Articles in Technique

This spring, be kind to the bats, bees, birds and toads that help your garden. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Jensen

The garden is bursting just now with unopened blooms, with thousands of peonies, irises and poppies, all swelling in their bloom buds on the eve of spring’s main riot. And the gardener’s mind is teeming with thoughts of what needs to be done in the vegetable garden to get ready for the explosive growth of spring. So this is the perfect moment to think what we can do to help the great helpers of the garden: birds and bees, toads and bats.

In our rambling old house with its maze of attics, we have a strong colony of bees that live with us. Every spring, a huge swarm emerges and forms on the north eaves at the top of the house outside the kids’ playroom, before flying off to begin a new colony. It is much larger than a basketball and very dense, with great gobs of honey dripping all over the patio. It is quite a mess but we love the free honey, which doesn’t get any more organic and local than that.

Be kind to bees

It's simple to buy or build habitats for bees that require no attention from the gardener. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener's Supply Company

It’s simple to buy or build habitats for bees that require no attention from the gardener. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener’s Supply Company

Global crops pollinated by bees are worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. But all over the world, bee colonies are under stress and many are suffering from the devastating phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), where the worker bees disappear and leave behind only the queen, some food and a few nurse bees.

CCD has doubled the normal rate of colony loss in recent years and is causing drastic agricultural impacts. Imagine a world without bees or merely where they are rare — it’s unthinkable, really. Experts are not sure what is causing CCD, but heavily implicated are a class of powerful insecticides called neonicotinoids.

What can we do to help? Well, a great place to start would be with the American Beekeeping Federation. For people willing to explore beekeeping, you can learn there how to go about it. Short of becoming a beekeeper, there are many things you can do to help. If you have space in your garden, you can let a local beekeeper install and care for a beehive; you get all the benefits of the busy bees in the garden, and the beekeeper gets a place for his hive. It’s also very simple to build or buy habitats for orchard mason bees that require no attention from the gardener, and you can get them from sources like Gardener’s Supply Company.

Going to bat for creatures of the night

Bats are also a great help as a pollinator and as a voracious insectivore. Credit: Courtesy of BestNest, Inc.

Bats are also a great help as pollinators and as voracious insectivores. Credit: Courtesy of BestNest Inc.

Bats are also a great help to the gardener, both as pollinators and as voracious insectivores, though many people are squeamish about them. They also live in some of our attic spaces and we benignly look the other way, for all the good they do in the garden; what a joy it is to see them swooping through the evening garden, ridding us of all manner of nuisance bugs. Each bat eats a third of its body weight in insects every night, and several hundred insects in just a few hours. If bats were ever to become extinct, our planet would be overrun with insect pests and we would live in a nightmare world.

It is easy and interesting to have bats live in your garden, and you do not have to have them in your attic as we do. All you need to do is hang a handsome cedar bat shelter in a quiet part of the garden and let these helpful creatures do the rest. A good source is BestNest.com, and there are many others.

Make your garden toad-friendly

Toads may not be cute, but they will eat thousands of pests in one summer. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener's Supply Company

Toads may not be cute, but they will eat thousands of pests in one summer. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener’s Supply Company

"The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty"

By David Jensen

Morgan James Publishing, 2016, 282 pages

» Click here to buy the book

Have you seen any toads in your garden lately? Toads do not have many friends, though it is hard to see why, but for an unreasoning prejudice against their appearance and thousands of years of superstition against them. Just one ordinary toad can devour thousands and thousands of garden pests in a single summer. If you are plagued by slugs and cutworms, as so many gardeners are, this is the helpmate for you.

They should be part of every healthy garden, and if you do not have friendly toads around the place, you can also provide a habitat that will attract them. Any sort of covered shelter will do, and you can certainly improvise your own but there are also good commercial providers, like Gardener’s Supply Company, and the National Wildlife Federation is a good source for general information about these great helpers and how to make your garden toad-friendly.

