Articles in Agriculture

Damian Magista tends to a rooftop hive in Portland, Ore. Credit: Copyright Bee Local

There’s this moment that occurs when you’ve been working with bees for a while. Standing there, on top of a hotel in Portland, Oregon, preparing to approach a hive he had established to house more than 30,000 bees, Damian Magista realized he had no need to wear his bee suit.

He had made a lot of mistakes with them in his half decade of hobby beekeeping, like opening the hive too often or accidentally squashing the queen.

“Less is more in beekeeping,” Magista said. “You have to resist the temptation to over-manage your hives.”

Listening to the hive

bee tending

After several years working with his hives and learning how to read the bees based on their behaviors
and buzzing, Magista got to the point where he no longer felt like he had to wear the bee suit every time. Credit: Copyright Bee Local

Magista had learned to really slow down, and listen to them, to decipher their buzzing, to hear changes in their music. He knew that if the scouts they sent out of the hive to greet him started ramming his body, he should back off. He knew when he was welcome.

“I can’t see myself ever knowing everything about them,” he said. “But I’ve gotten to the point where I can relax into it.”

These days Magista barely dons his bee suit, but he is doing the opposite of relaxing. As the founder of the innovative neighborhood-to-jar company Bee Local, he has taken his message that all truly exceptional honeys are local to the national stage by introducing the United States to the culinary ambrosia of locally sourced honey. In doing so, he is creating a network of hive systems that support hobby beekeepers and help protect against the colony collapse disorder that has been ravaging the species.

Bee Local began as a hobby, until Magista had one of those pivotal entrepreneurial moments that turn hobbyists into entrepreneurs with a mission. Tasting honey sourced from neighborhoods throughout Portland, he noticed that bees that visited buckwheat produced a honey with dark, smoky, deep molasses overtones. Those that had traveled across Portland’s farm regions made one containing deep blue and blackberry notes with a floral finish. Bees lucky enough to live in the Willamette Valley’s vineyards, hops fields and berry farms made one robust and complex.

“The whole premise of Bee Local was discovering that hives in different locations produce different colors and taste profiles,” Magista said. “Honey is a snapshot of time and place.”

Making artisanal honey

Local artisanal honey

The company’s place-based honeys, from light amber to rich, dark caramel, harness the setting where they are created, places such as the Willamette Valley, the city of Portland, hops farms and vineyards. Credit: Copyright Ryan LeBrun

Magista’s goal was to introduce the world to the beauty of the small artisanal honeys from the neighborhoods around Portland, harnessing what was unique about those geographies and allowing bees to express it in honey like wine captures terroir.

But making these small-scale honeys was not going to help Bee Local change the world, nor could it survive as a business, so in August of 2014 Bee Local joined Jacobsen Salt Co., a producer of artisan salts sourced from the waters of the Pacific Northwest, which had already established a national retail operation through partnerships with companies such as Williams-Sonoma.

“What we were doing was not scalable,” Magista said. “To take our business to the next level and truly make a wider impact we needed to merge.”

Tackling colony collapse disorder

A honeycomb in Oregon.

Most commercial honeys are not pure — they contain corn syrup and other additives and are created with uniformity in mind. Bee Local is more like wine — each hive is a world unto itself, as is each honey created there. Credit: Copyright Nolan Calish

Now, from a space he shares with Jacobsen’s in Portland’s Eastside Industrial District, a growing home base for artisan makers of all stripe in the city’s nascent food industry, Bee Local is launching an expansion that ties its business prospects on taking on one of the most pressing environmental crises of our time: colony collapse disorder.

First documented in 1869 and named in 2006, the disorder describes the situation in which entire colonies of commercial bees disappear abruptly due to factors such as adverse weather, too many bees in one area, infection, virus, overuse of pesticides or mite infestation. Although most who study it believe it has always existed in bee populations at some degree, CCD has been happening in dramatically higher wavers, sending out ripples for commercial agriculture and affecting food systems around the world. In some cases, beekeepers have lost up to 90 percent of their colonies.

Placing hives throughout Oregon

Bee hives are set in Portland.

The settings where hives can thrive are diverse. In Portland alone, Bee Local has 15 locations, including
partnerships with roof-top restaurants and hotels. All of them are secret, to preserve the bees’ privacy. Credit: Copyright Kyle Johnson

But tackling colony collapse disorder is a bigger-picture project. In the meantime, Bee Local is developing relationships with business owners throughout the Willamette Valley and finding distinct places to place its hives. Over the next year, it will add 150 more hives in places such as Amity Vineyards and the top of the new Renata restaurant, although most of them are located in places inaccessible to the public.

