Articles in Business

Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.

This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.

Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.

Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.

In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.

The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!

Skill and strength

Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.

As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”

As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.

Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:

First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)

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Portugal's "debarkers" are the highest-paid agricultural workers in the world. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.

Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.

The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.

Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

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An aerial shot of Matthew Moore's replica of a suburban lot map, in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore Credit: Matthew Moore

If you knew it took 160 days to grow a carrot, would it change the way you think about eating one?

That’s the question that artist and farmer Matthew Moore set out to answer with a series of time-lapse videos of plants growing from seed to harvest. “If you went to the supermarket, bought a head of lettuce and you were able to see the life cycle of that plant in a few seconds or a few minutes, it might change the way you think about that food,” he said.

AUTHOR


PamWeisz of Change Food

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

Art, Moore said, “can put us into a state that words can’t describe — it completely simplifies everything.”

Moore talked about the importance of art in making people think about food at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See embedded video below.)

In his poignant and emotional talk, Moore said that his story began when he realized that although he is the fourth generation on his family’s farm outside of Phoenix, “I’m also the last to farm this land” because of the massive amount of development going on in the region.

“When I returned to run the family business in the beginning of the last housing boom I just inherently knew that I had to document this process,” he said.

He began by artfully showing the impact of suburban sprawl on the land. In one picture-perfect example, he created a replica of a suburban lot map in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat.

“What art is so good at is asking questions,” he said. “The question I had was: Why does this make sense? Why is this the best, the highest use of this ground?”

Matthew Moore's floor plan embedded in wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

Matthew Moore embeds a floor plan in wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

He began to make his time-lapse videos on the theory that most people don’t understand what goes into growing the produce they eat, and that if they did, they might approach the supermarket with a different perspective.

Time-lapse messages

The time-lapse films were shown in a Utah supermarket as part of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. When consumers approached a selected vegetable, an LCD screen displayed that plant’s entire life cycle, set to music. And, Moore said, people watched. “We realized that it works,” he said. “I did all these conceptual projects, and all I had to do was let the plant tell the story.”

Moore is part of a larger movement using art to encourage people to think more about their food, at a time when consumer interest in food, and how it’s produced, is rising. Many artists are engaged in this work. Stefani Bardin used pills, designed to record video and sound from the gastrointestinal tract, to examine the effects of eating natural versus processed food; the resulting video has been watched more than 3 million times. Tattfoo Tan has developed a range of specialized paint colors matched to the colors of fruits and vegetables, known as the Nature Matching System. He’s used the system to create, among other things, a place mat that has been sold at the Museum of Modern Art Design Store. Photographer Henry Hargreaves created physical maps using iconic foods of countries for his Food Maps series.

Moore founded a nonprofit, the Digital Farm Collective, inspired by what he describes as “the increasing disconnect between consumers and the source of their food.” The DFC’s mission is to broaden the understanding of how food grows and preserve growing practices by telling the story of cultivated crops using video and digital media in schools and public spaces.

The DFC has sent cameras around the world, asking farmers to create time-lapse videos similar to those Moore has made. Interviews with farmers and practical data about produce as it grows from seed to harvest are also incorporated. This content is available in the DFC’s “Living Library.”

The DFC shares its work through two other programs. The first, Seedlings, provides curricula for schools to get kids engaged in gardening. “Through that we learn how better to communicate and inspire the next generation of growers and consumers,” Moore said. The second, Lifecycles, works to exhibit the DFC’s content in public spaces. For example, the group’s work was part of an exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art in Northern California this year.

The goal, Moore said, is to inspire and educate. “Consumers play a role in food advocacy every time they go to the grocery store,” he said. “We have to understand the global implications of every choice that we make.

“And all I know is words won’t cut it sometimes,” he added. “Sometimes we need more.”

Main photo: An aerial shot of Matthew Moore’s replica of a suburban lot map, in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

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Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.

I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food –  not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street  stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.

Third Street

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Third Street draws residents with its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms. Credit: Chuck Hillestad

Pride in food

Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.

The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.

A culture of sharing

People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.

Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.

People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.

I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.

Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.

Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking out varietal olive oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting the difference

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

OILVE OIL LINKS


To order single-variety olive oils online, visit:

» theolivepress.com

» nvoliveol.com

» oliandve.com

» allspiceonline.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Argan nuts are harvested from the forest, then fire-roasted to soften the husk. Credit: Serenity Bolt

Liisa VonEnde, a dental hygienist from Vermont, pauses in the checkout line at Whole Foods Market and considers the last-minute temptations: local chocolate, exotic licorice, obscure brands of gum. Finally she tosses a 2 Degrees cherry almond energy bar into her cart. Why that one? This particular bar helped feed a hungry child. These days, “cause marketing” — an idea that for many began with Paul Newman’s salad dressing — has spread to everything from shoes to eyeglasses, with small specialty companies combining flashy graphics with philanthropy to sell their products.

The Author


Serenity BoltSerenity Bolt, a writer and photographer based in Rabat, Morocco, reported this story in association with Round Earth Media.

California-based 2 Degrees Food provides one meal for every bar sold. In Morocco, meanwhile, women have organized into small cooperatives to sell argan oil, hoping the tie-in will boost sales for their vendors. Both cases sound like a win-win-win, satisfying the disadvantaged, a company’s bottom line, and consumer cravings. With so many food companies adopting the do-gooder model, however, consumers need to think about whether their well-meaning purchases are delivering as promised.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman defines cause marketing as a business campaign “promising donations from the sale of products or the use of services.” Recent research shows that consumers are indeed affected by a company’s corporate social responsibility. A 2013 study by the New York-based Reputation Institute found that 42% of the 47,000 participants were influenced by their perception of a company’s social mission. This trend is most apparent in the rapid growth of smaller businesses like 2 Degrees Food, along with such well-known brands as Toms Shoes and Warby Parker, which make direct donations of shoes and/or eyeglasses as part of their business model.

Insight from 2 Degrees Food

Lauren Walters, cofounder and CEO of 2 Degrees Food, believes that simplicity is key. “One of the things that appeals to consumers is that it’s concrete, it’s clear: You buy a bar and this is what happens,” he says. Founded in 2009, 2 Degrees produces the promised meals in-country using local labor and food sourced from regional farmers whenever possible. So far, he says, Two Degrees has donated over 1 million meals in Colombia, Haiti, Malawi, India, Kenya, Myanmar, Somalia, and the United States.

The social business model has been criticized for promoting a situation in which people in developing countries rely on the whims of a first-world consumer: If the influx of free shoes, eyeglasses and meals stops one day, the people may be left without the wherewithal to produce and purchase these items for themselves. The model may also unwittingly discourage consumers from engaging in more thoughtful or sustained philanthropy. “If we buy a T-shirt and feel we are financially supporting a cause by buying the T-shirt, a lot of people will already think they’ve given, and may not be amenable to other requests,” says Ray Dart, professor of business administration at Trent University in Ottawa.

While Walters acknowledges that the cause marketing model has issues, he says he hopes more businesses embrace it. He envisions a “culture of choice” that empowers consumers to make a difference. “The problem is not that there are getting to be too many of these companies, but that there are too few,” he says. “Everyone should be doing this.”

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Argan nuts are harvested from the forest, then fire-roasted to soften the husk. Credit: Serenity Bolt

The women who process argan oil in Morocco have experienced the downside firsthand. The seed of the argan tree is native to Arganeraie, a UNESCO biosphere in the southwest region of Morocco. The Amazigh women have been extracting the oil for centuries using a complicated hand-pressing process. Jamila Idbourrous is director of UCFA (Union des Coopératives des Femmes de l’Arganeraie), a large argan cooperative in Morocco’s Agadir region. She says the oil, which is used for cooking and cosmetics, is the area’s only financial resource. “Within the cooperatives, we care deeply about offering these women fair pay for their work,” she says. But even after her cooperative stopped supplying some companies with the oil last year, Idbourrous says, at least one continues to promote its connection to UCFA — and the social benefits for the women.

As companies feel increased pressure to factor social responsibility into their marketing and as consumers adjust their perception of what defines a “good” company, people will expect to see companies giving something back. For her part, VonEnde says that “the social stuff is an added bonus that makes me feel like I did more that day than just buy an energy bar or a pair of shoes.” CEO Walters thinks that feeling could spread. “If they can help someone just by buying a bar, maybe they’ll start to think of other ways to make a difference, too,” he says.

How to assess a corporation’s social responsibility

How can you evaluate a company’s commitment to social responsibility? Last October, the New York attorney general issued some best practices for cause marketing campaigns. These tips are based on those recommendations:

1. Expect your donation to be clear: Look for companies that use a fixed dollar amount — such as 50 cents for every purchase — rather than generic phrases like “a portion of proceeds” will go to charity.
2. Look for transparency: Be aware of any contractual limits on the giving campaigns or of charitable contributions that won’t be made in cash. See whether a fixed amount has been promised to the charity regardless of number of products sold.

3.  Demand the details in social media, too: Watch that companies conducting cause marketing through social media clearly and prominently disclose key terms in their online marketing.

4. Find out how much was raised: At the conclusion of each campaign, you should be able to go to the company’s website and see the amount of charitable donations generated.

Main photo: Moroccan women like Fatna Boufoss first gathers nuts from the argan forest, then grinds them after they are roasted as her daughter Meriam looks on. Credit: Serenity Bolt

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Bottles of olive oil from Kiler Ridge Olive Farm. Credit: W.F. Tierney

I’m coming to my senses. In California we would expect by now to be tasting the best new olive oils from the 2013 growing season. This year, though, the problem is supply.

As I’ve written, I believe most California oils are superior to many of the European imports, but the 2013 olive harvest was thin. I’ve checked with vendors such as California olive oil retailer We Olive, and practically nothing new and good is coming in.

I had been visiting smaller grower-producers on the Central Coast for more than a year now, so it was time to broaden the project by speaking with a large-scale producer. I had a long conversation with Bob Singletary, the miller for California Olive Ranch. Unlike small producers with about 10 acres and 2,000 trees, California Olive Ranch has 15,000 acres and 9 million trees. California Olive Ranch produces high-quality oils from three cultivars: arbequina, arbosana and koroneki. Part of the strength of its product comes from the high density of tree plantings. In addition, Singletary mills for a consistency of flavor.

California Olive Ranch observes the same fine points that smaller growers have demonstrated to me, but with a greater economy of scale. For example, they follow the same harvesting time frame as the smaller estates, that being no more than four hours from harvest to malaxation and centrifuge, and all harvesting is done by Thanksgiving.

The California Olive Oil Council sets the bar very low for acidity standards — no more than 0.05% acidity. California Olive Ranch achieves 0.02% acidity, as do many of the smaller producers. Compare that with the International Olive Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, both of which set the standard at 0.08% acidity.

Some of the trickier parts come from the “meat-to-nut” ratio of the olive. The olive fly thrives on olive meat, so it’s a delicate balance to achieve. This year the olive flies have been feasting, especially in Northern California. The arbequina cultivar produces low a meat-to-nut ratio, but cumulatively the trees yield a lot of fruit. Because the olives are less meaty, arbequina trees are less susceptible to damage from the olive fly.

Great California olive oil in short supply this year

Despite the difficulties of the 2013 harvest, there is still great stuff to be tasted, even though it’s in short supply. I recently spent $45 for a 375-milliliter bottle of Kiler Ridge reserve. That might sound absurd, but only 90 bottles were produced and you have to go directly to the grower, Gregg Bone, to buy it — if he has any left. Bone said he’s not entering it into any of the competitions because he removed the bitterness, which seems to be a criteria for judging. Bone is more than a little contrarian, but the oil is really fine stuff.

Olive trees at Fandango Olive Oil in Paso Robles, Calif.

Olive trees at Fandango Olive Oil in Paso Robles, Calif.

Tasting olive oil — here comes the sensory part — is like tasting wine, because the oil hits different parts of your palate. It’s good to have a grassy or buttery beginning and, with a slightly delayed reaction, a peppery flavor hit the back of your palate. Sadly, the recent oils I’ve tasted from growers I respect have what I refer to as flat line — there’s a beginning but no big finish. One of my colleagues refers to it as “popcorn.”

One of the facts that caught my eye recently appeared in the Corti Brothers newsletter. Owner Darrel Corti described a “no malax” arbequina oil he is selling under his own label. Malaxation is the process by which oil is coaxed from the olives by kneading them, but in the case of no-malax oil this process is skipped and the olives go from being crushed to the centrifuge.

I think Corti is one of the smartest people in the food-marketing business, so I had to reach out to him to find out more. He emailed me to say, “Agriculture is the bane of merchants and writers! It does its own thing. The 2013 harvest was poor not only because of the fly, but also because of the warm weather for so long. The no malax arbequina was not possible to make in 2012, and the sample was made in 2011. It is not a charming business dealing with nature.” As to the “no malax arbequina,” the producer could  provide only 50 gallons, and Corti took the whole lot.

Check the labeling

Some growers go to extraordinary lengths to assure customers they are getting the best quality. For example, Richard Meisler at San Miguel Olive Farm labels his bottles with not only the harvest date — which is standard practice — but also the chemical values, including fatty acid, peroxide and polyphenols. You don’t see that on import oils. He said that next year he would be sending his oil to University of California Davis for testing. It’s expensive, but the university is the best because of the amount of research it does on olives.

Yes, it’s been a disappointing year for good California olive oil — with a few ups but far more downs. Too many times I’ve listened to stories of entire olive harvests wiped out. Corti had it right: Dealing with nature is “not a charming business.” And of course you could say the same thing about growing corn or breeding cattle. But if you look hard enough, you can find some really good stuff — there’s just not enough to go around.

Main photo: Bottles of olive oil from Kiler Ridge Olive Farm. Credit: W.F. Tierney

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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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