Articles in Agriculture

A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Farmers markets are everywhere. Thanks to a rapid expansion in recent years, there are more than 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S., making it possible for almost everyone to buy fresh food directly from farmers. But with so many stalls and so many different foods, farmers markets can feel overwhelming. How do you find the best produce? Who’s who? And what’s what?

Follow our slideshow to learn the tricks to getting the most out of shopping at your local farmers market. In no time, you will be addicted to the super fresh fruits and vegetables and the seemingly endless variety. Shopping for produce and the other delicacies you can find at a farmers market will become a joy instead of a chore.

More from Zester Daily:

» Shopping for a farmer at the farmers market
» Hey growers, be honest with your farmers market customers
» Changing farmers markets
» How to cook up your own romance in a French market

Main photo: A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

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A woman uses the Bioculture app in the ancient hilltop town of Camerino. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Le Marche is an unspoiled, green and beautiful region in central Italy bordering the Apennines and the Adriatic with which even many Italians are unfamiliar. Although there have been attempts to designate the region as the “new Tuscany” or call the excellent wines SuperMarche (dropped because, hey, who wants to call a top-flight bottle supermarket?), Le Marche speaks for itself. And, what it says is good food and wine, medieval villages, ancient abbeys, silvery olive groves, golden fields of wheat and vineyards as straight as arrows streaking across the rolling hills.

As Federico Bomba, director of the innovative Bioculture app project, says, the landscape reflects man’s attempt to impose order and precision on a naturally unruly terroir. The recently launched app offers an English-language walking guide through the inland region of Le Marche that brings together digital technology, contemporary art and green lifestyle. Where a traveler once depended on Baedeker or Fodor’s, all they need now are a cellphone or tablet and a charger.

Using the app

Federico Bomba, founder of www.bioculture.it, demonstrates one of the original art videos on the app. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Federico Bomba, founder of www.bioculture.it, demonstrates one of the original art videos on the app. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Wine? Check. Art? Check. Walking shoes? Check. Mobile digital device? Check. Did I mention wine? Using the well-constructed app is easy, even for technophobes. Click on the location you are in either before or during the visit to map your route, read about the main points of cultural interest from medieval frescoes to chocolate box opera houses to esoteric museums, view original art works and videos that connect to the locale, listen to stories and contemporary sound compositions, and head for local organic vineyards, restaurants and agritourism farms.

Go on a cultural pilgrimage

Artist Giacomo Giovannetti explains the concept of the www.bioculture.it app against the backdrop of the ancient hilltop village of Elcito, about 2,600 feet (800 meters) above sea level. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Artist Giacomo Giovannetti explains the concept of the www.bioculture.it app against the backdrop of the ancient hilltop village of Elcito, about 2,600 feet (800 meters) above sea level. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The app follows the walking journey — a kind of contemporary cultural pilgrimage — undertaken by six young multimedia artists to discover the landscapes, traditions, organic food and wines of the region. As native-born Giacomo Giovannetti explained, the aim was not just to reference the past but to “use a contemporary language and our experience of working around the world to tell the story of our land. Le Marche is little and unknown, but big in inspiration.” To video artist Fabrizio Carotti, the landscape brings peace and concentration by allowing artists time to expand and breathe. Carotti makes an interesting point, “Italy is too often bowed down by its historic past, it makes it hard for us to look to the future. Sometimes, we have to go abroad to have a view of what is contemporary, but we want to tell our own stories in that way. Modern art can be a route to rediscover our old art by giving it another point of view.”

Sample the local foods

Typical “zero kilometers” antipasti in Le Marche, as served at the Pietra Maula agritourism restaurant near Castelraimondo. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Typical “zero kilometers” antipasti in Le Marche, as served at the Pietra Maula agritourism restaurant near Castelraimondo. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The entire trip takes three weeks, but the visitor can dip in and out of the route as they wish, sampling local food specialties on the way. It is a  sophisticated yet accessible concept of “culture” that goes far beyond the mainstream.

One of the most memorable features of the app are the videos made by Carotti and Simona Sala that reference the interaction between locals and visitors in a witty, dramatic and often moving way.

Local artisans

Organic beekeeping near Matellica. The acacia honey is particularly good. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Organic beekeeping near Matellica. The acacia honey is particularly good. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Rachel Rose Reid, the only non-Italian artist among those on the app, is a gifted storyteller who took inspiration from the people and places she encountered. It is a moment of pure Marche magic to listen to her honied tale while sitting on a sunny hillside overlooking the famous Verdicchio vines and contemplating an artisan of The Mountain Beekeepers Cooperative at his work.

Organic traditions

The organic Aurora vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The organic Aurora vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Organic food and wine production in Le Marche is amongst the most extensive in Italy. It is an instinctive harmony with the untouched, verdant landscape combined with pride in local traditions and concern for the future. The rugged, mysterious Sibillini mountains are broken with stretches of lush farmland spread out like geometric mosaics; there are breathtaking vistas, villages clinging to the top of precipitous hilltops, forests, farmhouses and pure white roads. Change comes slowly here and local traditions vary widely from village to village: There are more than 200 dialects in Le Marche alone, a reflection of the varied influences on the region for many centuries.

Aurora, the oldest organic winery in Italy, was started by a group of libertarian students in the 1970s who quit their jobs to return to working the land with eco-conscious respect for a sustainable future. Their aim was to create an independent and self-sufficient community in which they could convert social and economic ideals into concrete actions and projects.  They were instrumental in founding Terroir Marche two years ago, an association of small organic and biodynamic wine producers committed to producing good, healthy wines at reasonable prices. As they say, “Each member has their own style, but we share certain principles: No one over-crops, for example, or makes thin, poor wines. We can’t reach perfection, but we’re trying. The key is to know your plants.”

Notable wines

Offida Rosso DOC Baccofino wine from Paolini e Stanford winery, a member of the Terroir Marche organic wine producers group. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Offida Rosso DOC Baccofino wine from Paolini e Stanford winery, a member of the Terroir Marche organic wine producers group. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica put Le Marche on the wine map years ago, although not always in a good way, thanks to the distinctive green amphora-shaped bottles. Since then, however, it has reclaimed its good name and become one of Italy’s most distinctive whites. It is far, however, from being the only fine DOC on the block. It is worth seeking out, for example, Falerio dei Colli Ascolani, as well as Offida Rosso, Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno. Pecorino has also seen a great rise in popularity, made with 100% of the eponymous varietal (no one seems sure which came first, the grape or the cheese).

The app feeds the body as well as the soul and directs the traveler to organic agritourism inns, wineries and country restaurants where you can sample the superb white wines of the region as well as the gutsy, forthright reds that are a fine match for the robust food fortified with rosemary, tomato, wild fennel and garlic. At La Pietra Maula, a gem of an agritourism restaurant located in a hamlet of 16 inhabitants, oenologist Alessandra Venanzoni’s welcoming family aspires to run a “zero kilometers” restaurant using home-produced meat, salamis, fruit and vegetables as well as their own Verdicchio wine.

Meals, family style

The www.bioculture.it artists of Le Marche share a homemade country meal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The www.bioculture.it artists of Le Marche share a homemade country meal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The wine of Le Marche, as the app demonstrates so well, does not just encourage exploration of the flavors of local varieties but also the taste of local food, which is as immediately likable and unfussy as the people. Meals in Le Marche are always leisurely, convivial affairs.

End of a journey

Sunset from the hilltop town of Maiolati Spontini. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Sunset from the hilltop town of Maiolati Spontini. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

My journey to the interior via the Bioculture app was a discovery of green Le Marche; blue Le Marche lies eastward, toward the Adriatic Sea. The region is a dichotomy between sea and land that defines the two separate personalities. Both beg to be explored further with wine, food, art and walks.

Main photo: Using the Bioculture app in the ancient hilltop town of Camerino. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Typical “zero kilometers” antipasti in Le Marche, as served at the Pietra Maula agritourism restaurant near Castelraimondo. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Le Marche, Italy, nestled between the Apennine mountains and the Adriatic sea, is a hidden treasure of delicious regional food, organic vineyards and medieval villages of which even many Italians are unfamiliar.

A recently launched app, Bioculture, allows visitors to discover the landscapes, art and culture of the region along with honest-to-goodness food to delight the hungry traveler in this “land of little enchantments.”

Click through the following slideshow to find 12 foods that are among the best Le Marche has to offer.

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» Italy’s Cinque Terre: 5 lands, 5 secrets and a grand finale
» 5 fall recipes celebrate best of Italy’s Piedmont

Main photo: Typical “zero kilometers” antipasti in Le Marche, as served at the Pietra Maula agritourism restaurant near Castelraimondo. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Faugères is one of the smaller appellations of the Languedoc, and yet it punches above its weight for the diversity of the origins of its wine growers and the quality of their wines. Among the 50 or so growers you will find people from Australia, Ireland, England, Catalonia, Canada, Belgium and Switzerland, not to mention other parts of France, such as Normandy, Champagne, Bordeaux and Alsace.

For the 2014 vintages, there were four new wine estates. Only one of the newcomers is from outside the region, but all four have taken quite different paths to reach Faugères and all bring individuality to their wine making. So far they have only made one vintage in Faugères, but the first tastings bode well for the future. It may be too early to know much about their wines, but their passion and energy — and some early tastings — hint at good things ahead.

Nicolas Maury: Branching off from the cooperative

Winemaker Nicolas Maury of Mas Nicolas. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Nicolas Maury

Winemaker Nicolas Maury of Mas Nicolas. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Nicolas Maury

Let’s take Nicolas Maury. His father, Philippe, is president of the cooperative of Faugères, as was his grandfather, but Nicolas felt that it would be more rewarding to make his own wine. His father agreed to rent him 4.5 hectares that could easily be released from the cooperative contract. I jokingly suggested that they might be the family’s best vineyards, but Nicolas shrewdly observed that as all their grapes went into the cooperative vats and were blended with other growers’ grapes, they actually had no accurate idea of the taste of the wine from their own vineyards.

He discovered their flavor for the first time in 2014, with a lightly peachy white wine based on Viognier and two reds, one kept in vat and intended for early drinking, and the other aged in barrel, from 100-year-old Carignan vines as well as some Syrah. They provide a satisfying contrast; the first has some appealing fresh spicy fruit while the oak aged wine is inevitably more structured with firm peppery flavors. Nicolas’ label is illustrated with a quince flower as the name of his father’s estate is Domaine de Coudigno, and coudou in Occitan, the local language of the Languedoc, means a quince, while Coudigno is a place where quinces grow.

Jérôme Vialla: An adopted heir

Jérôme Vialla of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright Rosemary George

Jérôme Vialla of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright Rosemary George

Jérôme Vialla is a winegrower’s son, but without any family vineyards. His grandparents had vines on the coastal plain, but they were sold to divide the proceeds among their heirs, and his father now runs Domaine Valensac in nearly Florensac. Jérôme has worked for another coastal estate, Domaine de Pommière, which he described as a factory. He wanted to find more interesting vineyards up in the hills away from the plain. Chance took him to the Faugères village of Fos, where he met his neighbor, an elderly wine grower, who was retiring with no children to follow, so Vialla stepped in and now has 20 hectares planted with the usual five grape varieties of Faugères, namely Carignan, Cinsaut, Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

When I met Vialla in May 2014, his cellar consisted of several holes in the ground, but as yet no bricks and mortar. He achieved a miracle in completing the cellar just in time for the harvest. In 2014 he made five wines: a fresh, herbal white from Carignan Blanc, a crisp rosé and three qualities of red wine. Two are kept in vat, one with lightly spicy fruit, and the second more substantial; the third wine, a blend of Syrah and Grenache Noir, is aged in barrel, making for some red fruit and a tannic streak. The name of Vialla’s estate, Domaine Epidaure, relates to his wife’s career as a pharmacist, as the city of Epidaurus was an important center of ancient Greek medicine.

Sébastien Louge: A Languedoc outsider

Sébastien Louge of Domaine de l’Arbussèle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

Sébastien Louge of Domaine de l’Arbussèle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

Sébastien Louge does not come from the Languedoc, but from Tarbes in the Hautes-Pyrénées. He studied in Toulouse and Bordeaux and has had a varied career as a winemaker, including a year at Cross Keys in Virginia, as well as working in Madiran and Châteauneuf-du-Pape before coming to the Languedoc, to Domaine de la Grange in Gabian, a village that adjoins the appellation of Faugères. But he wanted to do his own thing, and like Jérôme Vialla, met an elderly winegrower who was looking for somebody to take over his vines. Louge now has 10 hectares and in 2014 made four wines under the label of Domaine de l’Arbussèle.

There is a rosé, but no white, and three reds. Envol Rouge is the entry level, with easy fruit; Authentique comes mainly from old Carignan, and the name is a reference to the fact that Carignan was the original variety of Faugères. The wine is quite firm and structured, balanced with some spicy fruit. The oak-aged cuvée, Revelation, is based on old Grenache Noir, with a streak of tannin balanced by ripe liqueur cherry fruit.

Olivier Gil: Love and wine making

Adèle Arnaud and Olivier Gil of Mas Lou. Credit: Courtesy of Mas Lou

Adèle Arnaud and Olivier Gil of Mas Lou. Credit: Courtesy of Mas Lou

Olivier Gil has local roots — not in Faugères, but in the nearby village of Tourbes. His father is a member of the cooperative there, producing mainly white grapes for vin de pays. Oliver, however, wanted to make red wine and an appellation, so he looked for vines in Faugères and bought a tiny cellar in the center of the village. He learned his wine making at Montpellier, where he met and fell in love with his partner, Adèle Arnaud, who was also studying wine making. (She comes from the Gers in southwest France and has no other history with wine.) They traveled in South America and worked in Collioure before settling in Faugères. I met them the day before they bottled their first wines, under the label Mas Lou.

The names of their various cuvées all recall their South American experience, with Selva, the rosé, for the Amazonian forest. Angaco, the first red, is where they stayed and worked; Aksou refers to special Bolivian weaving; and Tio, for the oak-aged wine, is the god of the potassium mines. Olivier said that he looked for elegance and concentration in his wines, and for supple tannins, and that is certainly what he has achieved with his first vintage.

Main photo: The wines of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

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Cattails. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ellen Zachos

Cattails have been described as the grocery store of the wild because every part of the plant is edible. During the growing season, three of these parts — shoots, flowers and pollen — provide easily accessed and versatile food for foragers.

Better yet, these parts of the cattail offer analogs to familiar flavors such as cucumber and corn, which means that even those dubious of wild food might enjoy them. Euell Gibbons treasured cattails, “For the number of different kinds of food it produces there is no plant, wild or domesticated, which tops the common cattail.”

Sometimes growing 9 feet tall and best recognized in late summer by their brown cigar-shaped flowers, both broadleaf (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaf cattail (T. angustifolia) are edible, and can be used interchangeably. Though widely available, care must be taken to harvest cattail from a clean location because the plant grows in marshy areas, which can be contaminated.

Whether you live in the city or the country, use caution when choosing a place to pick cattails, particularly cattail shoots. Consider what the water looks and smells like where you are harvesting, as well as what may be upstream. In the city, drainage from streets and golf courses can make water unsafe for collecting food. Rural locations can look pristine, but beware of agricultural runoff.

Finding the right place to forage

Cattails in water. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattails in water. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Perhaps the best known edible part of cattail, the tender core of the growing leaves, is commonly referred to as the shoot. Cattail shoots are best before the plant begins to flower. To harvest cattail shoots, peel back the outer two or three leaves, firmly grasp the remaining leaves with both hands, and give the plant a tug. You will have in your hands something that looks like an enormous leek.

Peel back more leaves until the lower end is a creamy pale white. Cut off all of the dark green leaves so that you are left with a heart of cattail. If you feel certain you have harvested your cattail shoots from a clean location, do a taste test.

Some people feel a scratchy sensation at the back of the throat when eating raw cattails. If so, skip eating them raw. If you don’t feel the itchy sensation, delight in the crunchy and satisfyingly cucumber taste of cattail shoots. They can be used in all the dishes for which you’d traditionally use cucumber, from salad to tzatziki to refreshing yogurt soup.

Making the most of cattail shoots

Cattail shoots. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattail shoots. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattail shoots are also fantastic when cooked. They can simply be chopped and added to stir-fries and side dishes. They are especially good when blanched, dressed in oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and lightly grilled.

When cattail flowers emerge, they are well disguised by sheaths of leaves, much like slender ears of corn. Cattail flowers are made up of two parts. The upper portion is male and will go on to produce pollen. The lower portion is female and is what remains and turns into the recognizable brown sausage-shaped punk later in the year.

In narrow-leaf cattail, the male and female portion are separated by a small bit of spike, whereas the broad-leaf cattail, the two bits are connected. The upper, male, portion of the cattail flower is what is traditionally harvested, as it provides a greater amount of edible material than the female bit.

Cattail flowers — just like corn on the cob

Preparing cattail flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Preparing cattail flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Look to collect cattail flowers as they begin to emerge from their sheath, and simply cut the upper portion off with a pair of scissors or a knife.

To enjoy cattail flowers, steam them whole for 10 minutes. If you have children around, they may enjoy eating the cooked cattail flowers with a bit of butter and salt, like miniature corn-on-the-cob, though care must be taken not to ingest the inedible toothpick-like core of cattail flowers.

Cattail flowers may also be stripped off their inner core using an upside down fork. Using this method, it is quite simple to prepare a large amount of flowers in a short period of time.

Cattail flowers have a surprisingly sweet and mellow flavor, not unlike corn. They may be prepared simply, with nothing more than garlic butter and salt. Cattail flowers also work well in egg dishes and soups.

The special treat of cattail pollen

Cattail pollen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattail pollen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Perhaps the most delightful part of the cattail to eat is its bright yellow pollen.

Look for cattail flowers that are loaded with yellow pollen, like a mop heavy with dust, and collect it by shaking the top portion of the cattail flower into a milk jug or half-gallon Mason jar, either in the field or snipped off and done at home.

Cattail pollen can be substituted into 1/3 of the flour in most recipes for baked goods, from pancakes to muffins and breads. Cattail pollen can also be used to add a sunny color and subtle milky corn flavor to rice dishes.

 Main photo: Cattails. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ellen Zachos

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On the Arrow T Ranch near Prescott, Arizona, the eponymous family behind Kelly Beef raises 100% grass-fed cattle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Just like family members, Kelly Beef cattle are raised with care and love. At the Arrow T Ranch in the Williamson Valley outside Prescott, Arizona, Tom Kelly and his wife, Tammy, bring together their relatives to work and gain expertise in treating animals, and human beings, right.

Tom and Tammy Kelly’s extended family and old friends gather for a roundup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Tom and Tammy Kelly’s extended family and old friends gather for a roundup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Tom Kelly was born in northwestern Arizona, where ranches are measured in not acres but square miles. He always wanted to be a rancher. But he realized that the landowners were often “attorneys from Phoenix or Wickenburg” — in other words, well-to-do gentlemen farmers. So Tom became a lawyer in order to finance his dream of becoming a rancher — and succeeded. Now he produces 100% grass-fed beef in the old-fashioned way while making sure that skills and experience needed to raise cows is passed on to another generation.

Home on the (free) range

The herd stretches out over subirrigated meadows. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

The herd stretches out over subirrigated meadows. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

The cattle are raised on two different spreads. Their first year is spent on the Kellys’ La Cienega Ranch, 130 square miles of mountainous open range in the Mojave desert. The calves thrive in this uncontaminated habitat, grazing on 27 types of forage. When the animals weigh 450 pounds, they are moved to the lush subirrigated grassland of the Arrow T Ranch. For the past 70 years, the native grasses in these verdant meadows have been nurtured and the invasive grasses culled without pesticides or herbicides.

Herding day on the ranch

Cole Looper runs a calf into the correct pen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Cole Looper runs a calf into the correct pen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Late last summer, I joined Tom for a roundup — which might more accurately be called a “push-up” — to the sorting pens. For these events, Tammy’s brother, Kasey Looper, brings his wife, Tyler, and children Cole, 12, Rio, 10, and Sage, 8, to work alongside family friend Mark Mingus and fiancée Savannah Lindau. There are no clouds of dust, no thundering hooves. What appears to be a quiet Sunday ride with his young nieces and nephews is in fact a carefully choreographed dance, as their horses “push” the young cows in the right direction from a distance of up to several hundred yards; the movement is gentle rather than aggressive, because stressed cows are hard to handle and even tougher to eat.

When the cattle reach the sorting pens, Tom allows time for a family lesson. The children learn about the sorting process, which Tom describes as “a conversation and comparison of opinions” about the quality and potential of each calf. Some are returned to La Cienega as breeding stock and others enter the commercial beef pipeline — but the best calves are selected to remain on the grass, fattening up naturally for up to 18 months until they are ready to be sold. Cole is already acquiring the skills that must become second nature to every cowboy, such as “heading and heeling” the calf. As dad Kasey throws one lasso over the animal’s head, Cole quickly lassoes its two back legs, or heels, on his first throw, displaying the accuracy that is needed to do the job gently and safely for both the riders and the calf, which can now be branded.

Looking back, moving forward

Tammy Kelly at her retail store The Rancher’s Wife, where Kelly Beef is sold. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Tammy Kelly at her retail store The Rancher’s Wife, where Kelly Beef is sold. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

As small-scale producers, Tammy and Tom are developing a following for Kelly Beef one client at a time. In her Prescott store, The Rancher’s Wife, Tammy explains the more-unusual cuts of meat, providing instruction and recipes to help customers make the most of the nutrient-rich, almost purple meat. Don’t assume that health-conscious urban foodies are their best customers: Locals who still have roots in the agricultural community buy half or a quarter of a calf, sometimes on the hoof. They value knowing every player in the supply chain and are comfortable cooking every cut of meat.

But the Kellys are not trying to return to a lost agrarian paradise; they are looking to the future. They believe the demand for grass-fed beef is growing and that “knowledge-rich farming,” to use a term coined by rancher-author Allan Nation, will lead a younger generation to good breeding and good grazing management. That much was clear from my visit to Arrow T, as I obeyed his instructions about photographing the roundup from my car discreetly: no raised voices, no sudden movements that might spook the herd. Next time, though, I want to be riding beside him through the thigh-high red-wheat grass, watching the cows stroll back to pasture.

Main photo: On the Arrow T Ranch near Prescott, Arizona, the eponymous family behind Kelly Beef raises 100% grass-fed cattle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett

Malt is a fairly mysterious ingredient, but craft beer is about to change that.

Like milling helps turn wheat into bread, malting helps turn barley and other grains into beer. Malting is the process of germinating (sprouting) and then kilning grains, which allows access to the starches and enzymes necessary for fermentation.

The importance of malt

The one-ton malting system at Niagara Malt allows for steeping, germination, and kilning all in the same tank. Equipment for small-scale malting is not commercially available, so a lot of innovation is accompanying the rise of the micro-malting industry. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

“The one-ton malting system at Niagara Malt allows for steeping, germination and kilning all in the same tank. Equipment for small-scale malting is not commercially available, so a lot of innovation is accompanying the rise of the micro-malting industry,” Bob Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Malt’s job is not strictly functional, though. Different types of malt contribute flavors and other elements to the final product. Malt is to beer what stock is to soup, as brewer John Mallett writes in his book, “Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse.”

“As craft beer has exploded in popularity, hops have often been seen as the sexy ingredient in beer,” he says. Mallett is the director of Bell’s Brewery in Michigan. “On first glance, malt seems kind of dull, but it actually contributes the key attributes that largely define beer, including color, flavor, foam, body and, eventually through fermentation, alcohol.”

Craft malthouses opening

Two-row barley is the choice of most craft brewers. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

“Two-row barley is the choice of most craft brewers,” Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

At one time, malting was a domestic chore, same as baking bread. Prohibition and changes in farming helped consolidate the industry and put the production largely out of sight. Now, in response to curiosity about this ingredient, craft malthouses are opening across the nation. New York State has more than its fair share.

This is because New York created a friendly environment for micro and nano brewing with the Farm Brewery Law. This licensing, which went into effect at the beginning of 2013, requires that breweries use a percentage of state-grown products. A revival of hops production was already underway, and the law nudged along the boom in malt. Nine malthouses are in operation across the state, and more are in the works.

Brewing at the local level

Newly cured malt is shoveled out into storage super sacks for the resting period. After kilning, the malt has been stressed by high temperatures and needs to rest for several weeks. The malt will also mellow and develop a pronounced "biscuit" aroma and flavor, much prized by English brewers. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Newly cured malt is shoveled into storage super sacks for the resting period. After kilning, the malt has been stressed by high temperatures and needs to rest for several weeks. “The malt will also mellow and develop a pronounced ‘biscuit’ aroma and flavor, much prized by English brewers,” Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

“It’s been exciting learning a whole new skill, one that’s been pretty much forgotten,” says Bob Johnson, who runs Niagara Malt. A professor of plant ecology and biochemistry at Medaille, a small liberal arts college in Buffalo, Johnson also grows hops, and farms and malts barley. “Malting is relegated to big commodity houses, and it’s nice bringing this whole process … to the local level.”

Buffalo had several malthouses, he notes, and three of its mayors were maltsters. Johnson says regional products lend distinctive flavors to beer.

“Plants really have an intimate contact with the soil,” Johnson says. “I’m at the base of the escarpment and all my soils are very limey; sitting at the base of a limestone cliff — my soils are very sweet as they say. That gives a flavor. The microorganisms in soil strongly influence the health and metabolism of plants.”

Setting standards

Bob Johnson loads barley fresh from the field into a tote for storage before malting. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Johnson loads barley fresh from the field into a tote for storage before malting. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

His adventures in making ingredients began with a taste for fuller flavored beers. “I realized the chemicals I was enjoying so much were from hops,” he says. Intrigued, he started to look into hop farming. Three years ago he planted 1,200 plants but lost half of them to drought. Hearing rumblings of the Farm Brewery Law, he realized there was going to be a programmed demand for hops and malt. This gave him the courage to replant and buy some equipment. His hop yard covers 1 1/2 acres and has 1,400 plants.

Johnson malts in the original malting system designed by pioneering Western Massachusetts maltsters Valley Malt. This system malts 1 ton of grain at a time, carrying out all the procedures, from steeping through germination (sprouting) and kilning in a single tank.

As he explores malting, Johnson also benefits by being a member of The Craft Maltsters Guild, which was formed last year to help shape the burgeoning industry by setting standards for production, performance and sourcing, and building a network for sharing information.

Tremendous potential

A field of rye in front of the malthouse at Niagara Malt in New York. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

A field of rye in front of the malthouse at Niagara Malt in New York. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Given the rise of the craft beer market, the potential for growth in small-scale malting is tremendous, and New York has created an economic architecture to help develop that potential.

Private/public partnerships are helping to build momentum. Cornell University is researching what varieties of malting barleys are suited to the climate. Greenmarket Regional Grains Project is pairing farmers, maltsters and brewers for collaborations and otherwise working to raise awareness of the local agricultural products. Entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunities in beer. New York has 210 craft breweries, and 78 of those are farm breweries.

“Farm brewers have to use 20 percent New York ingredients,” says Paul Leone, director of the New York State Brewers Association. (The rate will change as the region’s capacity to produce local products increases.) “The market is there automatically for that group, but beyond the license every brewery in the state would use local ingredients.”

A steep learning curve

A field in Niagara County is newly planted with Wintmalt, a German two-row barley. Winter malting barley is usually planted in late September, and spring malting barley is planted in April. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

A field in Niagara County is newly planted with Wintmalt, a German two-row barley. Winter malting barley is usually planted in late September and spring malting barley is planted in April, Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

For now, use is limited by quality and price. Farming malting barley in a region that hasn’t done so for almost a century is a steep learning curve. Commodity malts cost significantly less than craft malts, and beer is thirsty for grains. Even if there were no difference in price, New York could not supply all its breweries. The largest of the new craft-malting facilities in the state only produce three tons a week. A ton of malt can only make about 13 to 15 barrels of beer, or about 26 to 30 kegs.

“What’s unique about New York State and craft beer is that at one point we owned the hop industry. It’s a natural progression to own it again, or a share of it,” Leone says. “Beer does have a certain terroir. The barley that’s grown here and the way that its malted here is going to be a little different than when it’s from out West, same as the hops. Brewers have an ability to engineer their own flavor profile that’s uniquely New York.”

Main photo: A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett

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In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Copyright Tina Caputo

Let’s say you bought some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a local nursery to plant a vineyard. You decided on Cabernet because you determined that this particular grape variety would be best for your location because of its soil type, sun exposure and climate. But then a worrisome thought enters your head: What if the vines aren’t Cabernet Sauvignon after all, but some other less-suited variety? What if the nursery somehow got them mixed up with Sauvignon Blanc vines? That would be a mighty costly mistake.

You could pray, sweat and grind your teeth until the first grape clusters appear, and then wait some more until they change color and mature enough for you to figure out the vines’ true identity. Or, you could call an ampelographer.

Ampelography is a type of grapevine botany that uses the physical traits of grape leaves to identify varieties. Grape leaves vary quite a bit between varieties, so a skilled ampelographer can easily distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc.

Expert ampelographer

Lucie Morton is a world-renowned ampelographer and vineyard consultant. Credit: Tina Caputo

Lucie Morton is a world-renowned ampelographer and vineyard consultant. Credit: Copyright Tina Caputo

In the world of ampelography, it would be hard to find a more renowned practitioner than Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, who travels around the country lending her expertise to grape growers and vintners.

Among Morton’s clients is one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc producers, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which flew her out to the Napa Valley earlier this month to teach an ampelography class. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop, and learn some tips from a master.

Before taking us into the vineyard, Morton explained the background and basics of vine identification. Lesson number one: “Looking at clusters is cheating.”

Mistaken identity

In the early days of the California wine industry, American vintners often brought back vine cuttings from Europe to plant in their vineyards. Sometimes, the varieties were not identified correctly, or were known in their native country by a different name than the one used by the rest of the world.

In the 1970s Morton began to discover that some vines planted in American vineyards were misidentified. For example, she said, in the Finger Lakes region of New York people used to say that the Chardonnay grown there tasted “Germanic,” due to the area’s cold climate. The real reason was because their “Chardonnay” was actually Riesling.

Up until the early 80s, nearly all of the “Pinot Blanc” planted in California was not Pinot Blanc but a French variety called Melon de Bourgogne. An ampelographer — Morton’s teacher, Pierre Galet — set the record straight. “It does not make you popular, pointing out other people’s mistakes,” Morton told the class.

Even so, her skills are in demand, even in the modern world of high-tech viticulture. Although DNA testing can identify varieties, Morton pointed out, it can’t distinguish between clones. Ampelography can. “There’s still practical value in this skill,” she said.

Anatomy of a grape leaf

According to Lucie Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include their lobes, petiolar sinuses and teeth. It's also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

According to Lucie Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include their lobes, petiolar sinuses and teeth. It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

According to Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include:

Lobes: If you imagine the leaf as a hand, the lobes would be the individual fingers that extend outward. Some leaves have prominent lobes, other leaves are shield-shaped and have none.

Petiolar sinus: This is the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, others are very narrow.

Teeth: These are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp, others are rounded.

It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves.

In the vineyard

Students in Lucie Morton’s ampelography class examine vine leaves to identify the corresponding grape varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Students in Lucie Morton’s ampelography class examine vine leaves to identify the corresponding grape varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Providing each of us with a list of defining characteristics for several different grape varieties, Morton sent us out into St. Supery’s Dollarhide vineyard and challenged us to bring her back a leaf from each variety. If we got it wrong, we went back to try again.

Identifying the vines was more difficult than I expected. In a given vineyard row, not all of the leaves are identical, even among the same variety. Just when I would think I had a match, I’d notice that one of the distinguishing elements wasn’t quite right: The teeth were rounded instead of triangular or the surface was smooth instead of leathery. Each time I was sent back for another leaf, I came to respect Morton’s skill a little more.

Defining characteristics

Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Morton calls this leaf the “monkey face” or the “mask,” because when held with its tip facing up, it looks like it has eye and mouth holes. It has five lobes, rounded teeth and an open (or naked) petiolar sinus.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Chardonnay. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This is a shield-shaped leaf, with shallow, sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus. The vine’s young shoots will have red nodes that are distinctive to Chardonnay.

Merlot

Merlot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Merlot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This leaf is longer than it is wide, with five prominent lobes, an open petiolar sinus and deep triangular teeth. It’s yellowish in color, with a waffled, leathery texture.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This five-lobed leaf is green in color, with a wavy texture. It has a narrow, almost-closed petiolar sinus, a round shape and rounded teeth. The lobes have three prominent troughs that resemble spouts from a fountain.

Malbec

Malbec. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Malbec. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This leaf is a heart-shaped shield, with a relatively narrow petiolar sinus and shallow pointy teeth. It has a puffy, quilted look and a thick, leathery texture.

Main photo: In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Tina Caputo

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