Articles in Business
Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”
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“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory, films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.
Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.
This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.
Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.
On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.
Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.
In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”
Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’
‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”
The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.
The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.
Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani
I was taken aback recently to hear the hard statistics: The United States imports more than 45% of the fruits and vegetables we put on our tables.
We regularly see produce from Mexico, Canada, Chile, China, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and more — imports that have tripled since the 1990s. The produce is harvested before it is even ripe, so that it can be cheaply and efficiently boxed and shipped to our shores for consumption often weeks later.
And while it is a fact that the local food movement is growing exponentially, the reality is that these small farming efforts are often built on marginal land or urban plots. As for big agriculture, according to the American Farmland Trust we lose more than one acre of farmland to urban development every minute of every day, 24/7.
It all adds up. Stifling competition from often inferior product from abroad. Aggressive developers here at home. Shopping malls. Young farm family members choosing not to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
According to the USDA, the number of farms in the United States fell to a six-year low in 2012.
Shrinking number of farmers
Today more than half of American farmers, roughly 2.2 million individuals, are near or past retirement age and there are few prepared with the skills to take their place. How could it be that the Unites States, once the envy of the world in terms of agricultural output, is not even producing enough to feed our own people?
As a nation it’s no secret that we eat too much and too much of the wrong foods, and this has dire consequences on our health. We are currently ranked 33rd on Newsweek / Bloomberg’s 2012 survey of the world’s healthiest countries.
I was reminded of these and other sobering statistics at a screening of “Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farm Fields,” a powerful documentary that addresses the urgent need to retool and reboot U.S. farming practices.
Thanks to the efforts of Dulanie Ellis and Ray Singer, award-winning filmmakers in Ojai, Calif., a social action campaign has been launched nationwide to give combat veterans the opportunity to become a new generation of farmers.
In 2000, Dulanie Ellis launched Walk Your Talk Productions to explore what it would take to protect the world-class farmland in her region of California from development. Thus began her commitment to agricultural activism. Her partner in the documentary, filmmaker Ray Singer, shared her passion and together they embarked on a three-year journey that has profoundly affected each of them. Their goal is to strengthen the growing network of combat veterans who are transitioning into organic agriculture and to build resources for veterans so they can create healthy new lives for themselves and contribute to food security for our nation.
Back from the battlefields
Recently returned from protecting U.S. interests overseas and having traded in their fatigues for overalls, hundreds of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are now committed to growing organic produce and selling it to local communities from Seattle to Florida.
Colin and Karen Archipley, founders of Archi’s Acres in Valley Center, Calif., have taught more than 100 veterans not only how to grow crops, but how to run a farm as a business through their Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program.
VSAT is a proprietary hands-on six-week training program “from seed to market” with an emphasis on developing a business plan. Colin and Karen purposefully tap into the skills and military training of the veterans — attention to detail, dedication and thoroughness — and assist with job placement and business creation at the end of the immersive training. Graduates include successful farm owners and workers, soil-testing pioneers, restaurateurs, and owners of food companies.
Michael O’Gorman, a passionate advocate for the cause of teaching veterans to farm, is the founder and director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) located in Davis, Calif. This national network of independent veterans-in-agriculture has teamed up with the USDA to offer free educational retreats in sustainable agriculture all around the country, open to veterans and their spouses.
The coalition serves as an important networking agency. Veterans are able to talk with farmers, attend workshops on financing and related business topics. FVC also offers the Fellowship Fund, which makes small but strategic grants to farmer-vets so they can get what they need most to strengthen their operation.
“Our goal is to connect the latest generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to viable careers in agriculture,” says Michael. “What we see amounts to religious conversions. These young folks have taken on the military and farming — two of the hardest challenges we face — and they’re not even 30 years old.”
American-grown food for all — it’s more than a wish. The United States is projected to add some 28 million people by the year 2020. With nearly 340 million mouths to feed by the end of this decade, food supply is arguably one of the defining issues of our time. Think about it. Homegrown food is healthier for you. Healthier for your children. Healthier for our communities. Healthier for America.
