Portugal: Fermentation & the Re-localization of Food Systems

J Term Off Campus Course: BIOL 150 Portugal: Fermentation & the Re-localization of Food Systems

Course Overview

Portugal is a nation with a rich cultural history of small-scale artisan food production so it is an ideal location to apply principles from biology and economics to the production of fermented foods, like cheese and wine. 

Fermentation is a biochemical process that humans encounter every day, without notice. It is carried out by microorganisms in our guts to help us digest food, and to produce foods that contain live bacteria that many people believe to be an important part of a healthy diet (for example, yogurt and kombucha tea). The link between fermentation and a necessary human action – eating – makes fermented foods a great system for introducing the relevance of science to our everyday lives. Since the production of fermented foods relies on living organisms the outcomes can be inconsistent, making it difficult to achieve profitable production at a commercial scale. However, because the fermented foods are often tied to cultural practice and “place,” smaller scale artisan production provides opportunity for local economic development to take place even as commodification of food is happening globally.

This course explores the science behind fermented foods, examines the rationale for and the challenges of maintaining commercial scale production, and the evaluates the impacts on society of regional artisan production as a counterpoint to global food commodification.

Basic Course Information

  • Students spend approximately 20 days in Portugal; the course is offered every two years during January term.
  • Class begins with instruction at the University of Coimbra, which was established in 1290.
  • Field trips to food and beverage producers and to government organizations are an important part of the course. For example, to agencies that assign designations of origin (PDO) and geographical indication (PGI) to Portuguese products.
  • Many opportunities are provided to sample foods and beverages produced in Portugal, for example cheeses and wines.
  • The course is taught in the cities of Coimbra, Porto, Lisbon and Evora.
  • Program co-directors/professors are Dr. Mary Allen (Biology) and Dr. Carli Ficano (Economics)

Physical Requirements

Participants need to be capable of walking at least a mile on city streets. This will sometimes include while carrying luggage.

Academic Requirements

  • Quizzes on assigned reading; quizzes and an exam on basic principles of course material.
  • Graded in-class assignments on reading / preparation questions.
  • A written assignment about a selected fermented food, and a written company profile.
  • Reflective journal entries applying basic principles and material from discussions of required readings to experiences from class field trips.
  • Students attitude and participation, measured subjectively by the degree to which they are able to valuably contribute during class activities and discussions and on field trips.
  • A detailed written project analyzing the economic and biological underpinnings of a particular fermented food.

Program Fee and Other Expenses

  • The course fee covers round-trip airfare between the US departure city and Portugal, and in Portugal all trip lodging, 3 meals daily, transportation between cities and to field trip sites, and all other program-related activity fees.
  • Additional expenses include transportation to and from the US departure city, meals while traveling, and required course materials (a notebook and working computer).