Articles in Agriculture
In artisanal bakeries from Brooklyn to Seattle, the bread counters are piled high with lovely loaves, from the hardiest Scandinavian ryes to French country sourdoughs, from spelt and buckwheat breads to baguettes. Yet this bounty of choice was pretty unusual in the roughly 20,000 years that humanity has been eating grains. While these breads are often associated with European traditions, the long-ago impetus to make a loaf a particular way — or make it into sustenance — has largely been forgotten. Choice — and here I’d include contemporary gluten-avoidance regimes — didn’t determine what was eaten. Necessity did.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
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If you go back to the pre-modern era, before bread became a commodity and flour was sold in supermarkets, those who depended on grain largely ate what was grown nearby. It might have been wheat. It might have been barley. It might have been rye. Or it might have been nothing at all, if the harvest failed.
To forestall such events, farmers hedged their bets by planting diverse cereal crops. Bakers — both craftsmen and homemakers — then had to figure out how to make this variety of ingredients palatable. Grains, after all, provided up to 80% of the calories in a diet.
Scots made cakes from oats and barley, since both grains were hardy in northern Europe. Rye prevailed in Eastern Europe, because the soil and climate were hospitable. During shortages, coarse bran was mixed into bread. Bakers also added walnuts, acorns and spent grains from the brewery to stretch a loaf. In southern France, ground chickpeas were made into socca flatbread. In Cyprus, bakers fermented chickpeas for wheat and barley loaves. Much later, a New World starch, potatoes, became a buffer against famine in 18th century Europe as the population exploded. Maize or corn served this purpose as well. Corn-rye proved crucial to early American settlers, where it was known as “rye-injun bread” because wheat grew poorly in the southern New England climate.
Now, of course, the impetus for such innovation is gone. Agricultural science has done much to ensure fairly steady wheat harvests, with high-yielding varieties. Industrial millers long ago came up with the means to provide standard flour to produce a steady supply of bread products. As this new wheat took over, their ancient progenitors largely vanished from the landscape — and the palate. By the late 1990s, researchers estimated, 97% of all the spring wheat grown in the developing world came from closely related modern varieties. “Landraces,” those seed populations saved and passed down by farmers, became a rarity.
As for the wheat kernel, about 30% to 40% was siphoned off in the milling of white flour. We often hear about the fiber, minerals, lipids and vitamins in wheat bran and germ that are lost. What is less appreciated is that these nutrient-dense grain fractions also contain a lot of calories. Wheat bran, for instance, represents about 12% to 16% of the wheat kernel. With every kilo of bran removed in the milling of white flour, 2,160 calories are squandered, including 160 grams of protein. “Everyone understood that the whiter the flour, the smaller the number of people who could be fed by a given amount of grain,” historian Steven Kaplan has written of 18th century France. Wheat still provides the second-highest source of calories and is the top source of humanity’s protein, yet we’re content to waste such a significant amount of its nutrition.
Loss of craft baking knowledge
Also jettisoned along the path to modernity was the baker, who came up with the methods to make such whole grains palatable. In the age of industrial bakeries, we may cheer that freedom from drudgery. But I realized, in baking my own loaves for more than a decade, that we lost something else as well. It wasn’t simply the old world loaves that were largely left behind, or the grains that went into them, or the farms that grew diverse cereal crops. We also lost the craft knowledge that came from turning grains into food. This kind of knowledge could only be learned with practice, attention and tactile sensation.
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To make really great bread, I found I had to put away my cognitive mind and learn the essential lessons of touch itself. I had to forget about following routine steps, since different grains — and different batches of them — often required adjustments. My sense of touch told me what tweaks to make, turning passable loaves into desirable ones. My hands were learning. At that moment I realized, if we really want to understand what sustained our species for millennium, spurred numerous innovations, and ultimately increased the supply of food in scarce times, our hands and craftwork are going to be at the center of that process. Our thinking minds will follow.
Main photo: Samuel Fromartz, editor of Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle
Corks are popping all over the place this month. More bottles of Champagne and other sparkling wines are sold during the holidays than at any other time of the year. With an elegance that eludes eggnog, bubbly is definitely a December favorite.
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For many consumers, this is just about the only time that they buy and drink this particular type of wine. Not surprisingly, they often find themselves confused. Sparkling wines come in a wide array of styles and an even wider range of prices. Is the more expensive one inevitably best? Is Champagne always better than bubbly made elsewhere? And what do all those words on the label — “brut,” “extra dry,” “demi-sec” — really mean?
Here’s a primer, with answers to these and some other frequently asked questions.
Is Champagne really the best sparkling wine?
In a word, yes. Real Champagne comes from a relatively small region in northern France, where the cool climate and chalky soil combine to produce sparkling wines of remarkable grace and finesse. That’s why good Champagne remains the benchmark for anyone producing bubbly just about anywhere else.
What makes Champagne so distinct? Many things, but the most important factor is that the area is too cold for wine grapes to ripen fully. They retain lots of acidity, and while too tart for still wine, are perfect for bubbly.
That Champagne remains best doesn’t mean, however, that other sparkling wines are bad. Vintners all over the world make bubbly following the time-honored Champagne method, a laborious process in which a second fermentation in the bottle produces a stream of tiny, delicate bubbles. Their wines can be delicious. Look for an indication of this “classic” or “traditional” method on the label.
Why is Champagne so expensive?
Two reasons, really. First comes supply and demand. Though people clamor for Champagne all over the world, the region itself is relatively small. Second, because demand is so strong, vineyard land in Champagne is expensive. Growers need to charge a fair amount for their grapes to cover their costs. Couple the high price of the raw material with the expensive production method, and the wine simply can’t come cheap.
Speaking of cheap, you still can find some bottles of American bubbly for under $10 labeled as “Champagne.” Though regulations now restrict the use of the term, producers who labeled their wines with it in the past are allowed to continue to do so. These wines, however, are not made with the traditional method. They bear virtually no resemblance to true Champagne.
Are there any good, affordable Champagnes?
Absolutely, and this is definitely the time of year to buy them. Most shops put bubbly on sale during the holidays, and you can find some excellent Champagnes for under $30 a bottle. Look for the bruts from Henri Abelé, Piper Heidsieck, and Mumm (Cordon Rouge), all of which have impressed me recently.
What does ‘brut’ mean?
It means dry, and “ultra-brut” (Laurent-Perrier makes an excellent one) means very dry. Champagne nomenclature, however, gets confusing. You’d think “extra dry” would mean very dry. It doesn’t. Instead, a wine labeled “extra dry” will be slightly sweet, though not quite as sweet as one labeled “demi-sec,” a term that literally means half-dry. There’s absolutely no logic to it.
Incidentally, rosé Champagnes, which many people assume will taste sweet, are usually quite dry.
What about sparklers from elsewhere in Europe?
Spanish cava is always a popular alternative to Champagne, particularly since it carries a lower price tag. Made by the traditional method, but with different grape varieties, good cavas taste nutty rather than toasty, and rarely cost more than $15. Cristalino, Mont Marcal, and Segura Viudas are reliable producers.
Bubbly from the Loire Valley in France, though inevitably coarser in texture than Champagne, can be another option. For around $12, look for the bruts from Bouvet and Marquis de la Tour.
Prosecco from northeastern Italy is surging in popularity these days. Rarely made by the traditional method, the wines usually taste somewhat sweet. More like Champagne in style are brut Italian sparklers from Trentino and Franciacorta. Popular with the chic set in Milan, they are priced in the same league as the French originals.
Are there any good American sparkling wines?
Yes, and more and more all the time. Let’s start in California, where the Champagne-styled sparklers tend to taste fruity and frothy, the wines being made from riper grapes than in Champagne. Names to look for include Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, Roederer Estate, and Schramsberg. Expect to pay about $25 for a basic brut, and more for a vintage or prestige bottling.
Many other places in the United States also produce good bubbly. Westport Rivers in Massachusetts, L. Mawby in Michigan, Gruet in New Mexico, Chateau Frank in New York, Argyle in Oregon and Thibaut-Jannison in Virginia are examples of wineries whose wines have won numerous medals and awards at international competitions and are well worth trying.
What foods go best with ‘brut’ bubblies?
Wherever it comes from, brut sparkling wine pairs best with savory fare. It’s a remarkably versatile food wine, and can complement almost anything on your holiday buffet. I’m especially partial to it with seafood, notably shellfish and sushi.
But what about dessert?
Brut bubbly is simply too dry to complement desserts, as sugar or pastry cream makes the wine seem thin and metallic. Serve extra-dry or demi-sec wine instead. Veuve Clicquot makes an excellent non-vintage demi-sec that costs about $45. If that’s too much money, try Freixenet’s extra-dry cava for about $10.
Incidentally, virtually no sparkling wine matches well with chocolate, as the dark cocoa flavors invariably make the wine taste bitter.
What if I buy more wine than I end up opening over the holidays?
Good bubbly will improve noticeably with some time spent in the bottle, becoming more complex, nuanced and intriguing. You do need good storage conditions — a place that is relatively cool, with little direct light. Whether you use a closet or a basement, don’t worry about leftover bottles. Given all the sales during the holidays, this is definitely the season to stock up!
Main photo: Pouring out the champagne. Credit: iStock
There is one big problem with Swiss wines: There is not enough to go around. There are just 15,000 hectares (about 37,000 acres) of vineyards spread over the whole country, and the Swiss drink most of their wines themselves, so that barely 1 percent of the country’s entire production reaches the export market. This means that the only way to really enjoy Swiss wine is to go there — but that is no hardship, as it is a breathtakingly beautiful country.
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The train ride from Geneva airport to Montreux sets the scene. The track follows the edge of Lake Geneva, and on the other side there are steep terraced vineyards, tiny plots with stone walls that form the myriad appellations of the Vaud (one of the Swiss cantons, or states). The whole area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Montreux, I ventured into the German-speaking part of Switzerland, with vineyards scattered all over the northeastern part of the country. They account for just 17 percent of the entire production of Switzerland. Visiting a small handful of wine growers, various themes become apparent. Not only is production tiny — the average wine grower can easily earn a living from 4 or 5 hectares (10 to 12 acres) — but it is also fragmented. Martin Donatsch, in the area of the Graubünden Herrschaft, is not unusual in making 14 different wines from 6 hectares (15 acres). While it is true that some of the wines are variations of the same grape variety, nonetheless the attention to detail is breathtaking.
Donatsch’s neighbor, Georg Fromm, in the village of Malans, follows the Burgundian pattern, making a village Pinot Noir that is a blend of grapes from different vineyards as well as four Pinot Noirs that draw from four distinct vineyards. And he has only 4.5 hectares. The differences were subtle but apparent, as there are slight variations in the soil as well as the vinification. (Fromm is also known for superlative Pinot Noir in New Zealand.)
Donatsch, whose father was the first to plant Chardonnay in the area and the first to age his Pinot Noir in barrels — he was given two Burgundian barrels by André Noblet of Domaine de la Romanée Conti — also follows the Burgundian pattern with the equivalent of a village, premier cru and grand cru wine. These indicate, in rising order, the quality of the terroir and thus the potential of the wine. In Donatsch’s case, the wines are called Tradition, Passion and Unique. Their style was understated, delicious and age-worthy.
With such tiny amounts, production costs are high — we were given a figure of 30,000 Swiss francs (about U.S. $31,000) per hectare, which could rise to as much as 50,000 francs (about $52,000) in particularly challenging hillside conditions, and so inevitably prices are high, but no higher than for a grand cru Burgundy. Donatsch’s wines range from about U.S. $21 for a bottle of Tradition to $57 for the Unique.
Although all the wine growers that we met grew a diverse range of local and international grapes, most agreed that Pinot Noir is the most successful grape variety of the region. For my taste buds, it really came into its own in the Graubünden Herrschaft, the four villages of which Malans in the center, where the warm prevailing wind, the föhn, helps ripen the grapes. The soil is mainly limestone, like Burgundy, and the grapes enjoy the large difference between day and nighttime temperatures, which makes for slower ripening and fresher flavors.
