Slow Food is My Religion...
I had the great fortune to meet Barbara Buckley last November at a Slow Food mushroom identification event. I knew right away that she was an interesting and captivating woman and that I would just have to profile her for America Village.
I'm delighted to say that barely six months from first meeting Barbara I consider her a friend as well as a great mentor.
A few weeks ago, I enthusiastically accepted an offer to interview her at her home over lunch.
Barbara has had an interesting and colourful life. Originally from Co. Cork, she graduated from UCC in 1970 with a double honours degree in Zoology and Botany. It was from here that she travelled north to Galway on a scholarship to study for her PHD.
At this stage of our conversation and our lunch, Barbara serves the first course: A chilled beetroot soup served with crème fraîche and beetroot powder - My taste buds were suddenly alive!
I imagine Barbara's childhood was a busy one spent outdoors. On several occasions during the course of our afternoon together, she referred to collecting wild food in her childhood and believes she has been a forager since those early years.
Barbara entered the world in somewhat tragic circumstances, she was the third child born to her mother, previous births had been complicated for Barbara's mother and tragically she died from complications shortly after delivering Barbara. As she explained to me
"It is difficult to miss someone when you never even knew them".
Barbara's father went on to marry again and have a second family, unfortunately her stepmother also passed away when she was 7 years old. She believes that the losses her father went through made him strong - I have a similar feeling the same could be said for Barbara.
Barbara has very strong senses and crosses them a lot, she tells me over the deep red beetroot soup,
"I have 'panaesthesia' - I see colours for numbers. Telephone numbers are colours, for example, all the numbers around here are 552 - Green, green, yellow's - I cross my senses a lot"
I found this fascinating.
I also have a 'thing' for long syllabled words. I had a bucket list as a child of all the place's that I wanted to go to: Serengeti; Timbuktu; Katmandu; Galapogas; Quito and Lake Titicaca - I've been to all bar two and I don't intend to go to Timbuktu anytime soon!"
Barbarba tells me that her father used to get the National Geographic magazine when she was young and she would sit over the pages for hours, exploring all of these exotic locations in her mind.
Despite her losses Barabra's childhood seems to have been a happy one - Adventuring and playing outdoors in the countryside, foraging and investigating all that nature had to offer.
Whilst preparing the main course and handing me a glass of beer, Barbara tells me that when she moved to Galway to do her PHD she met a man, who was to become her husband, a fellow student, from Edinburgh University "He was studying Oysters."
Soon after meeting, they were married, they moved into the area where she still lives near Oughterard in Co. Galway
"I couldn't live in the town, I was born and raised in the country"
She ended up leaving college and her PHD to get a job, as they needed the money. She got a job teaching biology at Galway Mayo Institute Technology (GMIT). She settled very well into her role as teacher, easier than into her role as wife, the marriage lasted for 5 years.
Lunch was served - A typical Indian meal, she informed me - "No greens, just potatoes and cauliflower". Placed before me was leg of lamb, which had been marinated in a garlic, ginger, mustard and a yoghurt base with a ginger and garlic crust, served with Dahi - Yoghurt with a tamarind sauce and Aloo Gobi - Potato's and cauliflower tossed in oil with cumin, coriander, funugreek, curry leaves and tomato's.
In 1987 Barbara was to make a move that was to change everything in her life.
"I remember I was giving a first year lecture, the lecture was over in 55 minutes and I realised that I hadn't turned over my notes from page 1 - I said to myself, Barbara you are getting stale, it is time to take a break"
So she did, she took a four year career break and went to live and work in Africa to manage a fish farm.
"As a zoologist, living, working, farming fish one hour from the Serengeti in Tanzania was a dream"
It was Barbara's first time in Africa and she was shocked by the poverty "I didn't understand that level of poverty, I didn't know it, to me, poverty was wet and smelly!"
Barbara's work in Tanzania was to manage a fish farm, which was established to provide nutrition for the local village's.
"Fish is high quality protein, and takes little energy to grow and catch, it is cooked in minutes with very little charcoal and there is enough in one for a family." She explained
Barbara immersed herself into her new surroundings, learning Swahili and getting to know as many local people as possible. The whole experience, both opened her eyes and changed her attitude regarding many things, particularly the value of material objects and the value of food, food quality and how best to use it.
"My food education and appreciation came from there - I ate so many things."
The main event that changed her life whilst in Tanzania, however, was that she met and fell in love with the love of her life whilst there.
"I met the love of my life in Tanzania - Taru. He was a widower from the Punjab in India, a Sikh. Born and raised in Tanzania. He taught me so much."
"I went to India with him, he had a farm in India. I found the Sikh women so interesting - such good fun. They taught me so much about food, cooking and how to treat food. They taught me about spices and how to use them."
Barbara met Taru within six months of arriving in Tanzania and very nearly didn't come back home because of him.
She did come back though, in 1991.
"Everything was still in its place." She tells me.
It took about a year and half to settle. "I went back to work refreshed, I had more information."
She had sold her house before she left so rented a friend's house for a while - which turned into 6 years.
"I lived on Inchiquin Island on Lough Corrib. I built this house whilst there, I always wanted to come back to this area, so I managed to buy this site and got a local man to build the house for me".
Barbara and Taru's relationship continued even though Barbara had returned to Ireland.
"Oh yes, he lived here with me, we had a 'timeshare' relationship. I went to Tanzania every christmas, easter and for summer and he came here twice a year. It was ideal, probably the best sort of relationship, as culturally we were just that little bit different. I never had children, so I was able to do it - It was great and it continued for 16 years, 16 of the best years of my whole life."
Taru died suddenly on April 10th 2004 -
"We weren't together when he died, he died very suddenly. He was watching the golf in Tanzania. His son was living with him with his daughter in law and grandchild. I was away. When I came home I noticed the answer machine was flashing - 14 calls, when I saw the sequence and the numbers I knew right away. We had been talking on the Saturday night and the calls were from Sunday morning, I knew he wouldn't call so soon again and knew it could only mean one thing."
Barbara was devastated. She said that they had been to Zanzibar for Christmas that year and she had told Taru's son when they had returned to Tanzania, that she thought that there was something wrong with him -
"He just wasn't himself, not friendly, very snappy, that wasn't him at all. I reckon he knew he was in trouble, We found out afterwards that he had been to a cardiologist and had been told he needed to go to a specialist, he had had a heart attack before - It was the longest journey of my life, going over for the funeral"
I had times with Taru that were surreal and magic, I treasure the surreal images, like the time we were in a friend of his, the Maharajah of Patiala's palace, who was as poor as a doormouse by the way, but he still had his palace - We were birdwatching with him, admiring birds and the Maharajah of Patiala was identfying the birds in the trees for me! - That was never on my bucket list - but I got to do it."
Barbara retired from her job teaching at GMIT in September 2010. It was after this that she found she had a lot more time for Slow Food.
"I would have been a forager from when I was young I would eat and try everything, Slow food for me now is...Its a religion it sets the rules for my way of living."
Barbara tells me that she tries to apply slow food principles to all her food and where she buys it. She first became aware of the politics of food through Taru, she explains:
"Taru was a grain farmer in India, and grew beans on a farm in Tanzania. He refused to buy Monsanto grain. He opened my eyes to Monsanto, I started to learn about the politics of food. This was the seed - pardon the pun - of my anger, what these corporations were selling and doing."
"My first visit to Terra Madre with Slow Food was two years ago, we went into a hall where there was a display of hundreds of apples of all different varieties on one side of a table, a seperator and then 5 apples on the other side. The hundreds were Italian heritage apples and the 5 were the commercially grown ones - 90% of apples sold in Italy were the commercial one's - This was one of those lightbulb moments for me - That visual impact"
I asked Barbara for her views on the future of food, food poverty and sustainability.
"I'm not sure - Education is key, schools and education. We have a 'Grandmother's project' at the moment, where we go into schools, pick one class and introduce them to slow food. Internationally, we have got to prevent the Monsanto's and the big marine harvesters from taking over. We can not lower our organic standards, they have to be watertight."
"Now food has to be processed and GMO'd to give it a long shelf life, the shorter the distance between consumer and producer is the key, you don't need food to have a long shelf life when you cut out the middle man and SHOP LOCAL."
Barbara Buckley is a woman worth knowing, interesting and a natural pedagogue. She has just returned recently from a weekend in Scotland with Mark Williams learning even more about foraging.
She is passionate about food and nature and is not willing to compromise her values regarding them - An attribute in a person, I for one, admire.