Articles in Agriculture

A crate of Ojai Pixies ready for purchase. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Beaches and show biz bring coastal Southern California its fame, fortune and visitors. For many they represent the epitome of California living. But head inland and you’ll find that agriculture is the star of the show. Even though farm country isn’t Hollywood, it has a way of making its own magic. Get your hands on an Ojai Pixie and you’ll understand what I mean.

No, I’m not talking about a cartoon fairy with sparkly dust. I’m talking about Pixie tangerines. Approximately 25,000 Pixie trees are rooted in Ojai Valley, about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles; their fruits make up less than 1% of the state’s tangerine crop, yet slowly but surely they’re making a name for themselves in faraway places.

The roots of Pixie pride

A Pixie fresh off the tree. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

A Pixie fresh off the tree. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Sweet, seedless and easy to peel, Pixies typically begin ripening in March and hang around through May or June. Folks here love these tasty fruits so much they host a four-week festival dedicated to celebrating their natural sugar rush: April is Ojai Tangerine Pixie Month, when Pixie pride is at its strongest and tastiest.

A tour around Friend’s Ranch will teach you everything you ever needed to know and then some about Pixies. Five generations of Friends have lived and farmed in Ojai (and the sixth is currently growing up in the orchards, where they spend time playing and tasting).

A grower’s glory

In the groves at Friend's Ranch. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

In the groves at Friend’s Ranch. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Family members Emily T. Ayala and her brother George Thacher take visitors of all ages into the orchard to taste the very sweet fruit of their labor. Guests are invited to pick off the trees and taste as they learn about the Pixie and what makes it different from other tangerines. Seedless and a snap to peel, Pixies can vary in size and appearance, but in general they are small, 1-3 inches, with easily separated segments. “We won’t pick it if it doesn’t taste good,” says Ayala.

Getting messy is encouraged. Thacher carries a handy backpack with everything you could possibly need for your time among the trees, even baby wipes to tackle the inevitable sticky fingers.

“It’s just a fun place to be,” he says.

Pixie tangerine dreams

A visual feast of Ojai fruits and flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

A visual feast of Ojai fruits and flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

For such a little fruit, it seems to have brought the community of Ojai together in a big way. Take a walk through its small downtown and you’ll see signs everywhere: in clothing stores and boutiques, book stores and restaurants, tabletop displays that include tangerines mixed in with the flowers. 

Every chef at every restaurant has a favorite way of showing off the fruit. Family-run Knead Baking Co. is famous among locals and tourists alike for its citrus syrup cake with fresh Pixie juice. Throughout April, Ojai Valley Brewery’s White Pixie Ale will be poured at Azu California Tapas.

If you want to try your hand at creating a Pixie-inspired dish, you can juice up a weekend getaway with a cooking class at the Lavender Inn, where you’ll prepare such dishes as citrus-marinated whitefish crudo and tangerine chicken. Save room for the Pixie-fennel shortbread served with tangerine-orange curd. Ojai’s Mediterranean climate is ideal for picnics, so after your lesson, you can enjoy your creations at a table in the inn’s sunny garden.

As good for cocktails as cuisine

Sunshine in a glass. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Sunshine in a glass. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Craft cocktails at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa take on a citrus theme all season; from whiskey and gin to tequila and vanilla-flavored vodka, it’s amazing what happens when you add a little squeeze of tangerine juice. The Pixology Cocktail Class includes a demonstration and sampling of two cocktails, including margaritas that pack a tasty punch. Pixies have also squeezed their way into the resort’s spa, where Pixie Tangerine Body Scrub and a pampering Body Polish Spa Treatment are available from March through June when the tangerines are harvested.

Drinking in the view

A view of the Ojai Valley. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

A view of the Ojai Valley. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Work off all those Pixie calories with a power hike; Shelf Road is a quick 15-minute walk from downtown. The 1.5-mile trail is mostly level and easy to walk, run or bike and delivers great views. Expect a friendly dog or two. Citrus trees hang over the trail fences and all fruit in reach is fair game: Peels scattered along the way prove outdoor enthusiasts eat well along the trail — as everywhere else in Ojai.

Note: Dana’s trip was hosted by the Ojai Visitors Bureau, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own.

Main photo: A crate of Ojai Pixies ready for purchase. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann 

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The Chablis vineyards of 2014 have produced a wonderful vintage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

2014 is a great vintage in Chablis. Although June was hot and sunny, July and August were cooler than usual. As in so many years, things were not looking great at the beginning of September in this region of France, but once again the vintage was saved by a dry, sunny September, ensuring perfect conditions for the harvest. And the result is wine — now just being released — that has the razor-sharp acidity and flinty minerality that is the benchmark of all good Chablis, wines with a purity of fruit that will develop in bottle over a number of years.

What follows could be described as my shopping list. The premiers and grands crus of Chablis offer great value, compared to some of the more prestigious names of the Côte d’Or.

