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Early Signs Of A California Wine Revolution Image

California wine is finally getting interesting, and wine lovers can dare to hope that America’s premier wine region will produce more wines of higher quality.

What? Those $200 Napa Valley Cabernets aren’t great wines? Sorry to say, most are not. The good news is a group of winemakers is stepping away from California’s pack mentality to produce wines that reflect both an appreciation of the place the grapes are grown as well as an understanding that bigger is rarely better when it comes to wine.

And, be still my heart, they aren’t afraid to say it. Out loud. In print. San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné has captured their voices and given early support to this movement in his recently released “The New California Wine: A guide to the producers and wines behind a revolution in taste” (Ten Speed Press).

During the past half-dozen years, I’ve met with established winemakers who talk about dialing back the alcohol levels on their wines. They claim a deep longing to produce “European” style wines with greater finesse and character. Then they beg, “Please, don’t quote me!” Inexplicably, they seem to think they can accomplish this transformation so slowly that their public — and the critics — will barely notice the change.

Documenting the historic shift

Shifting directions is risky. Timid American baby boomers learned about wine by leaning heavily on critical scores, buying what they were told they “ought” to drink. So when the two overlords of California wine criticism — Robert M. Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube — championed high-alcohol fruit bombs, America’s first generation of wine drinkers eagerly fell in line behind them.

The rare winemaker willing to be quoted declaring a dramatic shift in style away from that norm has crumbled when facing angry consumers wondering why they had been paying top dollar for wines that the winemaker suddenly says are not what they ought to be.

From his perch at the Chronicle, Bonné was able to dig deep into California’s wine culture to find the winemakers who never compromised. Years of walking vineyards in every corner of the state paid off in the discovery of Steve Matthiasson, Tegan Passalacqua, Ted Lemon and dozens of other pioneers making wine to suit their personal taste rather than to score critical points. “Just three or four years ago, these guys were really out in the wilderness,” Bonné says.

Their stories of reviving abandoned vineyards in marginal growing areas, cobbling together wineries in deserted warehouses, and striking crazy work-for-free deals with vineyard owners sound more like the do-it-yourself culture that is transforming the American food scene than the big-money mentality that dominates California wine.

More than one kind of California wine

Bonné is a wine geek who delights in highly nuanced details of grape farming and cellar work. And, while that can result in a slow read at times, it’s an important plus. These are the distinctions that make a difference and separate the pioneers from more established vintners. Bonné empowers his readers by carefully explaining these specifics. And, bless him, he spares us the poetic hyperbole that hobbles so many wine books.

“This story was totally evolving as I was writing it,” says Bonné. “It was terrifying and exhilarating.” The first wine writer to make a strong statement about the promise of these emerging winemakers, and by comparison drive home the problems with California’s established wine industry, Bonné takes a risk. The nascent movement is so small it could easily dissipate.

The established “cult Cabernets” will not go away, Bonné says. Rather, support for these new wines will grow. “The people who had given up on California will turn around,” he predicts.  In the future, there will be more than one kind of California wine.

Eventually, “there will be a transfer of power” in the American wine industry, he says. “This emerging generation is drinking with a level of curiosity that is very different from their parents.”

Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr at domaineLA. Credit: Corie Brown

Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr at domaineLA. Credit: Corie Brown

Judging by a recent crowd of young wine lovers eagerly tasting through a selection of California wines championed by Bonné, he’s calling it right. At domaineLA, a Los Angeles wine shop with a reputation for promoting an international selection of well-priced, high quality wines, Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr. was joined by leading Santa Barbara small-production vintners Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr, partners in Sandhi Wines, and Napa Valley-based winemaker Steve Matthiasson. This year, Bonné named Matthiasson the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Winemaker of the Year.”

The wines had bold, pronounced flavors, yet they retained the lift of natural acidity. All but a couple of the dozen wines on offer were priced below $40 a bottle. And the alcohol levels were all under 14%, a mark of a classic European-style wine.

Questioning the dominance of Napa Valley’s over-extracted and over-priced bruisers will soon go from taboo to “told you so.”

Top image: The beginning of growth on an old vine. Credit: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, publisher of “The New California Wine” by Jon Bonné

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Meyer Lemons Make Easy California-Style Limoncello Image

In my front yard are two old, thorny Meyer lemon trees. I do nothing special for these trees, just let them have water and sunshine. And I have no control over the sunshine. Twice a year those dwarf trees are loaded with lemons. They cannot be more than 6 feet tall, but both produce hundreds of pounds of lemons each.  The weight comes from the abundance of juice each lemon holds.

Meyer lemons are very thin skinned with a fragrant, almost floral scent. The zest will make any dish pop with flavor. I use it instead of butter on steamed asparagus, sprinkle it into green salads for extra zip, and mix it into both sweet and savory types of dough.

The harvests are always so abundant I give bags of lemons to friends and neighbors, make lemonade, lemon curd and lemon cake. But most important, I make limoncello. I make lots of limoncello because I like to give some of it away. I also like to give some to myself.

But this limoncello is slightly different than the traditional Italian style of limoncello. I use the entire lemon in the initial infusing. Most recipes call for lemon zest only, but my Meyer lemons are so lovely I like to include the juice in the process. The majority of the flavor and aroma of the lemon is found in the zest, but the juice adds another layer of citrus intensity to the limoncello. The pith of the Meyer is also not as bitter as other lemons because it is a sweeter lemon. It is thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a Mandarin or other variety of orange.

Meyer lemons in vodka, becoming limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Meyer lemons in vodka, becoming limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Traditionalists would say this is not true limoncello, as my method is different, if only slightly so. I was even chastised by a 21-year-old from Belgium after I posted a picture of my quartered lemons steeping in vodka on my Instagram page. She wrote “You have to peel the lemons and put them in the alcohol (not the entire lemon).” Well, all right then.

Now that a girl from Europe young enough to be my daughter has tried to set me straight, I will continue to do it my way. The limoncello I make is absolutely delicious, so I see no need to alter my recipe, even if I am bucking tradition and offending Italians the world round.  If you make something that you like, even if you do not follow the traditional way of making it, it’s all right.

The lemons should be steeped for two weeks, but can be steeped up to four weeks. When ready to finish the limoncello, be sure to have a lot of clean bottles or jars to fill with the liquid gold. Or if keeping it all to yourself, one large jar.

Meyer Lemon Limoncello, California Style

Makes 2 to 3 quarts

Ingredients

10 to 15 Meyer Lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed

1 (750 milliliter) bottle vodka or Everclear (grain alcohol)

2 cups water

1½ to  2 cups raw sugar

1 cup honey

Equipment

1 large glass vessel to prepare the limoncello (large enough to accommodate 15 lemons and a bottle of alcohol)

Smaller bottles or jars to keep the finished limoncello (enough to accommodate about 3 quarts)

Directions

1. Cut the lemons into quarters and place into a large, clean jar.

2. Pour the bottle of vodka over the lemons.

3. Seal the jar and place it in a cool corner of the kitchen.

4. Let the lemons steep in the vodka for 2 to 4 weeks.

5. Strain the alcohol into a large bowl, reserve.

6. Place the lemons, water, sugar and honey into a large pot.

7. Turn the flame to low.

8. Using a potato masher, smash the lemons to release all their juices. Mash and stir until the sugar and honey are dissolved.

9. Strain the syrup, discard the lemons, and let the syrup cool.

10. Mix the reserved alcohol and the syrup.

11. Pour the limoncello into your jars and/or bottles. Place the bottles into the refrigerator, and let the limoncello rest for at least a day, preferably a week, before drinking.