The next time you plan your week’s shopping, check first for a local farmers market. You may just find a veteran farmer continuing to do service for our country.
Top photo: Mark Winkworth. Credit: JJ Britt
I wonder how many Americans realize their importance in the world of wine. The United States has recently overtaken France and Italy to become the globe’s biggest market, drinking a full 13% of all the wine produced on the planet, more than any other nation. While wine drinking has been declining rapidly in the European countries that make so much of it — France, Italy and Spain — we are amazed at how rapidly and firmly a wine culture has been established in the U.S.
In cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, you can hardly move for wine tastings, wine bars, wine courses and people who are parlaying their interest in wine into building collections, visiting urban wineries and taking wine tours. But even in the vastness of America between the coasts, wine has been catching on. We looked up wine events in Des Moines, for example, and were delighted to find at least one a month. What we like about this development is that these new wine lovers, many of them relatively young, are working out their own preferences rather than being spoon-fed a series of ratings.
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Americans are among top wine producers
But it is not just as a consumer that the U.S. now leads the world. Americans overtook Argentina in the 1990s to become by far the most important wine producer outside Europe, with the total amount of American wine produced gaining on the amount made in France, Italy and Spain. The shifting balance is due in some part to a determined program to rip out surplus, low quality vineyards in the EU.
Robert Mondavi was always convinced that California could make wines that were the equal of Europe’s best. That point was made long ago, but what thrills us is that American interest is so great that wine is now being made in every state in the Union. Hawaii and Alaska have their own wines, and North Dakota has eight bonded wineries. We long ago recognized that California, Washington and Oregon could make great wine, but now is the time to check out what we call The Other 47.
Rieslings in the Midwest
The curious American wine lover would be well advised to investigate the less-celebrated steely Rieslings of northwestern Michigan and the Finger Lakes region of New York. In blind tastings of Rieslings from throughout the world, their offerings have been ranked among the finest. But perhaps the best Viogniers, Petit Mansengs and Bordeaux blends of Virginia would be an appropriate starting point for an exploration of American wine in view of Thomas Jefferson’s early efforts on his Monticello estate to turn Americans into a nation of wine drinkers. (It was the local phylloxera louse that scuppered his early plantings of the European vinifera vines, by far the most dominant vines in wine production.)
In some of the more inhospitable sites for grape vines, where the climate is too cold and the growing season too short to support European Vitis vinifera varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, grape breeders, particularly in Minnesota, have been developing cold-hardy hybrids that ripen their fruit relatively early and produce fully mature grapes that can be vinified into seriously good table and dessert wines. Look for La Crescent and Brianna whites, and Frontenac and Marquette reds. Older French-American hybrids, with names such as Baco Noir, Cayuga, Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc, remain important grape sources in the most challenging terroirs in the Midwest.
More options in the South and Northeast
In wet, humid Southern states, native Muscadine vines, which have adapted to the conditions, produce musky-sweet aromas and flavors that can be an acquired taste for some, but are embraced by others who have grown up drinking them. In New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the native Concord grape used so widely for juice, jelly and grapey wines such as Manischewitz, can taste pretty extraordinary to a palate not raised on Cabernet and Chardonnay. However, some American vine varieties — the Norton grape of Virginia and Missouri comes quickly to mind — can produce admirable wines without the rankness associated with Concord, wines that should appeal to any lover of fruity reds with character.
Then again, there are wineries in the U.S. that ship in grapes from sunnier climes (often California), and vinify and bottle them under their own labels. Despite movements across the country calling for only locally grown grapes to go into locally produced wines, importing West Coast fruit keeps many a winery tasting room financially afloat.
And in some parts of the country — Alaska, North and South Dakota in particular — vintners make their living selling wines made from vegetables and non-grape fruits. Pumpkins, rhubarb, berries, cherries, apples, pears, peaches, just about any produce that has natural sugar, can be fermented into wine. Many of them taste surprisingly good.
We feel strongly that the dramatic increase in quality of wines made in The Other 47 deserves more recognition. Be adventurous in your wine choices.
