Articles in Agriculture

Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

There is prosciutto and then there is culatello.

Proscuitto is ubiquitous. It’s draped over melon or paired with figs or mozzarella in restaurants everywhere. You can buy imported Proscuitto di Parma at Whole Foods at $31 a pound for a bone-in leg or on Amazon for $15.

Massimo Bottura serves culatello. At Osteria Francescana, his Michelin three-star restaurant in Modena that topped the 50 Best Restaurants for 2016, it appears as an appetizer, paired with Campanine apples, mustard and crunchy “gnocco” bread.

And not just any culatello. Chef Bottura procures his culatello exclusively from Massimo Spigaroli’s Antica Corte Pallavicina, an inn and working farm one hour’s drive from Modena. You’ll find that same culatello at Alain Ducasse’s Sporting Club in Montecarlo and Bombana in Hong Kong. But nowhere in the United States. The closest you’ll get is Zibello fiocco (culatello salami) for $40 a pound.

Prosciutto versus culatello

Vertical Tasting of Spigaroli culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Vertical Tasting of Spigaroli culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Culatello (“little backside” in Italian) is the fillet of the pig’s hind leg from which prosciutto is cured. Both are salted and left to sit for two months, which draws out the blood and kills bacteria. The process predates the Romans, and except for the introduction of nitrites, which further inhibit bacterial growth, it hasn’t changed much since. Proscuitto is then hung in a cool place for anywhere from nine months to two years, while culatello is encased in a pig’s or cow’s bladder and hung for 18 to 27 months.

All proscuitti are not created equal. Only a dozen designations are protected by the EU and stamped PDO or PGI, which guarantees they come from a particular region and, more important, are cured only with sea salt and no nitrites. All are produced in northern Italy. They vary in taste and texture depending on the terroir and the pigs. San Daniele, with its dark color and sweet flavor, is from Fruili. Parma pigs are fed whey from Parmigiano Reggiano, lending Proscuitto di Parma a nuttier flavor.

Culatello is more high-maintenance. Spigaroli’s black pigs are kissing cousins to the acorn-fed pigs that give us Jamon Ibérico. It cures throughout the cold damp winters in the Po Valley just south of Cremona. The difference between prosciutto and culatello is subtle, but profound.

A tasting

Fourteenth century charm meets 21st century gastronomy at the dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the inn and working farm on the River Po. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

Fourteenth-century charm meets 21st-century gastronomy in the dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the inn and working farm on the River Po. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

In the sun-filled dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, Spigaroli’s prized culatello is presented for a tasting beneath three celadon cloches. Each conceals pink-mahogany curtains of culatello. The first two, from white pigs, are aged, respectively, 18 and 27 months. The familiar salty-sweetness of prosciutto gives way to a leathery richness. The older culatello is nuttier. The black pig culatello is smokier, with black cherry notes and a velvety texture. Between pigs, we cleanse our palates with hunks of crusty country bread and glasses of Trebbiano, served with pickled vegetables and fiocco, the chewy-soft salami made from the trimmings and the fat.

Antica Corte Pallavicina commands several acres close to the Po, encompassing Spigaroli’s restaurant, the hotel, a cooking school, a farm, a parmesan factory and culatello cellars. Al Cavallito Bianco, a more casual osteria, is run by Spigaroli’s brother Luciano. If you snag one of the six rooms, you can meet the pigs and tour the Parmigiano fattoria and culatello caves, which were built in 1320 by the marquesse di Pallavicina for precisely that purpose.

The Spigarolis’ great-grandfather went from a sharecropper at a nearby pintador belonging to Guiseppe Verdi to tenant farmer at Pallavicina. Their father was born there in 1916. But by 1990, when the sons purchased the property, it had fallen into ruins. The extensive restoration combines rustic charm with modern conveniences. The original, ox-sized fireplace dominates the dining room, where a wall of glass doors opens onto a trellised patio. A massive decommissioned steel stove functions as a serving station.

