Articles in Agriculture
The Greater Los Angeles area hasn’t had stone milling for more than a century, but bakers Nan Kohler and Marti Noxon are addressing that lack. The partners held an open house in November for family and friends at their new enterprise, Grist & Toll, in Pasadena.
Kohler and Noxon, who also is a screenwriter and producer, are part of a larger effort to rebuild regional American flour mills. As artisanal baking becomes more popular and bakers become more sophisticated about quality, locally sourced ingredients, the mills contribute to America’s baking renaissance.
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The afternoon was a celebration of flour. In the parking lot, baker Michael O’Malley fed loaves into his mobile bread oven. He belongs to the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, a Meetup group with 800 members, some of whom prepared dough for the event with flour that Kohler ground on a small mill at her home.
The breads vanished more quickly than they baked, sitting on a table under a tent just long enough to be cut and devoured. While cooling is acknowledged as the last and some say crucial phase of cooking in artisan bread baking, there was no waiting this day.
Inside, plenty of snacks gracing the small retail space disappeared, too. The flour, however, sat quite still. As the Osttiroler, a type of pine-planked Austrian mill that is quite beautiful, took its first turns and ground California wheat berries into flour, people stared in reverent interest. Some walked up to the bucket of flour and touched the light red stuff, running it between their fingers and over their hands. But mostly people just looked. How often do you get to watch this ingredient get made?
Getting back to our local flour roots
All flour used to be local. Before advances in transportation and technology centralized grain production in the United States, if you wanted flour, you got it from the local miller. During the 1800s and 1900s, milling centers shifted around the country, following the paths of waterways and railroads. At different points, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Buffalo, N.Y., held the crown for flour production. Currently, the U.S. milling industry processes 900 million pounds of wheat a year, but it is too soon to predict the output for Grist & Toll.
However, demand for fresh flour is evident. The mill is part of a nationwide trend to re-regionalize grain and flour production. There are a lot of reasons why these staples are crucial as people rebuild local food systems. In an interview at Jones Coffee, around the corner from the not yet open mill, Kohler considered why.
“For so many years, flour has just been a filler ingredient,” she said. “It gives something body and structure, and helps your cookies and cakes rise, but we haven’t had the ability to think of it as a texture building block or flavor building block until very recently.”
The conversation about alternative grains, she said, is fairly recent. Maybe only the last five years, the baking community has started to think of flour as a potentially influential flavor player.
“The most important stuff was your butter, your chocolate, dried cranberries or nuts,” she said. “No curious baker said why, and does it matter, and how can we find out?”
Now, however, the ball is rolling. Last year at the MAD symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, Stone Barns chef Dan Barber asked more than 300 of his peers to consider the potential of wheat.
For much longer, a number of projects around the country have been working to promote the use of local grains. Skowhegan, Maine, has an Osttiroler stone mill, too. The Somerset Grist Mill is in the former county jail, making flour and rolling oats from grains produced in Aroostook County. Some farmers there are shifting from potatoes to grains to provide raw ingredients for the enterprise.
That Maine project is community driven, started by people who wanted their area to be known for more than New Balance sneakers and logging. Central New York has a farmer-miller-baker partnership serving artisan bakers and consumers in the region, as well as the New York City market. New York’s Farmer Ground Flour is a farmer driven enterprise undertaken by Thor Oeschner as he saw the land he rented gobbled up for real estate.
Grist & Toll fits into the list of baker-driven ventures, like Wild Hive Community Grain Project, Don Lewis’ mill in New York’s Hudson Valley, and Carolina Ground, the mill started by Jennifer Lapidus that uses grains from North and South Carolina.
Conversations about grains
Most baker-initiated projects, though, center on artisan bread baking, and Kohler’s focus has been pastry. A home baker who used to work in the wine industry, she turned her passion for pastry into a farmers market operation. That passion took another leap, and she ran the bakery for a restaurant.
