Articles in Technique
Regionally sourcing flour for 15,000 pounds of bread a week is the equivalent of a lunar landing, but in Vermont one bakery has found the way to do so. Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. By the end of this year, all of the flour that the bakery uses will come from within a 150-mile radius.
“As a baker, it’s a real luxury to have the same wheat all the time,” said Randy George, of Red Hen Baking Co. The Vermont baker spoke about local flour with Quebec farmer Loic Dewavrin at the Northern Grain Growers Association conference in March, in Essex, Vermont. The two have an uncommon partnership.
Such leaps forward don’t register as significant to consumers because growing grains and making flour are almost invisible processes. However, the farmers, bakers and food advocates at the conference appreciated this achievement, and listened hard for details of the challenges en route to this success story.
The importance of local flour
“Normally, you will see some variation from flour lot to flour lot. You can never count on complete consistency,” George said. The typical roller mill draws wheat from a variety of sources, but the flour from Le Moulin des Cedres all comes from wheat grown by Dewavrin and his family at their organic farm, Les Fermes Longpres.
“Roller mills are incredibly expensive infrastructure. I never heard of one that was on a farm,” he said.
Stone mills located on farms are not uncommon. This type of mill is relatively simple to run and inexpensive to purchase. Roller mills, however, are industrial-scale equipment. Les Fermes Longpres, located just west of Montreal, recently finished assembling a small roller mill. The family took four years to complete the project, using parts from a defunct French roller mill and doing much of the work themselves to minimize the investment.
A family mill makes uniform flour
At Le Moulin des Cedres, the Dewavrin family mills wheat grown on the farm. With an eye toward evening out seasonal irregularities, the flour is made from a combination of two years’ crops. This is why baker George was marveling at having access to uniform flour.
All mills use raw materials that are products of nature and have a wide range of potential expression. Since roller mills pool wheat from multiple sources, the result can vary. Even with careful testing of grains to try to keep the range within limited parameters, mills are blending wheat from many different climates and micro climates, from many different farms with various cultivation, harvest and storage habits, and the flour and its performance changes accordingly.
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Le Moulin des Cedres is unique, but exemplary of the farm’s approach. When Dewavrin returned to the family farm after a career as an industrial engineer, he and his brothers began to convert a conventional corn-soy crop farm into a more diversified organic operation. This was in pursuit of a system that could support the brothers financially, and support the farm’s health and long-term viability.
To make the most of what they grew, the brothers sought methods to capture crop value on the farm and avoid selling crops into the commodity market as much as possible. Making sunflower oil was the first value-added process they tackled. Next, they considered whether to do something with the soy they grew, or the wheat. After investigating the markets, they saw that what they could do with soy didn’t hold as much promise. Flour seemed the best route. There was enough whole-grain, stone-milled flour, however, and bakers had expressed interest in locally grown and produced white flour.
Keeping the integrity of the crop
The idea of having full command of the crop from seed to selling had great appeal to the Dewavrin family. Without running a mill themselves, their production was mixed with grains from other farms.
“Our goal was to keep the integrity of the crop,” Dewavrin explained. Selling wheat to a mill meant their crops were mixed with many others. “We lost the purity of the product and the controlled efforts we put into it.”
Les Fermes Longpres is a very careful farm. The family puts a lot of thought into crop rotations, tillage, and other ways of building good soil, the basic tenet of organic farming.
For the mill, they also worked hard on wheat quality issues, from selecting plant varieties to combating diseases and pests that challenge wheat in the field, and in storage. They began milling slowly last year, determined to understand the process and create a good flour for bakers.
A bakery-mill collaboration
Feedback from bakeries like Red Hen, one of the few bakeries using the mill’s limited supply, helped in this area. In response to what George observed when baking with Les Cedres’ early mill runs, Dewavrin increased the level of starch damage slightly to improve the baking quality of the flour.
“Damaged starch” is an odd term. While it sounds like a bad thing, it’s just milling terminology for opening up the starch granules.
“Getting just the right amount of ‘damage’ is critical so that the flour is in the right state for the baker to continue the ‘damage’ in the baking process,” George said. All mills have to get this right, so the adjustment made is not unique. But the way that the correction came about, through the baker communicating with the farmer/miller was entirely different than the norm.
Leaps forward in decentralizing the production of staple crops don’t register as significant, not yet. But the more that bakers seek local flour, and the more that farmers seek noncommodity marketing options, the more consumers will learn to understand and appreciate the small food mountains people are moving.
