Articles in Agriculture

The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber's garden. Credit: Barbara Haber

As a gardener who looks forward each year to eating my homegrown tomatoes, I have been bitterly disappointed when squirrels and other small animals either pick all of the tomatoes while still green and toss them around the yard, or snatch and eat ripening ones just before I get to them.

This has been going on year after year, but each spring, ever hopeful, I plant yet another tomato garden. My usual line of defense has been to use Havahart traps that sometimes catch the thieving culprits, but this method has become tiresome and creepy. It involves picking up a heavy trap loaded with an angry animal, getting it into the trunk of my car, and then driving for at least 10 miles to a wooded area where I release the animal, hoping it will not find its way back to my house.

But this year, I have found a different solution for protecting my tomato patch. I bought a Bell & Howell Solar Animal Off, a device that comes with a built-in stake that I have positioned in the garden in front of the tomato plants. When approached, the device emits both an eerie high-pitched sound that only animals can hear along with a strobe light that shoots off a blinding glare when anything comes near. Each morning I run out of my house to check on ripening fruit and have been amazed and relieved to find every plant intact.

Tomatoes are just the start

This got me thinking that humans too could be well served by a protective device that could repel danger or be helpful in other ways that would make life easier. I could see wearing such a gadget into a supermarket where it would blink and beep if a food I was thinking of buying contained trans fats or, in my case, cilantro. The machine I envision could be customized so that people with allergies would be warned about peanuts and such, and the gluten sensitive protected from that substance. Most important, the device would be programmed to alert us to the existence of dangerous microbes in food that could lead to illness.

In a more positive way, my machine could function somewhere between a personal assistant and a doting grandmother by picking out just the right produce in the market. I never can tell which cantaloupe in a pile will be exactly as I like it — barely ripe and sweet but not over-the-hill and mushy. Picking out pineapples is also a challenge. They too can be overripe and unappetizing, and I never can tell which one to buy. When my favorite store offers four kinds of peaches, I am at a loss as to which will be sweet and juicy and not hard and bland, but my gadget would know. I would also use it to select cheese that is at its height of flavor.

When medium rare means medium rare

The machine’s help in restaurants would be another huge service. It would do a calorie count of the dishes I contemplate and report on the existence of ingredients it knew I disliked. Again, cilantro detection would be especially appreciated, for then I might venture forth into Thai or Mexican restaurants without fear of being assaulted by that herb I cannot tolerate. The device would know whether the steak or chop I ordered was cooked as I requested before I cut into it, thus taking the edge off any disappointment. And I hope that it would be helpful in checking bills and figuring out tips, freeing me from dealing with arithmetic, my worst subject in grade school.

The cone’s the thing

I would like to think that my machine could protect people from all sorts of danger. I am reminded of the time when a good friend’s dog — a huge Malamute named Buddha — used to position himself outside the door of a Brigham’s ice cream shop in my town, waiting for people with ice cream cones to come out. Small children and little old ladies were particularly vulnerable. Buddha’s nudges would knock the cones out of their hands, allowing him to scarf down the scoops of ice cream lying on the ground. If only these victims could have been warned, these messy scenes could have been avoided.

A dairy dose of wisdom

I can think of other helpful tasks for my machine. I would ask it to keep track of all of the foods stored in my freezers to remind me which ones to use first. And I would like it to warn me when the milk in my refrigerator has gone bad, which usually happens before the date stamped on the box. I find out only when I pour it into my morning coffee, watch it curdle, and then have to toss the whole thing down the drain.

These days, when we are surrounded by a glut of information about food, often with conflicting advice, we could use a defender that could cut through the yammering and lead us on the path that’s right for us. I am grateful to have found a device that protects my tomato plants from marauders and only wish I too could have a guardian that protects me from all of the food-related issues I face each day. And, for that, no computer programmer’s algorithm will do.

Main photo: The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber’s garden. Credit: Barbara Haber

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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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Lavender is ready for harvest when most of its brilliant purple flowers have emerged. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

A little lavender goes a long way in the kitchen. But use too much and that floral essence you love from one of the world’s most versatile culinary herbs might turn a dish to something as welcome as a perfume-soaked Chatty Cathy on a long-haul flight.

Below are seven ways to use lavender in a manner that will enhance, not overpower.

Preparing the flowers

A member of the mint family, lavender grows in upright, evergreen shrubs that might reach as tall as 3 feet and as wide as 4 feet. The bushes are fragrant on their own, but summer is when lavender stems shoot up, blossoming in tight, brilliantly purple flowers. These flowers will produce the most pungent and aromatic additions to your experiments in the kitchen, lending a perfume that mingles well with the flavors of the season.

Now is the time to let your dreams of cottage life in Provence come to life, no matter where you live. If you have access to one of the many wonderful lavender farms popping up in the United States, such as Hill Country Lavender in Blanco, Texas, Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm near Albuquerque, N.M., or the English Lavender Farm in Applegate, Ore., you can pick your own. Better yet, you might be growing it in your backyard. Note: If you buy lavender from a farm for culinary use, be sure to ask whether it was grown with pesticides. You don’t want to eat it if it was grown using pesticides.

If you grow lavender, here’s the steps to preparing the flowers:

  • Harvest the lavender. The blossoms are ready when the brilliant purple flowers have emerged and have not yet begun to wilt. If you are cutting lavender yourself, cut the stalks a few inches above the plant’s woody growth and gather the lavender into a bunch. Tie it together.
  •  Dry the lavender. At this point, you can use it fresh, or you can hang it up or lay it flat to dry it. Note: If you are cooking with fresh lavender, use three times the number of flowers as in a dried lavender recipe.
  •  De-stem the lavender. You can use the whole stalk in cooking, but many people prefer to remove the flowers from the stalk and store them separately.
  •  Store it well. Store lavender in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. A Mason jar is a good choice.

Lavender farm

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At Los Poblanos, a historic inn and lavender farm near Albuquerque, N.M., several acres of lavender are processed into lavender oil and culinary lavender. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

7 ideas for eating and drinking your lavender

Lavender works a lot like rosemary — a little can create a great perfume. But just as with all scents, too much can overpower. Use it sparingly, and adjust the amount of lavender according to your specific palate.

Lavender butter

Take a stick (½ pound) of room-temperature butter and top it with a tablespoon of dried, ground (if desired) lavender. Mix the lavender and butter together in a bowl. Chill it for a few days to let the lavender flavor develop. Use it with honey atop your favorite biscuit, scone or other baked good.

Lavender sugar

Use about 1 tablespoon dried lavender for every 2 cups of sugar. Grind the lavender in a food processor for about 15 seconds to develop the lavender flavor. Add a cup of granulated sugar to the process and blend well, about three or four quick presses on a Cuisinart. Store the lavender sugar in an airtight container such as a Mason jar and use it in all of your favorite sweet baking recipes that call for sugar.

Lavender vodka

Using a funnel, drop about a ¼ cup lavender flowers into a bottle of your favorite vodka. Take out the funnel and close the bottle. Shake, so the flowers mix throughout. Store in the freezer for three days. Strain the vodka into a separate container, using a fine-mesh sieve, a cheesecloth or a paper towel. Squeeze the bundle with the flowers in it to extract as much lavender flavor as possible. Pour the vodka back in the bottle and store in your freezer for use in a lavender vodka tonic with a splash of lime.

Lavender balsamic vinaigrette

Lavender can add a quick, floral kick to any basic vinaigrette recipe. In vinaigrette recipes calling for a combination of balsamic vinegar, oil, honey and ground pepper, add 1 tablespoon of fresh lavender (or a third of that of dried) for every 1½ cups of vinaigrette.

Lavender-roasted chicken

Create a rub for roasted chicken using about a tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1½ tablespoons dried lavender, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and 1 tablespoon honey.

Lavender and blueberry anything

Lavender and blueberry are fast friends, and in many parts of the country appear at the same time. Try putting lavender sugar into your favorite blueberry cobbler at the height of the season, bake some lavender directly into blueberry lavender scones, or infuse some milk with lavender and pour it atop fresh blueberries. About half a teaspoon of lavender is usually a good fit with a pint of fruit.

Salmon and lavender

Create a rub of lime zest and lime juice from two limes, ½ teaspoon thyme, ½ teaspoon dried lavender, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Rub the seasoning mix on salmon fillets and bake as you would in your favorite salmon recipe.

 Main photo: Lavender is ready for harvest when most of its brilliant purple flowers have emerged. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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The wide use of antibiotics for food animal production is increasing resistance of dangerous bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Credit: iStock / Youst

I seldom feel sorry for the leaders of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, where multimillion dollar compensation packages, corporate jets and unending expense accounts are the norm. But I’m starting to pity these poor souls. Why? Because their job — indeed their whole purpose — directly conflicts with the effectiveness of antibiotic medicines essential for all humanity. To be frank, I sometimes wonder how they can sleep at night.

Surely they must wake every day knowing their actions are basically destroying antibiotics for future generations, leading to the rise of untreatable diseases that will affect millions of lives. After all, this is the consensus among government agencies, public health organizations and scientists across the globe. It’s been the focus of major medical reports that have generated headlines.

The boards of the world’s pharmaceutical giants must also recognize that the only solution is to collaborate with their competitors, public health organizations and governments across the world to end the inappropriate use of antibiotics in human health care and also food animal production, which is the biggest area of abuse by far. Yet this presents them with a huge ethical dilemma: As officers of publicly traded pharmaceutical companies, how can they reconcile protecting the efficacy of these vital drugs with their corporate responsibility to boost market share and profitability?

All this got me thinking: Antibiotics are now “societal” drugs. Let me explain. If I misuse or abuse a medication prescribed by my doctor for blood pressure, that only hurts me. However, if I don’t take my full course of antibiotics as instructed, or if Big Ag’s boardrooms insist that all their contracted farmers use antibiotics in ways that lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that affects everyone.

If antibiotics are societal drugs, and, so, critical to the future of humanity, shouldn’t they be managed for the benefit of society as a whole? Sadly, the production, distribution and sale of these drugs has been left almost entirely to corporations and a free market based on volume, dominance and last quarter’s sales.

Antibiotics for people are almost always prescribed to treat actual illness. Preventative use is generally limited to things such as post-surgical care. We wouldn’t expect to fortify our food or water with antibiotics to prevent illnesses caused by unsanitary living conditions or eating an unhealthy diet. Instead, our first thought would be to improve sanitation or help people to eat better.

So I have two questions: Does the current corporate business model really protect antibiotics for the benefit of all? And is the free market really the right place for these life-saving medicinal tools?

Reconciling corporate needs with public health

To succeed as a chief executive of a major corporation, free market logic dictates that you must grow your company and your market. After all, a successful company is one that achieves market dominance and, where appropriate, continues to increase product sales.

So how do we reconcile the innate corporate need to increase antibiotic sales and market share with the widely acknowledged public health need to dramatically decrease the amount of antibiotics used in all sectors — but particularly in farming systems that are abusing antibiotics?

Some believe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent introduction of voluntary guidelines on the use of antimicrobials in food animals shows that appropriate action is being taken. However, many commentators — myself included — strongly disagree. New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has campaigned to stop antibiotic misuse in industrial farming, says the voluntary initiative “falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.”

Let’s also put the FDA’s voluntary guidelines into historical perspective: The FDA first acknowledged evidence of a link between antibiotic abuse in farming and the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 1977. Yet more 30 years later it’s clear that little —  if anything — has been done to control how antibiotic use in farming. In fact, the U.S. leads the world in the overuse of antibiotics in farming.

Despite mounting scientific evidence of the urgent need to act, the FDA and the USDA have been cowed by industry pressure on antibiotic control. Anyone who believes that Big Ag and Big Pharma — or any big industry for that matter — do not have a direct influence on the development and implementation of U.S. government policy is sadly mistaken. Corporations spend billions of dollars lobbying government to ensure favorable policy outcomes.

Bear in mind, too, the wider market realities here. In 2009 alone, 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. were used for food animals — an incredible 28.8 million pounds out of the 36 million pounds produced. As the New York Times said in a recent editorial: “No new class of antibiotics has been discovered since 1987, largely because the financial returns for finding new classes of antibiotics are too low. Unlike lucrative drugs to treat chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular ailments, antibiotics are typically taken for a relatively short period, and any new drug is apt to be used sparingly and held in reserve to treat patients resistant to existing drugs.”

Andrew Gunter of Animal Welfare Approved says federal-industry pact won't stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved: “We must focus … on doing everything we can to protect the limited range of antibiotics we have.” Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

One could argue that the demand for antibiotics from intensive livestock systems represents a near perfect market for Big Pharma. Unlike humans, who normally get better after a single course of antibiotics, millions of livestock usually receive low-level daily doses to prevent disease or increase their lifetime growth. Unless farming changes in a big way, our insatiable demand for ever-cheaper animal protein means demand for these drugs isn’t likely to cease any time soon — even under the FDA’s voluntary guidelines to phase out antibiotics as animal growth promoters. Perhaps that’s why Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis — the world’s largest animal pharmaceutical company — recently told the Wall Street Journal that the FDA’s voluntary agreement “will not have a significant impact on our revenues.”

We have spent too many years hearing industry lobby groups and paid-up scientists and politicians deny any link between the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the routine abuse of low-level antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in industrial farming. Time and again, we have watched the meat and pharmaceutical industry-funded lobbyists and front groups fight tooth and nail against any attempt to regulate antibiotic use in farming. The industry-funded U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, for example, insists “there has been no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans due to antibiotic use in animals for consumption . . . ” If they still won’t accept any responsibility for antibiotic-resistant bacteria — despite massive scientific evidence to the contrary — what makes anyone believe these corporations are now suddenly willing to put public health ahead of corporate profit?

With no new antibiotics in the development pipeline, we must focus our combined energies on doing everything we can to protect the limited range of antibiotics we have. We need to accept that industrial livestock farming systems are unsustainable. Instead, we need to support the expansion of alternative livestock farming systems where antibiotics are used only as a last resort.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of antibiotic-resistant infections. We keep hearing about the need for better antibiotic stewardship in farming. But what exactly will it take to trigger regulatory intervention and enforcement: Tens of thousands more deaths each year? Maybe hundreds of thousands? How bad do things have to get before we realize that cheap meat is killing us, and that the time for the self-regulation of antibiotic production and use in farming has long since expired?

Main photo: The wide use of antibiotics for food animal production is increasing resistance of dangerous bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Credit: iStock / Youst

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Finnish chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. Credit: Martin Thompson

Finns treasure their solitary excursions into the endless woods and forests that fringe the 187,888 lakes and 179,584 islands of their hauntingly beautiful countryside. Throughout the summer and autumn, they prefer to keep their meditations on the beauty of the natural world to themselves: They rarely go in large groups, privacy is valued, and the social code generally prohibits more than a brief nod to anyone they meet. And, of course, they sensibly like to keep their prized foraging spots to themselves.

Although Finns have always collected berries and mushrooms, other types of plant-hunting have become nearly forgotten skills. Foraging was associated with war-time hardship (dandelion roots, for example, were used as a substitute for coffee) and rejected in favor of status-symbol, shop-bought food. However, Helsinki-based chef  Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. And it’s not just a way of finding food for free, but of celebrating healthy produce and enlightening minds.

As Tallberg says, “Once you understand where ingredients come from, you see their beauty and learn to respect their qualities with the minimum of processing.”

Catching the foraging bug

Tallberg got the foraging bug about 10 years ago when working in London. One day the legendary Kentish forager Miles Irving walked into the kitchen with a box of wild seakale.

“I was just knocked out when I tried it,” Tallberg recalled, “and when I came back to Finland, I realized I was living in a big green supermarket. The Everyman’s Rights Code allows anyone to pick anywhere except someone’s back garden or protected species.”

Tallberg does not consider wild plants as substitutes for cultivated vegetables and herbs, but as important ingredients in their own right, both in terms of taste and their nutritional qualities.

Taking advantage of one of Finland’s long summer days, Tallberg and I went foraging on a tiny island that lies within Helsinki’s city limits. We were surrounded by a surprisingly wide variety of edible plants: mild, strong, crunchy, coarse, fragrant, bulky, delicate. Less than an hour later, he served me the best salad I have ever eaten. And the cheapest.

Highlighting wild herbs and plants

The use of wild herbs and plants has become a hallmark of many modern restaurants in Finland and elsewhere — Noma in Copenhagen led the way with its version of the new Nordic Cuisine. But Tallberg wants to introduce (or re-introduce) wild plants to the home cook.

As we explored the thickets of greenery, Tallberg gave me a lesson in plant-hunting. The patches of wild strawberries, with tiny, twinkling fruit, were easy to spot and Tallberg showed me how to string them on a blade of grass to transport them safely home. Carpets of exquisite purple and yellow heartsease (Viola tricolor) were delicately perfumed with vanilla. And Japanese rose bushes (Rosa rugosa) were in bloom, their petals shocking pink against the dark green leaves.

After that, plant identification became trickier. Tallberg is adamant you should not eat or even pick any plant you cannot recognize with absolute certainty. If in doubt, leave it out, he advises.

“Start with the ones (plants) you already know to get you going,” he advised as he presented me with a bunch of sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella), which he describes as a smaller, more elegant version of common sorrel. “Many people think it’s a noxious weed, but it’s lovely with fish and shellfish or green asparagus.”

“When you find a new plant, stop and go back some 10 meters and walk towards the plants again. This way you will be able to make observations about some essential feature, such as color, height, leaf shape, scent and so on.”

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Mushroom forager's bag at Mikkeli Market, Finland. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Unless you go out with an experienced forager, it helps immensely to consult a book, such as Tallberg’sWild Herb Cookbook,” or take a course about native plants at a local community college. Websites, such as NatureGate, are also helpful. But, as Tallberg says, “Be sensible: don’t go harvesting herbs or plants along highways, on areas sprayed with herbicides, or near factories. Also avoid foraging near golf courses or other areas where herbicides or other pesticides may have been used. Consider sustainability and don’t tear out all the roots. The tools you need are the same as used in gathering mushrooms: a basket and a small knife, although I also include scissors in my basic tool kit. If you’re picking nettles, wear gloves.”

Able to identify culinary plants

As he gathered samples of chickweed,  fat hen and sweet cicely, Tallberg said he could identify more than 80 varieties of culinary plants but was still learning.

“I get so excited when I’m out foraging — I imagine how lovely the violets will be with fish or how polypody (Polypodium) is a natural flavor enhancer for game or how I’m going to use pine needles like rosemary or deep-fry nettle leaves or lichen and flavor them with juniper salt. … And then I remember I’m still in Helsinki — it’s crazy! Foraging has given me a new angle on life, not just gastronomy,” he said.

Tallberg has built a business supplying wild ingredients to other chefs, has written several books on the subject and acts as a national consultant and Finnish food ambassador. He was awarded the prestigious Finland Prize for his work with food, nature and conservation.

As we meandered, Tallbert was a companionable and enthusiastic soundtrack, “There are many different types of dandelion. … Oh, look, there’s some orpine. They’ve got juicy, succulent leaves and tops, and you can use them like a salad leaf or toss into a jus. … Ooh, just found some Polypodium vulgare, that’s quite liquorish and good for fish and game. … A bit later in the year, this is where I’ll find bilberries, rowanberries, wild raspberries … Wild yarrow will bring herbal tones to a salad. … I use maple leaves, when they’re young and shiny, like vine leaves. … Chickweed are like pea shoots but milder and more mellow and add volume to a salad.”

Back at his flat, he explained the building blocks of wild salad making: “You’re looking for acidity, aroma and sweetness.”

To the haunting music of Aino Vena, we drank refreshing Nordic Koivu, birch sap water, as Tallberg made a vinaigrette with a splash of sea buckthorn juice. The salad was vivid and intense. I could feel myself getting healthier as I ate. Together with an omelette, local goat’s cheese and yogurt with wild strawberries, violets and bee pollen, it was the real taste of Finland.

Pork Chops With Fat Hen and Mustard*

Ingredients

  • Yield: 4 servings
  • Four 7-ounce pork chops (use first-class pork for this dish)
  • 2 handfuls of fat hen
  • 2 tablespoons strong mustard
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • Olive oil
  • Freshly ground sea salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Season the pork chops with sea salt and pepper, brush with oil and fry on a hot cast-iron pan until just cooked.
  2. Cook the fat hen in water flavored with honey and salt for a couple of minutes, drain, toss with a drop of olive oil and serve with mustard.
  3. * This goes well with Carrots With Sweet Cicely

Carrots With Sweet Cicely

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

14 ounces small carrots

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons honey (brown sugar or treacle will do, too)

2½ cups water

half a handful of sweet cicely, finely chopped

2 ounces butter

Directions

1. Peel the carrots (unless you are using new season ones that have a thin peel containing plenty of flavor).

2. Place all the ingredients in a pot (apart from the sweet cicely), covering the carrots with water. Cook until almost all of the water has evaporated and a shiny butter glaze remains. Add the sweet cicely.

 

Steamed Fillet of Salmon With Ox-Eye Daisy Shoots

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 (4-ounce) pieces of salmon, boned

1 cucumber, sliced lengthways

4 tablespoons salad dressing*

Freshly ground sea salt and pepper

Directions

1. Season the salmon pieces with sea salt and pepper, steam them for about 3 minutes and leave to stand in room temperature for about 10 minutes, after which they will be ready.

2. Peel the cucumber, spoon out the seeds and cut the cucumber lengthwise into thin slices (with a cheese slicer or mandolin cutter).

3. Toss the shoots and cucumber in the salad dressing, season with sea salt and pepper and serve with the salmon at room temperature.

 

* Salad dressing

Ingredients

2 generous cups of cold-pressed olive oil

1¼ cup vegetable oil

¾ cup white wine vinegar

1½ tablespoon dried tarragon

4 medium-size garlic cloves, sliced

4 to 5 ounces Dijon-type mustard

Juice of half a lemon

Directions

1. Mix the ingredients in a jug blender or with a hand blender, and strain them by pressing through a strainer with a small ladle to ensure all aromas are captured.

Recipes are from: “Wild Herb Cookbook” by Sami Tallberg (2012), available in both Finnish- and English-language editions.

Main photo: Finnish chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. Credit: Martin Thompson

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Mario and Emanuele Ragnedda run Capichera winery

“White Vermentino is the quintessential Mediterranean grape: It loves the sun, the sea and and the wind, and it marries perfectly with fish and seafood pastas,” says Giampaolo Gravina, one of Italy’s senior wine experts. If Vermentino is sometimes grown in coastal areas of Liguria (where it is known as Pigato) and Tuscany, it is most often linked with Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean, situated south of Corsica and west of Naples.

“The region of Gallura, in Sardinia’s northeastern corner, is Vermentino’s natural home,” Gravina explains. Here, in the province of Olbia-Tempio, the best grapes are made into Vermentino di Gallura DOCG wines, one of Italy’s most prestigious wine appellations. (Any wine bearing the DOCG label must be produced within a specified area and adhere to strict production regulations). As is so often the case with native varieties, Vermentino has found its ideal habitat over time: It is thought to have been cultivated in Gallura since the 14th century. The vines have adapted well to Gallura’s extreme growing conditions, he says: very poor, rocky soils of granite and sand, constant winds coming off the nearby sea, and forceful sun throughout the year.

Gallura’s stunning coastline, with its pristine fjord-like bays and sandy beaches, is never far from the vine-growing slopes. In 1961, Karim Aga Khan, one of the world’s richest men, decided to create a luxury tourist complex here in an area of coast about 20 kilometers (12 miles) long that would allow for some development while preserving the area’s natural beauty. He named it La Costa Smeralda (“the emerald coast”) and built a smattering of the world’s most exclusive hotels and villas along the shore around Porto Cervo. In midsummer, hotels such as the luxurious Cala di Volpe boast prices only moguls can afford, with multi-tiered yachts anchored at its secluded marina.

D.H. Lawrence wrote that Sardinia was “left outside time and history.” The island’s traditional gastronomic and cultural heritage is still very much alive, particularly in the areas inland from the sea. Sardinia’s interior is rough and mountainous, with much of the land suited only for grazing sheep, and is dotted with small stone villages in which time seems to have stood still. Meeting and visiting wine producers is a great way to access that culture. The annual Porto Cervo Wine Festival, held in May, is open to the public and offers a perfect introduction to Sardinia’s exciting wine world. Wine tourism is on the increase on the island and well-appointed cellars make perfect destinations for day trips from the coast.

CapalboVermentino2Capichera-5190140

CapalboVermentino2Capichera-5190140
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Capichera vineyards. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Gallura’s wineries are situated inland on higher ground, some 20 minutes’ drive from the glamorous hotels of the Costa Smeralda. Many vineyards have been reclaimed from the ever-encroaching macchia mediterranea, the mix of indigenous plants — including broom, euphorbia, holm-oak, buckthorn and myrtle — that results in impenetrable, evergreen scrub. These are plants that can survive the parched Sardinian summer.

“Gallura is not an easy place to grow vines or other crops,” says Emanuele Ragnedda, who runs Capichera winery near Arzachena with his father, Mario, and uncle, Fabrizio. “The terrain is uneven and rocky, with hillsides covered thickly by the macchia.” Vermentino vines can do without much water, too, but growers are permitted to irrigate occasionally in the hottest months to prevent the vines suffering from too much stress.

“Despite this climate, Vermentino is capable of maintaining considerable freshness and acidity,” Ragnedda says. “It is often marked, too, with an attractive saline quality that comes from the Mediterranean‘s salty terrain and sea breezes.”

Capichera’s top wine, Santigaini, is named for a single vineyard planted with six traditional clones of Vermentino whose diversity add complexity to the finished wine. It is partly cellared in French oak barrels and its older vintages are proof that Vermentino can age well into wines whose body and character are reminiscent of red wines.

“My family has been in Sardinia for 300 years, and was the first to make single-varietal whites of Vermentino in 1980 on farmland my mother inherited,” says Ragnedda as we walk through the leafy rows, surrounded by magnificent granite mountains. “We believe Vermentino is unusually flexible for a white grape, and can be adapted to different vinification methods.”

Vermentino is usually vinified in stainless steel vats without the use of barrels, and drunk within the first year or two: a perfect summer wine. Its attractive citrus and floral notes – often with hints of ginestra, the local yellow broom flowers – and lively minerality keep it refreshing and dry.

Vigne Surrau, a few miles north of Arzachena, is one of the most impressive wineries to visit, with well-designed modern buildings, a varied program of events, and artisanal cheese and salumi to enjoy along with the wine.

A cultural blend for Vermentino

“We wanted to create a place in which the culture of wine can meet the cultures of art, cinema and food,” says the estate’s owner, Tino Demuro. Here, too, Vermentino is at the forefront of the company’s wine production, with five versions that include a sparkling Metodo Classico Brut, three fine dry wines and a sweet passito, for which the ripe grapes are picked and dried for a month on racks to concentrate their sugars before pressing.

For those who enjoy seeing spectacularly situated vineyards, another recent wine estate, Siddùra, is a short drive west under the mountains towards Luogosanto. Here a new project has seen 19 hectares (46 acres) of macchia transformed into thriving young vineyards, most of which are planted to Vermentino. This ambitious enterprise is the result of a collaboration between German fashion businessman Nathan Gottesdiener and local Sardinian building engineer Massimo Ruggero. They’ve created a state-of-the-art cellar surrounded by vineyards that are now coming into full production, and that bode well for the island’s enological future.

 Main photo: Mario, left, and Emanuele Ragnedda run Capichera winery. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Main photo: Jean-Christophe Mau of Chateau Brown, left foreground, at London Cru. Credit: Richard Bampfield

The blame for the popularization of ABC — Anything but Chardonnay — can be laid at the door of former British Prime Minister John Major, who said in the late 1990s, “I’m afraid I’m an ABC man.” That was the decade of excess, when Chardonnays were sweet, ripe, creamy, larded with oak and with a texture so thick you could scoop it out with a spoon. With the PM pitching in to the debate, suddenly everyone realized they were sick of that style.

It didn’t dent sales. Any big distributor will tell you there have been blips in Chardonnay sales, but none serious. These pronouncements are often overhyped by the wine media’s desire for a story, and the fact that critics’ boredom thresholds are lower than the public’s.

Sauvignon Blanc has always had its detractors. The former Slate columnist Michael Steinberger, for example, mocked its “chirpy little wines wholly devoid of complexity and depth … a limp, lemony liquid that grows progressively more boring with each sip.”

Articles with titles like “10 alternatives to Sauvignon Blanc” are more and more common. How do we “wean ourselves” off the grape, asked Victoria Moore in the Daily Telegraph.

And it’s not just the columnists. “I’ll sell people a crisp and fresh white from somewhere else, like a Verdejo, or a dry Riesling,” said John Jackson of Theatre of Wine, independent merchants in Greenwich, England, with a loyal, local clientele. Jackson saw Sauvignon in the same position as Pinot Grigio a few years ago. “People are starting to move on, though they’re not as vocal about it as they were with heavily-oaked Chardonnay.”

Sauvignon Blanc’s momentum

There’s no evidence to suggest Sauvignon is in danger of even the smallest blip in sales. “It’s as strong as it ever was,” reported Paul Brown, who runs the on-trade side of major United Kingdom distributor Bibendum. At the Wine Society, a multi-award-winning mail-order giant, head buyer Tim Sykes said, “Sauvignon sales are growing apace, up over 15% year on year in volume terms, and they represent around 25% of our white sales.”

According to Bibendum, the status of Sauvignon Blanc is not only healthy, it’s growing. “Everyone thought it was going to fall off a bit, but it’s still incredibly strong. It’s even chipping into Chardonnay,” Brown says. “The trade wants people to try something else, but people still love it.” And what they want is the big style, “flavors that you can smell five yards from the glass.”

That style, in the wrong hands, can be tedious. The phrase “cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush,” memorably coined by U.K. writer Anthony Hanson, is beginning to seem pretty dated. That is why it was so refreshing to taste a range of Sauvignons  whose flavors, though unmistakable, were in a lower key than one  might expect, more complex and more varied.

Sauvignon Blanc tasting at London Cru. Credit: Richard Bampfield

Sauvignon Blanc tasting at London Cru. Credit: Richard Bampfield

The tasting (in July at London Cru, the capital’s first urban winery) comprised 32 wines from Australia, New Zealand, California, Chile, France (Loire and Bordeaux), South Africa and Turkey. They were tasted double blind, in identical clear glass bottles. All we knew was that it was Sauvignon, with or without Semillon in the blend.

Jean-Christophe Mau of Chateau Brown in the wine-growing area Pessac-Leognan organized it, including his own wine in the lineup. (Pleasingly, Chateau Brown won top marks from the majority of critics there.)

All the wines had oak treatment of some kind. Some were barrel-fermented, some spent 10 months in new French oak barriques, others far less time, 50% second-use barrels, others eight month medium toast, others 15 months in old oak. … With oak, the variables are infinite.

Looking down the list, a common factor was restraint. Where new oak is used, it’s sparingly, either in larger barrels, or for a small percentage of the blend.

“The trick is in the toasting,” Mau says. “We use 50% new French oak and a very light toasting, for eight months. You get less classic gooseberry flavors, if you can find the balance between acidity and flavor.”

The unexpected

The first surprise was the difficulty in placing the wines. I didn’t expect such freshness and restraint in the American wines, for example, although the New Zealanders showed their classic colors: gooseberry, robust sweaty aromas, nettle and grass. Surprising also was the complexity on show: judicious use of oak tempers the green pepper or asparagus flavors that people can find offensive, and bring more of what U.K. critic Sarah Ahmed calls “the Bordeaux style, more lemon oil notes — it’s a striking feature.”

“Limp and lemony … devoid of complexity”? Not at all. The best of these wines have bracing acidity and fine complex fruit. I noted the following flavors: apple, pear, sour apple, sugared pear skin, honey, apple custard, fresh hay, salinity, river mud, lemon, lemongrass, apricot, sweat, earth.

I used the descriptor “gooseberry” three times, “cat’s pee” not at all.

* * *

Top 5 Sauvignon Blancs

Prices are approximate; oaking regimes as supplied by winery

Larry Cherubino ‘Cherubino’ 2013, Pemberton, Western Australia

100% Sauvignon Blanc

100% new, 3 months aging

Delicate gooseberry and hint of oak on the nose. Sour apple and pearskin palate leading to tropical notes — sweet stone fruit. Long and elegant, very fine

Alcohol: 12.5% Price: $44 (£25.99)

Château Talbot Caillou Blanc 2012, Bordeaux blanc, France

74% Sauvignon 26% Semillon

35% new oak barriques, 35% 1 year old, 30% 3rd fill for 8 months

Unexpressive nose but quickly a lovely interesting palate with honey, freshness, salinity, good ripe acidity, mouthwatering sweet pear and peach and fine, sophisticated weight

Alcohol: 14% Price: $27-$30 (£15)

Château Brown 2012, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France

64% Sauvignon 36% Semillon

8 months in medium toast barriques, 50% new, 50% 2nd fill.

Really fresh impression of intense chalky acidity, fine pear and apple (Granny Smith) with an almost tannic heft. The mid-palate is dry with promise of a dissolve to juice. Lovely, mouthwatering wine

Alcohol: 13.5% Price: $36 (£25)

Huia Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Wairau, Marlborough, New Zealand

100% Sauvignon Blanc

A portion was fermented in neutral French oak barrels.

Elegant refined nose with nettle and hint of green mown grass. The palate unmistakably New Zealand, with gooseberry, lime and more nettley, hedgerow flavors. Fine fresh acidity, fine weight

Alcohol: 14% Price: $15 to $20 (£13)

Yealands Winemakers Reserve 2013, Awatere, Marlborough, New Zealand

100% Sauvignon Blanc

30% fermented and aged in French oak barrels, 5% new

Classic sweaty nose with gooseberry, intense and powerful palate with dancing acidity. Lovely fresh, fearlessly classic Marlborough Sauvignon

Alcohol: 13.5% Price: $25 (£14.95)

For more tasting notes, visit Adam Lechmere’s blog.

Main photo: Jean-Christophe Mau of Chateau Brown, left foreground, at London Cru. Credit: Richard Bampfield

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