Articles in Business

The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

As New England’s maple sap started to drip in March, David Moore of The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse in Lee, N.H., counted the days until it would stop flowing. Right about the time the maples are tapped out, Moore collects a less sugary sap from slender, white paper birch trees.

Moore, one of the only known commercial birch syrup producers in New England, says his reddish-brown syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. The viscosity at room temperature is slow, albeit a bit quicker than molasses. Its unique taste makes it well suited as an ice cream topping (Moore’s favorite); a glaze, salad dressing or braising liquid ingredient; and an intriguing baked goods sweetener.

In addition to its uses in the kitchen, birch syrup has high market values that could help maple syrup producers supplement future revenue streams in a sustainable fashion, according to researchers at Cornell and the University of Vermont. Its production relies on many of the techniques currently employed in making maple syrup, and birch trees are in rather good supply in the Northeast.

Birch syrup is not entirely a novelty in North America. Native Americans for centuries used it as an anti-rheumatic. Twentieth-century Alaskans also tapped it to fill gaps in wartime sugar supplies, and birch syrup production has become a cottage industry there. Still, last year’s 5,000 gallons of domestically produced birch syrup were just a drop in the bucket compared with the 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup produced.

Chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet bistro in Portsmouth, N.H., says Moore’s syrup has a rich, deep and slightly resinous quality that makes it suitable as a finishing syrup and a glaze for grilled chicken or pork. Mallett’s seasonal menu features brioche Texas toast, a thick slice of house-made bread stuffed with roasted mushrooms and cheese and served with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on ears of corn) butter, candy cap mushroom oil and a few drops of birch syrup.

“I like it on pancakes too, but it’s pretty expensive to slather on,” Mallett said.

The going rate for a quart of birch syrup is $78, compared with $10 for Grade A maple syrup. The selling price is very attractive, said Moore, who last year charged $25 for 8-ounce jars and sold out by the end of May. Moore sells his product at a half dozen locations in New Hampshire and will be taking some mail orders this year if supplies last.

“Making birch syrup takes more energy than making maple syrup,” explained Moore, who collects 100 to 120 gallons of sap (he typically gets about 5 gallons a day from each of his 170 taps) to make one gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires only 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.

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Birch syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Abby van den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center said the profitability of birch syrup production in the Northern Forest — the region that stretches from Maine through northern New Hampshire and Vermont into northern New York — in the past has been limited due to the fact that the low sugar content of birch sap (about 1% compared with 2% in maple) means producers need lots of evaporator fuel to concentrate the sap to syrup density.

But she argues that reverse osmosis, a process used in Alaskan birch syrup production that concentrates sugar densities (to 8% or greater) in the sap before it goes into the evaporator mitigates that hurdle. Modern sap collection techniques such as using a vacuum also help to increase the sap collection during the short three- to four-week birch sap season.

Moore has considered using reverse osmosis, but he currently processes sap in a 3- by 12-foot double-panned evaporator inside the wooden sugar shack he built himself. He uses a team of draft horses to help haul the firewood (ash, hickory, maple and oak) needed to fuel the evaporator. The new reverse osmosis machine would require him to run power to the sugarhouse. He estimates adding reverse osmosis would cost $7,000. “It could be a tough sell for me,” Moore said.

Neither van den Berg nor Michael Farrell, director of Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program’s Uihlein field station in Lake Placid, N.Y., could provide more than anecdotal evidence that maple syrup producers are clamoring to make birch syrup.

At a maple syrup taste test he conducted for maple syrup producers earlier this year, Farrell threw birch syrup into the mix. When he asked for a show of hands from those who liked the taste of New England birch syrup, not one went up. The producers then were offered a taste of birch syrup made with reverse osmosis. “Nearly everyone changed their mind,” Farrell said.

“This altered process gives birch syrup a wider range of flavor that should appeal to more people. They’ve just got to be willing to taste it,” he said.

Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies

Yes, birch syrup is expensive, but it adds an interesting twist to these spicy chewy cookies that people won’t place until you tell them. Think of it as money well spent for tea time conversation.

Makes 24 cookies

Ingredients

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

½ cup birch syrup

⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, allspice, salt and black pepper.

3. Beat butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Add egg and birch syrup. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger, if using. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

4. Roll dough into 1½-inch balls and then roll them in the raw sugar. Arrange on the baking sheets and gently flatten them with the bottom of a flat glass. Bake until set and crinkled on top, about 12 minutes.

Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.

Top photo: The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

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Chianti Classico wine tasting. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Chianti Classico DOCG is one of Tuscany’s most prestigious wine appellations: Any wine bearing that name must be produced within a specified area and adhere to strict regulations about its making. So when the Consortium of Chianti Classico producers announced a change to its categories, wine critics and appassionati took notice.

Chianti Classico’s consortium recently launched a “Gran Selezione” category: a group of wines touted as the pinnacle of the area’s wine pyramid. The Gran Selezione will account for about 10% of Chianti Classico’s annual production of 35 million bottles, for a value of 70 to 100 million euros.

The launch may have taken place, with much ado, in the spectacular frescoed Renaissance hall of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, but the reaction — in Tuscany and beyond — has been mixed. Although 35 of the area’s top wineries have so far bottled a wine in the new category, many others are giving the “Selezione” a wide berth — for now, at least. To understand the reasons for this, it’s worth taking an overview of Chianti Classico.

The delineated area known as Chianti Classico is located in the Chianti hills between Florence and Siena, and has long been recognized as one of the region’s best for wine production: It was first shaped in 1716 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Modern Chianti Classico gained elevated DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) in 1984 with the “Black Rooster” wines; its consortium now represents more than 600 members.

The overall area for Chianti production is much larger, however. It stretches farther into the provinces of Siena and Firenze, and into those of Pisa, Arezzo and Pistoia. This is confusing for consumers: Although Chianti Classico and appellations such as Chianti Rufina DOCG are recognized for their premium wines, simple, inexpensive — and often not great — “Chianti” wines abound from these other parts of the region.

In Chianti Classico DOCG wines, the primary grape is red Sangiovese. Each wine must contain 80% to 100% Sangiovese, with the remaining percentage made up from other specified red grapes, including “international” varieties, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Until recently, these wines fell into just two groups: Chianti Classico Annata (the “normal” vintage) and Chianti Classico Riserva (aged for at least 24 months), which were considered the appellation’s best wines. (Some producers, however, choose to make their top wines outside of the DOCG rules. These wines are bottled under the IGT appellation, and are the so-called Super Tuscans). Now a third group has been added.

To be admitted into this Gran Selezione, a wine must pass an additional taste test and be aged for a minimum of 30 months, of which three are in the bottle. (Note that “gran” is a shortened version of “grande,” and here means top, not grandmother.) It must also be made from the grapes of a single vineyard or from a selection of an estate’s best grapes. “The idea of this top tier is to help consumers identify an estate’s best wine,” says Sergio Zingarelli, the Chianti Classico Consortium’s president.

There’s the rub. Objectors note that the Riserva system was already in place to do that, and that the new Selezione may increase confusion in the cluttered Tuscan wine map. The Gran Selezione has stimulated a lively debate among the Italian wine world — in Tuscany and beyond — about the pros and cons of the new classification, and about alternative ideas for a change in the appellation’s structure. (Changes must be ratified by law, as the Gran Selezione’s have).

Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, left, and Filippo Mazzei of Fonterutoli, Chianti producers and joint vice presidents of the Consortium, at the Gran Selezione news conference. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, left, and Filippo Mazzei of Fonterutoli, Chianti producers and joint vice presidents of the Consortium, at the Gran Selezione news conference. Credit: Carla Capalbo

“During the recent economic crisis, the production of Chianti Riserva wines has increased, and they’re competing with Chianti Classico’s higher-level Riservas,” says Leonardo Bellaccini, the winemaker at San Felice, a leading Chianti Classico estate. Its well-known Riserva, Il Grigio, recently passed the tests to become a Gran Selezione. “We hope that once the Gran Selezione branding is recognized, it will stop the confusion between these two types of Riservas.”

Many cutting-edge wines here come from small estates with forward-thinking winemakers at their helm. Paolo De Marchi, of Isole e Olena, is one. His award-winning, pure Sangiovese Super Tuscan, Cepparello, would qualify for the Gran Selezione, but he’s reluctant to change its status.

“I don’t agree with the Consortium’s vision on this,” he says. “For me, great wines are made by their location and vineyards, not by the hands of men. I’d much rather see us differentiate between the sub-zones within Chianti Classico as a way of emphasizing the diversity of our terroirs.”

The concept of “villages” as used in Burgundy — which would allow the wines’ labels to cite the township within which they are made, such as Gaiole, Castellina or Greve in Chianti — is a hot issue among premium estates wanting to differentiate growing areas within Chianti Classico’s 7,000 hectares (about 17,300 acres) of vineyards.

“The Consortium is beginning to take steps in that direction, but it may be several years in the coming,” says Robert Stucchi Prinetti of Badia a Coltibuono. “The diversity of Chianti Classico’s terroirs is one of its strengths.”

Some producers and wine experts believe the Consortium has missed a precious opportunity to requalify Chianti Classico by limiting its grape varieties to Sangiovese and other native Tuscan grapes such as Colorino and Canaiolo.