Main photo: The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.
Spring has finally lifted her sleepy head, and while your garden veggies may not yet be ready to harvest, there are edible wild greens popping up all over that will enable you to enjoy the fresh foods you are craving.
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Wild plants are hardy and can handle the weather swings that often come with spring. Take a few minutes to look at the ground, and you may be surprised at how many tasty edibles are right at your feet.
Just make certain to follow the three golden rules of foraging. First, never eat any plant you’ve not identified with certainty. Second, don’t eat anything you suspect has been sprayed or grows in contaminated areas. And finally, harvest sustainably, with an eye to the greater environment. Grab a local guidebook, and see how many of these wild greens of spring you can add to you kitchen.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Sure, you already knew you could eat the leaves of these familiar wild greens, may have even seen them at the grocery store, but did you know that every part of the dandelion is edible?
You can cook the root like you would a carrot, if it is tender enough. If the root is tough, it can be chopped, dried, roasted, and enjoyed as a coffee-like beverage. The crown of dandelion, where the leaves meet the taproot can be a delightful vegetable, cooked and eaten as a side dish, or thrown into stir-fries.
The flowers can be put straight into salads for a pop of color and bitterness, or fried into fritters. Even the long flower stalks can be boiled like noodles, if you have enough on hand.
My favorite dandelion recipe is to prepare a pizza with a salt-and-pepper garlic crust, baked with prosciutto, cheese and eggs, and graced with a generous handful of raw dandelion leaves once it emerges from the oven.
Mustards (multiple genera)
Wild plants in the Brassicaceae family are botanically related to some of the most common commercial vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, turnips and kale. Wild mustard plants sometimes have a stronger flavor than their grocery store cousins, but you can use that to your advantage by pairing them with equally strong flavors.
Locally, I use musk mustard (Chorispora tenella) in much the same way as arugula, enjoying it with a bold blue cheese dressing as salad or stuffed into sandwiches. Another favorite is white top mustard (Lepidium draba), which stands in nicely for broccoli rabe in the classic pasta dish with sausage.
The trick with mustard plants is often in knowing at what stage to eat them for best flavor, which is something you can find out from your local guidebook. The great advantage of wild mustards is that they are often invasive in nature and can be harvested in large quantities.
Dock (Rumex spp.)
Dock can often be recognized by its tall fruiting stalk, which turns rust-colored when it dries out. If you’ve got dock nearby, seek out its newly unfurled leaves, staying away from any that are touched with red or purple, which may indicate bitterness. Because of its high oxalic acid content, dock is best enjoyed cooked.
Lovers of sorrel will immediate recognize a similar lemony green taste in dock. It makes a very nice last minute addition to all manner of soups, and is also a natural in egg dishes.
Knotweed (Fallopia japonica, F. sachalinensis, and F. bohemica)
In most places outside of Asia, knotweed is considered unwelcome, even pernicious. It has taken a stronghold in several areas of U.S. Because it is reviled as an invasive, you must take great care to harvest knotweed from a place you are certain has not been sprayed. But if you find a clean area to harvest knotweed, you will be able to snap off the earliest growth of this plant and take advantage of its tart flavor.
The hollow shoots of these wild greens make an excellent crisp pickle, or can be cooked into savory sauces to be paired with game meat. Knotweed can also stand in any place you’d use rhubarb. Take care not to put trimming from knotweed into your compost, so as not to further spread it.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
One of the kings of wild spring foods, you can stalk the wild asparagus just like outdoorsman Euell Gibbons did. The asparagus that grows wild in the U.S. is actually the same species sold in stores. It escaped from gardens at some point, and is technically considered feral for that reason.
The key to finding asparagus in the wild is learning to recognize the bushy yellow-gold color of the previous year’s plants. Once you have that pattern down, old fence lines, former farm land and irrigation ditches are often your best bet for finding asparagus.
Main photo: Foraging basket with asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty
There’s this moment that occurs when you’ve been working with bees for a while. Standing there, on top of a hotel in Portland, Oregon, preparing to approach a hive he had established to house more than 30,000 bees, Damian Magista realized he had no need to wear his bee suit.
He had made a lot of mistakes with them in his half decade of hobby beekeeping, like opening the hive too often or accidentally squashing the queen.
“Less is more in beekeeping,” Magista said. “You have to resist the temptation to over-manage your hives.”
Listening to the hive
Magista had learned to really slow down, and listen to them, to decipher their buzzing, to hear changes in their music. He knew that if the scouts they sent out of the hive to greet him started ramming his body, he should back off. He knew when he was welcome.
“I can’t see myself ever knowing everything about them,” he said. “But I’ve gotten to the point where I can relax into it.”
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These days Magista barely dons his bee suit, but he is doing the opposite of relaxing. As the founder of the innovative neighborhood-to-jar company Bee Local, he has taken his message that all truly exceptional honeys are local to the national stage by introducing the United States to the culinary ambrosia of locally sourced honey. In doing so, he is creating a network of hive systems that support hobby beekeepers and help protect against the colony collapse disorder that has been ravaging the species.
Bee Local began as a hobby, until Magista had one of those pivotal entrepreneurial moments that turn hobbyists into entrepreneurs with a mission. Tasting honey sourced from neighborhoods throughout Portland, he noticed that bees that visited buckwheat produced a honey with dark, smoky, deep molasses overtones. Those that had traveled across Portland’s farm regions made one containing deep blue and blackberry notes with a floral finish. Bees lucky enough to live in the Willamette Valley’s vineyards, hops fields and berry farms made one robust and complex.
“The whole premise of Bee Local was discovering that hives in different locations produce different colors and taste profiles,” Magista said. “Honey is a snapshot of time and place.”
Making artisanal honey
Magista’s goal was to introduce the world to the beauty of the small artisanal honeys from the neighborhoods around Portland, harnessing what was unique about those geographies and allowing bees to express it in honey like wine captures terroir.
But making these small-scale honeys was not going to help Bee Local change the world, nor could it survive as a business, so in August of 2014 Bee Local joined Jacobsen Salt Co., a producer of artisan salts sourced from the waters of the Pacific Northwest, which had already established a national retail operation through partnerships with companies such as Williams-Sonoma.
“What we were doing was not scalable,” Magista said. “To take our business to the next level and truly make a wider impact we needed to merge.”
Tackling colony collapse disorder
Now, from a space he shares with Jacobsen’s in Portland’s Eastside Industrial District, a growing home base for artisan makers of all stripe in the city’s nascent food industry, Bee Local is launching an expansion that ties its business prospects on taking on one of the most pressing environmental crises of our time: colony collapse disorder.
First documented in 1869 and named in 2006, the disorder describes the situation in which entire colonies of commercial bees disappear abruptly due to factors such as adverse weather, too many bees in one area, infection, virus, overuse of pesticides or mite infestation. Although most who study it believe it has always existed in bee populations at some degree, CCD has been happening in dramatically higher wavers, sending out ripples for commercial agriculture and affecting food systems around the world. In some cases, beekeepers have lost up to 90 percent of their colonies.
Placing hives throughout Oregon
But tackling colony collapse disorder is a bigger-picture project. In the meantime, Bee Local is developing relationships with business owners throughout the Willamette Valley and finding distinct places to place its hives. Over the next year, it will add 150 more hives in places such as Amity Vineyards and the top of the new Renata restaurant, although most of them are located in places inaccessible to the public.
Even as it makes its foothold in Oregon stronger, Bee Local is reaching out to hobby beekeeps in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, N.Y. — markets that embrace unconventional products and where many of its partner chefs reside — to launch its national expansion. What’s good for business, it turns out, will be good for the bees.
“Beekeeping as an art is dying out,” Magista said. “Not enough young beekeepers are coming up to take the place of older generations.”
Culture of beekeeping
The loss of the art of beekeeping comes at great cost to both the culture of beekeeping and the global environment, which has wrestled in the past decade with colony collapse disorder, which happens in commercial beekeeping and big agriculture. When hives die because of environmental factors — for example if they are placed in monocrops, they are moved around too much, or they encounter pesticides — entire hive populations can be wiped out.
“When you remove bees from this environment, they remain healthy,” Magista said. “It’s so simple — treat an organism with respect and it thrives, abuse it and it dies.”
Bee Local works exclusively with hobby beekeepers and places its hives in diverse environments where no pesticides are being sprayed.
We don’t engage in commercial beekeeping,” Magista said. “We don’t use chemicals in our hives, we generally don’t move them around.”
The result are honeys that restaurants and food purveyors and ordering by the gallon and artisanal food lovers recognize as very different from your garden-variety honey in a honey bear bottle.
