Articles in Agriculture

From left, Darren Chatterton, vineyard manager; Paul Ham, managing director; and Kate Galloway, winemaker. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

It is quite a special experience to taste every single vintage of a wine, but that is what I did the other day, when I was invited to a vertical tasting in London of AD The Aviator from Alpha Domus, one of the leading estates of Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.

Alpha Domus was founded by the Ham family, which originally came from the Netherlands. Alpha includes the initials of the five members of the family — the parents and three sons — who established the estate, and domus means home in Latin. They bought land in Hawke’s Bay, in an area that is now recognized as a sub-region, the Bridge Pa triangle, and planted the grape varieties that do best in Hawke’s Bay: the Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. The soil is red metal, alluvial soil, on an old riverbed, over gravel, a variation on the much better known Gimblett Gravels of Hawke’s Bay. It is warm and free draining but with sufficient water holding capacity not to need irrigation.

They made their first wine in 1996. AD The Aviator, their flagship wine, is a blend of the year’s best Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. Its proportions varying from year to year, and some years it is not even made. The unpredictable aspect is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which can sometimes be difficult to ripen in Hawke’s Bay. Merlot is easier, but it is the Cabernet Sauvignon that provides the backbone and aging potential. The producers want a long ripening period, and aim for low yields, paying great attention to canopy management.  Nor do they pick too early. As Paul Ham observed, “It is a battle of nerves over the potential rain at harvest time.”

The name The Aviator is a tribute to the many pilots who played their part in New Zealand’s aviation history and trained on de Havilland Tiger Moth planes from the Bridge Pa airfield. So, appropriately, the London tasting took place in the Royal Air Force Club on Piccadilly. And the Tigermoth biplane features as a logo on most of their labels.

Over the years Alpha Domus has employed three winemakers. Grant Edmonds, who now makes the wine at Sileni, and his own wine at Redmetal Vineyards, was their first; he was followed by a Dutchman, Evert Nijink; and now Kate Galloway makes the wine, building on the work of Grant and Evert, benefiting from older vines and fine-tuning the winemaking process.

The winemaking process for AD The Aviator has become established over the years. There is an initial cold soak for the grapes, followed by some hand-plunging and pigeage during fermentation, and then a period of aging in new and used French oak barrels. Finally, the very best of the individual barrels is selected for blending, with the winemaker looking “for perfume and aroma, with soft tannins,” Paul Ham says. “And it must be food-friendly.” At its best, this is a wine that can rival Bordeaux.

Sunset at the Alpha Domus estate in New Zealand. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

Sunset at the Alpha Domus estate in New Zealand. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

Tasting notes

We tasted from young to old, beginning with:

2010:  40% Cabernet Sauvignon,  24% Cabernet Franc, 26% Merlot, 10% Malbec

Deep young color; ripe rounded cassis nose, with some vanilla and fruit.  Paul Ham explained that they want New World fruit, with Old World complexity, and that is what they have achieved in this wine. The palate was still quite firm and youthful, but with underlying elegance balancing some ripe fruit, with a rounded finish.

2009: 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 18% Malbec, 18% Cabernet Franc

Medium color. A light, rather restrained nose. Closed and understated on the palate, with a little sweet cassis and vanilla. Quite elegant fruit on the finish. And generally less expressive than 2010.

2007: 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27%  Cabernet Franc,  23% Merlot, 13% Malbec

Medium color. An elegant smoky cedary nose. A medium weight palate, with some acidity and also some tannin. A youthful edge to the wine, with some lovely fruit. An elegant concentration of flavor, and still plenty of aging potential.

2002: Kate’s first vintage. 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec

Quite a deep color. Rounded ripe and smoky on the nose. Quite a tight palate, with a firm finish. Still youthful with some cedary minty notes. Some length.

2000: Made by Evert. 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 12% Malbec

Medium color. Elegant smoky nose. Quite a firm cedary palate. An edge of tannin with some acidity. A satisfying glass of wine, with balanced fruit and concentration, with length and elegance.

1999: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27%  Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Malbec

A lighter year; they very nearly didn’t make it.  Medium color, with a little age. Soft cedary vanilla nose. Quite an elegant dry palate, with some supple tannins. Elegant cedary notes. And a long finish.

1998: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 14% Malbec.

A hot dry year, which posed difficulties for some winemakers in Hawke’s Bay. Medium color, and still quite youthful. An elegant nose, with some cedary fruit, and on the palate, quite structured, with elegant fruit, structure and depth. Nicely intense, with a hint of menthol from the Cabernet Sauvignon. Did the gum trees nearby have an impact? Satisfying length and depth.

1996: This first vintage was made by Grant Edmonds and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Cabernet Franc and Malbec were not yet in production. Medium colour. Soft cedary notes on the nose and palate. A softer palate than the others, with some elegant cedary fruit. Maybe just beginning to slither off its plateau, or maybe not? Whatever, it was soft and sweet and still very elegant. A great note on which to finish a tasting of New Zealand’s history, with a wine that also amply illustrates Hawke’s Bay’s ability to rival Bordeaux.

Top photo: From left, Darren Chatterton, vineyard manager; Paul Ham, managing director; and Kate Galloway, winemaker. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

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Flowers in a vegetable garden

For many people, the idea of a vegetable garden conjures up an uninspiring image of regimented rows of plants with bare soil in between and functional supports where necessary. But this is not the only way to grow produce. Imagine going out onto a flower-filled terrace and cutting some lettuce for lunch, or, in the same space, collecting herbs for soup and unearthing fresh new potatoes. All this is perfectly possible, even in the tiniest of gardens.

A quick look at history shows that gardens that were both attractive and productive were far more common than one might think. The Romans had beautiful fruit and vegetable gardens, and monks living in monasteries across Medieval Europe were usually self-sufficient and grew everything they needed in charming walled gardens that were used for quiet contemplation as well as produce. The designers of large country house gardens often tucked the vegetables out of sight in a walled garden, but even here there was frequently an emphasis on beauty as well as productivity. Saint Ignatius, a priest in 15th-century Spain, said, “It is not enough to cultivate vegetables with care. You have a duty to arrange them according to their colours, and to frame them with flowers, so they appear like a well-laid table.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most famous ornamental vegetable gardens was created at the Chateau of Villandry, on the River Loire in France. When owner Joachim Carvallo purchased the estate, its original Renaissance garden had been replaced with an 18th-century landscape park. He wanted to restore the garden, but none of the plans for the original had survived. So Carvallo looked to the ornate gardens of the Renaissance and combined them with the kitchen gardens of the Benedictine abbeys in the area. The resulting plan gave vegetables pride of place next to the chateau, laying them out in intricate patterns.

Whether you have a large kitchen garden or simply a couple of containers, the theory behind growing vegetables beautifully is the same. First, consider what you would like to eat and what you are able to grow; there is no point growing chard, however pretty it may be, if you don’t enjoy eating it. Equally, there is no point trying to grow tender plants, such as chilies, if your garden is prone to frost.

Hanging tomatoes

A hanging basket of tomatoes makes use of vertical space. Credit: J.M. Hunter

Having chosen the vegetables you would like, consider what they look like as they grow. Many vegetables are available in ornamental varieties such as red Brussels sprouts, purple broccoli or rainbow chard. Lettuces can be any colour, from the palest green to deep crimson and many have the advantage of astonishingly frilly, or handsomely sharp, leaves. If you have room, a block of sweet corn looks striking (for pollination purposes you need to grow a block of it), but in a smaller space, peas, beans and tomatoes will give your garden height. Consider colour and shape, remembering that different shades of green with a few white flowers can look as spectacular as rainbow of colours. Think laterally, using parsley or lavender as edging and put tomatoes and herbs into hanging baskets.

How to fill the spaces

Of course, harvesting will affect the aesthetics of your garden. Sow a succession of seeds, rather than planting them all at once, and you will have new plants ready to fill any spaces. You also never will get a glut of anything, as the harvesting will be staggered. “Cut-and-come-again” crops can be harvested without removing the whole plant. Many salad leaves fall into this group and will regrow four or five times during the season. The other way to avoid gaps is to plant crops that grow at different speeds. Radishes mature in about 25 days and are invaluable gap-fillers while slower plants get going.

Having chosen the vegetables you want to grow, you can then add the flowers; annuals and bulbs and even perennials and shrubs, if your garden is large enough. Most vegetables are annuals, completing their harvest cycle within a year. Annual flowers make good companions, and each year you can vary the plants that you grow. Growing vegetables in different areas of the garden or even in different containers from year to year helps prevent soil depletion and disease. You can also vary your plants, for taste in the kitchen and looks in the garden.

Flower power helps vegetables

Flowers can also improve the health of your vegetables, with French marigolds or Tagetes attracting hoverflies, which will gobble up aphids and blackfly. Many of the prettiest flowers are edible; and pansies, nasturtiums, borage, lavender and many others will find a place in your kitchen as well your garden.

Whatever style of garden you have and whatever size it is, you can grow wonderful vegetables and enjoy a truly beautiful harvest.

Main photo: Vegetables and flowers mingle in a garden. Credit: J.M. Hunter

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Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

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Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

Main photo: Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

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David Dupasquier in the fields. Courtesy of Domaine Dupasquier

It’s probably still premature to break out the Txakoli or Sancerre, or whatever crisp, refreshing white you prefer for summer, but there’s definitely a category of wine that embodies the chameleon-like nature of early spring, especially here in New York, where the weather is a reminder of Robert Frost’s lines.

You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

– From “Two Tramps in Mud Time

I find that France’s little-known and oft-neglected Savoie region — a tiny Alpine growing area perched up in the mountains along the Swiss border — delivers just what I’m looking for this time of year. With its versatile range of whites that run the stylistic gamut from playfully brisk to generously rich, and its light-bodied, elegantly lifted reds, Savoie wines offer the perfect way to pass the time while waiting for the first spring greens to appear at the market.

Whenever I drink wines from this part of the world, I immediately envision myself in a landscape that seems to belong in “The Sound of Music,” complete with herds of grazing cattle, sleepy little cottages and a token babbling brook. Technicolor Hollywood fantasies aside, it can’t be denied that, at their best, the area’s wines communicate an unmistakable sense of place, all mountain air and meadow grass and wildflowers.

Although not a whole lot of the area’s wine makes it to U.S. shores, what does arrive is truly worth seeking out. Producers of note include Franck Peillot, Eugene Carrel, Domaine Labbé and the extremely hard-to-find Domaine Belluard, but I’ve recently developed an obsession with a small vigneron by the name of David Dupasquier, located in the village of Jongieux, who makes a gorgeous lineup of wines from such distinctive regional grapes as Jacquère and Altesse (his whites), as well as the red-skinned Gamay and Mondeuse.

Minimalist Savoie winemaker

A fifth-generation winemaker now at the helm of his family estate, Dupasquier adopts a minimalist approach to his work in the vineyards and the cellar. For one, he harvests entirely by hand, which, given the precariously steep vines he tends, must pose a considerable challenge. Among other praiseworthy practices, he also makes a point of fermenting with indigenous yeasts, which better allows the underlying materials of the wine to shine through. For anyone interested in experiencing the high-altitude clarity possessed by so many wines from Savoie, Dupasquier’s efforts couldn’t be more faithful regional ambassadors.

His unusual level of dedication and care is evident across all of his wines, and his profound expression of the Jacquère grape is no exception. While many examples of the varietal are innocuous affairs, best used to quench the thirst of skiers after a long day on the slopes, his version possesses a bright wash of acidity and a stony mineral core that overturns expectations while remaining utterly true to its place of origin. Despite its deceptively lithe and nimble frame, it manages to deliver a sense of weight without being weighty, gesturing toward richness with a fuller, creamier texture than any other expression of the grape I’ve encountered. In this respect, the wine seems to me like an Alpine version of some of the better Muscadet cuvées that have recently raised that region’s profile.

All in all, the wines offer a refreshing dose of seasonal irony. On the richer side of the spectrum, for those chillier April days when, as Frost writes, you feel like you’re still “back in the middle of March,” Dupasquier’s stellar Rousette de Savoie does the trick. Particularly appealing in the recently released 2010 vintage and based on the late-ripening Altesse grape (known regionally as Rousette), it represents just the sort of comforting, deep-yet-chiseled, viscous-yet-fresh white to be enjoyed with the last of winter’s hearty, bone-warming fare: Think roast pork or trout in cream sauce. When the warmer weather comes in full force, however, I’ll gravitate toward his bright and elegant vins rouges. Plunged in the ice bucket before serving, the 2010 Dupasquier Savoie Gamay drinks like a transparent, mountain-grown Beaujolais, chock full of juicy red berry fruit and a clean mineral finish that sings of the rocky slopes in which it was raised. Cue the first spring chicken.

Top photo: David Dupasquier in the fields. Credit: Courtesy of Domaine Dupasquier

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Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh from the Farm.

In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”

The author of two previous cookbooks, “Fast, Fresh & Green” and “The Fresh & Green Table,” Middleton chronicled her island experiences on her blog sixburnersue.com.

It blossomed into her newest book, “Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories,” which includes stories and photos of farm life and 121 recipes. Middleton added diagrams for building raised beds, a farm stand and chicken coop. You might call it a complete recipe book for the good life.

What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?

I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.

What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?

I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.

Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.

It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.

You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?

If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.

From “Fresh from the Farm” by Susie Middleton (Taunton Press, 2014). Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.

I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.

With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?

Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.

How did your first two books lead toward this one?

I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.

Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?

I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.

Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press

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Feudo Arancio Dalila. Credit: Courtesy of Feudo Arancia

Sunny Sicily is in the throes of a wine revolution. This rich apricot-and-citrus-toned white, 2012 Feudo Arancio Dalila, is an example of just how much has changed since the island turned from producing industrial plonk to quality wine from native grapes. With a 2,000-year wine history, Sicily is now one of Italy’s most exciting, cutting edge regions — and the source of dozens of current bargains. This is one of them.

Dalila is one of the two blends in the Stemmari portfolio, which also includes single varietal reds and whites made from native and international grapes. The Dalila blend is mostly Grillo, a local Sicilian white varietal used traditionally to produce fortified Marsala. Highly fragrant, with exotic notes of mango, Grillo can be exciting on its own, but the addition of some Viognier, a Rhône Valley grape, gives this wine a round, rich texture and contributes aromas of honey and wildflowers. I’m guessing the wine’s name is supposed to evoke the Dalila (of the Bible and the opera), who renders her former lover Samson powerless by cutting off his hair.

Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week


2012 Feudo Arancio Dalila

Price: $13

Region: Sicily, Italy

Grape: 80% Grillo, 20% Viognier

Alcohol: 13%

Serve with: Seafood risotto, soft cheeses


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Stemmari is the Sicilian project of Mezzacorona, a company originally founded more than a century ago in northern Italy as a winegrowers’ association. In Sicily, the company sources grapes from its 1,700 acres of vineyards at two large estates on the island’s south coast, near Agrigento and Ragusa, where winds sweep in from the Mediterranean. The winery is built in traditional rustic villa style.

Considering this is a fairly big project, Stemmari’s commitment to “green” ideas and sustainable winegrowing is commendable. Though the vineyards are not organically farmed, the company uses “good” insects as an alternative to chemical treatments, as well as “sexual confusion” — a biological system that fights destructive bugs by limiting their reproduction. Thanks to Sicily’s hot, dry, windy climate, it’s also relatively easy to use few chemicals here. Solar panels generate the winery’s electricity, wastewater is recycled, and Feudo Arancio even desalinates seawater to keep its reservoirs full.

Sicily’s long winegrowing history began even before the Greeks arrived to colonize the island in 750 B.C. On a wine tour a few years ago, I wandered the ruins of magnificent ancient temples just outside Agrigento that they left behind. The group of eight buildings, strung out along a road of big stones, is deservedly one of the island’s most famous archeological attractions.

For most of the 20th century, Sicily was known for industrial-quality bulk wine. The wine renaissance started in the 1990s, as forward-thinking producers planted international grapes such as Chardonnay and focused on quality instead of quantity. The 2000s brought the rediscovery of fascinating native grape varieties such as Grillo. The 2012 Feudo Arancio Dalila is a tasty, food-friendly blend of the two revolutions.

Top photo: 2013 Feudo Arancio Dalila. Credit: Courtesy of Feudo Arancio

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Mt. Tam cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Blessed with a unique terroir and distinctive indigenous cheese varieties, Northern California’s organic dairy farmers and cheesemakers are aiming to grow the region’s reputation as a hotbed of artisan cheese.

On a recent evening at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, Cowgirl Creamery‘s Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, along with Sunset magazine food editor Margo True and Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery, were celebrating the release of their book “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.”

Importance of milk

The word “milkshed” appears often in the book, and Conley explained it simply refers to the place where a region gets its milk. The milkshed of West Marin County, just outside San Francisco, for instance, enabled and inspired Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses. Specifically, it was the milk from the Holsteins and Jerseys on the Straus dairy that gave the Cowgirls their start in cheese making.

In the early 1990s, small family dairies were facing financial challenges that threatened their survival. Second-generation farmer Albert Straus had the idea to transition his lands and herd to a certified organic operation; his neighbors thought he had lost his mind.

At the time industrial agriculture was expanding, causing milk prices to be too low to sustain family farms. Straus thought that going organic would be the key to a viable business model because of the higher profit margin such methods yield. He also believed organic methods would be a more environmentally responsible way to manage the farm.

In 1994, the Straus Family Creamery became the first dairy west of the Mississippi River to go organic. It was Albert Straus’ vision that set the table for the artisan cheese movement in Northern California: to create a product that would save agricultural lands and dairy farming in the area.

The Cheeses

Conley and Smith traveled to England and France and observed regional cheese making. Often an appellation is created that reflects the flora and surroundings of an area, (like Comte cheese from France), and the Cowgirls realized that they had the ingredients to do this at their creamery in bucolic Point Reyes Station, outside San Francisco.

“We had this beautiful milk,” Conley said. “It’s all about the milk, the health of the animals and the beautiful pastures. We realized we had [those elements of an appellation] in our own place.”

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Asparagus, leeks, potatoes and celery for spring soup. Credit: Brooke Jackson

So using Straus milk exclusively, they started out making fresh cheeses like quark, cottage cheese and fromage blanc. Their first effort at an aged cheese was called Mt. Tam, after the landmark mountain in Marin County near the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The cheese is a triple cream and is meant to showcase the spring milk from the herd at the dairy. It is a buttery, mellow, approachable cheese that won second place at the American Cheese Society competition in 2010, and it is considered Cowgirl’s signature cheese. Next was Red Hawk, a rich and savory cheese with a pungent aroma and a red rind, also an award winner at the ACS, the Los Angeles County Fair and other competitions.

Years later, more inspiration came during the recession. They wanted to make a big, utilitarian cheese for daily use, a cooking cheese similar to fresh Asiago, which was requested by their friend Judy Rodgers, from Zuni Café in San Francisco. The initial efforts didn’t work well, so they made successive batches, bringing tastes to the farmers market for customers to give their opinion. The final recipe is a washed rind, semi-hard cheese that is versatile for cooking and eating. It won gold at the California State (2011) and the Los Angeles County Fairs (2010).

The Cowgirls also make four seasonal cheeses using organic milk from Taverna Dairy in the small hamlet of Chileno Valley. The Taverna herd is all Jersey cows; and the cheeses, although made by a recipe similar to Mt. Tam, have a very different taste profile because of the milk and its terroir.

In addition to their own cheeses, Conley and Smith collaborate, support and promote artisan, farmstead cheesemakers throughout the region. Using the model of Neal’s Yard in London, they sell these local products at their cheese counters in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Point Reyes Shop, believing that helping the artisan cheese movement grow is crucial to the future of the small family farm and to agriculture in this country in general.

The Future

To that end, Straus told the crowd at the Jewish Community Center that he and the Cowgirls were looking at creating an organic processing hub.

“What we’ve done in Marin and Sonoma counties is created this model of farming that we are trying to work on how can we revitalize the farming community and get the next generation of farmers in succession farming,” he said.

The Straus dairy, Cowgirl Creamery and maybe other organic producers would partner in one facility. A demonstration dairy would allow the public to see everything from the cow to the finished product. There would be an incubator of sorts for up-and-coming farmers, to help them get established in the business and explore ways to save energy and promote land stewardship.

The Book

“Our book teaches how cheese is made, but not how to make cheese,” Conley said. But “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks” is more than just a primer for how cheese is made. There are notes on composing cheese plates, delicious accompaniments to enhance them and myriad recipes that showcase glorious cheese and milk products.

Smith said her favorite recipes are in the chapter called “Ends and Bits,” which was designed to give ideas for what to do with all those pieces that end up in the bottom drawer of the fridge. Her favorite recipe from this section is Parmesan broth, which uses the leftover bits of hard cheese to make a rich, flavorful stock. That stock lends itself to a soup that celebrates spring.

Parmesan Broth

Adapted from “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks,” Chronicle Books 2013

Makes 3 quarts

Ingredients

12 
cups cool water

1
 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 
cups medium-diced onions

1
 cup coarsely chopped carrots

1 
cup coarsely chopped celery

¼ ounce dried mushroom, such as porcini or shiitake

2 bay leaves

3
 sprigs fresh thyme

3 sprigs fresh flat leaf parsley

About 1 
cup leftover bits of hard cheese and natural rind

Directions

1. In a large pot, bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat.

2. While the water heats, use another large pot to melt the butter over medium heat. When it’s melted, add the onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, bay leaves, thyme and parsley. Cook until the onions are translucent and the carrots, celery and mushrooms are soft, about 8 minutes.

3. With a wooden spoon, stir in the cheese bits. Let the cheese and vegetables sit on the bottom of the pot for short periods of time, no longer than 10 seconds. This will allow the vegetables and the cheese to brown the bottom of the pot a little. (You don’t want all the vegetables browned, but just the bottom surface needs a little color.) Stir often.

4. When the vegetables and cheese at the very bottom of the pot show some brown and the cheese is beginning to melt, slowly introduce the simmering water to the pot, stirring in just 1 cup/240 ml to start. Stirring constantly, deglaze the pan’s bottom with the hot water to loosen any browned bits. When the pot bottom is clean of any brown, pour in the remainder of the water. Decrease the heat to medium-low and monitor the heat, adjusting the flame so the broth stays at a gentle simmer.

5. Simmer for 40 to 50 minutes, stirring every 3 to 5 minutes, so the broth doesn’t pick up a scorched flavor. Strain the broth into a very large container or another clean pot and allow it to cool. Once it’s cool, you can easily skim the top of any fats. Store this in your refrigerator for up to 3 days or in your freezer for up to 3 months.

Spring Soup With Asparagus, Potatoes and Leeks

Makes 1½ quarts

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large leek, split lengthwise to the root, rinsed well then cut into thin, crosswise slices — about 2 cups

1 cup celery, thinly sliced crosswise

1 bunch asparagus, bottom ¼-inch removed and discarded, tips removed and set aside, remaining stems sliced crosswise into 1-inch pieces, about 1½ cups

Salt and pepper

1 clove garlic minced

1½ cups Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced – about 2 medium

4 cups Parmesan broth

¼ cup crème fraiche

Directions

1. Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat until shimmering. Add leek, celery and asparagus pieces and sauté until coated with oil. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

2. Turn heat to low, cover the pan and sweat the vegetables until soft but not colored, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and potatoes and cook until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

3. Add broth, ½ teaspoon salt and 3 grindings of pepper from a mill, stir to combine, turn heat to medium and bring to a simmer.

4. Cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, lightly steam asparagus tips until crisp tender. Set aside.

6. Purée the soup using an immersion blender, food processor or traditional blender until smooth.

7. Serve in bowls with a dollop of crème fraiche and an asparagus tip on top of each serving.

Top photo: Cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

As New England’s maple sap started to drip in March, David Moore of The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse in Lee, N.H., counted the days until it would stop flowing. Right about the time the maples are tapped out, Moore collects a less sugary sap from slender, white paper birch trees.

Moore, one of the only known commercial birch syrup producers in New England, says his reddish-brown syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. The viscosity at room temperature is slow, albeit a bit quicker than molasses. Its unique taste makes it well suited as an ice cream topping (Moore’s favorite); a glaze, salad dressing or braising liquid ingredient; and an intriguing baked goods sweetener.

In addition to its uses in the kitchen, birch syrup has high market values that could help maple syrup producers supplement future revenue streams in a sustainable fashion, according to researchers at Cornell and the University of Vermont. Its production relies on many of the techniques currently employed in making maple syrup, and birch trees are in rather good supply in the Northeast.

Birch syrup is not entirely a novelty in North America. Native Americans for centuries used it as an anti-rheumatic. Twentieth-century Alaskans also tapped it to fill gaps in wartime sugar supplies, and birch syrup production has become a cottage industry there. Still, last year’s 5,000 gallons of domestically produced birch syrup were just a drop in the bucket compared with the 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup produced.

Chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet bistro in Portsmouth, N.H., says Moore’s syrup has a rich, deep and slightly resinous quality that makes it suitable as a finishing syrup and a glaze for grilled chicken or pork. Mallett’s seasonal menu features brioche Texas toast, a thick slice of house-made bread stuffed with roasted mushrooms and cheese and served with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on ears of corn) butter, candy cap mushroom oil and a few drops of birch syrup.

“I like it on pancakes too, but it’s pretty expensive to slather on,” Mallett said.

The going rate for a quart of birch syrup is $78, compared with $10 for Grade A maple syrup. The selling price is very attractive, said Moore, who last year charged $25 for 8-ounce jars and sold out by the end of May. Moore sells his product at a half dozen locations in New Hampshire and will be taking some mail orders this year if supplies last.

“Making birch syrup takes more energy than making maple syrup,” explained Moore, who collects 100 to 120 gallons of sap (he typically gets about 5 gallons a day from each of his 170 taps) to make one gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires only 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.

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Birch syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Abby van den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center said the profitability of birch syrup production in the Northern Forest — the region that stretches from Maine through northern New Hampshire and Vermont into northern New York — in the past has been limited due to the fact that the low sugar content of birch sap (about 1% compared with 2% in maple) means producers need lots of evaporator fuel to concentrate the sap to syrup density.

But she argues that reverse osmosis, a process used in Alaskan birch syrup production that concentrates sugar densities (to 8% or greater) in the sap before it goes into the evaporator mitigates that hurdle. Modern sap collection techniques such as using a vacuum also help to increase the sap collection during the short three- to four-week birch sap season.

Moore has considered using reverse osmosis, but he currently processes sap in a 3- by 12-foot double-panned evaporator inside the wooden sugar shack he built himself. He uses a team of draft horses to help haul the firewood (ash, hickory, maple and oak) needed to fuel the evaporator. The new reverse osmosis machine would require him to run power to the sugarhouse. He estimates adding reverse osmosis would cost $7,000. “It could be a tough sell for me,” Moore said.

Neither van den Berg nor Michael Farrell, director of Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program’s Uihlein field station in Lake Placid, N.Y., could provide more than anecdotal evidence that maple syrup producers are clamoring to make birch syrup.

At a maple syrup taste test he conducted for maple syrup producers earlier this year, Farrell threw birch syrup into the mix. When he asked for a show of hands from those who liked the taste of New England birch syrup, not one went up. The producers then were offered a taste of birch syrup made with reverse osmosis. “Nearly everyone changed their mind,” Farrell said.

“This altered process gives birch syrup a wider range of flavor that should appeal to more people. They’ve just got to be willing to taste it,” he said.

Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies

Yes, birch syrup is expensive, but it adds an interesting twist to these spicy chewy cookies that people won’t place until you tell them. Think of it as money well spent for tea time conversation.

Makes 24 cookies

Ingredients

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

½ cup birch syrup

⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, allspice, salt and black pepper.

3. Beat butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Add egg and birch syrup. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger, if using. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

4. Roll dough into 1½-inch balls and then roll them in the raw sugar. Arrange on the baking sheets and gently flatten them with the bottom of a flat glass. Bake until set and crinkled on top, about 12 minutes.

Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.

Top photo: The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

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