Articles in Agriculture

Corn grows in fields in California's Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.

Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.

Agribusiness central to region

Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.

Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.

Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.

The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.

Produce packinghouses

Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.

There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.

World Ag Expo

One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.

The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.

The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.

Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

I hope you don’t think it’s rude, but I’m restoring my gut flora as I type. Ever since I discovered that 90% of my health lives in my gut, I decided to take action. At this very moment, I’ve got 10 probiotic strains and 100 billion live cultures on my stomach’s stage. I’m trying to revive my good bacteria because the warmup act was some heavy-metal thrashers.

I got tested for heavy metals, at my doctor’s behest, to see what was causing my liver congestion and inflammation. Turns out I have too much Alice Cooper. Sure, I have Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin and Metallica too, but my high volume of Alice, or aluminum, concerns me the most since my dad had Alzheimer’s. I’d like to detox, but not with one of those generic, kale-me-now juice cleanses. I want a chelation plan that’s tailored to my individual chemical body burden, or as I call it, Toxic Life Overload (TLO).

We all have TLO. I’m not special. The only difference is that I peed in some plastic jugs for two days, and now I’m acquainted with the whole Mötley Crüe. The fact is, we live in a chemical stew of toxic food, water, air and products that we clean with, sleep with and slather on our skin.

Industrial chemical pollution begins in the womb. Lead, mercury, pesticides, BPA and up to 232 industrial chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood of newborns. The Environmental Working Group tested more than 200 people for 540 industrial chemicals and found 482 of them in their bodies. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel declared that the number of cancers caused by toxic chemicals is “grossly underestimated” and warned that Americans face “grievous harm” from largely unregulated chemicals that contaminate air, water and food.

The autoimmune effect

Is it a coincidence that over the last 30 years, the autoimmune epidemic has nearly tripled to more than 100 diseases? About 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease — 75% of them women — including multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn’s, Celiac, chronic fatigue, thyroiditus, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

But I’m starting to think that knowing my TLO is TMI. I thought knowledge would lead to prevention, but I’m too busy worrying about Quiet Riot sneaking up on me to prevent anything but a good night’s sleep. From every BPA plastic container to each GMO corn kernel, I hear those Black Flag, Anthrax and Megadeth songs screaming in my head.

The new mind-body connection

Most diseases arise from the interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and the environmental agents to which he or she is exposed. Yet I’ve been reading up on the new science of epigenetics, which is the theory that your thoughts and beliefs can alter your gene expression. I’m talking major shifts in cellular activity leading to physiological changes. Optimism, altruism, visualization, healing energy, meditation and prayer are all said to have epigenetic effects.

Scientifically proven or not, many prominent doctors, scientists and health practitioners are touting this line of thinking. Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of  “The Biology of Belief” asserts that genes and DNA don’t control our biology — that DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our thoughts. Deepak Chopra claims there’s more and more evidence of the mind-body connection, and that we can transform our own biology by responding to all that we experience, including thoughts, feelings, words and actions. He says that regardless of the genes we inherit, change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate.

Does that mean if I change the way I think, my dad’s Alzheimer’s won’t necessarily be mine? But what about Alice Cooper? He’s not in my genetic makeup, but he’s still in my blood. Thank God he’s not in my makeup. Who needs all that black and white shmutz on their face? Hey, was that gratitude? Maybe it really works!

OK … here I go. I’m changing my tune. From now on, this Twisted Sister is gonna be more Pharrell Williams. Sure, his songs are lightweight, but at least they’re not heavy metal. If I could just turn down the volume, it might be music to my gut.

Because I’m happy … clap along … sing this song and turn off that Mötley Crüe … Happy … clap along, sing this song and stop stressin’ ’bout the stew …

Main photo: Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

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Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery's vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

If you live in Seattle, you summer at Lake Chelan.

It’s a requirement of residency, along with buying your pearl barley at the co-op and stoically facing down nine months of gloom each year. You load up the Subaru Outback and make the 180-mile trek across the Cascade Mountains to a narrow glacier-fed lake that cuts into those peaks for 50-plus miles. There you swim, boat and bake — or burn — for a few of the inland region’s 300 days of sunshine a year.

And increasingly, you travel from winery to winery, tasting local bottlings that are expanding in number and quality.

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state, and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Wine grapes have been grown on the lakeshore since the late 1800s. But Chelan is still an infant among American wine regions when it comes to commercial production, going back less than two decades. The 24,040-acre Lake Chelan American Viticulture Area — the 11th AVA in Washington state — is only 5 years old. It remains part of the 11-million acre Columbia River AVA, one of the powerhouse regions in a state that ranks 2nd only to California in U.S. wine production.

Lake Chelan Valley’s unique properties — including the lake’s cooling effect that helps counter eastern Washington’s relentless heat — have been attracting winemakers and growers, sandwiched among the area’s traditional apple orchards. From a handful a decade ago, the area now has more than 20 wineries with an upstart temperament and, sometimes, a quirky sense of humor. (The Hard Row to Hoe winery takes its name from an enterprising oarsman who nearly a century ago carried workers across the lake to an equally enterprising brothel.)

The lake’s wineries are bottling a wide range of grapes from Chelan and the broader Columbia River region, from Syrah to the obscure Picpoul.

Charlie and Lacey Lybecker know about both grapes — and about pursuing the dream of making wines on a small scale in a corner of Washington wine country.

The Lybeckers are in their sixth year of producing wines, for the past three years from Cairdeas Winery on Highway 150 near the town of Manson. Their operation says family owned and operated, down to 2-year-old Eugene in his father’s arms as Charlie passed through the tasting shed on a recent afternoon.

Cairdeas, which means friendship, goodwill or alliance in ancient Gaelic, is a dream still in the midst of being fulfilled for Charlie, 34, and Lacey, 31. They produced their first bottles in their home in West Seattle and were looking to relocate to eastern Washington wine country when Lacey came to Chelan on a business trip.

Getting in while Lake Chelan Valley’s young and growing

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery's 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache blanc, Roussanne and Picpout. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery’s 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picpoul. Credit: Roger Ainsley

“As soon as we saw Lake Chelan, it was like there’s no other option,” says Charlie, who studied winemaking at Seattle’s Northwest Wine Academy. “It was really appealing to us to get in while it’s still young and see the valley grow and help it grow.”

Cairdeas reflects their passion for Rhone varietals — Syrahs, Viogniers, Roussanne — with the grapes coming from around the Columbia River AVA, some from Chelan. Their method for sourcing grapes is straightforward: When they taste a great wine from the region that reflects the style they are seeking, they find out where the grapes came from and go knocking at the grower’s door.

By next spring, however, about half of their six acres near the lakeshore will be planted with their own Syrah.

“There are some very high-quality grapes coming out. I think people are really experimenting a lot and seeing what types of grapes grow really well here,” Charlie says. “For my personal taste, I think the Syrah from Lake Chelan is absolutely the best.”

And then there’s Picpoul, an obscure grape that Charlie has used to advantage in his “new favorite white wine right now,” Cairdeas’ Southern White. “It’s an extremely acidic grape by itself but has great flavors and we use it as a blending grape,” he explains. The result: a bright wine with a broad palette of flavors that could work in place of Sauvignon Blanc with a simple grilled chicken.

The Lybeckers hope to tap in to Lake Chelan’s natural advantages, including as a wine tourist destination. As Lacey notes, the lake comes ready made with tourism infrastructure — lakeshore hotels, golf courses, water sports and winter snow skiing — that some Washington wine regions had to create from scratch.

Their goals are at once ambitious and limited: Having grown from producing 250 cases in 2009 to slightly over 2,000 this year, they figure on topping off at about 4,000 cases. Then build a new tasting room facing the lake. Add a picnic area and a pond. Maybe offer up farm dinners.

“We are always going to be a very small family winery,” Charlie says.

Adds Lacey: “We want to make sure we always have our hands in the process.”

Main photo: Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery’s vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

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A boy learns about the pleasures of fresh tomatoes at the Evanston Market in Illinois. Credit: Ken Meuser

Teach a kid to grow a carrot, or a cucumber, or even a cauliflower, and chances are that child will want to eat it. This common-sense notion is backed up by many studies, as well as anecdotal evidence from those who interact with kids in family and school gardens.

The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reviewed 11 garden-based nutrition studies and found that adolescents who participated in these programs increased their fruits and vegetables consumption. The results of one study, in which children spent 12 weeks working in a garden taste testing the produce and using it to make their own snacks, found that 98% of kids said they liked the taste tests; 96% liked working in the garden; and 91% enjoyed learning about fruits and vegetables. One of the conclusions of the study was that food and nutrition professionals should use “seed-to-table” activities to help teach kids about healthy eating.

Seed libraries

One easy way for families and schools to get the seeds for seed-to-table learning is through “seed libraries” — places where people can peruse many varieties of tomato, cucumber, green bean, and other seeds, and then “check out” seeds they want to grow. At the end of the growing season, the person saves some seed, and returns it to the seed library. As more and more people have begun growing some of their own food, seed libraries have sprung up all over the U.S., with about 300 currently operating.

Recently, though, the culture of growing good food and community ran up against the culture of bureaucracy, control and fear as the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture shut down a seed bank at a public library in Mechanicsburg. Seed sharing, it turns out, is seen by some as dangerous. Barbara Cross, a Cumberland County commissioner, was quoted as saying that “agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario,” and “protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge.”

To which many of us would say, “Amen, sister!”

sowing seeds

A farmer holds native prairie plant seeds at Spence Farm in Fairbury, Ill. Credit: Terra Brockman

Growing your own

One way to maintain and protect food sources is to know the source of your food, and what better way than to grow it from seed and prepare the fresh vegetables yourself. At a time when obesity and chronic diet-related illnesses are skyrocketing, we need more seed libraries and more people ready and willing to engage in civil di-seed-obedience, if necessary, to fight overzealous bureaucrats and to ensure that people have the opportunity to grow their own food.

Here are a few ways to do that:

Find a seed library near you, or start your own: There are a number of websites to  help. If you are concerned about the legalities, there is good information from the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s webpage, Setting the Record Straight on Seed Libraries.

Get some seeds and sow ‘em: Turn over some soil and invest in some basic garden tools. Throw in a compost heap and a few earthworms to help decompose the food, and you may never get your kids back into the house. See Start a Lazy Garden for an easy start-up plan.

Start a conversation at the next PTO/PTA meeting: Getting the support of other parents is a good way to start a school garden. You may also want to talk to cafeteria managers and principals to get their suggestions and buy-in. For inspiration, check out the Edible Schoolyard or Seeds of Solidarity programs. The groups listed below provide curriculum and planning materials:

• National Gardening Association’s kidsgardening.org

• Collective School Garden Network

Slow Food USA’s School Garden Guide

 Main photo: A boy learns about the pleasures of fresh tomatoes at the Evanston Market in Illinois. Credit: Ken Meuser

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New on the market in the United Kingdom from Marks & Spencer: White Stilton® with dried sour cherries and a candied orange peel coating, left, and Cornish Cruncher Cheddar with white balsamic vinegar and red bell pepper with a red bell pepper coating. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

There’s something inescapably tacky about the thought of Cheddar cheese blended with  pickled onion or smoked ham and mustard, like a Ploughman’s lunch without the hard work. Nonetheless, blended cheese or cheese with extra “bits” (technically known as cheese with additives, although the industry is sensitive to the term), erupts over British cheese counters like lava down Krakatoa.

Such cheese with bits look like a larder gone hideously mad or a product of the sorcerer’s apprentice on acid. Over the years, I have had the misfortune to encounter cheese with piccalilli, garlic and mushroom, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, asparagus and leek, Guinness, Worcestershire sauce and pecan nuts, not to mention clashing varieties cemented together in weird layers. Colby jack or Cojack (as I like to call it) is an all-American combination of Colby and Monterey jack blended together before pressing that makes a “fun” snack. Right.

Phew, it’s all as cheesy as a Barry White song — and sells equally as well.

Ilchester has been a leader in the U.K. specialty cheese scene ever since they launched their Beer Cheese in 1962. Today, their selection also includes Mexicana™ chili cheese, Cheddar with Pickled Onion & Chives, and Marmite™ Cheddar. Yes, you either love it or hate it.

Booze as a ‘bit’ in your cheese

And, what is it with cheese with booze – on either side of the Atlantic? Red Windsor, marbled with red wine or Port (and coloring), may be of ancient lineage but frankly is an insult to Bordeaux and looks like it has leprosy. And don’t get me started on Cahill’s Irish Porter Cheddar: once tasted, never forgotten … but not in a good way. And there’s also Cheddar and Whisky, Chile Lime & Tequila Cheddar, Caramelized Onion and Rioja Cheddar.

In the U.S., you can find a Chocolate Stout Cheddar from Oregon or a nice Merlot BellaVitano from Wisconsin. Are we all so desperate for a drink?

Dessert cheeses also have a following: Lemon Crumble, Cheddar with Fruitcake, Wensleydale with Mango and Ginger. At least it makes life easier for those who never know whether to serve the cheese before or after the pudding.

There are combinations that are meant to go together but such inventions as White Stilton with Apricots or Blueberries and Wensleydale with Mango and Ginger have no natural, logical affinity. Wensleydale with Cranberries, for example, marries sharp-tasting fruit with rich-flavored cheese in a disturbing combination that is inexplicably popular. Personally, I’d demand a divorce.

Cheese with date and walnut, apple and celery, or Thai spices feeds an obsession with novelty for novelty’s sake, a mass flavor-of-the-month mentality in a pick ‘n’ mix culture. Block-produced Cheshire with pear and almonds is as different from Appleby’s legendary hand-crafted production as, well, chalk from cheese.

Part of the cheese counter at Sainsbury's supermarket in Manchester, United Kingdom. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Part of the cheese counter at Sainsbury’s supermarket in Manchester, England. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Thankfully, peanut butter hard cheese has never made it past the dairy door — as far as I know. But it is probably just a matter of time.

Good cheese as a base is key

On the other hand, where there is a good cheesemaker you’re more likely to find a good cheese with bits: the delicate network of soft green veins that distinguishes Fowlers Traditional and Original Green Derby comes from natural sage, not lurid artificial coloring. Dutch Gouda with cumin seeds is a centuries-old, tried-and-tested combination. An artisan Cornish Gouda with Honey and Clover is now being made by a Dutch family in Cornwall (my jury-of-one is still out on this).

Dartmoor Chilli, Meldon (with English mustard and Ale) and Chipple (with spring onions) are all made on the base of the well-esteemed, sweet, mild Curworthy cheese. The Sharpham Estate’s Rustic is flavored with chives and garlic; and Wedmore, made by scattering chives through the center of each round of aged Caerphilly at Westcombe Dairy in Somerset captures the flavors of the lush Somerset meadows.

There can be a fine line between those cheeses that contain bits and those infused with an extra dimension of flavor, such as Cornish Yarg, wrapped with nettle or wild garlic leaves, or the coating of fresh herbs that add interest and contrast to soft cheese such as award-winning Rosary Garlic and Herb Goats Cheese. And the best smoked and washed rind cheeses, which are brushed with wine or cider, are about discretion not domination.

One problem with cheese with bits is the suspicion that it is a way of adding “extra value” to inferior, poorly textured, mass-produced cheese without adding extra care. No manufacturer will ever plead guilty, but the fact is: If the quality of the base cheese is poor, whatever you add won’t make it any better.

Cheese as an entrée point

But as fast as flavors come, they also seem to go.

These additives are fashion products. Maybe this sort of fun cheese can give younger folks, for many of whom cheese is just something that drips off a burger, an entrée into the cheese world and will lead them to better products — much as has happened in wine. Indeed, it may be that opening up the market, adding range and variety, may even save some standard cheeses from decline.

Maybe. But I still think the person who put Jamaican jerk sauce into cheese should be forced to eat it every day.

Main photo: New on the market in the United Kingdom from Marks & Spencer: White Stilton® with dried sour cherries and a candied orange peel coating, left, and Cornish Cruncher Cheddar with white balsamic vinegar and red bell pepper with a red bell pepper coating. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.

Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.

A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.

Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.

There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.

Among the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

Among the backdrop of New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.

“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.

Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue

The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.

In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.

Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”

Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.

PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.

The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.

Check your local PBS listings for show times.

Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV

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Bayd beldi and bayd roumi sit side by side. White bayd beldi are smaller than their brown counterparts, and considerably more expensive. Credit: Serenity Bolt

Standing in a busy Moroccan souk, a chicken seller holds up two squawking birds. Holding the brown one slightly higher, he repeats an increasingly familiar word: “beldi.” Beldi is a word in Arabic meaning “traditional” or “indigenous.” Unsurprisingly, the brown chicken’s beldi status bears a higher price tag — nearly triple that of the white one, which is roumi, or conventionally raised, rather than free range.

The appeal of traditional, locally grown food is well-known throughout the world. Within Morocco and abroad, beldi is being used to market quality boutique-style products to foreigners and Moroccans. Moroccan beldi include raib beldi, thin drinkable yogurt; zebda beldia, homemade or traditional Moroccan butter; and citron beldi, indigenous lemons used to make preserved lemons. In Morocco, McDonalds is jumping on the bandwagon with a specialty sandwich called the “P’tit Beldi” featuring spiced halal meat. Even U.S. grocer Whole Foods is now selling products such as “Beldi: A small, fruity olive from Morocco.”

The Author


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Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Serenity Bolt is a writer and photographer currently based in Rabat, Morocco, where she works with Round Earth Media to edit and publish Reporting Morocco,  a source for work by young journalists. In her spare time, Bolt also dabbles in web design, cooking and world travel. 

Although such a surge of interest in artisanal goods can help preserve fragile traditions, it can also drive prices up and limit accessibility for locals. So, how does foreign interest in Moroccan food products affect what is valued — and available — in Morocco?

Concept of beldi

To answer that question one needs to understand that the concept of beldi has deep cultural roots in Morocco that go far beyond the use as a marketing tool to foreigners. Omar Magouri, a local shopper in Tangier, explains, “The word beldi can be applied to many things. A woman who wears traditional clothes and does things the old way is beldi. Things that are produced with care are beldi. The opposite of this is roumi, which can be anything non-traditional, imported or made in a factory.” Magouri explains that a person who eschews tradition can also be roumi.

Where food and cooking are close to the heart of every Moroccan, beldi refers to something more elusive than quality; rather, it connotes quality as a reflection of deep cultural pride.

This appreciation for time-honored, traditional methods of producing food and esoteric regional ingredients has made Morocco a place where the Slow Food movement is taking hold.  Founded in 1986 by Italian activist Carlo Petrini, Slow Food promotes linking “the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”

Slow Food began its involvement with Morocco in 2001 through its international Presidia project, which provides assistance to producers of  “threatened” products such as the Brazilian Baru nut, American raw-milk cheeses, Dehraduni basmati rice in India, Mananara vanilla from Madagascar and the Basque pig from France.

In Morocco, the Presidia’s projects have brought positive global attention to local food products and established a link between local food producers and chefs in high-end restaurants, such as Ch’hiwates du terroir in Rabat, the Chefs in Residence program at Restaurant Numero 7 in Fez and the Amal Center restaurant in Marrakesh. They are also involved in training and educational projects, many of which are aimed at women.

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Khadouj Lmrabete, a woman from the countryside, sells beldi vegetables in the market. She travels to the city every day from her farm, almost 20 miles from Tangier. Credit: Serenity Bolt

Slow Food movement

Sophie Duncan, a Fulbright researcher currently studying food in Morocco, works with the international Ark of Taste, a project of Slow Food that draws attention to, protects and catalouges traditional products around the world. So far, 15 Moroccan products have been nominated to the Ark, including cumin from Anif, a village in southeastern Morocco where cumin is prized for its quality and intense aroma; saffron from Taliouine, a mountain in the heart of Morocco’s famed saffron region; and salt from Zerradoun, a group of scattered houses in the foothills of the Rif mountains in northeastern Morocco where there are two historic salt pans.

Duncan says foreign interest in beldi products can have both positive and negative effects. “It’s wonderful that tourists and foreign customers can buy Moroccan products and support Moroccan producers, and in some sectors and areas this has become an important source of income. However, it can also definitely drive prices up and make products less available to locals. Argan oil and amlou (a paste made from toasted almonds, honey and argan oil) are two examples of products that are becoming very popular abroad and are now quite expensive.”

So far, according to Duncan, Morocco seems well-equipped to handle burgeoning foreign interest in traditional products without sacrificing authenticity. Interest in beldi products is being funneled into high-end restaurants and boutiques, while local markets offer beldi and roumi choices to shoppers of all denominations. Most small-scale producers have maintained a focus on local markets.

She explains, “For the most part, producers continue to make these products not solely for a tourist/foreign market, but because they feel a connection to their history. I think the feeling that you are contributing to the preservation of a food product that is important to your own identity and your community’s history can be quite rewarding. The vast majority of Moroccans that I have talked to do seem to get far more excited about beldi products than about their roumi equivalents.”

They may be excited, but beldi products can put quite a dent in the average Moroccan’s wallet. Tangier chicken seller Hamm Cherkaoui explains that in the souk, or market, “You can get a white djaj roumi [conventionally raised chicken] for 40 dirhams (almost $5 USD). The djaj beldi  (traditionally raised chicken) will cost 120 (about $14.25 USD).” But, with the beldi chicken, “the taste is much better,” Cherkaoui says.

What’s what in Morocco

Looking to go beyond olives the next time you find yourself in a Moroccan souk? Here are a few beldi suggestions from sellers in the bustling markets of Tangier.

Smen beldi

Smen beldi is homemade clarified butter or zebda beldia that has been preserved with salt and herbs. Aged smen can be quite pungent because of the aging process.

Citron beldi or l’hamd beldi

These are varieties of lemon found throughout Morocco, such as the small doqq lemons (Citrus limonum Risso var. pusilla R) from the Taroudant region outside of Agadir and boussera lemons, or limonette de Marrakesh, often used in traditional recipes.

Bayd beldi 

These organic eggs are small with white shells and bright orange yolks. Bayd beldi are considerably more flavorful and higher quality than the more common large brown roumi eggs (bayd).

Raib beldi

Raib beldi is raw cow’s milk that has been coagulated with enzymes from dried wild artichokes. Raib beldi can be eaten plain or flavored with orange water or vanilla.

Khilia beldi

Khilia is dried beef or camel meat that has been preserved in fat that is a delicacy from Fez. It is eaten fried, often for breakfast with eggs.

Samet

This thick syrup, made from a particular variety of grapes in the mountainous Chefchaouen region, is extremely difficult to find. The juice, which is concentrated in terra-cotta pots, is eaten as a sweet honey substitute in addition to use as a traditional medicine for colds and stomachaches.

Main photo: Bayd beldi and bayd roumi sit side by side. White bayd beldi are smaller than their brown counterparts, and considerably more expensive. Credit: Serenity Bolt

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Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Serenity Bolt is a writer and photographer currently based in Rabat, Morocco, where she works with Round Earth Media to edit and publish Reporting Morocco.

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Pan-seared char. Credit: Kathy Hunt

For fans of seasonal seafood, summer’s end is an eagerly anticipated event. This is the time when oysters recover their former glory and plump wild char return to northern rivers and lakes.

Not familiar with wild or even farmed char? You’re not alone. Although more than five years have passed since U.S. News and World Report ranked char No. 2 among the “11 best fish” to eat, this eco-friendly creature has yet to hit its stride with consumers.

I suspect the snub is inadvertent. When browsing supermarket display cases, shoppers tend to gravitate to what they know. They see fat, pink slabs of salmon and immediately reach for them instead of the coral-fleshed fillets and steaks labeled “Arctic char.” Unfortunately, by grabbing the old standby, they’ve deprived themselves of a versatile and delicious omega-3-rich fish.

Char pairs well with many flavors, can be cooked in endless ways

Those who take a chance and replace their usual purchase with char will find striking similarities. Like salmon, char possesses bright, silvery skin and flesh ranging in color from pale pink to ruby red. Its firm, juicy meat calls to mind a mild salmon or a bold trout.

In terms of cooking, char responds well to a host of techniques, including baking, broiling, braising, grilling, pan frying, poaching and cold or hot smoking. I find that it goes beautifully with a wide range of ingredients. Basil, chervil, chives, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, barbecue sauce, cream, curry, ginger, lemon, sesame, mushrooms, spring onions, shallots and white wine all complement its pleasant taste.

Flexible. Flavorful. Good for you. Sound a bit like salmon? It does to me. However, unlike salmon, which has a complicated track record with sustainability, char is an environmentally sound seafood choice.

Several varieties of char exist. Of these, I most often see Arctic char in markets and on menus.

How Arctic char gets its name

If you’re a stickler about nomenclature, you may think the name Arctic char is a bit misleading. Char comes not from the North Pole but 500 miles south of it, from lakes and rivers in Alaska, northern New England, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Great Britain, Scandinavia and parts of Russia. Its remote homelands make it the most northerly freshwater fish species in the world. These locales also provide it with the “Arctic” in Arctic char.

Most often the char I buy has been raised on land in tanks. This method of aquaculture releases little pollution or parasites, making farmed char a safe seafood choice. For the same reason, it is also a good alternative to farmed Atlantic salmon, whose aquaculture pollutes waters and contains a large amount of toxins.

Although I’m a big advocate of farmed char, I still look forward to wild char’s brief fall showing. After a summer spent gorging on cod, shrimp, snails, salmon eggs and other aquatic life, these char return to their cold, freshwater lakes 50%  fatter than when they left. Thanks to their rich and diverse diets, some reach up to 34 pounds in weight. Meanwhile, farmed char only grow to between 5 and 15 pounds. The added girth helps the wild species survive brutally harsh winters. It also makes them quite rich and delectable.

For centuries, native people have relied upon fat, hearty, wild char for sustenance. The Inuits of North America and the Arctic are especially indebted to this fish. They eat it in raw and cooked forms, smoking, drying, curing and grilling the meat.

Char roe is high in protein

They consume char roe, which is high in protein and Vitamin B, and leaving nothing to waste, Inuits have been known to use fish bones for knitting needles. They also turn the skin into a waterproof material for sewing pouches and coats for kayakers.

Because I am nowhere near as resourceful as the Inuit, I just stick with cooking char. When I’m lucky enough to come across wild char, I broil, pan sear or grill the fillets or steaks. Juicy and flavorful, wild char needs nothing more than a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a drop of olive oil.

Should I crave a flashier preparation, I make the following dish. As with salmon, char has finished cooking when it reaches an internal temperature of 137 degrees F or its flesh has become opaque and flakes when probed with a fork.

Sesame-Crusted Char

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons tamarind paste
  • 2 tablespoons boiling water
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon plus ¼ teaspoon sugar
  • Salt to taste
  • ¼ cup sesame seeds
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 4- to 6-ounce char fillets, skins on
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten
  • 2 teaspoons water

Directions

  1. In a small bowl, mix together the tamarind paste, water, lime juice, sugar and salt, stirring until the tamarind paste has dissolved completely into the liquids.
  2. Place the sesame seeds in a flat, shallow dish.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. As the oil is heating, whisk together the egg white and 2 teaspoons water. Brush the mixture over the char fillets.
  4. Coat the skinless side of the fillets with the egg white and then dredge them through the sesame seeds. Place the fillets, seed side down, in the frying pan. Cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Turn the fillets with tongs and cook on the skin side until just done. The fish should be pale pink and tender. Depending on the thickness of the char, this could be anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes.
  5. Place the fillets skin side down on four dinner plates. Drizzle the tamarind sauce over top of each. Serve immediately.

Photo: Pan-seared char. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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