Even as it makes its foothold in Oregon stronger, Bee Local is reaching out to hobby beekeeps in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, N.Y. — markets that embrace unconventional products and where many of its partner chefs reside — to launch its national expansion. What’s good for business, it turns out, will be good for the bees.

“Beekeeping as an art is dying out,” Magista said. “Not enough young beekeepers are coming up to take the place of older generations.”

Culture of beekeeping

Traditional beekeeping ways are used in Oregon.

In a world where colony collapse disorder is threatening bee populations, Bee Local’s methods invest in traditional ways to ensure bee colonies thrive. The company avails itself of old-school approaches to beekeeping, using no pesticides and keeping hives placed in one location. Credit: Copyright Ryan LeBrun

The loss of the art of beekeeping comes at great cost to both the culture of beekeeping and the global environment, which has wrestled in the past decade with colony collapse disorder, which happens in commercial beekeeping and big agriculture. When hives die because of environmental factors — for example if they are placed in monocrops, they are moved around too much, or they encounter pesticides — entire hive populations can be wiped out.

“When you remove bees from this environment, they remain healthy,” Magista said. “It’s so simple — treat an organism with respect and it thrives, abuse it and it dies.”

Bee Local works exclusively with hobby beekeepers and places its hives in diverse environments where no pesticides are being sprayed.

We don’t engage in commercial beekeeping,” Magista said. “We don’t use chemicals in our hives, we generally don’t move them around.”

The result are honeys that restaurants and food purveyors and ordering by the gallon and artisanal food lovers recognize as very different from your garden-variety honey in a honey bear bottle.

“What the bees come up with themselves is what’s really exciting,” Magista said. “I can control some variables, but the result is up to nature.”

Main photo: Damian Magista tends to a rooftop hive in Portland, Oregon. Credit: Copyright Bee Local

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A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

The diet world is a very crowded place, and advice is constantly changing. But, very slowly, we’re coming to realize what the physicians of Greek antiquity well understood — that “food” is far more than something we put in our mouths and swallow. In fact, the ancient diet of the Cretans is once again gaining favor.

What is the Cretan diet?

A eureka moment early in our own societies’ attempts to understand the relationship between food and health took place 70 years ago. In wealthy America, heart disease was on the rise. A U.S. researcher, Ancel Keys, discovered that in war-torn Europe, especially in poverty-stricken Crete, heart disease was relatively rare. He concluded that it was  because of the Cretans’ diet and way of life. The timing of his study has since been criticized (the Orthodox Church observes many fasts and, in the 1940s, these were strictly adhered to), but the general good health of the people was there for all to see.

I first visited Crete just 20 years after Keys. I was there as a student volunteer on an archaeological dig. It took me more than a day to reach the dig (there was, then, less than 40 miles of tarmac road on the entire island). It was a two-hour walk to the nearest village, and this Crete wasn’t much different from the island Keys experienced. In the weeks I spent there, I felt much healthier than I had at home in London. I knew that the reason for this was the food, and the sharing of our tables with friends and strangers. In short, it was because of the Cretan diet.

Sorting fact from fiction isn’t easy

In the intervening years, a great deal has been written about the benefits and dishes of various diets, especially the Mediterranean diet. The subject of food attracts huge research grants and promotional fees from commercial companies. Unsurprisingly, the core finding in that original research on Crete — the link between local foods, food production, enjoyment of food and good health — has disappeared under a pile of lab-inspired markers and recipes.

Today, some of us can buy Cretan olive oils and cheeses in our stores. These give us the good flavors of the island and the advantage of being able to consume cheeses made with milk from animals that have roamed free over herb-covered hills, but it isn’t the whole story. We can follow the Cretan diet (from the Greek, diaita, meaning “way of life”) to our advantage wherever we are by enjoying a large diversity of foods that are grown or gathered locally, that are at the peak of their seasonal (nutritional) best and that excite us with their different flavors and textures. This holds true for fish and meat, too. They both have seasons, based on the breeding habits of the animals and fish, and their ability to feed well.

Thus, what are now the two most serious Orthodox fasts — Lent (March, lamb-breeding season) and August (when it’s hot and the land is parched) — have their roots in a way of life that was followed long before Christianity. This attitude to true sustainability (which ensures future life) exists on Crete even when food is plentiful, and some of the most appreciated island foods are what we generally consider to be “lesser” fish and meats – octopus and other seafood, tiny fish, snails, offal and small game.

What the Cretan diet can do for you

But we’re not Cretans, so why should we want to follow their diet? There’s one particular reasons why I like to: It means I can rely on my own judgment as to whether something is “good for me,” as I can always check the 4,000 years of food wisdom that has passed down from those smart, early inhabitants of Crete, the Minoans. Following a few simple tenets, and stocking your pantry with some quality ingredients, you, too, can create for yourself the Cretan diet.

