Articles in Agriculture
Regionally sourcing flour for 15,000 pounds of bread a week is the equivalent of a lunar landing, but in Vermont one bakery has found the way to do so. Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. By the end of this year, all of the flour that the bakery uses will come from within a 150-mile radius.
“As a baker, it’s a real luxury to have the same wheat all the time,” said Randy George, of Red Hen Baking Co. The Vermont baker spoke about local flour with Quebec farmer Loic Dewavrin at the Northern Grain Growers Association conference in March, in Essex, Vermont. The two have an uncommon partnership.
Such leaps forward don’t register as significant to consumers because growing grains and making flour are almost invisible processes. However, the farmers, bakers and food advocates at the conference appreciated this achievement, and listened hard for details of the challenges en route to this success story.
The importance of local flour
“Normally, you will see some variation from flour lot to flour lot. You can never count on complete consistency,” George said. The typical roller mill draws wheat from a variety of sources, but the flour from Le Moulin des Cedres all comes from wheat grown by Dewavrin and his family at their organic farm, Les Fermes Longpres.
“Roller mills are incredibly expensive infrastructure. I never heard of one that was on a farm,” he said.
Stone mills located on farms are not uncommon. This type of mill is relatively simple to run and inexpensive to purchase. Roller mills, however, are industrial-scale equipment. Les Fermes Longpres, located just west of Montreal, recently finished assembling a small roller mill. The family took four years to complete the project, using parts from a defunct French roller mill and doing much of the work themselves to minimize the investment.
A family mill makes uniform flour
At Le Moulin des Cedres, the Dewavrin family mills wheat grown on the farm. With an eye toward evening out seasonal irregularities, the flour is made from a combination of two years’ crops. This is why baker George was marveling at having access to uniform flour.
All mills use raw materials that are products of nature and have a wide range of potential expression. Since roller mills pool wheat from multiple sources, the result can vary. Even with careful testing of grains to try to keep the range within limited parameters, mills are blending wheat from many different climates and micro climates, from many different farms with various cultivation, harvest and storage habits, and the flour and its performance changes accordingly.
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Le Moulin des Cedres is unique, but exemplary of the farm’s approach. When Dewavrin returned to the family farm after a career as an industrial engineer, he and his brothers began to convert a conventional corn-soy crop farm into a more diversified organic operation. This was in pursuit of a system that could support the brothers financially, and support the farm’s health and long-term viability.
To make the most of what they grew, the brothers sought methods to capture crop value on the farm and avoid selling crops into the commodity market as much as possible. Making sunflower oil was the first value-added process they tackled. Next, they considered whether to do something with the soy they grew, or the wheat. After investigating the markets, they saw that what they could do with soy didn’t hold as much promise. Flour seemed the best route. There was enough whole-grain, stone-milled flour, however, and bakers had expressed interest in locally grown and produced white flour.
Keeping the integrity of the crop
The idea of having full command of the crop from seed to selling had great appeal to the Dewavrin family. Without running a mill themselves, their production was mixed with grains from other farms.
“Our goal was to keep the integrity of the crop,” Dewavrin explained. Selling wheat to a mill meant their crops were mixed with many others. “We lost the purity of the product and the controlled efforts we put into it.”
Les Fermes Longpres is a very careful farm. The family puts a lot of thought into crop rotations, tillage, and other ways of building good soil, the basic tenet of organic farming.
For the mill, they also worked hard on wheat quality issues, from selecting plant varieties to combating diseases and pests that challenge wheat in the field, and in storage. They began milling slowly last year, determined to understand the process and create a good flour for bakers.
A bakery-mill collaboration
Feedback from bakeries like Red Hen, one of the few bakeries using the mill’s limited supply, helped in this area. In response to what George observed when baking with Les Cedres’ early mill runs, Dewavrin increased the level of starch damage slightly to improve the baking quality of the flour.
“Damaged starch” is an odd term. While it sounds like a bad thing, it’s just milling terminology for opening up the starch granules.
“Getting just the right amount of ‘damage’ is critical so that the flour is in the right state for the baker to continue the ‘damage’ in the baking process,” George said. All mills have to get this right, so the adjustment made is not unique. But the way that the correction came about, through the baker communicating with the farmer/miller was entirely different than the norm.
Leaps forward in decentralizing the production of staple crops don’t register as significant, not yet. But the more that bakers seek local flour, and the more that farmers seek noncommodity marketing options, the more consumers will learn to understand and appreciate the small food mountains people are moving.
Main photo: The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.
Spring has finally lifted her sleepy head, and while your garden veggies may not yet be ready to harvest, there are edible wild greens popping up all over that will enable you to enjoy the fresh foods you are craving.
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Wild plants are hardy and can handle the weather swings that often come with spring. Take a few minutes to look at the ground, and you may be surprised at how many tasty edibles are right at your feet.
Just make certain to follow the three golden rules of foraging. First, never eat any plant you’ve not identified with certainty. Second, don’t eat anything you suspect has been sprayed or grows in contaminated areas. And finally, harvest sustainably, with an eye to the greater environment. Grab a local guidebook, and see how many of these wild greens of spring you can add to you kitchen.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Sure, you already knew you could eat the leaves of these familiar wild greens, may have even seen them at the grocery store, but did you know that every part of the dandelion is edible?
You can cook the root like you would a carrot, if it is tender enough. If the root is tough, it can be chopped, dried, roasted, and enjoyed as a coffee-like beverage. The crown of dandelion, where the leaves meet the taproot can be a delightful vegetable, cooked and eaten as a side dish, or thrown into stir-fries.
The flowers can be put straight into salads for a pop of color and bitterness, or fried into fritters. Even the long flower stalks can be boiled like noodles, if you have enough on hand.
My favorite dandelion recipe is to prepare a pizza with a salt-and-pepper garlic crust, baked with prosciutto, cheese and eggs, and graced with a generous handful of raw dandelion leaves once it emerges from the oven.
Mustards (multiple genera)
Wild plants in the Brassicaceae family are botanically related to some of the most common commercial vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, turnips and kale. Wild mustard plants sometimes have a stronger flavor than their grocery store cousins, but you can use that to your advantage by pairing them with equally strong flavors.
Locally, I use musk mustard (Chorispora tenella) in much the same way as arugula, enjoying it with a bold blue cheese dressing as salad or stuffed into sandwiches. Another favorite is white top mustard (Lepidium draba), which stands in nicely for broccoli rabe in the classic pasta dish with sausage.
The trick with mustard plants is often in knowing at what stage to eat them for best flavor, which is something you can find out from your local guidebook. The great advantage of wild mustards is that they are often invasive in nature and can be harvested in large quantities.
Dock (Rumex spp.)
Dock can often be recognized by its tall fruiting stalk, which turns rust-colored when it dries out. If you’ve got dock nearby, seek out its newly unfurled leaves, staying away from any that are touched with red or purple, which may indicate bitterness. Because of its high oxalic acid content, dock is best enjoyed cooked.
Lovers of sorrel will immediate recognize a similar lemony green taste in dock. It makes a very nice last minute addition to all manner of soups, and is also a natural in egg dishes.
Knotweed (Fallopia japonica, F. sachalinensis, and F. bohemica)
In most places outside of Asia, knotweed is considered unwelcome, even pernicious. It has taken a stronghold in several areas of U.S. Because it is reviled as an invasive, you must take great care to harvest knotweed from a place you are certain has not been sprayed. But if you find a clean area to harvest knotweed, you will be able to snap off the earliest growth of this plant and take advantage of its tart flavor.
The hollow shoots of these wild greens make an excellent crisp pickle, or can be cooked into savory sauces to be paired with game meat. Knotweed can also stand in any place you’d use rhubarb. Take care not to put trimming from knotweed into your compost, so as not to further spread it.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
One of the kings of wild spring foods, you can stalk the wild asparagus just like outdoorsman Euell Gibbons did. The asparagus that grows wild in the U.S. is actually the same species sold in stores. It escaped from gardens at some point, and is technically considered feral for that reason.
The key to finding asparagus in the wild is learning to recognize the bushy yellow-gold color of the previous year’s plants. Once you have that pattern down, old fence lines, former farm land and irrigation ditches are often your best bet for finding asparagus.
Main photo: Foraging basket with asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty
There’s this moment that occurs when you’ve been working with bees for a while. Standing there, on top of a hotel in Portland, Oregon, preparing to approach a hive he had established to house more than 30,000 bees, Damian Magista realized he had no need to wear his bee suit.
He had made a lot of mistakes with them in his half decade of hobby beekeeping, like opening the hive too often or accidentally squashing the queen.
“Less is more in beekeeping,” Magista said. “You have to resist the temptation to over-manage your hives.”
Listening to the hive
Magista had learned to really slow down, and listen to them, to decipher their buzzing, to hear changes in their music. He knew that if the scouts they sent out of the hive to greet him started ramming his body, he should back off. He knew when he was welcome.
“I can’t see myself ever knowing everything about them,” he said. “But I’ve gotten to the point where I can relax into it.”
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These days Magista barely dons his bee suit, but he is doing the opposite of relaxing. As the founder of the innovative neighborhood-to-jar company Bee Local, he has taken his message that all truly exceptional honeys are local to the national stage by introducing the United States to the culinary ambrosia of locally sourced honey. In doing so, he is creating a network of hive systems that support hobby beekeepers and help protect against the colony collapse disorder that has been ravaging the species.
Bee Local began as a hobby, until Magista had one of those pivotal entrepreneurial moments that turn hobbyists into entrepreneurs with a mission. Tasting honey sourced from neighborhoods throughout Portland, he noticed that bees that visited buckwheat produced a honey with dark, smoky, deep molasses overtones. Those that had traveled across Portland’s farm regions made one containing deep blue and blackberry notes with a floral finish. Bees lucky enough to live in the Willamette Valley’s vineyards, hops fields and berry farms made one robust and complex.
“The whole premise of Bee Local was discovering that hives in different locations produce different colors and taste profiles,” Magista said. “Honey is a snapshot of time and place.”
Making artisanal honey
Magista’s goal was to introduce the world to the beauty of the small artisanal honeys from the neighborhoods around Portland, harnessing what was unique about those geographies and allowing bees to express it in honey like wine captures terroir.
But making these small-scale honeys was not going to help Bee Local change the world, nor could it survive as a business, so in August of 2014 Bee Local joined Jacobsen Salt Co., a producer of artisan salts sourced from the waters of the Pacific Northwest, which had already established a national retail operation through partnerships with companies such as Williams-Sonoma.
“What we were doing was not scalable,” Magista said. “To take our business to the next level and truly make a wider impact we needed to merge.”
Tackling colony collapse disorder
Now, from a space he shares with Jacobsen’s in Portland’s Eastside Industrial District, a growing home base for artisan makers of all stripe in the city’s nascent food industry, Bee Local is launching an expansion that ties its business prospects on taking on one of the most pressing environmental crises of our time: colony collapse disorder.
First documented in 1869 and named in 2006, the disorder describes the situation in which entire colonies of commercial bees disappear abruptly due to factors such as adverse weather, too many bees in one area, infection, virus, overuse of pesticides or mite infestation. Although most who study it believe it has always existed in bee populations at some degree, CCD has been happening in dramatically higher wavers, sending out ripples for commercial agriculture and affecting food systems around the world. In some cases, beekeepers have lost up to 90 percent of their colonies.
Placing hives throughout Oregon
But tackling colony collapse disorder is a bigger-picture project. In the meantime, Bee Local is developing relationships with business owners throughout the Willamette Valley and finding distinct places to place its hives. Over the next year, it will add 150 more hives in places such as Amity Vineyards and the top of the new Renata restaurant, although most of them are located in places inaccessible to the public.
Even as it makes its foothold in Oregon stronger, Bee Local is reaching out to hobby beekeeps in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, N.Y. — markets that embrace unconventional products and where many of its partner chefs reside — to launch its national expansion. What’s good for business, it turns out, will be good for the bees.
“Beekeeping as an art is dying out,” Magista said. “Not enough young beekeepers are coming up to take the place of older generations.”
Culture of beekeeping
The loss of the art of beekeeping comes at great cost to both the culture of beekeeping and the global environment, which has wrestled in the past decade with colony collapse disorder, which happens in commercial beekeeping and big agriculture. When hives die because of environmental factors — for example if they are placed in monocrops, they are moved around too much, or they encounter pesticides — entire hive populations can be wiped out.
“When you remove bees from this environment, they remain healthy,” Magista said. “It’s so simple — treat an organism with respect and it thrives, abuse it and it dies.”
Bee Local works exclusively with hobby beekeepers and places its hives in diverse environments where no pesticides are being sprayed.
We don’t engage in commercial beekeeping,” Magista said. “We don’t use chemicals in our hives, we generally don’t move them around.”
The result are honeys that restaurants and food purveyors and ordering by the gallon and artisanal food lovers recognize as very different from your garden-variety honey in a honey bear bottle.
“What the bees come up with themselves is what’s really exciting,” Magista said. “I can control some variables, but the result is up to nature.”
Main photo: Damian Magista tends to a rooftop hive in Portland, Oregon. Credit: Copyright Bee Local
The diet world is a very crowded place, and advice is constantly changing. But, very slowly, we’re coming to realize what the physicians of Greek antiquity well understood — that “food” is far more than something we put in our mouths and swallow. In fact, the ancient diet of the Cretans is once again gaining favor.
What is the Cretan diet?
A eureka moment early in our own societies’ attempts to understand the relationship between food and health took place 70 years ago. In wealthy America, heart disease was on the rise. A U.S. researcher, Ancel Keys, discovered that in war-torn Europe, especially in poverty-stricken Crete, heart disease was relatively rare. He concluded that it was because of the Cretans’ diet and way of life. The timing of his study has since been criticized (the Orthodox Church observes many fasts and, in the 1940s, these were strictly adhered to), but the general good health of the people was there for all to see.
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I first visited Crete just 20 years after Keys. I was there as a student volunteer on an archaeological dig. It took me more than a day to reach the dig (there was, then, less than 40 miles of tarmac road on the entire island). It was a two-hour walk to the nearest village, and this Crete wasn’t much different from the island Keys experienced. In the weeks I spent there, I felt much healthier than I had at home in London. I knew that the reason for this was the food, and the sharing of our tables with friends and strangers. In short, it was because of the Cretan diet.
Sorting fact from fiction isn’t easy
In the intervening years, a great deal has been written about the benefits and dishes of various diets, especially the Mediterranean diet. The subject of food attracts huge research grants and promotional fees from commercial companies. Unsurprisingly, the core finding in that original research on Crete — the link between local foods, food production, enjoyment of food and good health — has disappeared under a pile of lab-inspired markers and recipes.
Today, some of us can buy Cretan olive oils and cheeses in our stores. These give us the good flavors of the island and the advantage of being able to consume cheeses made with milk from animals that have roamed free over herb-covered hills, but it isn’t the whole story. We can follow the Cretan diet (from the Greek, diaita, meaning “way of life”) to our advantage wherever we are by enjoying a large diversity of foods that are grown or gathered locally, that are at the peak of their seasonal (nutritional) best and that excite us with their different flavors and textures. This holds true for fish and meat, too. They both have seasons, based on the breeding habits of the animals and fish, and their ability to feed well.
Thus, what are now the two most serious Orthodox fasts — Lent (March, lamb-breeding season) and August (when it’s hot and the land is parched) — have their roots in a way of life that was followed long before Christianity. This attitude to true sustainability (which ensures future life) exists on Crete even when food is plentiful, and some of the most appreciated island foods are what we generally consider to be “lesser” fish and meats – octopus and other seafood, tiny fish, snails, offal and small game.
What the Cretan diet can do for you
But we’re not Cretans, so why should we want to follow their diet? There’s one particular reasons why I like to: It means I can rely on my own judgment as to whether something is “good for me,” as I can always check the 4,000 years of food wisdom that has passed down from those smart, early inhabitants of Crete, the Minoans. Following a few simple tenets, and stocking your pantry with some quality ingredients, you, too, can create for yourself the Cretan diet.
Use olive oil like a Cretan
Until a generation ago, Cretans consumed around five times more olive oil than other Greeks, and Greeks consumed per capita the most olive oil in the world. To an islander, all olive oil is extra virgin, and only consumed in the year of its production. There’s plenty of evidence now that olive oil (extra virgin and fresh) is a “super food,” so much of the Cretans’ good health can be traced to its copious use in island kitchens. For those of us without an olive tree, it’s not quite so simple. Extra virgin olive oil is not only expensive, it’s rare for the current season’s product to reach our stores. So we lose out on what is its greatest value for us. One solution is to build a relationship with a producer and buy direct.
Love those green leaves, the wilder the better
A neighbor of mine on Crete was able to identify more than 60 wild greens and herbs. She knew exactly where and when to find certain species, and how they were best served. She was well known locally for her remarkable skill, but every Cretan cook could — and many still can — identify a dozen or so wild greens. Wild greens contain more, and a greater variety of, nutrients than garden- or commercially grown greens. Many of the best garden greens, as far as nutrients and flavor, end up on the compost heap — beet, turnip and radish greens. Farmers markets are now a good source of these greens and others, and many of us enjoy foraging in the countryside, wherever we are. Turned into salads or side dishes, Cretan-style, with plenty of olive oil, they make very good eating.
Look for sheep-milk and goat-milk cheeses
Not only do Cretans have an admirable capacity for consuming olive oil, they are also among the world’s largest consumers of cheese. But their cheeses are different from many available in our stores. Made with milk (mostly sheep, some goat) from animals that eat a melange of wild herbs and greens, and graze outside year-round, they possess nutrients that are missing from cheeses made with highly processed factory-farmed milk. If you can’t buy Cretan cheeses, seek out cheeses made with milk from pasture-raised cows or goats.
Measure herbs with your hand, not with a spoon
Measuring spoons are unknown in traditional Cretan kitchens. Your hand is the perfect measure for herbs and spices. You see what you are adding to a dish and, with dried herbs and spices, the heat of your palm releases their wonderful aromas, in the process delighting you, the cook.
Sweeten the natural way
Honey is another “super food” that Crete has in abundance. With only a few days a year without sunshine and much pesticide-free land, bees have a good life on the island. Honey is more than sugar-sweetener — it has nutritional and medicinal qualities, too. But only when the bees have a healthy environment. A good substitute is local honey from bees that have enjoyed pesticide-free pollen.
Give your gut a helping hand
Yogurt made from the milk of animals that have grazed on herbs or grass and the necessary “friendly bacteria” is a very different food from the commercial yogurts that have a shelf life of weeks. Its bacteria are alive and ready to do their good work, keeping your gut in good order. These bacteria are even more valuable to us now, with so much of our foods being highly processed.
Cretan yogurt, made from sheep/goat milk, is thick, creamy and utterly delicious but, at the moment, travels only as far as Athens. It’s easy to make your own at home; for the best results, use full-fat organic milk. Other ways, Cretan-style, to keep your gut healthy is to include naturally fermented (wine) vinegar, pickles, fish and cured olives in your culinary repertoire.
Drink like a Cretan, too
Existing right at the heart of the ancient “wine world,” it’s no wonder wine is as much part of a Cretan’s diet as olive oil. Like olive oil, wine to a Cretan is a drink made that year from grapes nearby (village wine) and consumed with gusto. Appreciated as it is, village wine takes getting used to, so it’s good news that, today, some of the island’s wineries are winning medals on the world stage. Well-made, modern Cretan wines are particularly interesting when made with the island’s unique, and sometimes ancient, grape varietals. On Cretan tables, wine and food are inseparable. Wine is a digestif, and a way of welcoming all to the table — there’s always plenty of it on Cretan tables.
Staples for the ‘Cretan shelf’ of your pantry
- Olive oil: extra virgin
- Olives: brine-cured, young and green, salt-cured, plump and fleshy, sweet and tiny
- Capers and caper leaves, salt-packed
- Red wine vinegar
- Sea salt, fine and coarse
- Spices: allspice, ground; cinnamon, sticks and ground; coriander seeds, whole and ground; cumin, whole and ground; black peppercorns; sumac, ground; nutmeg; cloves; vanilla
- Dried herbs: rigani (Greek oregano), marjoram, rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
- Dried fruit: currants, small dark raisins, large plump sultanas, figs, prunes
- Honey: Cretan mountain sage, orange blossom, Hymettus
- Nuts: whole unblanched almonds, walnuts in the shell, pine nuts, unsalted pistachio nuts, hazelnuts (filberts)
- Seeds: melon, pumpkin, sesame
- Dried pulses: garbanzo beans (chickpeas), white beans (great northerns, cannellini), green lentils, brown lentils, yellow split peas, butter (large lima) beans, black-eyed peas
- Preserved lemons
- Preserved fish: salted anchovies, sardines packed in olive oil or brine, tuna packed in olive oil, oil-cured bonito (lakertha), sun-dried or smoked mackerel or octopus, smoked eel
- Preserved grape leaves
From your refrigerator or freezer
- Cheeses: graviera, aged kephalotyri, manouri, myzithra, brine-stored feta
- Yogurt: sheep milk, good-quality cow’s milk
- Fresh or frozen filo sheets: you can store fresh filo for up to 2 days, frozen filo for up to 4 weeks
In your herb garden
- Flat-leaf parsley, cilantro (fresh coriander), thyme, rosemary, bay laurel, marjoram
- Fennel, dill, mint (many varieties, including “garden,” small-leaf), small-leaf basil, sage, lovage, savory, chives
- Rose- and lemon-scented geranium leaves
Beet Greens With Latholemono
Beet greens are only one of a huge variety of wild or garden greens Cretans bring to the table. You can substitute turnip greens, radish tops, amaranth greens, water spinach, ruby chard or mustard greens (charlock) for the beet greens, and use a sauce of olive oil and red wine vinegar in place of the lemon juice.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the green
Total time: 7 to 10 minutes
Yield: 6 for a meze serving, 4 as a side dish
1 1/4 pounds beet greens
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
Coarse-grain sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
1. Rinse the greens in several changes of cold water. Remove any tough stalks from the greens and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces.
2. Steam the greens. Or place them in a non-reactive saucepan, add 4 tablespoons boiling water, and cook, stirring once or twice with a fork, for 1 to 2 minutes. Take care not to overcook. Drain well in a colander, pressing the greens against the sides with a wooden spoon.
3. To serve, transfer the greens to a platter and lightly fork them to lift and separate the leaves. Add the olive oil and sprinkle with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature, with lemon wedges.
Note: Prepare turnip greens and radish tops the same way as beet greens and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Break off the tender sprigs of leaves from water spinach and mustard greens and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Amaranth greens and young ruby chard take only 1 to 2 minutes to cook. Take care not to overcook.
Main photo: A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron
China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.
China Ranch 100 years ago
In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”
The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.
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China Ranch today
The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.
Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.
The fruit of family labor
Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.
The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.
Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.
Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel
Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.
For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.
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When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.
Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.
While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:
- Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
- Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
- Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
- Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
- Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.
Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.
Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck
“The world doesn’t want to know the truth about gluten,” graduate student Lisa Kissing Kucek joked last July under a tent at Cornell University’s research farm in Freeville, N.Y. Lightning cut the sky, and we, a group of farmers and bakers, dashed for our cars before she could tell us what she’d discovered.
Now we know. Her research, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” was published recently in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Kissing Kucek and her colleagues reviewed more than 200 scientific research papers to see what is known about how different wheat varieties and our processing methods affect people’s sensitivity to wheat.
The conclusions of her literature review are cautious, far more so than the declarations made in such books as “Wheat Belly,” which considers modern wheat a chronic poison. Kissing Kucek was curious what wheat actually does in the human body and began by looking at gluten and the pathologies associated with it.
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Her inquiry grew to cover a broad territory, including the problems caused by wheat, how those problems vary by wheat species and variety, and the role of processing methods. It considered everything from celiac disease, wheat allergy and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), to fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The review pairs well with other Cornell research. The university and its research partners received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2011 to look at heritage wheat varieties. Field trials, lab analysis and baking trials are all part of this grant project, which ends in 2016.
Vintage wheat varieties have captured the imagination of a gluten-shy public, and the paper includes thorough descriptions of wheat kernels and wheat genetics. The material is dense, but Kissing Kucek explains it in an easy to follow video presentation.
Many people have trouble digesting fructose and certain carbohydrates, collectively known as FODMAPS. “These individuals experience bloating and gas when consuming large amounts dairy, high fructose corn syrup, stone fruits and wheat,” she said. “As many foods contain FODMAPS, if these individuals only remove wheat gluten from their diet, their symptoms will likely persist.”
Lynn Veenstra, also of Cornell, surveyed fructan research for the paper. Some of the findings she reviewed were featured in a recent Washington Post article about FODMAPS.
Illnesses like nonceliac wheat sensitivity, IBS and fructose malabsorption can be hard to diagnose. But most of the research points to multiple triggers beyond gluten proteins or other parts of wheat.
Little about gluten is straightforward
Contrary to popular or wishful thinking, old wheats don’t wear halos.
“There is no perfect wheat species that reduces all types of wheat sensitivity,” said Kissing Kucek. However, einkorn is promising because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds than heritage and modern wheat varieties. Einkorn dates from the very early domestication of staple crops; emmer and spelt are also classified as ancient. Heritage or heirloom grains refer to older seed varieties developed before 1950. Modern grain varieties generally have shorter stalks, which allow the plants to receive heavy doses of fertilizer without falling down in the field.
Different wheat varieties vary widely in their reactivity for celiac and wheat allergy. But we don’t know the effect on wheat sensitivity for many of the old or new wheat varieties used in the United States. Europe is screening more varieties. Yet nothing is straightforward when interpreting natural systems.
Figuring out how gluten works in our bodies is tough. Figuring out how growing conditions or plant variety might affect a crop’s potential to harm us is also tough. Understanding the role processing methods play also needs more research, but there’s enough information to cause concern over a few things.
One item —vital wheat gluten — is common in the food supply, and has the potential to cause reactions. It’s used to bind multigrain breads. A cheap protein and a great emulsifier and binder, it’s also widely used in industrial food processing. Irradiated flour and other baking additives also are cited as worrisome.
However, the paper’s section on processing offers some hope, too. Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.
Other research questions about wheat and gluten are still being charted. A recent Mother Jones story about research at The Bread Lab of Washington State University suggests that modern baking is a bigger culprit than modern wheat. The publication Eating Well also has a new story on gluten by Sam Fromartz called “Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.” Like his recent book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” the article nicely navigates the maze of fears about eating wheat and gluten.
Kissing Kucek’s “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” maps the research already done. Like any realistic map, the guide offers facts, not commandments of the “Here Be Dragons” sort. Answers might be found, the paper suggests, in turning to traditions.
This confirms what I’ve long suspected: That we need to unravel some of the processing developed over the last 150 years. In that time, we’ve adopted roller milling, which leaves behind most of the bran and germ. While I never fell out of love with wheat or gluten, I’ve grown enamored of the taste of fresh stone ground flour, and the concept of using all parts of the grain. Perhaps there is something that each lends the other, and to us, as we turn this plant into food. I think that the unity of stone milling is essential to healthy utilization of grains. Some professional bakers believe this too, and are working exclusively with fresh milled whole grain flours.
As people negotiate a friendly relationship with bread, I am hoping that my personal truth about gluten might gain scientific ground.
Main photo: Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock
Cassava, to me, is the Sleeping Beauty of the African kitchen.
The first time I ate cassava, I was on a leaky porch in Paraguay in a torrential rain. The cook plunked down before me a painted enamel platter, stacked high with what looked like chunks of potatoes. She placed a small bottle filled with vinegar and tiny green hot peppers next to my plate. Before cutting into a tough piece of beef, I upended the bottle over the meat. I forked a couple of potatoes onto my plate, too.
Only they weren’t potatoes. The white tuber was cassava, which originated in central Brazil. Known scientifically as Manihot esculenta and other common names such as manioc or yuca, it later spread to Africa’s Congo Basin by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
It wasn’t love at that first chewy bite. But when I saw cassava afterward, I made sure it ended up on my plate or in my shopping bag. Potatoes don’t grow well in the tropics, where I lived at the time. So cassava began to take potatoes’ place in my kitchen. I learned to love cassava because of its texture and propensity to soak up other flavors.
A staple of the African diet
In the years I lived in Africa, I came to know cassava especially well. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cassava provides a whopping 37% of daily caloric intake. It is popular throughout Africa and the third most widely eaten starchy food in the world, after wheat and rice.
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According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “the most important traditional culinary preparations of cassava in Africa are:
- boiled or roasted roots (akin to potatoes),
- fufu (cassava flour stirred with boiled water over low heat to create a stiff dough like polenta),
- eba (called gari in Nigeria, is similar to toasted bread crumbs, then soaked in hot water to produce a thick paste),
- and, chikwangue (steamed, fermented pulp wrapped in leaves, not unlike tamales).”
Cassava grows underground and is easier to cultivate than corn, requiring far less labor. Resistant to drought and most insects and diseases, it is highly sustainable. It also cannot easily be burned and destroyed in war situations.
This scraggly-looking plant also can take climatic abuse, growing well in poor soil and during droughts. The long, brown roots stay fresh in the ground, sometimes for up to two years. But once harvested, cassava rots fast, in spite of its bark-like peel. That’s the reason for the wax you see on most cassava sold in Western markets.
A tip for finding the freshest cassava
Sometimes “fresh” cassava in supermarkets tends to be old, with black lines running through it, especially under and around the peel. I constantly poke and prod cassava that’s for sale. My hope is to find roots bearing small wounds inflicted by some savvy shopper: one who has broken off the pointed tips of the waxed roots to peer into the whiteness, seeking — and rejecting — the telltale black lines.
Having chosen pristine cassava for your meal, what happens next?
First, peel the cassava with a sharp knife. A vegetable peeler does not work as well. Remove the thin, white membrane surrounding the cassava under the bark-like peel. Cut the roots into equal lengths. Boil in salted water until tender enough so a knife slips in easily.
EXPLORING AFRICA, ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME
This is the second in a series exploring the food of the African continent, with a focus on individual ingredients and traditional recipes to bring the African pantry to your home.
The first article featured the peanut.
Future articles will feature black-eyed peas, coconut, palm oil, corn, eggplant, okra, smoked fish, sweet potatoes, plantains, rice and millet.
Cassava can be quite fibrous, with a tough, stringy core that must be removed. Generally this core is not a problem, because as cassava cooks, it splits apart and the core can easily be removed. If you’d rather not hassle with peeling and boiling, seek a market specializing in Asian and other international foods. In the freezer section, you will likely find frozen cassava, ready to cook. You might also find cassava in cans there, too.
Now that you’ve got your peeled cassava on the kitchen counter, you’re probably wondering about the best way to cook it.
Skilled cooks in Africa developed a number of methods — grating, pounding and drying cassava into flour — to make its rather bland flavor pop in the mouth. Such techniques have resulted in commercial products that take a lot of the burden off of the cook. Tapioca pudding is made from dried cassava, available in nearly any grocery store.
Cassava flour can be used for making fufu, too. Gari adds texture to soups and other dishes. It can also be used in place of panko, a real boon to those on a gluten-free diet.
But if you opt to start from scratch, add large chunks of cassava to a meaty stew instead of potatoes. Try eating boiled cassava drenched with a spicy peanut sauce. Or simply fry it in the same way you might do with potatoes for French fries. Served a fiery pepper sauce, fried cassava offers a fresh taste of Africa.
Give cassava a try. I guarantee you will fall in love with it, too.
Cassava “French Fries”
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon the number of roots
Cook time: 25 to 40 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes to 1 hour
Yield: Serves two
4 10- to 12-inch-long cassava roots
1 tablespoon salt
Vegetable oil for frying
1. With a sharp knife, remove the pointed tips and peel the cassava, making sure to remove the thin membrane just under the bark-like peel.
2. Cut the cassava into 4- to 6-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise and then cut those into French fry-size sticks.
3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stove top. Add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the cassava. Reduce heat to a fast simmer, and cook the cassava until quite tender, usually about 20 to 30 minutes. Check doneness by poking a piece with a knife.
4. When done, drain the cassava and let cool slightly. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to a depth of 1/4 inch over medium-high heat. Add the drained cassava and cook until cassava is a light golden brown.
5. Remove cassava from the oil, drain on paper towels, arrange on serving plates, and place a few tablespoons of the pepper sauce (recipe below) on each plate. Serve immediately.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups
10 habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers, orange or red, seeded and roughly chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
4 Roma tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Salt to taste
1 cup vegetable oil, divided
1. Place all the ingredients, except for 1/2 cup of the oil, in a blender or food processor. Purée.
2. In a heavy skillet, heat the remaining 1/2 cup of oil over medium-high heat. Being cautious to avoid splattering oil, add the sauce and reduce the heat immediately to medium-low. Cook the sauce for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.
3. Remove from heat, and let the sauce cool.
4. Store in a clean glass jar in your refrigerator, where it will be good for about a week. Be sure the sauce is always topped with a thin layer of oil. This helps to keep it safe and fresh.
Main photo: London’s large Ghanaian and Nigerian population means that fresh cassava is always available in markets. Credit: Copyright Cynthia Bertelsen