Articles in Technique
As a gardener who looks forward each year to eating my homegrown tomatoes, I have been bitterly disappointed when squirrels and other small animals either pick all of the tomatoes while still green and toss them around the yard, or snatch and eat ripening ones just before I get to them.
This has been going on year after year, but each spring, ever hopeful, I plant yet another tomato garden. My usual line of defense has been to use Havahart traps that sometimes catch the thieving culprits, but this method has become tiresome and creepy. It involves picking up a heavy trap loaded with an angry animal, getting it into the trunk of my car, and then driving for at least 10 miles to a wooded area where I release the animal, hoping it will not find its way back to my house.
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But this year, I have found a different solution for protecting my tomato patch. I bought a Bell & Howell Solar Animal Off, a device that comes with a built-in stake that I have positioned in the garden in front of the tomato plants. When approached, the device emits both an eerie high-pitched sound that only animals can hear along with a strobe light that shoots off a blinding glare when anything comes near. Each morning I run out of my house to check on ripening fruit and have been amazed and relieved to find every plant intact.
Tomatoes are just the start
This got me thinking that humans too could be well served by a protective device that could repel danger or be helpful in other ways that would make life easier. I could see wearing such a gadget into a supermarket where it would blink and beep if a food I was thinking of buying contained trans fats or, in my case, cilantro. The machine I envision could be customized so that people with allergies would be warned about peanuts and such, and the gluten sensitive protected from that substance. Most important, the device would be programmed to alert us to the existence of dangerous microbes in food that could lead to illness.
In a more positive way, my machine could function somewhere between a personal assistant and a doting grandmother by picking out just the right produce in the market. I never can tell which cantaloupe in a pile will be exactly as I like it — barely ripe and sweet but not over-the-hill and mushy. Picking out pineapples is also a challenge. They too can be overripe and unappetizing, and I never can tell which one to buy. When my favorite store offers four kinds of peaches, I am at a loss as to which will be sweet and juicy and not hard and bland, but my gadget would know. I would also use it to select cheese that is at its height of flavor.
When medium rare means medium rare
The machine’s help in restaurants would be another huge service. It would do a calorie count of the dishes I contemplate and report on the existence of ingredients it knew I disliked. Again, cilantro detection would be especially appreciated, for then I might venture forth into Thai or Mexican restaurants without fear of being assaulted by that herb I cannot tolerate. The device would know whether the steak or chop I ordered was cooked as I requested before I cut into it, thus taking the edge off any disappointment. And I hope that it would be helpful in checking bills and figuring out tips, freeing me from dealing with arithmetic, my worst subject in grade school.
The cone’s the thing
I would like to think that my machine could protect people from all sorts of danger. I am reminded of the time when a good friend’s dog — a huge Malamute named Buddha — used to position himself outside the door of a Brigham’s ice cream shop in my town, waiting for people with ice cream cones to come out. Small children and little old ladies were particularly vulnerable. Buddha’s nudges would knock the cones out of their hands, allowing him to scarf down the scoops of ice cream lying on the ground. If only these victims could have been warned, these messy scenes could have been avoided.
A dairy dose of wisdom
I can think of other helpful tasks for my machine. I would ask it to keep track of all of the foods stored in my freezers to remind me which ones to use first. And I would like it to warn me when the milk in my refrigerator has gone bad, which usually happens before the date stamped on the box. I find out only when I pour it into my morning coffee, watch it curdle, and then have to toss the whole thing down the drain.
These days, when we are surrounded by a glut of information about food, often with conflicting advice, we could use a defender that could cut through the yammering and lead us on the path that’s right for us. I am grateful to have found a device that protects my tomato plants from marauders and only wish I too could have a guardian that protects me from all of the food-related issues I face each day. And, for that, no computer programmer’s algorithm will do.
Main photo: The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber’s garden. Credit: Barbara Haber
The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.
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This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.
Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.
Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.
In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.
The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!
Skill and strength
Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.
As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”
As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.
Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:
First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)
Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.
Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.
The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.
Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR
Though I’d been anticipating it for weeks, it was while sitting at a stoplight that the intoxicating aroma of linden flowers (Tilia spp.) first hit my nose. I jerked my head around, craning over my shoulder and peering out the windows in a desperate attempt to locate the tree whose flowers supply my favorite herbal tisane.
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No doubt the people in the surrounding cars thought I was nuts. If only they knew that the tree with the fiercely fragrant flowers could provide them with a divine beverage, they too would be thrilled by the scent.
As my years as a forager roll on, I become clearer about which crops are worth my time to harvest. I try to live on wild edible plants for as much of the year as possible, no easy task in the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season where I live in Colorado.
This means I have to work hard during the short period of growth, not only to harvest my favorite plants in great enough quantity to get me through the off-season, but also to preserve those plants, whether by drying, freezing, or canning.
As my go-to beverage, linden is high atop my list of desirable wild foods. Last year, I picked and dried enough linden flowers to fill a laundry basket. It wasn’t enough. In late winter, thirsting for my favorite tea, I pillaged the linden stocks of two friends.
Fragrant foraging in the shade
Also known as basswood or lime, linden is a deciduous tree with leaves shaped like slightly crooked hearts. In my area, they are used frequently as ornamental trees, mostly likely for their fragrant flowers and generous shade. The bees are particularly fond of linden, and one can often locate the trees by the sound of buzzing bees.
When the leaves first emerge and are still tender, they can be eaten in salads and sandwiches. The flowers clusters grow along with a long pale green leaf-like structure, known as a bract. When harvesting, pinch off the bract and flower clusters of linden. Since the trees flower abundantly, it is often most efficient to grab several flower clusters, avoiding the leaves, and strip them off all at once.
As with all flowers, to maximize fragrance, and therefore flavor, it is best the harvest linden flowers in full sun. It may sound obvious, but on a hot day, by all means, stand in the shade of the tree while harvesting flowers. It will make a difference when your arms tire.
As always, be sure to forage in the cleanest possible location. Avoid linden trees that grow alongside busy streets or in areas that might have been sprayed with chemicals.
Herbalists know that although it is gentle enough for children and seniors alike, linden is strong medicine, soothing and demulcent. Throughout the scorching growing season, I enjoy cold infusions of linden flowers, which help me to deal with the heat and stay moisturized from the inside out. By winter, the sight of delicate linden flowers floating in my teacup call to mind the long days of summer.
Turn linden into teas and cocktails
With experience as a forager, I’ve given up commercial teas in favor of my wild herbal blends. Not only does this save me money, but I have the reassurance of knowing exactly where my tea came from. I’ve also become quite skilled as a drink-maker, despite initially not knowing much about the subject.
Even though I couldn’t really sniff out a great glass of wine, and don’t know the difference between whisky and whiskey, I make amazing concoctions and cocktails that are hits both in my house and at social events. As a wildcrafter, I have the advantage of bringing truly unique flavors to any party.
If you’ve got a tasty wild edible plant on your hands, I encourage you to experiment with ways to preserve it. Infuse it into vodka, later adding sugar syrup to taste if needed. Try it in vinegar, or in a shrub, which is an aged mix of infused vinegar and sugar. Combine it with whichever fruit is in season. Dabble in making homemade bitters. This year, I’ve got an experimental batch of linden vinegar going, as well as a jar of linden and lemon balm in gin.
Whether you are new to linden or and old pro, you can’t beat classic linden tisane and honey infused with heady linden flowers.
Pick off the freshest linden flowers (leaving behind stems and bracts), enough to loosely fill a jar. Pour fresh honey over the flowers, and leave them for at least three weeks in a warm place. Though there is no need to do so, if you wish to strain out the linden flowers after the honey has infused, set the linden honey in a sunny windowsill for a day, then strain out the flowers. The candied flowers can be enjoyed atop ice cream or cake. The floral-scented honey can be the genesis of myriad recipes. This recipe is so beautiful, you may want to consider making several extra jars of linden honey to use as gifts.
Cold-Infused Linden Tisane
1 cup loosely packed linden flowers (fresh or dried), bracts included
20 small wild rose heads (substitute one green tea bag)
½ gallon lukewarm water
1. Add the linden flowers, roses, and water to a ½ gallon mason jar. Leave the jar on a counter for 8 hours, then refrigerate it until cold.
2. Strain out the flowers, squeezing with your hands. Serve over ice, and with a drizzle of linden honey if you prefer sweet tea.
½ cup cold-infused linden tisane
¼ cup white grape juice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 ounce gin
½ cup seltzer water
Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.
Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty
When you buy a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, how much thought do you give to the variety of olives used to make it?
Two months ago if you’d asked me to name all the types of olives I knew, I would have managed to come up with a few: Kalamata, Mission … uh … green ones. Somehow it hadn’t crossed my mind that, like wine, olive oil reflects the variety of fruit that goes into it. And just as there are wines made with a single grape variety, there are single-variety olive oils, each with its own character.
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This revelation came to me during a visit to B.R. Cohn Winery in the Sonoma Valley. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery is known for its range of extra virgin olive oils, which includes an estate oil made entirely from a French variety called Picholine.
B.R. Cohn’s Picholine olives are the size of soybeans, and yield only about 25 gallons of oil per ton compared to 50 gallons for other varieties. “Because of its low yield at the press, not many people make olive oil from the Picholine,” winery president Dan Cohn said. “It’s very labor intensive.”
Even so, he believes the variety deserves to stand alone.
“Most of the wines we produce here are 100% Cabernet,” Cohn said. “I believe there’s something to be said about being true to the varietal.”
Cohn looks for a specific flavor profile in the Picholine oil that reflects the olive’s character. “I like a little grassiness in the front of the palate, then a little apple, then a little butter and just the right amount of pepper in the finish,” he said.
Seeking out varietal olive oil
Talking to Cohn about the winery’s prized Picholine oil made me wonder how common single-variety olive oils really are. A visit to my neighborhood market confirmed my suspicions: Of the two dozen extra virgin olive oils on the shelves, nearly all were multi-olive blends.
However, further investigation turned up a handful of merchants selling varietal olive oils online. Among them was a local operation called The Olive Press, which runs tasting rooms in Sonoma and the Napa Valley to showcase its blended and single-variety oils from California.
“Blends are popular because they allow millers to manipulate the overall delivery of an oil,” production manager Chris Gilmore said. “Some millers prefer to either round out or, in some cases, bolster robustness through the introduction of other varietals. This effort produces some very interesting oils, much like the blending of the central five Bordeaux varietals produces exceptional diversity in wine rather than highlighting just one.”
But there is also a dark side to blending. “Internationally, blending is largely an effort to mask inferior export oils headed for the United States,” Gilmore said. “The grim truth is that foreign exporters will ‘blend’ a high volume of defective oil with perhaps a bit of fresh oil in the hopes of giving some life to the product. The lower prices of these oils make them attractive despite the fact that they contain none of the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.”
Gilmore likes making single-variety olive oils because it allows him to showcase the aromas and flavors of individual varieties. “Each varietal displays characteristics unique to that type of fruit, much like a pinot grape holds vastly different potential than Cabernet,” he said. “To make a well-balanced single-varietal oil is both challenging and rewarding, and it’s what gets me excited every fall.”
Tasting the difference
To taste the differences for myself, I dropped in at The Olive Press and sampled an array of varietal olive oils. Vicki Zancanella, the tasting room’s resident olive oil expert, guided me through the offerings.
OILVE OIL LINKS
To order single-variety olive oils online, visit:
“A good extra virgin olive oil should have three things,” she said. “It should have fruitiness at the front of your palate, bitterness at the back and pungency as it goes down your throat.” And just as there are common descriptors for tasting wine, there are classic aromas and flavors in extra virgin olive oil, such as freshly cut grass and tomato leaves.
The varietal oils I tasted varied in intensity from delicate to robust, and showed a fascinating range of flavor profiles:
Arbosana: A delicate oil with a subtle aroma of banana peel, and mild bitterness at the back of the throat. Best for salads, mild greens and roasted vegetables.
Mission: Buttery, with aromas of grass, plums and tomatoes. Rich, with some bitterness on the finish. Ideal for cooking and baking.
Ascolano: Stone fruit aroma, and buttery on the palate, with peppery, pungent notes. Great for fruit salads and fresh tomatoes, or for baking.
Arbequina: A medium-intensity oil, with aromas of tomato leaves and forest floor. Some astringency on the palate, produces a nice burn at the back of the throat. Good for salads, or cooking chicken or fish.
Koroneiki: Robust, with fruity, herbaceous aromas. Smooth, creamy texture and prominent bitterness. Blend with balsamic vinegar for salad dressing or use for cooking hearty Greek fare.
Picual: Powerful “green” aroma of tomatoes, greens and tomato leaves. Quite bitter on palate, with green tomato notes and pungency at back of the throat. Drizzle lightly over caprese salads or simple pasta.
With so many flavors and uses to explore, it looks like I’m going to have to make room in my pantry for a few new bottles.
Main photo: B.R. Cohn likes to harvest its Picholine olives when they are half green and half purple. Credit: Courtesy of B.R. Cohn Winery
To a certain extent, all gardens are “unnatural.” We take a plot of land and bend it to our will, whether that is growing fruit and vegetables, flowers, lawns or even making a barbecue. Over the centuries, our gardens have changed beyond recognition from their natural state. So don’t worry too much about tampering with nature as you try to grow fruits and vegetables. The important thing to remember is that while it is perfectly possible to adapt the natural landscape, it is never worth going to battle against nature; in the long run, you will certainly lose.
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There are a few ways you can make your kitchen garden both easier to maintain and more productive. When choosing which fruits and vegetables to grow, it obviously makes sense to plant things you want to eat — in particular, crops that are hard to buy or do not travel well. It also pays to take the conditions in your garden into consideration. Is the soil damp or prone to drying out in hot weather? You will need a sunny spot for most fruits and vegetables, but how sheltered is it? Are there pockets that are particularly warm, or others that are at risk from late frosts? All these factors will influence what you will be able to grow successfully.
Much is often made of growing “native” plants, but it is frequently hard to tell exactly which crops are native. Many that seem firmly established were invaders years ago. Rather, chose crops that are suited to your environment. There is a reason why weeds always seem to thrive; the particular weeds in your garden have chosen to grow there. Whatever conditions you have, they are exactly what those particular weeds need. Choose your crops carefully, picking the ones that will like the conditions in your garden, and they will grow just as well, or even better than, the weeds.
The case against spraying aphids and other pests
If you are going to grow your own crops, it seems illogical to cover them with sprays and chemicals. Left to its own devices, nature will establish a balance of predators that will keep your garden healthy. If you spray plants at the first sight of, say, aphids, you will succeed in killing the pests, but you may also kill the good ladybirds and hoverflies in the garden. Even if they escape the spray, you will have killed their supply of food and, by the time the next batch of aphids emerges, there will be no good predators to eat them.
Remove the pests you see by hand and let the natural predators do the rest. Birds get bad press for eating fruits, but many do a vital job, eating slugs and snails. Surely for that help, and the beautiful birdsong, it is worth sharing a bit of your harvest? Your productive garden will soon develop a system of its own, and while you may not have complete control, you will have a healthy balance of beneficial predators that will protect your crops.
Plant breeding advances in the last 50 years mean that we now have a huge range of varieties to choose from. You can get blight-resistant potatoes, mildew-resistant gooseberries and wilt-resistant strawberries. If you know your garden is at risk, choose varieties that will not be vulnerable.
Making your own compost is one of the most important ways to harness the benefits of nature in your garden. It is easy, need not take up much space and will give you wonderful, nutritious organic matter with which to enrich your soil. It is not, or should not be, slimy or smelly. To see just how easy it is to make, watch this video.
In between your crops, set companion plants. Pollen-rich flowers such as Verbena bonariensis will attract the bees and other pollinating insects that are so vital in any productive garden. Other flowers such as nasturtiums, alliums and tansy (Tanecetum vulgare) can be used to deter woolly aphids and other pests in search of food. Sweet-smelling herbs such as rosemary, sage and lavender will disorient many pests and so protect your crops.
All gardening is about some level of control, but your plot will be a better place if you don’t turn it into a battle with nature. You will still be able to harvest fruits and vegetables, the garden will look lovely and you will get to relax, using nature’s resources rather than fighting them.
Main photo: A bee feeds on the blossom of a Meech’s Prolific quince. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter
On a crispy May morning, we gathered in the wheat fields of Fat Uncle Farms, right off Highway 246 in Lompoc, Calif. It was a spontaneous assemblage of Los Angeles-based chefs and bakers, a cooking school teacher, a miller, a photographer and myself, a noodle maker. We were eager to learn about landrace grains — carpooling 400 miles in one day to visit five grain farms in Southern California.
On that May day, Nathan Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms greeted us, his toddler son in his arms. Nathan is a third-generation almond farmer who began experimenting last year with landrace grains, ancient grains whose cultural and physical identities have been retained and improved by farmers for centuries and are nutrient rich, flavorful and at the core of biodiversity.
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Siemens wants to revive his grandfather’s sustainable practice of growing wheat as a crop rotation between the rows of almond trees after the nuts are harvested in order to maintain soil structure. He also wants to cultivate landrace grains to explore the growing interest in locally grown and milled flour.
A restored vintage All-Crop Harvester tractor circa 1960 stood next to his field. “In the short experience of using this machine, I can tell you that the main action of the combine happens right here,” Siemens explained, opening the metal door. “This rubberized component strikes the grains to dislodge them from the stalk and divides them up.”
Everyone looked inside with great curiosity. “Is that like winnowing?” asked Clemence Gossett, chef and owner of Gourmandise Cooking School in Santa Monica, Calif. “Yeah, that’s right,” Siemens said.
Roxana Jullapat, chef at Cooks County restaurant in Los Angeles, and Nicole Rucker, pastry chef at Gjelina in Los Angeles, both picked samples of Red Fife wheat to analyze the structure of the bristly awns. Jullapat broke off the green spike to taste the berry. “Sweet,” she exclaimed. The grains were still in their doughy stage. In a few months, they would turn hard and dry and be ready for harvest.
Seed grant to support local farmers
Among the visitors that day was Glenn Roberts of South Carolina’s Anson Mills, a renowned organic farmer and miller with a mission to support and improve lands through sustainable farming practices — growing grains, legumes and brasiccas in rotation, and animal husbandry.
The Anson Mills seed grant, which started more than a decade ago, has assisted regional grain hubs around the country, including Community Grains in Oakland, Calif., and Hayden Mills in Arizona. For the Los Angeles hub, the qualifying farmers had to be active farmers in Southern California and practitioners of sustainable agriculture. Each farmer grew on a small scale — between 5 acres and 20 acres of grains this year. Throughout the day, Roberts shared his tenet — about farming for flavor, not yield and farming for the soil, not the crop.
The spirit of grains
The cool wind was setting across the lush barley fields in a wave-like motion at Curt Davenport’s farm, The California Malting Co. in Santa Barbara County — the second farm we visited. Davenport was growing barley and Sonora wheat to produce malted grains for local microbreweries. He explained that the fields he is leasing have been used to grow barley and oats for years, but as an organic vegetable farmer, he wants to rotate wheat, barley, squash and other vegetables to maintain the health of the soils.
Dealing with the California drought
After picking up some tacos and burritos for lunch, we headed east for Tehachapi, Calif., to visit more farmers. As we traveled through the golden land, we couldn’t help notice the spell of drought. All the farmers we visited decided to use irrigation or partial irrigation to grow the grains except Jon Hammond of Linda Vista Ranch in Tehachapi, who opted for non-irrigation. When I talked to Hammond in February, he was concerned about the lack of precipitation. “We haven’t seen drought like this in 130 years,” he said. But since then, Tehachapi has had a few inches of rain and snow, which gave his wheat fields a boost.
We arrived in Tehachapi rather late, but managed to see another beautiful view of the undulating wheat fields. Hammond explained to us that such wind is called Wolf Wind — a concept that came from France, Germany and some of the Slavic countries, where they believe the grain fields are embraced with a spirit. A lot of us felt it strongly that day.
Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, famous for his fingerling potatoes, showed us his barley, rye and wheat fields. He collaborates with Hammond on grain-growing and animal husbandry projects — trying non-irrigation on Hammond’s wheat field and raising Gloustershire old spots pigs and chickens for pasture eggs and keeping an irrigated wheat field at Weiser’s Farms to grow seed for next season. “We are here to learn what kind of grains grow in our region,” Weiser said. “We will start small. We can learn together.”
Growing landrace grains is a novel attempt and one that may take awhile to make economic sense. But those who joined our tour that day said they felt these grains could be a worthy investment for everyone, for both environmental and culinary reasons. Before leaving, Weiser and Hammond gave Roberts an old key that Hammond found in the barn, perhaps one that belonged to his grandfather, also a farmer. We all figured it was the key to repatriate the way our ancestors grew grains — for flavor, hardiness and to maintain the health of the land. We all promised to be back for the harvest.
Which Swiss wines do you love? Hands? Anybody? Nobody? Know why? Only 2% of Switzerland’s wine production is exported. All the rest is consumed domestically. The best way — actually, the only way — to sample Swiss wines is to visit Switzerland. That’s what I did last fall.
The Valais’ microclimate
Having grown up with images of Switzerland as a land of snow-covered mountains, I expected cold weather when I visited the Valais, a French-speaking canton east of Geneva. But the climate was better suited to shorts and T-shirts than to parkas.
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Neatly trellised vineyards climb up steep hills taking advantage of a hot, dry microclimate. With 300 days of sun a year, the Valais feels like Napa and Sonoma except for the Matterhorn looming in the distance.
In Switzerland, family-owned vineyards and wineries (called vignerons-encaveurs) are the rule. Even if unprofitable, they stay in the family. We met one winemaker whose family was regarded as a newcomer. They had worked the vineyard for only three generations, whereas the neighboring farm had been owned by one family for seven generations. Neither winery was self-sustaining. Everyone had a day job.
During a hosted trip we tasted dozens of varietals from local vineyards, some with such a small output that customers who lived in the neighborhood consumed their entire production.
The wine most closely associated with the Valais is Fendant, a white wine made with the Chasselas grape. But it is a red wine, not a white, that is making news these days.
Cornalin, the new kid on the block
Twenty years ago the Swiss government encouraged farmers to plant improved strains of grapes that were indigenous to Switzerland and to pursue new blends with distinctive qualities. The goal was to expand the export market for Swiss wines.
In the Valais that led to the improvement of Cornalin, a grape that had been cultivated since the Roman Empire. Used primarily in blends to make inexpensive table reds, the wine was often bottled without appellation or date of production.
Rouge du Pays
Frequently confused with an Italian grape with a similar name, the Swiss variety (Rouge du Pays or Cornalin du Valais) is genetically distinct. In the 1990s the Agroscope Changins-Wädenswi, a federal agricultural agency, funded research to cultivate promising local strains to improve the quality of the grapes and the survivability of the vines. A group of young vintners adopting the appellation Le Coteaux de Sierre planted the new vines. Over time, the acreage in the Valais devoted to Cornalin has expanded.
The wines have a low-tannin, fruity flavor and a dark cherry red color. Helping market wines made with 100% Cornalin grapes, the wineries of the area have enlisted an unlikely champion.
Antoine Bailly is an internationally respected academic and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Geography, 2012). A native of Switzerland, Bailly travels the world as a lecturer. These days his passion project is Cornalin.
A Cornalin Museum: Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins
On a tour of the under-renovation Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Bailly pointed out details of the building, parts of which were built in the 13th and 16th centuries. Restored at great expense, the building is unique in the area for its history and architectural details. Open to the public in late August 2014, a photographic tour of the museum is available on a French language website.
In the tasting room, products from 17 of the local wineries can be sampled, along with cheeses and charcuterie from local purveyors. To visualize where the grape is grown, Bailly created an interactive map with the locations of the Cornalin vineyards in the Valais. Another interactive display with video screens illustrates the cultivation of the grape.
A temperamental grape
In the tasting room, with Bailly leading an animated discussion accompanied with appetizers of local cheeses and slices of beef sausage from Boucherie La Lienne in the village of Lens, we sampled several of the 100% Cornalin wines. Each of us had our favorite. Mine was the Bagnoud Cornalin, Coteaux de Sierra (2012) Rouge du Valais.
Bailly described the grape as difficult to grow and unstable. Slight variations in heat or rainfall can ruin the harvest. Through trial and error, the vintners have learned how to get the best out of the grape.
So why bother with such a temperamental grape? The answer was pretty direct. The vintners like the wine they’re making with Cornalin. For them, the extra effort and increased risk are worth it.
Cornalin needs three years in the bottle to mature. With the vintages currently offered for sale, these wines will be at their best just about the time the museum opens. Bailly invited us all to come back then. In the meantime, we bought bottles of our favorites to bring home. We had become little agents of export for Swiss wines.
Top photo: The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey. Credit: David Latt
Herbs look good, smell good and do you good. They also instantly elevate any meal from quotidian to sensational, transforming the simplest sandwich or salad into a gourmet occasion. Best of all, anyone can grow them. No green thumb or backyard required.
Because most herbs are not far removed from their wild ancestors, they don’t need to be coddled and will do just fine in a pot on a windowsill or porch, as long as you give them a well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine.
Five Easy Tips For Growing Your Own
What herbs should I plant? Choose the ones you like and will indulge in often. Many people go for parsley, basil and thyme, but you may also want oregano for your tomato salads, mint for your mojitos and lemon verbena just to brush your fingers against for a hit of aromatherapy. Whatever you decide to plant, you’ll soon find that your homegrown herbs are better than any store-bought ones because there’s no time for the volatile oils to disappear between the time you pick the herbs and the time you eat them.
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Seeds or starts? Seeds are very economical, particularly if you’re going to grow and use a lot of herbs. But seeds can take a couple of weeks just to germinate, so you may have to wait a few months from the time you plant to the time you begin to harvest. If you need only a few herb plants, and want to start enjoying them sooner than later, it’s best to buy starts.
Where should I get my starts? Although home and garden centers often carry herb starts, you generally don’t know much about them, including whether the variety will do well in your area, whether the plants were hardened off or what chemicals may have been used on them.
When you buy your starts from local farmers, you can ask about their practices and about the specific varieties. A local farmer tends to choose varieties that are hardy, tasty and suited to your soils and climate, and can help you choose what you want. Summer or winter savory? Lemon or Thai basil? Chocolate or mojito mint? They also can give you tips about how to plant, nurture and harvest what you buy.
Speaking of harvesting, too many websites tell you to pluck individual leaves of basil or snip chives a few inches above the ground. Any farmer will tell you that if you want fresh basil leaves all summer long, you should cut a whole branch, leaving a few leaves at the base where new branches will come out. Chives should be cut just under the surface of the soil, so that tender new leaves will emerge. When treated right, the more you take from herb plants, the more they give back.
Where should I plant my herbs? Most herbs will do well indoors, but they tend to be more productive when grown outdoors, either in a pot or in the ground. Whether you choose indoors or outdoors, be sure they have lots of sunshine and a well-drained soil, and plant them close to your kitchen so you’ll get into the habit of using them every day.
What if I have more than I can use? Rejoice! Dry any extra and put it in a tight-lidded jar to use all winter long or to give as gifts. Or make a fresh herb bouquet for yourself or your friends and neighbors. Herbs will last longer than flowers, give off wonderful aromas and you can graze the bouquet every time you walk by.
An herb a day
Most people naturally think about the kitchen uses for herbs, but long before they were culinary, herbs were medicinal and their healing properties are what people have valued throughout most of human history. Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal medicines had been used and passed down orally for thousands of years before they were finally written down.
In Western cultures, herbal medicine can be traced back to Hippocrates, often called the father of modern medicine, whose gentle treatments were based on the healing power of nature. Famous herbalists who followed Hippocrates’ famous dictum, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” include Avicenna from Persia, Galen from Rome, Paracelsus from Germany and Culpepper from England. Most of the first modern pharmaceuticals came from herbs, and even today about a quarter of our drugs have botanical origins.
When you grow your own herbs, you get all the medicinal and culinary properties for mere pennies. So forget the poor substitute of dried basil, forgo the last-minute dash to the supermarket for overpriced basil and reach over to snip a stem from your very own plant. It’ll be good for your body, your budget and your taste buds.
Quick and Easy Herb Vinaigrette
This flexible dressing can be used on a lettuce or spinach salad, potatoes, green beans, pasta or as a dip for bread. Feel free to substitute whatever herbs you have on hand, in any amount you like.
2 tablespoons white wine or sherry vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs of your choice (favorites include thyme, tarragon, chervil, chives and/or parsley)
Whisk the vinegar and salt, then slowly whisk in the oil. Stir in the herbs and use immediately.
Main photo: Lavender. Credit: Terra Brockman