Use olive oil like a Cretan

Until a generation ago, Cretans consumed around five times more olive oil than other Greeks, and Greeks consumed per capita the most olive oil in the world. To an islander, all olive oil is extra virgin, and only consumed in the year of its production. There’s plenty of evidence now that olive oil (extra virgin and fresh) is a “super food,” so much of the Cretans’ good health can be traced to its copious use in island kitchens. For those of us without an olive tree, it’s not quite so simple. Extra virgin olive oil is not only expensive, it’s rare for the current season’s product to reach our stores. So we lose out on what is its greatest value for us. One solution is to build a relationship with a producer and buy direct.

Love those green leaves, the wilder the better

A neighbor of mine on Crete was able to identify more than 60 wild greens and herbs. She knew exactly where and when to find certain species, and how they were best served. She was well known locally for her remarkable skill, but every Cretan cook could — and many still can — identify a dozen or so wild greens. Wild greens contain more, and a greater variety of, nutrients than garden- or commercially grown greens. Many of the best garden greens, as far as nutrients and flavor, end up on the compost heap — beet, turnip and radish greens. Farmers markets are now a good source of these greens and others, and many of us enjoy foraging in the countryside, wherever we are. Turned into salads or side dishes, Cretan-style, with plenty of olive oil, they make very good eating.

Look for sheep-milk and goat-milk cheeses

Not only do Cretans have an admirable capacity for consuming olive oil, they are also among the world’s largest consumers of cheese. But their cheeses are different from many available in our stores. Made with milk (mostly sheep, some goat) from animals that eat a melange of wild herbs and greens, and graze outside year-round, they possess nutrients that are missing from cheeses made with highly processed factory-farmed milk. If you can’t buy Cretan cheeses, seek out cheeses made with milk from pasture-raised cows or goats.

Measure herbs with your hand, not with a spoon

Measuring spoons are unknown in traditional Cretan kitchens. Your hand is the perfect measure for herbs and spices. You see what you are adding to a dish and, with dried herbs and spices, the heat of your palm releases their wonderful aromas, in the process delighting you, the cook.

Sweeten the natural way

Honey is another “super food” that Crete has in abundance. With only a few days a year without sunshine and much pesticide-free land, bees have a good life on the island. Honey is more than sugar-sweetener — it has nutritional and medicinal qualities, too. But only when the bees have a healthy environment. A good substitute is local honey from bees that have enjoyed pesticide-free pollen.

Give your gut a helping hand

Yogurt made from the milk of animals that have grazed on herbs or grass and the necessary “friendly bacteria” is a very different food from the commercial yogurts that have a shelf life of weeks. Its bacteria are alive and ready to do their good work, keeping your gut in good order. These bacteria are even more valuable to us now, with so much of our foods being highly processed.

Cretan yogurt, made from sheep/goat milk, is thick, creamy and utterly delicious but, at the moment, travels only as far as Athens. It’s easy to make your own at home; for the best results, use full-fat organic milk. Other ways, Cretan-style, to keep your gut healthy is to include naturally fermented (wine) vinegar, pickles, fish and cured olives in your culinary repertoire.

Drink like a Cretan, too

Existing right at the heart of the ancient “wine world,” it’s no wonder wine is as much part of a Cretan’s diet as olive oil. Like olive oil, wine to a Cretan is a drink made that year from grapes nearby (village wine) and consumed with gusto. Appreciated as it is, village wine takes getting used to, so it’s good news that, today, some of the island’s wineries are winning medals on the world stage. Well-made, modern Cretan wines are particularly interesting when made with the island’s unique, and sometimes ancient, grape varietals. On Cretan tables, wine and food are inseparable. Wine is a digestif, and a way of welcoming all to the table — there’s always plenty of it on Cretan tables.

A Minoan storage pot

A Cretan storage pot (pithoi) can contain grain, pulses or olives. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

Staples for the ‘Cretan shelf’ of your pantry

  • Olive oil: extra virgin
  • Olives: brine-cured, young and green, salt-cured, plump and fleshy, sweet and tiny
  • Capers and caper leaves, salt-packed
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Sea salt, fine and coarse
  • Spices: allspice, ground; cinnamon, sticks and ground; coriander seeds, whole and ground; cumin, whole and ground; black peppercorns; sumac, ground; nutmeg; cloves; vanilla
  • Dried herbs: rigani (Greek oregano), marjoram, rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
  • Dried fruit: currants, small dark raisins, large plump sultanas, figs, prunes
  • Honey: Cretan mountain sage, orange blossom, Hymettus
  • Nuts: whole unblanched almonds, walnuts in the shell, pine nuts, unsalted pistachio nuts, hazelnuts (filberts)
  • Seeds: melon, pumpkin, sesame
  • Dried pulses: garbanzo beans (chickpeas), white beans (great northerns, cannellini), green lentils, brown lentils, yellow split peas, butter (large lima) beans, black-eyed peas
  • Preserved lemons
  • Preserved fish: salted anchovies, sardines packed in olive oil or brine, tuna packed in olive oil, oil-cured bonito (lakertha), sun-dried or smoked mackerel or octopus, smoked eel
  • Preserved grape leaves

From your refrigerator or freezer

  • Cheeses: graviera, aged kephalotyri, manouri, myzithra, brine-stored feta
  • Yogurt: sheep milk, good-quality cow’s milk
  • Fresh or frozen filo sheets: you can store fresh filo for up to 2 days, frozen filo for up to 4 weeks

In your herb garden

  • Flat-leaf parsley, cilantro (fresh coriander), thyme, rosemary, bay laurel, marjoram
  • Fennel, dill, mint (many varieties, including “garden,” small-leaf), small-leaf basil, sage, lovage, savory, chives
  • Rose- and lemon-scented geranium leaves

Beet Greens With Latholemono

Beet greens are only one of a huge variety of wild or garden greens Cretans bring to the table. You can substitute turnip greens, radish tops, amaranth greens, water spinach, ruby chard or mustard greens (charlock) for the beet greens, and use a sauce of olive oil and red wine vinegar in place of the lemon juice.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the green

Total time: 7 to 10 minutes

Yield: 6 for a meze serving, 4 as a side dish

Ingredients

1 1/4 pounds beet greens

For serving

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or to taste

Coarse-grain sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Lemon wedges

Directions

1. Rinse the greens in several changes of cold water. Remove any tough stalks from the greens and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces.

2. Steam the greens. Or place them in a non-reactive saucepan, add 4 tablespoons boiling water, and cook, stirring once or twice with a fork, for 1 to 2 minutes. Take care not to overcook. Drain well in a colander, pressing the greens against the sides with a wooden spoon.

3. To serve, transfer the greens to a platter and lightly fork them to lift and separate the leaves. Add the olive oil and sprinkle with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature, with lemon wedges.

Note: Prepare turnip greens and radish tops the same way as beet greens and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Break off the tender sprigs of leaves from water spinach and mustard greens and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Amaranth greens and young ruby chard take only 1 to 2 minutes to cook. Take care not to overcook.

Main photo: A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

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The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.

China Ranch 100 years ago

In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”

The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.

China Ranch today

The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.

Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.

The fruit of family labor

Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.

The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.

Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.

Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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A platter of

Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.

For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.

Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.

While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:

  • Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
  • Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
  • Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
  • Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
  • Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.

Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.

Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck

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Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

“The world doesn’t want to know the truth about gluten,” graduate student Lisa Kissing Kucek joked last July under a tent at Cornell University’s research farm in Freeville, N.Y. Lightning cut the sky, and we, a group of farmers and bakers, dashed for our cars before she could tell us what she’d discovered.

Now we know. Her research, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” was published recently in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Kissing Kucek and her colleagues reviewed more than 200 scientific research papers to see what is known about how different wheat varieties and our processing methods affect people’s sensitivity to wheat.

The conclusions of her literature review are cautious, far more so than the declarations made in such books as “Wheat Belly,” which considers modern wheat a chronic poison. Kissing Kucek was curious what wheat actually does in the human body and began by looking at gluten and the pathologies associated with it.

“We are missing a lot just by focusing on gluten,” she said. “So to see what actually is going on, I extended that to wheat.”

Her inquiry grew to cover a broad territory, including the problems caused by wheat, how those problems vary by wheat species and variety, and the role of processing methods. It considered everything from celiac disease, wheat allergy and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), to fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The review pairs well with other Cornell research. The university and its research partners received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2011 to look at heritage wheat varieties. Field trials, lab analysis and baking trials are all part of this grant project, which ends in 2016.

Vintage wheat varieties have captured the imagination of a gluten-shy public, and the paper includes thorough descriptions of wheat kernels and wheat genetics. The material is dense, but Kissing Kucek explains it in an easy to follow video presentation.

Many people have trouble digesting fructose and certain carbohydrates, collectively known as FODMAPS. “These individuals experience bloating and gas when consuming large amounts dairy, high fructose corn syrup, stone fruits and wheat,” she said. “As many foods contain FODMAPS, if these individuals only remove wheat gluten from their diet, their symptoms will likely persist.”

Lynn Veenstra, also of Cornell, surveyed fructan research for the paper. Some of the findings she reviewed were featured in a recent Washington Post article about FODMAPS.

Illnesses like nonceliac wheat sensitivity, IBS and fructose malabsorption can be hard to diagnose. But most of the research points to multiple triggers beyond gluten proteins or other parts of wheat.

Little about gluten is straightforward

Contrary to popular or wishful thinking, old wheats don’t wear halos.

“There is no perfect wheat species that reduces all types of wheat sensitivity,” said Kissing Kucek. However, einkorn is promising because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds than heritage and modern wheat varieties. Einkorn dates from the very early domestication of staple crops; emmer and spelt are also classified as ancient. Heritage or heirloom grains refer to older seed varieties developed before 1950. Modern grain varieties generally have shorter stalks, which allow the plants to receive heavy doses of fertilizer without falling down in the field.

Different wheat varieties vary widely in their reactivity for celiac and wheat allergy. But we don’t know the effect on wheat sensitivity for many of the old or new wheat varieties used in the United States. Europe is screening more varieties. Yet nothing is straightforward when interpreting natural systems.

Figuring out how gluten works in our bodies is tough. Figuring out how growing conditions or plant variety might affect a crop’s potential to harm us is also tough. Understanding the role processing methods play also needs more research, but there’s enough information to cause concern over a few things.

One item —vital wheat gluten — is common in the food supply, and has the potential to cause reactions. It’s used to bind multigrain breads. A cheap protein and a great emulsifier and binder, it’s also widely used in industrial food processing. Irradiated flour and other baking additives also are cited as worrisome.

However, the paper’s section on processing offers some hope, too. Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.

Other research questions about wheat and gluten are still being charted. A recent Mother Jones story about research at The Bread Lab of Washington State University suggests that modern baking is a bigger culprit than modern wheat. The publication Eating Well also has a new story on gluten by Sam Fromartz called “Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.” Like his recent book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” the article nicely navigates the maze of fears about eating wheat and gluten.

Kissing Kucek’s “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” maps the research already done. Like any realistic map, the guide offers facts, not commandments of the “Here Be Dragons” sort. Answers might be found, the paper suggests, in turning to traditions.

This confirms what I’ve long suspected: That we need to unravel some of the processing developed over the last 150 years. In that time, we’ve adopted roller milling, which leaves behind most of the bran and germ. While I never fell out of love with wheat or gluten, I’ve grown enamored of the taste of fresh stone ground flour, and the concept of using all parts of the grain. Perhaps there is something that each lends the other, and to us, as we turn this plant into food. I think that the unity of stone milling is essential to healthy utilization of grains. Some professional bakers believe this too, and are working exclusively with fresh milled whole grain flours.

As people negotiate a friendly relationship with bread, I am hoping that my personal truth about gluten might gain scientific ground.

Main photo: Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

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London's large Ghanian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Credit 2015 Cynthia Bertelsen

Cassava, to me, is the Sleeping Beauty of the African kitchen.

The first time I ate cassava, I was on a leaky porch in Paraguay in a torrential rain. The cook plunked down before me a painted enamel platter, stacked high with what looked like chunks of potatoes. She placed a small bottle filled with vinegar and tiny green hot peppers next to my plate. Before cutting into a tough piece of beef, I upended the bottle over the meat. I forked a couple of potatoes onto my plate, too.

Only they weren’t potatoes. The white tuber was cassava, which originated in central Brazil. Known scientifically as Manihot esculenta and other common names such as manioc or yuca, it later spread to Africa’s Congo Basin by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

It wasn’t love at that first chewy bite. But when I saw cassava afterward, I made sure it ended up on my plate or in my shopping bag. Potatoes don’t grow well in the tropics, where I lived at the time. So cassava began to take potatoes’ place in my kitchen. I learned to love cassava because of its texture and propensity to soak up other flavors.

A staple of the African diet

In the years I lived in Africa, I came to know cassava especially well. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cassava provides a whopping 37% of daily caloric intake. It is popular throughout Africa and the third most widely eaten starchy food in the world, after wheat and rice.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “the most important traditional culinary preparations of cassava in Africa are:

  • boiled or roasted roots (akin to potatoes),
  • fufu (cassava flour stirred with boiled water over low heat to create a stiff dough like polenta),
  • eba (called gari in Nigeria, is similar to toasted bread crumbs, then soaked in hot water to produce a thick paste),
  • and, chikwangue (steamed, fermented pulp wrapped in leaves, not unlike tamales).”

Cassava grows underground and is easier to cultivate than corn, requiring far less labor. Resistant to drought and most insects and diseases, it is highly sustainable. It also cannot easily be burned and destroyed in war situations.

This scraggly-looking plant also can take climatic abuse, growing well in poor soil and during droughts. The long, brown roots stay fresh in the ground, sometimes for up to two years. But once harvested, cassava rots fast, in spite of its bark-like peel. That’s the reason for the wax you see on most cassava sold in Western markets.

A tip for finding the freshest cassava

Sometimes “fresh” cassava in supermarkets tends to be old, with black lines running through it, especially under and around the peel. I constantly poke and prod cassava that’s for sale. My hope is to find roots bearing small wounds inflicted by some savvy shopper: one who has broken off the pointed tips of the waxed roots to peer into the whiteness, seeking — and rejecting — the telltale black lines.


Having chosen pristine cassava for your meal, what happens next?

First, peel the cassava with a sharp knife. A vegetable peeler does not work as well. Remove the thin, white membrane surrounding the cassava under the bark-like peel. Cut the roots into equal lengths. Boil in salted water until tender enough so a knife slips in easily.

EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME

This is the second in a series exploring the food of the African continent, with a focus on individual ingredients and traditional recipes to bring the African pantry to your home.

The first article featured the peanut.

Future articles will feature black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.

Cassava can be quite fibrous, with a tough, stringy core that must be removed. Generally this core is not a problem, because as cassava cooks, it splits apart and the core can easily be removed. If you’d rather not hassle with peeling and boiling, seek a market specializing in Asian and other international foods. In the freezer section, you will likely find frozen cassava, ready to cook. You might also find cassava in cans there, too.

Now that you’ve got your peeled cassava on the kitchen counter, you’re probably wondering about the best way to cook it.

Skilled cooks in Africa developed a number of methods — grating, pounding and drying cassava into flour — to make its rather bland flavor pop in the mouth. Such techniques have resulted in commercial products that take a lot of the burden off of the cook. Tapioca pudding is made from dried cassava, available in nearly any grocery store.

Cassava flour can be used for making fufu, too. Gari adds texture to soups and other dishes. It can also be used in place of panko, a real boon to those on a gluten-free diet.

But if you opt to start from scratch, add large chunks of cassava to a meaty stew instead of potatoes. Try eating boiled cassava drenched with a spicy peanut sauce. Or simply fry it in the same way you might do with potatoes for French fries. Served a fiery pepper sauce, fried cassava offers a fresh taste of Africa.

Give cassava a try. I guarantee you will fall in love with it, too.

Cassava “French Fries”

Cassava gives a gluten-free twist to French fries. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Cassava fries provide a chewy twist to potato French fries. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon the number of roots

Cook time: 25 to 40 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes to 1 hour

Yield: Serves two

Ingredients

4 10- to 12-inch-long cassava roots

1 tablespoon salt

Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

1. With a sharp knife, remove the pointed tips and peel the cassava, making sure to remove the thin membrane just under the bark-like peel.

2. Cut the cassava into 4- to 6-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise and then cut those into French fry-size sticks.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stove top. Add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the cassava. Reduce heat to a fast simmer, and cook the cassava until quite tender, usually about 20 to 30 minutes. Check doneness by poking a piece with a knife.

4. When done, drain the cassava and let cool slightly. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to a depth of 1/4 inch over medium-high heat. Add the drained cassava and cook until cassava is a light golden brown.

5. Remove cassava from the oil, drain on paper towels, arrange on serving plates, and place a few tablespoons of the pepper sauce (recipe below) on each plate. Serve immediately.

Pepper Sauce

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups

Ingredients

10 habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers, orange or red, seeded and roughly chopped

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

4 Roma tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

Salt to taste

1 cup vegetable oil, divided

Directions

1. Place all the ingredients, except for 1/2 cup of the oil, in a blender or food processor. Purée.

2. In a heavy skillet, heat the remaining 1/2 cup of oil over medium-high heat. Being cautious to avoid splattering oil, add the sauce and reduce the heat immediately to medium-low. Cook the sauce for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.

3. Remove from heat, and let the sauce cool.

4. Store in a clean glass jar in your refrigerator, where it will be good for about a week. Be sure the sauce is always topped with a thin layer of oil. This helps to keep it safe and fresh.

Main photo: London’s large Ghanaian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Copyright Cynthia Bertelsen

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Wines from Le Domaine d'Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d'Henri

On my recent visit to Chablis, France, I asked to see new producers and was slightly taken aback to find the name Michel Laroche at the top of the list. Laroche has been making wine, and then running a thriving business, ever since his very first harvest back in the terrible vintage of 1963. Over the years he has been at the forefront of innovation in Chablis, with horizons stretching far beyond the narrow valley of the river Serein. And now he has reinvented himself as a true vigneron, cultivating the grapes for the wine that he makes.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when expansion of the Chablis vineyards was at its height, Laroche was responsible for the development of a large négociant business, buying the grapes or juice for wine, and the growth of the family estate to some 100 hectares (about 247 acres). Not content with Chablis, he developed a wine estate in the Languedoc, Mas la Chevalière, outside Béziers for vins de pays (country wine), because he wanted to try his hand at red wine. In 2005, he bought a wine estate in South Africa, l’Avenir; there was also a venture in Chile. He was a fervent promoter of screw caps at a time when the French market deemed them an anathema. And making use of his wife Gwénaël’s talent for interior design, he opened an elegant hotel and wine bar in Chablis itself. Then in 2010, he sold out to Advini, a company run by the Languedoc family, Jeanjean, which incorporates several wine estates in the key vineyard areas of France.

Laroche can always be relied upon for a perceptive overview of the Chablis market. A former manager of the town’s main bank described him as un grand homme du marketing (a great marketeer) — and she should know, as she doubtless saw the business plans of most of the vignerons of the appellation. After the fusion with Advini, Laroche stayed on for a two-year transition period, consulting on marketing, but now has returned to his roots and become a vigneron, based on his father’s original vines. Appropriately, Laroche’s new venture is called Le Domaine d’Henri after his father, and the label features a charming photograph of his parents enjoying a harvest meal in their vineyard. Laroche has four children, and his two daughters, Céline and Margaux, work with him. Although his sons have taken different career paths, Laroche insists that it is a family business for them all.

The core of the estate is 14 hectares (34.6 acres) of vineyards that belonged to his father and he has bought 8 more hectares (19.8 acres). They are mostly on the right bank of the Serein and include several plots of Fourchaume. There is a new cellar on the outskirts of the town. The vineyards are run organically, but the label does not say so because Laroche wishes to reserve the right to use a conventional spray if the climate demands it, as it did in 2013. His winemaker is Thibaud Baudin, who has worked in the Côte d’Or and in New Zealand, and then most recently for Advini at Domaine Laroche.

Michel Laroche and his daughter Margaux, who works with him at Le Domaine d'Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d'Henri

Michel Laroche and his daughter Margaux, who works with him at Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri

However, these days Laroche is very much involved with wine making and vineyard work in a way that the scale of Domaine Laroche had not allowed him for several years – and he is in his element. You can sense his enjoyment at serving wines in which he has played a vital role. As he put it, “le jeu, the game, is to produce quality. It is like a new profession, with a new perspective.” And these days he can spend as much time as he likes in his vineyards, so that he feels so much closer to the product. “I’ve returned to its source.”

As well as simple Chablis from vineyards in the hills above the village of Maligny, Laroche has created a range of three premier crus from the prestigious Fourchaume region. Here you sense his marketing expertise. The first small vintage of Domaine d’Henri was in 2012, and I was lucky enough to be able to taste the wines.

The basic Fourchaume, if a premier cru can be basic, is a blend of several plots. Just 11% of it is fermented and aged in wood, and then blended with the vat-aged wine in the June following the harvest. The year 2012 was a fine vintage in Chablis, so no chaptalization was necessary, and the wine is firm and has great minerality. The Cuvée Vieilles Vignes comes from older wines that were planted in 1970. Here the percentage of oak aging is 21% and the taste is firmer and steelier, with a taut finish. And the third Fourchaume, Cuvée Heritage, comes from vines that were planted in 1937, from a vineyard that Henri bought rather than planted himself. There is just one new barrel out of five, with 37% of the cuvée fermented and aged in oak. The higher percentage of oak makes for a more oxidative style, with more structure and richer flavors. In 2012 they made just 4,000 bottles of Cuvée Heritage, including some magnums and jeroboams.

When I asked Laroche what he considered to be the biggest change in Chablis over the years, he replied without hesitation, “The very positive development of the awareness that we are an appellation with a great potential.”

Back in 1963, most people considered themselves farmers, merely scraping a living from their vines with the aim of quantity, not quality. These days it is the quality of Chablis that provides the excitement, and that is Laroche’s aim as a new vigneron.

Main photo: Wines from Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri

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Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of

Gardening in winter hardly seems ideal to those of us in cold climates, but for Craig LeHoullier, the season of snow brings the first opportunity to plan his summer tomato crop. A tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange and author of the recently published book “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” LeHoullier is an expert in the field, having developed, introduced and named almost 200 tomato varieties.

Over the past 30 years, LeHoullier has brought a number of heirloom tomato varieties back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the Cherokee Purple, a tomato that came to him as an envelope of seeds sent by John D. Green and is now one of the most popular varieties in the Seed Exchange catalog.

LeHoullier’s love for heirloom tomatoes began as a hobby, but after retiring from his career as a chemist and project manager in the pharmaceutical industry in 2007, this passion blossomed into a second career. LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Susan, and is known within the heirloom tomato community as NCTomatoMan.

I caught up with LeHoullier before the launch of his book tour and got his advice on how to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes in my own backyard.

Winter gardening: prime time for research

LeHoullier says he gets about a monthlong break between digging up the last of his dead tomato plants each fall and the appearance of the first seed catalogs, when the real work of planning the garden begins. This lull in the action is prime time for research. Online sites such as Dave’s Garden, Tomatoville and GardenWeb can provide a good starting point for new gardeners. LeHoullier recommends searching for “garden discussion groups,” “tomato discussion groups” and “top 10 tomatoes” to begin your reading.

Craig LeHoullier, author of "Epic Tomatoes," holds a Cherokee Purple tomato.  Credit: Susan Lutz

Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes,” holds a Cherokee Purple tomato. Credit: Susan Lutz

Determine your gardening goals

LeHoullier points out that gardening is a personal experience and that “Each one of us will choose how much of our lives we’ll pour into it.” Growing great tomatoes requires figuring out what kind of gardener you are — or would like to be.

LeHoullier suggests that you think about what you want to get out of your tomato garden. Before you place your seed order, consider whether you want to garden because you want to grow food; because it’s a good hobby to work off a few extra pounds; or because you want to use it as a teaching tool for your friends, family or children.

Ask yourself: Do I want a high yield? Am I looking for huge tomatoes to impress my friends? Do I want an incredible flavor experience? Or do I want to grow something that I’ve never seen before? The answer to these questions will help you focus your research on the tomato varieties that suit your gardening goals.

Figure out what kind of tomatoes you like to eat

Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, flavors and sizes. Most of us have not tried many of the thousands of tomato varieties that exist in the world. LeHoullier believes that the best way to know which tomatoes you should grow is to decide which tomatoes you’d like to eat. Visit farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods to try tomato varieties you’ve never eaten and notice which flavor profiles excite you.

Get to know your gardening climate

Epic Tomatoes

Understanding your growing season is crucial. If you live in a warm climate where summer lasts more than 150 days, then the maturity date doesn’t matter much. But if you’re in a colder climate, pay close attention to the maturity date of the tomatoes you want to grow. Talk to friends in your neighborhood who are avid gardeners and vendors at local farmers markets to see which tomato varieties grow best for them.

Seeds vs. seedlings

LeHoullier says that “At a basic level, people will want to understand that growing tomatoes from seed opens up the world for you to try different colors, sizes and shapes.” That said, starting tomatoes from seeds can be a tricky proposition. Consider your capabilities and experience with growing tomatoes from seed. If your tolerance for failure is low, begin by planting seedlings.

Hybrids vs. heirlooms

Although LeHoullier says he “won’t make the blanket statement that some make that heirlooms are always more disease susceptible and difficult to grow than hybrids,” he does allow that heirlooms can be finicky and that “every tomato — including the hybrid varieties — has its own personality and foibles.”

Start small (Do as I say, not as I do.)

After you’ve familiarized yourself with the seemingly endless choices in the tomato world, it’s time to get planting. Showing restraint is key, especially for new gardeners.

Raising thousands of tomato varieties isn’t for everyone. (Or in fact, for most people.) LeHoullier cautions new growers to start small, in spite of the fact that he has a huge and ever-growing tomato collection. LeHoullier identifies himself as a “hobby collector” — he’s into beer brewing, roasting his own coffee, bird watching, kayaking, and has countless other hobbies in addition to what he calls “the tomato thing.” He describes himself as a “seeker who is never satisfied.” It is this tendency that has led LeHoullier to raise a collection of tomatoes that now hits the 3,000 mark.

One reason that LeHoullier’s collection has grown so large is that he has inherited the collections of gardeners who have become overwhelmed. “People send me entire collections because they can’t take care of them.”

Disappointment is an opportunity for learning

A scientist by training and experience, LeHoullier sees gardening as “an exciting hobby to learn stuff” and reminds us that “Each year, X number of plants are gonna die. Critters are gonna eat another bunch of plants, but that’s great because we learn from it and the next year we try different things to avoid that problem, knowing that other problems will arise.”

The bottom line

LeHoullier asserts some basic goals: Do a lot of searching. Ask a lot of questions. Make an accurate assessment of your interest level. Taste every tomato you can get your hands on. Recognize that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers to gardening questions. There are just, as LeHoullier says, “an infinite number of variables for every act a gardener takes.”

Perhaps most important, LeHoullier cheers us on in our tomato-growing efforts by reminding us that, “If you can find them, and buy them, and taste them, and like them, there’s no reason you can’t grow them.”

Main photo: Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes.” Credit: Susan Lutz

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