Articles in Agriculture
A stroll down the yogurt aisle of any grocery store will tell you that probiotics are good for the human digestive system and can promote a healthy gut. But did you know that they can also help make better wine? In Spain’s remote Priorat region, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, a winery called Morlanda is using probiotics to grow stronger, healthier grape vines.
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While Priorat’s gnarly old vines produce some of Spain’s most revered wines — intense and powerful reds made from Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignane) grapes — that wasn’t always the case. The area’s vineyards suffered years of neglect during the reign of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, until after his death in 1975. Priorat was nearly forgotten as a wine region until the late 1980s, when a visionary band of vintners dedicated themselves to revitalizing it.
The region has made a remarkable turnaround in the last 15 years, but even so, Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents significant challenges to both grape vines and vineyard workers.
“The tortuous geography of this area means that the vineyards have to be cultivated on slopes so steep that it is necessary, in some cases, to build terraces,” said Judit Llop, Morlanda’s winemaker and vineyard manager since 2003. “Some of these terraces are so narrow that two rows of vines barely fit and mechanical access is impossible.”
What’s more, due to the rocky soil and hot, dry climate, “The vines are weak and consequently result in rather poor harvests, with very low grape yields,” she added.
Years of chemical treatments have further weakened the soil, leading Llop to seek out new ways to bring it back to life. “Our vineyard philosophy starts with the health of the soil, and for this reason we started to investigate how we could regenerate it,” she said. “We wanted to increase soil biodiversity and encourage microbial activity.”
In 2013, with the resources of Morlanda’s parent company, the Freixenet Group, behind her, Llop began a probiotics trial with the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in nearby Tarragona, designed to improve the soil and boost the plants’ immune systems. Sprayed onto the vineyard floor and plants, the probiotics make it easier for the vines to assimilate micronutrients.
The process is done in four stages.
“Treatment of the soil in the fall is very important and is known as ‘vaccination,'” she said. “The positive microorganisms, resistant to low temperatures, will mineralize the organic waste — leaves, dry grass and branches — and prepare the soil with the micro and macro elements necessary for plant vegetation.”
Probiotics are applied again before flowering, this time to the plants themselves. “This period is the hardest in their development,” Llop said. “Vines make a huge effort to vegetate while they are maximizing exposure to attacks by diseases. Therefore, during this time, positive microflora is given to the plant for protection and to prevent the development of parasitic and harmful microflora.”
The third treatment happens after bloom, when grape clusters are formed, and the fourth is done during the grapes’ ripening phase.
While the process isn’t cheap, as a huge amount of expensive probiotics must be applied during the first three years of treatment, Llop said the results thus far have been impressive. “After applying probiotics, the vineyard root systems have developed much better,” she explained. “The grapes produce significantly greater amounts of fiber, and that allows more intensive utilization of nutrients. Strengthening the natural immunity of the vines, they become more resistant to low temperatures, pathogens and various kinds of pests.”
Llop said she’s definitely noticed a difference in the vineyards that have not been treated. “They need more soil additions, such as sulfur and copper, in the ones where we are not using probiotics.”
Along with producing traditional wines, such as the Vi de Guarda Morlanda — a powerfully beautiful blend of Garnacha and Cariñena — Llop is experimenting with a natural wine made from probiotic Garnacha grapes and fermented in clay amphorae.
If Llop’s vineyard trials prove successful in the long term, and the use of probiotics is adopted by other wineries in the region, Priorat’s already-acclaimed wines stand to reach even greater heights in the years to come.
Main photo: Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant
It is not often that I visit a wine region that has grape varieties I have never heard of. But that happened in Gaillac, a small appellation in southwest France, near the city of Albi, that is best known for its associations with the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and its dramatic red brick cathedral that looks more like a fortified castle. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region.
A range of styles
The wine styles range from the firmly dry, as well as sparkling, to the intensely rich and sweet, with rosé and lighter or richer reds, according to the blend of grapes. Most red Gaillac is based on Braucol, a grape variety not found elsewhere in the southwest, where it can also be called Fer Servadou or Mansois. It has some wonderfully fragrant fruit, with perfume as well as tannin. Duras is another important variety and is rich and sturdy, and has absolutely nothing to do with the nearby Côtes de Duras. You might also encounter Syrah, Gamay and Cabernet, but completely new to me was Prunelart.