Top photo: California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

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The Mistake You Make By Settling For Local And Fresh Image

So what’s a gal to do when she’s spent her whole adult life as an organic farmer passionately promoting the benefits of organic food, and then she spends a weekend in the Hamptons with her in-laws and finds out that the neighboring farm — the one with the great little produce stand selling just-picked very sweet corn, crisp string beans and amazing vine-ripe tomatoes — is conventional? Well, the truth is that I ended up buying three big bags of their delicious vegetables. We cooked it up and enjoyed it, but I felt unsettled and perturbed.

Was I wrong to support a conventional farm that uses petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides because it was right down the road from my in-laws’ house? It didn’t feel better to fight peak summer traffic and drive to the mall to shop at the supermarket that had an organic produce section. I doubted those supermarket veggies would hold a candle to the farm stand’s bounty.

The truth is, I wish that I hadn’t had to make such a hard choice. If the local farm was organic, the decision would have been simple, and I would have felt 100% great about the meal our family enjoyed.

But taste and freshness are so important when you want to cook a delicious meal, and eating local food makes me feel grounded and connected to the unique environment and community I’m visiting. I love eating food harvested nearby, so fresh that it still smells like the earth it grew in. But that enjoyment is marred by knowing that the armful of corn I’m carrying away from the field had probably been sprayed with a dangerous chemical.

Come winter, residents and visitors in the Hamptons will be buying their produce at that supermarket in the mall, and I’m thrilled that they’ll be able to choose from organic options. Every time someone purchases organic instead of conventional, it creates a positive feedback loop: the store stocks more organic food, demand for organic items increase, and eventually more land is transitioned to organic methods. Right now, less than 1% of the farmland in the U.S. is being farmed organically, so this conversion is extremely important.

Don’t assume small, local farms are organic

Many people assume that all family-run local farms use safe, sustainable methods to grow their food. In truth, most conventional farms — large ones and small ones — rely on virtually the same potent arsenal of toxic herbicides, fumigants and insecticides, as well as synthetic chemical fertilizers. These chemicals pollute our water, damage our soil, and often leave residues on the food we eat. They are also unhealthy for farmworkers, surrounding wildlife and those who live, work and go to school nearby.

We need local farmers to thrive if we’re going to preserve our farmland and have convenient access to fresh-picked produce that inspires us to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to prepare more delicious home-cooked meals. But we want our local farmers to go organic so that their produce is as healthy as possible for our families, our neighborhood, and our environment.

At my local farmers market in Monterey, Calif., there are so many stalls it’s easy to buy my peaches from an organic farmer. Even if there are days when the conventional ones look a little better and cost less, I still choose organic. I want the conventional growers to see how long the lines are for organic items and eventually deduce that giving organic a try might be a good business decision, despite the challenges and additional costs involved. People willing to pay a premium for organic food creates that incentive.

Converting conventional farms one at a time

Over my three decades in the organic farming business, I’ve seen many conventional farmers transformed into organic farming advocates. When they stop using chemicals, they begin to see their soil come alive. They see it’s possible to grow beautiful produce in cooperation with nature, and that their yields increase over time. We can influence this transformation by choosing organic whenever we shop, and by letting our local farmers know we prefer our food produced without any synthetic chemicals, and that we’re willing to pay more for it.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if next time I visited my in-laws I learned that the farm next door was converting to organic, and I didn’t have to worry that there were chemicals on my produce or being sprayed so close by?

Top photo: Myra Goodman. Credit: Sara Remington

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Stop Calling Them Veggies; Vegetables Are Due Respect Image

At a reading a few weeks ago in Portland, Ore., I finally blurted it out for the first time: “I hate the word veggies!” There was a stirring in the audience. I expected trouble, but instead, there was a solid murmur of agreement. One chef, Cathy Whims of Nostrana, said she couldn’t stand the word either, but was sometimes horrified to hear herself using it on occasion because it’s just around so much. Like using “like.” Can we make it go away?