Photo: Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy. Credit: Michael Wright Studio
The holidays were nearing when I eagerly skipped down the yellow-brick road into Dr. Mehmet Oz’s world of “What To Eat Now: The Anti-Food-Snob Diet.” His opener — that “some of the tastiest and healthiest food around is also the least expensive and most ordinary” — was indisputably welcoming.
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Finally, I sighed with relief, our nation’s favorite star doctor will set the record straight. Eating healthy food doesn’t have to be rocket science. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. OK, yes, all the Google-smart news-speak mavens can choose to buy their fresh foods at the most expensive markets and thereby confirm their conspira-stories that healthy, local food is elitist.
But now, finally, we would get the straight dope on how we can eat well without breaking the bank.
I happily entered Dr. Oz’s world of bright and colorful frozen green peas and carrots. I read that we can enjoy some of our favorite foods — tacos, peanut butter, salsa and guacamole — and we can also “eat frozen and never feel that you are shortchanging yourself.” Hallelujah!
An egg is an egg?
But when Dr. Oz said “organic is great, it’s just not very democratic,” I stopped skipping. What he means by organic is revealed in his next sentence: “truffle oil, European cheeses and heirloom tomatoes.” No mention of everyday organic foods like apples, peas, carrots, beans. A bit later he confesses that he’s doing a “public-health service” to folks who are “alienated and dejected” because “the marketing of healthy foods too often blurs into elitism.” His public health service includes telling us there is no difference between organic and conventional foods. “An egg is an egg,” he says. What’s more, there’s “not much difference between, say, grass-fed beef and the feedlot variety.”
Let me get this straight: Organic is not democratic because … not everyone can afford truffle oil or European cheeses? The only organic food is the kind he shops for? Following that logic, if the only British car I bought was a Rolls-Royce, I could soundly conclude that British cars are not democratic because not everyone can afford a Rolls. That is, of course, ridiculous.
Affordable organic food is available
A real public health service from Oz would be giving devotees the low-down on organic: telling them that eating organic doesn’t mean buying truffle oil. Eating organic can mean consuming affordable, common foods. And eating organic can mean eating more nutritious food. This is where I get to thank Wal-Mart, which, like Dr. Oz, positions itself as serving the common person. Last November, Wal-Mart’s Economic Customer Insights Report announced that its “natural and organic food sales are growing almost twice as much as traditional food products.” This is not truffle oil. This is everyday organic and affordable food.
A real public health service was this recent study, “Is Local Food Affordable to Local Folks?,” which overturned many assumptions about the affordability of local and organic. Comparing prices between supermarkets and 24 farmers markets in 19 communities across six states in Appalachia and the Southeast, the study found that in 74% of the communities, local farmers markets produce was actually less expensive on average by 22%. In 88% of the communities, even organic produce was less expensive, on average by 16%. Overall, although local meats and eggs tended to be more expensive on average, when the costs of similar items were compared, the local food found at farmers markets was either the same or less expensive than in supermarkets in 74% of all cases, with an average of 12% lower cost. What’s more, the great news is that farmers markets are proliferating, meaning more affordable local and organic foods are available to low-income folks. Since 1994, according to a USDA report, farmers markets in the U.S. have more than quadrupled to 7,864 to date, with no end in sight.
Let’s not forget the nutrition argument. An important study showed grass-fed beef is nothing like conventional beef: it’s hugely healthier! Less fat overall, more healthy fats, more minerals, 300% more vitamin E, 400% more vitamin A and 500% more conjugated linoleic acid, which combats cancer, body fat, heart disease and diabetes. Yet another recent study by Penn State revealed striking differences between organic and conventional chicken eggs, with organic boasting twice the healthy fats, 38% more vitamin A and twice the vitamin E.
In my world, a real public health service would spread information not rumors. It would showcase the multiple benefits, including higher nutrition, of organic food. And it would show that, thanks to providers ranging from local farmers markets to Wal-Mart, more and more low-income people now can find — and afford – more healthy, nutritious, organic foods.
