Articles in Agriculture

Pierre and Monique Seillan moved to Sonoma in 1997. Credit: Courtesy of Monique Seillan

This Sonoma wine captivated with scents of gently crushed black cherries mildly seasoned with oak. Its attack was silky and the flavors echoed the wine’s alluring aromas. It was fresh and structured, though the oak gradually became more of a presence, indicating that the wine wanted cellaring.

It was the 2008 Vérité “La Joie,” an obsessively calculated blend of — here goes — 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. awarded it 99/100 points and rated the 2007 vintage 100/100. There was another perfect score for “La Joie’s” sibling, Vérité “Le Désir,” a Cabernet Franc-dominated blend. And the third wine of the Vérité trio, the Merlot-based La Muse, garnered 99/100 points.

I do not typically score wines. I write pages and pages of notes. Amid the adjectives for that 2008 Vérité “La Joie” I noted “quite European in style” and “very French.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the wines were made by a Frenchman, Pierre Seillan, 64, who hails from the Lot-et-Garonne region south of Bordeaux.

The Vérité project

The Vérité project was the dreamchild of California wine icon, Jess Jackson, who died in 2011. An attorney and self-made billionaire, Jackson bought a pear orchard in 1974, planted grapes and eventually began making wine. In 1982 he created Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and gave birth to a vinous revolution: Here was a moderately priced wine that trounced the Hearty Burgundies and other jug wines.

Jackson continued to build his empire, which at its height comprised 35 wineries in five countries. What eluded him was a great wine. Then Seillan entered the picture.

The time was 1995. Seillan was managing estates for the Bordeaux negociant Cheval Quincard, when a mutual friend arranged for Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke, to visit Seillan at one of the châteaux he was directing. In 1996 Seillan visited Jackson and by 1997 the Seillans had moved to Sonoma County.

They wasted no time. Vérité debuted with the 1998 vintage. But, first, as Seillan recalls, “Jess and I explored his different estates, vineyards and properties around California and around the world. I was able to identify and develop new locations in Sonoma County that were the right place for growing very high quality grapes, and matching the terroir to the appropriate varietal and rootstock. I then was able to identify what I defined later as ‘micro-crus.’ ”

The ‘micro’ approach

Seillan has worked with micro-crus for most of his life. “Ever since my grandmother taught me about soils and gardening when I was little at my parents’ estate in Gascony, then my work across Bordeaux, in the Loire Valley, in Tuscany and California. I learned to listen to the message of a particular place from the soil, climate and the vegetation, and to be able to match that to producing the right grapes in the right way.”

Seillan selects the best grapes from roughly a thousand acres of vineyards owned by Jackson to make the three versions of Vérité. The key parcels, well-exposed hillsides ranging from 578 feet to 2,457 feet, are: the Kellogg vineyard, Alexander Mountain Estate, Vérité Vale in Chalk Hill and Jackson Park.

Was the micro-approach uncommon in California? “Yes,” Seillan said. “Viticulture in California is still very young compared to France.”

In 2003, the Jacksons and the Seillans purchased the 55-acre Château Lassègue St. Emilion Grand Cru, and several years later, the 31-acre Château Vignot, also a St. Emilion Grand Cru. And Seillan manages the team at Jackson’s Tuscan properties.

Not surprisingly, the philosophy of micro-cru prevails, from painstaking selection of soils to persnickety parsing of grape percentages for each bottling.

A few favorites

Having tasted more than a dozen Seillan/Jackson wines recently, I had a hard job picking favorites. Nevertheless, I loved the 2010 Château Lassègue. Velvety and nuanced, it was fresh and structured, with notes of licorice blending with those of Burlat cherries. At $90 it’s not out of line for high quality Bordeaux and a lot cheaper than the 2008 Vérités ($390 a bottle). Of the three Tuscan wines, I much preferred the Chianti Classico to the two Bordeaux blends. Made from Sangiovese, the region’s traditional grape, it had a tasty story to tell on its home turf. What’s more, at $30 a bottle, it’s priced at roughly a third of the Super Tuscans.