And why would I bother to have and squander any emotion at all about the word veggies? I’ve wondered myself about why I don’t like it and won’t use it. I think it’s this: The word veggie is infantile. Like puppies. Or Cuties. It reduces vegetables to something fluffy and insubstantial. Think about it: We don’t say “fruities,” or “meaties” “or “wheaties” — unless it’s the cereal. We don’t say “eggies” or “beefies.” We don’t have a Thanksgiving birdy; we have the bird. But we don’t seem to be able to say vegetable.  Certainly it’s no longer than saying “Grass-fed beef” or “I’ll have a latte.”

Veggie turns vegetables into something kind of sweet but dumb, and in turn, one who eats a lot of vegetables might be construed as something of a lightweight, but one who can somehow excused. “It’s just veggies, after all. They’ll snap out of it.”

‘Vegetables’ speaks to their many strong traits

But the word isn’t used just by errant omnivores. Vegetarians are very fond of the word too, and they use it all the time. Plant foods, especially vegetables, are the backbone of vegetarian magazines, yet even there they’re reduced to veggies. I think vegetable is a more dignifying name by far. Just think of what plants do and what they’ve gone through to be on our plates.

They’ve been moved all around the world and gone rather willingly to where we humans have wanted them.

They’ve been altered to be pleasing to human palates.

They have adapted to all kinds of circumstances and survive against all odds and at extremes ranges of heat and cold, wetness and aridity.

The tiniest sprouts can move concrete. Eventually.

They can be dangerous and deadly, or they can be tender and sweet. And some come close to being both in the same plant. Like potatoes and tomatoes.

They can cure ills, for example, aspirin comes from willow; liver remedies are derived from members of the aster family, which include artichokes, burdock, chicories, milk thistle and lettuce among others; brassicas may prevent cancer. There’s the whole pharmaceutical stance one can take regarding vegetables given the truly amazing nutrition they offer.

Radicchio. Credit: Deborah Madison

Radicchio. Credit: Deborah Madison

Vegetables have serious means of protecting themselves — with spines and thorns, or by emitting subtle odors or substances. They can keep other plants at a distance so they alone can make use of limited amounts of water and nutrients; they can find ways to use other plants to climb on. Seed pods are cleverly designed to attach a ride to a jacket, a hat, a dog’s fur to be carried elsewhere to grow. (The burdock burr was the model for Velcro.) And they can defend themselves against predators; pinions discharge a sap that keeps bark beetles from boring in. (The food part is the pine nut).

Plants also keep other forms of life going by attracting bees and hummingbirds, moths and insects, which they feed.  They can sometimes cajole birds into carrying away their seeds to plant elsewhere. Plus they give us flowers and fruits in abundance. We love honey of all varietals — especially that derived from thyme, a member of the mint family, and flowers, too. We even use flowers in the kitchen.

Their seeds can sometimes last for hundreds of years or more. Some sprout only in fires, which is one reason burned forests can recover some kind of growth soon after a fire.

Angelica. Credit: Deborah Madison

Angelica. Credit: Deborah Madison

They don’t complain when we waste them by using only the most tender parts and ignoring rough-looking leaves and stems and cores. Chickens are grateful of them.

In short, plants are generally quite amazing, strong and clever beings that evolve with time. Whether you are an omnivore or a vegetarian (or a chicken), we all benefit by eating plants. Plant foods. Vegetables. Fruits. Seeds. Stalks. Heads. Crowns. Skins. Cores.

I hadn’t thought about it when I was working on “Vegetable Literacy,” but I think — I hope — that the book, among other things, offers a way to go beyond the “veggie” concept of vegetables by introducing them as the eccentric and powerful personalities they are.

Top photo: Rainbow chard. Credit: Deborah Madison

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19th-Century Breadmakers Had Local Flour, Now So Can You Image

The Greater Los Angeles area hasn’t had stone milling for more than a century, but bakers Nan Kohler and Marti Noxon are addressing that lack. The partners held an open house in November for family and friends at their new enterprise, Grist & Toll, in Pasadena.

Kohler and Noxon, who also is a screenwriter and producer, are part of a larger effort to rebuild regional American flour mills. As artisanal baking becomes more popular and bakers become more sophisticated about quality, locally sourced ingredients, the mills contribute to America’s baking renaissance.

The afternoon was a celebration of flour. In the parking lot, baker Michael O’Malley fed loaves into his mobile bread oven. He belongs to the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, a Meetup group with 800 members, some of whom prepared dough for the event with flour that Kohler ground on a small mill at her home.

The breads vanished more quickly than they baked, sitting on a table under a tent just long enough to be cut and devoured. While cooling is acknowledged as the last and some say crucial phase of cooking in artisan bread baking, there was no waiting this day.

Inside, plenty of snacks gracing the small retail space disappeared, too. The flour, however, sat quite still. As the Osttiroler, a type of pine-planked Austrian mill that is quite beautiful, took its first turns and ground California wheat berries into flour, people stared in reverent interest. Some walked up to the bucket of flour and touched the light red stuff, running it between their fingers and over their hands. But mostly people just looked. How often do you get to watch this ingredient get made?

Getting back to our local flour roots

All flour used to be local. Before advances in transportation and technology centralized grain production in the United States, if you wanted flour, you got it from the local miller. During the 1800s and 1900s, milling centers shifted around the country, following the paths of waterways and railroads. At different points, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Buffalo, N.Y., held the crown for flour production. Currently, the U.S. milling industry processes 900 million pounds of wheat a year, but it is too soon to predict the output for Grist & Toll.

Michael O’Malley checks on bread in his mobile bread oven at Grist & Toll. Credit: Amy Halloran

Michael O’Malley checks on bread in his mobile bread oven at Grist & Toll. Credit: Amy Halloran

However, demand for fresh flour is evident. The mill is part of a nationwide trend to re-regionalize grain and flour production. There are a lot of reasons why these staples are crucial as people rebuild local food systems. In an interview at Jones Coffee, around the corner from the not yet open mill, Kohler considered why.

“For so many years, flour has just been a filler ingredient,” she said. “It gives something body and structure, and helps your cookies and cakes rise, but we haven’t had the ability to think of it as a texture building block or flavor building block until very recently.”

The conversation about alternative grains, she said, is fairly recent. Maybe only the last five years, the baking community has started to think of flour as a potentially influential flavor player.

“The most important stuff was your butter, your chocolate, dried cranberries or nuts,” she said. “No curious baker said why, and does it matter, and how can we find out?”

Now, however, the ball is rolling. Last year at the MAD symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, Stone Barns chef Dan Barber asked more than 300 of his peers to consider the potential of wheat.

For much longer, a number of  projects around the country have been working to promote the use of local grains. Skowhegan, Maine, has an Osttiroler stone mill, too. The Somerset Grist Mill is in the former county jail, making flour and rolling oats from grains produced in Aroostook County. Some farmers there are shifting from potatoes to grains to provide raw ingredients for the enterprise.

That Maine project is community driven, started by people who wanted their area to be known for more than New Balance sneakers and logging. Central New York has a farmer-miller-baker partnership serving artisan bakers and consumers in the region, as well as the New York City market. New York’s Farmer Ground Flour is a farmer driven enterprise undertaken by Thor Oeschner as he saw the land he rented gobbled up for real estate.

Grist & Toll fits into the list of baker-driven ventures, like Wild Hive Community Grain Project, Don Lewis’ mill in New York’s Hudson Valley, and Carolina Ground, the mill started by Jennifer Lapidus that uses grains from North and South Carolina.

Conversations about grains

Most baker-initiated projects, though, center on artisan bread baking, and Kohler’s focus has been pastry. A home baker who used to work in the wine industry, she turned her passion for pastry into a farmers market operation. That passion took another leap, and she ran the bakery for a restaurant.

Grist & Toll also plans to make education a part of its mission. “The beautiful thing about flour is I’m not just creating this product for a select consumer or group of people,” Kohler said. “Flour, even though it’s been missing from this farm-to-table conversation, it touches everybody, every household, every restaurant, school.”

Grist & Toll will be open for limited hours during the holidays and plans its full grand opening for after the first of the year, but the pallets of organic wheat grown in Santa Barbara County ready to mill hint at what this operation means: more control over what types of wheat are being planted, fresh flour hitting local kitchens, and conversations about grains that go beyond the big fat fear of gluten.

Top photo: Homemade bread. Credit: Sue Style

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Q&A With Mexico City Chef Eduardo García Image

Máximo Bistrot Local opened its doors at the beginning of 2012, and quickly became the hottest place in Mexico City. It’s an unpretentious European-style bistro in the once opulent Colonia Roma neighborhood, which is in the midst of a redevelopment boom. Cool and chic Máximo replaces a dowdy medical supply store; once a trash-strewn corner with little foot traffic is now a well-known gastronomic destination. You can find the best brandade de morue this side of the Seine here. Or a classic ceviche. While Mexico-born chef and owner Eduardo García likes rustic French cooking, his feet are firmly planted on native ground, and he often includes typical Mexican ingredients such as chilies, hot and mild; cuitlacoche, the rich corn fungus known as “Mexican truffle”; or country herbs like epazote in his dishes.

The chef formerly worked under Enrique Olvera of Pujol, the esteemed local palace of experimental gastronomy, and also toiled in Manhattan’s star-strewn Le Bernardín where seafood reigns.

Gariela and Chef Eduardo Garcia on Bench at Maximo Bistrot Local. Credit: Peter Norman

Máximo Bistrot Local Chef Eduardo García and his wife Gabriela. Credit: Peter Norman

García represents the new generation of Mexican cooks who, while well aware of what’s going on in Spain, California and New York, have come back home, incorporating these ideas into their native cuisine.

Eduardo García puts ‘local’ in Máximo Bistrot Local

The chef has brought expert gastronomic skills to his own place, opened on a shoestring and run with his wife, the affable Gabriela, who acts as host. Máximo Bistrot Local’s publicity claims that materia prima is local and organic, if possible. The chef visits the city’s spectacular markets daily, choosing what looks best, then adroitly improvising a new menu each day. The food coming out of his kitchen is worthy of hyperbole.

How is what you cook related to classic Mexican cuisine?

Our menu is based not only on Mexican cuisine, but also on local ingredients — hence the name “bistro local.” But I like to include a few “authentic” dishes. The relationship between my cuisine and Mexican cooking is all about ingredients, methods and philosophy. I think my growing up in Mexico and having trained here infuses everything I do. For example, I often take advantage of the huge variety of chilies used in our cooking, and the specifically Mexican ways of preparing them, such as toasting and grinding.

And to classic European cooking?

I wouldn’t say “classic European” but French and rustic Italian. Again, the methods are a big part of the relationship. I take what I consider to be the best techniques from the aforementioned European traditions.

What are the advantages of running a restaurant in Mexico City?

In the city, purveyors are more focused than in other parts of Mexico. We’re in the middle of the country and everything is available here; I can get seafood from either coast hours after it is caught.

Also guests here are more open to experimenting with food than they might be in the provinces — Mexicans tend to be conventional when it comes to food.

What’s coming up on your menu? 

I’m planning a trip to visit small restaurants in Europe to get more inspiration for my menu. I’m more interested in experiencing local, time-honored cooking than the avant-garde stuff.

What is you latest ingredient obsession? 

Fresh seafood from Ensenada. There are extraordinary ingredients there. Percebes, for example, are barnacles not well-known outside of Spain, where they cost a fortune. Here they are accessible and I’ve been experimenting with them: I included them in a ceviche recently.

What is your favorite restaurant/chef in town?

I don’t hang out much with the “top” chefs or at fancy restaurants. My favorite place is Fonda Las Margaritas in Colonia Del Valle [a quiet residential neighborhood south of the center]. It’s where I like to eat on my day off. It’s a simple old-fashioned neighborhood fonda that does really authentic no-frills Mexican food.

And out of town?

Casa Oaxaca, in Oaxaca City. My friend, Chef Alejandro Ruíz, is doing incredible things with local market foods there. I always look forward to seeing what he’s up to.

Where do you see the restaurant scene headed here in Mexico City?

The culinary scene here is expanding, as are people’s palates. I think that Mexico City is becoming one of the top destinations for food. New restaurants as well as old established ones are using more fresh and local products. And that’s a real good thing.

And what are your life plans?

I’ve been offered jobs here and abroad, book deals, even a TV show! I’ve turned them all down. Because I just don’t have time to do anything but cook, and make sure everything in my place is the best it can be.

I’ve seen some of my contemporaries fall prey to the “star chef” phenomena — and their restaurants suffer for this. You can’t be a star and maintain a great kitchen unless it is established and you are able to train younger chefs to be as good as you. I know I’m not there yet. We’re doing amazingly well, are always full and now have sidewalk rights so a few more tables. But it’s very hard work, six days a week, exhausting. I hope I can keep it up.

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The Delicate Craft Of Locally Sourcing Alaskan Vodka Image

The local food movement, already a difficult undertaking in Alaska, has moved from solids to liquids. An abundance of breweries, a meadery and even a winery spill across the state, but one of the few that uses only local ingredients is Truuli Peak Vodka.

Named for the tallest mountain on south central Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Truuli Peak has only three ingredients: water, barley and honey. These might seem plain, but the raw ingredients are some of the purest you will find. The water is glacial melt from Eklutna Lake; the filtered version is Anchorage’s drinking water.

The honey comes from the Alaska Honey Man, whose bees feed on the wildflowers of the Chugach Mountains. The barley is grown in Delta Junction, 95 miles south of Fairbanks.

Co-founder Jeremy Loyer was committed from the start to crafting a vodka made from local ingredients, but barley was not his original choice. When he and partner Kyle Ryan started Truuli Peak five years ago, they used potatoes from land his parents leased to a spud farmer in Alaska’s fertile Matanuska-Susitna Valley. But after completing an internship with Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash., Loyer was persuaded to switch to barely.

“Potatoes only have a 9% yield per pound,” he said. “Plus, they’re big and dirty and they need special equipment to clean and smash them. Barley has a roughly 40% yield per pound and is much easier to work with.”

Using Alaska’s raw resources

Though Loyer and Ryan created Truuli Peak five years ago, they have been selling vodka for less than two years; the first release was in October 2011. Loyer had fortunately secured startup money through an entrepreneurial grant with the University of Alaska, which allowed him and Ryan to develop a strong product.

“Our goal was always to be local,” he said. “The raw products are very important to us.”

Loyer points out that vodka can be made with anything that has a starch content, and some companies even use ethanol.

“Our labels say 95% grain, 5% honey,” he explains. “If you see a label that reads ’100% neutral grain spirits,’ the producers may not even have a still.” The raw ingredients are what make Truuli Peak a premium spirit, and having them locally sourced is really just a bonus.

vodka

Vodka made with locally sourced Alaska ingredients. Credit: Courtesy of Truuli Peak Vodka

Loyer becomes animated when discussing not only what he calls the “mouth feel” of the vodka, but also of the glacier water with which it is made. They originally used filtered water, but the unfiltered version is far superior. The difference is like night and day, Loyer said. The water is collected and trucked to Anchorage in 375-gallon tanks.

Truuli Peak is distinct for its soft floral notes. It is slightly sweeter than other vodkas, and finishes smoothly. There is no need to chill this vodka; Loyer prefers it at room temperature.

The process for creating Truuli Peak Vodka is fairly straightforward. Barley and honey are fed into three large fermenters, where a mash ferments for three days. The results of the fermentation are basically an 8% beer. The 8% alcohol is removed and sent to a still for its first distillation. That product then moves to the rectifying run, which is responsible for purification. In this 24-foot-tall tank, the liquid is cooled to make it hard for the distillate to become vapor. From there it’s on to the mixing tanks, where it is frozen to separate impurities, and finally raised to 60 degrees for optimum bottling.