I applaud Dr. Oz for addressing the topic of affordable healthy food. Making healthy food more accessible to all is the right goal. But we don’t ridicule those who buy the latest smartphone as snobs and tell the rest to be happy with a rotary dial. Low-income folks don’t want rotary dial phones any more than they want sub-par food. So, Dr. Oz, please come back to the real world where everyone deserves to know the real dope on food: healthier, nutritious food can indeed mean organic foods — and if we look they’re becoming more available and affordable to us all.
Photo: Tanya Denckla Cobb. Credit: Dan Addison
“People have the right to know what is in their food,” Whole Foods Market founder and co-CEO John Mackey told a gathering of customers at his company’s Pasadena store. And when it comes to eating genetically modified anything, he said, the folks who shop at Whole Foods have made it clear: “They don’t want it,” he says.
Mackey listens to his customers. Last week Whole Foods announced that, within five years, all genetically modified ingredients for sale in its stores will be labeled. He is the first retailer in the U.S. to take this step; the story ran on the front page of the New York Times.
In the battle over the American shopper, Mackey, a baby boomer vegan from Austin, Texas, has called out the big boys of GMOs — Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and other multinational chemical companies. If they want access to his customers, they’ll have to play by his rules.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Mackey told the group in Pasadena in February, smiling as he shifted his thin frame from one desert boot to the other. “But if the government won’t act, we will.”
Most of the corn and soybeans grown today in the United States is genetically altered, as is a growing list of fresh produce sold in neighborhood grocery stores. And while Mackey has 339 Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and Canada, he’s a junior varsity player in the North American grocery business. The Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a trade group representing major food companies and retailers, wasted now time in denouncing his GMO labeling decision.
But Mackey’s 30-plus years of paying extraordinary attention to his customers’ wants and needs have earned him a fierce loyalty that allows him to punch well above his weight. No one is counting him out in this fight.
It was Mackey’s business philosophy that took me to Pasadena last month to hear him speak during a stop on the promotional tour for “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business,” a new business management book he co-wrote with Raj Sisodia, a Bentley College marketing professor.
“I believe capitalism is the greatest force for good in the world. It alleviates poverty, creates goods and services and allows the culture to advance,” Mackey said in his opening remarks. His goal in writing the book was to help companies claim an individual sense of purpose, something he believes many businesses lose in the struggle to survive.
If the only goal of a business is to make money, he says, it will fail to reach its potential. In the book, Mackey writes, “Conscious businesses treat satisfying the needs of all their major stakeholders as ends in themselves, while traditional businesses often treat stakeholders other than investors as the means to achieving their ultimate goal of profit maximization.”
Doing it right starts by establishing a “core value” to guide your business, he says. At Whole Foods, it is to be a financially successful retailer providing customers high quality whole, organic products.
With its core value in mind, a conscious business then considers the needs of all of its stakeholders. Meeting the needs of the customers is first and foremost, but it extends to the needs of employees, suppliers, investors, the communities around stores and the environment as a whole. When a company gets the balance right, it can improve the lives of all stakeholders.
GMO labeling follows business philosophy
Viewing his decision on GMO labels through that prism, Mackey didn’t have much choice. His key stakeholders — his customers — made it clear that they wanted to avoid GMOs. But he took his suppliers’ needs into account as well. Rather than force them to immediately comply with Whole Foods’ new requirement, he gave them time to secure non-GMO ingredients or to accept the effect of being labeled accordingly.
Mackey has made similar moves at the Whole Foods meat and fish counters. Some customers won’t eat anything but grass-fed beef. Others think conventionally raised beef is just fine. Which fish are sustainably caught or raised? The labels tell the story. And while the effort is at best a work-in-progress, he is setting a standard that other grocery stores are struggling to match.
It’s all a process, he says. A “conscious business” gradually becomes more and more aware of its “reason for being,” or its core value. Enlightenment, wisdom and all of the higher thinking implied in those words, he says, gets easier with experience.
Conscious capitalism “is about leadership that serves the higher good of the organization, a culture that helps humans to flourish and self-actualize themselves.
“We are not retailers with a mission as much as missionaries who retail,” he wrote in the book. And his mission is to spread the gospel of conscious capitalism and change the world for better, forever. An optimist, Mackey believes any company can be saved. Maybe even GMO giant Monsanto.
Top photo: John Mackey. Credit: Chris Fager
Why did I smell roasted soybeans in my glass of vintage Bordeaux? Ten years ago, as the tasting editor at Wine & Spirits Magazine, sniffing a glass of vintage red wine took me back to my earliest childhood memories of foods in Korea. While some in the tasting panel described the smells of mushroom and barnyard flavors, my descriptors recalled the pungent smells of fermented foods such as aged kimchi and soybean paste that were always condiments on the table in our home.
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By Lauryn Chun
It was a clarifying moment. I understood the tie that binds some of the most flavorful fermented foods. Kimchi (a brined pickle) also undergoes the process of fermentation that brings out complex, secondary flavors and umami (the taste of a savory protein compound in certain natural foods).
The fermentation connection
The complementary relationship between wine and the Korean food I grew up eating turned auspicious a few years ago when I started my business: Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi, a line of packaged napa cabbage, daikon and vegan kimchis. Kimchi goes through active fermentation when its vegetables (typically napa cabbage or radish) are mixed with a heady sauce of chili pepper flakes, garlic and ginger, and is aged for as little as three days and as long as a few years. The result is a crunchy, tangy, spicy and complex pickle that’s rich in digestion-enhancing probiotics. The flavors continue to change with time. I once opened a daikon radish kimchi aged over two years that had notes of aged salami and cheese.
As I wrote “The Kimchi Cookbook” and began testing a vast array of kimchi recipes using a panoply of seasonal vegetables, I explored the parallels of natural fermentation in winemaking and kimchi making. The process allowed me to help demystify and share the versatility of kimchi as a condiment and cooking ingredient that complements and enhances the pleasure of a meal much like an everyday wine.
Enjoying kimchi alongside wine results in a sensory experience in which taste and texture come alive. Both can be judged by their fruit flavors, length of acidity and overall balance.
Pairing wine + kimchi
Through a number of tastings, I have come across some stellar kimchi-wine pairings that can serve as a guide. For example, an off-dry white sparkling Grüner Veltliner or a German Kabinette Riesling is a perfect companion for the robust spice and texture of daikon kimchi. The wine’s bubbles and hint of sweetness help offset the heat and tangy notes of the kimchi and counterbalance the multitude levels of flavors. A simple Beaujolais Nouveau (yes, a red wine!) is wonderful with napa cabbage kimchi; the Beaujois’ lack of tannins brings out the fruity notes of the chili in the kimchi seasoning rather than spice that one would normally expect.
Being a wine lover shaped my understanding of kimchi — the characteristics in fermentation frame a balance of flavors and textures in my sensory experience that makes fermented foods so uniquely appealing to us all.
Top photo composite:
Lauryn Chun. Credit: Renato D’Agostin
Kimchi jars. Credit: Sara Remington
Nothing says “I love you” like a box of chocolates. And what’s not to like about a sweet, sensual, mood enhancer that also has antioxidants, lowers blood pressure, inhibits “bad” cholesterol, and is chock full of antioxidants and polyphenols. No wonder the scientific name of the plant that chocolate comes from, Theobromo Cacao, translates as “food of the gods cacao.”
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What about that plant, though? Even though I’m a lifelong chocoholic, I’d never given much thought to the small tree that is the source of all chocolate. That sin of omission was remedied on my recent first trip to Hawaii, the only place in the United States where cacao trees grow.
There, I saw the slender tree that thrives under the shade of the tropical forest canopy, admired its brightly colored cacao pods and popped raw beans from that pod, still encased in their softly glowing slick white coating, right into my mouth. And I learned that the chocolate bar or truffle you offer your loved one (or indulge in yourself) is the end result of a long, arduous, delicate process involving many steps and many hands.