And there’s a new, nicely priced charmer: Seillan has resuscitated vineyards planted by his mother on the Coteaux de Montestruc, facing the Pyrenees. True to form, he opted to plant Bordeaux grapes rather than those traditional to the region. The results are delectable. The 2012 Bellevue Seillan Côtes de Gascogne VdF, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, is a lip-smacking crowd-pleaser as well as a good value at $30 a bottle. Seillan’s grandma must be smiling.

Main image: Pierre and Monique Seillan moved to Sonoma in 1997. Credit: Courtesy of Monique Seillan

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Malvasia vineyards and bougainvillea at the Capofaro estate on Salina

Sicily is famous for its distinctive wines and native grape varieties, particularly those that grow on volcanic soils. Nerello Mascalese, today’s most talked-about Sicilian red grape, only flourishes on the slopes of Mount Etna, Italy’s largest active volcano. The lesser-known Malvasia delle Lipari grows instead on the volcanic Aeolian Islands, where it’s made into a delicious and unique dessert wine that also goes wonderfully with cheese.

Malvasia delle Lipari Passito DOC is made from sun-dried grapes in several versions, from very sweet to drier. It offers orange and floral notes, toasted nuts and rich apricots to the nose and, at its best, enough acidity in the mouth to balance the sweetness and keep it lively and long. The volcanic soils often confer exciting, salty minerality.

The Aeolians are the archipelago that sits between Italy’s “toe” in Calabria and Sicily’s northeastern corner. You reach them by ferry from Messina. The cluster of eight small islands, known as Isole Eolie in Italian, was named for Eolo, the god of wind in Greek mythology. No wonder: The Aeolians are subjected to winds from all sides. The islanders’ rudimentary lifestyle of fishing and agriculture was dramatically captured in “Stromboli,” Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 black-and-white film starring Ingrid Bergman. It was set on the island of Stromboli, another of Italy’s three active volcanoes.

Islands at a crossroads of culture

Contemporary vine-growing takes place mostly on two of the other islands, Lipari and Salina, but the archipelago has long been linked to wine, as professor Attilio Scienza, Italy’s foremost viticultural historian explains:

“These islands played an important role in the history of wine. As Phoenician and ancient Greek ships traveled the Mediterranean, they stopped off here to stock up on food and this allowed for important cultural exchanges.”

Scienza was speaking at Sicilia en Primeur, the itinerant Sicilian wine event that this year was held on the island of Vulcano.

“We know that grapes were grown and traded here: Grape seeds from 6,000 years ago have been found in archaelogical digs on Lipari. Later, in the 6th century, an unusual sweet wine became famous on the islands. It was made when very ripe, sun-dried grapes were heaped into a high mound whose weight naturally pressed the juice from the berries. This wine was known to keep — and therefore travel — well and its fame spread throughout the Mediterranean.”

The family of vines called Malvasia grows throughout the Mediterranean, but the Malvasia now found on the Aeolian islands has a DNA very close to that of the original Greek Malvasia. Despite facing extinction after the phylloxera attacks of the early 20th century, today Malvasia is being made in sweet and dry versions by a score of producers on the islands.

“Mediterranean peoples have a different, more cyclical, history than other Europeans,” Scienza says. “Life on these islands has hardly changed in 3,000 years. Today, this archaic, heroic viticulture can teach us a lot about how to make wine while maintaining the landscape sustainably.” Malvasia vines are often still grown as free-standing bushes, ad alberello, in steeply sloping vineyards. Their long roots reach deeply down; it rarely rains on these islands.

A much-favored vacation destination

The Aeolians offer some of the Mediterranean’s most sought-after holiday destinations, so if you want to explore their viticulture peacefully, it’s best to avoid the August crush. Winemakers have more time in spring and autumn to show their vineyards and organize tastings. Book your visit ahead, as these tiny estates are usually worked by the owners.

I recently visited seven top Malvasia producers, most of whom are situated on Salina. I made my base at Capofaro, the luxurious resort owned by the noble Tasca d’Almerita family whose historic estate, Regaleali, is located in central Sicily. The hotel is surrounded by vineyards, and you can enjoy their fine wines at Capofaro’s restaurant.

The name most often associated with Malvasia delle Lipari is Hauner‘s, who was the first to revive this traditional wine. Carlo Hauner makes fine Malvasia in sweet and dry versions.

Like Hauner, Fenech and Nino Caravaglio are artisanal Malvasia producers who supplement their incomes with the other plant that loves these arid conditions, the caper bush. Their tiny, salted capers — the plant’s flower buds — are famous throughout Italy. You can sample and buy these producers’ delicious wines and capers from their small cellars. Barone di Villagrande is another enterprising estate on Salina that also makes native reds on Etna.

If you go to Vulcano island, make an appointment with Paola Lantieri to visit her lovely house and vineyard. She makes her passito from grapes sun-dried on the vine and on cane racks. The latest addition to the Aelioan wineries is Castellaro, a large, ambitious project on Lipari. Their state-of-the-art cellar and expanding vineyards promise well for these ancient islands’ continuing viticulture.

Main photo: Malvasia vineyards and bougainvillea at the Capofaro estate on Salina. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Baker Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread scoops flour he's just milled. Credit: Monica Frisell

Across the country, bakers are starting to mill their own flour. The idea might seem silly. Make your own flour? Might as well make your own air. But like fresh ground coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh milled flour is a galaxy away from its banal supermarket counterpoint.

Flour’s job is often structural, delivering flavors such as butter and chocolate in sweets, or fermentation in bread. Flour stands in the background and doesn’t make a peep, like the ideal child of yore. This silence comes from stripping away the most flavorful elements of grains through the milling process, which generally removes all of the germ and much of the bran.

“Fat equals flavor,” a chef friend declared in the early ’90s, when fat was a popular thing to fear. I’ve found his statement holds true, even in grains.


Grain kernels have three parts: bran, endosperm and germ. Most of the oils are in the germ and the bran, which also hold minerals, nutrients and flavors. Flavor and fat are volatile. Once exposed to air in the milling process, the oils in grains spoil quickly. Bran has other strikes against it, and the biggest is that it interferes with making lofty, airy loaves of bread.

Roller mills, which were adopted in the late 1800s, allow for removal of bran and germ. One advantage of this is shelf stability, and another is making flour that is mostly endosperm, a powerhouse of starch and protein that’s great for baking.

Stone milling was the way to make flour for millennia. Now, millstones prop up mailboxes on suburban lawns, but the technology is having a revival. Bakers are adding stone mills to their kitchens because the process allows them to use more whole grain flours and experiment with flavors.

“Fresh milling is a new frontier in the repatriation of wheat to our regional economies,” said Steve Jones, director of The Bread Lab and Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center. The place is a magnet for inquisitive bakers drawn to the science that is following flour back to the field. The lab has small mills to test grains as scientists, and resident baker Jonathan Bethony, investigate varieties, seeking types that grow well for farmers and perform well for bakers.

“The flour is flavorful and quirky. The flavor is a plus for sure, the quirkiness can be a pain,” Jones said of fresh flour.

Flour aged to improve its strength

Flour is typically aged to improve its strength and even out irregularities that newly milled flour can display. Again, I think of children, who are tamed into good behavior. Time, or in many cases, bleach tames young flour, and its potentially wild expressions.

“We are working to add some predictability back to the equation. Fresh milled is usually weaker but in our experience still makes incredible bread and again the flavor makes it all worth it,” Jones said. “Grassy, nutty, chocolate and various hints of spice? You don’t get that from old flour.”

Jonathan Bethony mills wheat for flour at The Bread Lab. Photo credit: Kim Binczewski

Jonathan Bethony mills wheat for flour at The Bread Lab. Credit: Kim Binczewski

Fresh flour is one of the primary reasons Tabor Bread exists in Portland, Oregon. Owner Tissa Stein saw a gap in the foodie city, where there was wood-fired pizza, but no place exclusively making wood-fired bread, nor house-milled flour.

The bakery opened two years ago, in a house down the street from a dormant volcano, Mount Tabor. The kitchen is tucked behind the oven and mill, which are visible from the café. The Austrian mill has its own room, but the walls are glass, so people can see the action.

The pine-planked mill is pretty as a piece of furniture. Baker/millers pour grains in the hopper, and inside the wooden casing, two large stones grind grains into flour. Customers like to see this tool at work.

Stein likes being able to bake with whole grain flour for flavor and nutrition. She fell in love with bread of this quality when she lived in California and bought Desem bread from Alan Scott, the baker and oven maker who launched a wave of  microbakeries in America. Scott built an oven in Stein’s backyard, and influenced her decision, decades later, to mill whole grains and capture their vitality.

“Going directly from grain to flour to mix with only a day or two in between,” she said, enhances the taste, and the food value of the bread. Fresh whole grain flours add complexity, building layers of flavor from the lively enzymes on the bran that feed the sourdough cultures.

Fresh flour rather gymnastic

Fresh flour can be rather gymnastic because of those enzymes and other factors, but the challenges are hardly insurmountable. In fresh milling, people are tapping into a tradition, as Dave Miller did in the late 1980s. Getting a whiff of fresh flour as an apprentice at Berkshire Mountain Bakery really made an impression on him.

Bottom stone and wooden casing at the Plimoth Grist Mill, which runs on water. Credit: Amy Halloran

Bottom stone and wooden casing at the Plimoth Grist Mill, which runs on water. Credit: Amy Halloran

“That imprinted the whole thing for me,” Miller said. “As a baker you never get to smell fresh flour, and you don’t know what you’re missing.”

The moment when grains are cracked open is when the flour has the most potential nutrition, he believes. By the time he opened his own Miller’s Bake House in Northern California, he knew how he wanted to bake, using a wood-fired oven, organic grains and a stone mill. His experience is a model for others taken with the concept, and putting it into practice.

Theoretically, milling also lends more choices in sourcing, but current production for industrial milling and industrial baking limits what’s available, and its channels of distribution. Baker Graison Gill, of Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, is keenly aware of the flow of grain.

“We’re at the mecca of transportation for grain barges and elevators and silos,” Gill said. The Mississippi River handles 60 percent of grain exports for the country, but access to flour and grain is slim for the bakery. The constraints are partly why he chooses to mill some of the flour he uses. Making great bread with wildly good tastes and superior nutrition factors into the decision as well.

“When you’re stone milling you’re preserving the integrity of the grain,” he said, and all its vitamins and minerals. In the case of wheat that means, “Omega 3 fatty acids, plus phosphorus, folic acid, zinc, magnesium, iron, potassium, mono- and polyunsaturated fats and vitamins C, B and E.”

Bellegarde makes 4,000 to 5,000 loaves a week, selling to a mixed wholesale clientele of wine shops, supermarkets and restaurants. All of the breads incorporate some fresh milled flour. The fall menu of specialty breads was built to feature these stone ground whole grains, including wheat, rye, blue and yellow corn, buckwheat and durum. Louisiana rice and wheat go into the Acadian Miche, and a Pecan Flax bread is also made with Louisiana wheat. The Louisiana wheat is soft, and soft wheats are better for pastries, so he can only add so much to a bread.

“I got some Texas-grown hard red winter wheat and I made a loaf of it on Saturday and that was incredible,” Gill said. Aside from a few places milling grits, Bellegarde is an anomaly, which is a catch-22. Until there are more people seeking unusual grains, farmers can’t grow crops to serve the market.

The emergence of mills in bakeries can change that. Just as farmers markets acted as bridges to build local agriculture, mills are essential infrastructure for leveraging production of staple crops in small acreages and out of the commodity system.

Fresh flour, however, is not just a moral proposition, but a quick ticket to righteously great tastes. Dig around, and you might well find your favorite baker is getting curious about their main ingredient.

Main photo: Baker Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread scoops flour he’s just milled. Credit: Monica Frisell

***

It’s hard to do justice to all the miller-baker all-stars, but here’s a list of some bakeries milling some or all of their flour.

United States

Miller’s Bake House Yankee Hill, California

Tabor Bread, Portland, Oregon

Bellegarde Bakery, New Orleans

Elmore Mountain Bread, Elmore, Vermont

Bread & Butter Farm, Shelburne, Vermont

Green Mountain Flour and Bakery, Windsor, Vermont

Zu Bakery, South Freeport, Maine

Berkshire Mountain Bakery, Housatonic, Massachusetts

Farm & Sparrow, Candler, North Carolina

Sub Rosa, Richmond, Virginia

Boulted Bread, Raleigh, North Carolina

Renards European Bakeshop, Princeton, Wisconsin

Baker Miller, Chicago

Crooked Tree Breadworks, Petoskey-Harbor Springs, Michigan

460 Bread, Driggs, Idaho

Nomad Bakery, Derry, New Hampshire

Hillside Bakery, Knoxville, Tennessee

Canada

Fol Epi, Victoria, British Columbia

600 Degrees, Tofino, British Columbia

Boulangerie Bonjour, Edmonton, Alberta

True Grain Bread, Cowenchen Bay, British Columbia

The Night Oven Bakery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Some restaurants that feature fresh flour

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, New York

All Souls Pizza, Asheville, North Carolina

Pizzeria Locale, Denver/Boulder, Colorado

Some independent mills closely tied to bakeries

Wide Awake Bakery outside of Ithaca, New York, is linked to Farmer Ground Flour.

Pizzeria and Pane Bianco, Phoenix, are linked to Hayden Flour Mills.

Annie’s Bakery, Asheville, North Carolina, shares a roof with Carolina Ground, a mill associated with a slew of other bakeries in the area.

Stone mills can supply your home baking

Farmer Ground Flour, Enfield, New York

Hayden Flour Mills, Phoenix

Carolina Ground, Asheville, North Carolina

Grist & Toll, Pasadena

Camas Country Mill, Eugene, Oregon

Maine Grains at the Somerset Grist Mill, Skowhegan, Maine

Greenwillow Grains, Brownsville, Oregon

Anson Mills, Columbia, South Carolina

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Line up for the Taylor Swift of produce. Credit: Adair Seldon

The year 2014 not only beckoned all things local, organic and sustainable, it begged for transparency in our food supply. From growing concerns about GMOs and factory farming to the films “Fed Up” and “Food Chains,” people may finally be waking up to the fact that our food system is as much political machinery as tractors and plows.

Here are six food trends that prove consumers want more healthy, sustainable and humane options.

1. Organically growing

Once thought of as a niche movement for flower children and pretentious yupsters, organics is now as marketable as Taylor Swift. With 81% of U.S. families choosing organic food at least sometimes — and restaurants, food companies and grocery stores acquiescing to customer demand — it comprises about 4% of food sales in the U.S. (about $38 billion). Sales of organic products at Costco have doubled in the last two years (to about $3 billion a year), and Walmart is promising to sell organics at the same price as conventional food through an arrangement with Wild Oats. Where will all this organic food come from? Will the industrial-scale Walmartization of organics weaken organic standards and squeeze out the family farmers who helped commercialize the movement? There are already storm clouds on that horizon.

2. Non-GMO labeling

As consumers are getting hip to Big Food’s genetically engineered ways, the majority of Americans want GMO labeling. But as the big chemical and food companies continue to dump millions into defeating state labeling initiatives, smaller food companies and restaurants are taking matters into their own hands by touting non-GMO ingredients. In fact, Non-GMO Project verification may be the future for GMO labeling. In November, not only was Colorado’s Prop 105 defeated, Oregon’s Measure 92 was so close there was a recount — even though supporters were outspent by opponents, nearly $21 million to $8 million. Vermont is the only state that has successfully passed a labeling law, but it could be held up for years by appeals. Not to mention anti-labelist, corporate-backed politicians have introduced H.R. 4432, a bill that would prevent states’ rights to have mandatory food labeling and would also prevent the FDA from creating a national GMO labeling standard.
 But you can’t put the pesticide genie back in the Roundup bottle. The more these companies try to hide what’s in our food, the more we want to know.

 3. Locally sourced

People not only want to know what’s in their food, they want to know the chicken’s middle name and the arugula’s forwarding address. This new farm-curious mentality stems from the rise of farmers markets all over the country that is  fostering familial, Main Street communities. USDA data shows the continued growth of farmers markets for every region in the country. Five of the states with the most growth were in the South — Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina. Since this region has some of the highest obesity and poverty rates in the U.S., success here is great news. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms are also on the rise, including community seafood that sells sustainable seafood directly from local fishermen to consumers. Expect more artisanal companies to crop up, as well as restaurants touting their chickens’ favorite bedtime lullabies.

Gluten-free vegans rule. Credit: Adair Seldon

Gluten-free vegans rule. Credit: Adair Seldon

 4. Vegan and gluten-free menu items

Restaurants jumped on the “V” and “GF” bandwagons, kowtowing to the cow-less and wheat-less among us — not simply to indulge the trendier-than-thou set. People with real food sensitivities want dishes that are safer than thou. Restaurants are getting serious about allergen training, and many have separate menus for top allergens in order to mitigate potential emergency room visits and even fatalities. By law, Massachusetts and Rhode Island require restaurants to provide allergen training to their employees, and similar laws will probably appear in other states or even at the federal level. That way, diners will be less litigious than thou.

5. Dairy-free milks

Many conscious Americans are swapping cow’s milk for plant-based alternatives, and almond milk beats out soy, rice and coconut by a wide margin. However, 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in drought-afflicted California, and 10% of California’s water goes to almond farming (it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond), so where does that leave almonds on the sustainability meter? Hazelnuts from Oregon could be poised to respond to the nut milk demand. Oregon grows 99% of the country’s hazelnuts, which use less water, are drought-resistant and can thrive with minimal maintenance. Some high-end café owners actually prefer the taste and are already asking, “is hazelnut milk the new almond milk?”

6. Pasture-raised meats and grass-fed beef

As consumers are getting savvier about factory-farmed animals that eat GMO grains, we’re seeing more pasture- and grass-fed meats at farmers markets from small producers. Grass-fed and grass-finished beef are seeing a greater share of the consumer beef market, and larger producers are selling through chain grocery stores and restaurants. Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle, says, “Over time, we hope that our demand for grass-fed beef will help pave the way for more American ranchers to adopt a grass-fed program, and in doing so turn grass-fed beef from a niche to a mainstream product. … Most of the U.S. grass-fed beef that meets our standards is simply not produced in sufficient quantities to meet our demand. That’s why we want to encourage more American ranchers to make the transition to raising cattle entirely on grass.

Main photo: Line up for the Taylor Swift of produce. Credit: Adair Seldon

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Samuel Fromartz, editor of Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of

In artisanal bakeries from Brooklyn to Seattle, the bread counters are piled high with lovely loaves, from the hardiest Scandinavian ryes to French country sourdoughs, from spelt and buckwheat breads to baguettes. Yet this bounty of choice was pretty unusual in the roughly 20,000 years that humanity has been eating grains. While these breads are often associated with European traditions, the long-ago impetus to make a loaf a particular way — or make it into sustenance — has largely been forgotten. Choice — and here I’d include contemporary gluten-avoidance regimes —  didn’t determine what was eaten. Necessity did.


“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


If you go back to the pre-modern era, before bread became a commodity and flour was sold in supermarkets, those who depended on grain largely ate what was grown nearby. It might have been wheat. It might have been barley. It might have been rye. Or it might have been nothing at all, if the harvest failed.

Perfect: Samuel Fromartz practices what he preaches in his new book. Credit: Samuel Fromartz

To forestall such events, farmers hedged their bets by planting diverse cereal crops. Bakers — both craftsmen and homemakers — then had to figure out how to make this variety of ingredients palatable. Grains, after all, provided up to 80% of the calories in a diet.

Scots made cakes from oats and barley, since both grains were hardy in northern Europe. Rye prevailed in Eastern Europe, because the soil and climate were hospitable. During shortages, coarse bran was mixed into bread. Bakers also added walnuts, acorns and spent grains from the brewery to stretch a loaf. In southern France, ground chickpeas were made into socca flatbread. In Cyprus, bakers fermented chickpeas for wheat and barley loaves. Much later, a New World starch, potatoes, became a buffer against famine in 18th century Europe as the population exploded. Maize or corn served this purpose as well. Corn-rye proved crucial to early American settlers, where it was known as “rye-injun bread” because wheat grew poorly in the southern New England climate.

Now, of course, the impetus for such innovation is gone. Agricultural science has done much to ensure fairly steady wheat harvests, with high-yielding varieties. Industrial millers long ago came up with the means to provide standard flour to produce a steady supply of bread products. As this new wheat took over, their ancient progenitors largely vanished from the landscape — and the palate. By the late 1990s, researchers estimated, 97% of all the spring wheat grown in the developing world came from closely related modern varieties. “Landraces,” those seed populations saved and passed down by farmers, became a rarity.

Perfect: Samuel Fromartz practices what he preaches in his new book. Credit: Samuel Fromartz

Perfect: Samuel Fromartz practices what he preaches in his new book. Credit: Samuel Fromartz

As for the wheat kernel, about 30% to 40%  was siphoned off in the milling of white flour. We often hear about the fiber, minerals, lipids and vitamins in wheat bran and germ that are lost. What is less appreciated is that these nutrient-dense grain fractions also contain a lot of calories. Wheat bran, for instance, represents about 12% to 16% of the wheat kernel. With every kilo of bran removed in the milling of white flour, 2,160 calories are squandered, including 160 grams of protein. “Everyone understood that the whiter the flour, the smaller the number of people who could be fed by a given amount of grain,” historian Steven Kaplan has written of 18th century France. Wheat still provides the second-highest source of calories and is the top source of humanity’s protein, yet we’re content to waste such a significant amount of its nutrition.

Loss of craft baking knowledge

Also jettisoned along the path to modernity was the baker, who came up with the methods to make such whole grains palatable. In the age of industrial bakeries, we may cheer that freedom from drudgery. But I realized, in baking my own loaves for more than a decade, that we lost something else as well. It wasn’t simply the old world loaves that were largely left behind, or the grains that went into them, or the farms that grew diverse cereal crops. We also lost the craft knowledge that came from turning grains into food. This kind of knowledge could only be learned with practice, attention and tactile sensation.

To make really great bread, I found I had to put away my cognitive mind and learn the essential lessons of touch itself. I had to forget about following routine steps, since different grains — and different batches of them — often required adjustments. My sense of touch told me what tweaks to make, turning passable loaves into desirable ones. My hands were learning. At that moment I realized, if we really want to understand what sustained our species for millennium, spurred numerous innovations, and ultimately increased the supply of food in scarce times, our hands and craftwork are going to be at the center of that process. Our thinking minds will follow.

Main photo: Samuel Fromartz, editor of Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle

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Pouring out the Champagne. Credit: iStock

Corks are popping all over the place this month. More bottles of Champagne and other sparkling wines are sold during the holidays than at any other time of the year. With an elegance that eludes eggnog, bubbly is definitely a December favorite.

For many consumers, this is just about the only time that they buy and drink this particular type of wine. Not surprisingly, they often find themselves confused. Sparkling wines come in a wide array of styles and an even wider range of prices. Is the more expensive one inevitably best? Is Champagne always better than bubbly made elsewhere? And what do all those words on the label — “brut,” “extra dry,” “demi-sec” — really mean?

Here’s a primer, with answers to these and some other frequently asked questions.

Is Champagne really the best sparkling wine?

In a word, yes. Real Champagne comes from a relatively small region in northern France, where the cool climate and chalky soil combine to produce sparkling wines of remarkable grace and finesse. That’s why good Champagne remains the benchmark for anyone producing bubbly just about anywhere else.

What makes Champagne so distinct? Many things, but the most important factor is that the area is too cold for wine grapes to ripen fully. They retain lots of acidity, and while too tart for still wine, are perfect for bubbly.

That Champagne remains best doesn’t mean, however, that other sparkling wines are bad. Vintners all over the world make bubbly following the time-honored Champagne method, a laborious process in which a second fermentation in the bottle produces a stream of tiny, delicate bubbles. Their wines can be delicious. Look for an indication of this “classic” or “traditional” method on the label.

Why is Champagne so expensive?

Two reasons, really. First comes supply and demand. Though people clamor for Champagne all over the world, the region itself is relatively small. Second, because demand is so strong, vineyard land in Champagne is expensive. Growers need to charge a fair amount for their grapes to cover their costs. Couple the high price of the raw material with the expensive production method, and the wine simply can’t come cheap.

Speaking of cheap, you still can find some bottles of American bubbly for under $10 labeled as “Champagne.” Though regulations now restrict the use of the term, producers who labeled their wines with it in the past are allowed to continue to do so. These wines, however, are not made with the traditional method. They bear virtually no resemblance to true Champagne.

Are there any good, affordable Champagnes?

Absolutely, and this is definitely the time of year to buy them. Most shops put bubbly on sale during the holidays, and you can find some excellent Champagnes for under $30 a bottle. Look for the bruts from Henri Abelé, Piper Heidsieck, and Mumm (Cordon Rouge), all of which have impressed me recently.

What does ‘brut’ mean?

It means dry, and “ultra-brut” (Laurent-Perrier makes an excellent one) means very dry. Champagne nomenclature, however, gets confusing. You’d think “extra dry” would mean very dry. It doesn’t. Instead, a wine labeled “extra dry” will be slightly sweet, though not quite as sweet as one labeled “demi-sec,” a term that literally means half-dry. There’s absolutely no logic to it.

Incidentally, rosé Champagnes, which many people assume will taste sweet, are usually quite dry.

What about sparklers from elsewhere in Europe?

Spanish cava is always a popular alternative to Champagne, particularly since it carries a lower price tag. Made by the traditional method, but with different grape varieties, good cavas taste nutty rather than toasty, and rarely cost more than $15. Cristalino, Mont Marcal, and Segura Viudas are reliable producers.

Bubbly from the Loire Valley in France, though inevitably coarser in texture than Champagne, can be another option. For around $12, look for the bruts from Bouvet and Marquis de la Tour.

Prosecco from northeastern Italy is surging in popularity these days. Rarely made by the traditional method, the wines usually taste somewhat sweet. More like Champagne in style are brut Italian sparklers from Trentino and Franciacorta. Popular with the chic set in Milan, they are priced in the same league as the French originals.

Are there any good American sparkling wines?

Yes, and more and more all the time. Let’s start in California, where the Champagne-styled sparklers tend to taste fruity and frothy, the wines being made from riper grapes than in Champagne. Names to look for include Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, Roederer Estate, and Schramsberg. Expect to pay about $25 for a basic brut, and more for a vintage or prestige bottling.

Many other places in the United States also produce good bubbly. Westport Rivers in Massachusetts, L. Mawby in Michigan, Gruet in New Mexico, Chateau Frank in New York, Argyle in Oregon and Thibaut-Jannison in Virginia are examples of wineries whose wines have won numerous medals and awards at international competitions and are well worth trying.

What foods go best with ‘brut’ bubblies?

Wherever it comes from, brut sparkling wine pairs best with savory fare. It’s a remarkably versatile food wine, and can complement almost anything on your holiday buffet. I’m especially partial to it with seafood, notably shellfish and sushi.

But what about dessert?

Brut bubbly is simply too dry to complement desserts, as sugar or pastry cream makes the wine seem thin and metallic. Serve extra-dry or demi-sec wine instead. Veuve Clicquot makes an excellent non-vintage demi-sec that costs about $45. If that’s too much money, try Freixenet’s extra-dry cava for about $10.

Incidentally, virtually no sparkling wine matches well with chocolate, as the dark cocoa flavors invariably make the wine taste bitter.

What if I buy more wine than I end up opening over the holidays?

Good bubbly will improve noticeably with some time spent in the bottle, becoming more complex, nuanced and intriguing. You do need good storage conditions — a place that is relatively cool, with little direct light. Whether you use a closet or a basement, don’t worry about leftover bottles. Given all the sales during the holidays, this is definitely the season to stock up!

Main photo: Pouring out the champagne. Credit: iStock

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Martin Donatsch

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

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

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

Burgundy-style winemaking

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

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

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

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

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

Local varietals at risk

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

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

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

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

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Rashid Nuri. Credit: Sarah Khan

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

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

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

Sandra Simone, of voice and vetch

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

Frankie Lee Michael, on native southern pecans

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

Rashid Nuri, on urban agriculture

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

Main image: Rashid Nuri. Credit: Sarah Khan

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