For white wines, Gaillac Mauzac is the most important variety, but there is not just one Mauzac. The Plageoles family have seven different variations in their vineyards. In addition, they have Ondenc, another old traditional variety of the appellation, as well as Len de l’El and Muscadelle. There also is Verdanel, another original variety, which they are working hard to revive.
The charms of Gaillac, for the countryside is stunningly beautifully with gentle undulating hills and little villages, has attracted outsiders. An English couple, Margaret and Jack Reckitt, were looking for a vineyard — they had tried the Languedoc and were en route to Bergerac — when they stopped in Gaillac and found Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Their first vintage was 2012 and they have quickly established a convincing range of wines. Their Mauzac Vieilles Vignes from 65-year-old vines grown on a rocky limestone plateau portrays all the character of Mauzac, with intense saline flavors and a firm sappy note. As Margaret explained, white Gaillac may be a pure varietal, but red Gaillac must always be a blend, so their reserve red comes from Syrah, Braucol and Duras, with firm peppery flavours.
Four generations of Plageoles
In contrast, the Plageoles have been in Gaillac for at least four generations. We met Florent; his father, Bernard, is approaching retirement and his grandfather, Robert, is generally considered to be the great pioneer of Gaillac, reviving many lost grape varieties and wine styles. The range of the Plageoles’ wines amply illustrates that. Altogether, they have 86 acres of vines in 50 different plots. Our tasting began with the wine that accounts for a quarter of their production, Mauzac Nature, which is lightly sparkling and gently sweet. The initial fermentation is stopped, leaving some residual sugar, and the wine is filtered à manches, an ancient technique. It is almost impossible to describe; Florent demonstrated it, showing us a piece of material that looked like heavy cotton baggy sleeves through which the wine is wrung. The wine is then bottled, but the fermentation starts again in the spring. The wine is not disgorged, so there is always a light sediment. And the taste is soft and honeyed.
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Verdanel is an old variety, for which their first vintage was 2001, initially from half an acre, but they will have 2 ½ more acres coming into production this year. The flavors are crisp and fresh, with some herbal notes and firm minerality, wonderfully original and intriguing, and amply justifying a revival. There was also a sappy Mauzac Vert and a sweet late harvest Len de l’El made from passerillé, dried grapes; Muscadelle too was rich and honeyed. They have seven acres of Ondenc, from which they make three different wines, a dry wine, from grapes picked in mid-September; a sweet wine, from grapes that are dried on the vine until the beginning of October and a liquoreux, picked in mid-October
As for red wines, they prefer to label them by variety, despite the requirements of the appellation. We tried a Mauzac Noir, which was fresh and peppery; a perfumed Braucol , a sturdier Duras, which was firm and tannic, and Prunelart, a member of the Malbec family. Robert Plageoles saved it, taking cuttings from a vineyard that was going to be pulled up.
The Plageoles family have also maintained the tradition for Vin de Voile, from Mauzac, mainly Vert and Roux. They make a dry white wine that is put into barrels for seven years. The result is not dissimilar to an intense amontillado sherry, with dry nutty fruit and a long finish. It was a wonderful example of the vinous originality that you might encounter when you go off the beaten track in La France profonde.
Main photo: A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles
It might be raining, hailing or even snowing, but when Jersey Royal potatoes arrive in the shops, everyone knows it’s the unofficial start of the British summer. There’s always a mad dash to get the first batches of marble-sized Royals, thanks in part to a flurry of intense marketing not unlike that accorded to Beaujolais Nouveau.
Iconic Jersey Royal potatoes can only be grown in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands that sit between England and France, and they boast a Protected Designation of Origin logo as proof of authenticity. Each Jersey Royal can be traced to its field of origin. Shallow-eyed with a fragile, golden skin and creamy yellow flesh, the chestnut-flavored taste of a true Jersey Royal is immediately distinctive.
