Charles Jones

IMAGE: “Mangold Golden Tankard” by Charles Jones, via. The mangold, or mangelwurzel, is a root vegetable usually used for animal feed. Charles Jones was “a professional gardener, born in 1866, son of a Wolverhampton butcher” – and possibly the best fruit and vegetable photographer that has ever lived. His work is included in the Museum of Garden History‘s lovely exhibition, “The Good Life – 100 Years of Growing Your Own.”

I’ve been in London this week, immersing myself in its edible delights – from red bean paste Kit Kats to a history of the grow-your-own movement, and from the creation myths of General Tso’s Chicken to bicycle-blended smoothies handed out in Trafalgar Square (not to mention the odd homemade mince pie – thanks Mum!) Unfortunately, such dedication to research has proved an obstacle to posting. But I will have plenty of interesting stories to tell if you have the patience to wait until I’m back online next week!

Meanwhile, many thanks for reading and commenting – I really appreciate it.

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North Korean Food Diplomacy

Pujon Potato Starch Factory

IMAGE: Pujon Potato Starch Factory, from the International Starch Institute.

Over at the Foreign Policy editor’s blog, Joshua Keating notes with surprise that North Korea’s Central News Agency chose not to make much of U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth’s recent visit to Pyongyang. After noting Bosworth’s arrival in a single sentence, reports Keating, the state propaganda engine went on to devote quadruple the coverage to a food-related headline: “Potato Starch Used In Dishes.”

Lurking between stories on a floral basket presented to Kim Jong Il and the Dear Leader‘s recent inspection of a tractor plant, the potato story is a concise but curiously compelling vision of a government-planned, state-controlled food system:

Potato starch produced by the Uljibong J.V. Company is received well in the DPRK.

The product, made by skinning raw potato and powdering and drying it, keeps most of the nutritive substances the raw potato has.

It contains quite a few minerals and vitamins such as B1, B2, B3, B6 and PP. In particular, it has 66.2 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams.

It is popular with catering establishments and housewives as it can be used to prepare noodle, rice cake, bread, pancake and so on.

Unfortunately, food is no laughing matter for many people in North Korea, 8.7 million of whom will rely on food aid to supplement their state rations this year.

Nonetheless, the North Korean regime does engage in state-sponsored food diplomacy. Several of its embassies sponsor North Korean restaurants, at which the dinner show includes cultural entertainment and propaganda film screenings. The New York Times recently reviewed a branch of the Pyongyang Haedanghua Raeng Myon restauarant in Beijing, savouring both the kimchi (“more sour and fresh than the South Korean version”) and the secretive atmosphere: “cell phone calls are cut off, documents and notebooks are checked,” and no photography is allowed.

North Korean restaurants

IMAGE: Phnom Penh’s Pyongyang Restaurant, photographed by Thorsten.

Elsewhere, the Ulan Bator branch is described as “an extremely satisfying and diligent dining experience,” while a tourist in Phnom Penh pronounced himself “still kind of shell-shocked” from his visit to the Pyongyang Restaurant:

The waitresses all looked alike. Same hairstyles, same facial expressions, same dresses. […] The dresses that they wore were made of the finest North Korean polyester. The design was somewhere between The Sound of Music and The Stepford Wives. A flat-screen TV on the stage showed a continuous video of The Wonderful World of North Korea.

If North Korea’s food diplomacy has met with a mixed response, American dietary incursions into Pyongyang are potentially even less successful. Although “imperialist influences” are banned, North Koreans have recently gained the opportunity to enjoy a hamburger – as long as they don’t actually call it a hamburger. At the Samtaeseong diner, which opened in June, patrons are able to order a “minced beef with bread” for about a pound ($1.70). This price, although roughly the same as its western McDonald’s equivalent, represents half the daily average income in North Korea, which limits its mass appeal.

There is clearly some way to go before North Korea dismantles its nuclear programme, the U.S. drops its “axis of evil” rhetoric,  and the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention is able to take effect. Still, until food diplomacy prevails, we will just have to make do with pure spring water from the DMZ.

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Sweet and Sour Soils

Laura Parker

IMAGE: From “Soil: A Series,” 2001, by Laura Parker: “Palette,” “Clod,” “Soil Bar,” and “Soil Survey Books.”

“It used to be,” writes William Bryant Logan in Dirt, “that a good farmer could tell a lot about his soil by rolling a lump of it around in his mouth.” Today, apparently, it is harder to find someone who literally eats dirt:

Not in Texas, nor Vermont, nor Kentucky, nor California, nor western New York. Everybody knew somebody who once did it, but nobody could quite remember the name of the fellow.

Finally, Logan came across Bill Wolf, an organic pioneer who started his environmental research under Buckminster Fuller and who used to eat soil, until his doctor forbade him.

Soil contains bad bugs as well as good ones, and the physician did not want to have to sort them out in Wolf’s guts. But back in the days when he chawed, Bill could tell acid from alkaline by the fizz of the soil in his mouth.

A very acid soil would crackle like those sour candies that kids eat, and it had the sharp taste of a citrus drink. A neutral soil didn’t fizz and it had the odour and flavour of the soil’s humus, caused by little creatures called “actinomycetes.” An alkaline soil tasted chalky and coated the tongue.

Having conducted this simple taste test, Logan explains, farmers could apply calcium carbonate to the Sprite-flavoured fizzy soil and gypsum to the Milk of Magnesia tongue-coating soil, which would then “react with the hydrogen of acid clays and the sodium of salt-clays, respectively,” in order to re-balance the soil’s pH and improve its structure.

However, our taste buds can only detect five basic flavours: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. In fact, three-quarters of everything we describe as flavour is actually smell – which helps explain why artist Laura Parker’s soil-tasting sessions do not actually involve eating dirt.

Her “A Taste of Place” events (the next is on December 10, in Santa Rosa, California) are designed to connect the smell of the earth to the flavour of foods grown in it. Participants can expect to sample two or three wine glasses, each filled with soil from a different organic farm:

First the scent of the soil will be stimulated by adding a small amount of water and stirring to release the earth’s aromas as if from a fresh rain. Then you will smell, identify the scents you recognize, and note their properties. You will then be served food grown in the same soil you have just smelled. See if you can taste in the food the same properties you smelled in the soil. Please note your reactions and experiences.

By way of example, Parker shares some of her own tasting notes for soil, which draw heavily on the vocabulary of wine appreciation. Soil from Philo Apple Farm, located on California’s Navarro River flood plain, is described as “a bit less exotic in aroma, but more varietal, with olive and mineral notes, and a bit weightier finish. The nose here is clay and smoky with huge extract and extraordinary elegance.”

Meanwhile, nearly 300 miles south, earth from T & D Willey Farms in the San Joaquin Valley has a “subtle yet complex nose, grassy and vegetative,” while its “underlying presence of cream opens up to hints of citrus and spice.”
Soil hands
A soil’s unique characteristics, Parker suggests, can also be tasted in the food grown in or on it. In other words, if the earth on which your farm sits has “grassy,” “olive,” or “smoky” notes, those flavours will recur in the organic spinach or goat’s milk cheese you produce. Smelling the soil first simply helps you become aware of the continuity. Recent participant Anne Zimmerman described her tasting experience thus:

The mud from Pugs Leap Farm in Healdsburg was thick and dark and hearty, and smelled like a green pasture. After smelling the soil, we tasted chervil grown at Pugs Leap, then a chunk of egg from chickens raised at Pugs Leap, and finally a delicate slice of tomme cheese made from the milk of goats raised at Pugs Leap. […]

The chervil was delicate yet distinctly herbaceous, and the yolk of the egg had a creamy green freshness. And the tomme was soft, mild, and — can I say it again? — divinely green.

At least in my experience, taste is highly suggestible: tell me that the Chardonnay has a vanilla base note, and it undoubtedly will. Nonetheless, accompanying vegetables with a tasting glass of the soil they were grown in makes a powerful sensory connection between landscape and food – a literal appreciation of terroir.

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Landscapes of Quarantine: Cheap Wine, Hummus, and Other Highlights

The End

IMAGE: Released from Quarantine… Post-meeting debris at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, including a couple of interesting books – Medical London by Mike Jay and Richard Barnett and Herzog & de Meuron’s Metrobasel – as well as Matt Leacock’s board game, Pandemic.

As some of you may know, this autumn, BLDGBLOG and Edible Geography have been co-hosting a New York City-based design studio dedicated to exploring the landscapes of quarantine. Each Tuesday evening for the past eight weeks, our group of sixteen participants has gathered to discuss the physical, geographical, human, biological, geological, ethical, architectural, ecological, infrastructural, social, political, religious, temporal, and even astronomical dimensions of quarantine – and then come up with individual projects that expand and reflect on one or more of those themes.

The night before last was our final meeting, so now that the empty bottles have been taken down to the recycling bin, here are some quick thoughts and photos from our quarantine adventure.

Group shot

IMAGE: Landscapes of Quarantine, Week 6. From left to right, Amanda Spielman, Joe Alterio, Katie Holten, visiting guests Luis Callejas and some of his colleagues at Paisajes Emergentes, Scott Geiger, and Yen Ha.

Geoff and Brian Slocum Model Q7

IMAGE: Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG in front of one of Brian Slocum‘s models for a quarantine façade, Week 7.

At its most basic, quarantine is the creation of a hygienic boundary between two or more things, for the purpose of protecting one from exposure to the other. It is a spatial strategy of separation and containment, invoked in response to suspicion, threat, and uncertainty.

Typically, quarantine is thought of in the context of disease control, where it used to isolate people who have been exposed to a contagious virus or bacteria, and as a result may – or may not – be carrying the infection themselves. According to historian David Barnes, quarantine was simply “an unpleasant fact of life” in most port cities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and in some cases, earlier: in 1377, Dubrovnik became the first city state to hold ships for a thirty day quarantine, on an island outside its harbour).



IMAGES: Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, addressing the studio during Week 5.

By the twentieth-century, this kind of routine application of quarantine was becoming less and less common. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s own “History of Quarantine“:

In the 1970s, infectious diseases were thought to be a thing of the past. At that time, CDC reduced the number of quarantine stations from 55 to 8. However, two major events—the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the SARS outbreak in 2003—caused concerns about bioterrorism and the worldwide spread of disease. As a result, during 2004–2007, CDC increased the number of U.S. Quarantine Stations from 8 to 20.

This year’s swine flu pandemic has prompted an even greater awareness and enforcement of quarantine  – although opinions are divided as to whether it has been effective in slowing the spread of disease at all. The use of quarantine to restrict individual liberties in the name of public health raises a host of legal and ethical questions that proved a fruitful ground for incredibly interesting discussions of the “dark math” of triage and “acceptable losses.” Game designer Kevin Slavin and comics artist Joe Alterio are both now producing projects that investigate the challenge of shared responsibility and individual decision-making in the face of a deadly disease.

Quarantine Week 6

IMAGE:  Landscapes of Quarantine studio, Week 6.

Jake and Kevin Week 3

IMAGE: Guest speaker Jake Barton talking with Kevin Slavin, Week 3.

Small group conversations

IMAGE: Me, Richard Mosse, Katie Holten, Yen Ha, and Michi Yanagishita discussing their projects, Week 3

On the other hand, several participants identified an undercurrent of absurdity inherent to quarantine, gravitating towards images of bored tourists confined to their Chinese hotel rooms and receiving takeout from biohazard-suited attendants, or the returning Apollo astronauts, denied their tickertape parade and waved at by President Nixon through the window of a modified airstream trailer (which was itself later found, mysteriously, on a fish farm in Alabama). Set designer Mimi Lien and graphic designer Amanda Spielman (in collaboration with her brother, Jordan) are both creating projects that play on these more surreal aspects, with (respectively) evocative, depopulated dioramas of unexpected quarantine locations, and a tongue-in-cheek public health campaign filled with helpful tips on, for example, making the most of your time in quarantine, and relationship maintenance for couples divided by quarantine.

Bjarke Jamie Liz Yen Amanda Thomas Joe Concept Crit-rit

IMAGE: (left to right) Guest critic Bjarke Ingels, Jamie Kruse, Elizabeth Ellsworth, Yen Ha, Amanda Spielman, Thomas Pollman, and Joe Alterio, at Studio-X for our “Concept Crit.” back in October.


IMAGE: Joseph Grima, Director of the Storefront for Art and Architecture, speaks to the group about the possibilities of the space, Week 5.

Of course, quarantine does not only apply to people and animals. Its boundaries can be set up for as long as needed, creating spatial separation between clean and dirty, safe and dangerous, healthy and sick, foreign and native – however those labels are currently applied. Many of our readings and discussions focused on the technical and extraordinary engineering challenges of designing to prevent the forward contamination of Mars, for example, or the spread of plant pests in an era of climate change. Artists Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth of Smudge Studio are focusing their attention on what they have termed the “limit-case” of quarantine: plans for the million-year containment of nuclear waste in geological repositories around the world.

Richard Ed and Thomas Quarantine Week 3

IMAGES: Richard Mosse, Ed Keller, and Thomas Pollman, Landscapes of Quarantine studio, Week 2.

Jamie presents

IMAGE: Jamie Kruse presenting at the Landscapes of Quarantine studio.

Week 7

IMAGE: (left to right) Brian Slocum, Jamie Kruse, Thomas Pollman, Mimi Lien, Amanda Spielman, guest speaker Laura Kurgan, Glen Cummings, Katie Holten, Yen Ha, and Michi Yanagishita, Landscapes of Quarantine studio, Week 7.

As a project of spatial control, the implications of quarantine ripple outward to affect the layouts of buildings, the shapes of cities, the borders of nations, and sometimes even the clothes we wear. Our discussions have ranged from the fictional potential of quarantine (currently under investigation by writer Scott Geiger) to the infrastructural requirements of quarantine as it applies to both orchids and the President of the United States (architect Thomas Pollman, of the NYC Office of Emergency Management).

Post It 4

Post It 3

Post It 2

Post It 1

IMAGES: Giant Post-Its filled with notes about quarantine (4 of about 60).

Meanwhile, architects Yen Ha and Michi Yanagishita of Front Studio are addressing the implications of inserting quarantine spaces into the fabric of the city, while architect Brian Slocum has been examining the way quarantine spaces blur the border, sometimes moving it into a bubble inside a country or home, and sometimes externalizing it back to the country or place of origin. On other evenings, our conversations have revolved around the dystopian overlap between border controls and health screening (the focus of sound artist Daniel Perlin‘s research), as well as what quarantine might look like from the point of view of the vector, bacteria, or virus that it is set up to control (a twist that stems from architect and filmmaker Ed Keller‘s thoughts on networks and political science fiction).

4 Kevin points something out to Katie Geoff tweets

IMAGE: Kevin Slavin pointing something out to Katie Holten on the Staten Island Ferry, while Geoff tweets.

22 Priests

IMAGE: The ceremonial re-interment of the quarantined dead, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Staten Island.

Scott, Kevin, and artist Katie Holten were brave enough to rise early on a cold October morning to witness the ceremonial re-interment of the quarantined dead on Staten Island. Later in the studio, Katie visited North Brother Island, the final home of Typhoid Mary, while photographer Richard Mosse flew to Malaysia as part of his meandering exploration of vampires, family history, and the Nipah virus.




IMAGES: Abandoned buildings on North Brother Island, which was used in late nineteenth and early twentieth century for the quarantine and isolation of typhus, tuberculosis, and smallpox cases. It is now overrun with kudzu, an invasive species. Photographs by Katie Holten.Her trip to the island was made possible by Michael Feller of the Parks Department, Tim Wenskus of the Natural Resources Group, and Todd Croteau, who drove the boat!

Over the course of the studio, we’ve been lucky enough to welcome some fantastic guest speakers, who generously donated their time to help us think through the potential of our topic and ways to organise our forthcoming exhibition (coming to the Storefront for Art and Architecture this spring), as well as offering valuable feedback on independent projects. Thank you, Jake Barton (founder and principal of Local Projects), Bjarke Ingels (architect and principal of BIG), Paola Antonelli (Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA), Joseph Grima (Director of the Storefront for Art and Architecture), Laura Kurgan (Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University), and Glen Cummings (founder of graphic design studio, MTWTF).

Some of them are even brave enough to return for our private beta-testing session this weekend, where they will be joined by several others, including Vito Acconci, Andrew Blum, Julie Lasky, Cassim Shepard, and Alice Twemlow, who have volunteered to spend their Saturday afternoon in Quarantine!

Katie Glen Laura Quarantine Week 7

IMAGE: Katie Holten, Glen Cummings, and guest speaker Laura Kurgan talking at Quarantine, Week 7, hosted by Front Studio/Harvest.


IMAGE: MoMA‘s Paola Antonelli visited the Landscapes of Quarantine studio during Week 5.

Joseph Grima and Daniel Perlin

IMAGE: Joseph Grima, Director of the Storefront for Art and Architecture, talking with Daniel Perlin during Week 5.

Bjarke Yen Michi Kevin Amanda Thomas Joe

IMAGE: Bjarke Ingels watches Yen Ha and Michi Yanagishita present at Studio-X. To their right are Kevin Slavin, Amanda Spielman, Thomas Pollman, and Joe Alterio.

Landscapes of Quarantine, as an independent, unaffiliated design studio, has been lucky to find several generous hosts: we’ve held our meetings at Storefront for Art & Architecture, Studio-X, Front Studio/Harvest‘s HQ, and architect Toshiko Mori‘s studio, and we are extremely grateful to each of you.

And although we’ve had our last meeting, Landscapes of Quarantine is not over! Watch for our forthcoming exhibition (showcasing the projects developed by studio participants) opening at Storefront for Art and Architecture, NYC, in March 2010, and the accompanying Storefront Books publication (which is being designed by Glen Cummings of MTWTF, and thus will be beautiful, as well as interesting). BLDGBLOG and Edible Geography will also continue to post occasional quarantine interviews: make sure to check out our previous conversations with Sara Redstone, Krista Maglen, Abraham Van Luik, Dr. Georges Benjamin, Jonathan Richmond, David Barnes, Alison Bashford, and Thomas Mullen.

And finally, a huge thanks to our studio participants for making every Tuesday evening this autumn something to look forward to – and to everyone else who has read this far! More edibly relevant posts will follow shortly…

Benjamin Walker WNYC

IMAGE: Benjamen Walker from WNYC setting up to record our discussions, Landscapes of Quarantine, Week 8.

Week 8 Party

IMAGE: (left to right) Jordan Spielman, me, Joe Alterio, Josh Cummings, Katie Holten, Daniel Perlin, Yen Ha, Michi Yanagishita, and Scott Geiger chatting at the end of our final meeting, Week 8.

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Behavioural Borders

As a curious coda to my previous post, in which Kew’s Plant Health and Quarantine Officer, Sara Redstone, notes the frequent mismatch between biological and political borders and discusses the role of quarantine in creating an artificial biological boundary, I was intrigued by this post on the Foreign Policy editors’ blog, Passport, reporting on political borders that have created biological effects.

The story starts with researchers at the University of Haifa, who partnered with Jordanian colleagues to study “a variety of reptile, mammal, beetle, spider and ant lion species on either side of the border in the Arava region.” According to the university’s press release, the team “set out to reveal whether the border – unknown to the species – could affect differences between them and their numbers on either side of the frontier, even though they share identical climate conditions.”

The question, in other words, is whether a border that exists only as a line drawn on a map, rather than an impassable physical boundary, can somehow become instantiated as biological fact?

Arava Satellite

IMAGE: Satellite image of the Israel–Jordan border in the Arava desert, via Google Maps.

The research team, led by Dr. Uri Shanas, found substantive differences in the numbers, diversity, and even behaviours of animals on either side of the border:

The first study inspected the reptile population and revealed that the number of reptiles is similar on both sides, but the variety of species in the sandy areas of Jordan is significantly higher than the variety found in the sands of Israel. A second study revealed that Israeli gerbils are more cautious than their Jordanian friends, while a third study showed that the funnel-digging antlion population in Israel is unmistakably larger than in Jordan.

These differences were then analysed to find evidence of a hypothetical “border effect.” Dr. Shanas concluded that although the yard-high strand of barbed wire tracing the political demarcation “is not capable of keeping these species from crossing the border between Israel and Jordan,” it nonetheless “does stop humans from crossing it and thereby contains their different impact on nature.”

Animals of Arava

IMAGE: (left to right, top to bottom) Dorcas Gazelle via Wikimedia, Antlion via Trevor Jinks, Red Fox via Wikimedia, Gerbil via Wikimedia.

For example, the antlion surplus in Israel can be traced back to the fact that the Dorcas gazelle is a protected species there, while across the border in Jordan, it can legally be hunted. Jordanian antlions are thus disadvantaged, with fewer gazelles available to serve “as ‘environmental engineers’ of a sort” and to “break the earth’s dry surface,” enabling antlions to dig their funnels.

Meanwhile, the more industrial form of agriculture practised on the Israeli side has encouraged the growth of a red fox population, which makes local gerbils nervous; across the border, Jordan’s nomadic shepherding and traditional farming techniques mean that the red fox is far less common, “so that Jordanian gerbils can allow themselves to be more carefree.”

I’m fascinated by the fact that differing land-use practices, environmental legislation, and agricultural technology on either side of the political border have shaped two distinct and separate ecosystems of out what would otherwise be a shared desert environment.

Human activity has imprinted a virtual division onto the biological landscape, creating an immaterial, yet effective, behavioural border.

Posted in Landscapes of Quarantine, Uncategorized | 2 Responses

Plants Without Borders: An Interview with Sara Redstone

Sara Redstone is the Plant Health and Quarantine Officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, home of the world’s largest collection of living plants. In addition to screening and isolating all incoming or outbound plant material, she is currently overseeing the design and construction of a new quarantine facility for the Gardens. As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG and I visited Redstone on site at Kew, where we drank tea outside the Orangery café. Over the course of nearly two hours, we talked about the impact of current and potential pest outbreaks, the ecological risks of open E.U. borders and global trade, and the complicated governmental infrastructure of plant protection.


IMAGE: Fifty-five of Europe’s most common plant pests. Wall poster via Scandinavian Fishing Year Book, who – as their name indicates – were founded in 1955 to produce an annual directory of Scandinavian fish companies. They have since diversified.

Later in the conversation, we discussed what plant quarantine at Kew actually looks like, in terms of the functional and technical challenges involved in designing a new Quarantine House. Along the way, we touched on plant smuggling, invasive species, and the potential to create a Sudden Oak Death superstrain.


BLDGBLOG: What do plant quarantine measures encompass – invasive species, plant diseases, or even genetically modified organisms? And who is in charge of enforcing plant quarantine in the UK?

Sara Redstone: Plant quarantine at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is concerned with controlling plant pests and diseases, to protect our living collections and the wider environment. In the UK, a number of different structures govern plant import restrictions, monitor invasives, and issue licences for quarantine and for genetically-modified organism (GMO) research. The rules for working with GMOs are laid out and policed by the Health and Safety Executive, but issues that relate to plant health, quarantine, and potential pests and diseases of plants are actually monitored and controlled by an organization called FERA (the Food and Environment Research Agency), which is a new agency within DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).


IMAGE: Diseased pear, from the USDA Pomological Watercolour Collection.

It can get quite complicated! Different organisations deal with plant health issues depending on where the plants grow and what they are. Unfortunately, the type of information you can get online relating to plant health and quarantine is not always very user-friendly. For example, inquiries about plant health, imports, and restrictions in Scotland go to the Scottish Office, but in England they either go to FERA or the Forestry Commission, depending on the type of organism. Licences to operate quarantine facilities depend on what type of material you are quarantining (plant or animal), the purpose of raising such material (to grow the plant itself or to grow potential pests or diseases), and various other factors. Meanwhile, GMOs fall under the Health and Safety Executive, as I said – but inquiries about GMO regulations go to DEFRA.

Ordinary members of the public quite understandably find this very confusing.

Edible Geography: What are some of the most worrying issues facing you in terms of plant pest control?

Sara Redstone: One particularly nasty tree pest, which is also a potential human health hazard, is the Oak Processionary Moth. RBG Kew is just one of many locations in South West London that has experienced this pest. Like the Browntail and other moths, during various stages of their life-cycle the caterpillars are covered in really brittle hairs that have a toxin in them. It can give you a nasty rash and may cause breathing difficulties or affect your eyes on contact. The moth came into the UK as eggs on imported trees from Holland – and the challenge we face is that we don’t typically quarantine trees from northern Europe. There is no legal requirement to quarantine material from within the EU, but the pest is widespread in the Benelux countries and Germany and is increasing its range on the mainland.

Oak Processionary Moth Daily Mail
Oak Processionary Moth

IMAGE: The Oak Processionary Moth. (Above) As pictured in a 2007 Daily Mail article titled: “Gardeners are mercilessly hunting down moths with hairspray and flame-throwers.” (Below) Tree infested with Oak Processionary Moth caterpillars. Photo taken by Ferenc Lakatos, University of West-Hungary, and found via the Centre for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health’s Bugwood Network.

What happens is that many Dutch, Belgian, and German nurseries raise trees and shrubs in areas in southern Europe, such as Italy, where the Oak Processionary Moth is already established. The climate and local conditions promote better growth than can be achieved in northern areas, so you get bigger plants faster. They then move the plants back north to grow them on the nursery for a period of time, to get the right shape, etc. This kind of movement of plants has resulted in a lot of pests increasing their range and moving northwards.

Once a pest is established in a those northern mainland European states, there’s no way to prevent it from spreading to the others, because there are no real boundaries. There are no geographic features that are going to prevent them from moving, and there are no trade barriers that are going to stop them, either.

Although Britain is an island, everything is very much geared towards free trade. Unfortunately, quarantine is usually secondary to trade. Most people involved in pest and disease control and quarantine will tell you that we like to employ what we call “the precautionary principle” but for political and economic reasons, governments don’t always choose to operate that way.

One of my concerns is that we know about these tree movements on the European mainland, and we know that the Citrus Long-horned Beetle, for instance, is now fairly well established in the Lombardy district in Italy – which is not that far from some of the major tree-growing areas in Tuscany. What’s going to prevent those Long-horneds from spreading to northern Europe, given the movement of plants, and then coming over to the UK?

Citrus Long Horn Beetle

IMAGE: Citrus Long-horned Beetle identification guide, via the Indiana Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey’s list of Indiana’s Most Unwanted Invasive Plant Pests.

We’ve already had an instance where infested Acers were grown in China, shipped over to mainland Europe, and then sold in the UK. The beetle has a long larval phase – two to three years when it is undetectable by normal means, though I understand stethoscopes are now being used by some plant inspectors in an effort to try and detect larvae feeding. Usually the only way to detect them is finding the emergence hole in the tree base – or finding the adult beetle, after the fact. Were all the infested trees found? Were all the beetles present in the consignment destroyed? We don’t even know where all those plants have gone. It’s really bad news.

BLDGBLOG: What sort of measures are in place to deal with these threats?

Sara Redstone: Material that comes in from the European Union is generally uncontrolled. There are Plant Passport regulations that apply to certain types of plant, but there’s no record of exactly what plant material is moving and where it’s from. For instance, even if it says it is from, say, Holland, it doesn’t mean that that material originated in Holland. It may have arrived via Holland in a container ship from China.

Example Plant Passport

IMAGE: Sample Plant Passport from DEFRA’s Plant Health Guide to Plant Passporting.

Different countries have different standards for quarantine and plant health. You can understand that in some countries where it’s really a struggle to make a living, different rules apply. There is an organisation called the International Plant Protection Committee (IPPC), which makes recommendations – but there is a real lack of shared standards for plant quarantine.

One thing that would be really useful now would be a series of suggested blueprints for quarantine buildings. For example, quarantine houses in places like the tropics can be relatively simple: mesh-screen, poly-tunnel-type structures with restricted access are fine. You don’t always have to use chemicals to sterilise things – in the tropics, you can use heat. Even in the UK, we can quite often use solar gain in our glasshouses to sterilise an area, provided we know what we’re trying to kill. The same methods have been used for years in agriculture; farmers will put polythene over an area of land, and then rely on the sun to sterilise the soil.

healthy and diseased

IMAGE: Healthy and diseased plants in a side-by-side comparison, via the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

Edible Geography: Here at Kew, what is it that you are quarantining? Why does Kew need a quarantine house?

Sara Redstone: We use plant quarantine (isolating, screening and treating plants) for incoming and outgoing plants where we’ve determined they may be a risk associated with their movement. For example, if we want to repatriate material to a country as part of a conservation project, the last thing we would want to do is inadvertently introduce a new pest or disease, so we isolate and treat plants before moving them, to reduce that risk to an absolute minimum.

At present we’re in the process of planning a new quarantine facility. Our intention with the new building is that all plant material that is sent to RBG Kew and our sister garden, Wakehurst Place in Sussex, will come to this one point – our new “plant reception” – regardless of its origin. This means we can improve our data capture, we can make sure that all incoming material is compliant with the necessary legislation, we can do an initial inspection, and, if we think there’s a risk, we can also do the isolation and screening.

England is not like the United States, where the USDA maintains the plant quarantine service. If, say, the New York Botanical Garden requests plant material from us, they will send us an import permit and shipping labels, and the labels will direct those materials to the USDA quarantine service, who then send the material on.

We operate quite a different system in the UK and European Union. What happens here at RBG Kew is that we have a licenced quarantine facility, which is approved by FERA and licenced by DEFRA. This gives us the ability to quarantine plant imports that come to the gardens from outside the European Union.

UK phytosanitary certificate

IMAGE: UK Phytosanitary Certificate, via the Plant Health (England) Order, 2005.

These usually fall into two main types. One is the type of material that comes in with a phytosanitary certificate. If, for example, somebody went to Costa Rica and they wanted to bring back material from a botanic garden there, they would arrange for all the necessary permissions, but they would also arrange for an inspection by a representative of the national plant protection organization there. If the plant material was free of pests and diseases, it would be issued with a phytosanitary certificate. Normally, that’s only valid for two weeks – so there’s quite a short window of time in which the plant can travel. Once material reaches RBG Kew, it then has to have another inspection, because at the time it was inspected in Costa Rica, there may have been no visible signs of pests or diseases, but, in the time it takes to reach the UK, something might have developed. So that’s one kind of material that is received into quarantine.

The other type of material we receive into quarantine is what we call “natural source,” or “wild-collected,” material. We operate under a Letter of Authority to import wild-collected material whose movement would normally be prohibited or controlled. An example of that kind of material would be vines from Kyrgyzstan. Their movement is strictly controlled because, in the European Union, vines are a really important crop. You’ll find the same thing in most countries – a lot of cereal crops are controlled, for example, because they can have such a dramatic impact on the horticulture and agriculture of a country.

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever quarantine controlled or banned plants, such as kudzu or marijuana, to prevent them from entering the country?

Sara Redstone: We wouldn’t normally consider that quarantine. It’s more a case of restricting access of non-authorised people to the plants, or restricting the release of non-native species into the environment. When we quarantine plants, it’s not to do with excluding a particular plant type so much as excluding the diseases or pests that those plants might be harbouring.

Invasive plants like kudzu (Pueraria montana) aren’t banned, although we have a few species like Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) which are illegal to intentionally allow to spread to natural areas. I’m not sure whether UK authorities would prevent specific plants being imported. Marijuana (Cannabis sativa), whether in THC-containing forms or hemp, requires a Home Office licence to produce and process.

Kudzu infestation

IMAGE: Kudzu-infested forest. Photo courtesy John D. Byrd, Mississippi State University.

We do provide a service for UK customs authorities. If they make a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) seizure, we have a department here that will go out to help to identify the plant and tell them whether it’s been wild-collected and if it’s of conservation value.

Edible Geography: Can you give any examples of outbreaks that have happened while you’ve been here?

Sara Redstone: We haven’t had any outbreaks here due to failure of quarantine. The impact of an outbreak on our collection could be very serious, particularly if it involves a known quarantine organism where the only sensible treatment is to destroy the plant material. That could cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds to eradicate. It could also threaten rare species, restrict people’s access to the collections, and prevent us from supplying material for research to our own labs and to other botanic gardens.

We have had a couple of recent pest outbreaks in the UK. I’ve already referred to our ongoing Oak Processionary Moth problem. The interesting thing is that when that outbreak happened, the moth wasn’t even recognized as a quarantine organism and it wasn’t clear which government department was going to manage it.

WV Locust Leaf Miners

IMAGE: West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s pest collection, via the Massachusetts Introduced Pests Outreach blog.

The problem with all of these things is that it’s so much easier to prevent an outbreak than it is to deal with one that’s already in progress. Unlike in the U.S., where you seem to be more geared up to a rapid response once something has been identified, it takes us a long time in the UK and we need more resources in place to do the monitoring and undertake control.

One issue, for example, is making sure we have the right chemicals in place. It’s not enough to do a risk assessment; we also need a list of specific, recommended control measures. And if the recommendation is, for example, “Use this particular chemical,” then we need to make sure that somebody in the UK is able to supply it.

BLDGBLOG: What’s involved in thinking through the design of a new quarantine facility?

Sara Redstone: One of the design challenges is to make sure that we not only meet current legislation, but that we also anticipate some of the changes that might need to happen. Global trade and climate change are having an impact already.

Even trying to decide the scale of our building is a challenge: we want to build-in flexibility, and we don’t want to hamstring the organization in the future. At the same time, we have to be able to afford to run the facility! What we know from the experience of others is that there have been lots of examples of institutions where they’ve spent vast sums of money – tens of millions of pounds – on creating fabulous infrastructure, but it has then been so expensive to run that they haven’t been able to operate it. We can’t afford that. That’s not what we’re about at RBG Kew.


IMAGE: Bay leaves showing symptoms of infection by Phytophthora ramorum, the “causal agent” of Sudden Oak Death. Photo courtesy D. Schmidt, Garbelotto Forest Pathology Lab, UC Berkeley, via the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute.

On the other hand, to contain pests and diseases, we need to assess the risks associated with every single plant movement. As a result, over the past few years we’ve routinely quarantined material that there’s no legal need to quarantine. However, we’ve felt that there was a practical need and a moral obligation to quarantine seed material that comes from, for example, California, or from other states where we know there’s a really severe problem with Sudden Oak Death. Particularly with the understorey material, we’ve germinated it all in quarantine and grown it on so that we can screen it. The last thing we want to do is introduce Sudden Oak Death – particularly the American form, because there’s an American and a European strain, and the concern is that the two will meet and produce a super-strain.

The other factor is the human resource. It’s not enough just to have a building: you need to have people who are trained and who understand how to operate it.

Edible Geography: Quarantine is always a question of time. How do you decide how long to grow these understorey plants, for example, before you can determine whether they are healthy or sick?

Sara Redstone: That’s all part of the risk assessment process. I work with our local inspector and an excellent scientific support team at FERA to make those kinds of decisions. For example, the inspector might look at a batch of seedlings and say: “That group hasn’t grown very well – but this group is fine, and they’ve reached three months and we can see that they’re still healthy.” What he might then say is, “The healthy ones can move on” – and he’ll do me a release certificate – “but those other ones ought to stay for a little bit longer.” Or he might say: “I don’t like the look of that first group: destroy them.”

This is always decided on a case-by-case basis – which is very different from GMOs, where there are fixed containment levels. What we’ve done with our new building is use the containment levels for GMOs as a guideline when talking to potential suppliers. For example, in terms of treating our water waste, we’re saying to them that we need an equivalent for containment level 3. That means we’re looking at steam-sterilising all our liquid waste. We’ll take off the solid fraction, and that will be dried and incinerated – or it will be sent through the autoclave – but the liquid will all be steam-sterilised.

The other thing is that all the technology we use needs to be proven and validated. For example, I know of some places where they use an ultraviolet system for treating water, but there are potential problems with that, because if you have high levels of organic matter in the water, things can, in fact, survive. We just can’t take that risk, because it might result in us not getting a licence. And if you put an awful lot of effort and millions of pounds, into doing something, it would be an awful shame to fail just for the sake of wanting to try something new and cool.


IMAGE: Proposed façade for the new Quarantine House at RBG Kew, courtesy Wilkinson Eyre architects.

Edible Geography: Where does the innovation and experimentation in quarantine design take place, if not in designing a new facility?

Sara Redstone: That’s the problem – it doesn’t. It’s the kind of thing that somebody somewhere should do so that we can test new systems. The trouble is that resources are usually limited in this area and facilities tend to be expensive both to build and operate well. Usually you can’t afford to experiment.

We do test our systems once they’re in place, of course. With the steam-sterilisation system that we’re planning to install, we’ll be regularly inoculating it with particular organisms and then testing the processed material to make sure it works. It’s simple, but it’s effective.

I’ll show you the plans as they stand now [unfolds plans]. In the scheme as it stands, we have a reception area which will receive all plant material that comes into RBG Kew: seeds, bulbs, shrubs, trees, everything – whether it’s from the EU or not.


IMAGES: Site plan for the new Quarantine House at RBG Kew, showing the proposed site (marked with the red outline, above) and the proposed floor plan of the new structure (below). Courtesy Wilkinson Eyre.

Edible Geography: What sort of volume is that?

Sara Redstone: RBG Kew receives, on average, between three to five and half thousand accessions a year, and an accession can be quite a large group of plants – it needn’t necessarily be a single plant, if they’re all genetically identical.

The material will then be processed via the inspection area and then either go into the licenced facility (medium and high containment pods) or into the unlicenced large specimen store. The large specimen store’s primary function is to enable us to hold, monitor and, if necessary, treat or destroy trees, shrubs and other plants originating from within the UK and EU.

The large specimen store is basically what we call a high hat. It has a solid roof, which can be shaded, and insect-proof sides. The insect-proofing is aphid proof, so it’s not particularly small – it’s around the 1mm² mark.

Adjoining the store will be the licenced quarantine facility, which will be split in two: high containment and medium containment. Both spaces will be governed by the licence issued by DEFRA. Both units have air cooling – though they each use a different cooling method – and they’re going to be kept at negative air pressure.


IMAGE: Gradations of Containment in the proposed floor plan for the new Quarantine House at RBG Kew, courtesy Wilkinson Eyre.

We also have to build in systems to allow for a failure in the power supply. As we’re on the edge of a flood risk zone, the building itself will sit on top of a concrete raft and the plants will be on benches. That will give us quite a lot of leeway as far as any risk from flooding goes. As added protection we also intend to have slots at the doorways. We can then put in barriers and reinforce them with sandbags, in the case of a serious flood. I also want to have an operating procedure that says, if we get advanced warning that there’s going to be a really catastrophic flood event, we’ll load everything in the incinerator and destroy it. Frankly, if that happens, most of London is going to be completely stuffed, so there’ll be bigger problems to deal with!

At the entrance to the licenced area, we’re putting in a cold lobby. It will be kept at 0ºC and it will have a freezer in it for lab coats. People will put on lab coats before they go into the medium and high containment areas and put them back in the freezer when they come out, where the coats will be sterilised. There will also be an air-circulation fan so that, if anything like seeds or pollen has got stuck to people, it will be blown off into the cold.

Edible Geography: Will there be chemical showers as well?

Sara Redstone: No, that would be considered excessive, to be honest. It’s all about assessing and managing risk proportionately. We’re not a research facility raising pests or diseases for experimentation, so the risks are somewhat less. We have an emergency shower in case somebody’s been contaminated, during pesticide spraying, for example, but our working procedures and precautions like the cold lobby and freezing of lab coats should provide the appropriate level of bio-security.

At every stage, we’re assessing and trying to minimise risk. If we received particularly precious seeds that I thought might harbour a problem, what I would look to do is send them to the seed bank so that they can X-ray them and we can weed out the bad guys straight away, to be destroyed. We also use external treatments – for example, peroxide or other chemicals. Apart from anything else, peroxide is great because it can help trigger germination and is biodegradable.


IMAGE: Design proposal for the new Quarantine House at RBG Kew, courtesy Wilkinson Eyre.

With everything, you have to give it a bit of thought first. Which is why we say to staff, for goodness sake, please don’t turn up on the doorstep with plant material. We need advance notice so we can risk assess the material.

Other parts of the facility include the loading bay, where there’ll be some storage, the incinerator area, and the inspection bay.

BLDGBLOG: What do you do with the output from the incinerator?

Sara Redstone: The ashes are usually incorporated into the soil heap. It doesn’t go into the compost because it blows around; instead, we usually dig it into the soil piles, so it doesn’t go to waste and it is recycled.

The facility also includes a potting area, which contains a small chemical store and a water-treatment area. And there are going to be insectocutors everywhere!

One important design feature is that the plant room is entirely separate, so that the only way people can enter is through that external door. This means that anyone coming to do maintenance on the electrics or whatever doesn’t have to go through any of the quarantine procedures, because they don’t have access to any other part of the building. It’s human nature to prop open the door if you’re feeling warm – but that sort of thing just can’t be allowed to happen inside the licenced areas.

Edible Geography: How will the temperature-control system work?

Sara Redstone: For the individual zones within the greenhouse, each “pod” will have its own small unit climate control panel on the outside of the house, which will control air circulation, fans, and fogging. We’re going to use fogging not just to control relative humidity, but also, in part, to control temperature gain. It’s quite an effective way of modifying the temperature without huge energy input. And we’re going to use external shading – rollers in tracks – because that’s more efficient than internal shading. Although this is the UK, you may be shocked to hear that heat is the biggest problem we have in maintaining the right kind of environment for our glasshouses.

There’s going to be limited lighting because we’ll be either propagating material or maintaining material – we’re not trying to promote lush growth. There will also be a central computer that controls all the zones, and my intention with the new one is to have direct access from my mobile phone and home computer.

One of the intentions with the new building is to minimise energy costs as much as possible. The building also needs to be capable of being operated by only a few staff – it mustn’t be labour or energy intensive!

For plants that have really critical temperature requirements that are at the lower end of the spectrum – for example, we had some orchids in from Patagonia – it’s hard to provide those kind of environmental requirements reliably through a glasshouse system. So what we’re going to use is a couple of growth cabinets with lighting, because we feel that’s the most cost-effective solution to that particular headache. We’re also hoping to use rainwater harvesting for part of our irrigation system, and we’re trying to use the most energy-efficient materials.


IMAGE: Curved polycarbonate sheets for glasshouse construction, courtesy Unigro.

One of the vendors we’re considering makes quarantine houses using curved polycarbonate sheets. You get a lot of lengthways expansion with polycarbonate sheets, and the curve helps accommodate the expansion and contraction, while maintaining a really good seal. The other thing I like is that we can pump air through a cold water spray and then actually circulate it up and over the curve of the structure, which can give a much more even temperature regime across the bays.

BLDGBLOG: I see the facility has been designed by Wilkinson Eyre. How is working with them going?

Sara Redstone: Well, the design isn’t finished yet. The final version will be designed and built within the restrictions we’ve incorporated – we are really getting into this now, I think. It’s quite different from anything else they’ve done and the combination of very specific needs, but a lack of specific technical guidelines, makes it a challenging and interesting exercise. We want the building to look attractive, but containment and functionality are its key priorities.


IMAGE: Proposed north west elevation of the new Quarantine House at RBG Kew, courtesy Wilkinson Eyre.

The other interesting design feature is that there’s a five-metre exclusion zone around the building – a completely solid surface with no plant material. We arrived at that measurement through discussion with the Plant Health and Safety Inspectorate, and it’s important to have a clearly marked exclusion zone. Although the old quarantine building began its life being relatively isolated, pressure to use every available square metre of behind-the-scenes space for support activities at RBG Kew means this is no longer the case. We’ve located the new building so we can make use of some of the existing roadway as exclusion. That way we’re not wasting space, and we’re closer to some of the services.

This particular layout also enables us to add on another block, if we need to in the future.

Edible Geography: How many plant pest & disease quarantine facilities are there in the UK?

Sara Redstone: A lot of universities have small quarantine facilities, often used for GMO work or raising pests and diseases rather than specifically quarantining plants. Rothamsted have a really excellent facility for experimental work. Central Science Labs at the FERA headquarters in York also have quarantine facilities.

Edible Geography: Does the Royal Horticultural Society have one?

Sara Redstone: No, not that I’m aware of. The National Trust doesn’t have specific quarantine facilities either – although, having said that, they have been working very hard on bio-security issues, triggered, as they will tell you, by outbreaks of Sudden Oak Death in their collections in the West Country. They have taken stock of the situation and realised they, like many organisations across the UK, needed to improve current practises. I think it says a lot for the organisation that they have been so open and self-critical.

The head of this programme for the National Trust is Ian Wright, a head gardener from a Trust property in Cornwall. He realised that through lack of resources, budget challenges, and other difficulties, we’ve moved away from basic good practises: cleaning your materials, cleaning your boots, sterilising your blades, all those kind of things. For example, if you bring in new plants, then you should keep them isolated for a period of time, just to make sure they’re clean – but we seem to have lost a lot of those good habits.

So Ian has worked with David Slawson from FERA to produce a lot of information, as well as posters like this [unfolds poster] to go up inside potting sheds, to remind people that quarantine doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be something as simple as a poly-tunnel, or an area behind a shed, where you keep things separate. Containment can be as simple as remembering to wash your boots and wash your hands – basic good hygiene.

National Trust cleanleaf poster

IMAGE: The National Trust’s “Clean Leaf” plant quarantine poster.

In fact, one of the things that we’ve been encouraged to think about by DEFRA is providing a limited commercial service, because there are so few plant quarantine facilities in the UK. This new quarantine facility at RBG Kew will be quite a major one, relative to what’s available in the UK. The thing I’m really excited about is the fact that we’ll have the capacity to control more tightly the stuff that comes in from the European Union and around the UK. That’s increasingly important.

Edible Geography: Did you have any qualms about the decision to locate such a major quarantine facility in the middle of one of the world’s greatest collections of rare and valuable plants?

Sara Redstone: We are in a vulnerable location, in a number of ways. We’ve done a major environmental impact assessment, and even looked at the option of having it off-site, but that in itself created major problems. One of the real issues is that it’s not enough just to have the building; you have to have the human resource.

It also makes sense to have a quarantine facility where the movement occurs. We’re not just accessioning new plant material – we’re also doing quite a bit of repatriation. I think it’s really important that we should be able to return safe material to its country of origin, especially if it’s seriously endangered or on the verge of extinction. We have to be able to hold our hand on our heart and say, “It’s clean, there are no problems, and your only challenge will be making sure it grows and that something doesn’t eat it or squash it.” It’s not just for stuff coming in – it’s for stuff we’re sending out that quarantine is crucial, too.

BLDGBLOG: How do you interact with the Millennium Seed Bank? Do you quarantine seeds for them?

Sara Redstone: No, they have a quarantine area in their own lab for seed material. However, if they want to grow any controlled or prohibited seeds – for verification by herbarium staff, for example – then that has to be done within our facility. So they can examine seeds, but if they want to germinate them and grow them on, then they have to come here.

Lamourouxia viscosa seed
Seed of Franklin's sandwort

IMAGE: Incredibly beautiful electron micrograph images of seeds (above, a Lamourouxia viscosa seed, below, a seed from Franklin’s sandwort) conserved at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. Photographs by Rob Kesseler and Madeline Harley, via The Guardian.

Edible Geography: You’ve mentioned that, in the UK, there isn’t a system where the government gives you the approved quarantine facility plans and you follow them to the letter. How can you be sure your design will qualify for the appropriate licence?

Sara Redstone: Well, that’s the case for plant quarantine – the system for GMOs is very different, and I don’t know how animal quarantine operates. In our case, I have constant contact with my colleagues in FERA who will be involved in evaluating the new build plans. If they have an issue with a particular system, they’ll let me know. For example, I had an inspector on site yesterday who asked, “Have you thought about the door seals? I know that these are really good doors but, to get a good seal, what you want is a little up-stand at the bottom of the door for the seal to butt up against.” It’s all sorts of small details like that.


IMAGE: Proposed entryways at the new Quarantine House at RBG Kew, courtesy Wilkinson Eyre.

The difficulty with the project from my point of view has been to make sure it gets enough time and attention now, because I know that if I’m still here when it gets built, my ongoing sanity is going to rely on having made the right choices so that we can physically manage the building. I think that, for projects that are very specialised, like this one, the people who are going to use the buildings often don’t get enough time to actually sit and evaluate what the building needs to do.

Edible Geography: Just writing the brief for it must have been quite a challenge!

Sara Redstone: To say the least. Version 10 got issued about three weeks ago. My biggest worry is that I’ve missed something. There’s just no wriggle room.

Edible Geography: Did you take any of your ideas for your plan from other facilities that you’ve seen?

Sara Redstone: Yes. I actually persuaded them to employ a colleague from Rothamsted, Julian Franklin, as a consultant. He is a major quarantine nerd – not only is he really knowledgeable about the plant side of things, but he’s obsessed by technology, so he can tell you that so-and-so needs to be at this many atmospheres, or amps, or whatever. He’s been a real find. In fact, one of the risks of a project like this is that there are very few experts around – and, especially in the current climate, there are lots of companies who are desperate for work who may claim expertise they don’t really have.

BLDGBLOG: I know you said you want to avoid innovation at all costs, but is there any aspect of the new facility that will be genuinely new or unprecedented?

Sara Redstone: Nobody’s built a screening house quite like ours, I don’t think, but it’s really just an adaptation of things that we’ve seen done elsewhere. Ultimately, it will all be technology that’s been used elsewhere, but perhaps not in quite the same way. Other facilities have air showers, for example, but most of those haven’t also had a cold lobby. We are combining things – but we’re also trying to play safe.


IMAGE: Air Shower diagram, via the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

Edible Geography: What is the old quarantine facility like – and what will happen to it once the new building is completed?

Sara Redstone: It’s  a modified commercial glasshouse, about twenty-five years old. It wasn’t specifically designed as a quarantine house: it has no automatic shading and controlling the internal climates reliably can be a challenge. The water here is very hard, as well, so the building has had a lot of issues with equipment.

The new facility should be operational by late autumn 2010. This time next year, we’ll be thinking about doing the smoke tests and the pressure tests and so on. And once stuff has been screened in the new facility, it will go into the old house and be held there for short periods of time until it goes onward to the display houses.

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious about what happens off-site – for instance, if there is an outbreak somewhere in the Midlands or up in Yorkshire, do you have a field quarantine unit of some sort who can rush out and seal the place off in situ?

Sara Redstone: Not yet, that I know of. You’d need to talk to DEFRA and the Non-Native Species Secretariat who monitor and deal with IAS (invasive alien species). There is a working group working on developing a protocol for a rapid response against NNS (non-native species), but I’m not sure if they have agreed the way forward.  If the outbreak relates to plants then you’d have to notify – depending on what the host and pest or disease is – either FERA or the Forestry Commission. If the organism isn’t quarantine-listed then a pest risk analysis (PRA) and other detailed work may be required and this can take some time to do thoroughly. Depending on where the outbreak is and what it is, there’s then also the need to identify who will attempt to eradicate it and how – and where the resources will come from.

What we really need to do is make everybody aware of the dangers of moving plants – it doesn’t matter if you’re a business or an individual. I had a person tell me recently that they deliberately altered their suitcase so that they could bring back cuttings from their holidays overseas without being detected. People get very confessional –  when they hear what my job is, they have this urge to tell me about all of the plant material they’ve brought through customs without declaring, or all of the farms they visited overseas and didn’t mention on their immigration forms. It’s my worst nightmare.

canada restricted materials

IMAGE: A fairly standard list of materials that must be declared at the border and potentially quarantined to prevent the import of pests and diseases. This particular brochure is Canadian.

There have been outbreaks of quite serious pest problems in botanic gardens and plant collections. These have probably, according to the experts at FERA, been the result of things like exotic flower arrangements or of bringing in fruits from around the world to explain to children about plants. Those routes need to be cut off, as well.

Individuals can sometimes be ignorant of the impact they could have by smuggling – sometimes they don’t even realise that they are smuggling – plant material into and out of the country. We’ve got a bit of money as part of the project to actually do some interpretation on site. I’m hoping that we can do quite a lot to explain to people the risks of moving plant material, and the impact of plant pests and diseases, by having signage in the display houses and in public areas on site.

Australian Quarantine images

IMAGE: The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service’s “Big Bugs!” advertising campaign, designed to educate tourists about the risks of bringing in restricted materials.

For example, did you realise that there’s a risk, when you’re moving plants that have soil around the roots, of introducing a pest called the small hive beetle, which can eradicate honeybees? Bees are getting a lot of press at the moment – for very good reason – and so one of the things I’m hoping we can do is use that sort of example to show that the consequences when you smuggle that plant back from your holiday, or when you bring back a jar of local honey, or wax candles, or a wooden sculpture, may be more far reaching than you realise.

If you put things in context, most people are responsible enough not to flout the rules – I hope. We’re all in this together – we all share the same planet.


This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a course pack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Until Proven Safe: An Interview with Krista Maglen, One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham Van Luik, Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

More interviews are forthcoming.

Posted in Landscapes of Quarantine | 3 Responses

Vermeer’s Kitchen Fantasies

vermeer milkmaid

IMAGE: The Milkmaid (detail), Johannes Vermeer, about 1657–58, oil on canvas; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Johannes Vermeer‘s The Milkmaid is currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on loan from the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum. The contextual exhibit explains the erotic connotations of milkmaids and kitchen items for Vermeer’s seventeenth-century contemporaries, pointing out subtle clues that today’s audience could easily miss, such as the depiction of Cupid on a tiny Delft tile near the foot warmer. Indeed, apparently the burning embers of the foot warmer itself were a symbol for female arousal.


IMAGE: The Milkmaid (detail), Johannes Vermeer, about 1657–58, oil on canvas; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Wall text explains that “melken” (the Dutch verb) has two meanings: to milk, and also to attract or lure:

The term’s origin is more or less explained in an anonymous Dutch book of 1624, Nova Poemata (subtitled “New Low German Poems and Riddles”), in which a woman in the act of milking a cow (“A sinewy thing she has seized with joy”) is compared to grabbing a man’s… attention.


IMAGE: Kitchen Scene, Peter Wtewael, 1620s, oil on canvas, from the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Vermeer’s Milkmaid is surrounded by other, more explicit kitchen fantasies. Peter Wtewael’s earlier Kitchen Scene, for example, shows an encounter between a cook and a young farmhand. The subtext is conveyed by the chicken, jammed upright onto a sturdy spit, and the man’s finger, which dips suggestively into the rim of a jug. For male art patrons of the period, the openings of jugs, milk, onions (said to have aphrodisiac properties), fowl, apples (from the original Edenic fall), eggs, shellfish, and salted herrings all made subtle reference to genitalia, male sexual prowess, and female desire. By the end of the exhibition, it becomes clear that for seventeenth-century Dutch artists, the kitchen was a porn set, as titillating as the poolside setting of Valley subdivisions today, where upper class men fantasised that bawdy, lascivious maids could barely wait to fulfill their every desire.

Of course, gluttonous and sexual appetites are frequently stand-ins for each other – in art, literature, and film, if not life. I’ve just finished the excellent Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, and couldn’t help but notice that seven out of nine stories in the fiction section entwine sex and food to ecstatic and dangerous effect. From Roald Dahl‘s oenophile betting his daughter on a 1934 Château Branaire-Ducru, to Alice McDermott‘s elderly widow with an unladylike fondness for ice-cream, kitchens, restaurants, and dining rooms from across the world and throughout the twentieth century are refigured as sites of sexual encounter.

The Cold War kitchen of Don DeLillo’s Sputnik (an excerpt from Underworld) is particularly enjoyable, with Jayne Mansfield’s breasts, the Ford Fairlane parked on the breezeway, and decorative Jell-O moulds all woven together into plastic, techno-militarised erotica:

She would prepare half a dozen serving bowls of her Jell-O antipasto salad. Six packages of Jell-O lemon gelatine. Six teaspoons salt. Six cups boiling water. Six tablespoons vinegar. Twelve cups ice cubes. Three cups finely cut salami. Two cups finely cut Swiss cheese. One and a half cups chopped celery. One and a half cups chopped onion. Twelve tablespoons sliced ripe olive.

She remembered coming home one day about six months ago and finding Eric with his head in a bowl of her antipasto salad. […] Was he engaged in an act of unnatural oral stimulation?


IMAGE: Vintage Jell-O advertisement, found via.

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Aerial Sandwiches

By the end of this month, Subway, the ubiquitous and mediocre American sandwich chain, will have installed a franchise on top of a crane. According to the New York Post, the shop will be “fitted into a shipping container-like structure,” which will then be attached to one of the cranes being used on the Freedom Tower construction site.

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IMAGE: Cranes building the Freedom Tower in Manhattan. Photo courtesy Mark Lennihan, AP. Note for the practically-minded: the steel box containing the Subway franchise will also contain a toilet.

“This will allow construction workers to stay in the tower throughout their shift rather than having to go up and down,” Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman told the Post. As the Freedom Tower rises to its full 1,776 ft, so will the crane, which would then make the crane operator’s lunch commute unfeasibly long: aerial sandwich availability is a simple strategy to keep construction on schedule.

Chicken Teriyaki

IMAGE: The Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sandwich, from Subway’s website.

Sadly, the Post does not go into the logistical details of running a Subway shop on top of a crane. Will the bread be “baked fresh,” as per the brand promise? How often will veggies be brought up, and waste be brought down? And will a Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sub taste the same, perched on a steel lattice a third of a mile above Manhattan? After all, the events company Dinner in the Sky claims it can “transform an ordinary meal or meeting into a magical moment,” by dangling your table from a crane a mere fifty metres (164 ft) above the ground.

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IMAGE: Dinner in the Sky® hoists a nine-metre by five-metre platform into the sky, which can hold up to twenty-two guests and five staff members. A second platform can hold a three-piece quartet, magician, or cheer leading troupe, as desired. Note for the practically-minded: the platform has to be lowered each time a guest wishes to use the toilet. It apparently takes less than a minute to lower the entire table. Photos from the Dinner in the Sky® website.

If the stories and reflections of crane operators in London can serve as any guide, the cabin of tower cranes offers a unique perspective on time, cities, and solitude – so why not sandwiches, as well? The award-winning short documentary City of Cranes captures crane drivers talking about riding out storms (“if you can imagine a rollercoaster ride, you know it’s scary but you still want to do it”), interacting with other cranes (“it’s almost like a ballet … but if you said [that], you’d most likely get a rude answer over the radio”), and the ever-changing skyline (“I’m seeing now buildings come down that I helped put up twenty years ago”). I can only hope that the Freedom Tower crane operators start a lunch blog, or at least a twitter feed.

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IMAGES: Stills from the City of Cranes documentary.

I’m also reminded of a story I read a year ago on BLDGBLOG, about a “fearless” Keralan crane operator working on the Burj Dubai, who hadn’t come down to earth in over a year – apparently “it takes too long to come down to ground level each day to make it worthwhile.” The post goes on to reflect on a fascinating question: how do people create and experience domestic space within infrastructural extremes, from lighthouses to jungle radar monitor stations, and from offshore oil platforms to South African gold mines? And what does it mean to install a kitchen, or at the least, assemble Subway sandwiches, in such environments?

[NOTE: Thanks to Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG), who tweeted about City of Cranes in August. As I found out after writing this post, he also posted about Dinner in the Sky® back in July 2006 – as always, well worth a read.]
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IMAGE: The Hindenburg zeppelin, which caught fire as it tried to dock in New Jersey at the end of a 1937 cross-Atlantic voyage.

Last week, the New York Post reported that “a charred bottle of beer that survived the explosion of the Hindenburg will be auctioned off this month for an estimated $7,500.” The single bottle of Löwenbräu was recovered from the airship disaster by a New Jersey fireman. Much of its original content has evaporated, and the beer that remains is “probably quite putrid to taste,” according to Andrew Aldridge, of the auction house Henry Aldridge & Sons.

This story reminded me of a rumour I heard a few years back: that drinkable vintage Champagne had been salvaged from the Titanic.

Wine Bottles Titanic Woods Hole

IMAGE: Wine bottles are visible among the debris of the Titanic on the sea floor in this photo taken by the 1985 joint Franco-American expedition that discovered the wreck’s location. Image courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

While trying to verify that story, I discovered that salvaging materials from the Titanic is fraught with controversy. The American government only co-funded the initial reconaissance as cover for a top secret mission to find and map the remains of two nuclear submarines, while the salvor-in-possession, R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., is currently fighting a court case to gain ownership of the artefacts it has retrieved thus far. In 1987, the U.S. Senate voted to ban the sale for profit of anything retrieved from the Titanic – but in 2002, an Australian company called Wineflyers International (whose regular customers apparently include David Bowie) announced it had sourced and sold six bottles of wine from the Titanic to “a high profile customer in Asia.”

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IMAGE: Cases of 1907 Heidieck & Co. Monopole Champagne were retrieved in 1997 from the wreck of the Jönköping in the Gulf of Finland. Photo courtesy Vinocellar.

In any case, the shipwrecked Champagne of my memory actually came from a different boat altogether: a Swedish freighter called Jönköping that was en route to Russia in 1916, carrying a full cargo of alcohol ordered by Tsar Nicholas II, when she was sunk by a German torpedo. Her wreck was found in 1997, and a salvage company recovered 2000 bottles of 1907 Heidsieck & Co. Monopole. Reports from the time quote Laurent Davaine, Director of Exports at Heidsieck, saying that the Champagne still “shows an amazing balance” and “a beautiful golden hue with the effervescence still present.” As of 2008, according to Newsweek, most had already been sold at auction, but there were still ten bottles for sale at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow, priced at $35,000 each

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IMAGE: Diver bringing a champagne bottle to the surface, courtesy Dive Magazine.

It appears the ocean floor, if treated as a single entity, might actually be the world’s largest wine cellar – a sunken treasure trove of lost vintages awaiting rediscovery. Like squirrels digging up acorns, wreck-divers and salvage companies stumble upon another forgotten cache every few years.

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IMAGE: A Cavas Submarinas bottle. According to Luxist, they have special labels that don’t come off underwater.

It is not clear whether prolonged storage at salty depth is damaging, beneficial, or indifferent in its effect on a wine’s flavour. For example, there is a Chilean winery that deliberately cellars its wine on the ocean floor. Viña Casanueva offers a Muscat-Chardonnay blend and a Cabernet that are aged underwater, under the label “Cavas Submarinas.” In mid-2005, “at least five seaside restaurants in different cities” were “offering to dive for the wines as they’re ordered,” according to another Wine Spectator article, in which we learn that:

The idea began when Patricio Casanueva, general manager of the winery, was searching the seabed for a lost anchor and was struck with a vision of a cavern filled with wine bottles and other treasures. “These wines are at least six months underwater, and with a constant temperature of 8 degrees Celsius,” he says. “Also very important is the sunlight refraction that crosses the sea and reaches the bottles. And of course, the water currents.”

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IMAGE: Screen grabs of divers retrieving wine bottles from underwater cellars from the insane Cavas Submarinas promotional video. Watch the full version, complete with mermaid, on YouTube.

On the other hand, there was great oenological disappointment over the 1919 wreck of the RMS Republic, which was found in 1981. The Republic was a proto-Titanic – luxurious, owned by White Star Lines, and the largest operating cruise ship of her day, until she ran into another boat. Her salvors were actually looking for a secret cargo of American Gold Eagle coins, supposedly sent by the U.S. government “to pay for Czar Nicholas II’s Russian military buildup before the First World War.” Instead, they found a 1898 Moët & Chandon that still had “a robust, hearty taste with a pale color similar to ginger ale.” Unfortunately, after spending $10,000 per day to bring three hundred bottles to the surface, Wine Spectator reported that Christie’s “found no bottles in condition to be auctioned off.” They had all been “invaded by sulfur-producing bacteria that travel at the bottom of the sea,” according to Michael Davis, Vice President of Christie’s wine division.

Despite the risks, both scuba divers and wine collectors share an enthusiasm for underwater bottle retrieval. Dive Magazine even provides a useful overview for inquisitive amateurs, cautioning divers against popping the cork from even a single bottle until their find has been appraised by experts:

Take the case of the divers who opened and drank one of eight bottles of beer they recovered from the Loch Shiel off the Welsh coast. Jim Phillips, one of the divers, told reporters: “It was flat but it had not been contaminated by the salt water even after all those years on the sea bed. We later had the find valued at £1,000 a bottle, so that was certainly the most expensive pint I have had.”

Meanwhile, for archaeologists, the alcoholic finds are a treasure trove of information, offering clues to cultural and socio-economic preferences, shipping and trade routes, and even shifts in climate and viniculture. For example, the Titanic and Republic wine cellars are typical of luxury cruise liners of the time, according to Wine Spectator. They contained relatively few Bordeaux, compared to wines that could be served chilled, such as Champagne and Mosel, because the rumble of the enormous steam engines would dislodge sediment in the older reds.

Sampling wines from shipwrecks also offers the chance to taste the pre-history of today’s wine-making styles. A 1996 paper published in the Australasian Historical Archaeology journal discusses the analysis of wines recovered from an 1841 shipwreck – the William Salthouse, in Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay – in terms of the evolution of Muscat. By combining chemical composition analysis with sensory data (i.e. sampling) and archival research, archaeologists with Heritage Victoria discovered that “Muscat was traditionally an unfortified style, quite different to today, due to a vinification technique called passerillage,” which created a wine with such high sugar levels that, to modern oenologists, it tastes like Sauternes.

Finally, to return to the humble Löwenbräu with which this post began, I can’t help but feel that there is a certain rock & roll, self-destructive hedonism to drinking alcohol retrieved from disaster sites. Rather than dabbling in uninspiringly predictable mountains of coke, celebrities of a more poetic nature might prefer to drown their sorrows in the wine cellars of a doomed voyage.

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The Fruit Standard

On this day, one year ago, the European Union ended its ban on ugly vegetables. “EU relents and lets a banana be a banana,” proclaimed the New York Times, “EU bends the rules on cucumbers,” punned the Guardian, while the Daily Mail relished the opportunity to run with, “Proof Brussels has been sprouting lies about wonky veg for years.”

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IMAGE: Highly-placed entrants in the “Ugliest Vegetable In Britain” competition, run by the National Trust in 2006. The parsnip (centre) was the overall winner.

Apart from providing the opportunity to run poor puns and pictures of hideous produce (irresistible, I can confirm), the EU ruling was actually an important step towards reducing food waste. The Daily Telegraph claimed that before the standards were repealed, an estimated twenty percent of the British harvest had to be thrown away, which, in turn, served to increase the price of the more attractive specimens by up to forty percent. Fruit and vegetables that did not meet EU requirements couldn’t even legally be given away, which was particularly frustrating for soup kitchens and low-income families.

However, the old standards do make fascinating reading: for example, cucumbers were not allowed to bend at a gradient of more than 1/10, and forked carrots were automatically discarded. Meanwhile, an onion could “only be sold if two thirds is covered in skin,” the white part of the leek had to “represent at least one-third of the total length or half the sheathed part,” and cauliflowers “less than 11cm in diameter” were also banned.

Perhaps the most legendary EU standard concerns the bend of a banana, which was circumscribed with awe-inspiring precision: “The thickness of a transverse section of the fruit between the lateral faces and the middle, perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, must be at a minimum of 27mm.”

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IMAGES: Prize-winning vegetables on display at the 2009 Royal National Agricultural show in Brisbane, Australia (known locally as the EKKA, although I have no idea why). Photos by the author.

Issues of waste aside, there is a quixotic charm to the project of defining the range of permissible deviation from the ur-banana. I can’t help but wonder whether there is small shelf, somewhere in an anonymous building in Brussels, that holds carefully crafted papier-mâché reference models of the perfect parsnip, tomato, and kiwi. Perhaps the Commissioners moonlight as agricultural show judges, marking down homegrown cabbages for having more than three wrapper leaves, and disqualifying asparagus whose tips are less than 25mm long.

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