Grist & Toll also plans to make education a part of its mission. “The beautiful thing about flour is I’m not just creating this product for a select consumer or group of people,” Kohler said. “Flour, even though it’s been missing from this farm-to-table conversation, it touches everybody, every household, every restaurant, school.”
Grist & Toll will be open for limited hours during the holidays and plans its full grand opening for after the first of the year, but the pallets of organic wheat grown in Santa Barbara County ready to mill hint at what this operation means: more control over what types of wheat are being planted, fresh flour hitting local kitchens, and conversations about grains that go beyond the big fat fear of gluten.
Top photo: Homemade bread. Credit: Sue Style
Forgive me if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcement to control antibiotic use in food animals didn’t have me reaching for the Champagne.
For while the FDA’s recommendations to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters and proposal to require veterinary approval of all antibiotic use on farms sound like a good idea, their voluntary nature will result in nothing more than business as usual when it comes to farm antibiotic abuse. Call me a cynic, but leopards don’t readily change their spots. For years, food animal industry lobby groups and drug companies have aggressively denied any link between antibiotic use in farming and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Yet the very same groups have all publicly welcomed the FDA’s recommendations. Why? Because they know they are wholly inadequate.
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I won’t go into the limitations of the FDA’s proposals here, as several respected commentators have already done a very good job of that. But suffice to say that despite decades of mounting scientific evidence that the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on industrial farms is leading to the development of life-threatening multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the end result is nothing more than a strongly worded FDA “recommendation” for action, without any mandatory requirements or enforcement measures to stop the intensive farming industry from putting profit ahead of human health. The same old abuse of these life-saving medicines will continue on industrial farms across the U.S., just under a slightly different guise.
So why should you care? Here are 10 things we all need to think about before we allow Big Ag to continue squandering antibiotics in food animal production.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 will die as a result.
1. There are two major factors driving the dramatic rise of antimicrobial resistant diseases. First, we’ve become too complacent about eating food from animals routinely given antibiotics. Second, we take far too many antibiotics when they are not actually needed.
2. We’re embroiled in an apparent “war” against bacteria, with antibiotics routinely given to livestock, the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics in humans, and the widespread inclusion of antibacterials in toothpaste, soap and even clothing. But all we’re doing is encouraging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
3. It might surprise you to know that we each carry more than 4 pounds of friendly bacteria in our gut. The number of bacterial cells in and on our bodies (about 100 trillion) outnumbers the number of human cells by a whopping 10 to 1. These organisms play a vital role in maintaining our health and without them we’d be dead.
4. We need to trust our natural immune systems to protect us from disease, resorting to antibiotics only when absolutely necessary.
5. When it comes to antibiotics in farming, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world. A staggering 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used on food animals.
6. It is widely accepted that disease outbreaks are inevitable in the cramped and stressful conditions found on most factory farms. But instead of improving conditions, the animals are given low or “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics in their feed or water, whether they need them or not, to prevent disease and maximize productivity. For example, most chicks receive two antibiotics, lincomycin and spectinomycin, for the first few days of their lives because they are forced to live in environments where respiratory diseases would otherwise be inevitable. In other words, intensive livestock systems are actually designed around the routine use of antibiotics. It’s the only way to keep the animals alive and growing.
7. In June 2013, Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in 90% of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide. Many of the bacteria species identified were resistant to three or more antibiotic drug classes.
8. While good food-hygiene practices are essential when handling and cooking raw meat, an accidental spill in the refrigerator can now result in potentially untreatable, yet entirely preventable, life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases. Safe handling instructions must never be used to justify farming systems which actively encourage antibiotic-resistance or to absolve companies of any responsibility for the illnesses or deaths that result.
9. The major meat industry bodies claim there is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotic use in farming contributes significantly to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t agree and is calling for the responsible use of antibiotics, where “These drugs should only be used to treat infections,” whether that’s in humans or animals.
10. When it comes to the responsible use of antibiotics in farming, the U.S. livestock industry is already years behind the European Union, where antibiotic use on farms is strictly controlled. Europe’s livestock industry survived this change without any dramatic reduction in efficiency of meat production and the cost of food in Europe didn’t skyrocket as a result. So why not here? New legislation — The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (PAMTA) — would end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming in the U.S. Are your representatives supporting it?
This isn’t about blaming farmers and vets: They’re simply responding to the contractual demands of Cargill, Purdue, Tyson and others that dominate our food supply. No, this is about waking up to the real costs of so-called cheap meat. We’re talking about farming systems that are not only designed around the routine use of antibiotics to keep billions of animals in such abysmal conditions alive and growing, but which knowingly encourage the development of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases.
I somehow doubt that any sane American would willingly allow the squandering of these potentially life-saving antibiotics simply for cheap meat. Because when you sit down and really think about a future where antibiotics will no longer be effective — and where common diseases such as strep throat may kill our loved ones unabated — there really is no such thing as cheap meat, is there?
Got you thinking? Animal Welfare Approved farmers only use antibiotics to treat sick animals, just as in humans. We also know that if farmers use antibiotics responsibly the risk of antibiotic resistance is absolutely minimal. The result? Pain and suffering in farm animals is minimized, the risk of disease is reduced, and the efficacy of antibiotics — for humans and livestock — is protected. You can find your nearest supplier at www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org.
Top photo: Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA
After the death of great South African leader Nelson Mandela, I’ve been thinking about his political and moral legacy and a family wine I encountered in October. This 2012 House of Mandela Thembu Collection Pinotage, with its earth, plum and cherry flavors, is an easy-on-the-palate red produced by his daughter and granddaughter. Think of it as part of Mandela’s wine legacy.
An affordable red from South Africa’s signature grape Pinotage, it’s graced with a colorful label based on Mandela’s traditional dashiki shirts. Part of the profits will go to the family foundation and to the Africa Rising Foundation, which aims to alleviate poverty. It’s certified Fair Trade, which means producers get a set minimum price for their grapes and workers get a living wage.
Elin McCoy's Wine Of The Week
2012 House of Mandela Thembu Collection Pinotage
Region: Western Cape, South Africa
Grape: 100% Pinotage
Serve with: Spicy pizza, rich beef stew
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Back in October, I tasted through the House of Mandela lineup with Mandela’s daughter, Makaziwe (Maki) Mandela, 59, and her granddaughter, Tukwini, 38, the team behind the wines. “When we explored the idea,” Makaziwe Mandela told me, “we found out very few black people owned wineries.”‘
The two women asked U.K.-based Master of Wine Lynne Sherriff to help them find winemaking partners to create their wines. (They hope eventually to have their own winery.) Highly conscious of their family heritage, they gave Sherriff a list of requirements: In addition to producing quality wines, the wineries had to be family owned, use good labor practices and respect the country’s biodiversity. They selected several, including Fairview Estate, and use winemaker Erlank Erasmus to oversee the 10 wines, but members of the Mandela family taste and vote on the blends. Of the three whites and three reds in the more affordable Thembu Collection, this Pinotage was the most interesting.
A cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, the Pinotage grape was created by a South African professor in 1925 and is regarded as the country’s own variety. The best wines from it have the bright fruity flavors of Pinot Noir as well as the robust, plummy-earthy ones of Cinsaut. Most of the grapes for this House of Mandela version come from the hot, dry Swartland region north of Cape Town, a hotbed of old bush vines and winemaking experimentation.
Mandela, who loved white wines, gave his blessing to the House of Mandela wine enterprise. Which makes this 2012 Thembu Collection Pinotage a worthy drink to celebrate peace on earth this holiday season.
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As befits the City of the Big Shoulders, the Chicago outpost of the food emporium Eataly, which opened last week, is the largest to date, with two floors totaling 63,000 square feet and containing some 10,000 products, 23 eateries, 21 retail areas devoted to specific products, two espresso bars, two wine bars, a Nutella bar and a fine-dining restaurant.
While Eataly is a huge space with an immense number of offerings, it’s quite the opposite of the alienating experience of mega-grocery stores. Instead of dutifully pushing a cart up and down sterile, fluorescent-lighted aisles, getting your nameless, faceless (and often tasteless) boxed and canned goods, you pleasantly wander past floor-to-ceiling windows and in and out of a maze of small eateries and counters. Each counter is dedicated to a specific item: vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish, olive oil, beer, wine and much more.
Bringing an Old World market experience to modern urban shopping
About halfway through my meander, it occurred to me that Eataly is the perfect marriage of old and new. It’s a place where the Old World 10-stop shopping experience (going to the fishmonger, the sausage maker, the cheese shop, the baker, and a half dozen other small shops), meets the convenience of the New World one-stop shopping experience.
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And there are plenty of eating and drinking opportunities to indulge in while you shop. You can stop at the pizza corner for a true Neapolitan pizza, the fritto stand for fried foods, the rosticceria for roasted meats or the panini shop for a sandwich. For drinks, there’s a beer hall and two cafes, one upstairs and one down. Wines are served in the central piazza area, which is crowned with a Hemingway quote: “Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.”
In fact, the Eataly Chicago is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway. This may seem incongruous, but Eataly’s founder, industrialist Oscar Farinetti, a great fan of Hemingway’s work, explains that the author was born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and spent significant parts of his life in Italy. That he was also a man of large appetites is just icing on the cake.
I’ve been making pilgrimages to Eataly ever since the first one opened in 2007 in an old vermouth warehouse in the Lingotto district of Turin, at the far end of the Fiat factory. Farinetti’s brainchild is a paean to food that is “good, clean and fair.” These are the watchwords of Farinetti’s friend, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, who champions food that is delicious and untainted by chemicals. He also is devoted to treating farmers and food workers fairly. Farinetti and Petrini want shoppers to stop being passive consumers and instead become active “co-producers” by learning who produced what food, and how, and why that’s important.
In fact, one tenet of the Eataly Manifesto is “Eat. Shop. Learn.” Another tenet explains: “We feel that it’s not just important that we know everything about what we sell and serve, but that you also learn about the products we are so passionate about. We share with you the stories of the people and places behind all that we offer. The more you know the more you enjoy.”
Local sourcing and fresh produce at Eataly Chicago
In keeping with the precepts of Slow Food, Eataly Chicago has paid special attention to local sourcing. There is a whole section of canned and bottled goods made by Chicagoan Lee Greene’s Scrumptious Pantry, a selection of West Loop Salumi’s cured meats, pork from Bensmiller’s Farm in Iowa, Piedmontese beef from Toro Ranch in Nebraska and many more products from other Midwestern producers.
Among the can’t-miss features at Chicago’s Eataly is the vegetable butcher. As soon as you walk in the doors, you are greeted by a beautiful farmstand-like display of seasonal fruits and vegetables. You can then take your selections to the vegetable butcher, who will trim your artichokes, peel your carrots, shred your cabbage or do whatever you need for ease of cooking once you get it home.
The store’s Gelateria Alpina gelato bar offers favorites such as nocciola (hazelnut) and cioccolata (chocolate), as well as seasonal offerings. In addition to hand-scooped gelato, and unique to the Chicago store, are soft-serve gelato spigots!
As Federico Fellini says in a quote gracing a wall in Chicago’s Eataly, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” His words could just as well be applied to Eataly Chicago, that is, if you consider “pasta” a metonym for all great food. And great food makes us better. As Sophia Loren is quoted, in yet another Eataly sign, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”
Top photo: Pasta for sale at Eataly’s newest location in Chicago. Credit: Terra Brockman
One of my favorite bistro restaurants in New York City is Le Philosophe, which offers a delicious, reasonably-priced blanquette de veau as well as a list of wines that won’t break the bank. This gulpable 2010 Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon, with its fresh ripe spiced-berry flavors and soft tannins, is one of them. Its refreshing fruity style resembles that of Beaujolais-Villages, but this red has more spice and depth. It was perfect with the creamy main course I savored at Le Philosophe.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
2010 Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon
Region: Loire Valley, France
Grape: 100% Cabernet Franc
Serve with: Blanquette de veau, roast pork
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Chinon is a historic town in the Loire Valley and also the name of an appellation where almost all the wine is red, made primarily from Cabernet Franc grapes. The vineyards, which cover 19 communes, span both sides of the pretty, winding Vienne River. My introduction to the area, though, was through history, when I came as a student to tour the town’s famous stone castle, the grand 11th-century Chateau de Chinon, built on a high rocky outcrop above the river. It has a complex early past: English King Henry II rebuilt it and resided there in the 12th century; later it was captured by the French, and it’s where Joan of Arc claimed divine voices told her that Charles VII, the Dauphin of France, would give her an army to fight in Orleans. Writer Francois Rabelais made Chinon’s wines famous in the 16th century.
U.S. catches up with 2010 Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon
I first drank these delicious, fragrant reds in Paris bistros and wine bars 20 years ago, but they’ve become popular in the U.S. only in the past five or so years. That’s partly because wine lovers are now hunting alternatives to big, alcoholic reds. When Cabernet Franc is grown in cooler climates like the Loire Valley it makes wines that are lighter bodied and more aromatic than Cabernet Sauvignon, but have some of the same character. And the newfound popularity of Loire reds has also been helped because they are often stunning bargains.
Climate change and improved vineyard practices have helped make Chinon’s wines more appealing. When Cabernet Franc doesn’t ripen fully, the wines taste lean, green and herbaceous. In recent, warmer vintages, the wines have been richer. The 2010 vintage was one of the best of the past few decades.
Chateau du Coudray Montpensier was built in the 15th century, but was only established as a winery 10 years ago. Its 2010 Chinon is well worth seeking out.
Top photo: Chateau du Coudray Montpensier and wine label for Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon. Credit: Courtesy of Chateau du Coudray Montpensier
For the last eight months, I have been growing vegetables on a 323-square-foot plot of land rented from a Chinese perma-culture farm on the rural outskirts of Beijing. The farm, organized by a community-supported agriculture nonprofit called Shared Harvest, was based in Changping district nearly 25 miles north of Tiananmen Square.
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“Perma-culture” or “circular farming” integrates animals (pigs, lambs, chicken, fish) and their waste into the ecological loop of growing fruits and vegetables, which in turn feed the animals as well. From the crops I gathered each biweekly visit, I was able to almost entirely sustain myself, minus the tofu, starches and seasoning I continued to purchase from supermarkets. Aside from the obvious nutritional benefits, my first experience managing agricultural land left me feeling ever more thankful. Thankful for the increased knowledge of how food is grown and thankful for the friendships I’ve developed, as well as a renewed appreciation of the difficult work farmers do, worldwide.
Escaping the city for community farms
Just as the back-to-the-farm movement has been picking up speed in the United States, in China there is a similar trend with community farms. I had been receiving food deliveries from the CSA and when they began to rent plots of land, offering to train and provide all necessary tools and seeds, I took the opportunity.
Turns out I was the only foreigner to jump at the chance to lease the land. All the other “gentlemen farmers” were upper-middle-class Chinese, who would drive out each weekend in their luxury vehicles and SUVs with their three-generation families and work their plots together. I, meanwhile, would get myself out there via a crazy combination of bike, subway, bus and foot, commuting up to 2½ hours each way. Still, I remained committed. Many of the other casual farmers, like me, enjoyed the chance to get out of the concrete eyesore that is Beijing, though the air quality was rarely better out there than in the city center. The region’s smog is partly attributed to industrial coal burning around Beijing. Similarly, we plot holders were all looking to ensure a source of safe food for ourselves amid a slew of adulterated food cases in China. In many cases, though, there was a deeper desire to “get back to the farm” where so many Chinese had lived and worked in earlier generations.. In the rush to urbanize, modernize, and become wealthy, many had been left feeling spiritually or socially lost.
It took me months comparing my ugly, unruly first-timer plot to the well-tended ones around mine before I realized that many of these nouveau riche had previously been farmers. It didn’t hurt that they also came with several laborers ready to work: grandparents, their children and then grandchildren all toiling together. While they all played and laughed in groups, I at first went out solo and learned to appreciate the kind of slow, wearying, physically-demanding labor that accompanies manual farming. As a single foreign female sweating and struggling over a plot of land that could easily feed a family of four, however, it meant I was a curiosity who attracted the attention and help of the others on the farm. Generally, this meant the two families of farmers who were hired to live on the land and oversee farm management, focusing especially on the animals, the larger plot, which grew food for CSA delivery, and the kitchen where many groups would eat lunch after a long morning of work. These incredible people taught me the basics needed to grow food.
There were also scores of young Chinese volunteers from universities or recent graduates who came to community farms from around the country looking for a mission to trumpet, seeking a change of pace from exhausting city life, or just hoping to learn a new skill until they found the next job.
Cooking up the bounty
From these two groups — farmers and volunteers — I learned an incredible amount. For one, I had a chorus of Chinese chefs indicating to me how best to cook each surprising new vegetable that would emerge, week by week, from the soil on my plot. For example, radish leaves work well as a leafy addition to a miso or any other soup; and green beans, if the pod skins get too old, can simply be removed and then blanched briefly before getting a good stir-fry with rice.
Additionally, I began to memorize the “qi” quality of each ingredient: those that cause the body to heat up, and those that cause the body to cool. Most intriguing were conversations about the role food plays in our lives, and how modernization has moved humans away from direct access to safe, healthy food grown in a sustainable manner.
In that transition, our knowledge about soil, plants, seasons and how food is grown was replaced by other types of information: food brands, advertising campaigns, famous restaurants and chefs. Deep into these conversations, while weeding the soil or furrowing the field in preparation for sowing seeds, I came to feel united with a certain group of people in our commitment to learning about our food from its source. It didn’t matter that we were speaking Mandarin in Beijing’s rural districts. It could have been any farm on the outskirts of any city, be it New York, Rio de Janeiro or Paris.
Top photo: Manuela Zoninsein and friend Gigi Peng take photos of weeds to try to identify them back home. Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Zoninsein
It’s a frosty morning in Paso Robles, Calif., and I’m on my way to Fandango Olive Oil for its harvest. Why is it that these places always feature stunning views in the very early morning and late afternoon? I arrive at the ranch run by Jerry and Carolyn Shaffer and park my car behind the trucks of the pickers who are already at work.
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Fandango has been making olive oils I’ve admired for years. The ranch grows only two cultivars, arbequina and koroneiki. The former is of Catalan origin, and the latter Greek. Fandango makes sensationally flavored, mouth-popping blends if you like that sort of thing. I do. In 2013 alone, it won 20 medals in various California competitions.
The Shaffers are among the few certified organic olive oil producers in the region. A lot of sweat and paperwork goes into earning that distinction. For example, the buckets they use have to be scrubbed and free of mud, and when olives go to the mill to be pressed, the crusher and malaxer have to be cleansed thoroughly — at extra cost to the producer — because there mustn’t be residue from a previous, non-organic pressing. One miller told me this cleaning costs an additional $500 on top of everything else.
Olive oil producers must get the timing right
At Fandango, I have a Bourdain moment when Jerry Shaffer takes me out for a tour in his souped-up golf cart. It’s all blue sky and vapor trails. What you typically see in this region and on these ranches and estates are steeply sloping hills. Several growers have told me these slopes in a way create their own microclimate. A dropoff of 75 feet might mean a difference in temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. And this, of course, means olives ripen at different rates, so the grower has to tape off areas that need to be picked for harvest.
Out in the trees, the pickers work by hand, dropping the olives onto blue tarps, which are then carried over to be emptied into buckets. After being sorted, they will be delivered to be pressed within the same day. This is mean, hard and fast work, as evidenced from this email I received from another grower after my tour of Fandango.
Art Kishiyama, the grower at Olio Nuevo, has this to say about his picking schedule: “As fast as possible but within 4 hours. My schedule for tomorrow — first trip to the mill at 10:00 am, 3 hours after the first olive is picked — 2nd trip at about 1:00 pm, again 3 hours after the first olive is picked after 10:00 am, then around 4:00 pm latest, with the same logic, presuming the worst case of the pick day being extended to 9 hours. To make this work, I use two trailers — the 2nd trailer is being loaded while the first trailer is being towed to the mill. Round trip … is 30 minutes — I have 12 bins and use them up to 3 times each with a heavy fruit set.”
Harvesting olives involves a lot of hurry up and go.
The final lap on my tour of olive ranches took me up to San Miguel Olive Farm in San Miguel, Calif. There I met with Richard and Myrna Meisler. As Richard explained to me, olive trees go through “alternate bearing years.” This year happened to be a poor one, but next year could be a great one.
Other growers have given me the same story, but it’s not all bad news. Jerry Shaffer told me that although his yield was disappointing, the quality of his pressed oil was really good. Richard Meisler allowed me a blind tasting of his just-pressed oil. This is a sensory experience; it’s best to do this without bread. What I got at the front of my palate was a buttery beginning. When you taste a high-quality oil, you should expect either a buttery or grassy flavor, and then there is a delayed reaction: A second or two later, you get a peppery finish. It’s a similar experience to tasting wine.
At San Miguel Olive Farm I got another tractor ride, this time with Richard, who showed me something Jerry had done as well. He picked a perfectly ripe olive and squeezed it, checking for water content and oil. I popped it in my mouth, and it tasted like a good olive. This is how the real guys in the business do it. You may have read that eating a raw olive will make you gag. That’s not entirely true. It depends on the degree of ripeness. A really green one might cause you some discomfort, but those are the polyphenols at work. More on polyphenols in our next chapter.
Top photo: Half-ripe olives. Credit: avlxyz / Flickr
Mexico is at the center of corn biodiversity, which strengthens the ecosystems that sustain the land and its inhabitants. Just as indigenous people, like the native Californians, possessed a deep knowledge of oak management and acorns, in Mesoamerica the same is true for corn. Zea mays, the Latin binomial for corn, is the literal foundation of many Mesoamerican cultures. Maize is at the core of many creation stories from pre-contact time to the present. Individuals are not only made of corn, but people make corn. Corn is one of the few staple crops that require human intervention to reproduce. Yet corn’s biodiversity is under siege.
“Dignity. Good white corn is part of a dignified life,” declared a Mexican store owner about the importance of corn in her culture, according to Elizabeth Fitting. Fitting is the author of “The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside.” She conveys the nuanced layers of the transgenic corn debate. And she shines a light on the disadvantages of neo-liberal trade policies in Mexico. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, she reveals — through story and data — how small land holding farmers’ ability to maintain biocultural diversity of Mexican corn varieties (criollos) is threatened.
Since the start of NAFTA, Mexico imports U.S. yellow corn to meet the appetite of its growing livestock industry. When local farmers do not grow enough of their preferred white corn — due to a lack of rainfall or access to well water or the effects of climate change — they purchase yellow corn, normally meant for animal feed. Making matters more difficult? Studies in Mexico have identified genetically modified corn strains mixed into the local (criollo) landraces. If transgenic corn spreads to multiple local landraces, the potential to wipe out the biodiverse base, and the corn industry, is real, according to Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz. (“Without Corn, There Is No Country” is a campaign, founded in 2007, that supports food sovereignty, in particular non-GMO foods, and the sustainable revitalization of rural Mexico.)
Mexican corn farmers fighting to keep traditional methods
The debate about transgenic corn has only escalated since the 2011 publication of Fitting’s book. Activists in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas declared 2013 the year of anti-GMO corn. To that end, a judge recently disallowed any trials of transgenic corn in Mexico.
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Nixtamalized white corn, an alkaline soaking process to improve the nutritional quality of corn, is a sophisticated practice developed centuries ago and not transferred to Asian, African and European countries when corn colonized those lands.
For additional reading resources on corn cultures in the Americas, check out:
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Despite the extra expense, many, especially elder, farmers still grow their own corn in the milpa system for food security. (Milpa is defined as a field intercropped with three principal species: maize, beans and squash, often with other minor species, and in which edible leafy weeds, locally called quelites, are tolerated and harvested.) In a recent phone interview, Fitting reminded me of her conversation with the Mexican storeowner in the cradle of corn diversity, the Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, north and west of Oaxaca and Chiapas, respectively. “We grow [white] corn because we want to have good, soft white tortillas. They do not turn out the same in the city. In Mexico City (where yellow corn or non-nixtamilized yellow corn is used), a truck carrying masa (dough) comes around as if it were mud. It’s even uncovered! They say we live like animals here in the countryside, but in the city, they eat like animals!” Her words resounded with taste, dignity and self-reliance.
So the tortillas you eat, whether in Mexico or North America, might not be made of white corn flour anymore. Moreover, the nixtamilization process has been essentially eliminated in mass-produced masa flour. Not only do you get a different-tasting corn, but you also eat tortillas with less bioavailable nutrients.
Two Chicana professors, Luz Calvo and Catriona R. Esquibel, founded the Facebook page Decolonize Your Diet. During a Skype conversation with both professors, I learned their Facebook page grew out Calvo’s desire to help a student eat a more healthy diet and learn basic cooking skills. The page quickly exploded, and a blog followed. Calvo, an associate professor of ethnic studies at California State University East Bay in Hayward, Calif., says her students are predominantly first-generation Americans. On campus one day, students were selling Krispy Kremes to raise money.
Shocked, Calvo countered, “I’d love to support you, but how could you sell and eat such unhealthy food?” Her students rebutted, “But this is healthy, professor, there are no transfats!” From these exchanges, Calvo decided to teach a new course called Decolonize Your Diet. She described the class as “simply beautiful.” For example, she told of two Chicana sisters, originally from the state of Guanajuato in Mexico. “They made delicious sour tamales for a class requirement,” Calvo recalled. “Shaped like jelly rolls, the tamales overflowed with chilies and cheese.” Suddenly Calvo’s idea that only a few types of tamales could exist expanded.
Her partner of 16 years, Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, reminded me that in the Mexican codices, specifically the Florentine Codex, there are multiple descriptions of tamales with chia seeds, pumpkins or peanuts, shaped like seashells, or rounded. “There is no one way to make tamales in the codices,” she emphasized. “In fact there is a feeling of experimentation and joy in food expressed throughout. We both seek to remind, teach, revitalize and celebrate our ancestral foods.”
A gift that grows
Those same sisters gifted Calvo red-dent corn to grow in her Oakland garden. (You can hear Luz on a recent Latino USA podcast talk in her garden and kitchen.) Calvo is growing them out, drying most and saving some for the next planting season. Soon she will prepare nixtamalized red-corn masa for tortillas. If you can’t wait, read their article on how to nixtamalize your white or yellow corn and make tortillas. And like Calvo, a cancer survivor, perhaps connecting to your food from inside the earth to inside your body will nudge you just a bit closer to health and healing.
Top photo: Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.