And we all like birds, right? They will strip your garden of insect pests faster than anything. What all these helpers have in common is that they will come to you if your garden is free or nearly free of insecticides and other chemicals. This spring, consider ending or at least curbing your reliance on chemicals in the garden. Let your garden heal, and enjoy the delightful, diverse company of these healthy garden helpers.

Main photo: This spring, be kind to the bats, bees, birds and toads that help your garden. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Jensen

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Each species of mushroom grows in a very specific habitat. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Foraging for wild mushrooms can be a fun way for food lovers to enjoy being outdoors before bringing home ingredients for a gourmet meal. However, without years of experience, mushroom hunting can be an exercise in frustration. These insider tips can help you find greater success in your quest.

Be 100% certain of identification

Always be certain you’ve identified mushrooms correctly. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Always be certain you’ve identified mushrooms correctly. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

The first rule of mushroom hunting is to never eat a mushroom unless you are certain that you’ve correctly identified it. One of the best ways to safely learn about mushrooms is to go on a foray with an expert. Seek out your local mycological society. They lead walks for people of all knowledge levels, identifying mushrooms with experienced hunters. These events often end with a mushroom tasting.

Additionally, make certain you know the regulations regarding mushroom collecting in your area. Even if there are no limits or permits issued where you live, obey the greater laws of not taking more than you can use and never leaving a place less beautiful than you found it.

Know your trees

Know your trees. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Know your trees. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Each species of mushroom grows in a very specific habitat. Mushrooms tend grow in association with a particular tree. If you don’t know how to identify the trees where you are hunting, mushroom foraging is a shot in the dark. Save your time and focus your efforts by researching which tree your desired mushroom grows near or upon.

Scout locations in the off-season

Scout your foraging grounds in the off-season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Erica Marciniec

Scout your foraging grounds in the off-season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Erica Marciniec

The act of seeking out and collecting mushrooms is time-consuming. When mushroom season comes around, you’ll want to target areas where you have the best chance of finding them. Take advantage of times outside prime mushroom season to walk new trails, carefully noting habitat.

Mine the Internet

Mine the Internet for information. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Mine the Internet for information. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Your local mushroom club more than likely has social media groups where you can post questions, arrange forays and share pictures. You can use that information for clues about when and where to hunt. If many people in your region start to share pictures of the mushroom you desire, then you know it is time to hit your favorite spot.

When it comes to searching the Internet for mushroom hunting information, don’t underestimate unusual sources. Hiking blogs will often mention what kinds of trees are alongside a trail and will share pictures of “toadstools” seen on the hike. If you know that fly agarics grow in the same area as porcini, and you see a picture of a red-capped mushroom with white spots on a hiking blog, you’ll know it’s a trail where you’d have a good chance of finding fungal gold.

Keep a journal

Keep a journal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Keep a journal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Note the date and location of your forays, which species you saw, what the conditions looked like (Is the ground too dry or too wet? Is a particular flower in bloom, or a kind of fruit ripe?), as well has the number or weight of each species of mushrooms you collect. Also, record the weather patterns in the time leading up to and during mushroom season. This information is invaluable in learning the fruiting patterns of mushrooms, as well as predicting when and where a flush will occur from year to year.

Learn a few less-loved edible mushrooms

Sarcodon imbricatus is a lesser known edible. Credit: Copyright 2015 Erica Marciniec

Sarcodon imbricatus is a lesser known edible. Credit: Copyright 2015 Erica Marciniec

If you know every hunter in your area will be looking for a choice mushroom, it’s nice to know some less obvious edibles in case an area has already been picked over, or isn’t flushing. In the Rockies, a mushroom that looks like a hawk’s wing, Sarcodon imbricatus, grows in the same habitat as porcini. Some don’t know it is edible, others find its flavor too strong, so it isn’t often harvested. However, it’s a wonderful mushroom to dry for the pantry because that beefy mushroom flavor gives muscle to deep-winter dishes such as stew.

Field dress your foraging finds

Field dressing a porcini. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Field dressing a porcini. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Mushroom knives almost always come with a brush attached to aid in cleaning at the time of harvest. Gilled, pored, and toothed undersides of caps grab onto dirt and won’t let go when dirty mushrooms are jumbled together for the ride home. Field dressing saves time in the long run.

Be prepared for bugs

A worm in a porcini. Credit: Copyright 2015 Erica Marciniec

A worm in a porcini. Credit: Copyright 2015 Erica Marciniec

Mushroom hunting can be a dirty affair in the obvious way. Stalking through the forest, plucking mushrooms and kneeling on the ground can leave you filthy. What may not be known to the novice is that many species of mushrooms are as loved by bugs as they are by humans. You may think you’ve found a beautiful specimen, only to discover that it’s riddled with squirmy larvae.

Factor in cleaning time

Be sure to factor in cleaning time. Linda Marciniec works to clean freshly foraged mushrooms. Copyright 2015 Erica Marciniec

Be sure to factor in cleaning time. Linda Marciniec works to clean freshly foraged mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2015 Erica Marciniec

You’ve have had a glorious day on the trail, joyfully picking pounds and pounds of your favorite mushroom. When you get home, all you want to do is take a shower and kick up your feet. Not so fast! Mushrooms are perishable, and some, particularly ones that may have bugs inside, should be cleaned and cooked or prepared for storage immediately. Depending upon the species and how many you have collected, this can take quite a bit of time and tends to feel tedious compared to the high of finding wild edible mushrooms. The task of cleaning mushrooms is undoubtedly made more pleasant by good company and a nice drink.

Learn how to store each species of mushroom

Mushrooms drying in jars. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Mushrooms drying in jars. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

There is no one method that is fit for preserving all mushrooms. Porcini excel as dried mushrooms. Their flavor actually concentrates and improves. Chanterelles, on the other hand, lose their magical aroma and silky texture when dried, and are better frozen. Knowing how each species is best preserved saves the frustration of discovering too late that the mushrooms you put up are no longer as tasty as they could be.

Main photo: Each species of mushroom grows in a very specific habitat. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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Cattails. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ellen Zachos

Cattails have been described as the grocery store of the wild because every part of the plant is edible. During the growing season, three of these parts — shoots, flowers and pollen — provide easily accessed and versatile food for foragers.

Better yet, these parts of the cattail offer analogs to familiar flavors such as cucumber and corn, which means that even those dubious of wild food might enjoy them. Euell Gibbons treasured cattails, “For the number of different kinds of food it produces there is no plant, wild or domesticated, which tops the common cattail.”

Sometimes growing 9 feet tall and best recognized in late summer by their brown cigar-shaped flowers, both broadleaf (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaf cattail (T. angustifolia) are edible, and can be used interchangeably. Though widely available, care must be taken to harvest cattail from a clean location because the plant grows in marshy areas, which can be contaminated.

Whether you live in the city or the country, use caution when choosing a place to pick cattails, particularly cattail shoots. Consider what the water looks and smells like where you are harvesting, as well as what may be upstream. In the city, drainage from streets and golf courses can make water unsafe for collecting food. Rural locations can look pristine, but beware of agricultural runoff.

Finding the right place to forage

Cattails in water. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattails in water. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Perhaps the best known edible part of cattail, the tender core of the growing leaves, is commonly referred to as the shoot. Cattail shoots are best before the plant begins to flower. To harvest cattail shoots, peel back the outer two or three leaves, firmly grasp the remaining leaves with both hands, and give the plant a tug. You will have in your hands something that looks like an enormous leek.

Peel back more leaves until the lower end is a creamy pale white. Cut off all of the dark green leaves so that you are left with a heart of cattail. If you feel certain you have harvested your cattail shoots from a clean location, do a taste test.

Some people feel a scratchy sensation at the back of the throat when eating raw cattails. If so, skip eating them raw. If you don’t feel the itchy sensation, delight in the crunchy and satisfyingly cucumber taste of cattail shoots. They can be used in all the dishes for which you’d traditionally use cucumber, from salad to tzatziki to refreshing yogurt soup.

Making the most of cattail shoots

Cattail shoots. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattail shoots. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattail shoots are also fantastic when cooked. They can simply be chopped and added to stir-fries and side dishes. They are especially good when blanched, dressed in oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and lightly grilled.

When cattail flowers emerge, they are well disguised by sheaths of leaves, much like slender ears of corn. Cattail flowers are made up of two parts. The upper portion is male and will go on to produce pollen. The lower portion is female and is what remains and turns into the recognizable brown sausage-shaped punk later in the year.

In narrow-leaf cattail, the male and female portion are separated by a small bit of spike, whereas the broad-leaf cattail, the two bits are connected. The upper, male, portion of the cattail flower is what is traditionally harvested, as it provides a greater amount of edible material than the female bit.

Cattail flowers — just like corn on the cob

Preparing cattail flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Preparing cattail flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Look to collect cattail flowers as they begin to emerge from their sheath, and simply cut the upper portion off with a pair of scissors or a knife.

To enjoy cattail flowers, steam them whole for 10 minutes. If you have children around, they may enjoy eating the cooked cattail flowers with a bit of butter and salt, like miniature corn-on-the-cob, though care must be taken not to ingest the inedible toothpick-like core of cattail flowers.

Cattail flowers may also be stripped off their inner core using an upside down fork. Using this method, it is quite simple to prepare a large amount of flowers in a short period of time.

Cattail flowers have a surprisingly sweet and mellow flavor, not unlike corn. They may be prepared simply, with nothing more than garlic butter and salt. Cattail flowers also work well in egg dishes and soups.

The special treat of cattail pollen

Cattail pollen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattail pollen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Perhaps the most delightful part of the cattail to eat is its bright yellow pollen.

Look for cattail flowers that are loaded with yellow pollen, like a mop heavy with dust, and collect it by shaking the top portion of the cattail flower into a milk jug or half-gallon Mason jar, either in the field or snipped off and done at home.

Cattail pollen can be substituted into 1/3 of the flour in most recipes for baked goods, from pancakes to muffins and breads. Cattail pollen can also be used to add a sunny color and subtle milky corn flavor to rice dishes.

 Main photo: Cattails. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ellen Zachos

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A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett

Malt is a fairly mysterious ingredient, but craft beer is about to change that.

Like milling helps turn wheat into bread, malting helps turn barley and other grains into beer. Malting is the process of germinating (sprouting) and then kilning grains, which allows access to the starches and enzymes necessary for fermentation.

The importance of malt

The one-ton malting system at Niagara Malt allows for steeping, germination, and kilning all in the same tank. Equipment for small-scale malting is not commercially available, so a lot of innovation is accompanying the rise of the micro-malting industry. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

“The one-ton malting system at Niagara Malt allows for steeping, germination and kilning all in the same tank. Equipment for small-scale malting is not commercially available, so a lot of innovation is accompanying the rise of the micro-malting industry,” Bob Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Malt’s job is not strictly functional, though. Different types of malt contribute flavors and other elements to the final product. Malt is to beer what stock is to soup, as brewer John Mallett writes in his book, “Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse.”

“As craft beer has exploded in popularity, hops have often been seen as the sexy ingredient in beer,” he says. Mallett is the director of Bell’s Brewery in Michigan. “On first glance, malt seems kind of dull, but it actually contributes the key attributes that largely define beer, including color, flavor, foam, body and, eventually through fermentation, alcohol.”

Craft malthouses opening

Two-row barley is the choice of most craft brewers. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

“Two-row barley is the choice of most craft brewers,” Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

At one time, malting was a domestic chore, same as baking bread. Prohibition and changes in farming helped consolidate the industry and put the production largely out of sight. Now, in response to curiosity about this ingredient, craft malthouses are opening across the nation. New York State has more than its fair share.

This is because New York created a friendly environment for micro and nano brewing with the Farm Brewery Law. This licensing, which went into effect at the beginning of 2013, requires that breweries use a percentage of state-grown products. A revival of hops production was already underway, and the law nudged along the boom in malt. Nine malthouses are in operation across the state, and more are in the works.

Brewing at the local level

Newly cured malt is shoveled out into storage super sacks for the resting period. After kilning, the malt has been stressed by high temperatures and needs to rest for several weeks. The malt will also mellow and develop a pronounced "biscuit" aroma and flavor, much prized by English brewers. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Newly cured malt is shoveled into storage super sacks for the resting period. After kilning, the malt has been stressed by high temperatures and needs to rest for several weeks. “The malt will also mellow and develop a pronounced ‘biscuit’ aroma and flavor, much prized by English brewers,” Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

“It’s been exciting learning a whole new skill, one that’s been pretty much forgotten,” says Bob Johnson, who runs Niagara Malt. A professor of plant ecology and biochemistry at Medaille, a small liberal arts college in Buffalo, Johnson also grows hops, and farms and malts barley. “Malting is relegated to big commodity houses, and it’s nice bringing this whole process … to the local level.”

Buffalo had several malthouses, he notes, and three of its mayors were maltsters. Johnson says regional products lend distinctive flavors to beer.

“Plants really have an intimate contact with the soil,” Johnson says. “I’m at the base of the escarpment and all my soils are very limey; sitting at the base of a limestone cliff — my soils are very sweet as they say. That gives a flavor. The microorganisms in soil strongly influence the health and metabolism of plants.”

Setting standards

Bob Johnson loads barley fresh from the field into a tote for storage before malting. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Johnson loads barley fresh from the field into a tote for storage before malting. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

His adventures in making ingredients began with a taste for fuller flavored beers. “I realized the chemicals I was enjoying so much were from hops,” he says. Intrigued, he started to look into hop farming. Three years ago he planted 1,200 plants but lost half of them to drought. Hearing rumblings of the Farm Brewery Law, he realized there was going to be a programmed demand for hops and malt. This gave him the courage to replant and buy some equipment. His hop yard covers 1 1/2 acres and has 1,400 plants.

Johnson malts in the original malting system designed by pioneering Western Massachusetts maltsters Valley Malt. This system malts 1 ton of grain at a time, carrying out all the procedures, from steeping through germination (sprouting) and kilning in a single tank.

As he explores malting, Johnson also benefits by being a member of The Craft Maltsters Guild, which was formed last year to help shape the burgeoning industry by setting standards for production, performance and sourcing, and building a network for sharing information.

Tremendous potential

A field of rye in front of the malthouse at Niagara Malt in New York. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

A field of rye in front of the malthouse at Niagara Malt in New York. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Given the rise of the craft beer market, the potential for growth in small-scale malting is tremendous, and New York has created an economic architecture to help develop that potential.

Private/public partnerships are helping to build momentum. Cornell University is researching what varieties of malting barleys are suited to the climate. Greenmarket Regional Grains Project is pairing farmers, maltsters and brewers for collaborations and otherwise working to raise awareness of the local agricultural products. Entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunities in beer. New York has 210 craft breweries, and 78 of those are farm breweries.

“Farm brewers have to use 20 percent New York ingredients,” says Paul Leone, director of the New York State Brewers Association. (The rate will change as the region’s capacity to produce local products increases.) “The market is there automatically for that group, but beyond the license every brewery in the state would use local ingredients.”

A steep learning curve

A field in Niagara County is newly planted with Wintmalt, a German two-row barley. Winter malting barley is usually planted in late September, and spring malting barley is planted in April. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

A field in Niagara County is newly planted with Wintmalt, a German two-row barley. Winter malting barley is usually planted in late September and spring malting barley is planted in April, Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

For now, use is limited by quality and price. Farming malting barley in a region that hasn’t done so for almost a century is a steep learning curve. Commodity malts cost significantly less than craft malts, and beer is thirsty for grains. Even if there were no difference in price, New York could not supply all its breweries. The largest of the new craft-malting facilities in the state only produce three tons a week. A ton of malt can only make about 13 to 15 barrels of beer, or about 26 to 30 kegs.

“What’s unique about New York State and craft beer is that at one point we owned the hop industry. It’s a natural progression to own it again, or a share of it,” Leone says. “Beer does have a certain terroir. The barley that’s grown here and the way that its malted here is going to be a little different than when it’s from out West, same as the hops. Brewers have an ability to engineer their own flavor profile that’s uniquely New York.”

Main photo: A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett

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In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Copyright Tina Caputo

Let’s say you bought some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a local nursery to plant a vineyard. You decided on Cabernet because you determined that this particular grape variety would be best for your location because of its soil type, sun exposure and climate. But then a worrisome thought enters your head: What if the vines aren’t Cabernet Sauvignon after all, but some other less-suited variety? What if the nursery somehow got them mixed up with Sauvignon Blanc vines? That would be a mighty costly mistake.

You could pray, sweat and grind your teeth until the first grape clusters appear, and then wait some more until they change color and mature enough for you to figure out the vines’ true identity. Or, you could call an ampelographer.

Ampelography is a type of grapevine botany that uses the physical traits of grape leaves to identify varieties. Grape leaves vary quite a bit between varieties, so a skilled ampelographer can easily distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc.

Expert ampelographer

Lucie Morton is a world-renowned ampelographer and vineyard consultant. Credit: Tina Caputo

Lucie Morton is a world-renowned ampelographer and vineyard consultant. Credit: Copyright Tina Caputo

In the world of ampelography, it would be hard to find a more renowned practitioner than Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, who travels around the country lending her expertise to grape growers and vintners.

Among Morton’s clients is one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc producers, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which flew her out to the Napa Valley earlier this month to teach an ampelography class. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop, and learn some tips from a master.

Before taking us into the vineyard, Morton explained the background and basics of vine identification. Lesson number one: “Looking at clusters is cheating.”

Mistaken identity

In the early days of the California wine industry, American vintners often brought back vine cuttings from Europe to plant in their vineyards. Sometimes, the varieties were not identified correctly, or were known in their native country by a different name than the one used by the rest of the world.

In the 1970s Morton began to discover that some vines planted in American vineyards were misidentified. For example, she said, in the Finger Lakes region of New York people used to say that the Chardonnay grown there tasted “Germanic,” due to the area’s cold climate. The real reason was because their “Chardonnay” was actually Riesling.

Up until the early 80s, nearly all of the “Pinot Blanc” planted in California was not Pinot Blanc but a French variety called Melon de Bourgogne. An ampelographer — Morton’s teacher, Pierre Galet — set the record straight. “It does not make you popular, pointing out other people’s mistakes,” Morton told the class.

Even so, her skills are in demand, even in the modern world of high-tech viticulture. Although DNA testing can identify varieties, Morton pointed out, it can’t distinguish between clones. Ampelography can. “There’s still practical value in this skill,” she said.

Anatomy of a grape leaf

According to Lucie Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include their lobes, petiolar sinuses and teeth. It's also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

According to Lucie Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include their lobes, petiolar sinuses and teeth. It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

According to Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include:

Lobes: If you imagine the leaf as a hand, the lobes would be the individual fingers that extend outward. Some leaves have prominent lobes, other leaves are shield-shaped and have none.

Petiolar sinus: This is the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, others are very narrow.

Teeth: These are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp, others are rounded.

It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves.

In the vineyard

Students in Lucie Morton’s ampelography class examine vine leaves to identify the corresponding grape varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Students in Lucie Morton’s ampelography class examine vine leaves to identify the corresponding grape varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Providing each of us with a list of defining characteristics for several different grape varieties, Morton sent us out into St. Supery’s Dollarhide vineyard and challenged us to bring her back a leaf from each variety. If we got it wrong, we went back to try again.

Identifying the vines was more difficult than I expected. In a given vineyard row, not all of the leaves are identical, even among the same variety. Just when I would think I had a match, I’d notice that one of the distinguishing elements wasn’t quite right: The teeth were rounded instead of triangular or the surface was smooth instead of leathery. Each time I was sent back for another leaf, I came to respect Morton’s skill a little more.

Defining characteristics

Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Morton calls this leaf the “monkey face” or the “mask,” because when held with its tip facing up, it looks like it has eye and mouth holes. It has five lobes, rounded teeth and an open (or naked) petiolar sinus.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Chardonnay. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This is a shield-shaped leaf, with shallow, sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus. The vine’s young shoots will have red nodes that are distinctive to Chardonnay.

Merlot

Merlot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Merlot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This leaf is longer than it is wide, with five prominent lobes, an open petiolar sinus and deep triangular teeth. It’s yellowish in color, with a waffled, leathery texture.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This five-lobed leaf is green in color, with a wavy texture. It has a narrow, almost-closed petiolar sinus, a round shape and rounded teeth. The lobes have three prominent troughs that resemble spouts from a fountain.

Malbec

Malbec. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Malbec. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This leaf is a heart-shaped shield, with a relatively narrow petiolar sinus and shallow pointy teeth. It has a puffy, quilted look and a thick, leathery texture.

Main photo: In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Tina Caputo

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The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

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

pizza crusts

Pizza crusts are baked in a hearth oven at Red Hen, using organic flour. Credit: Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

“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

Sacks of bran

Sacks of bran outside the Le Moulin des Cedres mill. Credit: Copyright 2014 Loic Dewavrin

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.

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

Wheat fields

Wheat fields at Les Fermes Longpres farm. Credit: Copyright 2014 Loic Dewavrin

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

local flour

The bread at Red Hen Baking Co. carries a sign touting the locally sourced flour. Credit: Copyright Randy George

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.

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Foraging basket with wild greens asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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.

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)

Dandelion, the iconic weed, may be one of the most versatile in the kitchen, as it can be eaten root to tip. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Dandelion, the iconic weed, may be one of the most versatile in the kitchen, as it can be eaten root to tip. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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 mustards, relatives of broccoli and kale, bring zest and bitterness to recipes. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Wild mustards, relatives of broccoli and kale, bring zest and bitterness to recipes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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.)

If you like the lemony flavor of sorrel, you may well enjoy dock, which can substituted for spinach in all of your favorite recipes. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

If you like the lemony flavor of sorrel, you may well enjoy dock, which can substituted for spinach in all of your favorite recipes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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)

Invasive knotweed looks a bit like asparagus when it is newly emerged, the best time for harvest. Its hollow shoots are tart and tangy, somewhat like rhubarb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Invasive knotweed looks a bit like asparagus when it is newly emerged, the best time for harvest. Its hollow shoots are tart and tangy, somewhat like rhubarb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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)

Asparagus is an excellent plant to begin your foraging journey, because it looks identical to that which can be purchased at the store. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Asparagus is an excellent plant to begin your foraging journey, because it looks identical to that which can be purchased at the store. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

 

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

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Damian Magista tends to a rooftop hive in Portland, Ore. Credit: Copyright Bee Local

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

bee tending

After several years working with his hives and learning how to read the bees based on their behaviors
and buzzing, Magista got to the point where he no longer felt like he had to wear the bee suit every time. Credit: Copyright Bee Local

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.”

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

Local artisanal honey

The company’s place-based honeys, from light amber to rich, dark caramel, harness the setting where they are created, places such as the Willamette Valley, the city of Portland, hops farms and vineyards. Credit: Copyright Ryan LeBrun

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

A honeycomb in Oregon.

Most commercial honeys are not pure — they contain corn syrup and other additives and are created with uniformity in mind. Bee Local is more like wine — each hive is a world unto itself, as is each honey created there. Credit: Copyright Nolan Calish

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

Bee hives are set in Portland.

The settings where hives can thrive are diverse. In Portland alone, Bee Local has 15 locations, including
partnerships with roof-top restaurants and hotels. All of them are secret, to preserve the bees’ privacy. Credit: Copyright Kyle Johnson

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

Traditional beekeeping ways are used in Oregon.

In a world where colony collapse disorder is threatening bee populations, Bee Local’s methods invest in traditional ways to ensure bee colonies thrive. The company avails itself of old-school approaches to beekeeping, using no pesticides and keeping hives placed in one location. Credit: Copyright Ryan LeBrun

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

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