Articles in Agriculture

Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Travelers who spend more than a few weeks in Italy likely will find themselves around a local family’s dinner table, sipping homemade liqueur.

Initially invented for medicinal purposes by 13th-century Italian monks, liqueurs (liquore in Italian) have become a source of regional pride, with Italians still drinking and customizing those original recipes today.

In Montelupo, a small town located on the lush, hilly outskirts of Florence, a trio of Italian herbalists have spent the past 15 years sorting through the bounty of Tuscan gardens to create fresh, updated versions of this quintessential Italian drink.

The group, improbably called the Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese (Natural Mycological Group of Empoli), originally formed to go wild mushroom hunting. This being Tuscany, however, they quickly were drawn to the abundant wild herbs, flowers and fruit — lemons, kumquats and apricots – that thrive in their backyard gardens. That soon led the trio to developing liqueurs.

AUTHOR


Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

Limoncello, anise liqueur

Like all good Italians, founding members Pietro Terreni and Nicola Daraio grew up sipping anise liqueur at weddings and limoncello on visits to the Amalfi Coast. Member Andrea Heinisch, originally from Germany, enjoys limoncello and has been crafting variations of it since joining the group 10 years ago. For these three, making a liqueur presents a unique opportunity to be traditional and innovative at the same time.

Liqueur is typically made by infusing near-pure alcohol with natural flavors, then adding ingredients to sweeten the drink and dilute the alcohol content. Nearly every region in Italy produces a distinctive drink that uses local, seasonal fruits and herbs.

The simplicity of this basic liqueur recipe encourages creativity by even the most timid mixologist; and it is wonderfully adaptable to every environment and season.

Terreni sees the use of seasonal fruit as integral to the drink’s lingering aroma. “You have to pick your flavoring materials at the right moment,” he says, “because the summer sun and air all become part of the liqueur in the end.

“When I was little, we used to take fruit to our local pharmacy, where they would prepare it with pure spirits,” Terreni remembers. “Then, during winter when it got really cold, we would have a little glass of this liqueur with a few of the fruits or berries in it.”

Go natural

The group claims their liqueur blends retain their flavor and color longer than supermarket-made brands, because the group’s artisanal preparation methods call for the use of nonsynthetic flavors and colors. Natural ingredients hold up better once the bottles are opened. (Traditionally, Italians keep their liqueur in the freezer and pull it out when visitors arrive.)

Each member of the group has his or her own favorite recipes. For example, Daraio favors anything made with fennel (“good for digestion”) and a family recipe for orange-coffee liqueur. Heinisch has experimented with fruits as well as herbs that grow on her property. She recommends fresh mint (with about 1½ tablespoons of anise seeds), thyme (combine with 3 whole cloves, use equal measures of white wine and neutral alcohol and let it infuse for two months), rosemary (use white wine with 2 ounces of neutral alcohol, plus 2 teaspoons of lemon zest), and honey with a profusion of herbs (recipe below).

The three herbalists agree, however, that there is nothing quite like sipping homemade limoncello straight from the freezer after a leisurely lunch on a hot summer day. As the group surveyed the woods near Heinisch’s house, they contemplated ingredients for future concoctions, perhaps using rosehips and lavender. And that illustrates what makes a great liqueur: creativity, experimentation and locally grown ingredients.

Rather than sell what they make, the group exchanges batches — and recipes — with friends.

Tips from the experts

Advice for creating your own liqueur:

  1.  Use fruits, herbs and spices that are free of chemicals. It is best if these items are grown away from roads or grazing pastures, where they could be contaminated by vehicle exhaust, pesticides or animal waste.
  2.  Use ingredients that are in season, for maximum freshness.
  3.  Keep preparation areas and tools, including cutting boards, free of other flavors and chemicals. Jars and bottles should be made of glass and rinsed well. Make sure towels and filtering products (a cheesecloth or metal strainer are best) are cleansed of soap and bleach. (“When I first started,” Heinisch says, “I made the mistake of trying to filter with a regular, clean dish towel. The laundry soap dissolved with the alcohol, and the liqueur tasted like my soap.”)
  4.  Store liqueur in the freezer for best taste and texture.
  5.  In Italy, liqueur are usually made with 190-proof alcohol.

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From left, Andrea Heinisch, Nicola Daraio and Pietro Terreni discuss the art of infusing flavor into alcohol.

Cream of Wild Fennel Liqueur

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: About 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

This recipe comes from Nicola Daraio, who brought it to Tuscany from the southern Italian resgion of Basilicata. It tastes like caramel. Substitute water for the dairy and it is more refreshing but a little less indulgent, suitable for the end of a particularly large meal. Total time does not include 3 days to infuse flavor.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
  • Whole leaves and a few stalks of wild fennel; the leaves and stalks should just be covered by the alcohol
  • 4 cups pasteurized skim milk
  • 1 ⅔ cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash and dry the wild fennel. Place the fennel in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid. Cover the fennel with the alcohol and let sit for three days.
  2. Put the milk and sugar in a steel pan, bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, then let cool.
  3. Filter the infused alcohol, mix with the milk-and-sugar mixture, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

Lemon-Saffron Liqueur

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes (plus 15 days to infuse flavor)
Yield: About two quarts

Andrea Heinisch created her lemon-saffron version of limoncello as a winter counterpart to the traditional lemon-only recipe. The cinnamon and clove are classic holiday flavors, while the saffron balances out the tang of the lemons, creating a complex drink that warms you, even when poured straight from the freezer.

Ingredients

3 organic, in-season lemons
2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 whole clove
10 threads of saffron

For the simple syrup:

1¼ cup sugar
2½ cups water

Directions

  1. Wash the lemons, then zest them, taking care to get only the yellow rind, as the white pith is bitter.
  2. Place lemon peels and spices in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid and add the alcohol.
  3. Infuse for eight days in a dry, dark place, gently shaking the jar once a day.
  4. Make the simple syrup by boiling the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves.
  5. After eight days, add the syrup to the alcohol and lemon peels. Let mixture sit for another eight days in a cool, dry, dark place continuing to gently shake the jar once a day.
  6. Filter, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

 

Honey Herb Liqueur
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes (plus six days to infuse the herbs)
Total Time: 20 minutes (plus six day to infuse the herbs)
Yield: 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

Each Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese member has a variation of this liqueur, which recalls the drink’s original medicinal purpose. Consider this a boost for the immune system, with a sweet, herbal taste. As much as possible, use fresh herbs.

Ingredients

3½ cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
½ cup honey
6 basil leaves
5 St. John’s Wort leaves
6 culinary sage leaves
Leaves from 3 small stalks of rosemary
6 mint leaves
6 black tea leaves
6 lemon tree leaves
6 bay leaves
6 chamomile leaves
6 juniper berries
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the simple syrup:

3½ cups water
3 cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash the herbs carefully, place them in the alcohol for six days, turning the container a few times each day.
  2. After six days, make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, then add the honey as the mixture cools.
  3. Mix the liqueur mixture and the simple syrup, filter the infused alcohol, place in a fresh bottle, store in the freezer.

Main photo: Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

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Fighting Hunger: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa's St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson

We live in a time when child hunger operates undercover. We rarely see the images of sunken eyes and distended bellies that we commonly associate with hunger. Yet many of America’s children face the double blow of being undernourished and overfed. One in five is food insecure and one in three is overweight. They get plenty of calories, fat, sugar and salt in their daily diets, but not enough of the vitamins and minerals required for their growing bodies.

Such a complicated problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and FoodCorps aspires to be part of the solution. Our nationwide team of young adult leaders tries to provide kids access to “real food” that will help them grow up healthy. We do that by teaching kids about foods that are locally grown and nutritious, based on the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations.

In addition, we teach them how to cook such foods and grow them themselves in their school gardens. We also help introduce these foods into their school cafeterias since kids spend most of their time at school. Schools also happen to be where low-income children consume the most calories each day, so it’s a good place to begin fostering life-long healthy habits.

Postville, Iowa, the community I serve, calls itself the “Hometown to the World.” A small town in northeast Iowa surrounded by farmland, Postville is full of diversity with families from Mexico, Guatemala, Kenya and beyond. Almost 80 percent of the students served by the Postville Community School District receive free or reduced-price lunches. Knowing that so many families depend on these meals — and not knowing what foods are available at their homes –  makes the food served at school even more vital. It must be fresh, healthy and satisfying.

Nutrition education is one part of FoodCorps’ approach to solving both hunger and obesity. Iowa’s Department of Public Health offers a program called Pick a Better Snack. I visit 11 elementary classrooms each month to teach students about a new fruit or vegetable, often one that many of them have never tried. Through such encounters, students learn how fiber regulates their digestion and why they need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

In March, I offered the students samples of three vegetables: cauliflower, celery and purple cabbage. After telling one class that I couldn’t give them more because they were going to lunch right after, one girl proclaimed, “But we’re just trying to be healthy!”

Tracking food’s path from seed to plate

FoodCorps also tries to create a connection between children and the path food takes from seed to plate. Postville has a large community garden, an oasis in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields. A few community volunteers and I help kids from the 4H Club as they plant vegetables in the spring, maintain them through the summer and then, come fall, harvest them for the school lunch line. The kids have seen the kohlrabi they have harvested appear in the cafeteria’s “extras” line, which gives them a sense of accomplishment by providing real food for themselves and their classmates.

Finally, FoodCorps’ approach gives students the chance to actually eat foods grown by local farmers. This has prompted changes in school kitchens. In Postville, there has been a shift in the cafeteria climate: using scratch cooking instead of ready-to-eat. The kitchen staff no longer simply unwraps and reheats food. This requires more staff, more equipment, more time. Change has been slow; gone are the days of chicken nuggets and french fries, and at first, the kids complained.

Nowadays, though, I see them making connections that they may not have before. They know that the purple cabbage I serve them during snack time is the same kind that they tried during the Purple Power Wrap taste test last month, and that purple cabbage can be grown right in their community.

Hunger is a complicated issue that will require changes in our economy, politics and society. For hungry children, those things don’t matter in the short-term. But by working in the schools, where children often eat two of their meals and usually a snack or two, FoodCorps is helping educate them about making healthier choices as well as teaching them to grow a thing or two for themselves.

FoodCorps Service Member Ashley Dress won the 2014 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for her service site, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.

Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AmeriCorps, and a diverse array of private and public donors, including the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). NCAT is the host for FoodCorps in Iowa, working with local partners in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Decorah, Des Moines and Waterloo. Find out more about NCAT and the FoodCorps team in Iowa at www.facebook.com/FoodCorpsIowa or https://www.ncat.org/midwest/

Main photo: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa’s St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson

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Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

Though I’d been anticipating it for weeks, it was while sitting at a stoplight that the intoxicating aroma of linden flowers (Tilia spp.) first hit my nose. I jerked my head around, craning over my shoulder and peering out the windows in a desperate attempt to locate the tree whose flowers supply my favorite herbal tisane.

No doubt the people in the surrounding cars thought I was nuts. If only they knew that the tree with the fiercely fragrant flowers could provide them with a divine beverage, they too would be thrilled by the scent.

As my years as a forager roll on, I become clearer about which crops are worth my time to harvest. I try to live on wild edible plants for as much of the year as possible, no easy task in the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season where I live in Colorado.

This means I have to work hard during the short period of growth, not only to harvest my favorite plants in great enough quantity to get me through the off-season, but also to preserve those plants, whether by drying, freezing, or canning.

As my go-to beverage, linden is high atop my list of desirable wild foods. Last year, I picked and dried enough linden flowers to fill a laundry basket. It wasn’t enough. In late winter, thirsting for my favorite tea, I pillaged the linden stocks of two friends.

Fragrant foraging in the shade

Also known as basswood or lime, linden is a deciduous tree with leaves shaped like slightly crooked hearts. In my area, they are used frequently as ornamental trees, mostly likely for their fragrant flowers and generous shade. The bees are particularly fond of linden, and one can often locate the trees by the sound of buzzing bees.

When the leaves first emerge and are still tender, they can be eaten in salads and sandwiches. The flowers clusters grow along with a long pale green leaf-like structure, known as a bract. When harvesting, pinch off the bract and flower clusters of linden. Since the trees flower abundantly, it is often most efficient to grab several flower clusters, avoiding the leaves, and strip them off all at once.

As with all flowers, to maximize fragrance, and therefore flavor, it is best the harvest linden flowers in full sun. It may sound obvious, but on a hot day, by all means, stand in the shade of the tree while harvesting flowers. It will make a difference when your arms tire.

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Linden tree leaf and flower. Credit: Wendy Petty

As always, be sure to forage in the cleanest possible location. Avoid linden trees that grow alongside busy streets or in areas that might have been sprayed with chemicals.

Herbalists know that although it is gentle enough for children and seniors alike, linden is strong medicine, soothing and demulcent. Throughout the scorching growing season, I enjoy cold infusions of linden flowers, which help me to deal with the heat and stay moisturized from the inside out. By winter, the sight of delicate linden flowers floating in my teacup call to mind the long days of summer.

Turn linden into teas and cocktails

With experience as a forager, I’ve given up commercial teas in favor of my wild herbal blends. Not only does this save me money, but I have the reassurance of knowing exactly where my tea came from. I’ve also become quite skilled as a drink-maker, despite initially not knowing much about the subject.

Even though I couldn’t really sniff out a great glass of wine, and don’t know the difference between whisky and whiskey, I make amazing concoctions and cocktails that are hits both in my house and at social events. As a wildcrafter, I have the advantage of bringing truly unique flavors to any party.

If you’ve got a tasty wild edible plant on your hands, I encourage you to experiment with ways to preserve it. Infuse it into vodka, later adding sugar syrup to taste if needed. Try it in vinegar, or in a shrub, which is an aged mix of infused vinegar and sugar. Combine it with whichever fruit is in season. Dabble in making homemade bitters. This year, I’ve got an experimental batch of linden vinegar going, as well as a jar of linden and lemon balm in gin.

Whether you are new to linden or and old pro, you can’t beat classic linden tisane and honey infused with heady linden flowers.

Linden Honey

Pick off the freshest linden flowers (leaving behind stems and bracts), enough to loosely fill a jar. Pour fresh honey over the flowers, and leave them for at least three weeks in a warm place. Though there is no need to do so, if you wish to strain out the linden flowers after the honey has infused, set the linden honey in a sunny windowsill for a day, then strain out the flowers. The candied flowers can be enjoyed atop ice cream or cake. The floral-scented honey can be the genesis of myriad recipes. This recipe is so beautiful, you may want to consider making several extra jars of linden honey to use as gifts.

Cold-Infused Linden Tisane

Ingredients

1 cup loosely packed linden flowers (fresh or dried), bracts included

20 small wild rose heads (substitute one green tea bag)

½ gallon lukewarm water

Directions

1. Add the linden flowers, roses, and water to a ½ gallon mason jar. Leave the jar on a counter for 8 hours, then refrigerate it until cold.

2. Strain out the flowers, squeezing with your hands. Serve over ice, and with a drizzle of linden honey if you prefer sweet tea.

Linden Sparkler

Ingredients

½ cup cold-infused linden tisane

¼ cup white grape juice

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 ounce gin

½ cup seltzer water

Directions

Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.

Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

As a longtime pescetarian and proponent of healthy eating, I’m delighted when people mention adding seafood to their diet. My heart sinks, though, when I hear that these additions consist of imported shrimp and tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon.

Although I appreciate any attempt to eat more wholesomely, I wish Americans would make wiser, more environmentally sound choices when it comes to shellfish and fish.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91% of our favorite seafood was shipped in from overseas in 2011. Meanwhile, our own waters teem with nutritious yet highly invasive species such as Asian carp, northern snakehead and lionfish. In an age of increasing concerns about the environment and sustainability, our dependence on imported and ecologically unsound seafood makes no sense. It’s time for us to stop making unviable choices and start eating America’s glut of destructive, nonnative fish.

Eating invasive fish aids sustainability

Think that the need for invasivores – people who eat invasive species — might be overhyped? Consider Asian carp, specifically bighead, silver, black, and grass carp. They were introduced in the late 1960s to control parasites, algae and weeds in Southeastern U.S. aquaculture.

Unfortunately, these aggressive fish didn’t stay down on the farm. After escaping and crowding out or killing off  native aquatic life, Asian carp now rule over large stretches of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. Today, they threaten to take over the Great Lakes and other water systems.

This story is not unique. Dumped out of exotic aquariums, the flamboyant and venomous Indo-Pacific lionfish has infiltrated the coastal waters of Florida, spreading as far north as North Carolina and as far south as the Caribbean. Left unchecked, the lionfish has destroyed entire reef populations and drastically reduced biodiversity.

Native to Africa and Asia, northern snakeheads have likewise decimated wildlife in the Potomac, sections of the East and West coasts, Florida and Hawaii. Able to live several days out of the water, they wriggle over land to ravage nearby ponds, reservoirs and lakes. As a result, snakeheads are particularly troublesome.

Although America spends millions of tax dollars attempting to contain or eliminate these and other invasive fish, they remain prized foods in their native lands. In China and Southeast Asia, cooks grill, fry, poach, braise, steam or stew snakehead.

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

In Cambodia, this freshwater fish serves as an essential source of protein and stars in the traditional curry dish amok trey. Firm, white-fleshed and moderate in flavor, it makes a fitting substitute for overfished darlings such as monkfish and snapper.

Low in mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), Asian carp also abounds with culinary possibilities. Along with smoking, steaming, grilling and frying, it performs well in soups, curries and stews. Mild and white-fleshed, it’s a good stand-in for the depleted Atlantic cod and Icelandic pollock.

Lionfish, too, is a pleasant-tasting replacement for environmentally unsafe fish. In July 2010, the Washington Post prophesized that lionfish could be “the new sustainable ‘it’ seafood.”

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Mild in flavor and white-fleshed, it offers a versatile alternative to popular but eco-unfriendly choices such as grouper and orange roughy. It responds well to most cooking techniques and pairs well with a number of ingredients.

Although lionfish does possess venomous dorsal spines, its meat is safe to eat. I say this from experience. This past winter in the Florida Keys, I had several lovely, light lunches of speared, filleted and then pan-seared lionfish topped with a spritz of lime juice or dollop of mango chutney. Obviously, I lived to write about it.

Our aquatic enemies may be tasty and a snap to cook, but not everyone will want to devour a fish called “snakehead” or “bighead carp.” This is where smart marketing comes into play. Most people would avoid the unattractively named Patagonian toothfish. However, tucking into an exotic Chilean sea bass has proved to be A-OK with diners. Same fish, different designation. Provide snakehead and Asia carp with fancy or friendlier names, and watch how opinions change.

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Exposure will likewise aid in gaining converts. Invasive species-themed dinners have already taken place in Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Baltimore. Along with raising public awareness of these marauding creatures, the events aim to tantalize the public’s palate. Chefs create tempting specialties such as snakehead po’ boys, European green crab stew, lionfish sashimi and Asian carp croquettes. Bite into a moist and flavorful snakehead taco, and you’ll never fill your tortillas with shrimp or tuna again.

With a bit of consumer education, exposure and smart marketing, we could control — if not eliminate — America’s invasive seafood species problem. In the process, we would reduce our dependence on unsustainable, imported seafood. It’s time for us to take note of the invasive species’ culinary appeal and start catching and consuming our nemeses.

Main photo: Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

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A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible  — claims you will find on food packaging today.

The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural  means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).

In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.

Despite what you might think,  a natural label claim  has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”

In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.

The reality of  ‘natural’ meat

The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.

AWA's Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

AWA’s Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.

Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic  — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.

It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?

Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.

Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.

We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.

Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at animalwelfareapproved.org.

Main photo:  The “natural”  label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA

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A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The 2014 Auction Napa Valley-The American Wine Classic shattered last year’s record and raised a staggering $18.7 million over one weekend in June.

The auction was the brainchild of the late Robert Mondavi, known as the “Godfather” of Napa Valley. His vision was supported by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, and the auction was launched in 1981. To date, the group has invested more than $120 million from auction proceeds in Napa County nonprofit organizations.

As in previous years, 2014 auction lots were gilded with trips to far-flung locales in private jets or luxury yachts, flashy sports cars, magnums of pricey Napa red wine and the ultimate indulgence — dinner for 50 at the venerable French Laundry restaurant.

After all, this is the Napa Valley brand: touting high-end Cabernets and projecting a sexy, glamorous image. And it takes a village to stage an auction of this magnitude — an event that draws oenophiles from around the globe.

Napa Valley’s vintners are as diverse as its terroir. There are the stratospheric cult labels such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and Araujo. Then there’s the other face of Napa: winemakers who are active participants in the auction but seek a lower profile.

After the adrenaline rush of this year’s auction slowed Sunday morning, I had the opportunity to meet one such winemaking family, the Biales of Robert Biale Vineyards, who are among the pioneers making up Napa’s historic landscape.

Clementina Biale, 82 years young, and her son Bob Biale greeted me in the matriarch’s Tudor-style house in the city of Napa. For 70 years, the family has farmed Zinfandel in Cabernet country. “Aldo loved Zinfandel,” Clementina said of her late husband while walking us out to the terrace overlooking vineyards planted with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sangiovese.

Today, the Biales are continuing their family tradition of Zinfandel. Their annual production of 15,000 cases includes 12,000 cases of 14 vineyard-designate Zinfandels from various properties in the Oak Knoll appellation and 3,000 cases of Petite Sirah and blends. The wines reflect elegance and balanced fruit — none of the jamminess you associate with Zinfandel.

“Napa was full of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah,” Bob Biale said. Then Cabernet Sauvignon came along in the late 1960s. After Napa’s win at the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition, Cabernet became even more popular, he said. “Napans found that Cab grows well, so they pulled out all the Zinfandel.”

Biale family has humble origins

An active octogenarian, Clementina drives around Napa doing errands and going to church. She draws the line at driving on the freeway, though.

“I never went to university,” she told me. “I was happy to raise a good family. We had a good life, nothing fancy.”

A few times a week, Clementina visits the humble barn-like Biale tasting room in Napa, where her handmade aprons and bottle bags are sold among other items.

“Aldo always said you don’t need a million-dollar room to have good wine,” she said fondly about her husband, who passed away in 2009 at age 80.

Aldo Biale was born in 1929 on Napa’s Mount Veeder to Pietro and Christina, who arrived in the early 1920s from Liguria, Italy. To help Aldo learn English, the family moved to the valley floor and purchased its first 5-acre parcel in 1937. They planted Zinfandel and fruit orchards while also raising white leghorn chickens. Pietro passed away in 1942, leaving 13-year-old Aldo and his mother to tend the ranch.

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Clementina Biale with her son, Bob Biale, on the terrace of her house overlooking the 6-acre vineyard in Napa. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

In 1953, Aldo visited Italy for the first time and met Clementina in Piedmont. “He took me to a fiesta,” she recalled.

They married a year later, and Clementina arrived in Napa in 1954. She raised four children and helped out in the farming operation.

In his teen years, Aldo worked on the family vineyards, delivering fresh eggs in the community. At age 14, he figured out there was more money in wine than selling Zinfandel grapes at $25 per ton, so he started making homemade jug wine and sold it without a license until the mid-1960s. Aldo continued selling grapes until 1990, including to such companies as Gallo and the St. Helena Co-op.

Aldo also kept his day job, working for Napa City’s Water Department. He would come home at 4 p.m. and start farming till 10. “There were lights on the tractor,” Bob recalled. “He had chores for me and my brothers. Now I’m glad we grew up this way and learned from him.”

As we taste the Black Chicken Zinfandel, a blend from different vineyards, Clementina tells the story behind the label. The name was a code for the jug wine for customers who ordered by telephone. The Biale family’s phone was on a party line, meaning it was shared with possibly nosy neighbors.

Clementina had just arrived from Italy when she answered a call from someone asking for two dozen eggs and a black chicken. “I said to this fella, ‘We have no black chicken, we have white,’ ” she said, laughing. She soon learned it was the code for Aldo’s secret Zinfandel.

“But my father’s dream was to have a brand that was our own wine,” Bob said. That was realized when Aldo and Bob founded Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991. Later, a partnership was formed with Dave Pramuk and Dave Perry.

“We had a nice little team, but we still kept our day jobs,” Bob said. He worked with the cellar team crew at Beringer.

Bob reflects sadly about the old-vine Zinfandels that were pulled out and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. He points in part to Robert Mondavi for this conversion.

“He was right by planting more Cab varietal, which put Napa on the map,” Bob said. “God bless him, that Cab conversion has allowed us growers to actually make a living. But it came with a sacrifice by removing old Zinfandel.”

Standing by their Zinfandels, the Biales are part of Napa’s mosaic of vintners. Over the years, Biale wine has been poured at the barrel auction’s marketplace tasting. “I am considering participating in the barrel auction next year,” Bob said.

That Biale Zin is sure to stand out in a barrel room full of Napa Cabs.

Main photo: A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Craggy Range's Gimblett Gravels vineyard.

The speed of change in New Zealand never fails to amaze me. These days Craggy Range is generally considered to be one of the leading producers of Hawke’s Bay and the sub-region of Gimblett Gravels, yet its first vintage was only in 1997.

Craggy Range was developed by Terry Peabody, a successful Australian businessman who had the acumen to select Steve Smith as the person who would put Craggy Range on the international wine map. Smith, generally considered to be New Zealand’s leading viticulturalist, oversees the winemaking for Craggy Range in the regions of Hawke’s Bay, Martinborough and Marlborough.  He is a down-to-earth New Zealander who is not prone to exaggeration, so his declaration that 2013 is the vintage of a generation deserves to be taken seriously. It is, after all, distinctly more modest than the usual bordelais claim of the vintage of the century.

Smith was in London recently to substantiate his claim, which he did quite effectively. He explained that 2013 had enjoyed low cropping levels, as a repercussion of the cool 2012 vintage. A naturally low crop produces much better results than a similar crop level achieved with a green harvest. And the weather was just right, with warm but not excessively hot weather in the critical weeks after flowering, followed by a cooler period that helped retain the aromatics in the grapes. “The stars aligned!” he said.

Age of vines influence vintage quality

Another factor in the quality of the vintage is the age of the vines. Older vines give a much better expression of place. Craggy Range has Riesling vines that are 28 years old and Sauvignon vines that are 20 years old, which give quite different results than younger vines. Older vines also need less management, and they produce lower alcohol levels. This is something that is not yet fully understood but Craggy Range has observed that the grapes are ripe at a lower alcohol level, which translates into more elegant wine in the glass.

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Steve Smith, winemaker at Craggy Range.
Credit: Courtesy of Craggy Range

To illustrate his point, Smith started the tasting with Riesling from the Te Muna Road vineyard in Martinborough. This comes from a 2-hectare vineyard on old rocky soil, with a volcanic influence. In the past, New Zealand has planted German clones, but it now has access to Riesling clones from Alsace, which are giving even better results.

The Sauvignon, too, comes from Martinborough, and for a New Zealand Sauvignon was nicely understated, with mineral characters, firm fruit and a restrained finish.

The final white wine was a Chardonnay from Kidnapper’s Bay in Hawke’s Bay. Smith observed that if you put Chardonnay in a dramatic vineyard, it takes on the character of the place. He didn’t want this Chardonnay to be overtly fruity, but was looking for a sense of the ocean, a Chablis style. To this end he uses large oak barrels and indigenous yeast, and the wine certainly exhibited some of the oyster-shell character that you can find in good Chablis.

Next up were barrel samples, components of Craggy Range’s flagship Bordeaux blend from Gimblett Gravels. Gimblett Gravels is an 800-hectare plot of stony, gravelly soil from a riverbed that changed its course about 150 years ago. At a time when the value of agricultural land was measured by the number of sheep you could graze on it, Gimblett Gravels was deemed pretty worthless. But pioneers Alan Limner from Stonecroft and Chris Pask from C. J. Pask saw its potential for exceptional vineyard land, and planted the first crop in 1999. The drainage is excellent, which is an asset after heavy rainfall, but as Smith observed, getting enough water is the greatest challenge. The area enjoys a certain amount of humidity, thanks to the oceanic influence, and it is rare to get seriously warm days.

The various grape varieties showed their characteristics. The Merlot was rich and fleshy, with plummy fruit.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was more restrained. Cabernet Franc was fresher, and Smith observed that there was a lot of clonal variation on Cabernet Franc. His Cabernet Sauvignon came from cuttings from Kim Goldwater’s estate on Waiheke Island. Petit Verdot, which accounts for 2% of the final blend, is “tricky to manage”: “It’s the oddest grape variety I have ever grown and it can look like a wild scientist!”  This vat sample was rich and powerful, with acidity and tannin.

We finished with a sample of Sophia, a projected blend of the different components. Each variety would be matured separately until October, before blending and finally taken out of wood just before Christmas and bottled in February 2015. The proposed blend was rich and intense with blackcurrant fruit and some spicy oak and, despite its youth, was beautifully balanced, harmonious and complete. There was no doubt that it was more than the sum of the preceding parts, adding up to what might indeed be the vintage of a generation.

Main photo: Craggy Range’s Gimblett Gravels vineyard.  Courtesy of Craggy Range

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B.R. Cohn likes to harvest its Picholine olives when they are half green and half purple. Credit: Courtesy of B.R. Cohn Winery

When you buy a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, how much thought do you give to the variety of olives used to make it?

Two months ago if you’d asked me to name all the types of olives I knew, I would have managed to come up with a few: Kalamata, Mission … uh … green ones. Somehow it hadn’t crossed my mind that, like wine, olive oil reflects the variety of fruit that goes into it. And just as there are wines made with a single grape variety, there are single-variety olive oils, each with its own character.

This revelation came to me during a visit to B.R. Cohn Winery in the Sonoma Valley. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery is known for its range of extra virgin olive oils, which includes an estate oil made entirely from a French variety called Picholine.

B.R. Cohn’s Picholine olives are the size of soybeans, and yield only about 25 gallons of oil per ton compared to 50 gallons for other varieties. “Because of its low yield at the press, not many people make olive oil from the Picholine,”  winery president Dan Cohn said. “It’s very labor intensive.”

Even so, he believes the variety deserves to stand alone.

“Most of the wines we produce here are 100% Cabernet,” Cohn said. “I believe there’s something to be said about being true to the varietal.”

Cohn looks for a specific flavor profile in the Picholine oil that reflects the olive’s character. “I like a little grassiness in the front of the palate, then a little apple, then a little butter and just the right amount of pepper in the finish,”  he said.

Seeking out varietal olive oil

Talking to Cohn about the winery’s prized Picholine oil made me wonder how common single-variety olive oils really are. A visit to my neighborhood market confirmed my suspicions: Of the two dozen extra virgin olive oils on the shelves, nearly all were multi-olive blends.

However, further investigation turned up a handful of merchants selling varietal olive oils online. Among them was a local operation called The Olive Press, which runs tasting rooms in Sonoma and the Napa Valley to showcase its blended and single-variety oils from California.

“Blends are popular because they allow millers to manipulate the overall delivery of an oil,”  production manager Chris Gilmore said. “Some millers prefer to either round out or, in some cases, bolster robustness through the introduction of other varietals. This effort produces some very interesting oils, much like the blending of the central five Bordeaux varietals produces exceptional diversity in wine rather than highlighting just one.”

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The Olive Press in Sonoma offers samples of several single-variety extra virgin olive oils. Credit: Tina Caputo

But there is also a dark side to blending. “Internationally, blending is largely an effort to mask inferior export oils headed for the United States,” Gilmore said. “The grim truth is that foreign exporters will ‘blend’ a high volume of defective oil with perhaps a bit of fresh oil in the hopes of giving some life to the product. The lower prices of these oils make them attractive despite the fact that they contain none of the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.”

Gilmore likes making single-variety olive oils because it allows him to showcase the aromas and flavors of individual varieties. “Each varietal displays characteristics unique to that type of fruit, much like a pinot grape holds vastly different potential than Cabernet,” he said. “To make a well-balanced single-varietal oil is both challenging and rewarding, and it’s what gets me excited every fall.”

Tasting the difference

To taste the differences for myself, I dropped in at The Olive Press and sampled an array of varietal olive oils. Vicki Zancanella, the tasting room’s resident olive oil expert, guided me through the offerings.

OILVE OIL LINKS


To order single-variety olive oils online, visit:

» theolivepress.com

» nvoliveol.com

» oliandve.com

» allspiceonline.com

“A good extra virgin olive oil should have three things,” she said. “It should have fruitiness at the front of your palate, bitterness at the back and pungency as it goes down your throat.” And just as there are common descriptors for tasting wine, there are classic aromas and flavors in extra virgin olive oil, such as freshly cut grass and tomato leaves.

The varietal oils I tasted varied in intensity from delicate to robust, and showed a fascinating range of flavor profiles:

Arbosana: A delicate oil with a subtle aroma of banana peel, and mild bitterness at the back of the throat. Best for salads, mild greens and roasted vegetables.

Mission: Buttery, with aromas of grass, plums and tomatoes. Rich, with some bitterness on the finish. Ideal for cooking and baking.

Ascolano: Stone fruit aroma, and buttery on the palate, with peppery, pungent notes. Great for fruit salads and fresh tomatoes, or for baking.

Arbequina: A medium-intensity oil, with aromas of tomato leaves and forest floor. Some astringency on the palate, produces a nice burn at the back of the throat. Good for salads, or cooking chicken or fish.

Koroneiki: Robust, with fruity, herbaceous aromas. Smooth, creamy texture and prominent bitterness. Blend with balsamic vinegar for salad dressing or use for cooking hearty Greek fare.

Picual: Powerful “green” aroma of tomatoes, greens and tomato leaves. Quite bitter on palate, with green tomato notes and pungency at back of the throat. Drizzle lightly over caprese salads or simple pasta.

With so many flavors and uses to explore, it looks like I’m going to have to make room in my pantry for a few new bottles.

Main photo: B.R. Cohn likes to harvest its Picholine olives when they are half green and half purple. Credit: Courtesy of B.R. Cohn Winery

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