Articles in Agriculture

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.

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

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

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

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

Pride in food

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

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

A culture of sharing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder

One of my best food friends is white pastry wheat. White refers to the tint of the bran — wheats are either white or red. Pastry means a soft wheat, one with low levels of gluten-forming proteins. Those proteins are what help build the gluten matrix when using hard or bread wheats; soft wheats make tender cakes and quick breads. The pancakes I make from Farmer Ground Flour’s organic, stone ground whole wheat pastry flour are the definition of perfect in my family, the pancake of request for my 11-year-old’s birthday. The pancake that means pancake and home.

Farmer Ground Flour is a mill that stone grinds organically grown New York State grains. Grain farmer Thor Oechsner is part owner in the mill; he and his fields, and millers Greg Mol and Neal Johnston, are great help as I try to understand flour from field to griddle.

Golden wheat heads, a couple of weeks before harvest. Credit: Amy Halloran

Golden wheat heads, a couple of weeks before harvest. Credit: Amy Halloran

My favorite wheat gets planted in the fall. Fall crops go in the ground in September or October, early enough for the seeds to grow a few inches before winter. Fall planting helps seeds get a head start on weed seeds that sit in the ground. Spring can be pretty wet, and hard for farmers to get in the field, so that’s another advantage of this habit. Grains take to this system pretty well, since they are the edible seeds of certain grasses, and much like a lawn, these grass crops go dormant.

Snow cover helps protect the crop. A certain amount of winterkill is expected in fall planted crops, but this past winter, things looked pretty dicey. In New York’s Finger Lakes region, plenty of snowstorms hit but the snow melted quickly. In low spots, that melt turned to ponds.

Beyond this local hint of doom, there was some general anxiety in the wheat world about supply and prices. By March, stores of North American organic wheat had dwindled. The 2013 wheat crop was limited by continued drought in the arid Southern Plains; regional supplies in the Northeast were limited by a very wet season. Larger organic mills were turning to Argentina for bread wheat. This fact, plus political pressures in Eastern Europe, created worry about what this year could bring for harvest. Late freezes hitting the Plains States during greenup, the time when fall planted grains start to grow, fueled my wonder.

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Soft white pastry wheat in April. Credit: Amy Halloran

Mid-April, I took a drive to Ithaca, N.Y., to see how my future pancake flour was doing. Amazingly, some of the fields were greening up quite nicely. Sure, there were spots where the plants did not survive, but those tan tips that sat over iced snow were getting crowded by green growth. What a delight to see.

This is what the field looks like now, a couple of weeks before harvest: a field of wheat rows, as American as a box of cereal. Look at those green stalks peaking through the gold heads. Ah, breakfast.

Why did this field and other fields recover? Winterkill is also known as winter survival. Plants that had enough room bounced back from the harsh conditions and grew well. Another factor was the plants having strong enough roots to withstand the pressures of temperature changes from winter through spring.

This tiny rye plant just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved. Credit: Amy Halloran

This frost-heaved rye plant lacked the roots to survive. Credit: Amy Halloran

This tiny rye plant (pictured right) didn’t make it. It just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved.

Winter survival is tricky. Too little growth and the earth kicks out the plant. Too much, and the long green leaves attract mold, or other smothering problems. The malting barley crop in New York suffered a 50% loss due to winterkill, which is understandable, as growers are just figuring out how to make this crop work. The state’s 2013 Farm Brewery Law, which ties licensing for a certain kind of brewery to use of state agricultural products, such as grains, hops and honey, has caused a bit of barley fever.

A work in progress

Growing wheat and barley outside of the grain belts is a work in progress. Grain farming and processing, like malting, concentrated in the Midwest, Plains States and Northwest in the late 19th and early 20th century; this consolidation wiped out knowledge and infrastructure for how to grow grain crops in the Northeast. Farms grow grains for dairies, but cows eat differently than we do. And they do not drink spirits or beer.

Growing grains for malting, distilling and flour markets is more complicated than growing for animal feed. These specialty markets need different seed varieties and fertilization practices to hit certain performance markers, like protein levels. Growing food grade grain also requires more cleaning, and careful post harvest handling and storage. The learning curve is steep as people switch from commodity production to community enterprises.

I’m lucky to have a window on these grain ventures, and see people cooperate as they try to figure out what works. Right now, my pancake-flour-in-the-making looks good. The crop isn’t in the bin yet; there’s still time for weather to wreak havoc. But the farmers and researchers I’ve talked to are optimistic. Yields will be down, but there will be wheat.

Main photo: Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder

 

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Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Travelers who spend more than a few weeks in Italy likely will find themselves around a local family’s dinner table, sipping homemade liqueur.

Initially invented for medicinal purposes by 13th-century Italian monks, liqueurs (liquore in Italian) have become a source of regional pride, with Italians still drinking and customizing those original recipes today.

In Montelupo, a small town located on the lush, hilly outskirts of Florence, a trio of Italian herbalists have spent the past 15 years sorting through the bounty of Tuscan gardens to create fresh, updated versions of this quintessential Italian drink.

The group, improbably called the Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese (Natural Mycological Group of Empoli), originally formed to go wild mushroom hunting. This being Tuscany, however, they quickly were drawn to the abundant wild herbs, flowers and fruit — lemons, kumquats and apricots – that thrive in their backyard gardens. That soon led the trio to developing liqueurs.

AUTHOR


Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

Limoncello, anise liqueur

Like all good Italians, founding members Pietro Terreni and Nicola Daraio grew up sipping anise liqueur at weddings and limoncello on visits to the Amalfi Coast. Member Andrea Heinisch, originally from Germany, enjoys limoncello and has been crafting variations of it since joining the group 10 years ago. For these three, making a liqueur presents a unique opportunity to be traditional and innovative at the same time.

Liqueur is typically made by infusing near-pure alcohol with natural flavors, then adding ingredients to sweeten the drink and dilute the alcohol content. Nearly every region in Italy produces a distinctive drink that uses local, seasonal fruits and herbs.

The simplicity of this basic liqueur recipe encourages creativity by even the most timid mixologist; and it is wonderfully adaptable to every environment and season.

Terreni sees the use of seasonal fruit as integral to the drink’s lingering aroma. “You have to pick your flavoring materials at the right moment,” he says, “because the summer sun and air all become part of the liqueur in the end.

“When I was little, we used to take fruit to our local pharmacy, where they would prepare it with pure spirits,” Terreni remembers. “Then, during winter when it got really cold, we would have a little glass of this liqueur with a few of the fruits or berries in it.”

Go natural

The group claims their liqueur blends retain their flavor and color longer than supermarket-made brands, because the group’s artisanal preparation methods call for the use of nonsynthetic flavors and colors. Natural ingredients hold up better once the bottles are opened. (Traditionally, Italians keep their liqueur in the freezer and pull it out when visitors arrive.)

Each member of the group has his or her own favorite recipes. For example, Daraio favors anything made with fennel (“good for digestion”) and a family recipe for orange-coffee liqueur. Heinisch has experimented with fruits as well as herbs that grow on her property. She recommends fresh mint (with about 1½ tablespoons of anise seeds), thyme (combine with 3 whole cloves, use equal measures of white wine and neutral alcohol and let it infuse for two months), rosemary (use white wine with 2 ounces of neutral alcohol, plus 2 teaspoons of lemon zest), and honey with a profusion of herbs (recipe below).

The three herbalists agree, however, that there is nothing quite like sipping homemade limoncello straight from the freezer after a leisurely lunch on a hot summer day. As the group surveyed the woods near Heinisch’s house, they contemplated ingredients for future concoctions, perhaps using rosehips and lavender. And that illustrates what makes a great liqueur: creativity, experimentation and locally grown ingredients.

Rather than sell what they make, the group exchanges batches — and recipes — with friends.