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Jersey is a singular place, a Channel Isle not even in the Channel, proud of its convoluted constitution and relationship with the British crown, its ancient independence and parish individualities. It’s an island as pretty as a postcard, yet with an air of suburbia. It’s an Englander’s dream of social order and old-style courtesies, but also une petite France — a little bit French — with roads signs in French and Jersais Norman names for places and people. It’s France without tears — and without the French.
The island’s steep, south-facing slopes, light and well-drained soil, and mild climate make it ideally suited for early potato crops, but sadly it is not uncommon to hear sighs of nostalgia that Jersey Royals are not what they used to be.
The island has only about a half-dozen commercial customers for the crop — the giant chains that buy 90 percent of the harvest. This creates particular pressures. Very few farmers use the traditional seaweed fertilizer known as vraic anymore; the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers is high and most fields are covered with perforated polythene to force the potatoes ever earlier (a source of some environmental controversy).
Few farmers take the trouble or can devote the labor to hand planting and harvesting the steepest slopes, or côtils, which catch the morning sun like the best vineyards. However, if you can find them, these traditionally cultivated Jerseys will always stand out from the norm.
Local farmers also scorn the supermarket-led trend for “Baby” Jersey Royals — the earliest of the early are not always the best. A degree of maturity is needed to bring out the full, nutty richness, and many islanders prefer to eat their Royals later in the summer.
Jersey Royals: Where to find them, how to cook them
The dense but not overly waxy nature of these potatoes makes them best suited for boiling, frying, gratins and salads, because they do not disintegrate when steamed or boiled. The potatoes are best cooked with the skins on to preserve nutrients and flavor, and they only need a quick wash — scrubbing breaks the papery skin. At their finest Jerseys are true luxury ingredients, simply served with butter, mint and flakes of sea salt.
Indisputably, though, the best way of sampling the potatoes is via the island tradition of roadside farm stalls, where money is left in an honesty box — and no one abuses the system. As one islander explained to me, it is the best way of knowing you’re eating potatoes that night that have been picked the same morning. Slathered in sunshine-yellow Jersey butter, they’re rightly named: a royal feast, and a reminder that heaven can wait.
Here are three recipes that showcase what makes Jersey potatoes so special. Ninety percent of Jersey Royals are exported to the United Kingdom, but if you can’t get your hands on any, these recipes also work well with other varieties of firm and waxy new potatoes.
Posh Potatoes to Impress the Neighbors
These are retro favorites making a comeback. Instead of baking the potatoes, you can boil them, but the slightly crunchy skin that comes from baking them is rather good.
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 to 4 cups small new potatoes
1/2 cup sour cream
Small jar caviar, salmon or herring roe
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C).
2. Place the potatoes on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes.
3. Cut each potato lengthways in half and let cool to room temperature.
4. Spoon a little sour cream onto each half and top with some caviar or roe.
5. Serve straight away.
The Most Popular Potato Salad in Finland
This is a simple but extremely delicious way to prepare new potatoes that originated in the Karelian region of Finland.
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
4 tablespoons butter
2 cups small new potatoes, boiled in their skins
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
2 large hard-boiled eggs, chopped
Fresh dill to taste
1. Melt the butter in a pan, then add the potatoes, salt and pepper. Stir carefully to coat the potatoes. If the potatoes seem too big for a mouthful, cut them in half.
2. Stir in the eggs and transfer to a serving dish.
3. Sprinkle with dill and serve either warm or chilled.
Pretty Pink Prawn and Potato Salad
This is a refreshing and light salad for summer days. Make sure the potatoes are nutty and well-flavored to get the full effect..
Prep time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 2 hours
Yield: 4 servings
4 cups Jersey Royals or waxy new potatoes (peeled and/or chopped to your preference)
1 to 2 avocados, peeled and chopped (sprinkle with lemon juice to stop browning)
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Half a small cucumber, peeled and sliced
Several radishes, thinly sliced
1 cup peeled, cooked small shrimp
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Mix all the ingredients in a serving bowl and toss to mix well. Serve with a bowl of mayonnaise or a yogurt dressing on the side.
Main photo: The Most Popular Potato Salad in Finland. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman
We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.
“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.
Cultivating an agrihood
It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.
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“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,” Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”
Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.
A cornucopia of crops
“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”
The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.
Enjoying the fruits of their labor
The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.
Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.
Rural life, redefined
When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.
“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”
Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann
I eased my shopping cart along the meat counter in a national chain grocery store to buy a whole chicken. Roast poultry for dinner seemed like a simple enough proposition. But like so many of us making food-purchasing decisions these days, I was stopped in my tracks by the range of choices.
Should I buy free-range or pasture-raised? Is organic better? Or is the best choice a brand like Foster Farms’ Simply Raised (whatever that means, exactly)?
Confused by all of the labels and marketing claims, I gave up. My family ate a meatless stir-fry for dinner that night.
Later, I learned about a new online resource called Buyingpoultry.com designed to help consumers navigate the supermarket. Could the site guide conscious consumers like me to more sustainable chicken?
Chicken production in a nutshell
Anyone hoping to buy a chicken that truly free-ranged on pastoral farmlands at a grocery store is generally out of luck.
The fact is that 99 percent of all chickens raised for meat (called broilers) in the U.S. come from factory farms. Through consolidation and high-tech breeding practices, the poultry industry has made chicken the most efficient and cheapest animal protein available.
Since 2010, broiler production has increased by more than 10 percent, according to statistics from the USDA. This graph looks surprisingly like the steep climb section on a Stairmaster program. Chicken production, which reached almost 9 billion birds in 2015, is still on the rise. Meanwhile, nationwide demand for barbecued-chicken pizza, chicken Caesar salad and General Tso’s chicken keeps in step.
Trouble is, while making chicken America’s favorite meat, the industrialized production system has incurred an untold debt to human health, the environment and the conditions of its own workers, not to forget the chickens themselves.
Consumers demand healthier chicken
Amid a stream of salmonella-superbug outbreaks and public-health concerns over the routine use of human antibiotics, the USDA announced its plan for stricter regulations and testing in 2015. Two of the largest chicken producers, Tyson and Purdue, pledged to stop using human antibiotics to prevent disease in hatcheries and as growth promoters during maturation. Major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Walmart and Subway, then vowed to shift toward purchasing chicken produced without human antibiotics.
Still, such improvements in the poultry market do not guarantee better animal welfare. According to whistleblower reports about the chicken industry and data from the ASPCA, cage-free chickens are still crammed into windowless barns for their short, dung-filled lives. These Cornish Cross birds, the main hybrid strain for the industry, grow three times as big in two-thirds the time as heritage breeds. Such fast fattening causes bone disorders, cardiovascular issues and other health issues over their roughly 45 days of life.
A sustainable buying guide
After returning from my shopping fail, I Googled Buyingpoultry.com. Created by the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Farm Forward, it is the country’s largest online database of poultry brands, products and retailers (including eggs and turkeys).
In the search field I typed in “Open Nature” and then “Foster Farms,” two of the brands I’d considered. “Avoid,” read the bold red graphic on my screen, and below that, “Birds likely suffer from the lowest levels of animal welfare.” The fine print detailed how both brands received an F grade because they did not have any regulated animal-welfare claims or third-party certifications.
“Buyingpoultry.com lets you go to the store with experts,” said Andrew deCoriolis, the website’s architect, when I reached him by phone.
Helpfully, the search results page offered links to the highest-welfare poultry products available as well as to a glossary of labels that clearly illustrates just how obfuscating and, in some cases, downright misleading the claims “free-range,” “pasture-raised” and “humanely raised” actually are.
“Like Seafood Watch, Buyingpoultry.com can be a standard of sustainability and create more transparency,” deCoriolis said.
Buying better poultry
One of the most upsetting experiences for the site’s 5,000 to 10,000 monthly users, according to deCoriolis, is discovering how USDA-certified organic products rank. Browsing Buyingpoultry.com, they’re shocked to see organic products with a D grade. DeCoriolis explained, “Organic is better but not necessarily for the animals.” For one thing, the USDA’s definition of “outdoor access” is ill-defined and does not stipulate indoor enrichments, including perches, or space for natural behaviors such as dust bathing.
At a different grocery store on another day, I opened Buyingpoultry.com on my phone’s browser to check on a regional brand, Draper Valley, for sale. All products in this brand rated “Better Choices,” and the organic line earned a C+. Since this was the best I could get in my area without visiting a small-scale farm, I nabbed this passing-grade chicken for our supper.
So what does it take to rate as a “Best Choices” chicken? According to Buyingpoultry.com’s criteria, these are heritage-breed chickens raised by producers abiding by the highest standards of animal welfare, with their claims certified by third-party groups such as Animal Welfare Approved.
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There’s only a limited supply from retailers in certain markets, including Natural Grocers in Denver, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and some Whole Foods stores — but none at all at Trader Joe’s or other national chains.
Persistent consumer advocacy is putting pressure on the poultry industry, however. “The big companies are paying attention,” said deCoriolis. In March 2016, Whole Foods committed to stop selling fast-growing breeds by 2024. Starbucks and Nestlé soon followed, joining the animal-welfare initiative toward slower-growing chicken breeds raised in conditions where they can behave and interact like, well, actual all-natural chickens.
Main photo: Buying chicken can be more complicated than roasting it. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock
2016 has been an excellent year for maple syrup. In Vermont, the largest producer in the United States, sugaring started during mid-December in some places and mid-March in others — and it seems to be running still.
The sugaring process
Sugaring is one of the delights of late winter in the northeast and heralds the coming of spring. Sugar is made in the leaves of maple trees during summer, stored as starch in the trunks and root tissues with the coming of winter and, finally, converted to the sap that begins to drip after a good freeze followed by a thaw. Sap is mostly clear water with 2% sugar. You need an average of 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, but it can take as many as 100 gallons. The sugar content must be 66.9%. It’s a wearing and complicated job. You can see why, in our household, we call maple syrup gold.
Just as the indigenous peoples did hundreds of years ago, sugar makers carefully drill taps into maple trees that measure at least 10 to 12 inches around and then hang their steel buckets to wait for the thaw that causes the sap to drip. The old-fashioned way is to use plastic drip lines connecting one tree to another. The syrup is emptied by hand from each bucket into larger containers spread at convenient spots near the trees and then transported to the sugarhouse at the end of the day.
The production method
The sugarhouse is where the evaporation process happens and the boiling is done in a long, rectangular stainless steel pan, which sits on top of a firebox that needs to be filled with wood every five minutes. (The wood may be cut as much as two years in advance to ensure optimal dryness.) It’s an exciting activity to be part of, and the smell of the sap as it thickens is delicious. The sugar maker tests the syrup’s caramelization by pulling a metal scoop through the syrup and watching as it drips. When the temperature of the syrup reaches 219 F, the syrup is ready to draw off. Then it needs to be filtered and graded for color.
The richness of flavor is graded on a scale from lightest to darkest.
Grade A Golden: Made earlier in the season when it’s colder, this has the lightest color and perhaps the most delicate flavor. Use it on ice cream and for cooking.
Grade A Amber: Made as the temperatures warm, this is slightly darker yet relatively subtle. Use in tea and coffee.
Grade A Dark: Both the color and the taste are stronger, more intense. Use for glazes and pancakes.
Grade A Very Dark: This has the strongest flavor and is good for baking.
What better sweetener than one that comes from our North American woods? Katie Webster’s wonderful “Maple: 100 Sweet and Savory Recipes Featuring Pure Maple Syrup” (Quirk Books, October 2015) answers that question with an overview of the history and science of sugaring as well as a complete guide to grades and recipes from breakfast through dinner. I recommend it highly. Here are two of my favorite recipes incorporating maple syrup. Both are delectable and gluten free.
Blue Corn Pancakes With Grade A Amber
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: About 10 minutes
Total time: About 25 minutes
Yield: 2 to 6 servings
Grade A Amber maple syrup
2 eggs, separated, yolks beaten wildly and whites beaten until they peak
1/4 cup butter or oil, melted
2 cups sifted blue-corn flour (or one cup blue, one cup yellow if you prefer)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 teaspoon salt
2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
Butter for greasing your pan
1. Gently warm the syrup in a pan over a low burner.
2. Add the beaten egg yolks to a medium bowl and stir in the butter. In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients; add them to the egg mixture alternately with the orange juice. Blend well. Fold in the egg whites.
3. Heat a buttered griddle over a medium flame or burner. When it’s hot, spoon the batter onto the griddle, roughly a quarter-cup per pancake. Cook each until bubbles begin to form on the surface, then flip and repeat.
4. Generously pour syrup over the pancakes and serve.
Maple-Ginger Roasted Cod
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: About 15 minutes
Total time: About 35 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup Grade A Dark syrup
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
4 nice pieces fresh cod (I get mine at the farmer’s market), about 2 pounds total
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. In a small bowl, mix together the syrup, ginger and spices and spoon equal amounts onto the fish. Place the pieces into a casserole dish and pop into the oven.
3. Cook for 15 minutes or until fish flakes with a knife and serve.
Main photo: Maple trees primed for sugaring. Credit: Copyright 2016 Katherine Leiner
The garden is bursting just now with unopened blooms, with thousands of peonies, irises and poppies, all swelling in their bloom buds on the eve of spring’s main riot. And the gardener’s mind is teeming with thoughts of what needs to be done in the vegetable garden to get ready for the explosive growth of spring. So this is the perfect moment to think what we can do to help the great helpers of the garden: birds and bees, toads and bats.
In our rambling old house with its maze of attics, we have a strong colony of bees that live with us. Every spring, a huge swarm emerges and forms on the north eaves at the top of the house outside the kids’ playroom, before flying off to begin a new colony. It is much larger than a basketball and very dense, with great gobs of honey dripping all over the patio. It is quite a mess but we love the free honey, which doesn’t get any more organic and local than that.
Be kind to bees
Global crops pollinated by bees are worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. But all over the world, bee colonies are under stress and many are suffering from the devastating phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), where the worker bees disappear and leave behind only the queen, some food and a few nurse bees.
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CCD has doubled the normal rate of colony loss in recent years and is causing drastic agricultural impacts. Imagine a world without bees or merely where they are rare — it’s unthinkable, really. Experts are not sure what is causing CCD, but heavily implicated are a class of powerful insecticides called neonicotinoids.
What can we do to help? Well, a great place to start would be with the American Beekeeping Federation. For people willing to explore beekeeping, you can learn there how to go about it. Short of becoming a beekeeper, there are many things you can do to help. If you have space in your garden, you can let a local beekeeper install and care for a beehive; you get all the benefits of the busy bees in the garden, and the beekeeper gets a place for his hive. It’s also very simple to build or buy habitats for orchard mason bees that require no attention from the gardener, and you can get them from sources like Gardener’s Supply Company.
Going to bat for creatures of the night
Bats are also a great help to the gardener, both as pollinators and as voracious insectivores, though many people are squeamish about them. They also live in some of our attic spaces and we benignly look the other way, for all the good they do in the garden; what a joy it is to see them swooping through the evening garden, ridding us of all manner of nuisance bugs. Each bat eats a third of its body weight in insects every night, and several hundred insects in just a few hours. If bats were ever to become extinct, our planet would be overrun with insect pests and we would live in a nightmare world.
It is easy and interesting to have bats live in your garden, and you do not have to have them in your attic as we do. All you need to do is hang a handsome cedar bat shelter in a quiet part of the garden and let these helpful creatures do the rest. A good source is BestNest.com, and there are many others.
Make your garden toad-friendly
"The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty"
By David Jensen
Morgan James Publishing, 2016, 282 pages
Have you seen any toads in your garden lately? Toads do not have many friends, though it is hard to see why, but for an unreasoning prejudice against their appearance and thousands of years of superstition against them. Just one ordinary toad can devour thousands and thousands of garden pests in a single summer. If you are plagued by slugs and cutworms, as so many gardeners are, this is the helpmate for you.
They should be part of every healthy garden, and if you do not have friendly toads around the place, you can also provide a habitat that will attract them. Any sort of covered shelter will do, and you can certainly improvise your own but there are also good commercial providers, like Gardener’s Supply Company, and the National Wildlife Federation is a good source for general information about these great helpers and how to make your garden toad-friendly.
And we all like birds, right? They will strip your garden of insect pests faster than anything. What all these helpers have in common is that they will come to you if your garden is free or nearly free of insecticides and other chemicals. This spring, consider ending or at least curbing your reliance on chemicals in the garden. Let your garden heal, and enjoy the delightful, diverse company of these healthy garden helpers.
Main photo: This spring, be kind to the bats, bees, birds and toads that help your garden. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Jensen
Between revelations by Italian police in December linking organized crime to 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil, and an estimated four-fold increase in adulterated extra virgin following the dismal 2014 olive harvest, there is no denying that fraud remains rampant. With 72 percent worldwide sales of olive oil at stake and all eyes on industry practices, Italy is fighting back.
EU and Italian government and trade organizations, including members of parliament, the Italian Trade Agency, UNAPROL (a consortium of Italian olive oil producers), and even an emissary of the Vatican, met last month to both address the problem of olive oil fraud and to outline their plans for a comeback.
“We must recuperate our damaged reputation,” said Colomba Mongiello, an Italian senator and president of the Counterfeiting Commission. She was responding to a survey conducted at Expo Milan 2015 in October, showing that 99 percent of foreign visitors involved believed that Italian olive oil was adulterated and that the consumer was being cheated. “Our objective is to reach the U.S. market and make them understand the difference between what looks Italian and what is Italian,” she said.
The conference, billed “Extract,” is part of a larger Italian effort to promote the country’s food and wine in the U.S., where imitation products labeled with Italian names, or colors of the Italian flag, are often mistaken for genuine imports. The strategy is two-pronged: legislating tougher penalties for fraud by going after Italian producers who don’t follow regulations, and launching the largest marketing effort ever made to inform American consumers how to taste and use extra virgin olive oil.
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“We have to do the same thing we do with wine to get people to understand olive oil,” said culture guru Franco Maria Ricci, who spoke. “Four-year old children in France are taught that wine is an angel. Italy is an olive oil culture and [its] significance needs to be transmitted in the same way …. If we don’t understand its qualities and terroir, we won’t understand its value.”
Crime has always been associated with olive oil, a substance so precious and prized in Mediterranean culture that its production and trade has invariably had a dark side. Merchants have been known to cut extra virgin with cheap oil to increase their profits since ancient times, and farmers had to fear brigands waiting in ambush as they transported oil to market.
Today there is a different kind of criminal on the olive oil trail. It is the unscrupulous producer who intentionally mislabels oils to mislead consumers into thinking they are buying genuine Italian virgin olive oil when they are not. These murky practices have both hurt ethical producers and confused consumers. As journalist and Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” told me recently, “The problem … is that there are two kinds of olive oil in the world: commodity oil and excellent oil, which is usually estate-bottled and always very carefully produced …. [but] we keep trying to judge excellent oil as a commodity and vice versa.”
World’s best olive oil
If Italy, which arguably produces the best olive oil in the world, has been a hotbed of fraud, it is also at the forefront of combating crime in the business. Where else are police trained to sniff out fakes at every stage of the supply chain? And who, but the Italians, have a system–IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) and the more stringent DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin)—that regulates the way it is made and that can lead us to the very trees it came from, and practically, the humans who crafted it?
From the terraced slopes and soft valleys of Italy’s central regions and the microclimates of Veneto and Liguria, to the expansive southern plateaus and sun-drenched islands, come some of the most sublime olives oils, produced by artisans who have the passion for making it in their bloodlines. Like the country’s new breed of winemakers who focus on quality over quantity, they are making delicious oils with the flavor peculiarities of their particular landscape. Utilizing the benefits of modern technology for cultivation while practicing sustainable growing and traditional picking methods, they are no doubt making better oil than their ancestors did.
How to buy good olive oil
That said, not all well-made olive oil carries the DOP seal. If we were to limit ourselves to those alone, we would miss out on many fine extra-virgins. As with “USDA Organic,” the rigorous and costly bureaucratic process discourages many a small ethical producer from applying.
Assuming you are not an expert, the best approach to finding good olive oil is not unlike that for choosing good wine: Find a knowledgeable retailer to guide you. If such a place doesn’t exist in your neighborhood, you can order online from vendors whose buyers are experts. Each of these retailers carries a selection of fresh olive oil that is ethically produced from the current harvest:
Gustiamo in New York City, New York (www.gustiamo.com)
Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California (www.markethallfoods.com)
Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.zingermans.com)
Main photo: In Italy, there’s a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales