Articles in Agriculture

Martin Donatsch

There is one big problem with Swiss wines: There is not enough to go around. There are just 15,000 hectares (about 37,000 acres) of vineyards spread over the whole country, and the Swiss drink most of their wines themselves, so that barely 1 percent of the country’s entire production reaches the export market. This means that the only way to really enjoy Swiss wine is to go there — but that is no hardship, as it is a breathtakingly beautiful country.

The train ride from Geneva airport to Montreux sets the scene. The track follows the edge of Lake Geneva, and on the other side there are steep terraced vineyards, tiny plots with stone walls that form the myriad appellations of the Vaud (one of the Swiss cantons, or states). The whole area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Montreux, I ventured into the German-speaking part of Switzerland, with vineyards scattered all over the northeastern part of the country.  They account for just 17 percent of the entire production of Switzerland. Visiting a small handful of wine growers, various themes become apparent. Not only is production tiny — the average wine grower can easily earn a living from 4 or 5 hectares (10 to 12 acres) — but it is also fragmented. Martin Donatsch, in the area of the Graubünden Herrschaft, is not unusual in making 14 different wines from 6 hectares (15 acres). While it is true that some of the wines are variations of the same grape variety, nonetheless the attention to detail is breathtaking.

Burgundy-style winemaking

Donatsch’s neighbor, Georg Fromm, in the village of Malans, follows the Burgundian pattern, making a village Pinot Noir that is a blend of grapes from different vineyards as well as four Pinot Noirs that draw from four distinct vineyards. And he has only 4.5 hectares. The differences were subtle but apparent, as there are slight variations in the soil as well as the vinification. (Fromm is also known for superlative Pinot Noir in New Zealand.)

Donatsch, whose father was the first to plant Chardonnay in the area and the first to age his Pinot Noir in barrels — he was given two Burgundian barrels by André Noblet of Domaine de la Romanée Conti — also follows the Burgundian pattern with the equivalent of a village, premier cru and grand cru wine. These indicate, in rising order, the quality of the terroir and thus the potential of the wine. In Donatsch’s case, the wines are called Tradition, Passion and Unique. Their style was understated, delicious and age-worthy.

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

With such tiny amounts, production costs are high — we were given a figure of 30,000 Swiss francs (about U.S. $31,000) per hectare, which could rise to as much as 50,000 francs (about $52,000) in particularly challenging hillside conditions, and so inevitably prices are high, but no higher than for a grand cru Burgundy. Donatsch’s wines range from about U.S. $21 for a bottle of Tradition to $57 for the Unique.

Although all the wine growers that we met grew a diverse range of local and international grapes, most agreed that Pinot Noir is the most successful grape variety of the region. For my taste buds, it really came into its own in the Graubünden Herrschaft, the four villages of which Malans in the center, where the warm prevailing wind, the föhn, helps ripen the grapes. The soil is mainly limestone, like Burgundy, and the grapes enjoy the large difference between day and nighttime temperatures, which makes for slower ripening and fresher flavors.

Local varietals at risk

In addition to the more international varieties, Switzerland is also home to a number of endangered varieties, which could be at risk of disappearing. Erich Meier at Uetikon, near Lake Zurich, is a keen exponent of Rauschling. There are 9 hectares (22 acres) of Rauschling in the area, 23 hectares (57 acres) altogether in the whole of Switzerland; Erich has just 40 ares (1 acre). He ferments half the grapes in oak and half in tank to make a rounded, fruity white wine with well-integrated oak and a lightly salty finish with good acidity.

Completer was another grape variety that I had never heard of, let alone tasted. This might be explained by the fact that 10 producers have just 3 hectares of it. Happily, the Donatsch family is planning to extend its vineyards of Completer so that its future can be more assured. Martin Donatsch explained how it has a very high acidity and that in the past it used to be aged for several years in wood to soften the acidity, thus making for a very oxidative style. He has opted for a fresher style, a late harvest wine, in which he leaves a little residual sugar. Again the föhn helps the ripening process, by shriveling the grapes, and for Donatsch it has everything that you want in a white wine, minerality, fruitiness, elegance and alcohol. I found it very intriguing, with dry honey and good acidity and again, well-integrated oak.