Tips from the experts

Advice for creating your own liqueur:

  1.  Use fruits, herbs and spices that are free of chemicals. It is best if these items are grown away from roads or grazing pastures, where they could be contaminated by vehicle exhaust, pesticides or animal waste.
  2.  Use ingredients that are in season, for maximum freshness.
  3.  Keep preparation areas and tools, including cutting boards, free of other flavors and chemicals. Jars and bottles should be made of glass and rinsed well. Make sure towels and filtering products (a cheesecloth or metal strainer are best) are cleansed of soap and bleach. (“When I first started,” Heinisch says, “I made the mistake of trying to filter with a regular, clean dish towel. The laundry soap dissolved with the alcohol, and the liqueur tasted like my soap.”)
  4.  Store liqueur in the freezer for best taste and texture.
  5.  In Italy, liqueur are usually made with 190-proof alcohol.

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From left, Andrea Heinisch, Nicola Daraio and Pietro Terreni discuss the art of infusing flavor into alcohol.

Cream of Wild Fennel Liqueur

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: About 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

This recipe comes from Nicola Daraio, who brought it to Tuscany from the southern Italian resgion of Basilicata. It tastes like caramel. Substitute water for the dairy and it is more refreshing but a little less indulgent, suitable for the end of a particularly large meal. Total time does not include 3 days to infuse flavor.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
  • Whole leaves and a few stalks of wild fennel; the leaves and stalks should just be covered by the alcohol
  • 4 cups pasteurized skim milk
  • 1 ⅔ cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash and dry the wild fennel. Place the fennel in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid. Cover the fennel with the alcohol and let sit for three days.
  2. Put the milk and sugar in a steel pan, bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, then let cool.
  3. Filter the infused alcohol, mix with the milk-and-sugar mixture, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

Lemon-Saffron Liqueur

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes (plus 15 days to infuse flavor)
Yield: About two quarts

Andrea Heinisch created her lemon-saffron version of limoncello as a winter counterpart to the traditional lemon-only recipe. The cinnamon and clove are classic holiday flavors, while the saffron balances out the tang of the lemons, creating a complex drink that warms you, even when poured straight from the freezer.

Ingredients

3 organic, in-season lemons
2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 whole clove
10 threads of saffron

For the simple syrup:

1¼ cup sugar
2½ cups water

Directions

  1. Wash the lemons, then zest them, taking care to get only the yellow rind, as the white pith is bitter.
  2. Place lemon peels and spices in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid and add the alcohol.
  3. Infuse for eight days in a dry, dark place, gently shaking the jar once a day.
  4. Make the simple syrup by boiling the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves.
  5. After eight days, add the syrup to the alcohol and lemon peels. Let mixture sit for another eight days in a cool, dry, dark place continuing to gently shake the jar once a day.
  6. Filter, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

 

Honey Herb Liqueur
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes (plus six days to infuse the herbs)
Total Time: 20 minutes (plus six day to infuse the herbs)
Yield: 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

Each Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese member has a variation of this liqueur, which recalls the drink’s original medicinal purpose. Consider this a boost for the immune system, with a sweet, herbal taste. As much as possible, use fresh herbs.

Ingredients

3½ cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
½ cup honey
6 basil leaves
5 St. John’s Wort leaves
6 culinary sage leaves
Leaves from 3 small stalks of rosemary
6 mint leaves
6 black tea leaves
6 lemon tree leaves
6 bay leaves
6 chamomile leaves
6 juniper berries
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the simple syrup:

3½ cups water
3 cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash the herbs carefully, place them in the alcohol for six days, turning the container a few times each day.
  2. After six days, make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, then add the honey as the mixture cools.
  3. Mix the liqueur mixture and the simple syrup, filter the infused alcohol, place in a fresh bottle, store in the freezer.

Main photo: Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

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Fighting Hunger: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa's St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson

We live in a time when child hunger operates undercover. We rarely see the images of sunken eyes and distended bellies that we commonly associate with hunger. Yet many of America’s children face the double blow of being undernourished and overfed. One in five is food insecure and one in three is overweight. They get plenty of calories, fat, sugar and salt in their daily diets, but not enough of the vitamins and minerals required for their growing bodies.

Such a complicated problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and FoodCorps aspires to be part of the solution. Our nationwide team of young adult leaders tries to provide kids access to “real food” that will help them grow up healthy. We do that by teaching kids about foods that are locally grown and nutritious, based on the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations.

In addition, we teach them how to cook such foods and grow them themselves in their school gardens. We also help introduce these foods into their school cafeterias since kids spend most of their time at school. Schools also happen to be where low-income children consume the most calories each day, so it’s a good place to begin fostering life-long healthy habits.

Postville, Iowa, the community I serve, calls itself the “Hometown to the World.” A small town in northeast Iowa surrounded by farmland, Postville is full of diversity with families from Mexico, Guatemala, Kenya and beyond. Almost 80 percent of the students served by the Postville Community School District receive free or reduced-price lunches. Knowing that so many families depend on these meals — and not knowing what foods are available at their homes –  makes the food served at school even more vital. It must be fresh, healthy and satisfying.

Nutrition education is one part of FoodCorps’ approach to solving both hunger and obesity. Iowa’s Department of Public Health offers a program called Pick a Better Snack. I visit 11 elementary classrooms each month to teach students about a new fruit or vegetable, often one that many of them have never tried. Through such encounters, students learn how fiber regulates their digestion and why they need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

In March, I offered the students samples of three vegetables: cauliflower, celery and purple cabbage. After telling one class that I couldn’t give them more because they were going to lunch right after, one girl proclaimed, “But we’re just trying to be healthy!”

Tracking food’s path from seed to plate

FoodCorps also tries to create a connection between children and the path food takes from seed to plate. Postville has a large community garden, an oasis in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields. A few community volunteers and I help kids from the 4H Club as they plant vegetables in the spring, maintain them through the summer and then, come fall, harvest them for the school lunch line. The kids have seen the kohlrabi they have harvested appear in the cafeteria’s “extras” line, which gives them a sense of accomplishment by providing real food for themselves and their classmates.

Finally, FoodCorps’ approach gives students the chance to actually eat foods grown by local farmers. This has prompted changes in school kitchens. In Postville, there has been a shift in the cafeteria climate: using scratch cooking instead of ready-to-eat. The kitchen staff no longer simply unwraps and reheats food. This requires more staff, more equipment, more time. Change has been slow; gone are the days of chicken nuggets and french fries, and at first, the kids complained.

Nowadays, though, I see them making connections that they may not have before. They know that the purple cabbage I serve them during snack time is the same kind that they tried during the Purple Power Wrap taste test last month, and that purple cabbage can be grown right in their community.

Hunger is a complicated issue that will require changes in our economy, politics and society. For hungry children, those things don’t matter in the short-term. But by working in the schools, where children often eat two of their meals and usually a snack or two, FoodCorps is helping educate them about making healthier choices as well as teaching them to grow a thing or two for themselves.

FoodCorps Service Member Ashley Dress won the 2014 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for her service site, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.

Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AmeriCorps, and a diverse array of private and public donors, including the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). NCAT is the host for FoodCorps in Iowa, working with local partners in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Decorah, Des Moines and Waterloo. Find out more about NCAT and the FoodCorps team in Iowa at www.facebook.com/FoodCorpsIowa or https://www.ncat.org/midwest/

Main photo: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa’s St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson

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Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

Though I’d been anticipating it for weeks, it was while sitting at a stoplight that the intoxicating aroma of linden flowers (Tilia spp.) first hit my nose. I jerked my head around, craning over my shoulder and peering out the windows in a desperate attempt to locate the tree whose flowers supply my favorite herbal tisane.

No doubt the people in the surrounding cars thought I was nuts. If only they knew that the tree with the fiercely fragrant flowers could provide them with a divine beverage, they too would be thrilled by the scent.

As my years as a forager roll on, I become clearer about which crops are worth my time to harvest. I try to live on wild edible plants for as much of the year as possible, no easy task in the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season where I live in Colorado.

This means I have to work hard during the short period of growth, not only to harvest my favorite plants in great enough quantity to get me through the off-season, but also to preserve those plants, whether by drying, freezing, or canning.

As my go-to beverage, linden is high atop my list of desirable wild foods. Last year, I picked and dried enough linden flowers to fill a laundry basket. It wasn’t enough. In late winter, thirsting for my favorite tea, I pillaged the linden stocks of two friends.

Fragrant foraging in the shade

Also known as basswood or lime, linden is a deciduous tree with leaves shaped like slightly crooked hearts. In my area, they are used frequently as ornamental trees, mostly likely for their fragrant flowers and generous shade. The bees are particularly fond of linden, and one can often locate the trees by the sound of buzzing bees.

When the leaves first emerge and are still tender, they can be eaten in salads and sandwiches. The flowers clusters grow along with a long pale green leaf-like structure, known as a bract. When harvesting, pinch off the bract and flower clusters of linden. Since the trees flower abundantly, it is often most efficient to grab several flower clusters, avoiding the leaves, and strip them off all at once.

As with all flowers, to maximize fragrance, and therefore flavor, it is best the harvest linden flowers in full sun. It may sound obvious, but on a hot day, by all means, stand in the shade of the tree while harvesting flowers. It will make a difference when your arms tire.

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Linden tree leaf and flower. Credit: Wendy Petty

As always, be sure to forage in the cleanest possible location. Avoid linden trees that grow alongside busy streets or in areas that might have been sprayed with chemicals.

Herbalists know that although it is gentle enough for children and seniors alike, linden is strong medicine, soothing and demulcent. Throughout the scorching growing season, I enjoy cold infusions of linden flowers, which help me to deal with the heat and stay moisturized from the inside out. By winter, the sight of delicate linden flowers floating in my teacup call to mind the long days of summer.

Turn linden into teas and cocktails

With experience as a forager, I’ve given up commercial teas in favor of my wild herbal blends. Not only does this save me money, but I have the reassurance of knowing exactly where my tea came from. I’ve also become quite skilled as a drink-maker, despite initially not knowing much about the subject.

Even though I couldn’t really sniff out a great glass of wine, and don’t know the difference between whisky and whiskey, I make amazing concoctions and cocktails that are hits both in my house and at social events. As a wildcrafter, I have the advantage of bringing truly unique flavors to any party.

If you’ve got a tasty wild edible plant on your hands, I encourage you to experiment with ways to preserve it. Infuse it into vodka, later adding sugar syrup to taste if needed. Try it in vinegar, or in a shrub, which is an aged mix of infused vinegar and sugar. Combine it with whichever fruit is in season. Dabble in making homemade bitters. This year, I’ve got an experimental batch of linden vinegar going, as well as a jar of linden and lemon balm in gin.

Whether you are new to linden or and old pro, you can’t beat classic linden tisane and honey infused with heady linden flowers.

Linden Honey

Pick off the freshest linden flowers (leaving behind stems and bracts), enough to loosely fill a jar. Pour fresh honey over the flowers, and leave them for at least three weeks in a warm place. Though there is no need to do so, if you wish to strain out the linden flowers after the honey has infused, set the linden honey in a sunny windowsill for a day, then strain out the flowers. The candied flowers can be enjoyed atop ice cream or cake. The floral-scented honey can be the genesis of myriad recipes. This recipe is so beautiful, you may want to consider making several extra jars of linden honey to use as gifts.

Cold-Infused Linden Tisane

Ingredients

1 cup loosely packed linden flowers (fresh or dried), bracts included

20 small wild rose heads (substitute one green tea bag)

½ gallon lukewarm water

Directions

1. Add the linden flowers, roses, and water to a ½ gallon mason jar. Leave the jar on a counter for 8 hours, then refrigerate it until cold.

2. Strain out the flowers, squeezing with your hands. Serve over ice, and with a drizzle of linden honey if you prefer sweet tea.

Linden Sparkler

Ingredients

½ cup cold-infused linden tisane

¼ cup white grape juice

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 ounce gin

½ cup seltzer water

Directions

Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.

Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

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