Cacao’s difficult cultivation
Cacao is not an easy tree to cultivate. It grows only in the relatively narrow band 20 degrees north or south of the equator, and in that zone, it must be planted next to taller trees whose canopy protects it from direct sun and high winds. After trees are planted, they take five or six years to start producing, and mature trees bear only about 30 usable pods per year. With between 30 to 50 beans in an average pod, a single tree produces about 1,000 beans, enough to make only about 2 pounds of bittersweet chocolate.
The cacao tree is also susceptible to pests and diseases, which many producers seek to counteract by spraying chemical pesticides. In fact, cacao is one of the most heavily sprayed crops, and the chemicals are toxic not only for the intended pests, but also for other insects, birds, animals, plants and workers. When you seek out chocolate from organic cacao growers, you are supporting farmers who work to enhance biodiversity and protect the ecosystem, including the soil, air and water we all depend upon.
It was at the family owned and operated Ono Organic Farms, on the southeastern slope of the Haleakala volcano on Maui, that I witnessed the vegetal source of chocolate. Having never seen a cacao tree, I imagined the pods would be small and would hang from the ends of branches like “normal” fruit. Instead I saw a slender tree with improbably large pods emerging directly from the trunk. Large and pendulous, it seemed as if a gentle touch would send them tumbling earthward. The pods were the size and shape of a rugby ball and Crayola bright. Depending on the subspecies of the tree, and the ripeness of the pod, the color ranges from green through yellow, orange, red, purple and burgundy.
Chuck Boerner, the proprietor of Ono Organic Farms, pried a few cacao beans from a freshly opened pod and handed them to us. He instructed us to suck the thin, sticky flesh from the dark beans. That sweet, lightly acidic flesh is what kicks off the fermentation process, and although it’s not physically part of the end product, it’s where chocolate flavors begin.
Ono Organic Farms, and in fact Hawaii as a whole, have relatively few cacao trees, so we did not see the larger scale production that takes place in Africa, which produces 75% of the world’s chocolate. But regardless of the location or scale, the steps from cacao bean to chocolate bar are the same, and involve a lot of workers doing a lot of hand labor.
Because the cacao pods ripen at varying times, they must be harvested individually with machetes or knives, taking care not to damage nearby pods or buds. Workers cut the pods open, generally with a machete, and then scoop the beans out. The raw, pulp-covered beans are then placed in shallow wooden boxes, or put in piles and covered with banana leaves.
The sweet white coating on the beans gets fermentation going, as the sugar in the pulp is converted into acids that change the chemical composition of the beans. The fermentation process takes from two to eight days, and generates temperatures up to 125 F, activating enzymes that begin to create chocolate’s flavor profile.
To stop fermentation, the beans are uncovered and laid out to dry in the sun, where they stay until nearly all of their moisture has evaporated. Then they are roasted, and the dry husks are removed. This is the point at which beans are generally shipped to chocolate factories around the world to be made into chocolate hearts and bon bons and bars of all descriptions.
A journey to Fair Trade
Because so many human hands are needed to pick and process cacao, child labor is used in many places around the world resulting in mass-produced chocolate with a “dark side,” according to the 2012 CNN report on “Chocolate’s Child Slaves” and also according to John Robbins, author of “No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution.” This makes it important to look for Fair Trade labels on your chocolate, just as many people do for their coffee.
After experiencing the beauty of the cacao tree, and learning about the process that starts with the bright fruit of a tropical tree I found myself enjoying the dark tasty treat of chocolate even more. And I realized that the organic and Fair Trade labels are as important on chocolate as they are on kale and coffee, and are another way to do good while eating well, and perhaps impressing your valentine as well.
Look for the Fair Trade and organic labels to do your part to create a better world and enjoy a guilt-free treat.
Where to find cacao and chocolate in Hawaii (not a definitive listing):
- On Maui, the exotic fruit tour at Ono Organic Farms includes cacao, but they do not process it into chocolate. Bob Dye runs Waimea Chocolate Company on Maui, which uses 100% Hawaiian cacao, with their products available at Sweet Paradise Chocolatier in Wailea and at Wailea Wine.
- On the Big Island, you can visit the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory.
- On Kauai, you may tour Garden Isle Chocolate and Steelgrass Farms.
Pods containing 40-60 cacao beans each hang from a tree in the McBryde Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in the Lawa’i Valley on the south shore of Kauai Island in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman
The best time of year for lovers of great olive oil is the harvest season, from October to December, when new stocks pour fresh from the mills. But I would argue that the second best time is right now, late winter to early spring, when fresh oils arrive in our markets from great producers throughout the Northern Hemisphere. (Southern Hemisphere oils, primarily from South Africa, South America, New Zealand and Australia, arrive in U.S. markets beginning in July, after the May harvest.) This is the finest time to taste and understand what a great oil can be.
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This year the arrival coincides with the annual Flos Olei guide, published in English and Italian by Marco Oreggia and Laura Marinelli. The book recognizes the world’s top olive farms and producers in 45 countries, an amazing number. It’s heartening to see that recognition goes well beyond the usual candidates in Italy, Spain and Greece. Croatia, for instance, whose oils are almost unknown to U.S. consumers, has 60 entries in the guide and one of them, Tonin, won top marks. Beyond that, Flos Olei provides interesting background to many lesser-known territories. If I’m traveling anywhere in the Mediterranean — nay, anywhere in the world! — I want my current Flos Olei in my suitcase. Who knows what I might run into? (Copies of the 2013 guide, in English and Italian, can be ordered on-line at marco-oreggia.com.)
Much talk in recent years has dealt with olive oil scams, frauds and deceptions. But there is still an abundance of beautiful, well-made, honest and delicious oils. Yes, they can be expensive; it takes time, care and energy to produce a great olive oil, which is the result of picking by hand at the right degree of ripeness, of pressing within 24 hours of harvest, and of extremely tender treatment thereafter, including shipping at controlled temperatures and protecting it from light, the twin enemies of the finest oil.
Six tips for buying olive oil
1. Never buy oil in clear glass bottles — as noted above, light is the nemesis of olive oil, and even the finest will suffer from display in clear glass under shop lights. Dark green bottles or, better yet, tins are what to look for.
2. Examine labels for harvest and/or bottling information. Current European Union regulations require oil to carry a use-by date that is 18 months from bottling, but new regulations may require a harvest date, which is more important. Olive oil does not get better with age. It’s conventional to say a good oil will last two years — but that depends on how it’s handled in the interim.
3. With European oils (from Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece), look for a symbol of either Protected Denomination of Origin (aka DO, DOP or AOC in France) or Protected Geographical Indication (IGP). These are not invariable guarantees of high quality but are a step in the right direction.
4. Most high-quality olive oil is made by individual producers who cultivate their own olives and closely supervise the production of oil, often on the estate itself. (This is the equivalent of estate-bottled wine.) Look for telling details on the label: the producer’s actual name, information about the method of harvesting and production. Even if you don’t understand the particulars, it is a good indication that someone is sufficiently proud of what he or she is doing to make a public statement about it. And almost all producers have websites where more of this information will be offered. But read astutely: If the label claims the olives are stomped by the clean feet of Tuscan peasants, or aged in oak casks, don’t believe it — and don’t buy it.
5. Taste and taste and taste — use every opportunity to sample olive oils and do so judiciously. Most consumers — and not just in the U.S. — say they like the flavor of fusty oil, and fustiness is a serious defect. Only by tasting over and over again will you be able to confirm the difference between freshness and fustiness. (What does fusty taste like? A bit like old hay left in a corner of the barn until it grows moldy. The taste actually comes from olives that have been left too long before pressing.)
6. Best of all, travel to oil-producing regions at the time new oil is being produced. It is unquestionably the best possible introduction to the nature of this most prestigious ingredient. I think I can guarantee that once you’ve traveled and tasted, you will become a convert and, who knows, maybe even a fanatic like me.