Going to the source

Spigaroli culatello ages in the cellars built in 1320 by the Marquesse di Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Spigaroli culatello ages in the cellars built in 1320 by the Marquesse di Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

After consuming feather-light tortelli, stuffed with ricotta from Spigaroli cows and Spigaroli spinach — glistening with Spigaroli brown butter and showered with Spigaroli Parmigiano — we tour the caves, down a dungeon’s stairs to the dank cellar. The culatelli, white with mold, hang from the ceiling, encased in pigs’ bladders like ghostly chandeliers. Misty air wafts in from the Po. Such cellars are increasingly rare. The EU frowns on such conditions as potentially unsanitary. Because of that flavor-enhancing mold, the FDA forbids importing it to the United States. You’ll have to go to the source.

You’ll find yourself in food heaven. Emilia-Romana is Italy’s Burgundy; Bologna, its Lyon. You won’t find a better spaghetti carbonara than the one at Pizzeria delle Arte in Bologna, spiked with guanciale, creamy with Parmigiano and egg yolks the color of navel oranges. Massimo Bottura celebrates that same Reggiano in his Five Ages of Parmiagiano at Osteria Francescana.

Our last dinner, in Milan, we sit next to three Italian businessmen. “What brings you to Italy?” one wants to know.

“We came for the culatello.”

“Ah.” He smiles. He understands.

Main caption: Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

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Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

At a time of year when most people are fixated on berries and peaches, corn and tomatoes, it’s also the season to get excited about onions — not just any old allium but a heritage sweet onion harvested by hand in Walla Walla, Washington.

Walla Walla Sweets are the unheralded heirloom stars of summertime. Juicy, mild and sweet, they are at their best in all of the great (and easy) meals of the season: grilled with sausages, caramelized for burgers, sliced raw for salads and more.

Fresh and delicate in terms of both flavor and handling, Walla Walla Sweets are in season right now — and with a very limited supply from a handful of family growers, they won’t last long.

Older than Vidalias

Long before Walla Walla became renowned as an American Viticultural Area, this valley in southeastern Washington was the agricultural hub for a surprisingly sweet onion brought to the region from Corsica by a French soldier named Pete Pieri. According to all accounts, Pieri immigrated to Walla Walla with the seed in the late 19th century and began cultivating it commercially in 1900.

Grower Michael Locati’s great-grandfather, Joe, worked for Pieri for four years before going out on his own in 1909. He joined other Italian immigrant families, mainly from Milan and Calabria, who settled in this valley to become small-scale produce farmers, cultivating a seasonal onion now known as the Walla Walla Sweet.

Four generations later, Michael — along with his father and uncle — grows these heirlooms on 60 acres of Locati Farms and co-owns a packing and shipping arm called Walla Walla River Packing Co. Despite these modernizations, this is the same specialty onion, hand-selected by the family for over a century.

That’s a fair bit longer than that other famous sweet onion, Vidalia, a hybrid cultivated in Georgia since the 1930s. The Walla Walla “still has that heirloom genome,” said Locati.

Onion botany

A field worker harvesting onions by hand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee

A field worker harvesting onions by hand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee

It’s natural to think that sugar content is what makes Walla Walla Sweets exceptional. Not so. Their mildness has to do with the fact that they contain about half the amount of pyruvic acid that gives yellow storage onions their bite and makes you cry.

“This geographical area is very low in natural sulfur,” Locati said. The sulfur content in the soil is a catalyst to the production of pyruvic acid, he explained. “So these naturally low sulfur soils allow for these onions to be really sweet.”

Walla Walla Sweets are planted in early fall. They overwinter in snow-covered fields, then sprout and additional onion starts are transplanted in the spring. By mid-June, harvest has begun and continues through late August.

“Onions are ready when the leaves start laying down,” said Dan McClure, who began growing organic Walla Walla Sweets in 2007 with his wife Sarah. The couple currently raises over 800 tons on 27 acres at Walla Walla Organics and plans to scale up production, although the labor is even more arduous than many other crops.

Why’s that?

“No mechanical process yet exists that won’t damage them,”  McClure said. Nearly as large as softballs and weighing up to two pounds, these globular onions are delicate, with thin skins and a high water content that make them prone to bruising.

So workers harvest them entirely by hand. Carefully packed into boxes, the onions are then cured just until the necks dry out and the outer layer of turns amber. Still, they have a short shelf life — a couple of weeks at most, according to McClure.

Endangered onions?

For a community once famous for this varietal, it’s a big blow that acreage has dropped within the past five or so years from 1,000 acres to about 500, according to Kathryn Fry-Trommald, executive director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.

Compared to Vidalia’s 15,000 acres, this onion market is small potatoes. Urban sprawl (“there’s a Wal-mart now where there were onion fields,” said Fry-Trommald), consolidation in agriculture and labor pressures are all factors, as is the fact that many of those “old Italian families” are no longer in farming.

Another major threat is the competition from hybrid sweet onions — some mechanically harvested and higher in pyruvic acid — grown from Arizona to Texas. These are available year-round at much lower prices than Walla Walla Sweets.

In 1995, after discovering that other Washington-grown onions were being sold as counterfeit Walla Walla Sweets, the growers obtained a federal marketing order to protect this specialty onion, in the same way that heritage foods from Italy must be certified as locally grown and packaged.

For farmers like Locati and McClure, it’s hard to earn a living with a seasonal, fresh market onion. But they say the process of hand selection and hand harvesting is worth it for the allium’s singular qualities. There’s no sharp bite, and it has a complex flavor all its own marked by a startling sweetness.

While you don’t have to try Michael Locati’s method of tasting them raw in the field, this is a true “slicer” for using raw in salads and salsas or on burgers and sandwiches. You can grill, roast, sauté, or caramelize Walla Walla Sweets, too — just don’t wait.

Ways to cook and use sweet onions

Onions caramelizing in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Onions caramelizing in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Grill: Use a grill basket to cook large sliced or chopped onions on a hot grill until nicely charred. Toss and continue grilling until softened and translucent. Alternatively, grill thick onion slices on a well-scraped grill grate until grill marks appear; flip and cook the other side until soft and translucent. Toss onions with sliced and grilled zucchini, portabello mushrooms and red peppers seasoned with salt and pepper, a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a side dish with grilled steaks, chicken, pork chops or fish.

Roast: Place trimmed and peeled whole onions into a greased roasting pan. Rub well with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. Roast at 425 F until brown and fork tender, about 1 hour, and serve with roast pork or beef.

Sauté: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and season with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to brown. Add 1 bunch fresh, washed spinach or chard, another pinch of salt and ground pepper. Cover and let steam until the greens are wilted. Remove the cover, stir well and serve as a side dish with grilled meats or fish.

Caramelize: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they soften. Add a large pinch of salt, reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan every 15 minutes until the onions turn very soft, like jam, and the color of brown sugar, about 1 hour. Serve on hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches or pizza.

Main photo: Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

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Main photo: Benvenuti winery is located in the quiet Istrian village of Kaldir, where the Benvenuti family grows three grape varieties, including Malvasia. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

In northern Croatia, a younger generation of wine growers is pushing the boundaries with innovative interpretations of their indigenous variety of Malvasia, a versatile and diverse wine.

Malvasia is a highly original grape variety, but also a very confusing one, as it is also the synonym for numerous other quite unrelated grape varieties. In the index of that authorative tome, “Wine Grapes,” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, there are no less than 77 entries for Malvasia, and that is not including Malvasije, or Malvoisie! But true Malvasia, Malvazija Itarksa or Malvasia Istriana, depending on whether you are speaking Croat or Italian, really comes into its own in Istria, in northern Croatia.

Contrasting wines

Although they have been grape growers for three generations, the Benvenuti family only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

Although they have been grape growers for three generations, the Benvenuti family only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

My first introduction to Malvasia Istriana was over lunch in the attractive hilltop town of Motovun, fresh off the plane from London, and accompanying a plate of wild asparagus risotto with Istrian ham. It was a delicious combination and the wine demanded further investigation, so a few days later we tracked down Albert Benvenuti in the nearby village of Kaldir. He asserted firmly that their Malvasia is not related to any other Malvasia. His simplest wine is fermented in a stainless steel vat, with selected yeast, and given a little lees stirring, but no skin contact. It was fresh and fragrant with herbal notes, and a touch of minerality on the finish.

In contrast, Anno Domini comes from 70-year-old vines, and is only made in the best vintages, most recently 2013. The juice is given 15 days of skin contact and is fermented and then aged in large Slavonic oak barrels for two years. It was much more intense, with body and structure and an underlying richness with some dry honey, combined with some firm saline notes. The grapes are picked slightly later for this wine, with a lower yield, and fermented with indigenous yeast. The contrast was palpable, and both were delicious. Benvenuti’s family, although they have been grape growers for three generations, really only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Albert observed that bottling wine in Istria is a relatively recent development, only in the last 25 years.

A perfect climate

The wines made by Kabola Winery spend 12 to 18 months in Slavonic oak barrels, for a textured wine. Credit: Courtesy of Kabola Winery

The wines made by Kabola Winery spend 12 to 18 months in Slavonic oak barrels, for a textured wine. Credit: Courtesy of Kabola Winery

More insights into Malvasia Istriana were provided by Marino Markežič and Marko Bartovič at Kabola outside the village of Momjan. Marino talked about the climate; the sea is close by and they feel the sea breezes during the day and the mountain air at night, so the diurnal difference can be as much as 18 degrees. Annual rainfall can also vary considerably. He makes a sparkling wine that is a blend of Malvasia with 10 percent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so that it is  fresh and lightly herbal.

Markežič talked about the versatility of Malvasia with food. Malvasia is considered to be a semi-aromatic grape variety, and Markežič’s simplest Malvasia is fresh and floral, with a refreshing sapidity on the finish. Malvasia l’Unico is more serious. It is given two to three days’ skin contact before pressing and a fermentation in wood, and then spends a minimum of 12 months on the lees in Slavonic oak barrels. The oak is well integrated, and the wine is rich, textured and characterful. Finally, there is Malvasia Amfora. The grapes, with skins but no stalks, spend six months in amphora before pressing and then a further 12 to 18 months in large barrels. The color is orange amber and the flavors rich and honeyed, balanced with some tannin, and texture and considerable length. They were three highly individual wines.

Aged in acacia

At Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, wines are aged in acacia barrels. Credit: Courtesy of Kozlovic winery

At Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, wines are aged in acacia barrels. Credit: Courtesy of Kozlovic winery

At nearby Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, Antonella Koslovic added further insights. Some of their wines are given skin contact and lees stirring, depending on the vintage, and maybe aging in large wood, but they do not want their wines to be too heavy. Their oldest vines, from the Santa Lucia vineyard, were planted in 1962 and they make a special selection in the best years, with some oak aging, after five days of skin contact. The Akacia cuvée is just that, Malvasia aged in acacia for eight months, for acacia barrels are produced in Croatia. There is a long maceration, which makes for an intense amber color, and the palate is rich and buttery with dry honeyed notes, balanced with acidity.

Antonella added that her husband, Gianfranco had written his university thesis on acacia barrels. Other nuances can be achieved by blending both later and earlier picked grapes, or indeed a wholly late harvest at the end of September rather than late August. Antonella proved conclusively that Malvasia will age in bottle by showing us 2006 Santa Lucia. The wine had spent six months in wood, both 300 hectolitre barrels and 225 litres barriques. It was amber gold, with a dry honeyed nose, while the palate was an intriguing combination of herbal fruit and firm acidity, with notes of maturity and a wonderful intensity. It made a perfect finale to the discovery of Malvasia.

Main photo: Benvenuti winery is located in the quiet Istrian village of Kaldir, where the Benvenuti family grows three grape varieties, including Malvasia. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

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Samantha O’Keefe went from being a newcomer to winemaking to now having highly touted wine. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Back in 2000, Los Angeles native Samantha O’Keefe took a major chance on a winemaking career and an untested wine region when she purchased a farm in South Africa’s Overberg. Today, her Lismore Estate Vineyards wines consistently achieve 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights, and she’s considered a pioneer of a region that is making world-class wine. “It’s been an overnight success after 14 years of slogging away,” she says with dry humor.

It all started 16 years ago, when O’Keefe, whose career was in TV development, and her then-husband decided to travel in South Africa. They ended up planting roots in Cape Town, where they looked for a business they could develop. One rainy Sunday with their 5-month-old baby, they drove out to a farm on the outskirts of Greyton, a small town at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. As they stood at the bottom of the property and looked up at its dramatic slopes, her husband said: “We could make wine here.”

Pioneers in the region

Lismore Estate Vineyards sits on the outskirts of Greyton, at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Lismore Estate Vineyards sits on the outskirts of Greyton, at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Neither had made wine before and there were no vineyards on the farm, or within 40 miles of Greyton. Four days later, they made an offer on Lismore farm.

Crazy? “It was a vision,” says O’Keefe. The deal was contingent on the results of an extensive viticulturist report, which came back showing favorable cool climate terroir with shale soils. “The research showed that the terroir was similar to that of the Northern Rhone. At the time, everybody was pushing cool climate planting, but Greyton was overlooked, maybe because there was nothing out here.”

The couple spoke to a few local winemakers, including Peter Finlayson, the highly respected first winemaker in nearby Hemel-En-Aarde Valley. “Peter said that if we succeeded, we’d be pioneers. If we failed, no one would care. When all was said and done, we made an educated guess that it could be very special.” By 2004, they had planted 36,000 vines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Northern Rhone varietals Syrah and Viognier, the two that are Lismore’s most critically acclaimed today and “taste like nothing else coming out of South Africa,” she says.

They then set about building their dream house, “a cross between Cape vernacular and California ranch,” high up on the 740-acre property, and they had a second child. There were many initial shocks, including a house that was way over budget, but this was nothing compared to what happened on the eve of Lismore’s first harvest in 2008, when O’Keefe’s husband unexpectedly left. “It was a shock, but the next day I had to get up and start making wine.” A few months later, the global financial crisis hit, and things got even tougher.

“I had borrowed millions of rands that I needed to pay back, when suddenly the world ground to a complete standstill. I was desperate and tried to sell the farm but couldn’t. Finally I was able to sell 20 percent of the property, which enabled me to pay off my debt.”

Gaining notice

A worker at Lismore Estates, which consistently achieves 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

A worker at Lismore Estates, which consistently achieves 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

In 2012, friends pooled funds to buy O’Keefe a ticket to London, so that she could participate in the Beautiful South, a show featuring wines from South Africa, Argentina and Chile. At the show, she stood across from Neal Martin, who she didn’t know was a Robert Parker reviewer. After tasting her wine, Martin said: “I hope you have distribution, because when people read my report they’ll be banging down your door.” He gave her Chardonnay and Viognier 92 points. That’s when things started to change, for the better.

Today, she is most proud of her Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc, “a wine that is outside of the box by South African standards, more winemaker-driven than my others, and more style than terroir.” The list of Lismore accolades is long, with her 2014 Syrah on the Robert Parker Wine Advocate Best 50 List of 2015 and the 2013 Lismore Viognier named one of Tim Atkin’s Wines of the Year. More than half her wines are exported to the United States and Europe.

The fact that a virgin winemaker could make such a success is as captivating as her wines. O’Keefe is proud, but also grounded. “Winemaking is not rocket science. It’s chemistry, which I’ve always loved, as well as schlep. I also had the best minds in the area on speed dial.”

There are still no other commercial producers in Greyton, but O’Keefe thinks it’s only a matter of time before she has winemaking neighbors. “South Africa is a really exciting place to be in the wine industry today,” she says. “Small producers have the freedom to experiment and push boundaries, and we are benchmarking wines against the best of the world for the first time.”

The Lismore Estate wines can be bought at timelesswines.com.

Main photo: Samantha O’Keefe went from being a newcomer to winemaking to now having highly touted wine. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

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Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant

A stroll down the yogurt aisle of any grocery store will tell you that probiotics are good for the human digestive system and can promote a healthy gut. But did you know that they can also help make better wine? In Spain’s remote Priorat region, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, a winery called Morlanda is using probiotics to grow stronger, healthier grape vines.

While Priorat’s gnarly old vines produce some of Spain’s most revered wines — intense and powerful reds made from Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignane) grapes — that wasn’t always the case. The area’s vineyards suffered years of neglect during the reign of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, until after his death in 1975. Priorat was nearly forgotten as a wine region until the late 1980s, when a visionary band of vintners dedicated themselves to revitalizing it.

The region has made a remarkable turnaround in the last 15 years, but even so, Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents significant challenges to both grape vines and vineyard workers.

“The tortuous geography of this area means that the vineyards have to be cultivated on slopes so steep that it is necessary, in some cases, to build terraces,” said Judit Llop, Morlanda’s winemaker and vineyard manager since 2003. “Some of these terraces are so narrow that two rows of vines barely fit and mechanical access is impossible.”

What’s more, due to the rocky soil and hot, dry climate, “The vines are weak and consequently result in rather poor harvests, with very low grape yields,” she added.

Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents challenges for growers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents challenges for growers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Years of chemical treatments have further weakened the soil, leading Llop to seek out new ways to bring it back to life. “Our vineyard philosophy starts with the health of the soil, and for this reason we started to investigate how we could regenerate it,” she said. “We wanted to increase soil biodiversity and encourage microbial activity.”

Enter probiotics

In 2013, with the resources of Morlanda’s parent company, the Freixenet Group, behind her, Llop began a probiotics trial with the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in nearby Tarragona, designed to improve the soil and boost the plants’ immune systems. Sprayed onto the vineyard floor and plants, the probiotics make it easier for the vines to assimilate micronutrients.

The process is done in four stages.

“Treatment of the soil in the fall is very important and is known as ‘vaccination,'” she said. “The positive microorganisms, resistant to low temperatures, will mineralize the organic waste — leaves, dry grass and branches — and prepare the soil with the micro and macro elements necessary for plant vegetation.”

Probiotics are applied again before flowering, this time to the plants themselves. “This period is the hardest in their development,” Llop said. “Vines make a huge effort to vegetate while they are maximizing exposure to attacks by diseases. Therefore, during this time, positive microflora is given to the plant for protection and to prevent the development of parasitic and harmful microflora.”

The third treatment happens after bloom, when grape clusters are formed, and the fourth is done during the grapes’ ripening phase.

Old, gnarly vines struggle in Priorat’s hot, dry climate and rocky soils. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Old, gnarly vines struggle in Priorat’s hot, dry climate and rocky soils. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

While the process isn’t cheap, as a huge amount of expensive probiotics must be applied during the first three years of treatment, Llop said the results thus far have been impressive. “After applying probiotics, the vineyard root systems have developed much better,” she explained. “The grapes produce significantly greater amounts of fiber, and that allows more intensive utilization of nutrients. Strengthening the natural immunity of the vines, they become more resistant to low temperatures, pathogens and various kinds of pests.”

Llop said she’s definitely noticed a difference in the vineyards that have not been treated. “They need more soil additions, such as sulfur and copper, in the ones where we are not using probiotics.”

Along with producing traditional wines, such as the Vi de Guarda Morlanda — a powerfully beautiful blend of Garnacha and Cariñena — Llop is experimenting with a natural wine made from probiotic Garnacha grapes and fermented in clay amphorae.

Morlanda’s flagship red is made from Garnacha and Cariñena grapes, some of which are grown with the help of probiotics. Credit: Copyright 2016, courtesy of the Freixenet Group

Morlanda’s flagship red is made from Garnacha and Cariñena grapes, some of which are grown with the help of probiotics. Credit: Copyright 2016, courtesy of the Freixenet Group

If Llop’s vineyard trials prove successful in the long term, and the use of probiotics is adopted by other wineries in the region, Priorat’s already-acclaimed wines stand to reach even greater heights in the years to come.

Main photo: Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant

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A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles

It is not often that I visit a wine region that has grape varieties I have never heard of. But that happened in Gaillac, a small appellation in southwest France, near the city of Albi, that is best known for its associations with the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and its dramatic red brick cathedral that looks more like a fortified castle. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region.

A range of styles

Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property, is planted with Mauzac and Len de l'El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Margaret Reckitt

Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property, is planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Margaret Reckitt

The wine styles range from the firmly dry, as well as sparkling, to the intensely rich and sweet, with rosé and lighter or richer reds, according to the blend of grapes. Most red Gaillac is based on Braucol, a grape variety not found elsewhere in the southwest, where it can also be called Fer Servadou or Mansois. It has some wonderfully fragrant fruit, with perfume as well as tannin. Duras is another important variety and is rich and sturdy, and has absolutely nothing to do with the nearby Côtes de Duras. You might also encounter Syrah, Gamay and Cabernet, but completely new to me was Prunelart.

For white wines, Gaillac Mauzac is the most important variety, but there is not just one Mauzac. The Plageoles family have seven different variations in their vineyards. In addition, they have Ondenc, another old traditional variety of the appellation, as well as Len de l’El and Muscadelle. There also is Verdanel, another original variety, which they are working hard to revive.

The charms of Gaillac, for the countryside is stunningly beautifully with gentle undulating hills and little villages, has attracted outsiders. An English couple, Margaret and Jack Reckitt, were looking for a vineyard — they had tried the Languedoc and were en route to Bergerac — when they stopped in Gaillac and found Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Their first vintage was 2012 and they have quickly established a convincing range of wines. Their Mauzac Vieilles Vignes from 65-year-old vines grown on a rocky limestone plateau portrays all the character of Mauzac, with intense saline flavors and a firm sappy note. As Margaret explained, white Gaillac may be a pure varietal, but red Gaillac must always be a blend, so their reserve red comes from Syrah, Braucol and Duras, with firm peppery flavours.

Four generations of Plageoles

Four generations of the Plageoles have worked the vineyards in Gaillac. From left, Florent, Myriam, Bernard and Romain. Credit : Copyright 2016 Isabelle Rosembaum

Four generations of the Plageoles have worked the vineyards in Gaillac. From left, Florent, Myriam, Bernard and Romain. Credit : Copyright 2016 Isabelle Rosembaum

In contrast, the Plageoles have been in Gaillac for at least four generations. We met Florent; his father, Bernard, is approaching retirement and his grandfather, Robert, is generally considered to be the great pioneer of Gaillac, reviving many lost grape varieties and wine styles. The range of the Plageoles’ wines amply illustrates that. Altogether, they have 86 acres of vines in 50 different plots. Our tasting began with the wine that accounts for a quarter of their production, Mauzac Nature, which is lightly sparkling and gently sweet. The initial fermentation is stopped, leaving some residual sugar, and the wine is filtered à manches, an ancient technique. It is almost impossible to describe; Florent demonstrated it, showing us a piece of material that looked like heavy cotton baggy sleeves through which the wine is wrung. The wine is then bottled, but the fermentation starts again in the spring. The wine is not disgorged, so there is always a light sediment. And the taste is soft and honeyed.

Verdanel is an old variety, for which their first vintage was 2001, initially from half an acre, but they will have 2 ½ more acres coming into production this year. The flavors are crisp and fresh, with some herbal notes and firm minerality, wonderfully original and intriguing, and amply justifying a revival. There was also a sappy Mauzac Vert and a sweet late harvest Len de l’El made from passerillé, dried grapes; Muscadelle too was rich and honeyed. They have seven acres of Ondenc, from which they make three different wines, a dry wine, from grapes picked in mid-September; a sweet wine, from grapes that are dried on the vine until the beginning of October and a liquoreux, picked in mid-October

As for red wines, they prefer to label them by variety, despite the requirements of the appellation. We tried a Mauzac Noir, which was fresh and peppery; a perfumed Braucol , a sturdier Duras, which was firm and tannic, and Prunelart, a member of the Malbec family. Robert Plageoles saved it, taking cuttings from a vineyard that was going to be pulled up.

The Plageoles family have also maintained the tradition for Vin de Voile, from Mauzac, mainly Vert and Roux. They make a dry white wine that is put into barrels for seven years. The result is not dissimilar to an intense amontillado sherry, with dry nutty fruit and a long finish. It was a wonderful example of the vinous originality that you might encounter when you go off the beaten track in La France profonde.

Main photo: A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles

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The Most Popular Potato Salad in Finland. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

It might be raining, hailing or even snowing, but when Jersey Royal potatoes arrive in the shops, everyone knows it’s the unofficial start of the British summer. There’s always a mad dash to get the first batches of marble-sized Royals, thanks in part to a flurry of intense marketing not unlike that accorded to Beaujolais Nouveau.

Iconic Jersey Royal potatoes can only be grown in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands that sit between England and France, and they boast a Protected Designation of Origin logo as proof of authenticity. Each Jersey Royal can be traced to its field of origin. Shallow-eyed with a fragile, golden skin and creamy yellow flesh, the chestnut-flavored taste of a true Jersey Royal is immediately distinctive.

Jersey is a singular place, a Channel Isle not even in the Channel, proud of its convoluted constitution and relationship with the British crown, its ancient independence and parish individualities. It’s an island as pretty as a postcard, yet with an air of suburbia. It’s an Englander’s dream of social order and old-style courtesies, but also une petite France — a little bit French — with roads signs in French and Jersais Norman names for places and people. It’s France without tears — and without the French.

The island’s steep, south-facing slopes, light and well-drained soil, and mild climate make it ideally suited for early potato crops, but sadly it is not uncommon to hear sighs of nostalgia that Jersey Royals are not what they used to be.

The island has only about a half-dozen commercial customers for the crop — the giant chains that buy 90 percent of the harvest. This creates particular pressures. Very few farmers use the traditional seaweed fertilizer known as vraic anymore; the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers is high and most fields are covered with perforated polythene to force the potatoes ever earlier (a source of some environmental controversy).

Few farmers take the trouble or can devote the labor to hand planting and harvesting the steepest slopes, or côtils, which catch the morning sun like the best vineyards. However, if you can find them, these traditionally cultivated Jerseys will always stand out from the norm.

Local farmers also scorn the supermarket-led trend for “Baby” Jersey Royals — the earliest of the early are not always the best. A degree of maturity is needed to bring out the full, nutty richness, and many islanders prefer to eat their Royals later in the summer.

Jersey Royals: Where to find them, how to cook them

Jersey Royals are always clearly marked in the shops. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Jersey Royals are always clearly marked in the shops. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The dense but not overly waxy nature of these potatoes makes them best suited for boiling, frying, gratins and salads, because they do not disintegrate when steamed or boiled. The potatoes are best cooked with the skins on to preserve nutrients and flavor, and they only need a quick wash — scrubbing breaks the papery skin. At their finest Jerseys are true luxury ingredients, simply served with butter, mint and flakes of sea salt.

Indisputably, though, the best way of sampling the potatoes is via the island tradition of roadside farm stalls, where money is left in an honesty box — and no one abuses the system. As one islander explained to me, it is the best way of knowing you’re eating potatoes that night that have been picked the same morning. Slathered in sunshine-yellow Jersey butter, they’re rightly named: a royal feast, and a reminder that heaven can wait.

Here are three recipes that showcase what makes Jersey potatoes so special. Ninety percent of Jersey Royals are exported to the United Kingdom, but if you can’t get your hands on any, these recipes also work well with other varieties of firm and waxy new potatoes.

Posh Potatoes to Impress the Neighbors

Posh Potatoes to Impress the Neighbors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Posh Potatoes to Impress the Neighbors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

These are retro favorites making a comeback. Instead of baking the potatoes, you can boil them, but the slightly crunchy skin that comes from baking them is rather good.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 to 4 cups small new potatoes

1/2 cup sour cream

Small jar caviar, salmon or herring roe

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C).

2. Place the potatoes on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes.

3. Cut each potato lengthways in half and let cool to room temperature.

4. Spoon a little sour cream onto each half and top with some caviar or roe.

5. Serve straight away.

The Most Popular Potato Salad in Finland

This is a simple but extremely delicious way to prepare new potatoes that originated in the Karelian region of Finland.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons butter

2 cups small new potatoes, boiled in their skins

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

2 large hard-boiled eggs, chopped

Fresh dill to taste

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a pan, then add the potatoes, salt and pepper. Stir carefully to coat the potatoes. If the potatoes seem too big for a mouthful, cut them in half.

2. Stir in the eggs and transfer to a serving dish.

3. Sprinkle with dill and serve either warm or chilled.

Pretty Pink Prawn and Potato Salad

Pretty Pink Prawn and Potato Salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Pretty Pink Prawn and Potato Salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

This is a refreshing and light salad for summer days. Make sure the potatoes are nutty and well-flavored to get the full effect..

Prep time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 cups Jersey Royals or waxy new potatoes (peeled and/or chopped to your preference)

1 to 2 avocados, peeled and chopped (sprinkle with lemon juice to stop browning)

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

Half a small cucumber, peeled and sliced

Several radishes, thinly sliced

1 cup peeled, cooked small shrimp

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Mix all the ingredients in a serving bowl and toss to mix well. Serve with a bowl of mayonnaise or a yogurt dressing on the side.

Main photo: The Most Popular Potato Salad in Finland. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman 

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Planted crops in the midst of Agritopia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.

“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.

Cultivating an agrihood

A citrus display at Agritopia's farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.

“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,”  Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”

Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.

A cornucopia of crops

Romanesco broccoli, a favored neighborhood crop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Romanesco broccoli, a favored neighborhood crop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”

The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.

Enjoying the fruits of their labor

The local coffeehouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

The local coffeehouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.

Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.

Rural life, redefined

Coming home to roost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Coming home to roost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.

“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”

Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann 

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