Currently, Truuli Peak is bottled on site. You can find it across Alaska, Oregon and, most recently, New York.

Top photo: Alaska’s Eklutna Lake. Credit: Frank Kovalchek / Flickr

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Egg Recall Reveals Scrambled Priorities Image

The recall of a half billion eggs from two Iowa agribusinesses, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, because of salmonella contamination is still dominating the news. Earlier last month the news was the withdrawal of a million pounds of E. coli tainted hamburger. That was followed by nearly 400,000 pounds of deli meats infected with listeria. Who knows exactly where the next outbreak will pop up, but it seems certain to come again from the world of industrial animal food products.

Americans have a seemingly insatiable appetite for meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, even as food safety issues increasingly become headline news. What many people are coming to realize, however, is that the majority of these farm animals are no longer raised on the pastures and barnyards of family farms but inside CAFOs: concentrated animal feeding operations. The farming of animals in these crowded, often filthy, factory-like facilities raises a host of health, environmental and ethical concerns. Salmonella is just the tip of the iceberg.

The concept behind the CAFOs is simple: Cram as many animals into the smallest possible space for maximum growth at the least expense. Laying hens and hogs seem to suffer the harshest fate under this system. A conventional laying hen lives out her days in a wire confinement pen called a battery cage. Confined in the cage with a number of other cell mates, she is normally allotted an area little smaller than a cubic foot to live out her short productive life, never experiencing the outdoors, scratching the dirt, naturally socializing or enjoying any privacy to nest. As soon as her productivity declines in a year or two, she is removed from the cage and slaughtered for processing (for pot pies or soups), asphyxiated (because her meat is not worth the expense of processing) or sometimes buried alive and composted. Charles Dickens would have a hard time conjuring a grimmer scenario.

The CAFO industry, some farmers and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture insist that factory-farm systems that house thousands of battery cages in a single building are necessary and even better for the birds and for food safety. It’s certainly true that all food production systems — small, medium, and large; organic, pasture-based and industrial; local, national and international — are prone to risks of contamination. But with tens or hundreds of thousands of animals in close confinement, when something goes wrong inside a CAFO, it can spread far and fast. Contamination can quickly sweep through the integrated production networks of feed and hatcheries, through an animal population and out into the food system. Iowa is a perfect example: Those half a billion recalled eggs came from just two so-called “farms” with 7.5 million hens between them.

Industry is quick to counter-attack that shifting to cage-free, pasture-raised or organic egg laying operations will mean higher check-out prices. Economic conditions being what they are, any talk of rising food prices creates anxiety. Yet that hasn’t stopped large numbers of U.S. consumers from flocking to small producers to buy eggs — even at a premium — in the wake of this recall.

Fortunately, millions of people are waking up to the consequences of a food system dominated by massive corporations: the loss of regional food production capabilities in the face of impending fuel shortages; tax-funded subsidies that prop up feed grains; antibiotics given to animals that pass into the broader environment; obscene volumes of waste in concentrated areas; a legacy of abysmal treatment to the animals we depend upon for sustenance. For the sake of our health, our environment and our economy, should we let this continue?

Change is in the air. Most countries in Europe and a number of U.S. states have taken measures to ban the most restrictive technologies used in CAFOs, such as the battery cages.

But we need not wait on federal or state regulations. We have a say in the kind of world we want, and it is expressed in the food choices we make every day. It’s in our power to participate in a healthier food system, one egg at a time, one farmers market at a time, one meal at a time. It starts with simply understanding and honoring where our food comes from. At that point, the foods produced in CAFOs become a lot less appetizing and ultimately, unpalatable.

 


Daniel Imhoff is an author, homestead farmer and independent publisher whose most recent project is “CAFO: The  Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories” and “The CAFO Reader.

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