“What the bees come up with themselves is what’s really exciting,” Magista said. “I can control some variables, but the result is up to nature.”
Main photo: Damian Magista tends to a rooftop hive in Portland, Oregon. Credit: Copyright Bee Local
Gardening in winter hardly seems ideal to those of us in cold climates, but for Craig LeHoullier, the season of snow brings the first opportunity to plan his summer tomato crop. A tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange and author of the recently published book “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” LeHoullier is an expert in the field, having developed, introduced and named almost 200 tomato varieties.
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Over the past 30 years, LeHoullier has brought a number of heirloom tomato varieties back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the Cherokee Purple, a tomato that came to him as an envelope of seeds sent by John D. Green and is now one of the most popular varieties in the Seed Exchange catalog.
LeHoullier’s love for heirloom tomatoes began as a hobby, but after retiring from his career as a chemist and project manager in the pharmaceutical industry in 2007, this passion blossomed into a second career. LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Susan, and is known within the heirloom tomato community as NCTomatoMan.
I caught up with LeHoullier before the launch of his book tour and got his advice on how to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes in my own backyard.
Winter gardening: prime time for research
LeHoullier says he gets about a monthlong break between digging up the last of his dead tomato plants each fall and the appearance of the first seed catalogs, when the real work of planning the garden begins. This lull in the action is prime time for research. Online sites such as Dave’s Garden, Tomatoville and GardenWeb can provide a good starting point for new gardeners. LeHoullier recommends searching for “garden discussion groups,” “tomato discussion groups” and “top 10 tomatoes” to begin your reading.
Determine your gardening goals
LeHoullier points out that gardening is a personal experience and that “Each one of us will choose how much of our lives we’ll pour into it.” Growing great tomatoes requires figuring out what kind of gardener you are — or would like to be.
LeHoullier suggests that you think about what you want to get out of your tomato garden. Before you place your seed order, consider whether you want to garden because you want to grow food; because it’s a good hobby to work off a few extra pounds; or because you want to use it as a teaching tool for your friends, family or children.
Ask yourself: Do I want a high yield? Am I looking for huge tomatoes to impress my friends? Do I want an incredible flavor experience? Or do I want to grow something that I’ve never seen before? The answer to these questions will help you focus your research on the tomato varieties that suit your gardening goals.
Figure out what kind of tomatoes you like to eat
Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, flavors and sizes. Most of us have not tried many of the thousands of tomato varieties that exist in the world. LeHoullier believes that the best way to know which tomatoes you should grow is to decide which tomatoes you’d like to eat. Visit farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods to try tomato varieties you’ve never eaten and notice which flavor profiles excite you.
Get to know your gardening climate
Understanding your growing season is crucial. If you live in a warm climate where summer lasts more than 150 days, then the maturity date doesn’t matter much. But if you’re in a colder climate, pay close attention to the maturity date of the tomatoes you want to grow. Talk to friends in your neighborhood who are avid gardeners and vendors at local farmers markets to see which tomato varieties grow best for them.
Seeds vs. seedlings
LeHoullier says that “At a basic level, people will want to understand that growing tomatoes from seed opens up the world for you to try different colors, sizes and shapes.” That said, starting tomatoes from seeds can be a tricky proposition. Consider your capabilities and experience with growing tomatoes from seed. If your tolerance for failure is low, begin by planting seedlings.
Hybrids vs. heirlooms
Although LeHoullier says he “won’t make the blanket statement that some make that heirlooms are always more disease susceptible and difficult to grow than hybrids,” he does allow that heirlooms can be finicky and that “every tomato — including the hybrid varieties — has its own personality and foibles.”
Start small (Do as I say, not as I do.)
After you’ve familiarized yourself with the seemingly endless choices in the tomato world, it’s time to get planting. Showing restraint is key, especially for new gardeners.
Raising thousands of tomato varieties isn’t for everyone. (Or in fact, for most people.) LeHoullier cautions new growers to start small, in spite of the fact that he has a huge and ever-growing tomato collection. LeHoullier identifies himself as a “hobby collector” — he’s into beer brewing, roasting his own coffee, bird watching, kayaking, and has countless other hobbies in addition to what he calls “the tomato thing.” He describes himself as a “seeker who is never satisfied.” It is this tendency that has led LeHoullier to raise a collection of tomatoes that now hits the 3,000 mark.
One reason that LeHoullier’s collection has grown so large is that he has inherited the collections of gardeners who have become overwhelmed. “People send me entire collections because they can’t take care of them.”
Disappointment is an opportunity for learning
A scientist by training and experience, LeHoullier sees gardening as “an exciting hobby to learn stuff” and reminds us that “Each year, X number of plants are gonna die. Critters are gonna eat another bunch of plants, but that’s great because we learn from it and the next year we try different things to avoid that problem, knowing that other problems will arise.”
The bottom line
LeHoullier asserts some basic goals: Do a lot of searching. Ask a lot of questions. Make an accurate assessment of your interest level. Taste every tomato you can get your hands on. Recognize that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers to gardening questions. There are just, as LeHoullier says, “an infinite number of variables for every act a gardener takes.”
Perhaps most important, LeHoullier cheers us on in our tomato-growing efforts by reminding us that, “If you can find them, and buy them, and taste them, and like them, there’s no reason you can’t grow them.”
Main photo: Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes.” Credit: Susan Lutz
In an era when most wine experts agree how difficult it is to create a truly great sparkling wine in America, McMinnville, Ore.-based Rob Stuart is making one of his personal passion projects look easy. The longtime Willamette Valley winemaker just celebrated his winery’s second release of Bubbly ($28), a 100% Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine he developed for mixing in cocktails or just drinking by itself.
“We knew what we wanted was an everyday sparkler,” says Maria Stuart, Rob’s wife and co-owner of their R. Stuart & Co. winery. “We wanted it to be affordable but to have those characteristics that make Champagne so special.”
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Developed over the course of just six months, Bubbly joins a growing roster of sparkling wines emerging from Oregon’s most celebrated vineyards.
Although Oregon has long had a handful of producers with reputable sparkling programs — Argyle Winery in Dundee and Soter Vineyards in Carlton are the most well-known — the state’s love affair with sparkling is a new thing, an idea that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. It’s a romance that’s finally bubbling over thanks to a number of factors. For one, you have considerations of climate. Oregon’s cold climate sweet spot, very similar to France’s, has long been cited as a raison d’être for the wine industry’s existence. Located on the 45° latitude, the state has spent the last half-century establishing itself as a place where terroir, maritime weather patterns and delicate Pinot Noirs rival those of anywhere on earth.
But the barriers to entering the sparkling market are a lot steeper than with Pinot Noir.
“Sparkling is almost impossible to do unless you have the right equipment, and it’s so incredibly expensive,” says Jeff Woodard of Woodard Wines in McMinnville. “Just a few years ago you could only think of five people doing it in Oregon — now there are 25 coming out.”
A sparkling industry on the move
One man has made the impossible a reality for Oregon’s small producers. His name is Andrew Davis, and his business, Radiant Sparkling Wine Company, has allowed 16 small wineries to start sparkling programs since he launched in 2013. Davis learned bubbles from the best during his seven-year stint as a winemaker at Argyle, but he wanted to do something personal on a smaller scale.
“I watched, waiting for sparkling to be a thing in Oregon, but there are just too many roadblocks for most small producers,” Davis says.
The process is far from easy. Crafting a sparkling is labor intensive. Consider this: Where a bottle of red might be handled 20 times before hitting the shelves, sparkling gets an estimated 2,000 touches by human hands before reaching the marketplace. Only the most experienced winemakers are really making a go of it. But when they do, they are trying to capture that elusive, lively, complex, refreshing and effervescent nature of France’s Champagne.
With still wine, Davis says, if something goes wrong, you can do something to correct it. But winemakers needed more technical assistance in experimenting with sparkling.
Then there are the financial barriers to entry. Even the most modest equipment for starting a sparkling program can cost more than $50,000 for just one machine.
“You can do manual rotation of the bottles, but it’s extremely tedious,” Davis says.
So Davis, seeing this need, launched a mobile business that assumes some of the more technical aspects of sparkling production, allowing winemakers to focus on crafting the right blend before bottling. Davis goes directly to the producers themselves, helping them to bottle the wine at their own site, add the yeast, crown-cap it, riddle it mechanically, returning to disgorge it when the winemaker decides the time is right.
Those 16 wineries throughout Oregon that have taken on the challenge of sparkling with Davis’ help include Ponzi Vineyards, Elk Cove, Raptor Ridge and Sokol Blosser. Some have already thrown their names into the American sparkling wine ring while others will be doing so over the next few years, with the bulk of the efforts expected to emerge in 2017.
Bubbly on the menu
R. Stuart & Co. is perhaps best known in the United States for its Big Fire Pinot Noir, which sells all the way to the Eastern Seaboard. For Rob Stuart, who has been making wine for the better part of three decades, sparkling was always on his mind. On a 1971 trip to visit his brother, who was studying in England at the time, the then-17-year-old had his first taste of Champagne, a 1961 Bollinger served on a silver tray in elegant flutes. Ever since, sparkling has been a passionate side project.
As a student, he sterilized bottles for experiments in sparkling in his bathtub. At every vineyard he worked at thereafter, he asked a lot of questions about the process, experimented, tasted and refined until he knew exactly what he wanted to make.
“I always say when I make any wine it’s like a Holy Grail project,” Stuart says. “I know what I’m looking for; it’s just about finding my way there.”
His first sparkling for his own winery, Rosé d’Or, launched in 1999, is a gorgeous rosy sparkling based on a highly complex process. It’s made according to traditional Champagne-making methods, but for one exception. As a nonvintage wine, it consists of a blend of several years’ vintages in one bottle. With each new vintage, Stuart adds the new wine to the base wine and bottles it, with each successive year including both new wine and the reserve base wine.
“It’s kind of like using a sourdough starter,” Maria Stuart says. “This is the thinking person’s sparkling — it makes true Champagne lovers swoon.”
Bubbly, first released in 2013, came to be out of a direct need. Maria Stuart, who runs the Life and Times of a Pinot Mom food website, had out-of-town friends visiting one summer and wanted to serve crème de cassis, a classic French cocktail combining black currant liqueur and sparkling wine.
“I said, ‘Rob, I really need you to just make me a good sparkling wine that pairs with cocktails,’ ” she recounts.
Within six months, the couple released their first edition of Bubbly, made from 100% Chardonnay grapes from Courting Hill Vineyard.
“When you’ve been making wine for more than 25 years you don’t have to make all of the same mistakes again,” Rob Stuart says.
The process for Bubbly is a little more straightforward, and the result is a wine the Stuarts expect to be a favorite at wedding showers, brunches and in cocktail pairings. It is just as accessible and lovely as intended, with lemon and pear flavors with Honey Crisp apple on the nose, dry and light, but with creaminess on the mid-palate. Like many sparkling wines, it pairs nicely with all types of fish and crab and smoked salmon, but the Stuarts see Bubbly as something of a social mover-and-shaker — hence the butterfly on its label.
“It’s not easy to make sparkling wine,” Rob Stuart says. “But this one isn’t really that serious — it’s simple, fresh, lively and free. It’s our party wine.”
Main photo: At the R. Stuart & Co. wine bar in McMinnville, Oregon, wine lovers gather to toast the arrival of Bubbly. Credit: Emily Grosvenor
In artisanal bakeries from Brooklyn to Seattle, the bread counters are piled high with lovely loaves, from the hardiest Scandinavian ryes to French country sourdoughs, from spelt and buckwheat breads to baguettes. Yet this bounty of choice was pretty unusual in the roughly 20,000 years that humanity has been eating grains. While these breads are often associated with European traditions, the long-ago impetus to make a loaf a particular way — or make it into sustenance — has largely been forgotten. Choice — and here I’d include contemporary gluten-avoidance regimes — didn’t determine what was eaten. Necessity did.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
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If you go back to the pre-modern era, before bread became a commodity and flour was sold in supermarkets, those who depended on grain largely ate what was grown nearby. It might have been wheat. It might have been barley. It might have been rye. Or it might have been nothing at all, if the harvest failed.
To forestall such events, farmers hedged their bets by planting diverse cereal crops. Bakers — both craftsmen and homemakers — then had to figure out how to make this variety of ingredients palatable. Grains, after all, provided up to 80% of the calories in a diet.
Scots made cakes from oats and barley, since both grains were hardy in northern Europe. Rye prevailed in Eastern Europe, because the soil and climate were hospitable. During shortages, coarse bran was mixed into bread. Bakers also added walnuts, acorns and spent grains from the brewery to stretch a loaf. In southern France, ground chickpeas were made into socca flatbread. In Cyprus, bakers fermented chickpeas for wheat and barley loaves. Much later, a New World starch, potatoes, became a buffer against famine in 18th century Europe as the population exploded. Maize or corn served this purpose as well. Corn-rye proved crucial to early American settlers, where it was known as “rye-injun bread” because wheat grew poorly in the southern New England climate.
Now, of course, the impetus for such innovation is gone. Agricultural science has done much to ensure fairly steady wheat harvests, with high-yielding varieties. Industrial millers long ago came up with the means to provide standard flour to produce a steady supply of bread products. As this new wheat took over, their ancient progenitors largely vanished from the landscape — and the palate. By the late 1990s, researchers estimated, 97% of all the spring wheat grown in the developing world came from closely related modern varieties. “Landraces,” those seed populations saved and passed down by farmers, became a rarity.
As for the wheat kernel, about 30% to 40% was siphoned off in the milling of white flour. We often hear about the fiber, minerals, lipids and vitamins in wheat bran and germ that are lost. What is less appreciated is that these nutrient-dense grain fractions also contain a lot of calories. Wheat bran, for instance, represents about 12% to 16% of the wheat kernel. With every kilo of bran removed in the milling of white flour, 2,160 calories are squandered, including 160 grams of protein. “Everyone understood that the whiter the flour, the smaller the number of people who could be fed by a given amount of grain,” historian Steven Kaplan has written of 18th century France. Wheat still provides the second-highest source of calories and is the top source of humanity’s protein, yet we’re content to waste such a significant amount of its nutrition.
Loss of craft baking knowledge
Also jettisoned along the path to modernity was the baker, who came up with the methods to make such whole grains palatable. In the age of industrial bakeries, we may cheer that freedom from drudgery. But I realized, in baking my own loaves for more than a decade, that we lost something else as well. It wasn’t simply the old world loaves that were largely left behind, or the grains that went into them, or the farms that grew diverse cereal crops. We also lost the craft knowledge that came from turning grains into food. This kind of knowledge could only be learned with practice, attention and tactile sensation.
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To make really great bread, I found I had to put away my cognitive mind and learn the essential lessons of touch itself. I had to forget about following routine steps, since different grains — and different batches of them — often required adjustments. My sense of touch told me what tweaks to make, turning passable loaves into desirable ones. My hands were learning. At that moment I realized, if we really want to understand what sustained our species for millennium, spurred numerous innovations, and ultimately increased the supply of food in scarce times, our hands and craftwork are going to be at the center of that process. Our thinking minds will follow.
Main photo: Samuel Fromartz, editor of Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle
On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.
Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.
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It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.
Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.
The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.
“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.
“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”
While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.
“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.
“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”
She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.
“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”
In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.
“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”
The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.
Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.
“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”
Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.
“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.
“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”
Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 24 hours
Yield: 8 cups
1 turkey neck
Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail
1 onion, halved
1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
10 whole peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients
1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.
2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.
3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.
Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo
This year, I toasted the end of the Colorado mushroom season with a cocktail made with chanterelle-infused syrup. A mushroom drink may sound unusual, but the floral and fruity tasty of chanterelles lends them well to cocktails, and it provided a fitting end to what be recorded in my journal as the Year of the Chanterelles.
While mushrooms of all kinds can be found during the warmer months in Colorado, the bulk of the choice edible species grow in the mountains during a brief window at the end of summer. My heart normally belongs to porcini, the hidden jewel of the Rockies. For some reason, the porcini were not as abundant as usual this year. Some speculate that the ground was too cold, others that spring ran too long, or that the rains came too early for a good fruiting. Whatever the reason, the forests that normally boom with porcini were largely silent. I was forced to spend my time outside of my tried-and-true spots, to explore new trails.
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Mushroom hunters are funny. When we aren’t finding many mushrooms, we try to convince ourselves that we do it just for the pleasure of being outside, or learning to identify new species, or to go home with just enough mushrooms to make one nice meal. But the thing that raises mushroom hunting to the heights of an obsession is the rare moments when one can find mushrooms like gold at the end of the rainbow. It is a rush. To find a jackpot cache of mushrooms always reminds me there is magic in this world.
As with most of my best finds in the forest, this year I stumbled upon the biggest cache of chanterelles I’ve ever seen when I stepped off the trail to take a bathroom break. While tip-toeing through the kinnikinnick, I noticed the unmistakable ruffles of orange at my feet. Barely able to contain my excitement, I excitedly whispered, “chanter-stinking-elles!” As my eyes scanned out across the mixed pine forest, I saw waves of chanterelles floating out as far as I could see. There were enough mushrooms in that one spot to enjoy for weeks without having to worry about over-harvesting.
I’ve not had the best luck hunting chanterelles in the past, which may be partly due to my porcini obsession and the fact that porcini and chanterelles grow in different types of forests. There is a certain point in learning to hunt a mushroom when their pattern firmly sets in your brain, and that’s when something shifts. All successful foraging is about pattern recognition.
This was the year that chanterelles became firmly fixed in my mind. Almost instantly, and even from a distance, I can now spot their particular tangerine beige, the uneven curl of their margins, as well as their doughy feel in my hand. Most important, though, is their scent. The fragrance of chanterelles is unlike anything else. I’m quite certain that for the last course of my death row meal, I’d like to finish with a facial steam of the scent of chanterelle mushrooms.
Some people say that chanterelles smell of apricots. I have a friend who swears that they smell exactly like Sweden. Do a quick search on the Internet and you will quickly see that the most common adjective to describe chanterelles is “earthy.” Welcome to meaningless food words 101. Earthy, second only to nutty in uselessness for describing the taste of a food. I will concede that all mushrooms have flavor elements of dirt and decomposition. But chanterelles possess none of the heavy crumbling wood and peat tastes of morels or porcini. Chanterelles are light and bright, fruity and floral. Have you ever been deep in the woods and caught a flash of light out of the corner of your eye, maybe a sprite or fairy? Yeah, that’s chanterelle. It’s the fine French perfume of the forest, refined and fancy, a celebration, a high note. To my nose, chanterelles smell of a sweet potato that has slow-roasted in the oven until its sugars start to ooze. They also have something waxy about their aroma, like a box of crayons sitting in the sun.
This was the first year that I’ve found enough chanterelles to eat them every night for weeks, pack loads of them into the freezer, and also experiment with them in cooking. Sometimes it’s just fun to play around with an ingredient. I went a little crazy, made chanterelle crème brulee and a chanterelle cake with chanterelle buttercream and candied chanterelles on top. Did I go off the deep end into the orange? Yes, perhaps. But I got to see some of the potential of chanterelle mushrooms beyond just eating them sautéed in butter, which remains my favorite way to eat them.
Chanterelles have their own spirit
The biggest success of my chanterelle experiments was the candied chanterelles. This strikes me as particularly odd since I’ve no real love of sweets. Of all the recipes I made, those candied chanterelles best held that magical fragrance of freshly picked mushrooms. And they came with a bonus, the perfumed syrup that they cooked in, which I wasn’t about to throw away.
What do most people I know do with a novel syrup they’ve welcomed into the kitchen. The friends in my crowd aren’t really pancake people. They’re more the type to dump syrup into a cocktail, so I followed suit.
Now, I know what you’re thinking — a mushroom cocktail? It sounds rather extreme. But remember how some people describe chanterelles as smelling and tasting like apricots? Now, give the idea of the cocktail another try. You can make it doubly flavorful if you use vodka that you’ve infused with chanterelles as well. If you still can’t move beyond the idea of fungally-infused cocktails, you might prefer to try the syrup and candied mushrooms atop some really good vanilla ice cream.
One final note of caution. Chanterelle mushrooms do have toxic look-alikes. As always, only eat mushrooms that you’ve identified with 100% certainty. If you are new to mushroom hunting, consider seeking out your local mushroom club, where you can go on mushroom forays with more experiences guides.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep time: 12 hours
½ cup tiny perfect chanterelles, or larger mushrooms torn into small pieces
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup water
1. Use a toothpick or the tip of a paring knife to pick or scrape any dirt off the mushrooms.
2. In a small pan, stir together the sugar and water, and gently heat them on medium until the syrup starts to bubble.
3. Add the mushrooms and use a spoon to stir and turn them so that every surface is touched with the hot syrup. After one minute, turn off the stove and let the mushrooms and syrup sit at room temperature overnight.
Because of the water content of the mushrooms, both the candied mushrooms and the syrup need to be refrigerated.
Yield: 1 serving
Prep time: 5 minutes
1 ounce chanterelle syrup
1 ounce vodka
3 ounces cold sparkling water
1 candied chanterelle
Gently stir together the chanterelle syrup and vodka. Add the sparkling water, and stir the cocktail together one more time. Serve the chanterelle cocktail with a candied mushroom bobbing about in the bubbles.
Main photo: Chanterelle cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty