Articles in Agriculture

The hilly terrain of Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

 It is quiet at Cain Vineyards. The hillside estate at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain is far removed from the hustle of the valley floor. The air is crisp, days are short, winter has arrived and there has been rain. Just enough, says Cain winemaker Chris Howell, to ignite new life in the desiccated vineyards.

Napa Valley winemakers, or at least enough of them to signify the start of a trend, are rethinking the region’s excessive tendencies. Lost for decades in a soulless race to please a handful of critics with dubious taste, these evolving winemakers are trying to reconnect with the soil and climate of America’s most celebrated wine region. While their wines still reflect the strength of the valley’s sunny climate, they are striving for lower alcohol levels and more restrained fruit flavors.

Howell doesn’t have to change. He has been making terroir-driven wines for decades. And paid a price for that unfashionable decision. Overlooked by critics, his wines have been relative bargains, and most bottles are priced $75 or below. Still, you could say that the newly chastened winemakers are playing catch up with him. And none too soon.

California’s drought has Napa Valley on a razor’s edge. Howell says rain is now a “miracle,” a spiritual event. On Spring Mountain where the only water for the vineyards falls from the sky, those two inches will carry the vineyard through to spring.

“It reminds me that wine is about gardening, nature and the earth,” says Howell. “Those of us on Napa’s hillsides and completely disconnected from the water grid think about these things now.”

There was almost no rain in 2013. By the spring of 2014, there had been 14 months with nothing beyond a few sprinkles. “It was a shock, a big wake-up. I didn’t think we would have any grapes. None.” Rain, not much, but enough, came at the perfect time in February and March of 2014 to save the vintage.

The recent rain falls far short of guaranteeing next year’s vintage. “But the vines loved it. The soil came to life.”

Cain’s 90 acres of vineyards are scattered across the estate’s 550 acres of some of the most rugged hillsides in Napa. The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines have a complex herbal quality that sets them apart from other Napa Cabs. His intense, dark wines have a lightness that allows them a seat at the dinner table. They have always been softer, less tannic and more nuanced, even lilting, than the heavier fruit-forward wines most often associated with Napa.

Cain Vineyard's 90 acres are scattered across some of the most rugged hillsides in the Napa Valley. Credit:  Janis Miglavs

Cain Vineyard’s 90 acres are scattered across some of the most rugged hillsides in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

His old-school wines are the result of Howell’s belief that the best wines reflect what is happening in the vineyard. Over the decades Howell has managed Cain’s vineyards, he’s dialed back the irrigation, dry farming the plots where the soils are deep enough. He has farmed organically for 15 years and now is bringing biodynamic — an extreme organic, somewhat metaphysical farming discipline advanced by Rudolf Steiner early in the 20th century — to Cain’s vineyards.

“The more people pay attention to the whole ecosystem of the vineyard, the healthier the vineyard. And, in general, biodynamic vineyards are healthier everywhere I’ve visited them around the world,” says Howell.

That’s given Cain a bit of protection against the ravages of the drought. “We live year to year now,” he says. “I always took the winter rains for granted. They always came. I didn’t think about it. Now I know we can take nothing for granted. I feel closer to the reality of nature, to the vineyards.”

Howell delights in making wines that vary year to year. The drought will be but another marker. So soon in the winemaking process for the 2014 vintage, it’s too early to know how it will change the wines.

How the drought affects his wines doesn’t concern Howell. Using only the wild yeast from the vineyard to ferment his grapes, Howell has given control of his wines back to nature. These days, that is an act of supreme faith. “We think about the spiritual part of things more often these days,” he says.

Other Napa winemakers may never catch up with such radical thinking.

Main photo: Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

* * *

 Cain Vineyards makes just three wines:

Cain Five ($125)

Cain Five comes is 100% from the Cain Vineyard, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.

Cain Concept ($75)

Cain Concept comes from alluvial soils in the Benchland areas of the Napa Valley. It is a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot.

Cain Cuvee ($34)
NV10, is a blend of two vintages (51% 2010 and 49% 2009) and is a blend of Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. Sourced from Rutherford, Yountville, Spring Mountain and Atlas Pea.

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Portland chef Jason French goes the extra miles to buy local on his custom-made market bike. Credit: Ben Leonard

Four months ago, I opened the first farm-to-table restaurant in eastern Oregon. Besides the expected headaches of managing money (what money?), juggling staff schedules (i.e., no-shows) and equipment failures (hello, electrical fire), I’ve thought a lot about the term “farm to table,” as in, What does it really look like in action?

It’s now common for restaurants in every major city to tout local food. Some prominent chefs have even suggested that the “locavore” trend is tired. But from where I stand — in the hub of Oregon’s bread basket — it’s clear that we have a long way to go to connect eaters with their food sources. Just like the early days of recycling, if every homemaker, cook, foodie and caregiver in every household makes basic shifts in how they buy, use and prepare food, we can build a bona fide system of sustainable agriculture: the ultimate goal of the farm-to-table movement.

As a new chef, it’s dawned on me that I learned much of what I now employ to localize my menu from years of feeding my family at home. Far from what many believe, the practices I follow are not expensive, labor-intensive or terribly exotic. Distilled to five habits, they are easy and effective ways for anyone to adopt a farm-to-table way of life, starting right now.

Buy direct on a regular basis

Sure, you can forage for wild mushrooms, fish for trout or raise your own egg-laying chickens, but leveraging local food stems from your purchasing power. While typical restaurants order everything from lettuce to pork chops from one big supplier, I purchase directly from several ranchers and growers every week. You can do the same by replacing an item or two you ordinarily purchase at the supermarket with a product from a favorite farmers market vendor, a local rancher or farmer or even via a source on the web. Here’s the key: Don’t do it just once, do it over again, weekly, monthly or annually. By becoming a regular customer, you know you’re getting great quality, and small-scale producers earn their livelihood.

Adapt every menu

Local eating involves shifting our thinking about what we prepare and when. Or, in the words of Ned Ludd’s chef Jason French, “Our menu is driven by the farm.” He has learned how sensitive family farms are to the whims of nature. “It works against us sometimes, but it connects us to the farm cycle.” The question to ask before deciding on a recipe is: What is available now? If it’s tomato season, by all means, make a BLT, but if it’s November, a kale Caesar will not only taste better but will be more economical. With practice (or a quick web search), you can readily find and learn seasonal substitutes for your favorite recipes.

Lynne Curry

Author Lynne Curry harvests fall nettles for pesto. Credit: Lynne Curry

Use whole animals, whole plants

One of the unexpected benefits of cooking with fresh, locally produced foods is how nearly every part of the plant or animal can be food (or compost). When Country Cat’s executive chef Adam Sappington butchers whole hogs, he masterfully repurposes the bones, meat, fat and trim. At home, you can practice whole animal eating by cutting up a whole chicken: Bones become soup, breast meat fills chicken quesadillas and thighs and legs get braised. The principle also applies to vegetables: From radish tops to beet greens, there are many edible parts for salads and sautés, and the scrapings from carrots, onion skins or corn cobs become a quick stock for the best vegetable soups.

Use your freezer wisely

Think about what’s in your freezer. Did you know you could replace the freezer-burnt contents with a quarter share of grass-fed beef, flats of strawberries or bags of basil pesto? At my restaurant, the chest freezer is like my food federal reserve. Stocked and regularly rotated, it enables me to offer more local farm-raised foods for more months of the year to more people. Freezing your food is the most convenient, no-mess way to extend the local eating season all the way through winter — although I encourage anyone to try other preserving options, including canning, pickling and fermenting.

Choose progress over perfection

Making a lifestyle from an ethic of local eating does not commit you to the 100-mile diet. Iconoclastic chef Leather Storrs builds his Noble Rot menu from a rooftop garden above the Portland skyline, but he asserts that purely local eating is a fallacy. There are times of the year when it’s downright challenging to choose what’s seasonal. In many ways, farm-to-table is an intentional effort to eat from within our own food shed to whatever extent we choose. So, start small and slow with one item you regularly buy — be it eggs, beef, bread or lettuce — and you’ve already joined the change.

Main photo: Portland, Ore., chef Jason French goes the extra miles to buy local on his custom-made market bike. Credit: Ben Leonard

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Sandra Simone. Credit: Sarah Khan

A change is underway. Farmers of color — historically rendered invisible, though permanently woven into the fabric of America’s agricultural heritage — are increasing. The first farmers in this country, that is Native Americans and African-Americans, are the backbone of the nation’s agriculture history. Some farmers of color have endured — cultivating the land with skill that comes from generations of ecological knowledge and animal husbandry practices.

Women of color farmers, in particular, are overlooked, nationally and globally. Yet these farmers struggle with the same challenges any other farmer faces, plus a legacy of institutional exclusion and gender bias. So what are some of the demographic statistics of farmers of color and women farmers in the United States? Who are they, where are they and what do they have to say?

Credit: Sarah Khan

Credit: Sarah Khan

The mothers of Mother Earth

Sandra Simone of Talladega County, Ala., is an award-winning organic farmer who used to be a jazz singer in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It took many years for my husband’s words — ‘We need to own our ancestors’ land’ — to click,” Simone said. “All I wanted was to get out of rural Alabama as a teenager. I never thought I’d return, let alone own land and farm it, organically and sustainably.”

There have always been two faces of farmers in the United States — those of color and those who are white; that is, the ones in the fields and the ones on packages, in the magazines and on commercials. But if farm advocate Cynthia Hayes and farmers Janie Dickson, Beverly Hall and Simone have their way, those faces are about to change.

FARMERS OF COLOR


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership

Part 2: Female farmers of color

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos

Going organic, in color

Farmers who decide to create organic and sustainable farms might find that the load gets heavier or lighter, depending on their story. Trust is the core issue for Cynthia Hayes, the founder of the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, or SAAFON in Savannah, Ga.

“Our farmers who wanted to go organic felt isolated and had no hope that local USDA government agencies would help them figure out the loan processes,” Hayes said. She has been privy to too many stories of farmers’ lack of equal access to USDA services. “We had to fill the gap, help our farmers manage the officials, the forms and the bureaucracy.”

Over time, Hayes saw that the majority of SAAFON’s clients were women — African-American and Native Americans farmers who wanted not only to reconnect to the land but also reclaim the rich agricultural and culinary traditions that indigenous and enslaved people offered.

Female farm operators statistics

Females make up 14 percent of all principal operators and 30 percent of all operators, according to the USDA. But what are the percentages of women of color farmers by race, and where do they farm in the country? Within each racial category (which includes both men and women), the gender breakdown reveals a relatively higher percentage of female operators compared with their white female counterparts. For example, 30 percent of Native Americans are female operators.  They are followed by 21 percent of multiracial female operators, 20 percent Asian, 19 percent Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders, 14 percent African-American and white and 12 percent Latinas. Despite obstacles and challenges, many farmers of color, including women, farm and survive despite historical exclusion. Below are a few of their stories.

Sandra Simone: Of voice and vetch

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 Simone tell her story.

 Janie Dickson: She’s got the share and the crop

“My parents sharecropped. But often we’d miss a week of school just ’cause the owners did not feel like settling up the bill. That’s the kind of power they had over us,” said Janie Dickson of Dickson’s Organics in Effingham, S.C. Dickson runs her organic farm with her husband, Rocky. Like Simone, Dickson vowed she would never farm. Dickson’s mother reminded her of her sharecropping days, “We got the share and they got the crop,” Dickson said, laughing. Despite her vow, Dickson always had a backyard garden where she’d grow collards, beans, turnips, okra and much more.

Before retirement, she yearned to have folks taste the difference between a jet-lagged, store-bought vegetable and a just-picked one. “This time around I farmed, on my own terms, on my own land, growing what I wanted, harvesting when I wanted, and plowing it under when I felt like it,” she said.

The Dicksons used to farm conventionally. “It got to the point where I’d jokingly tell my friends I was going out to poison the collards.” In 2006, she was rummaging through her attic when she stumbled on an organic farming magazine from 1986. “I got the message,” she said. Today, their six-acre property has a road dividing the land into two parcels. Her husband had no desire to let go of what he called his “miraculous fertilizers and pesticides,” but they decided Janie would go organic. Her plot blossomed. They ditched the chemicals. Then Dickson met Hayes, of SAAFON, got certified as an organic farmer and leased 10 acres of organic land while their property transitioned to organic.

Like other female farmers across the country, Dickson faces daily challenges: negotiating gender bias, finding good and reliable farm help, getting produce to the markets, reworking the business plan and affording farm equipment. However, she faces an extra challenge — the need to persist with local USDA officials to get equal access to information on all aspects of organic farming for small business farmers. “Sometimes persisting just feels like a full-time job,” Dickson said.

Beverly Hall: High heels sinking into the dirt

Beverly Hall, a Native American farmer in Shannon, N.C., started the nonprofit group American Indian Mothers to take care of the elders. “It’s not right when your people are choosing to buy medicine over food. I grew up farming and canning, and I had strayed from the circle and my values,” Hall said. “I returned to self-reliance and to the land in 1995. And I marched myself right into the fields, with my high heels sinking into the dirt, to get advice about how to start farming.”

“My mother could not talk about our native traditions, it was forbidden; but we still had to farm, so we held onto some of our farming ways of corn, beans and squashes,” Hall said proudly.

An ingrained self-sufficiency — a do-it-yourself, take-care-of-yourself-because-no-one- is-going-to-do-it-for-you attitude — are what permeate Simone, Dickson, Hall and Hayes’ thoughts and actions. “My ancestors’ blood and sweat courses through this Southern landscape,” Simone said. Resolute, she looked out the window from her self-designed and self-built log cabin and declared, “That’s why I returned, for good.”

Hayes and SAAFON are not going away anytime soon, nor are the spirited Simone, Dickson and Hall. Each woman educates children in their communities by creating farm programs, inviting experts to lecture or organizing local farm co-ops that bring together like-minded farmers to share ideas about what niche crops to grow, how to get rid of a particular pest or just help one another.

Dickson wishes that when she was growing up she had asked her sharecropping mother more about the secret garden she tended deep in the middle of the woods, far from the sharecropper’s eyes. “We’d visit it, quietly, and tend to it,” Dickson said. Now, though, Dickson’s garden is out in the open for all to see and learn from, on her own terms.

Main photo: Sandra Simone. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Coppa Cafe’s bounty of locally foraged mushrooms includes king boletes, aspen boletes, blewits, slippery jacks, oysters, velvet-footed beeches, corals, lobsters and what might be a relative of the very rare Caesar’s mushroom. Credit: © Seth Joel

A popular guidebook advises “fussy big-city epicureans” to tone down their expectations for dining in Flagstaff, Ariz. Time for a rewrite! Husband and wife Brian Konefal and Paola Fioravanti are the classically trained, sustainability-minded chefs who are changing minds at Coppa Cafe, starting with everything from fresh bread and ponderosa pine-infused butter to pasta flavored with mesquite.

After years of training in Europe, followed by a stint under chef Daniel Humm in San Francisco and New York City, Konefal decided in 2011 that it was time to bring Fioravanti — a pastry chef whose own impressive résumé includes a gig with Joël Robuchon — back to his home state of Arizona to start a restaurant featuring locally sourced food. Their Flagstaff bistro is not, however, in the historic downtown area so popular with tourists. It is tucked away in a strip mall along South Milton Road — the main drag through town leading from Interstate 40 to the Grand Canyon. In short, Coppa Cafe is a discovery.

The larder and the grow room

At 7,000 feet above sea level, the local ecoystem has posed challenges for indigenous people and settlers for millennia. The weather is cool and even cold eight months of the year, and Konefal summed up the harsh reality of the Flagstaff winter as his predecessors might have: “If we have no larder, we have no kitchen.” In the storeroom that he keeps at 65 degrees, he dries, smokes, brines, pickles and ferments foods to preserve them at the peak of their freshness.

Konefal started with what he knew: the 18-month process of air-curing pork shoulder in the Italian style to make coppa, also known as poor man’s prosciutto — and so the cafe was named. Then he added a chorizo-style sausage using native Navajo-Churro sheep instead of pork. His Coulommiers cheese, customarily made with cow’s milk, is here made with goat’s milk because goats thrive in the backyards of the Colorado Plateau. Meanwhile, Tammy Kelly of  Kelly Beef, who raises grass-fed beef in the Williamson Valley north of Prescott, supplies choice cuts for Konefal’s diced steak tartare.

But the chef has learned to be sensitive to the production capacity of independent suppliers. For example, when I visited Coppa, quail was off the menu because his quail breeder was on vacation for three weeks. And when he ran into difficulty sourcing microgreens such as the sweet pea tendrils and sunflower sprouts he uses to add tang, crispness and surprise to his dishes, he started to grow his own indoors. In a perfect demonstration of his commitment to local and sustainable ideals, Konefal gives 40 pounds of compost a week to an innovative local company called Roots, which makes the super-premium organic growing medium that he then uses to tend his greens.

Locavores and foragers

Other organic produce comes from local farms connected through the Flagstaff CSA, from tepary beans and Hopi corn to nopalitos (cactus pads) and the earthy, nutritious greens known as lamb’s quarters. But in their search for ingredients, the couple spreads their net far and wide. Longtime Flagstaff residents who consider locavorism a necessity rather than a fad come to Coppa to share their own work. They’ve planted fragrant red roses for Fioravanti to use in sorbet and dropped off elderflowers to decorate her most popular dessert, the Raspberry Dome. Recently, Konefal was delighted to be given a pale-pink jam made with Queen Anne’s Lace and is incorporating it into a new dish. He has been invited to pick peaches in the abandoned orchards at Lee’s Ferry, a 19th-century settlement across the Colorado River 120 miles north of Flagstaff. And when we met, he was waiting for a call from Sedona to let him know whether wild blackberries were ready for harvest. Friends and family contribute too. Konefal’s brother, who owns local hot-sauce and mustard company RisingHy, lends his resources, and his mother helps pick olives from the ornamental trees planted all over Phoenix. A family friend recently sent preserves made from the prodigious bounty of the fig tree in his garden.

Such forays into foraging are not without risks. For instance, the warm days, cold nights and monsoon rains of late summer provide the perfect growing conditions for innumerable varieties of wild mushroom — not all edible. Konefal recalled the moment earlier this year when he believed he had found a highly prized Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea), but those mushrooms are not known to exist in the United States. So was it the Amanita jacksonii (sometimes called the Slender Caesar)? Or one of the 10 toxic species of Amanita? It proved to be nontoxic, and he has taken  to affectionately calling his new ingredient the Amanita caesarea Coppa — while keeping its growing location a closely guarded secret.

At 34, Konefal still has the infectious enthusiasm of a schoolboy. Standing in front of a table of colorful screwtop jars, Konefal discussed the ancient chemistry of preserving fruits and vegetables. He inspected his kombucha culture, tested the progress of the vinegar he was making with orange and yellow baby carrots, and checked a jar of mustard seeds fermenting with lemon. But his face lit up as he swirled a dun-colored liquid around in a white plastic bucket — the makings of hard cider featuring apples scavenged from the tree by a nearby Discount Tire outlet. A perfect local concoction — in this case designed to sustain the chef himself through a long winter of hard work. Even as we left the dark, cool storeroom and stepped into the blazing Arizona sunlight, Konefal turned back: “Oh, hang on — I forgot to ‘burp’ the tomatillos.”

Main photo: Coppa Cafe’s bounty of locally foraged mushrooms includes king boletes, aspen boletes, blewits, slippery jacks, oysters, velvet-footed beeches, corals, lobsters and what might a relative of the very rare Caesar’s mushroom. Credit: © Seth Joel

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Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary Gregory

Wine production in Puglia has undergone an extraordinary transformation in the last decade or so. The original focus of the region was to provide wines for blending, to mask the deficiencies of more famous names from further north (Chianti and Valpolicella come to mind). Once the DOC laws were tightened up, however, that market was lost and farsighted winegrowers saw that something had to be done if the region was to have a future.

They began to appreciate that they had grape varieties with an original and distinctive character of their own. The first time I went to Puglia, about 20 years ago, it was almost impossible to find a bottle of Primitivo, one of the most important grape varieties of the heel of Italy. People were only just beginning to realize that Primitivo was the same thing as Zinfandel; Carole Meredith had not yet completed her research linking it with Croatia, across the Adriatic sea. Now, it is firmly established that Tribidrag is the parent of Primitivo and Zinfandel.

But Puglia is not just Primitivo, which is its most expressive in the hills of Manduria and Colle di Gioia. There is also Negroamaro, a rich red variety with intense black fruit, and ripe flavors, grown extensively in vineyards around Salento in the central part of the heel of Italy. Further north, adjoining the Abruzzi, where I recently spent a couple of days, you find Nero di Troia, also called Uva di Troia (named for the village of Troia, not the Troy of Greek legend).

The key DOC for Nero di Troia is Castel del Monte, which takes its name from the 13th century castle built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, not to defend anything, but to assert his authority. It is dramatic and awe-inspiring, even on a rather grey autumnal day, with the white stone fading into the grey sky. It was often used as a hunting lodge and for that reason, falcons feature in the local iconography.

Il Falcone is the name of a groundbreaking blend of Nero di Troia with Montepulciano, which has been made by Rivera since 1971. They were one of the first to bottle their wine in the region when the prime focus was bulk wine. The estate of Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli was another pioneer, again first bottling their wine in the early 1970s. Today they produce Il Rinzacco, a finely crafted Nero di Troia that is fermented and aged in oak. A vertical tasting of five vintages showed wines with elegance and fine tannins, and none of the heady alcohol levels that you can find further south.

Cefalicchio's vineyard in Puglia. Credit: Courtesy of Cefalicchio

Cefalicchio’s vineyard in Puglia. Credit: Courtesy of Cefalicchio

Puglia wines are relative newcomers

The other two estates that I visited are relative newcomers to the market and classic examples of just how much Puglia has developed over the last few decades. They may be old families with a history of farming olives and vines for several generations, but only as the demand for bulk wine has disappeared have they put their wine in bottle. Torrevento started bottling in 1989, and Cefalicchio decided to build a cellar in 2001.

Nero di Troia is quite unlike any of the other red grape varieties of Puglia, in that it is refreshingly low in alcohol. Primitivo, on the other hand, is characterized by a high level of alcohol. Geography explains the difference. Puglia is 400 kilometers long but only 50 kilometers wide (about 240 by 30 miles), so that most of the vineyards are relatively close to the sea. The relatively shallow Adriatic has little effect on temperatures, but it does bring wind that cools in summer and brings snow in winter. Winters are much cooler in northern Puglia than at the bottom of the heel. And Nero di Troia ripens much later than Primitivo and Negroamaro, withstanding well the searing heat of August. It has big berries and is a tannic variety with a lot of juice, but may lack acidity. The best wines have some appealing fruit, violets and red berries.

Torrevento’s cellar, where French oak barriques sit opposite modern concrete vats. Credit: Courtesy of Torrevento

Torrevento’s cellar, where French oak barriques sit opposite modern concrete vats. Credit: Courtesy of Torrevento

Since 2011, Castel del Monte boasts a DOCG for wines made from Nero di Troia alone, that are riserva and therefore can only be bottled after two harvests. These include Torrevento’s Vignale Pedale, which comes from one large plot of vines, and Ottagono, which is another smaller individual vineyard. Both have the benchmark characteristics of fine Nero di Troia, with a firm tannic structure balanced by elegant fruit.

Inevitably, Puglia has not avoided the temptation to plant the so-called international varieties, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, even though their suitability to the warm southern climate is highly questionable. You only have to compare Cefalicchio’s Totila, made from Nero di Troia blended with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, with its pure Nero di Troia Romanica, which is so much more satisfying and Italian in flavor. Of course, there are parallels to be drawn with the success of the so-called super-Tuscans, but happily Puglia is coming to value its own indigenous varieties, as Tuscany has done. As Puglia comes of age, it will realize that Nero di Troia, Primitivo and Negroamaro can stand alone. Do go and try and them. You will be richly rewarded.

Main photo: Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George

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A fish market in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual for fishermen plying the waters off Istanbul to land tuna weighing hundreds of pounds, or to have one of the massive fish leap out of the sea and over the prow of their boat. Dolphins cavorted alongside fishing vessels that hauled in lobster, oysters, razor clams, four kinds of crab and eight varieties of mussels.

“Fishermen in their 70s and 80s tell stories depicting Istanbul like an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s as if we’ve moved to a totally different place since then,” says Defne Koryürek, the founder of Slow Food Istanbul, which has organized an annual holiday to draw attention to the city’s rapidly depleting waterways and to try and reverse the tide.

Lüfer Bayramı celebrates the bluefish

Celebrated each October with fishing competitions, film screenings, children’s art activities, talks, and special meals, the holiday is named after one of Istanbul’s favorite fish, the fatty, flavorful — but now endangered — lüfer (bluefish). This Lüfer Bayramı grew out of a campaign the group launched in 2010 to get restaurants, fishmongers and consumers to stop buying, selling and eating juvenile lüfer that aren’t large enough to reproduce. (“Bayram” means “holiday” in Turkish.)

Many of the city’s best chefs have signed on, including Didem Şenol, the acclaimed founder of Lokanta Maya and Gram restaurants.

“I grew up in a fish-loving family. My father would grill lüfer on Saturdays, and we’d eat it with fish soup, pilaki [a bean dish], and vegetables cooked in olive oil,” Şenol says. “We weren’t rich, but fish was so cheap then that my father could buy lüfer in big batches at the early-morning fish auctions and give the extra to our neighbors.”

Prices of fish have gone up as stocks have diminished; data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that the amount of bluefish caught in Turkey has plummeted over the past decade, from 25,000 tons in 2002 to just over 3,000 tons in 2011. Other research suggests that dozens of species have already disappeared from the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea, two of the bodies of water on which Istanbul lies.

fishermen-galata-bridge_zd

Fishermen on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Both waterways are part of the lüfer’s annual migration route, a more than 1,000-mile-long journey that gives the fish its strong, distinctive taste, according to chef Şenol. “Bluefish in the United States, where I studied [at the French Culinary Institute in New York], is not the same,” she says. “Our lüfer travels from the Mediterranean up the Aegean to the Black Sea and back. It’s a route with different climates and salinities, and all that really affects its flavor.”

Lüfer season in Istanbul begins in the early fall, when the fish start their trip back down to more southern climes after spawning in the nutrient-rich waters of the Black Sea over the summer. Too many, though, are caught while still too small to breed and are sold, depending on their size, under the name çinekop or sarıkanat.

“People didn’t even realize these were all the same fish, but it’s really just like the difference between a sheep and a lamb,” says Koryürek. “Catching this fish so young eliminates the possibility of having more of them in the future.”

Campaign nets converts to the cause

A lobbying campaign led by Slow Food Istanbul along with Greenpeace Mediterranean has resulted in the raising of the minimum legal catch size for commercially fished lüfer from 14 centimeters to 20 centimeters (roughly 5.5 inches to almost 8 inches) — a good step, according to Koryürek, but an insufficient one. More than 100 restaurateurs like Şenol have agreed to not buy lüfer smaller than 24 centimeters (9 inches), the size activists say would be a more sustainable limit.

“We only have lüfer on the menu at Lokanta Maya for a very short period each year, when it is most plentiful,” says Şenol. She was one of a dozen top chefs in Istanbul who participated in this year’s Lüfer Bayramı by serving a special bluefish-based dish for a limited period of time.

“Since lüfer is a very fatty fish, it works best when grilled so it stays juicy inside as the skin gets crispy,” she explains. “It goes well with stronger flavors, so I paired small portions of the grilled fish with a salad of radishes, arugula, and red onions pickled with vinegar and just a little bit of sugar.”

Şenol and her staff also went out with fishermen to catch lüfer on the Bosphorus, an experience she says gave her a new appreciation for how hard the work is and how difficult it can be to keep from inadvertently landing some undersized fish even when using correctly sized nets.

Slow Food Istanbul has likewise been careful not to demonize local fishermen in its campaign, instead working to recruit them as allies.

“These waters have survived for hundreds of centuries with small-scale fishing,” says Koryürek. “But since the 1980s, the boats and nets have been getting bigger, the technology has changed, and the number of fishermen has gone up dramatically.” She estimates that large commercial boats are now catching 90% of Istanbul’s lüfer, and too often take advantage of lax enforcement of regulations by fishing too close to shore, in illegal amounts, or with methods that are environmentally damaging.

Istanbul’s soaring population over the past few decades — from less than 3 million in 1980 to more than 14 million today — poses a threefold threat to the city’s formerly robust fish stocks. The unchecked growth means increased competition among fishermen, greater consumer demand, and more heavily polluted water and highly urbanized coasts.

“Lüfer is a symbol of all we’ve lost and all we may lose,” says Koryürek. “These fish are a natural resource that is diminishing; protecting them needs to become a joint effort.”

Main photo: A fish market in Istanbul.  Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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White truffles for sale at the Alba White Truffle Fair. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Truffles and sex go together like Maria Callas and opera — and the good news is it’s a splendid year for the voluptuous white truffles of Alba, Italy. The bad news, it’s a poor year for that other essential component of northern Italian seduction, the equally famous Barolo and Barbera wines of Piedmont. It’s a yin-yang thing, a fine equilibrium that dictates the fortunes of hunters, gatherers and growers.

A cool, damp autumn seems to encourage the underground growth of Tuber magnatum pico, but it does little to create a superlative vintage in the immaculate vineyards that cover the rolling, UNESCO-listed slopes of the Langhe-Roero hills. And vice-versa.

Either way, the landscape is at its loveliest in the misty, fading light of a crisp fall day, the gardens bright with the last of the summer bedding. Vineyards glow like jewels: garnet, ruby, topaz and citrine. Yet every sweet hillside is also covered with a hard geometrical pattern of furrows and grooves like a giant corduroy blanket; a goldmine of viticulture exploited down to the very last grape.

Piedmont region’s wines

It took the vision and commercial acuity of the “Barolo Boys” about 50 years ago, to bring prosperity to the area by modernizing and merchandising the local wine until it became one of the most desirable labels in the world.

At the 84th Alba White Truffle Fair, which runs until Nov. 16, the talk was of truffle and wine harvests. The air was heady with the intriguing pungency of the former. The intense, head-spinning fragrance of truffles permeated the huge, packed tent. The truffle was in use everywhere, in salamis, sauces, creams, pasta, oils, cheese.

Tempting, but I was advised by one local that most products had little to recommend them. “Truffle oil is popular, and relatively cheap, but it is not the correct experience of the white truffle. It’s like buying out-of-season fruit.”

Her words regarding truffle oil were echoed by Carlo Petrini, president of the International Slow Food Movement, who recently wrote, “Let us stop coming up with new systems for preserving it so that it can be exported around the world. Lovers of good food can come here to eat what little there is, fresh, fragrant and perfumed. Let us stop, above all, palming off to a naive public that plethora of ‘truffle-flavored’ products engineered from synthetic chemicals.”

Truffle mythology is powerful; truffle actuality even more so.

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White truffles for sale at the White Truffle Fair in Alba, Italy. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Truffles as precious jewels

Top specimens were displayed under glass domes like precious jewels by truffle hunters. Daily prices can be checked on Tuber.it’s website. There are rumors of secret trading rooms, as well as midnight alleys, where the best-of-the-best would be sold to serious traders and shipped directly to Moscow and Tokyo, New York and Monte Carlo.

I held a lumpy, ugly white truffle the size of a grapefruit in the palm of my hand. There was no mistaking the intoxicating aroma and the exotic thrill that comes from possessing something, dug like a dirty diamond from the chocolate-colored earth and ancient oak trees, worth hundreds of dollars.

Prized white truffles, unlike black ones (Tuber melanosporum), cannot be farmed or cultivated. Although the white are also found in various parts of northern Italy, it is the charming, medieval town of Alba in Piedmont that propelled the strange underground mushrooms to worldwide fame.

It was at the first Alba White Truffle Fair 85 years ago that the trade was formalized. In a brilliant marketing coup, they later presented the first of many world-famous celebrities with an outsize truffle. The first, in 1949, was actress and international sex symbol Rita Hayworth, a fitting recipient.

It takes considerable expertise to properly assess the truffles: Their qualities are based on a matrix of color, shape, size and olfactory sensations — and personal preference.

Natale Romagnolo, a fifth-generation trifulau, or truffle hunter, and judge, described how truffle hunting is a passion verging on “illness.”

“You can say a truffle is simply a mushroom in the ground, but you don’t just buy a mushroom. … You buy something that relates to emotions and to women. It’s about good food, good wine, good company … ” he says, with a knowing glance.

Truffle hunting dogs

Truffles, known as “grey diamonds,” are hunted mostly at night with dogs, unlike the pigs used in other parts of Europe. Truffle dogs are highly valuable. And many of them are trained by Giovanni Monchiero at the Truffle Dog University in Roddi, established more than 130 years ago. Holder of the title, Magnificent Rector, Monchiero explains that he usually trains “taboj,” or mutts, not hunting dogs, which would be distracted by the presence of wild game. The key qualities he looks for in truffle-hunting dogs are obedience, a good sense of smell and stamina. Training takes time, love and care. It is a partnership between man and dog.

Eating the white truffle

» White truffles should never be cooked, rather simply shaved over the dish of choice. Black truffles are, by contrast, better cooked.

» In Piedmont, to allow the truffle to best express its complex, intense and overwhelming aroma, you'll find it used with fairly neutral dishes, such as tajarin (tagliarini or very thin and soft, golden noodles made with egg yolks), risotto, polenta or fried eggs. It also can be shaved over assone -- a raw heritage-breed Piedmontese beef, chopped with knives by hand -- or over fonduta, a fondue made with Fontina cheese.

In the grounds of the distinguished Cerreto vineyards, Monchiero demonstrated how his bright-eyed dog, Lila, could scent a ripe truffle from 50 yards, make a high-speed dash and start scrabbling like a four-legged excavator through the tawny leaves to unearth it. To stop her from eating or damaging the truffle, he had to dash after the dog, wrestle her out of the way, and then patiently unearth the precious lump with a specially designed hoe.

Time is of the essence. A mature truffle has a fleeting moment of perfection, starting to deteriorate every hour it is out of the ground. Many have tried to describe their aroma: the words used are honey, fermentation, garlic, hay, spicy, wet ground, ammonia. Nothing quite captures it. Perhaps the real magic is in our minds, and the pleasure it gives us.

In La Piola in Alba, as my plate of tajarin is covered in an abundant shower of shaved white truffle that flutters down on the pasta like greedy moths, I reflect on the words of the French writer Colette: “If I can’t have too many truffles, I’ll do without truffles.”

Main photo: Alba white truffles for sale at the Alba fair. Credit: Clarissa Hyman


Truffle lore

» Large truffles are not necessarily any better than small ones, but they are easier to shave over dishes.

» The best way to transport a truffle is covered in paper or a damp cloth and placed in a glass container. This way it may keep for about a week. Some suggest rice, but that can dry out the truffle.

» Despite the Latin name, the truffle is not a tuber but a mushroom that grows underground in symbiosis with the host tree roots.

» There are many different trees that host white truffles including various types of oak, poplar, willow, linden and hazelnut.

» The white truffle cannot be frozen as it will lose its perfume completely, and it ferments if kept in oil. Dehydrated truffles — experiments are going on in order to lengthen the shelf life of the truffle.

» The white truffle season in Piedmont runs from Sept. 21 to Jan. 31, and is at its peak in November. There are many truffle fairs across the region, but the Alba Fair is the main one of international standing.

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An Indonesion delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch

One major takeaway from Terra Madre 2014 was that that despite the unique culture and traditions that exist within indigenous communities across the world, we are all united by an undeniable web of interconnectedness.

Over and over again during the five-day event, you could see people bridging gaps and forging relationships over the ties that bind us, namely food and how it shapes communities and cultures.

Turin, Italy, was the site in late October of Slow Food’s Terra Madre, a biennial, global event. With a focus on indigenous communities and farmers, some 158 global food communities gathered to exchange ideas on sustainable agriculture, fishing and breeding with the goal of preserving taste and biodiversity.

It was powerful to witness this discovery of interconnectedness that exists despite the distances that separate various indigenous communities. Norman Chibememe, a farmer from Zimbabwe, said that before coming to Terra Madre he thought he was alone in the challenges he regularly encounters at home. “I’ve learned from my new friends from half way around the world that they, too, are working with the same challenges. I am going home with some new ideas of how to change things in my community,” Chibememe said.

Terra Madre unites people from across the globe

During workshops in the Indigenous Terra Madre salon and conversations at country stalls, people from indigenous communities engaged with each other and the public through a vibrant exchange of stories about the problems they face in their respective countries. A French couple I spoke with came to Terra Madre specifically to speak with delegates from African countries confronting security or health challenges. Unable to travel themselves to all the countries affected, Terra Madre gave them the opportunity to get an insider’s view on how food issues are affected by such conditions.

Participants were also surprised to discover non-food cultural similarities despite living on different continents. A Moroccan woman who produces argan oil stopped two young Sami women who had just arrived from their home in the Arctic to share her astonishment how certain elements of their traditional dresses were like those of the Amazigh people, also known as Berbers, of North Africa. From the color of their clothes to the threading used to the geometric patterns on their ankle coverings being identical to those used in making traditional Amazigh rugs, the similarities were striking.

This was the fifth visit to Terra Madre for Susana Martinez, a yacón farmer from Argentina who is proud to share her knowledge of this crisp, sweet-tasting tuber, also called a Peruvian ground apple, with those outside of Argentina. A farmer from Venezuela whose community has virtually lost all knowledge of how to work with yacón met Martinez and invited her to his region to teach younger farmers how to grow and process the plant. Shea Belahi, a farmer from Illinois who is looking for new crops to grow on her farm and is intrigued about the properties of yacón — it has low sugar levels, making it suitable for diabetics — discussed the growing conditions needed for yacon with Martinez. As she walked away, Martinez said these interactions are the magic of Terra Madre. They “help me in knowing that someone else cares about what I do,” she said.

The wealth of knowledge and the challenges faced by indigenous communities and global farmers, such as climate change, land-grabbing and resource management, were at the forefront of the five-day event and provided visitors the opportunity to gain new perspectives on issues concerning indigenous people around the world.

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The Northeast Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) booth serves as a part of the Indian Slow Food Delegation. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Phrang Roy, director of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, or NESFAS, discussed the need for a more inclusive approach that treats the custodians of traditional knowledge and modern-day researchers as equal and diverse knowledge holders. He said more than 350 million indigenous people populate the globe — a greater number than the population of Europe — and they form “a community of people connected to the land, with their own systems of connecting to nature. Basically, they are all agronomists.”

He announced that NESFAS, in partnership with Slow Food and the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, would be hosting the second Indigenous Terra Madre 2015 next fall in Megahalaya in northeast India, a region on the border of Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Under the theme of “The Future We Want: Indigenous Perspectives, Indigenous Activities,” the event plans to bring together representatives from more than 300 indigenous communities to showcase indigenous knowledge of local food systems and preserve biodiversity within their regions and discuss how to bring their knowledge and vision of food production into modern times.

The infectious energy, friendships and networks developed by the indigenous people and farmers at Terra Madre 2014 demonstrate there is an appetite for change growing among these communities and a global momentum to safeguard their wealth of diverse flavors and cultural knowledge to create a better world.

Main photo: An Indonesian delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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