At lunchtime in the Donatsch family’s wine bar, Winzerstube zum Ochsen, we enjoyed the 2009 vintage of Completer from a magnum. It was simply delicious, and yet another example of the extraordinary diversity and originality of Switzerland.

Main photo: Martin Donatsch stirs the grapes at his family’s winery. Credit: Domaine Donatsch

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Rashid Nuri. Credit: Sarah Khan

Stories abound about farmers of color in the United States and their historic ties to the land. Current-day farmers carry nuanced stories about why their ancestors left and why they feel compelled to return: Is it spiritual, out of need, political or pleasure?

Gone are the post-Civil War days when some forsook farming to northern cities and industrial jobs. The descendants of the enslaved understood farm work as degrading and severe, something to be shunned at all costs.

Instead today’s farmers of color are reclaiming and revitalizing their historical ties to the land, a land full of riches their ancestors, distant and near, built.

Sandra Simone, of voice and vetch

Sandra Simone, a jazz singer, returned to the soil of her roots. Her life moved forward once she bought back a fraction of her ancestor’s land in rural Alabama. Watch and listen to Sandra.

Frankie Lee Michael, on native southern pecans

A part-time pecan farmer, Frankie Lee Michael carries on his father’s business of providing automated pecan shelling to local pecan farmers in Mississippi. Lee, of Native American heritage,  shares his perspective on pecans, desserts, the environment and the changing climate in this short film clip.

Rashid Nuri, on urban agriculture

Rashid Nuri of Truly Living Well has a long career in government and private sector. In this short film clip, Nuri describes why all people should have a right to healthy food, urban or rural, and he shares how he and his community are doing it in the heart of downtown Atlanta.

Main image: Rashid Nuri. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Monastrell grapes. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

One of Spain’s favorite wines suffers from a case of mistaken identity — and is better known abroad under an alias.

In the Mediterranean coastal regions of Murcia and Valencia, wine made from Monastrell (the fourth-most planted red wine grape in Spain) is a local favorite. With its slightly rugged, fruit-intense profile, it is ideal to pair with hearty winter flavors such as La Mancha’s gazpacho manchego, redolent of rabbit, wild mushrooms and snails, and Valencia’s richly seasoned paellas.

But somewhere around the 16th century, the varietal traveled to France and took on the name Mourvèdre, which stuck for 500 years. Over time, Mourvèdre gained popularity as a perfect partner for Grenache (known as Garnacha in Spain) and Syrah — a blend known as GSM for short. GSM blends from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône are particularly well known. French winemakers also stepped ahead of Spanish vintners to carve out a reputation for the grape as a respectable single varietal. Even Australians and Americans thought well enough of Monastrell to plant vineyards of their own, but gave it yet another name: Mataro.

But recently, Monastrell has moved to center stage, to share the spotlight with garnacha and the Rioja region’s famed Tempranillo. With more producers creating Monastrell wines of what could be called a finessed rustic style, Monastrell has shed its reputation for jammy, high-alcohol vintages and acquired one for its distinctly Spanish, authentic approach to this powerhouse grape. Michelin-starred chef María José San Román showcases the fruit and wine on the menu every night at her restaurant, Monastrell, in the heart of the varietal’s growing region in Alicante.

But Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow; it takes perseverance and dedication. The varietal flourishes on old bush-trained vines, planted in incredibly rocky soil at elevations high enough to be hard on the fruit. In temperatures that are blazing hot in the summer and bitterly cold at night, the grape benefits from being both drought-tolerant and late to harvest, but typically produces in heavy and light volumes on alternate years.

Monastrell grapes in vineyard

Monastrell grapes in Bodega Castaño’s vineyard in Yecla, Spain. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

To the eye, Monastrell’s thick skins contribute to a deep, dark purple color. On the nose, its aroma gives away the earthy, rocky soil it thrives in, but the wine is all about spice and intense, dark fruit such as blackberries, blueberries and plums.

Most quality producers in Spain have tamed its highly tannic, rustic taste with selective oak aging, and the best vintners create wines that balance intense fruitiness with savory undertones. Although there is no getting around the fact that most Monastrell wines are relatively high in alcohol, averaging 12 to 15 percent, there’s a softness to the fruit that makes this wine very approachable, with the right level of acidity.

Experiencing Monastrell at its source

During a recent visit to Bodega Castaño in the Yecla DO (Denominación de Origen) of Murcia, I witnessed the unique growing conditions of this workhorse grape. More important, I tasted Monastrell at its source, perfectly paired with country food and generous Spanish hospitality.

As a guest of Ramón Castaño Santa and two of his three sons, winemaker Ramón and Daniel, I toured an estate that had been maintained by four generations of Castaño vintners. On this day during harvest, the Monastrell grape hung in heavy bunches just inches from ground, so I was able to experience the deep flavor of the fresh fruit before swirling the wine in a glass over lunch.

Monastrell wine. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Bodega Castaño’s flagship Monastrell blend, Casa de la Cera. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Although the hearty country gazpacho prepared over a wood fire was a simple but spectacular main course, the real treat was the collection of six wines that the Castaño family shared with its guests. From the simple, single varietal 2013 Monastrell to the smooth 2011 Casa de la Cera, the family’s flagship example of a perfect Monastrell blend: 50%  Monastrell, 50% combination of Garnacha Tintorera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

I discovered that afternoon that Monastrell is a friendly wine that’s worth getting to know. There are a host of Spanish vintners from Murcia’s four recognized winemaking regions that are creating great examples of Monastrell vintages, including Bodega Castaño and Castillo del Baron in Yecla and Enrique Mendoza, Volver and Sierra Salinas in Alicante.

Best of all, Monastrell can still be an incredible value because the reputation of the heavy-handed, rough style of the Monastrell of old has not caught up with the new, more refined approaches that vintners are applying to this fruit-forward wine. Sometimes, mistaken identity can work in a wine lover’s favor.

Main photo: Monastrell grapes.  Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Of his career switch from music to winemaking, Oregon's Scott Wright says,

On a Sunday night in May, Scott Wright arrived at his Carlton, Ore., winery to find flames shooting from the roof and smoke billowing into the sky. “There were 30 to 50 firefighters in full gear scrambling around, working on the blaze,” Wright said. “It was like something you see in the movies, very surreal.”

He tracked down the crew chief to find out whether the fire had been contained. Foremost on his mind was the condition of the 2013 vintage at the other end of the building. He’d sampled the wines only the day before and had marveled over the quality.

“It would be absolutely crippling,” he said. “I can’t imagine anything more damaging than losing an entire vintage.”

David Baker's documentary "American Wine Story" is available on iTunes, cable pay-per-view and other online outlets in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

David Baker’s documentary “American Wine Story” is available on iTunes, cable pay per view and other online outlets in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Wright is one of the winemakers I interviewed for “American Wine Story,” a documentary that explores the drive to start life over in the wine industry. He co-owns Scott Paul Wines, a business he started after leaving behind a successful career in the music industry in Los Angeles.

Wright’s preoccupation with reinventing himself in wine was so great that it had affected his health. Unable to track the source of the decline, his doctor encouraged him to follow his obsession. “Driving home from that doctor’s appointment was when I had the realization that, yes, I really had to do this,” Wright said.

Shortly after that visit, he founded Scott Paul Wines in 1999 and never looked back. In the settling smoke 15 years later, his future was in question.

Wright’s plunge into the wine business follows a common thread in the industry. During five years of filming, I spoke to dozens of people who left their previous lives behind. Engineers, radio personalities, computer programmers — the dizzying array of former careers was matched only by the unimaginable stress and labor it takes to launch a wine brand.

Despite the inherent risks, the steep learning curve and the long hours, there’s no shortage of born-again oenophiles willing to take a shot at making it in wine. We began filming at the height of the Great Recession. At that time, by official count in our home state of Oregon, there were 275 wineries.

A financial downturn seems hardly the time for people to dive en masse into a capital-intensive business like winemaking, in which it takes years to generate a return. But five years later, just as we’re releasing “American Wine Story,” Oregon wineries now number 545.

Wine pioneer Dick Erath grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases — then retired to make wine in his garage. Credit: David Baker

Wine pioneer Dick Erath grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases, then retired to make wine in his garage. Credit: David Baker

“Most people starting wineries in Oregon come to it as a second or even third career,” said Michelle Kaufmann of the Oregon Wine Board. It’s no easy transition. “Oregon is a challenging place because our yields are small. It takes a lot to produce wine here.”

Given the obstacles, why did the roster continue to expand even during tough economic times?

“When the recession was happening,” Kaufmann speculated, “people were looking for what really makes them happy.”

Wine makes people happy. And obsessive.

Look at the prices on the top shelf of any good wine shop and you’ll know that you have to be a little crazy to spend a small fortune on a bottle of fermented fruit juice. We found clear evidence of that intense ardor for wine as we traveled to six states, talking to the people who make and sell it. Most of them began as consumers.

A leap triggered by an ‘epiphany bottle’

Often it was a single “epiphany bottle” that rocked their concept of what wine could be. A humble beverage suddenly became a captivating elixir that they strove to understand. And the best way to understand wine? Make it.

A pattern began to emerge: desk job, epiphany bottle, wine enthusiast, home winemaker, wine business owner working 16-hour days with a mad glint in the eye and a heck of a story. None of the winemakers we met had regrets. But a few wondered if they’d be able to go through it all again.

The challenges are clear. Yet more and more people are willing to take the risk and jump in. And it’s not just a West Coast phenomenon. It’s happening in every state in the union.

New vineyards like those of Oregon's Airlie Winery are taking root across the country. Credit: David Baker

New vineyards like those of Oregon’s Airlie Winery are taking root across the country. Credit: David Baker

On the opposite coast, Virginia is also striving to stake its claim on wine. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office lists 250 “farm wineries” in the state.

Although Virginia may be a lesser-known region in comparison with California’s Napa or Sonoma or even the booming wine town of Walla Walla, Wash., it has some serious wine history. Thomas Jefferson started the Commonwealth’s first commercial vineyard with an Italian neighbor, Filippo Mazzei, in 1776. That project didn’t take off, but the seeds of an idea were sown, and old Long Tom would be proud of what Virginia’s accomplishing today.


You can visit restored vineyards on the slopes of Monticello, where another Italian, Gabriele Rausse, tends the vines and brings them to harvest with more success, doing his part to further Jefferson’s original vision.

“I think that Jefferson was ready, 200 years ago, to sell wine to the French,” Rausse said with a laugh. “We are not there yet. But we are going in that direction.”

We made stops in Arizona and Missouri to learn about some of America’s more challenging growing conditions. We visited large and small producers. We spoke with Oregon wine pioneer Dick Erath, who grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases before retiring to make wine in his garage. We also spoke with Jim Day of Panache Cellars in Philomath, Ore., who commercially produces vins de garage: 250 cases of fine wine emerge each year from his tiny suburban facility.

Despite the myriad challenges and setbacks, tricky weather, fickle markets, entrepreneurial souls continue to plunge headfirst into wine. New labels and entire regions seem to spring up overnight. Both by pluck and luck, Americans are chasing their dreams by the barrelful.

Although the size of the American dream doesn’t matter when it comes to wine, passion does. And a little luck doesn’t hurt, either.

At Wright’s place, the fire hit on a Sunday night, when most of the volunteer firefighters were at home — and thus available — instead of at work. That saved precious minutes, and the fire was kept from spreading to the storage areas. Otherwise, Wright said, “it might not have been a death blow, but it would have been impossible for a new winery to recover.”

A few days after the fire, Wright sampled his wines and confirmed that they’d survived the flames unscathed, showing the same promise they had before the fire. “It was a damn good tasting.”

Main photo: Of his career switch from music to winemaking, Oregon’s Scott Wright says, “I really had to do this.” Credit: David Baker

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Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Carole Murko

Heritage has many meanings, encompassing not only our cultural and ancestral connections, but also the breeds of livestock our forefathers raised. Carole Soule is that rare individual whose life intersects both. Carole is a 13th-generation Mayflower descendent whose family heritage is deeply tied to its origins and she is a farmer who raises heritage breed cattle as well.

Carole’s lineage began with George Soule, an indentured servant who survived the journey to Plymouth and became one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. Carole notes the Soule genetics must be strong because there are about 30,000 Soules who trace their roots back to George. That is one prolific progeny.

Thanksgiving memories

Carole’s grandparents’ dining room table was the center of all the family holidays, especially Thanksgiving. The table took up the entire room, and one needed to skirt around the edge to get to the other side. To have a personal connection to the very first Thanksgiving was not lost on Carole or the Soule family. It was worn like a badge of honor. They are proud to share that they are connected to the origins of our country.

As a child, Carole recalls piling into her family’s tiny Renault , all three siblings squished in the back seat for the three-hour drive from Bedford, Mass., to Hillsdale, N.Y., where her grandparents, Ida and Charles Soule, lived. At Thanksgiving, the table was always piled high with food, but the dishes Carole remembers most are her grandmother’s homemade cranberry sauce and creamed onions. The cranberry sauce is simply equal amounts of cranberries and sugar with a little cornstarch. It is cooked until the cranberries are soft, then the dish is cooled.

The creamed onions, though, are Carole’s favorite. They are rich and thick, and all kinds of yummy.

Creamed Onions

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Cook time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes

Total time: About 1 hour, 30 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

3 pounds fresh pearl onions

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup beef broth

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup all purpose flour

3 cups milk

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon thyme

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons apple cider

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Peel onions and trim both ends.

3. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to the onions.

4. Layer onions in pan large enough to fit in one layer.

5. Place in oven; roast for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and brown in spots.

6. Remove the pan from the oven, add broth.

7. Roast for 10 minutes more.

For the cream sauce:

1. Melt butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in large saucepan.

2. Add flour and whisk until the mixture bubbles and is free of lumps.

3. Add milk, bay leaf, thyme, pepper and salt.

4. Boil, whisking often. Thicken to consistency of thick gravy. Remove from heat. Discard the bay leaf.

5. Add the roasted onions and any broth from the pan to the cream sauce. Stir in apple cider.

6. Serve warm

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The Miles Smith Farm store is solar powered and heated. Credit: Miles Smith Farm

Old-fashioned farm, cattle

It was those same car trips across the state of Massachusetts that began Carole’s love affair with cows. Across from her grandparents’ house was a pasture full of beautiful doe-eyed cows. Carole would visit with the “girls” whenever she could.

Fast-forward a few decades and Carole and her husband bought an 1850s farm called the Miles Smith Farm in New Hampshire. Her dream and vision was to go back to the old-fashioned way of raising animals She knew it would begin with an easy-to-raise heritage breed — the Scottish Highland. There would be no antibiotics, no corn. Just grass.

The Scottish Highland breed is hearty. The breed’s shaggy coat helps protect them from the elements, which means they don’t need a layer of fat to keep warm and, instead, produce lean beef that is low in cholesterol.

Carole’s herd is grass-fed, even in winter. She leaves many of her grass fields uncut for winter grazing. The cows paw through the snow to find their food. The breed is adaptable to a wide range of conditions and are equipped to forage and to live without shelter. Feeding on grass rather than hay also saves money, from the cost of fossil fuels to plant and harvest the hay to the cost of the seed. It is a perfect “circle of life,” too — while the cows are grazing, they are also fertilizing the field. Most hayfields are generally commercially fertilized, which costs more money.

Carole has found a win-win solution in this method. Plus, this heritage breed is well-suited to her state. The mountainous parts of New England are perfect places for these cattle because they can easily maneuver around the rocky outcroppings and graze on the hillsides, which are difficult to mow and cultivate.

Each year, the Miles Smith Farm slaughters 120 cows. They sell the meat through several channels: meat community supported agriculture (CSA) programs; wholesale customers including schools, regional hospitals and restaurants; and direct to consumers through their on-site, solar-powered store.

Carole has just received a USDA grant to work with a heritage pork farmer to create and sell a beef-pork mix. Carole shares that her new venture’s tagline is: “A burger that squeals with flavor.” She is again tapping into an old-fashioned tradition: Many people used to blend pork into their lean beef to create juiciness and flavor.

The Soule heritage is alive and well in Carole, in both namesake and familial traditions. Just as George Soule was drawn to a life in the New World, Carole has been drawn to a life on the land, an old-fashioned breed and traditional farming methods. Perhaps there is more to the Soule heritage than we will ever know. One thing is for sure, Carole is grateful for her heritage and her heritage cattle.

Main photo: Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Miles Smith Farm

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Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon

If you ask me, perfection is overrated. I give it an 8.2. You can obsess and compulse until you’re just the right shade of blue in the face, but to create an artful eyeful that requires little primping, preening or pruning? That’s a 10.

Store-bought flowers in a vase are fine — I love the blooming things as much as the next hibiscus hugger. But when you make the meal with your own two hands, shouldn’t your centerpiece complement your handiwork? You don’t have to Martha-size it and grow your own tulips, turnips and twine. But why not throw together something quick and fresh that says “I am an eco-chic entertainer.”

Farm-to-table centerpieces that you can eat the next day are creatively fulfilling and less landfilling. Seasonal root vegetables, fruits, herbs, pumpkins and squashes will do all the heavy lifting for you. Well, most of it, anyway. You need at least one good eye. But don’t let it stray into OCD territory. Think fashionista farmer, not perfectionista mogul. Remember, Martha’s not invited.

Believe it or not, Martha’s not the originator of ornamental fuss. Holiday centerpieces go way back before the decline of carbon civilization.

Centerpieces through the ages

The Romans used decorative leaves, branches and foliage in elaborately designed containers often made of ceramics and rock crystal.

Aristocratic tables in the Middle Ages were said to be so crammed with food, there wasn’t room for centerpieces, although at Christmas, centerpieces may have included pastry and marzipan shaped like people, animals, scenes or decorative objects.

Swiss chard centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Swiss chard centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Tables from the 17th-century featured silver or gold platters that showed off the host’s wealth and status with whole animal heads or a cooked peacock with its colorful feathers adorning the platter.

Whereas the 18th century introduced silk and porcelain flowers, the 19th century donned fresh flowers, foliage, fruit, candelabras and molded puddings and jellies. Throughout both centuries, centerpieces were often vertically constructed using pyramids of food on tiered dishes called epergnes.

By World War I, decorative objects began to replace flowers and foliage, but during the 1960s and ’70s, flowers and grasses made a comeback.

Today, in the era of climate change and environmental consciousness, I proclaim it the age of the sustainable table with the eco-chic, farm-to-table centerpiece.

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Carrot centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

10 tips for creating a farm-to-table centerpiece

1. Don’t buy food for a centerpiece that you won’t eat afterward. Wasting food is not eco chic! (Note: make sure to add water to a vase if you’re using leafy greens.)

2. Celebrate the season with local, seasonal produce. Don’t even think about buying fruit from Chile!

Tandem of herbs. Credit: Adair Seldon

Tandem of herbs. Credit: Adair Seldon

3. Don’t make the arrangements so tall that you can’t see your guests (except for the uninvited ones, so keep some long fennel or chard in the fridge, just in case).

4. You can line up multiple small (and short) arrangements along the center of the table. Who says a large, dominant one is always the best choice? I think Maria Shriver would agree.

5. Use glasses, jars, vases and vessels you have around. They don’t have to match.

6. Don’t spend money on crap you don’t need (or won’t eat)! Remember those landfills!

7. If you’re going to add store-bought flowers, buy them at the farmers market and make sure they were grown without pesticides. Cut flowers full of pesticides at the table may spur someone’s allergy. Just sayin’.

Radish centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Radish centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

8. Don’t do doilies. You might as well wear an Elizabethan collar. Trust me. Neither are the eco-chic look you’re going for.

9. No stacked cookies with twine around them. Can you lay off the Pinterest for one lousy day?

10. If someone admires an arrangement, be generous and gift it. Less pressure to use up all those rutabagas (see tip No. 1).

When you create your own farm-to-table centerpiece, you’ll be an eco-chic badass. And that’s a good thing.

Main photo: Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon

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Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.

Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.

It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.

Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of  animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.

The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.

“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.

“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”

While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.

“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.

“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”

She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.

 

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”

In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.

“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”

The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.

Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.

“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”

Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.

“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.

“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”

Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 8 cups

Ingredients

1 turkey neck

Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail

1 onion, halved

1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

10 whole peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.

2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.

3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.

Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

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Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.

With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.

When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.


But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.

Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.

Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.

People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.

Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.

Author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

“A Taste of Molecules” author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.

Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.


The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.

“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”

Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”

Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

For the boudin mixture:

1/3 pound white boudin with pecans

1/4 pound black boudin with raisins

A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)

For the apple compote:

2 cooking apples

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

For the mead sauce:

2 cups veal stock

1 1/4 cups mead

Salt and pepper to taste

For the topping:

2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)

Directions

1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.

2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.

3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.

4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.

5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:

  • 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
  • 1 tablespoon mead sauce
  • 2 tablespoons cold compote
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies

Notes
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.

Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the  launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

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