Local varietals at risk
In addition to the more international varieties, Switzerland is also home to a number of endangered varieties, which could be at risk of disappearing. Erich Meier at Uetikon, near Lake Zurich, is a keen exponent of Rauschling. There are 9 hectares (22 acres) of Rauschling in the area, 23 hectares (57 acres) altogether in the whole of Switzerland; Erich has just 40 ares (1 acre). He ferments half the grapes in oak and half in tank to make a rounded, fruity white wine with well-integrated oak and a lightly salty finish with good acidity.
Completer was another grape variety that I had never heard of, let alone tasted. This might be explained by the fact that 10 producers have just 3 hectares of it. Happily, the Donatsch family is planning to extend its vineyards of Completer so that its future can be more assured. Martin Donatsch explained how it has a very high acidity and that in the past it used to be aged for several years in wood to soften the acidity, thus making for a very oxidative style. He has opted for a fresher style, a late harvest wine, in which he leaves a little residual sugar. Again the föhn helps the ripening process, by shriveling the grapes, and for Donatsch it has everything that you want in a white wine, minerality, fruitiness, elegance and alcohol. I found it very intriguing, with dry honey and good acidity and again, well-integrated oak.
At lunchtime in the Donatsch family’s wine bar, Winzerstube zum Ochsen, we enjoyed the 2009 vintage of Completer from a magnum. It was simply delicious, and yet another example of the extraordinary diversity and originality of Switzerland.
Main photo: Martin Donatsch stirs the grapes at his family’s winery. Credit: Domaine Donatsch
Stories abound about farmers of color in the United States and their historic ties to the land. Current-day farmers carry nuanced stories about why their ancestors left and why they feel compelled to return: Is it spiritual, out of need, political or pleasure?
FARMERS OF COLOR
A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible
Gone are the post-Civil War days when some forsook farming to northern cities and industrial jobs. The descendants of the enslaved understood farm work as degrading and severe, something to be shunned at all costs.
Instead today’s farmers of color are reclaiming and revitalizing their historical ties to the land, a land full of riches their ancestors, distant and near, built.
Sandra Simone, of voice and vetch
Sandra Simone, a jazz singer, returned to the soil of her roots. Her life moved forward once she bought back a fraction of her ancestor’s land in rural Alabama. Watch and listen to Sandra.
Frankie Lee Michael, on native southern pecans
A part-time pecan farmer, Frankie Lee Michael carries on his father’s business of providing automated pecan shelling to local pecan farmers in Mississippi. Lee, of Native American heritage, shares his perspective on pecans, desserts, the environment and the changing climate in this short film clip.
Rashid Nuri, on urban agriculture
Rashid Nuri of Truly Living Well has a long career in government and private sector. In this short film clip, Nuri describes why all people should have a right to healthy food, urban or rural, and he shares how he and his community are doing it in the heart of downtown Atlanta.
Main image: Rashid Nuri. Credit: Sarah Khan
One of Spain’s favorite wines suffers from a case of mistaken identity — and is better known abroad under an alias.
In the Mediterranean coastal regions of Murcia and Valencia, wine made from Monastrell (the fourth-most planted red wine grape in Spain) is a local favorite. With its slightly rugged, fruit-intense profile, it is ideal to pair with hearty winter flavors such as La Mancha’s gazpacho manchego, redolent of rabbit, wild mushrooms and snails, and Valencia’s richly seasoned paellas.
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But somewhere around the 16th century, the varietal traveled to France and took on the name Mourvèdre, which stuck for 500 years. Over time, Mourvèdre gained popularity as a perfect partner for Grenache (known as Garnacha in Spain) and Syrah — a blend known as GSM for short. GSM blends from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône are particularly well known. French winemakers also stepped ahead of Spanish vintners to carve out a reputation for the grape as a respectable single varietal. Even Australians and Americans thought well enough of Monastrell to plant vineyards of their own, but gave it yet another name: Mataro.
But recently, Monastrell has moved to center stage, to share the spotlight with garnacha and the Rioja region’s famed Tempranillo. With more producers creating Monastrell wines of what could be called a finessed rustic style, Monastrell has shed its reputation for jammy, high-alcohol vintages and acquired one for its distinctly Spanish, authentic approach to this powerhouse grape. Michelin-starred chef María José San Román showcases the fruit and wine on the menu every night at her restaurant, Monastrell, in the heart of the varietal’s growing region in Alicante.
But Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow; it takes perseverance and dedication. The varietal flourishes on old bush-trained vines, planted in incredibly rocky soil at elevations high enough to be hard on the fruit. In temperatures that are blazing hot in the summer and bitterly cold at night, the grape benefits from being both drought-tolerant and late to harvest, but typically produces in heavy and light volumes on alternate years.
To the eye, Monastrell’s thick skins contribute to a deep, dark purple color. On the nose, its aroma gives away the earthy, rocky soil it thrives in, but the wine is all about spice and intense, dark fruit such as blackberries, blueberries and plums.
Most quality producers in Spain have tamed its highly tannic, rustic taste with selective oak aging, and the best vintners create wines that balance intense fruitiness with savory undertones. Although there is no getting around the fact that most Monastrell wines are relatively high in alcohol, averaging 12 to 15 percent, there’s a softness to the fruit that makes this wine very approachable, with the right level of acidity.
Experiencing Monastrell at its source
During a recent visit to Bodega Castaño in the Yecla DO (Denominación de Origen) of Murcia, I witnessed the unique growing conditions of this workhorse grape. More important, I tasted Monastrell at its source, perfectly paired with country food and generous Spanish hospitality.
As a guest of Ramón Castaño Santa and two of his three sons, winemaker Ramón and Daniel, I toured an estate that had been maintained by four generations of Castaño vintners. On this day during harvest, the Monastrell grape hung in heavy bunches just inches from ground, so I was able to experience the deep flavor of the fresh fruit before swirling the wine in a glass over lunch.
Although the hearty country gazpacho prepared over a wood fire was a simple but spectacular main course, the real treat was the collection of six wines that the Castaño family shared with its guests. From the simple, single varietal 2013 Monastrell to the smooth 2011 Casa de la Cera, the family’s flagship example of a perfect Monastrell blend: 50% Monastrell, 50% combination of Garnacha Tintorera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
I discovered that afternoon that Monastrell is a friendly wine that’s worth getting to know. There are a host of Spanish vintners from Murcia’s four recognized winemaking regions that are creating great examples of Monastrell vintages, including Bodega Castaño and Castillo del Baron in Yecla and Enrique Mendoza, Volver and Sierra Salinas in Alicante.
Best of all, Monastrell can still be an incredible value because the reputation of the heavy-handed, rough style of the Monastrell of old has not caught up with the new, more refined approaches that vintners are applying to this fruit-forward wine. Sometimes, mistaken identity can work in a wine lover’s favor.
Main photo: Monastrell grapes. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
On a Sunday night in May, Scott Wright arrived at his Carlton, Ore., winery to find flames shooting from the roof and smoke billowing into the sky. “There were 30 to 50 firefighters in full gear scrambling around, working on the blaze,” Wright said. “It was like something you see in the movies, very surreal.”
He tracked down the crew chief to find out whether the fire had been contained. Foremost on his mind was the condition of the 2013 vintage at the other end of the building. He’d sampled the wines only the day before and had marveled over the quality.
“It would be absolutely crippling,” he said. “I can’t imagine anything more damaging than losing an entire vintage.”
Wright is one of the winemakers I interviewed for “American Wine Story,” a documentary that explores the drive to start life over in the wine industry. He co-owns Scott Paul Wines, a business he started after leaving behind a successful career in the music industry in Los Angeles.
Wright’s preoccupation with reinventing himself in wine was so great that it had affected his health. Unable to track the source of the decline, his doctor encouraged him to follow his obsession. “Driving home from that doctor’s appointment was when I had the realization that, yes, I really had to do this,” Wright said.
Shortly after that visit, he founded Scott Paul Wines in 1999 and never looked back. In the settling smoke 15 years later, his future was in question.
Wright’s plunge into the wine business follows a common thread in the industry. During five years of filming, I spoke to dozens of people who left their previous lives behind. Engineers, radio personalities, computer programmers — the dizzying array of former careers was matched only by the unimaginable stress and labor it takes to launch a wine brand.
Despite the inherent risks, the steep learning curve and the long hours, there’s no shortage of born-again oenophiles willing to take a shot at making it in wine. We began filming at the height of the Great Recession. At that time, by official count in our home state of Oregon, there were 275 wineries.
A financial downturn seems hardly the time for people to dive en masse into a capital-intensive business like winemaking, in which it takes years to generate a return. But five years later, just as we’re releasing “American Wine Story,” Oregon wineries now number 545.
“Most people starting wineries in Oregon come to it as a second or even third career,” said Michelle Kaufmann of the Oregon Wine Board. It’s no easy transition. “Oregon is a challenging place because our yields are small. It takes a lot to produce wine here.”
Given the obstacles, why did the roster continue to expand even during tough economic times?
“When the recession was happening,” Kaufmann speculated, “people were looking for what really makes them happy.”
Wine makes people happy. And obsessive.
Look at the prices on the top shelf of any good wine shop and you’ll know that you have to be a little crazy to spend a small fortune on a bottle of fermented fruit juice. We found clear evidence of that intense ardor for wine as we traveled to six states, talking to the people who make and sell it. Most of them began as consumers.
A leap triggered by an ‘epiphany bottle’
Often it was a single “epiphany bottle” that rocked their concept of what wine could be. A humble beverage suddenly became a captivating elixir that they strove to understand. And the best way to understand wine? Make it.
A pattern began to emerge: desk job, epiphany bottle, wine enthusiast, home winemaker, wine business owner working 16-hour days with a mad glint in the eye and a heck of a story. None of the winemakers we met had regrets. But a few wondered if they’d be able to go through it all again.
The challenges are clear. Yet more and more people are willing to take the risk and jump in. And it’s not just a West Coast phenomenon. It’s happening in every state in the union.
On the opposite coast, Virginia is also striving to stake its claim on wine. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office lists 250 “farm wineries” in the state.
Although Virginia may be a lesser-known region in comparison with California’s Napa or Sonoma or even the booming wine town of Walla Walla, Wash., it has some serious wine history. Thomas Jefferson started the Commonwealth’s first commercial vineyard with an Italian neighbor, Filippo Mazzei, in 1776. That project didn’t take off, but the seeds of an idea were sown, and old Long Tom would be proud of what Virginia’s accomplishing today.
You can visit restored vineyards on the slopes of Monticello, where another Italian, Gabriele Rausse, tends the vines and brings them to harvest with more success, doing his part to further Jefferson’s original vision.
“I think that Jefferson was ready, 200 years ago, to sell wine to the French,” Rausse said with a laugh. “We are not there yet. But we are going in that direction.”
We made stops in Arizona and Missouri to learn about some of America’s more challenging growing conditions. We visited large and small producers. We spoke with Oregon wine pioneer Dick Erath, who grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases before retiring to make wine in his garage. We also spoke with Jim Day of Panache Cellars in Philomath, Ore., who commercially produces vins de garage: 250 cases of fine wine emerge each year from his tiny suburban facility.
Despite the myriad challenges and setbacks, tricky weather, fickle markets, entrepreneurial souls continue to plunge headfirst into wine. New labels and entire regions seem to spring up overnight. Both by pluck and luck, Americans are chasing their dreams by the barrelful.
Although the size of the American dream doesn’t matter when it comes to wine, passion does. And a little luck doesn’t hurt, either.
At Wright’s place, the fire hit on a Sunday night, when most of the volunteer firefighters were at home — and thus available — instead of at work. That saved precious minutes, and the fire was kept from spreading to the storage areas. Otherwise, Wright said, “it might not have been a death blow, but it would have been impossible for a new winery to recover.”
A few days after the fire, Wright sampled his wines and confirmed that they’d survived the flames unscathed, showing the same promise they had before the fire. “It was a damn good tasting.”
Main photo: Of his career switch from music to winemaking, Oregon’s Scott Wright says, “I really had to do this.” Credit: David Baker
Heritage has many meanings, encompassing not only our cultural and ancestral connections, but also the breeds of livestock our forefathers raised. Carole Soule is that rare individual whose life intersects both. Carole is a 13th-generation Mayflower descendent whose family heritage is deeply tied to its origins and she is a farmer who raises heritage breed cattle as well.
Carole’s lineage began with George Soule, an indentured servant who survived the journey to Plymouth and became one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. Carole notes the Soule genetics must be strong because there are about 30,000 Soules who trace their roots back to George. That is one prolific progeny.
Carole’s grandparents’ dining room table was the center of all the family holidays, especially Thanksgiving. The table took up the entire room, and one needed to skirt around the edge to get to the other side. To have a personal connection to the very first Thanksgiving was not lost on Carole or the Soule family. It was worn like a badge of honor. They are proud to share that they are connected to the origins of our country.
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As a child, Carole recalls piling into her family’s tiny Renault , all three siblings squished in the back seat for the three-hour drive from Bedford, Mass., to Hillsdale, N.Y., where her grandparents, Ida and Charles Soule, lived. At Thanksgiving, the table was always piled high with food, but the dishes Carole remembers most are her grandmother’s homemade cranberry sauce and creamed onions. The cranberry sauce is simply equal amounts of cranberries and sugar with a little cornstarch. It is cooked until the cranberries are soft, then the dish is cooled.
The creamed onions, though, are Carole’s favorite. They are rich and thick, and all kinds of yummy.
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes
Cook time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour, 30 minutes
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
3 pounds fresh pearl onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup beef broth
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 cups milk
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons apple cider
1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Peel onions and trim both ends.
3. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to the onions.
4. Layer onions in pan large enough to fit in one layer.
5. Place in oven; roast for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and brown in spots.
6. Remove the pan from the oven, add broth.
7. Roast for 10 minutes more.
For the cream sauce:
1. Melt butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in large saucepan.
2. Add flour and whisk until the mixture bubbles and is free of lumps.
3. Add milk, bay leaf, thyme, pepper and salt.
4. Boil, whisking often. Thicken to consistency of thick gravy. Remove from heat. Discard the bay leaf.
5. Add the roasted onions and any broth from the pan to the cream sauce. Stir in apple cider.
6. Serve warm
Old-fashioned farm, cattle
It was those same car trips across the state of Massachusetts that began Carole’s love affair with cows. Across from her grandparents’ house was a pasture full of beautiful doe-eyed cows. Carole would visit with the “girls” whenever she could.
Fast-forward a few decades and Carole and her husband bought an 1850s farm called the Miles Smith Farm in New Hampshire. Her dream and vision was to go back to the old-fashioned way of raising animals She knew it would begin with an easy-to-raise heritage breed — the Scottish Highland. There would be no antibiotics, no corn. Just grass.
The Scottish Highland breed is hearty. The breed’s shaggy coat helps protect them from the elements, which means they don’t need a layer of fat to keep warm and, instead, produce lean beef that is low in cholesterol.
Carole’s herd is grass-fed, even in winter. She leaves many of her grass fields uncut for winter grazing. The cows paw through the snow to find their food. The breed is adaptable to a wide range of conditions and are equipped to forage and to live without shelter. Feeding on grass rather than hay also saves money, from the cost of fossil fuels to plant and harvest the hay to the cost of the seed. It is a perfect “circle of life,” too — while the cows are grazing, they are also fertilizing the field. Most hayfields are generally commercially fertilized, which costs more money.
Carole has found a win-win solution in this method. Plus, this heritage breed is well-suited to her state. The mountainous parts of New England are perfect places for these cattle because they can easily maneuver around the rocky outcroppings and graze on the hillsides, which are difficult to mow and cultivate.
Each year, the Miles Smith Farm slaughters 120 cows. They sell the meat through several channels: meat community supported agriculture (CSA) programs; wholesale customers including schools, regional hospitals and restaurants; and direct to consumers through their on-site, solar-powered store.
Carole has just received a USDA grant to work with a heritage pork farmer to create and sell a beef-pork mix. Carole shares that her new venture’s tagline is: “A burger that squeals with flavor.” She is again tapping into an old-fashioned tradition: Many people used to blend pork into their lean beef to create juiciness and flavor.
The Soule heritage is alive and well in Carole, in both namesake and familial traditions. Just as George Soule was drawn to a life in the New World, Carole has been drawn to a life on the land, an old-fashioned breed and traditional farming methods. Perhaps there is more to the Soule heritage than we will ever know. One thing is for sure, Carole is grateful for her heritage and her heritage cattle.
Main photo: Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Miles Smith Farm
If you ask me, perfection is overrated. I give it an 8.2. You can obsess and compulse until you’re just the right shade of blue in the face, but to create an artful eyeful that requires little primping, preening or pruning? That’s a 10.
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Store-bought flowers in a vase are fine — I love the blooming things as much as the next hibiscus hugger. But when you make the meal with your own two hands, shouldn’t your centerpiece complement your handiwork? You don’t have to Martha-size it and grow your own tulips, turnips and twine. But why not throw together something quick and fresh that says “I am an eco-chic entertainer.”
Farm-to-table centerpieces that you can eat the next day are creatively fulfilling and less landfilling. Seasonal root vegetables, fruits, herbs, pumpkins and squashes will do all the heavy lifting for you. Well, most of it, anyway. You need at least one good eye. But don’t let it stray into OCD territory. Think fashionista farmer, not perfectionista mogul. Remember, Martha’s not invited.
Believe it or not, Martha’s not the originator of ornamental fuss. Holiday centerpieces go way back before the decline of carbon civilization.
Centerpieces through the ages
The Romans used decorative leaves, branches and foliage in elaborately designed containers often made of ceramics and rock crystal.
Aristocratic tables in the Middle Ages were said to be so crammed with food, there wasn’t room for centerpieces, although at Christmas, centerpieces may have included pastry and marzipan shaped like people, animals, scenes or decorative objects.
Tables from the 17th-century featured silver or gold platters that showed off the host’s wealth and status with whole animal heads or a cooked peacock with its colorful feathers adorning the platter.
Whereas the 18th century introduced silk and porcelain flowers, the 19th century donned fresh flowers, foliage, fruit, candelabras and molded puddings and jellies. Throughout both centuries, centerpieces were often vertically constructed using pyramids of food on tiered dishes called epergnes.
By World War I, decorative objects began to replace flowers and foliage, but during the 1960s and ’70s, flowers and grasses made a comeback.
10 tips for creating a farm-to-table centerpiece
1. Don’t buy food for a centerpiece that you won’t eat afterward. Wasting food is not eco chic! (Note: make sure to add water to a vase if you’re using leafy greens.)
2. Celebrate the season with local, seasonal produce. Don’t even think about buying fruit from Chile!
3. Don’t make the arrangements so tall that you can’t see your guests (except for the uninvited ones, so keep some long fennel or chard in the fridge, just in case).
4. You can line up multiple small (and short) arrangements along the center of the table. Who says a large, dominant one is always the best choice? I think Maria Shriver would agree.
5. Use glasses, jars, vases and vessels you have around. They don’t have to match.
6. Don’t spend money on crap you don’t need (or won’t eat)! Remember those landfills!
7. If you’re going to add store-bought flowers, buy them at the farmers market and make sure they were grown without pesticides. Cut flowers full of pesticides at the table may spur someone’s allergy. Just sayin’.
8. Don’t do doilies. You might as well wear an Elizabethan collar. Trust me. Neither are the eco-chic look you’re going for.
9. No stacked cookies with twine around them. Can you lay off the Pinterest for one lousy day?
10. If someone admires an arrangement, be generous and gift it. Less pressure to use up all those rutabagas (see tip No. 1).
When you create your own farm-to-table centerpiece, you’ll be an eco-chic badass. And that’s a good thing.
Main photo: Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon