Articles in Agriculture
As something of a general-assignment reporter on the food beat, I cover everything from elite top chefs in the farm-to-fork realm, to Napa winemakers, to boutique growers, to farmers market advocates and culinary academics.
But I also see food banks — a world of hurt no one in the food industry should ignore.
"That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable." -- Richard Nixon
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One of the movie’s shattering facts is that in the 1970s, hunger in America was all but eradicated. By the 1980s, hunger returned with a vengeance and now afflicts more people than any other time in the country’s history. A record 47.8 million Americans are on food stamps. Seventeen million are children. More than 33,000 food stamp users hold doctoral degrees. Enrollment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has increased 70% since the economic collapse of 2008.
It would appear to be a good time to enrich the food stamp system. But that’s not what’s happening in Congress.
Just when people rely on food stamps more than ever, the Senate voted June 10 for a farm bill that cuts SNAP by about $4 billion over the next 10 years.
And that’s the good news.
The Senate cut is peanuts compared to the $20-billion slash the House of Representatives is proposing. To protest, several of members of Congress tried a budget of $4.50 a day for 3 days this week to see what living on food stamps was like — not easy. The House version of the bill will knock nearly 2 million households off the rolls during a weak economy, with unemployment stalled at 7.6% and 15% of Americans living below the poverty line, the highest in poverty in half a century.
Most people on food stamps work. But if those jobs pay only minimum wage, such as Alabama’s $2.13 an hour for tipped employees, all minimum wage workers easily qualify for benefits.
Hard times can happen to anyone
I was on food stamps in California in 2005. My husband and I had lost a business and became instantly unemployed. As staunchly middle class, closer to upper-middle class growing up, I’d never heard of most of the programs that aid distressed Americans. Only one came to mind — food stamps.
Even though I owned a home and car, it looked as if I would be eligible. Only recently had ownership of a car been stricken as a disqualifying asset. I was shocked that people obviously in poverty were once punished if they owned a car to use to get to work or to look for a job. Then I got fingerprinted. (California no longer fingerprints food stamp applicants.)
I was issued a debit-like credit card loaded with funds every month. It’s called Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT.
I shopped for what would keep us healthy and un-hungry, such as vegetables, fruits, juice, meat, eggs, and OK, chocolate. I’m a good cook, so my shopping habits didn’t change much. I never got into the living-on-beans thing. I didn’t squander precious food-stamp dollars on soda, chips, frozen TV dinners, disgusting canned peas, lunchmeat or cookies, all of which are permitted. Participants who buy Ding Dongs and Hungry-Mans, and can’t cook, burn through their balance sooner.
Once I got the hang of it, I was going to EBT stores like Whole Foods and buying leg of lamb and brie. The program even allowed me to buy seeds and plants to grow a garden.
I thought that being on food stamps was like manna from heaven. But it’s not perfect. Aside from fraud traced mostly to the grocers’ end, the most imperfect thing about SNAP is its recent message about health.
In 2008, it changed its name to SNAP so it would be thought of as a nutrition program. The only problem here is that SNAP’s N-word, nutrition, doesn’t mean much when enrollees can buy liters of Pepsi and bags of Cheetos, and attract the scorn of politicians and the uninformed. My style of food stamp usage is equally criticized as food stamp elitism. How dare I buy high-quality ingredients while on the government dole?
But food is food, and any change to this definition in the Food and Nutrition Act would require an act of Congress. The people on the Hill gave up when they became tangled in the unruly theories of what makes a food too luxurious or too junky. Why not offer food stamp users nutrition classes? Oh, silly me. SNAP’s education funding had already been cut.
Food stamps benefits multiply
Every time an EBT card is swiped at a store, a nearly instantaneous transfer of funds from Washington starts a cash ripple effect locally. For example, the federal reimbursement of an 89-cent head of broccoli benefits the grower, the distributor, the store and the person who consumes the broccoli’s nutrition — for the full 89 cents.
Slashing billions of dollars from SNAP may starve the government beast, but it’s going to starve actual human beings, too.
If the minimum wage is not a living wage, and until the economy becomes unstuck, expect even more people to need that plastic EBT card like the one I keep in my wallet to this day.
Top photo: Clients collecting food at the River City Food Bank in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn
Summer is almost officially upon us, and that means stocking up on plenty of easy-to-serve, yet interesting-to-drink white wines. This bright, fresh, bold-flavored 2011 Y Rousseau Old Vines Colombard comes with a screw cap; notes of tangy lemongrass, spicy peach and citrus; and a fascinating succulence that makes you crave another sip.
Elin McCoy’s Wine of the Week
Price: $16 to $18
Region: Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Grapes: 100% Colombard
Serve: As an aperitif, with oysters, crab salad, scallops with lemon, spicy grilled shrimp
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The real surprise for me was how good a California wine made from Colombard grapes could be. One of the most planted white varietals in the state, it has long been the backbone of cheap white plonk blends. It’s also a mainstay grape in Cognac, where it makes high acid wines that are quickly distilled into brandy. This wine made me seriously rethink the grape’s New World potential.
Winemaker Yannick Rousseau made his first Colombard in his native region of Gascony, the “Three Musketeers” territory in southwest France. Since 1999, he’s been in California, and worked at wineries such as Napa Valley‘s Chateau Potelle on Mount Veeder. He struck out on his own in 2007, when he found a four-acre plot of 36-year-old dry farmed Colombard vines in cool-climate Russian River Valley, and last month, he opened his own very small winery and tasting room south of the town of Napa.
The elaborate plume logo on the Y Rousseau label celebrates the so-called fourth musketeer, Comte d’Artagnan, known as a dedicated bon vivant. (Their just-released red wine from Tannat grapes is named The Musketeer.)
This Colombard is an award winner
There’s no official definition of “old vines.” But as vines age, they produce less fruit so the grapes concentrate flavors, and the wine expresses more depth and complexity. This 2011 Old Vine Colombard, aged in stainless tanks and old barrels, is also blissfully free from the heavy hand of oak. No wonder it won a double gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition last year. Its crisp stony minerality, refreshing citrus notes, jazzy acidity and satisfying texture make it a perfect summer sipper — but one with a very distinct personality.
Top photo composite:
Y Rousseau label, next to a harvester at the Russian River Valley winery’s vineyard. Credit: Courtesy of Y Rousseau
Coorg (Kodagu) is a picturesque hill district along the verdant western Ghats Mountains in the state of Karnataka, South India, which is well known for its aromatic coffee, luscious oranges and fragrant spices. This landscape with steep hills, valleys and ravines with countless streams is home to forests of rosewood, teakwood, sandalwood and silver oak. In this setting, one entrepreneur is turning the region’s traditions of beekeeping and honey collecting into a global operation called Nectar Fresh honey.
Honey is an important part of the culture in Coorg, where bees are kept and honey is cultivated throughout the dense forests and on the many coffee plantations. At “A Cookery Year in Coorg,” Shalini Nanda Nagappa writes “at a Coorg child’s naming ceremony, a gold coin is dipped in honey, and touched to the infant’s lips, a symbolic wish and blessing for the child to live a life of sweetness and prosperity.”
Humble beginnings with a dream
In 2007, Chayaa Nanjappa, a young woman from Coorg, decided to leave her job in the hospitality industry to follow her dream of starting her own honey business. Her initial plan was to supply the purest quality honey from her hometown to the local markets in Bangalore.
To learn the ropes of the new business, she trained at the central Bee Research and Training Institute in Pune, Maharashtra. With a small loan from her mother and with the support of Khadi and Village Industries. she started her business Nectar Fresh honey in Bangalore.
Honey is collected directly from the source and filtered. It later undergoes moisture reduction and then again more filtration. It is then cooled and sent to settling tanks. Processed honey is meticulously tested for quality at the in-house laboratory. Initially the honey was processed and packaged for the pharmaceutical, ayurveda, and hospitality sectors. After serving solely as a supplier to other brands, Nectar Fresh began marketing honey and related products under its own label across India in 2007.
Three years later, Nanjappa relocated the flourishing business to Mysore. Kuppanda Rajappa, a well-known businessman of Coorg origin, with considerable experience in management of plantations and retail sector joined the company as partner. Nectar Fresh was initially sourcing honey only from Coorg. Today the company selectively sources raw honey from various honey-rich regions of India. The honey is collected from forests, certified apiaries, tribal societies and small farmers.
Growing Nectar Fresh honey’s export operation
Pure unadulterated Coorg honey is unique in flavor, aroma and color. These qualities vary depending on the nectar source, age and storage conditions of the honey. Honey extracted during different seasons and from various parts of Coorg carries the flavor of seasonal and regional flowers. Color ranges from dark to light amber: Pale honeys have a mild flavor, while the darker ones have more robust flavor.
Honey made primarily from the nectar of one type of flower is called mono-floral. They have high value in the market due to distinctive flavor. Darker honeys are used for large-scale commercial purposes while lighter honeys are marketed for direct consumption and demand a premium price over the darker counterparts. Most of Nectar Fresh honey is organic and the company also specializes in mono-floral honeys, including Coorg honey, eucalyptus honey, acacia honey, clover honey, mustard honey, sunflower honey, jamun honey, lychee honey and forest honey, which is sourced from dense forests where herbal plants known for their medicinal properties grow.
From the new processing plants in Mysore the company started marketing single-portion packs and 30-gram bottles under Nectar Fresh brand for sale in the hospitality industry. Soon Nectar fresh launched retail-portion package of jams and sauces. Nectar Fresh is one of the largest suppliers of bulk honey from south India, and today its products are exported through middlemen to United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and European Union markets. Recently Nectar Fresh met the stringent standards necessary for approval to export honey to Germany.
The company is awaiting the completion of a new processing plant with a much larger capacity, which would enable Nectar Fresh to produce even more honey. Another plant for processing fruit jams and tomato sauces and purées is expected to be operational by June. The company is in the process of introducing Nectar Fresh Coorg coffee. Plans are also in the works for marketing Coorg-grown pepper, cardamom and kokum.
Nanjappa is a member of the National Bee Board of India. From humble beginning of supplying quality honey to the local market, the company has evolved into one of the top five suppliers and exporter of bulk, raw honey as well as processed honey and the only one manufacturing different varieties of mono-floral honey.
Top photo: Nectar Fresh honey. Credit: Chayaa Nanjappa
It’s morning in Maine, and Margaret Hathaway has already milked the goats in the back yard and fed the chickens. Four-year-old Beatrice colors in the dining room, baby Sadie is napping, and big sister Charlotte is at kindergarten in Portland.
By the time I find my way to Ten Apple Farm in Gray, Maine, the chévre is cooling in its triangular molds, and the Manchego is simmering on the front burner. “You have to slowly warm the goat milk to 86 degrees,” cheesemaker Hathaway says, whisking figure-eights calmly in the big pot on her kitchen stove.
Pushing back her bandanna, Hathaway takes a quick look at the clock. It’s time to add in her culture packet — a microbe-rich mixture of rennet, culture and salt. “Making cheese is really straightforward. All it really is is good, fresh milk — ours comes straight from the goat and is unpasteurized — seasoning and culture — and patience.” This morning, Hathaway is a little worried about her cheese. She made bread earlier in the morning, and it’s conceivable that the microbes from the yeast in the bread may have hijacked the microbes in the cheese culture. “Making bread and cheese at the same time is considered a no-no in cheesemaking, but I wanted bread for lunch,” she says. So, we eat lunch and wait — a goat cheese quiche with fresh spring herbs and home-baked bread — and keep checking to see whether the Manchego explodes instead of condensing when it comes time to put the milk in the cheese press.
It didn’t explode at all. It did exactly what it was supposed to do: lose more than 50% of the liquid volume and settle the curds into a semi-soft round cake. The cheese won’t be ready to eat for several months after it ages, but it will be a beautiful, unpasteurized goat cheese Manchego.
From city living to cheesemaking
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Before immersing themselves into the world of farming and cheesemaking, Hathaway and her husband, photographer Karl Schatz, had good jobs. An English major back from studying on a Fulbright grant in Tunisia, Margaret was in publishing, working on a novel and managing a cupcake bakery. Karl was an online photo editor at Time magazine. One day, at home in Brooklyn, eating chèvre at the kitchen table, the two were suddenly seized by the fantasy of leaving “all that” and becoming goat farmers. They left their jobs, put their stuff in storage, borrowed a car from Karl’s parents and headed out on a quest documented in Margaret’s first book, “The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese.” One farm, many goats and three children later, Hathaway Schatz is homesteading in Maine, making cheese and teaching others how to do the same. “It was never meant to be a profit-making venture. More of a way of life.”
She is quick to point out that her husband has a “real” off-farm job as the director of a photo agency in Portland. “As someone who got a good education and great medical care, I wasn’t about to raise my kids without enough money for them to go to college or worry about health insurance,” Hathaway said. When we last spoke in early May, she was mucking the goat stalls and planting her vegetable garden. In between baby naps and cheese timers, she checked her e-mail. “Spring is surprisingly busy on the farm.”
They bought the farm in 2005 and bought their first goats in 2007. The first baby goats arrived two weeks after Beatrice, now 4, was born. The new farmers delivered their first “kids” armed with skills honed by watching a YouTube video. “Before that, the only delivery I’d seen was one where I was a participant, and on the other side,” Hathaway said.
Today, Hathaway and her family raise about 70% of their food on the farm. They’ve got a vegetable garden, and apple trees, chickens, turkeys and goats. “I like the idea that most of the food my kids eat comes right from where they live,” she says. It took a while for the couple to get comfortable with raising animals for meat. “We had to move our minds from thinking about animals as livestock instead of a collection of individual animals,” she says, shifting the baby in the backpack just enough to reach the cheese press.
The big off-farm treat for the day I was there was crisp sheets of nori seaweed, with both baby Sadie and Beatrice fighting over the last paper-thin green wafer. “Ooh,” says the mother of three. “I was hoping to save some nori for Charlotte’s after-school snack.” (Not all is so green. Beatrice found a leftover chocolate Easter egg in a drawer and scarfed it down before mom could intervene.)
Several times a year, Hathaway teaches cheesemaking classes as part of her homesteading classes. “It’s not very hard or expensive to make cheese if you can get good milk. Most of the equipment you need you probably already have in your kitchen. A large pot, some spatulas and a frosting knife to smooth the tops of the cheese.” She recommends only buying a few things with a total cost of $150: a good basic home cheese book and a cheese press with a pressure gauge. “The best kind have a thermometer attached to the pressure gauge.”
Somehow Hathaway still finds time to write. Her second book, “Living With Goats,” has just come out in paperback and she is working on a novel that she says is not about cheese or goats.
People understand the natural affinity of educated women around food, but why cheese? Why not wine, or bread, or chocolate? Hathaway has a thought. “The American artisanal cheese movement was started by women, following in the whole female tradition of milk, the whole milkmaid thing. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that women lactate. Having three young daughters and any number of goats and kids, sometimes it feels as if our farm was one big lactation factory.”
Top photo: Cheeses made at Ten Apple Farm. Credit: Karl Schatz
The European Commission has shown customary timidity in abruptly withdrawing a proposal made last week to exert minimal control over the quality of olive oil served in restaurants. The idea behind the proposal was admirable — that olive oil be served in original, tamper-proof bottles that state the oil’s credentials on the label, rather than poured from an anonymous jug into cruets or bowls on the table. In that way, consumers would be certain of what they’re being served and there would be no easy way of substituting bad oil for good. Restaurants, in the commission’s words, should be “obliged to use oil bottles equipped with an opening system which cannot be resealed after the first time it is opened, together with a protection system preventing them from being reused once the contents indicated on the label have been finished.”
This was not a sudden decision. It had been discussed for at least a year. And to those of us who have encountered, over and over again, rancid, fusty, smelly, old oil in those colorful little bowls or cruets on restaurant tables — even in some very fine establishments — it made good sense. But the proposal evoked an outcry from journalists, chefs, restaurateurs and the public at large such that you might think the EC had proposed reinstating capital punishment.
Consumer protection? No way! This was out-and-out interference in commerce, the naysayers cried, especially commerce that involved “little guys” — small-scale restaurateurs and café owners and small-farm producers of olive oil. This was Brussels interfering with time-honored traditions, forcing out modest concerns in favor of big industrial-sized multinationals that promote commodity olive oil. The virtue of this argument is difficult to understand because large producers would have very little to gain from the proposal. But in the end, the EC, bowing to pressure on all sides, withdrew the regulation.
Much of the uproar came from sources with nothing on the table. I cannot speak for the German press, but British journalists suddenly had, as they themselves might say, their knickers in a twist over the proposal. Silly Europeans, the Brits snickered, there they go again, fussing over trivia, imposing ridiculous rules on innocent restaurateurs, as if they didn’t have anything else to worry about in Brussels. Why don’t they do something about the economy instead?
Elsewhere, however, the outcry was even more difficult to understand and I got the impression that most people simply had not read the proposal. It is not a hardship for restaurateurs to provide tamper-proof bottles of olive oil since that is the way most small quantities of olive oil are sold. I buy oil in half-liter bottles or tins in local shops where I live in Tuscany. These containers almost uniformly have a plastic pour spout inside that is difficult to remove, and through which it would be difficult to refill the bottle. Furthermore, bottles such as these are the product of many different olive oil purveyors, from small, local farmers to substantial wineries that also produce oil for large, supra-national concerns. Disposing of the bottles once the contents are gone is also an easy task — they simply go into the glass-product recycling bins that are universal in most of Europe.
Check out the following excerpt from Public Radio International’s “The World,” a daily NPR news program:
At a little café in a Spanish village. . . the owner, a guy named Aris, says he’s indignant [about the new regulations]. Aris drives to his favorite olive orchard . . . to buy his oil right out of the presses. He tops up his big five-gallon jugs, and each morning at the café he fills his oil flasks by hand, then sets one on each table. . . . He says he doesn’t understand how Europe can have a problem with this.
Not necessarily extra virgin olive oil
The problem, simply stated, is that all over Europe, thousands of restaurateurs, large and small, top off oil flasks or cruets or bowls with what is most likely not extra virgin at all but a much lesser grade of olive oil — if, in fact, it is even olive oil and not some cheap substitute. And if it is extra virgin, it will most likely be rancid, fusty and several years out of date — just a few of the most common faults in extra virgin olive oil that not only give bad flavors and aromas to the food served, but also ultimately are bad for diners’ health. And even if it happens to be good olive oil when it goes into the flasks that are filled, day after day over the years without being cleaned, it’s inevitable that the “fresh” oil added will be thoroughly contaminated by the nastiness at the bottom of the flask.
I would hazard a conservative guess, based on long years of experience, that at least 70% of the oil on tables in European restaurants, and at least 85% of the oil on tables in American restaurants, would not pass muster if the research team at UC Davis’ Olive Center were to take up the challenge and test them for their extra virginity. When they tested imported extra virgin oils available in California retail shops a couple of years ago, 73% failed to meet sensory standards.
Which is why, when I go to an ordinary restaurant, and even sometimes to extraordinary ones, even in the olive oil-producing regions of Spain, Greece, Italy and California, I carry with me a small, discreet tin of high-quality extra virgin to adorn my dishes when necessary in order to avoid what’s in those cute glass, or rustic terracotta, or other type of cruets that sit on every restaurant table. (Of course, that doesn’t save me from the fact that they’ve been cooking my food with that junk, does it?)
Essentially, the problem the EC was trying to address was consumer fraud, a serious concern with olive oil, in Europe as everywhere else in the world — as many of these same journalists have been whining about for years. The new requirement would have prevented unscrupulous restaurateurs from filling their cruets with questionable oil. It was a tiny step forward in government efforts to combat fraud and to prevent what is all too often nasty, out-of-date, fake, unacceptable oil from being served up as if it were something genuine and special.
One simply cannot have it both ways. We cannot moan over fraudulent olive oil masquerading as fine extra virgin, and then gripe and sneer when the government takes a first, tentative step toward rectifying the situation. If we truly want reform, if we truly want to be sure that the oil in that bottle or on that table is what it says it is, then we must expect a lot more similar, and quite possibly even more stringent regulation in the years ahead. And welcome to it!
Top photo: Bottled olive oil. Credit: Flickr / foodistablog
The landscape of the south of England is changing, very gently and almost imperceptibly, for hillsides that were once fields of grass or wheat are now being planted with grapevines. Only the other day, I turned a corner on a road I once knew well in West Sussex, close to the South Downs, and where there had once been sheep grazing, there is now a vast expanse of vines.
The last few years have seen a soaring interest in the potential for English wine, and in particular for sparkling wine. Quite simply, the vineyard area has doubled since 2004, when there were 761 hectares (1,880 acres). Official figures for 2010 give 1,324 hectares (3,271 acres), but some sources believe it to be nearer 1,500 hectares (3,706 acres). And almost without exception, the new plantings are of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three classic grapes of Champagne.
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How things have changed. Suddenly “England” on a wine label is to be taken seriously, and English sparkling wine is something to be proud of, with a flavor and quality not dissimilar to Champagne. You find some elegant creaminess and subtle nuances and depth of flavor.
The pioneers of what you might call the new wave of English wine, and of sparkling wine, were an American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, who planted a vineyard at Nyetimber in West Sussex. Their first vintage was 1992, made with the help of a champenois consultant, Jean-Manuel Jacquinot, from the eponymous Champagne house. I asked the Mosses why they had chosen England, rather than California. After all, they came from Chicago, where they had just sold a pharmaceutical business. Stuart’s answer was quite simple: California would be too easy. England was more of a challenge!
Following close behind Nyetimber was Mike Roberts at Ridgeview. He sold an IT business and then looked for something else to do. Planting vines was the answer, on a site outside the village of Ditchling at the foot of the South Downs. Mike has given Ridgeview a sense of direction and commitment to quality, with a range of wines that are named after districts of London, such as Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Grosvenor and Fitzrovia. He is also a firm advocate of the name of Merrett for English sparkling wine. Dr. Christopher Merrett presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1662, a few years before Dom Pérignon began his work at the abbey of Hautvilliers, in which he explained the process for the deliberate second fermentation. Wine arrived in London from Champagne in barrel, and the “wine coopers” added sugar and molasses to make their wine “brisk and sparkling.” It all hinged on the fact that in England they used coal, which burns hotter than charcoal, to fire glass. As a result, English glass was stronger, able to withstand the presence of carbon dioxide in the bottle.
Numerous others have followed in the footsteps of Nyetimber and Ridgeview. You will now find names such as Gusborne, Coates & Seely, Balfour Brut, Wiston, Jenkyn Place, Camel Valley and Breaky Bottom, not to mention a vineyard in Windsor Great Park, planted with royal blessing. Most, but not all, are in the southeast of England, where the climate is warmer and drier than the rest of the country. And there are soil similarities with Champagne. The South Downs and the vineyards of Champagne and also Chablis and Sancerre are all part of the Parisian basin, with the geological term Kimmeridgian, taking its name from a Dorset village.
The longer ripening time is a key difference between English sparkling wine and Champagne. Bud break usually comes a week earlier than in Champagne, and the harvest in England usually begins in early October, in sharp contrast to Champagne, where it usually takes place in early September. This means that the vegetal cycle in England is three to four weeks longer, and the grapes are riper and fruitier, and the wines are possibly richer and less acidic.
The future for English wines looks sparkling, and with time and experience, they will develop greater complexity. After all, the Champagne of Dom Pérignon is more than 300 years old, whereas the modern era of English sparkling wine, if you take it from Nyetimber’s very first vintage in 1992, only totals two decades.
Top photo: Nyetimber’s vineyard in West Sussex. Courtesy of Nyetimber.
In the 1970s, ’80s, and part of the ’90s, Italy’s Soave wines used to have a bad reputation as cheap, insipid, mass production whites, the kind you definitely want to avoid. But in the past couple of decades, a determined younger generation has been reviving the region’s even older tradition of quality. This crisp, almondy 2011 Inama Soave Classico, with its combination of smoky minerality, spicy fruit flavors and mouth-filling texture is a great everyday bianco that’s widely available at a very good price.
Elin McCoy’s Wine of the Week
Price: $12 to $15
Region: Veneto, Italy
Grapes: 100% Garganega
Serve: As an aperitif, with sushi, salads, vegetable risotto
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The Veneto region around the city of Verona, in the northeast of Italy, is Soave country. The wines are named for the town of Soave, and the best ones, like this Inama, come from rugged surrounding hillside vineyards of mineral-rich basaltic rock in the Classico zone, the original Soave area mapped in 1927. Only wines made in this zone can use the word Classico on the label.
The grape is late-ripening Garganega, which very much reflects where and how it’s grown. Soaves made from grapes grown on the flat valley floor outside the Classico zone tend to be pretty neutral. Though up to 30% of a Soave can contain Trebbiano or Chardonnay, Stefano Inama sticks to 100% Garganega, from old vines, which he believes give wines more richness and complexity.
Giuseppe Inama, the estate’s founder, began assembling a patchwork of small top vineyards in Classico zone in the mid-1960s, but sold his wine in bulk. Starting in the mid-1990s, his son Stefano shifted to organic viticulture, cut yields and started bottling the wines.
Climbing the Soave ladder
Inama makes three different Soaves; this is their basic, entry-level bottle, fermented and aged in stainless steel. The other two, which come from special parcels and single vineyards on Monte Foscarino, are fermented in barrels.
If you’ve dismissed Soave as just white plonk, it’s time to try again. This 2011 Inama Soave Classico is a low-cost introduction to the good stuff.
Top photo composite:
2011 Inama Soave Classico label. Credit: Elin McCoy
Vineyard. Credit: Courtesy of Inama
Eating a local diet, one where consumers subsist on food grown locally — often within 100 miles from the source — is no longer edgy or revolutionary. It’s common to find restaurants across the United States touting goods from local farms, proving that it is not difficult to eat abundantly but with a small carbon footprint.
Except, of course, if you live in Alaska. The unavailability of fresh produce during the long winters as well as the presumed unavailability of grains makes eating local in Alaska seemingly impossible.
But one small group of people set out to prove that was a myth and spent one year eating better than they ever had.
Planning and canning
Headed by Anchorage couple Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster, the Alaska Food Challenge was a loose collection of Anchorage residents who committed to eating only Alaskan food for one year. Each set up their own parameters. Oster, for example, allowed himself beer from local breweries even though the hops and other ingredients were not local. Esslinger accepted gifts of chocolate and butter on her birthday, and the couple took a vacation to Italy shortly after their first child was born.
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As expected, the Alaska Food Challenge came with some surprises and, fittingly, challenges. The first surprise was the sheer abundance of food available. Esslinger notes that that year was the healthiest she’d ever eaten. Alaska has excellent seafood, including salmon, halibut, crab and scallops, as well as game such as moose and caribou. The couple has a large urban garden, where they grew berries, salad greens, kale, turnips, tomatoes and more.
Chickens, for eggs and butchering, supplied more protein options, and the difficulty of butchering them surprised the couple. “It’s so much work,” Esslinger said. “The industrial system must cut so many corners to process so many.”
The local-eating year was full of discoveries such as that one — certain foods require large amounts of work. The couple realized that even though they had eaten mostly Alaskan before the food challenge, they were still out of touch with many of their food sources.
Other challenges included discovering the amount of planning required to eat locally for a year, as well as planning for a winter of eating. It is almost impossible to grow produce year-round in Alaska because of temperatures and severely limited daylight, and so the Esslinger-Osters harvested more than 1,600 pounds of produce from their garden. In turn, they had to process and preserve all those vegetables. They built a root cellar in their garage, experimented with fermenting and purchased a full-size freezer.
Part of the challenge was simply knowing how much food to put away. “Once you do it and you know how much you need, it’s much easier,” Esslinger said. “Harvest season was exhausting. Not only were we learning new skills like making butter, but we were also trying to put away everything for the wintertime.” Harvest season was a flurry of canning, drying and smoking, but once winter set in, they were able to “take a break and just cook and enjoy it all,” Esslinger said. They were surprised to find that they actually harvested too much food, including garbage bags full of kale.
Barley and wheat came from Delta Junction, about 300 miles north of Anchorage. They bought a mill for grinding the grains, and were able to bake bread all winter. A local creamery provided cream for butter, made in a Cuisinart, and a goat-milk share supplied milk.
The lack of fresh produce over the winter was difficult, Esslinger admits, but when they allowed themselves a salad on Oster’s birthday, they were disappointed by the limp, faded lettuce that had traveled thousands of miles to reach Alaska. Their diet remained varied, though they admit (somewhat guiltily) of tiring of salmon.
The lasting effects of eating local
Esslinger and Oster live in a suburban home on a corner lot, which they have converted into a massive garden. A partially-sunken greenhouse doubles as a chicken coop, and a beehive perches on their roof. They teach classes on urban chicken raising, soil maintenance and permaculture.
Though the food challenge is over, the couple still eats mostly local and organic. They have found that the food tastes better and that in all, the Alaska Food Challenge wasn’t as massive a challenge as even they believed.
However, Esslinger does admit to appreciating being able to buy organic butter at the store.
The garden at Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster’s Alaska home. Credit: Saskia Esslinger