Chablis, Cuvée Chatillon, Domaine des Hâtes

Pierrick Laroche, who established his estate in 2010, already has a strong vintage in 2014. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Pierrick Laroche, who established his estate in 2010, already has a strong vintage in 2014. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

This is a relatively new estate, with a first vintage in 2010, when Pierrick Laroche took the family vines out of the cooperative. Chatillon is a new cuvée, just 2.4 acres of 45-year-old vines in the village of Maligny, with more depth and weight than his basic Chablis, with a small percentage of wine fermented in oak, and given 15 months élevage.

Chablis Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Gilbert Picq

Didier Picq now runs the family estate begun by his father. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Didier Picq now runs the family estate begun by his father. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

A wine of great concentration with balancing minerality coming from vines that are more than 60 years old. They adjoin the premier cru vineyard of Vaucoupin and the difference between the two is pretty imperceptible. This is family estate, with a first bottling by Gilbert Picq in 1981. These days, it is his son, Didier, who makes the wine, representing a shift in two generations from polyculture to viticulture and from selling wine in bulk to bottle.

Chablis 1er cru, Côte de Léchet, Domaine des Malandes

Lyne Marchive, a member of an old Chablis family, produces steely, flinty wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Lyne Marchive, a member of an old Chablis family, produces steely, flinty wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Lyne Marchive is a member of an old Chablis family, the Tremblays, and she has firm ideas about how Chablis should taste. It must have a purity of fruit, with stony minerality. And her Côte de Léchet, from the left bank of the river Serein, above the village of Milly, is just that, steely and flinty, with enough structure to sustain 5 or 10 years aging in bottle.

Chablis 1er cru l’Homme Mort, Domaine Adhémar et Francis Boudin

Francis Boudin and his father, Adhémar, are among the venerable wine growers of Chablis. Credit : Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Francis Boudin and his father, Adhémar, are among the venerable wine growers of Chablis. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Adhémar Boudin is now 95 and one of the venerable wine growers of Chablis — I always think his name befits that of a crusading knight. These days it is his son, Francis, who makes the wine, and they were the first to separate their vines of l’Homme Mort from the much larger cru of Fourchaume. Compare the two and l’Homme Mort is firmer and flintier, and almost austere, while Fourchaume is a little richer and fuller on the palate.

Chablis 1er cru Vaillons, Domaine William Fèvre

The talented winemaker Didier Seguier plays an important part at Domaine William Fèvre. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

The talented winemaker Didier Seguier plays an important part at Domaine William Fèvre. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

William Fèvre played an important part in the expansion of the vineyards of Chablis, and his estate boasts vines from virtually all the grand crus. In 1998 he sold to the champagne house of Henriot, who also own Bouchard Père et Fils, and the estate has gone on to even greater things with the talented winemaker Didier Seguier. I could have chosen virtually any of Didier’s wines in 2014, even his Petit Chablis, but have opted for the firm, flinty Vaillons with its elegant lift on the finish. Although a small proportion of the wine is fermented in old barrels, you are simply not aware of the oak impact on the palate, other than the addition of a little more weight and body.

Chablis grand cru les Clos Domaine Jean-Paul Droin

Benoit Droin, son of founder Jean-Paul, now makes the wine at an estate going back to the beginning of the 19th century. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Benoit Droin, son of founder Jean-Paul, now makes the wine at an estate going back to the beginning of the 19th century. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

This is another old family estate, going back to the beginning of the 19th century. These days it is Benoit, Jean-Paul’s son, who makes the wine, and on a visit to Chablis a couple of years ago, I was introduced to the 16th generation, Louis, in a stroller. Jean-Paul was enthusiastic about aging Chablis in new oak, whereas Benoit exercises a more restrained and subtle hand in the cellar, to very good effect. As for Benoit’s 2014s, I find it difficult to choose between Grenouilles, the smallest of the grands crus, with its elegant stylish fruit, and les Clos, the largest and generally richer and more powerful. Both have an underlying elegance, but Grenouilles is more ethereal, while les Clos is more substantial. Both will be delicious in about 10 years’ time.

The 2014 vintage is so good, that I could effortlessly select another six wines.

Main photo: The Chablis vineyards of 2014 have produced a wonderful vintage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand. See more of  Jon Wyand’s photographs in his latest book, “Corton.”

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Podere Forte's vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

If you think of Tuscany and its wines, it is the famous names that immediately come to mind: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri. But Tuscany is so much more than those. There are all manner of lesser-known wines off the beaten track.

I recently spent a couple of days in the Orcia valley, an area sandwiched between the vineyards of Montalcino and Montepulciano, with a river that rises at Monte Cetona and flows into the Ombrone. The Orcia DOC was recognized in 2000, and in 2004 the whole valley was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As for most of the red wines of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the dominant variety, often blended with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There are now about 40 wine estates in the 13 villages of the Orcia valley, with an impressive level of quality and just waiting to be discovered. Here are five that are well worth the detour.

Fattoria del Colle

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is the property of Donatella Cinelli and Carlo Gardini. Donatella’s family has long been part of the wine scene of Montalcino, with her brother now running Fattoria dei Barbi, but Fattoria del Colle is where Donatella makes her mark outside Montalcino. She has about 81 acres of vines near the village of Trequanda and makes three red wines, not to mention Vin Santo, which is an essential part of every classic Tuscan estate.

Leone Rosso is Sangiovese with 40 percent Merlot, making for riper, fleshier flavors. Cenerentola, or Cinderella, is Sangiovese with 35 percent Foglia Tonda, an old Tuscan grape variety that almost disappeared. Donatella has played a large part in its successful revival. And then there is Il Drago e le Otto Colombe, a blend of Sangiovese with some Merlot, as well as 20 percent of an Umbrian grape variety, Sagrantino. The name of the wine refers to the fact that the estate is run by women, the doves, with just one man, or dragon, Donatella’s husband, Carlo. It makes an amusing aside. But Donatella has a serious focus; a fellow winegrower described her as the anima, or driving force, of the Val d’Orcia.

Podere Forte

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is a relatively new estate, in Tuscan terms, for it was created in 1997 by Pasquale Forte, a businessman from Calabria. From one small purchase in 1997, he has developed a 416-acre estate, including 25 acres of vines (in addition, there are olive trees, extensive woodlands and land for rearing animals).

Sangiovese is the core variety, with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. They aim for self-sufficiency and even have a restaurant, the very stylish Osteria Perillà, in the nearby village of Castiglione d’Orcia, where you can enjoy the produce of the estate. They are moving toward biodynamic principles and paying enormous attention to the condition of the soil, with advice from the leading expert in the field, Claude Bourguignon.

A drive around the vineyards offered breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia, with the autumn sunshine reflecting on golden vines. The cellar can only be described as state-of-the-art, with several sorting tables, vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels.

They make three wines. Petruccino, a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Merlot with 14 months’ oak aging, has a ripe fleshiness from the Merlot, balanced with freshness from the Sangiovese. More serious is Petrucci, a pure Sangiovese, described as their flagship wine, with aging in new oak. The third wine of the range is single-vineyard Guardiavigna, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 was drinking particularly well, with elegance and balance.

Olivi-Le Buche

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This estate was developed by Giuseppe Olivi, who produces an eclectic range of wines from an equally eclectic selection of grape varieties, namely Sangiovese, the key Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, and Pugnitello, another Tuscan variety that has been revived in recent years. His flagship wine is I Puri, a varietal wine that changes from year to year, depending on which grape variety is the absolute best in that particular vintage. In 2009 it was Merlot and in 2010 Sangiovese, with a fine expression of the variety. Unusually for the Orcia valley, they also have some white varieties, Verdicchio, Viognier and Sauvignon, making a fragrant white wine with some stony minerality.

Podere Albiano

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is an enchanting spot, with views of Monte Amiata and the small town of Pienza. The almost abandoned property was bought in 1999 by Ada Becheri and Alberto Turri, and they began planting vines in 2002. Until 2008, they merely sold their grapes and did some experimental microvinifications. The following year, they built a neat compact cellar and now they make a convincing range of wines that amply illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley, with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying proportions. Oak aging is essential to them all.

Citto, from all four varieties, is elegant and cedary; Ciriè is Sangiovese and Merlot, with some fleshy fruit; Tribòlo is a pure Sangiovese, and a riserva, which requires 24 months of aging. In fact, it has spent 30 months in small barrels, with some lovely elegant sour cherry fruit and just the right amount of oak. And finally there is Albiano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just a touch of Petit Verdot. This is riper and immediately more international in flavor, while still retaining the benchmark elegance of Podere Abiello.

Marco Capitoni

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

Marco’s first vintage was 2001. He has developed the vineyards of an old family estate to make two wines: Capitoni, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese with some Merlot, and Frasi, which comes from a 3.2-acre vineyard planted in1973 that is mainly Sangiovese, with Canaiolo and Colorino. The three varieties are all mixed up in the vineyard and consequently fermented together, then aged in large wood for two years. A vertical tasting of Le Frasi from 2010 to 2005 illustrated the vintage variations. But the first things you see in Marco’s cellar are two large amphorae, for he is experimenting with Sangiovese in amphora.

The flavors are fresh and perfumed, with elegant red fruit and potential, rather like Val d’Orcia, which is a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.

Main photo: Podere Forte’s vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

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Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

It’s an old story — you’ve heard it before, and not just from me — but it’s coming around again. Predictably, just as U.S. specialty markets begin to trumpet the arrival of fresh new-harvest, extra virgin olive oil comes the warning that it ain’t what it seems.

According to journalist Tom Mueller, speaking on the popular CBS News program “60 Minutes,” an astonishing 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the United States does not meet the standards for extra virgin.

That statement requires some clarification. To be characterized as extra virgin, legal parameters must be met. They are set by the International Olive Council, and they are liberal. The oil, for instance, must have only 0.8 percent free oleic fatty acid and a peroxide content of 20 milliequivalents, or meq.

But there’s more. To qualify as extra virgin, an oil must be free of defects, with perfect flavor and aroma. And that’s where a lot of extra virgin oil on sale in the U.S. falls down, usually because it is too old (Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age.) or has been exposed to damaging light, heat and/or atmosphere. The finest extra virgin will deteriorate very quickly. I know firsthand because once in Tuscany I deliberately exposed a glassful of extra virgin, milled just days earlier from my own olives. Within a week of exposure, it was unrecognizable, pale in color and with almost no flavor or aroma except for the slight development, as yet inchoate, of rancidity.

Much of the 80% of substandard extra virgin oil cited by Mueller (if indeed the figure is accurate, which I tend to doubt) was probably legally produced, bottled and shipped. But once it left the producer’s hands, all bets were off.

Buyer beware

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Let me give a disturbing example: In my local Whole Foods I bought a bottle of oil from a Sicilian producer whom I know well, one who makes his award-winning product with scrupulous care. And it shows: The oil has a robust flavor you associate with new oils made from barely mature olives and picked just 12 to 24 hours before pressing. Yet, the oil I purchased was pale yellow, indicating exposure to too much light, and it was unmistakably rancid, so much so I had to spit it out at the first taste.

So buyer beware, or caveat emptor, as they said back in Rome.

The conclusion of this somewhat misguided “60 Minutes” report was simple: The problem with Italian olive oil is a creation — like so many Italian problems — of the Mafia, a catch-all for everything wrong with Italy. And we Americans, who sometimes seem to fear the Mafia as much as we fear ISIS, certainly don’t want to give any support, financial or otherwise, to the dons. So should we all stop buying Italian olive oil?

Hang on a minute. If Italy is ground zero for olive oil fraud, the country is also recognized as ground zero for fraud protection, with not one but three national police forces responsible: the Carabinieri (like state police only national), the Guardia di Finanza (the tax police) and the Corpo Forestale, park rangers who also have the responsibility of investigating counterfeit foods and pursuing anti-Mafia activities. It was the Carabinieri in Turin last November who charged seven top olive oil companies with commercial fraud, among them Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and Coricelli. All were accused of selling as extra virgin, at extra virgin prices, oils that barely qualified as second-tier virgin, resulting in a 30% rip-off on the price.

Do the names sound familiar? They should. All these brands are in wide distribution outside Italy (as well as within), and especially in the U.S. through supermarkets and big-box stores. Although media have targeted the brands as “Italian,” in fact Carapelli, Sasso and Bertolli, which all began life a century or more ago as Italian family companies, are now owned by the Spanish multinational Deoleo. On its website, Deoleo promotes itself as “the world leader in the olive oil market.” That’s no stretch — Deoleo owns seven of the most widely sold olive oils in the world, including the abovementioned.

As frauds go, I have to confess, I don’t find this one all that shocking. Selling oil that barely reaches the cheap virgin qualification as more expensive extra virgin? It’s a bit like selling cheap toilet water as Chanel No. 5, and it’s tempting to fault consumers for their ignorance. If you can’t tell the difference between eau de toilette and a Chanel classic, it’s your problem, honey, not mine. Nonetheless, fraud is fraud. While this may be fairly entry-level fraud, it is still deceptive. And illegal. And possibly dangerous to the health of people who consume a great deal of what they believe is heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil.

The core of the problem is that, even in Italy and other regions known for producing fine oil, most consumers, including experienced chefs, have little or no idea what top-quality extra-virgin olive oil ought to taste like. Here’s a simple tip: It should leave your mouth feeling clean, not the least bit greasy, and it should have the fresh, herbal fragrance and flavor of just-cut grass. You’ve never actually tasted fresh-cut grass? Get out there behind the lawn mower and try it. It’s not going to kill you!) The flavor and aroma of fine, fresh olive oil can get a lot more subtle than that, and experienced tasters will detect nuances, from roasted nuts to citrus to green tomatoes and tomato leaves, but basically if you keep in mind the adjectives fresh, grassy, herbal, clean, you’ll be on the right track.

What to look for in olive oil

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

A well-made olive oil will have a good balance of three basic characteristics: the fruity flavors of sound, healthy olives, and the bitterness and piquancy (pepperiness) that are indications of the presence of antioxidants that make olive oil the fat you want on your table for all its great health benefits. What should be avoided is oil that has a flat, tired flavor, that tastes of rancidity, that leaves your mouth feeling coated with fat or that tastes like a jar of commercial tapenade that was opened three weeks ago and got lost in the back of the refrigerator.

Fortunately, now is a perfect time to educate your palate with the outstanding flavors of fresh, well-made olive oil. From the Mediterranean — especially Italy — and from California, producers are rushing olio nuovo, new-harvest oil, to market. It is expensive, but worth investing in, if only to give you a firm base-line sense of what excellence is all about. Once you’ve tasted it, you will never again mistake bad oil for good.

Here are just a few I have tasted and liked. Please note these are not by any means the extent of fine extra virgin olive oils; these are specifically new oils that I have tasted recently.

From Gustiamo in New York:

Pianogrillo from Sicily, $38.25 for 500 milliliters.

Tratturello from Molise, $44.50 for 750 milliliters.

Rio Grifone, organic from Tuscany, $39.50 for 500 milliliters.

From Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California:

Séka Hills, top-ranked Californian oil, $18 for 250 milliliters.

Titone, award-winning Sicilian organic, $28 for 250 milliliters.

Olio Verde from Sicily, single cultivar, nocellara del Belice, $38 for 500 milliliters.

From Olio2go in Fairfax, Virginia:

Capezzana from Tuscany, $44.50 for 500 milliliters.

Frescobaldi from Tuscany, with the prestigious Laudemio seal, $32.95 for 250 milliliters.

Villa Zattopera from Sicily, single cultivar, tondo Iblea, $36.95 for 500 milliliters.

Direct from the producer, California Olive Ranch:

COR Limited Reserve, $19.99 for 500 milliliters.

Main photo: Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for ITC Hotels, champions a greener approach. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chefs can play an important role in the fight against climate change by helping to reduce carbon emissions and sourcing local foods, even when working in luxury hotels.

Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for the eco-award-winning Indian group ITC Hotels, is a champion for a sustainable, greener approach to dining. He oversees the food for all 11 of the company’s Luxury Collection hotels, many of which have multiple restaurants within them.

Showcasing traditional ingredients

Finger millet and charoli nut pancakes are on the breakfast menu at the ITC hotels, Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Finger millet and charoli nut pancakes are on the ITC hotel breakfast menu in Delhi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“Each ITC hotel maintains a connection to its region through food and architecture,” he says. “In the case of our local foods, we are working alongside Slow Food to showcase forgotten grains and traditional ingredients that can be sourced nearby. In Delhi, for instance, our breakfast offering includes finger millet and charoli nut pancakes with aloe vera and black currant relish, as well as a complex porridge made from seven ancient grains. You can’t be competitive today if you’re not practicing sustainability.”

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the last in a series. Previous stories:

»  Native cultures push for sustainable food solutions

»  The fight to preserve traditional pastureland

» In India, remote villages hold fast to food traditions

ITC is the world’s largest green luxury company and has achieved platinum-level status with the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The hotels recycle their water and solid waste while producing 70 percent of their energy from wind, sun and other renewables.

Gill, a Sikh and lifelong vegetarian, recently participated in Indigenous Terra Madre, held in Shillong, in the northeastern Indian region of Meghalaya. The event brought together representatives from food-making communities around the globe to share knowledge and strengthen connections. He was there with other Indian members of Slow Food’s Chefs’ Alliance, a network of international chefs committed to biodiversity and local food sourcing.

“Food can feed our minds, bodies and souls, but only if it’s ethically sourced,” he says. “In India we also believe that food can’t be nutritious if it’s not tasty, and that it should be a balance of the six tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent. You must have some of each at every meal. That’s why it’s important to know how to use spices, working with whole spices and only grinding them as they are needed to retain maximum flavor.”

Luxury and sustainability

The Grand Bharat, just outside of Delhi, is an award-winning ITC destination hotel with four restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The Grand Bharat, just outside of Delhi, is an award-winning ITC destination hotel with four restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Gill has plenty of opportunity to expand these ideas in his busy schedule. In Delhi, where the group has several high-end hotels, Gill works closely with the executive chefs of each hotel, as well as with ITC’s state-of-the art training facility.

Not only does the Hospitality Management Institute have full amenities — from teaching kitchens to lecture halls and IT rooms — but trainees get to fine-tune their skills at the five-star Grand Bharat hotel that opened in 2014 in the countryside just south of Delhi. It is already considered one of the world’s top luxury hotels.

“The Grand Bharat was a dream project. It was designed from the ground up, with lots of space, so we were able to include a large farm for growing herbs and vegetables for our own use, as well as construct windmills and solar power stations to supply its energy,” Gill said. Other projects support women in the hotel business, local farmers and animal husbandry practices.

Chef focuses on modern fusion, traditional cuisine

Naan bread bakes in the tandoor oven at Bukhara restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Naan bread bakes in the tandoor oven at Bukhara restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The food within the hotel restaurants varies in style. The Grand Bharat’s four restaurants showcase modern fusion dishes as well as traditional Indian cuisine, like the succulent Mewati barbecue specialities. At the Hotel Maurya, in the heart of New Delhi, Bukhara restaurant has won numerous awards — including a place in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list — for traditional Indian food cooked in tandoor ovens. Bukhara, which has been open for 35 years, also offers a complex lentil dal that is simmered for 18 hours and some of the city’s greatest naan breads.

Chef Gill is particularly excited about the Royal Vega restaurant in ITC’s recently opened Grand Chola hotel in Chennai. “As a committed vegetarian, I’ve finally had the opportunity to create a high-end vegetarian restaurant, something I had always dreamed of doing,” he said. “Many Indians from all walks of life are vegetarian, yet ambitious vegetarian restaurants are few and far between. So this project is providing me with great happiness.”

Main photo: Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for ITC Hotels, champions a greener approach. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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Villagers dance at the Beh Dienkhlam festival in Mosakhia as men carry a life-sized oxen effigy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The northeastern Indian region of Meghalaya is rich in native food traditions. Sandwiched between Bangladesh and Bhutan, and with Myanmar to its east, Meghalaya is a lush, hilly area of forests and lakes, with high rainfall, spectacular waterfalls and “living” bridges woven from trees that attract local tourism. Yet many of its villages are remote, with few main roads or other means of access.

Their inaccessibility has helped preserve many traditional food customs, from rice growing to beekeeping.

Keeping the traditional ways

Women bundle freshly cut rice for threshing in Mosakhia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Women bundle freshly cut rice for threshing in Mosakhia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“Our region has been proud to host this year’s Indigenous Terra Madre,” said Phrang Roy, chairman of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS). The event brought 600 members of international indigenous food-making communities together in the city of Shillong for a five-day meeting. “It offered us a chance to showcase the many foods and traditions of the indigenous Khasi communities that are still well-preserved in Meghalaya and its neighboring region, Nagaland.”

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the third in a series.

» Part 1: Native cultures push for sustainable food solutions

» Part 2: The fight to preserve traditional pastureland

» Part 4: How Slow Food’s philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India’s "greenest" luxury hotel group

During the conference, the delegates were invited to visit some of the villages to experience these customs firsthand.

In Mosakhia, a village of 94 households in the Jaintia Hills so small it’s not on Google maps, a large crowd gathered to greet the visitors. They re-enacted Beh Dienkhlam, a colorful food festival that is usually held in July. During the festival, two life-size oxen effigies are raised on a large wooden platform and carried in increasingly rapid circles as the population rushes behind them, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of loud drumbeats.

“Its purpose is to drive away epidemics during the rainy growing season,” explained H.H. Morhmen, a NESFAS director in that area. “With their brooms the villagers sweep the evil spirits away.”

A native variety of nutritious brown rice, rymbai, is grown in the small rice terraces around Mosakhia that the villagers harvest in November, the women cutting it and the men threshing it by hand.

An ancient method of beekeeping

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong shows his unusual beehive, made of a hollowed trunk.Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong shows his unusual beehive, made of a hollowed trunk.Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong demonstrated his unusual hives. Made of hollowed-out sections of tree trunks (of dieng maleng or dieng shyrngang wood), the hives are positioned in the surrounding forests and in natural rock crevices. They attract local varieties of yellow or black bees.

Khongiong, a cheerful, sprightly 50-something, has been a beekeeper for 37 years but never uses any protection when working with his bee families. He pulled a large chunk of honeycomb from one of the hives barehanded, simply blowing the bees that were on it gently away. The honey was exquisite: With the delicate floral notes of a citrus honey, it maintained its depth and mineral intensity long after it was eaten. Only 12 people still continue this ancient method of beekeeping.

Fish that’s a delicacy

Fish are smoked for several hours beside the fire in the rural village of Umladkhur. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Fish are smoked for several hours beside the fire in the rural village of Umladkhur. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Nearby, the equally rural village of Umladkhur is reached by a dirt road through rice paddies and forests. Alma Mulat squats outside her house by a hose of clean, running water as she washes a batch of fish. When she’s satisfied they’re cleanly gutted, she drives a pointed bamboo stake through each fish, attaching them firmly with cane knots. She carries the fish down to the smokehouse behind her dwelling and smokes them for three to four hours using wood from the local otsyiah tree.

“We call these khabah in our native language,” she said, pointing to chunky fish in the carp family. “My grandmother and ancestors did this smoking too, back when our rivers were clean. But 40 years ago surface coal mining began in this area, and our rivers became poisoned and the fish died. Now we buy fish from a nearby region, though the mining has recently been stopped and river life is gradually returning.”

Smoked fish from this and Thangbuli village are a delicacy in Meghalaya, and Mulat and other women take them to market at Jowai to supplement their families’ incomes.

Going to market

Shillong has one of India's largest and most colorful markets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Shillong has one of India’s largest and most colorful markets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Back in Shillong, we visit one of India’s largest and most fascinating food markets. Built in colonial times, it covers a hill in the town with steep, narrow alleys, each filled with boxed stalls of local produce vendors. They come to a pinnacle in the large, open square at the top where brightly colored foods and fabrics compete for the visitor’s eye.

The maket — and the street-food vendors who surround it — showcase the many local and native plants and grains that contribute to the diets of the people of Meghalaya.

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Consumers globally are willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, according to a recent study. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

With ubiquitous food porn and hyped health headlines, 2015 was the year of sizzle over substance. At Oldways, a 25-year-old nonprofit celebrating cultural food traditions, we predict 2016 will reverse that formula with these six food trends for the new year that will affect what we put on our plates.

Our appetite for healthy food continues to grow

The movement toward healthier food choices continues to gain momentum. A recent Euromonitor survey projects global sales of healthy food products will hit $1 trillion by 2017, almost doubling the figure from 2007. It’s no wonder as consumers are now exposed to, and educated about, food choices practically everywhere: restaurants, grocery stores, TV food shows and schools. Based on Nielsen data, with nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, this provides significant incentive and opportunity for manufacturers developing new products.

Sustainable diets move to the center plate

Plant-based diets are good for your health, as well as the planet. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

Plant-based diets are good for your health, as well as the planet. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

One diet does not fit all, but research points to plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean Diet and Vegetarian Diet as the gold standard for good health and sustainability. In unexpected places like the airport (e.g., San Francisco International Airport’s Napa Farms Market) and the strip mall (e.g., LYFE Kitchen, Sweetgreen), food establishments are increasingly touting a twofold mission to offer healthy and sustainable fare. Despite being struck from the Dietary Guidelines, sustainability, for many scientists, tops the list of priorities for a healthy diet. “A plant-based diet presents major advantages for health, the environment, use of resources and animal welfare,” said Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and featured presenter at Oldways Finding Common Ground, a conference devoted to clarifying distorted nutrition messages.

Food literacy finally catches hold

The term “food literacy” is gaining currency. Thanks to the 75 million members of the experiential millennial generation, and technology, the youngest American adults connect good health with knowing where their food comes from and who produces it. As Eve Turow, author of “A Taste of Generation Yum,” said in an interview in The Atlantic, “food is also allowing us to access the globe, so we can find out what harissa is made with and how to prepare something with it, in two seconds on our phones.” This extends to appreciation for personal food traditions and a desire to reconnect with the culture of one’s ancestors. That’s good news, as heritage is an ever more powerful motivator for healthier eating, inspiring home cooking, which saves an average of 200 calories per meal.

Supermarkets are the new health hubs

According to the Food Marketing Institute, a food retail trade group, Americans make 1.5 trips to the grocery store each week. That far outstrips visits to health care providers. To help customers make balanced food choices, supermarkets like Hy-Vee, Wegmans and Giant Eagle are hiring registered dietitians in their stores. These RDs will bring good health to consumers (and financial health to the grocery business) by demonstrating how to move healthier choices from shelf to table.

Raw milk cheese is hot

More than half of all cheese lovers say they prefer raw milk cheeses and purchase them regularly. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

More than half of all cheese lovers say they prefer raw milk cheeses and purchase them regularly. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

More than half of all cheese lovers say they prefer raw milk cheeses (think Le Gruyère AOP, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Roquefort, Grafton Village Cheddar, and Pont-l’Évêque, a favorite of Prince Charles) and purchase them regularly, according to the Oldways Cheese Coalition 2015 Raw Milk Cheese Consumption and Attitudes Survey.

However, the FDA is looking carefully at unpasteurized cheese, and new regulations could limit availability of traditional cheeses in the United States. Still, 90 percent of U.S. cheese lovers believe they should be able to choose raw milk cheeses. This may be the impetus to give these products, created through the old ways of cheese making, the attention they deserve.

Increased consensus on what to eat

A study in the Journal of Health Communication showed contradictory nutrition news creates consumer confusion, leading people to doubt health and nutrition recommendations. But that may change.

With the imminent release of the updated Dietary Guidelines, along with movements such as Oldways Common Ground — launched with a gathering of 75 top nutrition scientists, medical experts and media members to reach consensus on what Americans should be eating — and the True Health Initiative, started by Yale University Prevention Research Center’s founding director David Katz, which enlists hundreds of experts to spread evidence-based truths about lifestyle as medicine, clarity will begin to trump confusion.

Main photo: Consumers globally are willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, according to a recent study. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

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Sheep are herded across a road in Meskhetia, Georgia, in the southern Caucasus mountains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Climate change and political borders are just two of the challenges facing the world’s 200 million to 500 million pastoralists — women and men practicing animal husbandry, be they nomadic, transhumant or sedentarized.

Herders from five continents recently came together in Shillong, northeastern India, at the second Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) to discuss these issues and their solutions (the first event was held in Sweden in 2011).

A diverse meeting

Mongolian throat singers perform at the pastoralist meeting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Mongolian throat singers perform at the pastoralist meeting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The ITM session meeting on pastoralists and their challenges regarding pastureland was attended by a colorful mix of people, including yak herders from northeastern India and Mongolia, Bedouin camel herders from Jordan, and sheep farmers from near Siberia and Georgia. The session began with a tribal dance by a Kenyan tribe and ended with one from two Mongolian throat singers.

The Terra Madre network was launched in 2004 when Carlo Petrini, the food activist and founder of Slow Food, invited dozens of food-producing communities from around the globe to Turin, Italy, to meet and share their experiences in a groundbreaking format. Since then, the network has expanded and become a powerful lobbying voice for indigenous people in 158 countries.

Political obstacles

Amina Duba of Kenya's Borana tribe and Ol-Johan Sikku, a herder from the Sami community, speak about being marginalized. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Amina Duba of Kenya’s Borana tribe and Ol-Johan Sikku, a herder from the Sami community, speak about being marginalized. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“We keep animals; they’re our daily bread,” said Amina Duba of the Borana tribe in northern Kenya, which works primarily with cattle. “We have helped conserve nature for thousands of years, yet we’re often told that our lifestyle is backward. We’ve been socially and politically marginalized too often.”

Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the second in a series.

»  Part One: Native cultures push for sustainable solutions

»  Part Three: Indian region Meghalaya, which hosted Indigenous Terra Madre, boasts many native foods and rich food-making culture.

»  Part Four: How Slow Food's philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India's 'greenest' luxury hotel group.

Ol-Johan Sikku, a reindeer herder from the Sami community (formerly also known as Laplanders) that stretches across several Arctic countries, and a member of the Sami parliament, agreed. “We are always surrounded by decisions others have made for us. For example, Russia colonized part of our territory in a move of land-grabbing. They have colonized our lands but also our minds, and we’re now realizing to what extent. When you’ve been colonized like this, you look down on yourself, seeing yourself from the outside. We must give value to our own cultures and ancestral wisdom, and put them first.”

Many indigenous pastoralists are faced with the paradoxical situation of finding their traditional pasturelands off-limits because they have been declared national parks or wildlife reserves by their governments. Others are no longer able to steer their animals to winter or summer pastures because of new political borders, main roads or desertification due to global warming.

Losing their land

A typical Sami tipi in northern Finland. Members of the Sami community say they are losing their culture, as well as their land, through land-grabs. Credit: Copyright 2012 Carla Capalbo

A typical Sami tipi in northern Finland. Members of the Sami community say they are losing their culture, as well as their land, through land-grabbing. Credit: Copyright 2012 Carla Capalbo

“The landscape that indigenous people value most is being taken away from them, either through land-grabbing or wildlife conservation,” said Hassan Roba of the Christensen Fund, a California-based, nonprofit private foundation that backs the stewards of cultural and biological diversity and supported the ITM event.

“In the past, herders and wildlife co-existed and shared access to water points and grazing resources,” Roba said. “The major problem now is that the government policymakers don’t understand how this unique balance, this fragile ecosystem, works. They impose their plans for ‘development’ from the outside, without consulting or taking note of the people who have lived on those lands for centuries, if not millennia.”

In recent years, pastoralists have gained some bargaining power. The 2007 Segovia Declaration of Nomadic and Transhumant Pastoralists focused on their rights and their main demands: customary laws, accessing water and pastures, improving marketing strategies for their produce, and getting better health care and education. Through the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the Pastoralist Knowledge Hub has been set up as a platform for indigenous pastoralists to exchange information and improve lobbying and development. But there’s more to be done.

Women remain vulnerable

Edna Tuwei of the Kivulini Trust for pastoralists in north Kenya. Women are usually charged with most of the manual and agricultural labor. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Edna Tuwei of the Kivulini Trust for pastoralists in north Kenya. Women are usually charged with most of the manual and agricultural labor. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

As is often the case, women remain particularly vulnerable in these situations. Despite women often doing the lion’s share of the manual and agricultural labor in indigenous communities, including the milking and cheese-making or cultivating crops, as well as bringing up the family, they are just as often deprived of their land and human rights. Many are trying to survive in war-torn countries.

“In our societies it’s not always permitted for women to be part of the decision-making process, or to own land or control the household money,” said Duba. That’s why microfinancing groups, and events such as the Global Gathering of Women Pastoralists in Gujarat, India, in 2010, are so important. “There’s a huge need for animal protein in the world, and we can provide it naturally, with free-roaming animals without the need for industrialization.”

“The world is changing, and so are pastoralists,” said Sikku. “They want the Internet, cars and other commodities too. So the question for our communities is how to renew our culture without losing the traditions. How to see the past and take it into the future. We should listen to our traditional knowledge about how to administer the land and think 10 to 25 years ahead. We can’t go backwards.”

Main photo: Sheep are herded across a road in Meskhetia, Georgia, in the southern Caucasus mountains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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