriched by the Spaniards’ wheat and cattle,” he pointed out, “in a place such as Peru, the old crops and methods were in harmony with the microsystem; and in introducing new ones, the Spanish completely destroyed Peruvian agriculture.”

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After the session, there occurred an event that would probably have been tolerated only in Spain--a pro-tobacco tertulia or public conversation (tobacco being, after all, another gift of the New World to the Old). In charge were noted Spanish author Xavier Domingo, a cigar-smoker who looks rather like a Spanish Rumpole, and television personality Jose Luis Balbin, famous for a program on which he shows and discusses controversial films. (He is also famous for his pipe; in fact, he was once arrested by the Guardia Civil for smoking it on the air.) The two shared an unequivocal opinion of smoking: They were for it and resented any attempts to suppress it.

“I consider it a form of terrorism when health officials release statistics relating tobacco to cancer,” said Domingo.

“The government isn’t worried about pollution by car, pollution by factory,” complained Balbin, “only pollution by tobacco.”

Most of the audience--nearly all the men were by this time smoking the agreeable though hardly Cuban-quality Canarian cigars that had been passed out gratis--seemed to be in sympathy with Domingo and Balbin. One exception was the elegant (nonsmoking) Valencian author Lorenzo Millo, who announced: “I don’t care who smokes and who doesn’t, but when I leave a restaurant I don’t want to smell of smoke.” There was scattered applause--though he may have weakened his case somewhat by continuing. “I don’t like people who laugh too loud or who put their jackets on the backs of chairs in restaurants either.”

The next day, the group flew en masse from Tenerife to Gran Canaria. Lunch, at the Jardin Canario restaurant in Las Palmas, was built around one of the archipelago’s more formidable dishes--a cocido (stew) made with seven kinds of meat--and the evening session was again late in getting started. The subject was “The American-European Interchange: The Canaries as Point of Contact.” Ana Lola Borges, professor of history at the University of La Laguna on the island of Tenerife, spoke directly to the title. On the other hand, the Italian poet/critic/gastronomic journalist Falco Portinari, one of the founders of the “Slow Food” movement, was witty and erudite, but unfortunately avoided the Canaries altogether as he discussed more or less the same thing Nestor Lujan had the night before--the reluctance with which many New World food products were accepted in Europe.

That evening’s round-table, for some reason, revolved mostly around cannibalism and dirt-eating. (Portinari: “I think we must look at the economic context in which cannibalism existed. It was inspired by need. I think the greatest revolution in history has been the change from an economy based on need to one based on desire.”)

On the last evening, the final speaker, Spanish economist Ramon Tamames, gave a brief, intense address, covering familiar territory one more time and exhorting the Europeans in the audience to “pay homage” to the countries of the New World for all their gifts.

We then retired to the hotel banquet room for the valedictory dinner, which was to showcase food products prominent in the East-West interchange. Michel Troisgros, in the best symposium tradition, ignored the theme but offered a delicious cream soup with boneless frogs’ legs, mushrooms and plenty of sliced black truffles. The fish course was prepared by Juan Mari Arzak, whose three-star Arzak in San Sebastian is quite possibly the best restaurant in Spain today. He made thick, perfectly cooked fillets of line-caught hake, dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and scattered with little bits of fried parsnip, beet, parsley and finely diced tomatoes (the American bit, presumably).

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The main course was cochinita pibil , a sort of suckling pig tamale wrapped in banana leaves, prepared by Lucila Molina, chef-proprietor of Casa Merlos in Mexico City. It was good, though I’m not sure it was the ideal dish with which to represent Mexican cooking (or New World cooking in general) to this group: Many of the diners seemed to find it bland--and there was serious question in some quarters about whether one was supposed to eat the banana leaf or not. (One does not.)

The dinner concluded with a dessert prepared by Carlos Gamonal, owner-chef of Meson el Drago in Tegueste on the island of Tenerife, widely considered the best restaurant in the Canaries. This was a (rather chewy) feuillete of bananas with passion fruit coulis , and a wonderful sort of ice cream made from gofio , glistening with guarapo or palm honey from La Gomera. Like the symposium itself, in sum, the meal was uneven and not always to the point, but attractively varied and with just enough surprises to be ultimately quite satisfying.

(In about six months’ time, the papers presented at the symposium will be published in book form. A price has not been set, but anyone interested in obtaining a copy may write for information, in English or Spanish, to Mario Hernandez Bueno, Presidente, Asociacion de la Prensa de Las Palmas, Gabriel Miro, 5, 35005 Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain.)


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