“A Gran Selezione of just Tuscan grapes would have made sense by emphasizing the link between these varieties and this specific area,” says Bellaccini. That “first tier” would have been clearly understood by everyone.

Will Gran Selezione wines cost more? “That will be up to the individual estates,” says Consortium Vice President Filippo Mazzei. “We have not imposed price hikes for these wines, though they are of course the estates’ top bracket wines.” The Consortium hopes producers of other high-flying Super Tuscans will be encouraged to reclassify them as Gran Selezione wines, and that the word will spread positively about its latest category.

Top photo: Gran Selezione wines sit on a higher podium than the rest of the Chianti Classico wines at the media tasting in Florence. Credit: Carla Capalbo 

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Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA

Forgive me if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcement to control antibiotic use in food animals didn’t have me reaching for the Champagne.

For while the FDA’s recommendations to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters and proposal to require veterinary approval of all antibiotic use on farms sound like a good idea, their voluntary nature will result in nothing more than business as usual when it comes to farm antibiotic abuse. Call me a cynic, but leopards don’t readily change their spots. For years, food animal industry lobby groups and drug companies have aggressively denied any link between antibiotic use in farming and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Yet the very same groups have all publicly welcomed the FDA’s recommendations. Why? Because they know they are wholly inadequate.

I won’t go into the limitations of the FDA’s proposals here, as several respected commentators have already done a very good job of that. But suffice to say that despite decades of mounting scientific evidence that the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on industrial farms is leading to the development of life-threatening multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the end result is nothing more than a strongly worded FDA “recommendation” for action, without any mandatory requirements or enforcement measures to stop the intensive farming industry from putting profit ahead of human health. The same old abuse of these life-saving medicines will continue on industrial farms across the U.S., just under a slightly different guise.

So why should you care? Here are 10 things we all need to think about before we allow Big Ag to continue squandering antibiotics in food animal production.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 will die as a result.

1. There are two major factors driving the dramatic rise of antimicrobial resistant diseases. First, we’ve become too complacent about eating food from animals routinely given antibiotics. Second, we take far too many antibiotics when they are not actually needed.

2. We’re embroiled in an apparent “war” against bacteria, with antibiotics routinely given to livestock, the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics in humans, and the widespread inclusion of antibacterials in toothpaste, soap and even clothing. But all we’re doing is encouraging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Andrew Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute

Andrew Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute

3. It might surprise you to know that we each carry more than 4 pounds of friendly bacteria in our gut. The number of bacterial cells in and on our bodies (about 100 trillion) outnumbers the number of human cells by a whopping 10 to 1. These organisms play a vital role in maintaining our health and without them we’d be dead.

4. We need to trust our natural immune systems to protect us from disease, resorting to antibiotics only when absolutely necessary.

5. When it comes to antibiotics in farming, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world. A staggering 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used on food animals.

6. It is widely accepted that disease outbreaks are inevitable in the cramped and stressful conditions found on most factory farms. But instead of improving conditions, the animals are given low or “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics in their feed or water, whether they need them or not, to prevent disease and maximize productivity. For example, most chicks receive two antibiotics, lincomycin and spectinomycin, for the first few days of their lives because they are forced to live in environments where respiratory diseases would otherwise be inevitable. In other words, intensive livestock systems are actually designed around the routine use of antibiotics. It’s the only way to keep the animals alive and growing.

7. In June 2013, Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in 90% of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide. Many of the bacteria species identified were resistant to three or more antibiotic drug classes.

8. While good food-hygiene practices are essential when handling and cooking raw meat, an accidental spill in the refrigerator can now result in potentially untreatable, yet entirely preventable, life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases. Safe handling instructions must never be used to justify farming systems which actively encourage antibiotic-resistance or to absolve companies of any responsibility for the illnesses or deaths that result.

9. The major meat industry bodies claim there is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotic use in farming contributes significantly to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t agree and is calling for the responsible use of antibiotics, where “These drugs should only be used to treat infections,” whether that’s in humans or animals.

10. When it comes to the responsible use of antibiotics in farming, the U.S. livestock industry is already years behind the European Union, where antibiotic use on farms is strictly controlled. Europe’s livestock industry survived this change without any dramatic reduction in efficiency of meat production and the cost of food in Europe didn’t skyrocket as a result. So why not here? New legislation — The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (PAMTA) — would end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming in the U.S. Are your representatives supporting it?

This isn’t about blaming farmers and vets: They’re simply responding to the contractual demands of Cargill, Purdue, Tyson and others that dominate our food supply. No, this is about waking up to the real costs of so-called cheap meat. We’re talking about farming systems that are not only designed around the routine use of antibiotics to keep billions of animals in such abysmal conditions alive and growing, but which knowingly encourage the development of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases.

I somehow doubt that any sane American would willingly allow the squandering of these potentially life-saving antibiotics simply for cheap meat. Because when you sit down and really think about a future where antibiotics will no longer be effective — and where common diseases such as strep throat may kill our loved ones unabated — there really is no such thing as cheap meat, is there?

Got you thinking? Animal Welfare Approved farmers only use antibiotics to treat sick animals, just as in humans. We also know that if farmers use antibiotics responsibly the risk of antibiotic resistance is absolutely minimal. The result? Pain and suffering in farm animals is minimized, the risk of disease is reduced, and the efficacy of antibiotics — for humans and livestock —  is protected. You can find your nearest supplier at www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org.

Top photo: Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA

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Pasta for sale at Eataly's newest location in Chicago. Credit: Terra Brockman

As befits the City of the Big Shoulders, the Chicago outpost of the food emporium Eataly, which opened last week, is the largest to date, with two floors totaling 63,000 square feet and containing some 10,000 products, 23 eateries, 21 retail areas devoted to specific products, two espresso bars, two wine bars, a Nutella bar and a fine-dining restaurant.

While Eataly is a huge space with an immense number of offerings, it’s quite the opposite of the alienating experience of mega-grocery stores. Instead of dutifully pushing a cart up and down sterile, fluorescent-lighted aisles, getting your nameless, faceless (and often tasteless) boxed and canned goods, you pleasantly wander past floor-to-ceiling windows and in and out of a maze of small eateries and counters. Each counter is dedicated to a specific item: vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish, olive oil, beer, wine and much more.

Bringing an Old World market experience to modern urban shopping

About halfway through my meander, it occurred to me that Eataly is the perfect marriage of old and new. It’s a place where the Old World 10-stop shopping experience (going to the fishmonger, the sausage maker, the cheese shop, the baker, and a half dozen other small shops), meets the convenience of the New World one-stop shopping experience.

And whether you stop at one, or at every single one, of the shops within Eataly, you will get high-end products from freshly made pasta to pristine produce, from bread to beer, chevre to chopping blocks, and books to Barolo.

And there are plenty of eating and drinking opportunities to indulge in while you shop. You can stop at the pizza corner for a true Neapolitan pizza, the fritto stand for fried foods, the rosticceria for roasted meats or the panini shop for a sandwich. For drinks, there’s a beer hall and two cafes, one upstairs and one down. Wines are served in the central piazza area, which is crowned with a Hemingway quote: “Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.”

In fact, the Eataly Chicago is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway. This may seem incongruous, but Eataly’s founder, industrialist Oscar Farinetti, a great fan of Hemingway’s work, explains that the author was born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and spent significant parts of his life in Italy. That he was also a man of large appetites is just icing on the cake.

I’ve been making pilgrimages to Eataly ever since the first one opened in 2007 in an old vermouth warehouse in the Lingotto district of Turin, at the far end of the Fiat factory. Farinetti’s brainchild is a paean to food that is “good, clean and fair.” These are the watchwords of Farinetti’s friend, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, who champions food that is delicious and untainted by chemicals. He also is devoted to  treating  farmers and food workers fairly. Farinetti and Petrini want shoppers to stop being passive consumers and instead become active “co-producers” by learning who produced what food, and how, and why that’s important.

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The pizza oven at Eataly, Chicago. Credit: Terra Brockman

In fact, one tenet of the Eataly Manifesto is “Eat. Shop. Learn.” Another tenet explains: “We feel that it’s not just important that we know everything about what we sell and serve, but that you also learn about the products we are so passionate about. We share with you the stories of the people and places behind all that we offer. The more you know the more you enjoy.”

Local sourcing and fresh produce at Eataly Chicago

In keeping with the precepts of Slow Food, Eataly Chicago has paid special attention to local sourcing. There is a whole section of canned and bottled goods made by Chicagoan Lee Greene’s Scrumptious Pantry, a selection of West Loop Salumi’s cured meats, pork from Bensmiller’s Farm in Iowa, Piedmontese beef from Toro Ranch in Nebraska and many more products from other Midwestern producers.

Among the can’t-miss features at Chicago’s Eataly is the vegetable butcher. As soon as you walk in the doors, you are greeted by a beautiful farmstand-like display of seasonal fruits and vegetables. You can then take your selections to the vegetable butcher, who will trim your artichokes, peel your carrots, shred your cabbage or do whatever you need for ease of cooking once you get it home.

The store’s Gelateria Alpina gelato bar offers favorites such as nocciola (hazelnut) and cioccolata (chocolate), as well as seasonal offerings. In addition to hand-scooped gelato, and unique to the Chicago store, are soft-serve gelato spigots!

As Federico Fellini says in a quote gracing a wall in Chicago’s Eataly, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” His words could just as well be applied to Eataly Chicago, that is, if you consider “pasta” a metonym for all great food. And great food makes us better. As Sophia Loren is quoted, in yet another Eataly sign, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”

Top photo: Pasta for sale at Eataly’s newest location in Chicago. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Patrick Thiel. Credit: Lynne Curry

At 8 p.m. on the Saturday before the first snowfall, organic grower Patrick Thiel harvested the last of his 50,000 pounds of potatoes in eastern Oregon. His crew — an itinerant chef, some furloughed firefighters and day laborers — unearthed the haul by hand. Alby’s Gold, Corolle and La Ratte Fingerlings were among the heirloom varieties Portland’s top chefs demanded of Thiel’s tiny Prairie Creek Farm.

When Gabriel Rucker, Naomi Pomeroy, Vitaly Paley and Portland’s other culinary all-stars create a potato side dish or make French fries, they don’t accept any old spud. That got me thinking about Thanksgiving.

Next to turkey, mashed potatoes play the best supporting role. They are essential. You may mess around with a vegetable side dish, invent a salad or even mix in a new pie, but mashers are on the menu each and every year.

How, I wondered, could this year’s mashed potatoes be their very best?

Storage and starch

Snow flurries scattered on the silver roof of a makeshift potato shed in Prairie Creek Farm’s fields. My feet were cold within moments, but I’d come to learn what I could from the most renowned potato grower in Oregon. Gene Thiel, the farm’s founder known as “Potato Man,” died in July at 77 and left the legacy to his son, Patrick. They’d worked side by side on their leased patch of glaciated soils making their root crops — beets, carrots and potatoes — memorable highlights of many menus.

Looking like a miner with a helmet and headlamp, Thiel led me inside his potato shed. The earthy air was noticeably warmer and dark as night. Hills of soil-caked potatoes reached head height — 50,000 pounds, Thiel estimated with undisguised disappointment.

“It should be 100,000,” he said. But he couldn’t get enough organic seed potato for a full crop. Shaking his head, he noted that meant rationing the smaller yield to his 50 chefs to fulfill deliveries from now to spring.

Bent over a bulwark of 50-pound bagged potatoes, Thiel commented offhandedly, “Cooking potatoes is a question of sugar content and temperature.”

I realized my lesson had begun. He explained that in cool storage (within 40 to 45 F), the potatoes retain their sugars. So, you want to store your potatoes, whether from the store, farmers market or your own garden, as cool as you can for long keeping.

When they’re warmed up, the potato’s sugars convert to starches. Because the best mashed potatoes require a starchy potato, Thiel’s key advice was simple: Warm your potatoes before boiling.

“If your sugars are high, you’ll get glue,” Thiel said. Then, he added, “My dad could tell the good chefs who set their bag of potatoes by the stove.” Their French fries had the best color and their mashed potatoes the best texture. Flavor is another story.

Not your ordinary Russets

Thiel is a soft-spoken father of four with a brown cap of hair who harbors fervent opinions on potatoes. I asked him outright, What is the best potato for mashing?

“If you like light and fluffy, use Russets,” he replied. “If you like flavor, use better varieties.”

Buttery mashed potatoes. Credit: Lynne Curry

Buttery mashed potatoes. Credit: Lynne Curry

He was speaking, of course, of heirloom potato varieties. Not the Idaho potato, the Burbank Russet, grown for uniformity in size, starch, color and flavor. Commercial potato growers are paid to produce to specifications and penalized if their tubers don’t make the cut. Thiel and his dad left behind commercial-scale potato growing many years ago and became committed to producing diverse breeds, including Alby’s Gold, a yellow variety that is the farm’s mainstay.

On this topic, Thiel is passionate. “No potato has better color, flavor and texture than Alby’s,” he said. “They come alive like no other potato.”

More brightly colored than Yukon Gold, Alby’s is the only potato that can hold an astonishing amount of butter when mashed, according to longtime Chef Pascal Sauton. Just 1 pound of Alby’s potatoes can absorb 1½  sticks of butter.

“Put that much butter in anything, it’s incredible,” Thiel conceded. He also recommended blending them with good quality olive oil, duck fat, bacon fat or truffle oil.

Prairie Creek Farm grows roughly eight potato varieties, including Ranger Russet, best adapted to the growing conditions in Oregon’s alpine region. Throughout the country, small farms offer their own favorite heirloom breeds. (Find the one closest to you at LocalHarvest.com.)

“When you’re using different potatoes,” Thiel advised, “you need to know your potato.” On his weekly delivery runs, he informs chefs about the storage conditions, but stops short of the direct instructions his father shot off for cooking them. “I don’t have the courage to argue with them like my dad,” he said with a shy smile. He does confide in me that when he wants an extra fluffy mash, he’ll mix a few of his Russets in with his favored Alby’s.

As I stepped gingerly between piles of potatoes to exit the shed, Thiel shined his headlamp to the roof to show me droplets suspended there. Entombed, the potatoes make their own moisture, respiring and living in a state of waiting until we claim them for our own Thanksgiving Day feast.

Top photo: Patrick Thiel. Credit: Lynne Curry

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Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye

Who speaks for the trees? Craft cider producers.

The third annual Cider Week, a beverage-promotional initiative to encourage restaurateurs, shop owners and consumers to try cider, came to New York last month, and it is being celebrated in Virginia this week. I mean hard cider, the fermented juice of apples, which is an alcoholic beverage that has a long history in the United States. I am not referring to sweet cider, the non-alcoholic, cinnamon-laced apple juice often found with a doughnut for a sidekick. Cider Week is about hard cider. For apple growers across the country, that distinction makes all of the difference.

Over the last century, this beverage has so thoroughly lost its place at the American table that it’s impossible to write about it without a short history lesson. Before Prohibition, cider was as familiar a beverage as water. Often it was the more palatable and sanitary choice of the two. Thousands of apple varieties thrived across the U.S., and those most highly prized were the kinds that you would not necessarily pick up and eat raw. Bitter and astringent varieties were cherished for the complexity they could add to hard cider, the final destination for most apples grown at the time.

After a near century-long, Prohibition-induced dormancy, the hard cider industry is back with a bullet. Craft producers and sommeliers across the country are rediscovering that cider fermented from heirloom varieties of apple can express complexity and terroir, much as a fine wine. And just as wine presents vintners a more profitable product than selling fresh grapes, cider offers apple growers a much higher price  than the highly seasonal sale of fresh apples.

According to Dan Wilson of Slyboro Cider House in Granville, N.Y., his farm’s you-pick operation accounts for about 80% of  its yearly income. This business model is risky because his season for you-pick is only six weeks long, meaning a few rainy weekends could seriously damage earnings. For his operation and many like it, the benefits of cider production are manifold. Cider is a shelf-stable product, meaning it can provide income year round. It is an added-value product, selling at a higher price than the fresh ingredients used to create it.

Because apples pressed into cider do not need to be flawless, cider production  allows farmers greater flexibility to spray fewer chemicals and to make use of imperfect apples.

Cider Week spotlights craft cider makers

Glynwood, the agricultural nonprofit in the Hudson Valley where I work, started Cider Week three years ago to aid New York craft cider producers in this resurgence. This year’s 10-day celebration of regional, craft cider included more than 200 locations in New York City and Hudson Valley that featured cider on their menus.

While that commitment meant a fun week of great events for consumers, it also meant exposure and new accounts for craft producers. By focusing on artisanal producers, Cider Week is meant to carve out a niche for small growers, help them expand their businesses, and increase viability for Northeast orchards.

The rapid resurgence of this beverage means that the big players — read multinational beer corporations — in the beverage world are out in force. These companies have a part to play by moving cider from niche to mainstream. With a massive clientele and considerable marketing power, they are poised to shake up the traditional beer/wine dichotomy and introduce cider to a huge subset of the American drinking population.

Look for small, local providers

However, for American orchards, for farm viability and rural development, and for increased biodiversity, the resurgence of craft cider is where the true opportunity lies. Small companies pressing whole, regional apples (as opposed to imported apple concentrate) are stewards to the land and keepers of the craft in a way the big boys categorically cannot be.

Craft cider makers are the guides on America’s journey back to a sophisticated, complex beverage, pulled directly from the annals of our own history. As the American palate co-evolves with this new wave of enterprising craftsmen and women, we also hone our tastes for a future that celebrates food and drinks as a passionate expression of place. It is a future that moves me.

And the best way to get there is to find craft cider producers near you. Ask about craft cider on beverage menus and in wine stores. Look at the directories of the many Cider Week events held around the country to discover regional producers (and if you don’t have local cider, many producers can ship). Feature cider at your Thanksgiving dinner this year. In doing so, you will be supporting a beverage, an industry and a tradition as deeply American as the holiday itself.

Top photo: Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye

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Cracker thin toast with fresh ricotta, stewed kumquats and other fall citrus, shaved fennel and toasted hazelnuts from Sycamore Kitchen, Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown

Hazelnut farmer Barb Foulke watched in disbelief as the relentless storm lashed Oregon’s Willamette Valley in late September. Two weeks of rain punctuated by a 5-inch deluge over four days.

A warm May meant the valley’s hazelnuts had matured early and were already lying on the ground when the rains started. Instead of “vacuuming” up the nuts in the typical whirl of dust, Foulke’s crop was sitting in the mud. “It’s painful,” she said.

Hazelnuts (filberts in England) have become a hot commodity in Oregon with acreage dedicated to the scrubby trees increasing 10% a year during the last decade. Three thousand more acres were planted this year with the region’s 2013 crop predicted to be close to 40,000 tons.

That’s slim pickings when compared to the flow of hazelnuts from Turkey, which produces 75% of the world’s crop by weight. Still, it’s enough to give the state runner-up status along with the countries of Italy, Georgia, Greece and Spain.

Foulke and other growers are working to distinguish Oregon hazelnuts in terms of quality by focusing on sustainable farming and modern harvesting technology. As the Portland culinary scene has exploded, the locally grown nuts have become a signature ingredient.

Discovering great hazelnut recipes

Visiting the Willamette Valley for the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration in August, I fell in love with the nut’s rich, creamy texture and sweet flavor. In the shell, they look like acorns. Lightly roasted, they lose their paper-thin skin and have a bite that is firmer than a cashew, softer than an almond.

A dinner in the sleek, new Sokol Blosser Winery tasting room, created by Jenn Louis, chef/owner of Lincoln in Portland, featured crushed, toasted nuts in a honey spread spiked with toasted rosemary, chili oil and sea salt. Louis’ slab of roasted porchetta was made from pigs fed on the meaty nuts.

The same holy trinity of toasted hazelnuts, honey and rosemary was the heart of a tapas prepared by Colin Stafford and Alex Yoder of Portland’s Olympic Provisions with paper-thin lardo enveloping whole hazelnuts.

Discarded hazelnut shells provide landscaping ground cover throughout the Willamette Valley. Credit: Corie Brown

Discarded hazelnut shells provide landscaping ground cover throughout the Willamette Valley. Credit: Corie Brown

When I returned home, I dog-eared half a dozen yummy hazelnut recipes in my cookbook collection. All called for toasting the nuts — 10 to 20 minutes at 350 F, single layer on a baking sheet, removing the skins by rubbing the toasted nuts between tea towels.

Portland Chef Gabriel Rucker has a recipe for hazelnut pesto spiked with sun-dried tomatoes in “Le Pigeon” (Ten Speed Press).

In “The Fresh & Green Table” (Chronicle), Susie Middleton garnishes Brussels sprouts and carrot ragout with coarsely chopped hazelnuts.

Beloved L.A. food guru Joseph Shuldiner features chopped hazelnuts in his dukkah and halvah. He grinds them into fig paste, folds them into his mushroom risotto and tosses them atop his wild mushroom polenta in “Pure Vegan” (Chronicle).

My dessert guru, Alice Medrich, has a recipe for “Hazelnut Gianduja Chunk Cookies” in her cookie book (Artisan).

Nigel Slater offers half a dozen hazelnut desserts in “Notes from the Larder” (Ten Speed Press).

Taking my shopping list to the grocery store, I began looking for hazelnuts.

Getting nuts on the grocery shelves

“You don’t see hazelnuts that much in stores,” said Mike Klein, a spokesman for the Willamette Hazelnut Growers. While the exploding sales of Nutella — a sweetened hazelnut spread — are testament to the popularity of hazelnut’s flavor, the naked nuts are rarely on the shelf. Grocery chains don’t think cooks want to mess with toasting them, he said.

You rarely find them in cans of roasted mixed nuts because they are relatively rare. Only 40 million pounds of shelled hazelnuts are produced each year compared to 1.8 billion pounds of almonds, he said.

I found hazelnuts at Surfas in Culver City and there were a few containers of them at my neighborhood Whole Foods. But the local Ralphs grocery store doesn’t carry them.

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Alice Medrich’s Hazelnut Gianduja Chunk Cookies as baked by Corie Brown. Credit: Corie Brown

The easiest way to buy hazelnuts, said Klein, is to go to the website of an Oregon grower and buy direct. Unfortunately, Oregon growers sold out months ago, and you’ll have to wait for the new harvest.

The line is forming at Barbara Foulke’s Freddy Guys Hazelnuts, the nuts many Portland foodies consider the gold standard. Her small-batch processing using a tricked-out little roaster she traveled to Italy to buy directly from the manufacturer provides the obsessive attention to detail that appeals to the local DIY ethos.

And Foulke will have plenty of nuts. The rains stopped the second week of October. The sun came out and ushered in an Indian summer as odd as the earlier deluge. The warm days dried the ground, allowing the crew to “vacuum” up the nuts with Foulke’s harvesters before mold or mildew could gain a foothold.

The 2013 harvest is expected to set records.

Top photo: Cracker thin toast with fresh ricotta, stewed kumquats and other fall citrus, shaved fennel and toasted hazelnuts from Sycamore Kitchen in Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown

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Marcella Hazan cooking in Florida. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family

Marcella Hazan, the great Italian cooking teacher and cookbook author, passed away Sept. 29. That evening, as I prepared a simple tomato sauce for dinner, I realized I routinely hear her husky voice in my head whenever I stir a pot of risotto or sauce a pasta (“careful, not too much!”).

Known simply as Marcella, she was the acknowledged game-changer on how Americans think about Italian food, the first to give us careful recipes for such classical dishes as tortelloni di biete (Swiss chard) and artichokes Roman-style. Long after her fame settled about her like a mantle, journalists began to focus instead on her prickly, brusque, curmudgeonly personality — choose your adjective, they’ve all been applied — her smoking, and her preference for Gentleman Jack whiskey.

A first encounter

I came to know a different Marcella. Our friendship began with my fortuitous purchase of fresh scallops with their roe attached. I’d been hired as the food stylist/media escort for Marcella’s Los Angeles book tour for “Marcella Cucina.”

A flurry of faxes from the office of culinary publicist Lisa Ekus (full disclosure, now my agent)  preceded the Hazans’ arrival: Be sure to hold her book face-out at the airport gate. Don’t even think about taking them to an Italian restaurant. They like Chinese food and American hot dogs. I was suitably unnerved.

Marcella was brusque all right. She acknowledged me with a nod and a grunt, slid into the back seat, and proceeded to speak only to her husband, Victor, and only in Italian. At our first stop, Marcella met with the food editor, and Victor hovered as I readied shrimp and scallop salad with orange sections for the shoot. In the recipe’s headnote, Marcella waxed poetic about using scallops with their roe attached but lamented their nonexistence in the United States. Enter the aforementioned scallops. First lesson: Close reading of an author’s work, especially the extra matter, garners undying gratitude. At the end of that first day, I was invited up to their suite to get better acquainted with the inseparable team.

A love of home cooking

That I was a home cook and eager student endeared me to the Hazans. Marcella’s life’s work was the Italian family meal, and she saw in me a kindred spirit she could entrust to liaise between her food and restaurant cookery. Second lesson: Home cooking is the backbone of family life, il sacro desco (the sacred table), and a career-worthy subject.

The Hazans and I kept in touch, and two years later I was hired to assist Marcella at a series of cooking demonstrations at the Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley. My job was to keep her food from getting “cheffed up” by the pros preparing the finished meals. I can just imagine what then-resident-chefs Gary Jenanyan and Sarah Scott must have thought about the need for a “food translator.”

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Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family

At “home” in the Mondavi’s luxurious three-bedroom guest house, with a fire going against the November rain, the Hazans and I became an ersatz family. Over morning coffee and cigarettes (hers), Marcella told me stories about their early years together, dished about the celebrities she taught, and talked about the dynamics of teaching. It was essentially a rehearsal for her memoir, “Amarcord.”

We scavenged ingredients from the winery larder to make home-cooked comfort food: stovetop veal tenderloin; tomato salad; and an Italian sort of Potatoes Anna, lush with olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Marcella cooked generously and fearlessly over high heat. There were splatters everywhere, but the resulting sauce for the veal was a deeply flavored rich brown, the potatoes were roasted to crisped perfection. Instead of adding notches to my culinary belt with lavish meals at the French Laundry, I had a one-on-one kitchen tutorial with one of the great teachers of our time.

At home in Florida

I saw Marcella at her most relaxed when I visited the Hazans at their condominium in Longboat Key, Fla. As though she was still a young girl in her native Cesanatico, she’d whistle to me from her first-floor balcony as I approached from the white-sand beach. She laughed easily, flirted with waiters, enjoyed living near son Giuliano and his family. Of course, leaving Venice meant having to buy shrink-wrapped food at Florida supermarkets instead of fresh, live ingredients along the Rialto. I heard a lot about that too.

The Hazans taught me to be on the lookout for the simplest site-specific gustatory pleasures when I traveled to Italy — the incomparably fresh mozzarella di bufala in Naples, the aroma of white truffles in Alba — and how those trump the air-shipped versions we get here, a sensibility I apply to my writing on seasonal, local foods. Ever the teachers, they were happy to impart their knowledge to a willing student who would pass it along.

If I could give Marcella something in return for all these lessons, it would be this: She sometimes felt discouraged that Americans’ obsession with food porn had become the new barrier to honest cooking. I’d like her to know how much she really did change our culinary landscape.

Top photo: Marcella Hazan cooking in Florida. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family

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