Articles in Technique

A boy learns about the pleasures of fresh tomatoes at the Evanston Market in Illinois. Credit: Ken Meuser

Teach a kid to grow a carrot, or a cucumber, or even a cauliflower, and chances are that child will want to eat it. This common-sense notion is backed up by many studies, as well as anecdotal evidence from those who interact with kids in family and school gardens.

The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reviewed 11 garden-based nutrition studies and found that adolescents who participated in these programs increased their fruits and vegetables consumption. The results of one study, in which children spent 12 weeks working in a garden taste testing the produce and using it to make their own snacks, found that 98% of kids said they liked the taste tests; 96% liked working in the garden; and 91% enjoyed learning about fruits and vegetables. One of the conclusions of the study was that food and nutrition professionals should use “seed-to-table” activities to help teach kids about healthy eating.

Seed libraries

One easy way for families and schools to get the seeds for seed-to-table learning is through “seed libraries” — places where people can peruse many varieties of tomato, cucumber, green bean, and other seeds, and then “check out” seeds they want to grow. At the end of the growing season, the person saves some seed, and returns it to the seed library. As more and more people have begun growing some of their own food, seed libraries have sprung up all over the U.S., with about 300 currently operating.

Recently, though, the culture of growing good food and community ran up against the culture of bureaucracy, control and fear as the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture shut down a seed bank at a public library in Mechanicsburg. Seed sharing, it turns out, is seen by some as dangerous. Barbara Cross, a Cumberland County commissioner, was quoted as saying that “agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario,” and “protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge.”

To which many of us would say, “Amen, sister!”

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A farmer holds native prairie plant seeds at Spence Farm in Fairbury, Ill. Credit: Terra Brockman

Growing your own

One way to maintain and protect food sources is to know the source of your food, and what better way than to grow it from seed and prepare the fresh vegetables yourself. At a time when obesity and chronic diet-related illnesses are skyrocketing, we need more seed libraries and more people ready and willing to engage in civil di-seed-obedience, if necessary, to fight overzealous bureaucrats and to ensure that people have the opportunity to grow their own food.

Here are a few ways to do that:

Find a seed library near you, or start your own: There are a number of websites to  help. If you are concerned about the legalities, there is good information from the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s webpage, Setting the Record Straight on Seed Libraries.

Get some seeds and sow ‘em: Turn over some soil and invest in some basic garden tools. Throw in a compost heap and a few earthworms to help decompose the food, and you may never get your kids back into the house. See Start a Lazy Garden for an easy start-up plan.

Start a conversation at the next PTO/PTA meeting: Getting the support of other parents is a good way to start a school garden. You may also want to talk to cafeteria managers and principals to get their suggestions and buy-in. For inspiration, check out the Edible Schoolyard or Seeds of Solidarity programs. The groups listed below provide curriculum and planning materials:

• National Gardening Association’s kidsgardening.org

• Collective School Garden Network

Slow Food USA’s School Garden Guide

 Main photo: A boy learns about the pleasures of fresh tomatoes at the Evanston Market in Illinois. Credit: Ken Meuser

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Bayd beldi and bayd roumi sit side by side. White bayd beldi are smaller than their brown counterparts, and considerably more expensive. Credit: Serenity Bolt

Standing in a busy Moroccan souk, a chicken seller holds up two squawking birds. Holding the brown one slightly higher, he repeats an increasingly familiar word: “beldi.” Beldi is a word in Arabic meaning “traditional” or “indigenous.” Unsurprisingly, the brown chicken’s beldi status bears a higher price tag — nearly triple that of the white one, which is roumi, or conventionally raised, rather than free range.

The appeal of traditional, locally grown food is well-known throughout the world. Within Morocco and abroad, beldi is being used to market quality boutique-style products to foreigners and Moroccans. Moroccan beldi include raib beldi, thin drinkable yogurt; zebda beldia, homemade or traditional Moroccan butter; and citron beldi, indigenous lemons used to make preserved lemons. In Morocco, McDonalds is jumping on the bandwagon with a specialty sandwich called the “P’tit Beldi” featuring spiced halal meat. Even U.S. grocer Whole Foods is now selling products such as “Beldi: A small, fruity olive from Morocco.”

The Author


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Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Serenity Bolt is a writer and photographer currently based in Rabat, Morocco, where she works with Round Earth Media to edit and publish Reporting Morocco,  a source for work by young journalists. In her spare time, Bolt also dabbles in web design, cooking and world travel. 

Although such a surge of interest in artisanal goods can help preserve fragile traditions, it can also drive prices up and limit accessibility for locals. So, how does foreign interest in Moroccan food products affect what is valued — and available — in Morocco?

Concept of beldi

To answer that question one needs to understand that the concept of beldi has deep cultural roots in Morocco that go far beyond the use as a marketing tool to foreigners. Omar Magouri, a local shopper in Tangier, explains, “The word beldi can be applied to many things. A woman who wears traditional clothes and does things the old way is beldi. Things that are produced with care are beldi. The opposite of this is roumi, which can be anything non-traditional, imported or made in a factory.” Magouri explains that a person who eschews tradition can also be roumi.

Where food and cooking are close to the heart of every Moroccan, beldi refers to something more elusive than quality; rather, it connotes quality as a reflection of deep cultural pride.

This appreciation for time-honored, traditional methods of producing food and esoteric regional ingredients has made Morocco a place where the Slow Food movement is taking hold.  Founded in 1986 by Italian activist Carlo Petrini, Slow Food promotes linking “the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”

Slow Food began its involvement with Morocco in 2001 through its international Presidia project, which provides assistance to producers of  “threatened” products such as the Brazilian Baru nut, American raw-milk cheeses, Dehraduni basmati rice in India, Mananara vanilla from Madagascar and the Basque pig from France.

In Morocco, the Presidia’s projects have brought positive global attention to local food products and established a link between local food producers and chefs in high-end restaurants, such as Ch’hiwates du terroir in Rabat, the Chefs in Residence program at Restaurant Numero 7 in Fez and the Amal Center restaurant in Marrakesh. They are also involved in training and educational projects, many of which are aimed at women.

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Khadouj Lmrabete, a woman from the countryside, sells beldi vegetables in the market. She travels to the city every day from her farm, almost 20 miles from Tangier. Credit: Serenity Bolt

Slow Food movement

Sophie Duncan, a Fulbright researcher currently studying food in Morocco, works with the international Ark of Taste, a project of Slow Food that draws attention to, protects and catalouges traditional products around the world. So far, 15 Moroccan products have been nominated to the Ark, including cumin from Anif, a village in southeastern Morocco where cumin is prized for its quality and intense aroma; saffron from Taliouine, a mountain in the heart of Morocco’s famed saffron region; and salt from Zerradoun, a group of scattered houses in the foothills of the Rif mountains in northeastern Morocco where there are two historic salt pans.

Duncan says foreign interest in beldi products can have both positive and negative effects. “It’s wonderful that tourists and foreign customers can buy Moroccan products and support Moroccan producers, and in some sectors and areas this has become an important source of income. However, it can also definitely drive prices up and make products less available to locals. Argan oil and amlou (a paste made from toasted almonds, honey and argan oil) are two examples of products that are becoming very popular abroad and are now quite expensive.”

So far, according to Duncan, Morocco seems well-equipped to handle burgeoning foreign interest in traditional products without sacrificing authenticity. Interest in beldi products is being funneled into high-end restaurants and boutiques, while local markets offer beldi and roumi choices to shoppers of all denominations. Most small-scale producers have maintained a focus on local markets.

She explains, “For the most part, producers continue to make these products not solely for a tourist/foreign market, but because they feel a connection to their history. I think the feeling that you are contributing to the preservation of a food product that is important to your own identity and your community’s history can be quite rewarding. The vast majority of Moroccans that I have talked to do seem to get far more excited about beldi products than about their roumi equivalents.”

They may be excited, but beldi products can put quite a dent in the average Moroccan’s wallet. Tangier chicken seller Hamm Cherkaoui explains that in the souk, or market, “You can get a white djaj roumi [conventionally raised chicken] for 40 dirhams (almost $5 USD). The djaj beldi  (traditionally raised chicken) will cost 120 (about $14.25 USD).” But, with the beldi chicken, “the taste is much better,” Cherkaoui says.

What’s what in Morocco

Looking to go beyond olives the next time you find yourself in a Moroccan souk? Here are a few beldi suggestions from sellers in the bustling markets of Tangier.

Smen beldi

Smen beldi is homemade clarified butter or zebda beldia that has been preserved with salt and herbs. Aged smen can be quite pungent because of the aging process.

Citron beldi or l’hamd beldi

These are varieties of lemon found throughout Morocco, such as the small doqq lemons (Citrus limonum Risso var. pusilla R) from the Taroudant region outside of Agadir and boussera lemons, or limonette de Marrakesh, often used in traditional recipes.

Bayd beldi 

These organic eggs are small with white shells and bright orange yolks. Bayd beldi are considerably more flavorful and higher quality than the more common large brown roumi eggs (bayd).

Raib beldi

Raib beldi is raw cow’s milk that has been coagulated with enzymes from dried wild artichokes. Raib beldi can be eaten plain or flavored with orange water or vanilla.

Khilia beldi

Khilia is dried beef or camel meat that has been preserved in fat that is a delicacy from Fez. It is eaten fried, often for breakfast with eggs.

Samet

This thick syrup, made from a particular variety of grapes in the mountainous Chefchaouen region, is extremely difficult to find. The juice, which is concentrated in terra-cotta pots, is eaten as a sweet honey substitute in addition to use as a traditional medicine for colds and stomachaches.

Main photo: Bayd beldi and bayd roumi sit side by side. White bayd beldi are smaller than their brown counterparts, and considerably more expensive. Credit: Serenity Bolt

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Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Serenity Bolt is a writer and photographer currently based in Rabat, Morocco, where she works with Round Earth Media to edit and publish Reporting Morocco.

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The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber's garden. Credit: Barbara Haber

As a gardener who looks forward each year to eating my homegrown tomatoes, I have been bitterly disappointed when squirrels and other small animals either pick all of the tomatoes while still green and toss them around the yard, or snatch and eat ripening ones just before I get to them.

This has been going on year after year, but each spring, ever hopeful, I plant yet another tomato garden. My usual line of defense has been to use Havahart traps that sometimes catch the thieving culprits, but this method has become tiresome and creepy. It involves picking up a heavy trap loaded with an angry animal, getting it into the trunk of my car, and then driving for at least 10 miles to a wooded area where I release the animal, hoping it will not find its way back to my house.

But this year, I have found a different solution for protecting my tomato patch. I bought a Bell & Howell Solar Animal Off, a device that comes with a built-in stake that I have positioned in the garden in front of the tomato plants. When approached, the device emits both an eerie high-pitched sound that only animals can hear along with a strobe light that shoots off a blinding glare when anything comes near. Each morning I run out of my house to check on ripening fruit and have been amazed and relieved to find every plant intact.

Tomatoes are just the start

This got me thinking that humans too could be well served by a protective device that could repel danger or be helpful in other ways that would make life easier. I could see wearing such a gadget into a supermarket where it would blink and beep if a food I was thinking of buying contained trans fats or, in my case, cilantro. The machine I envision could be customized so that people with allergies would be warned about peanuts and such, and the gluten sensitive protected from that substance. Most important, the device would be programmed to alert us to the existence of dangerous microbes in food that could lead to illness.

In a more positive way, my machine could function somewhere between a personal assistant and a doting grandmother by picking out just the right produce in the market. I never can tell which cantaloupe in a pile will be exactly as I like it — barely ripe and sweet but not over-the-hill and mushy. Picking out pineapples is also a challenge. They too can be overripe and unappetizing, and I never can tell which one to buy. When my favorite store offers four kinds of peaches, I am at a loss as to which will be sweet and juicy and not hard and bland, but my gadget would know. I would also use it to select cheese that is at its height of flavor.

When medium rare means medium rare

The machine’s help in restaurants would be another huge service. It would do a calorie count of the dishes I contemplate and report on the existence of ingredients it knew I disliked. Again, cilantro detection would be especially appreciated, for then I might venture forth into Thai or Mexican restaurants without fear of being assaulted by that herb I cannot tolerate. The device would know whether the steak or chop I ordered was cooked as I requested before I cut into it, thus taking the edge off any disappointment. And I hope that it would be helpful in checking bills and figuring out tips, freeing me from dealing with arithmetic, my worst subject in grade school.

The cone’s the thing

I would like to think that my machine could protect people from all sorts of danger. I am reminded of the time when a good friend’s dog — a huge Malamute named Buddha — used to position himself outside the door of a Brigham’s ice cream shop in my town, waiting for people with ice cream cones to come out. Small children and little old ladies were particularly vulnerable. Buddha’s nudges would knock the cones out of their hands, allowing him to scarf down the scoops of ice cream lying on the ground. If only these victims could have been warned, these messy scenes could have been avoided.

A dairy dose of wisdom

I can think of other helpful tasks for my machine. I would ask it to keep track of all of the foods stored in my freezers to remind me which ones to use first. And I would like it to warn me when the milk in my refrigerator has gone bad, which usually happens before the date stamped on the box. I find out only when I pour it into my morning coffee, watch it curdle, and then have to toss the whole thing down the drain.

These days, when we are surrounded by a glut of information about food, often with conflicting advice, we could use a defender that could cut through the yammering and lead us on the path that’s right for us. I am grateful to have found a device that protects my tomato plants from marauders and only wish I too could have a guardian that protects me from all of the food-related issues I face each day. And, for that, no computer programmer’s algorithm will do.

Main photo: The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber’s garden. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.

This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.

Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.

Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.

In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.

The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!

Skill and strength

Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.

As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”

As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.

Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:

First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)

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Portugal's "debarkers" are the highest-paid agricultural workers in the world. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.

Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.

The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.

Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

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Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

Though I’d been anticipating it for weeks, it was while sitting at a stoplight that the intoxicating aroma of linden flowers (Tilia spp.) first hit my nose. I jerked my head around, craning over my shoulder and peering out the windows in a desperate attempt to locate the tree whose flowers supply my favorite herbal tisane.

No doubt the people in the surrounding cars thought I was nuts. If only they knew that the tree with the fiercely fragrant flowers could provide them with a divine beverage, they too would be thrilled by the scent.

As my years as a forager roll on, I become clearer about which crops are worth my time to harvest. I try to live on wild edible plants for as much of the year as possible, no easy task in the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season where I live in Colorado.

This means I have to work hard during the short period of growth, not only to harvest my favorite plants in great enough quantity to get me through the off-season, but also to preserve those plants, whether by drying, freezing, or canning.

As my go-to beverage, linden is high atop my list of desirable wild foods. Last year, I picked and dried enough linden flowers to fill a laundry basket. It wasn’t enough. In late winter, thirsting for my favorite tea, I pillaged the linden stocks of two friends.

Fragrant foraging in the shade

Also known as basswood or lime, linden is a deciduous tree with leaves shaped like slightly crooked hearts. In my area, they are used frequently as ornamental trees, mostly likely for their fragrant flowers and generous shade. The bees are particularly fond of linden, and one can often locate the trees by the sound of buzzing bees.

When the leaves first emerge and are still tender, they can be eaten in salads and sandwiches. The flowers clusters grow along with a long pale green leaf-like structure, known as a bract. When harvesting, pinch off the bract and flower clusters of linden. Since the trees flower abundantly, it is often most efficient to grab several flower clusters, avoiding the leaves, and strip them off all at once.

As with all flowers, to maximize fragrance, and therefore flavor, it is best the harvest linden flowers in full sun. It may sound obvious, but on a hot day, by all means, stand in the shade of the tree while harvesting flowers. It will make a difference when your arms tire.

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Linden tree leaf and flower. Credit: Wendy Petty

As always, be sure to forage in the cleanest possible location. Avoid linden trees that grow alongside busy streets or in areas that might have been sprayed with chemicals.

Herbalists know that although it is gentle enough for children and seniors alike, linden is strong medicine, soothing and demulcent. Throughout the scorching growing season, I enjoy cold infusions of linden flowers, which help me to deal with the heat and stay moisturized from the inside out. By winter, the sight of delicate linden flowers floating in my teacup call to mind the long days of summer.

Turn linden into teas and cocktails

With experience as a forager, I’ve given up commercial teas in favor of my wild herbal blends. Not only does this save me money, but I have the reassurance of knowing exactly where my tea came from. I’ve also become quite skilled as a drink-maker, despite initially not knowing much about the subject.

Even though I couldn’t really sniff out a great glass of wine, and don’t know the difference between whisky and whiskey, I make amazing concoctions and cocktails that are hits both in my house and at social events. As a wildcrafter, I have the advantage of bringing truly unique flavors to any party.

If you’ve got a tasty wild edible plant on your hands, I encourage you to experiment with ways to preserve it. Infuse it into vodka, later adding sugar syrup to taste if needed. Try it in vinegar, or in a shrub, which is an aged mix of infused vinegar and sugar. Combine it with whichever fruit is in season. Dabble in making homemade bitters. This year, I’ve got an experimental batch of linden vinegar going, as well as a jar of linden and lemon balm in gin.

Whether you are new to linden or and old pro, you can’t beat classic linden tisane and honey infused with heady linden flowers.

Linden Honey

Pick off the freshest linden flowers (leaving behind stems and bracts), enough to loosely fill a jar. Pour fresh honey over the flowers, and leave them for at least three weeks in a warm place. Though there is no need to do so, if you wish to strain out the linden flowers after the honey has infused, set the linden honey in a sunny windowsill for a day, then strain out the flowers. The candied flowers can be enjoyed atop ice cream or cake. The floral-scented honey can be the genesis of myriad recipes. This recipe is so beautiful, you may want to consider making several extra jars of linden honey to use as gifts.

Cold-Infused Linden Tisane

Ingredients

1 cup loosely packed linden flowers (fresh or dried), bracts included

20 small wild rose heads (substitute one green tea bag)

½ gallon lukewarm water

Directions

1. Add the linden flowers, roses, and water to a ½ gallon mason jar. Leave the jar on a counter for 8 hours, then refrigerate it until cold.

2. Strain out the flowers, squeezing with your hands. Serve over ice, and with a drizzle of linden honey if you prefer sweet tea.

Linden Sparkler

Ingredients

½ cup cold-infused linden tisane

¼ cup white grape juice

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 ounce gin

½ cup seltzer water

Directions

Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.

Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

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B.R. Cohn likes to harvest its Picholine olives when they are half green and half purple. Credit: Courtesy of B.R. Cohn Winery

When you buy a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, how much thought do you give to the variety of olives used to make it?

Two months ago if you’d asked me to name all the types of olives I knew, I would have managed to come up with a few: Kalamata, Mission … uh … green ones. Somehow it hadn’t crossed my mind that, like wine, olive oil reflects the variety of fruit that goes into it. And just as there are wines made with a single grape variety, there are single-variety olive oils, each with its own character.

This revelation came to me during a visit to B.R. Cohn Winery in the Sonoma Valley. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery is known for its range of extra virgin olive oils, which includes an estate oil made entirely from a French variety called Picholine.

B.R. Cohn’s Picholine olives are the size of soybeans, and yield only about 25 gallons of oil per ton compared to 50 gallons for other varieties. “Because of its low yield at the press, not many people make olive oil from the Picholine,”  winery president Dan Cohn said. “It’s very labor intensive.”

Even so, he believes the variety deserves to stand alone.

“Most of the wines we produce here are 100% Cabernet,” Cohn said. “I believe there’s something to be said about being true to the varietal.”

Cohn looks for a specific flavor profile in the Picholine oil that reflects the olive’s character. “I like a little grassiness in the front of the palate, then a little apple, then a little butter and just the right amount of pepper in the finish,”  he said.

Seeking out varietal olive oil

Talking to Cohn about the winery’s prized Picholine oil made me wonder how common single-variety olive oils really are. A visit to my neighborhood market confirmed my suspicions: Of the two dozen extra virgin olive oils on the shelves, nearly all were multi-olive blends.

However, further investigation turned up a handful of merchants selling varietal olive oils online. Among them was a local operation called The Olive Press, which runs tasting rooms in Sonoma and the Napa Valley to showcase its blended and single-variety oils from California.

“Blends are popular because they allow millers to manipulate the overall delivery of an oil,”  production manager Chris Gilmore said. “Some millers prefer to either round out or, in some cases, bolster robustness through the introduction of other varietals. This effort produces some very interesting oils, much like the blending of the central five Bordeaux varietals produces exceptional diversity in wine rather than highlighting just one.”

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The Olive Press in Sonoma offers samples of several single-variety extra virgin olive oils. Credit: Tina Caputo

But there is also a dark side to blending. “Internationally, blending is largely an effort to mask inferior export oils headed for the United States,” Gilmore said. “The grim truth is that foreign exporters will ‘blend’ a high volume of defective oil with perhaps a bit of fresh oil in the hopes of giving some life to the product. The lower prices of these oils make them attractive despite the fact that they contain none of the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.”

Gilmore likes making single-variety olive oils because it allows him to showcase the aromas and flavors of individual varieties. “Each varietal displays characteristics unique to that type of fruit, much like a pinot grape holds vastly different potential than Cabernet,” he said. “To make a well-balanced single-varietal oil is both challenging and rewarding, and it’s what gets me excited every fall.”

Tasting the difference

To taste the differences for myself, I dropped in at The Olive Press and sampled an array of varietal olive oils. Vicki Zancanella, the tasting room’s resident olive oil expert, guided me through the offerings.

OILVE OIL LINKS


To order single-variety olive oils online, visit:

» theolivepress.com

» nvoliveol.com

» oliandve.com

» allspiceonline.com

“A good extra virgin olive oil should have three things,” she said. “It should have fruitiness at the front of your palate, bitterness at the back and pungency as it goes down your throat.” And just as there are common descriptors for tasting wine, there are classic aromas and flavors in extra virgin olive oil, such as freshly cut grass and tomato leaves.

The varietal oils I tasted varied in intensity from delicate to robust, and showed a fascinating range of flavor profiles:

Arbosana: A delicate oil with a subtle aroma of banana peel, and mild bitterness at the back of the throat. Best for salads, mild greens and roasted vegetables.

Mission: Buttery, with aromas of grass, plums and tomatoes. Rich, with some bitterness on the finish. Ideal for cooking and baking.

Ascolano: Stone fruit aroma, and buttery on the palate, with peppery, pungent notes. Great for fruit salads and fresh tomatoes, or for baking.

Arbequina: A medium-intensity oil, with aromas of tomato leaves and forest floor. Some astringency on the palate, produces a nice burn at the back of the throat. Good for salads, or cooking chicken or fish.

Koroneiki: Robust, with fruity, herbaceous aromas. Smooth, creamy texture and prominent bitterness. Blend with balsamic vinegar for salad dressing or use for cooking hearty Greek fare.

Picual: Powerful “green” aroma of tomatoes, greens and tomato leaves. Quite bitter on palate, with green tomato notes and pungency at back of the throat. Drizzle lightly over caprese salads or simple pasta.

With so many flavors and uses to explore, it looks like I’m going to have to make room in my pantry for a few new bottles.

Main photo: B.R. Cohn likes to harvest its Picholine olives when they are half green and half purple. Credit: Courtesy of B.R. Cohn Winery

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A bee feeds on the blossom of a Meech's Prolific quince. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

To a certain extent, all gardens are “unnatural.” We take a plot of land and bend it to our will, whether that is growing fruit and vegetables, flowers, lawns or even making a barbecue. Over the centuries, our gardens have changed beyond recognition from their natural state. So don’t worry too much about tampering with nature as you try to grow fruits and vegetables. The important thing to remember is that while it is perfectly possible to adapt the natural landscape, it is never worth going to battle against nature; in the long run, you will certainly lose.

There are a few ways you can make your kitchen garden both easier to maintain and more productive. When choosing which fruits and vegetables to grow, it obviously makes sense to plant things you want to eat — in particular, crops that are hard to buy or do not travel well. It also pays to take the conditions in your garden into consideration. Is the soil damp or prone to drying out in hot weather? You will need a sunny spot for most fruits and vegetables, but how sheltered is it? Are there pockets that are particularly warm, or others that are at risk from late frosts? All these factors will influence what you will be able to grow successfully.

Much is often made of growing “native” plants, but it is frequently hard to tell exactly which crops are native. Many that seem firmly established were invaders years ago. Rather, chose crops that are suited to your environment. There is a reason why weeds always seem to thrive; the particular weeds in your garden have chosen to grow there. Whatever conditions you have, they are exactly what those particular weeds need. Choose your crops carefully, picking the ones that will like the conditions in your garden, and they will grow just as well, or even better than, the weeds.

The case against spraying aphids and other pests

If you are going to grow your own crops, it seems illogical to cover them with sprays and chemicals. Left to its own devices, nature will establish a balance of predators that will keep your garden healthy. If you spray plants at the first sight of, say, aphids, you will succeed in killing the pests, but you may also kill the good ladybirds and hoverflies in the garden. Even if they escape the spray, you will have killed their supply of food and, by the time the next batch of aphids emerges, there will be no good predators to eat them.

Remove the pests you see by hand and let the natural predators do the rest. Birds get bad press for eating fruits, but many do a vital job, eating slugs and snails. Surely for that help, and the beautiful birdsong, it is worth sharing a bit of your harvest? Your productive garden will soon develop a system of its own, and while you may not have complete control, you will have a healthy balance of beneficial predators that will protect your crops.

Verbena bonariensis planted alongside espaliered apple trees looks pretty and will attract  vital pollinating insects.

Verbena bonariensis planted alongside espaliered apple trees looks pretty and will attract vital pollinating insects. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

Plant breeding advances in the last 50 years mean that we now have a huge range of varieties to choose from. You can get blight-resistant potatoes, mildew-resistant gooseberries and wilt-resistant strawberries. If you know your garden is at risk, choose varieties that will not be vulnerable.

Making your own compost is one of the most important ways to harness the benefits of nature in your garden. It is easy, need not take up much space and will give you wonderful, nutritious organic matter with which to enrich your soil. It is not, or should not be, slimy or smelly. To see just how easy it is to make, watch this video.

In between your crops, set companion plants. Pollen-rich flowers such as Verbena bonariensis will attract the bees and other pollinating insects that are so vital in any productive garden. Other flowers such as nasturtiums, alliums and tansy (Tanecetum vulgare) can be used to deter woolly aphids and other pests in search of food. Sweet-smelling herbs such as rosemary, sage and lavender will disorient many pests and so protect your crops.

All gardening is about some level of control, but your plot will be a better place if you don’t turn it into a battle with nature. You will still be able to harvest fruits and vegetables, the garden will look lovely and you will get to relax, using nature’s resources rather than fighting them.

Main photo: A bee feeds on the blossom of a Meech’s Prolific quince. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

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Nathan Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms holds his son in his field. Credit: Patrick Gookin

On a crispy May morning, we gathered in the wheat fields of Fat Uncle Farms, right off Highway 246 in Lompoc, Calif. It was a spontaneous assemblage of Los Angeles-based chefs and bakers, a cooking school teacher, a miller, a photographer and myself, a noodle maker. We were eager to learn about landrace grains — carpooling 400 miles in one day to visit five grain farms in Southern California.

On that May day, Nathan Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms greeted us, his toddler son in his arms.  Nathan is a third-generation almond farmer who began experimenting last year with landrace grains, ancient grains whose cultural and physical identities have been retained and improved by farmers for centuries and are nutrient rich, flavorful and at the core of biodiversity.

Siemens wants to revive his grandfather’s sustainable practice of growing wheat as a crop rotation between the rows of almond trees after the nuts are harvested in order to maintain soil structure.  He also wants to cultivate landrace grains to explore the growing interest in locally grown and milled flour.

A restored vintage All-Crop Harvester tractor circa 1960 stood next to his field. “In the short experience of using this machine, I can tell you that the main action of the combine happens right here,” Siemens explained, opening the metal door. “This rubberized component strikes the grains to dislodge them from the stalk and divides them up.”

Everyone looked inside with great curiosity. “Is that like winnowing?” asked Clemence Gossett, chef and owner of Gourmandise Cooking School in Santa Monica, Calif. “Yeah, that’s right,” Siemens said.

Roxana Jullapat, chef at Cooks County restaurant in Los Angeles, and Nicole Rucker, pastry chef at Gjelina in Los Angeles, both picked samples of Red Fife wheat to analyze the structure of the bristly awns. Jullapat broke off the green spike to taste the berry. “Sweet,” she exclaimed. The grains were still in their doughy stage. In a few months, they would turn hard and dry and be ready for harvest.

Seed grant to support local farmers

Among the visitors that day was Glenn Roberts of South Carolina’s Anson Mills, a renowned organic farmer and miller with a mission to support and improve lands through sustainable farming practices — growing grains, legumes and brasiccas in rotation, and animal husbandry.

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Landrace grains. Credit: Patrick Gookin

Roberts was key to the farmers we visited because he donated the landrace seed to get the project going — 4 tons of historic landrace varietals, namely Sonora, Emmer, Red Fife and Roman rye and a modern landrace called Glenn. Roberts also donated an All Crop 72 harvester.

The Anson Mills seed grant, which started more than a decade ago, has assisted regional grain hubs around the country, including Community Grains in Oakland, Calif., and Hayden Mills in Arizona. For the Los Angeles hub, the qualifying farmers had to be active farmers in Southern California and practitioners of sustainable agriculture. Each farmer grew on a small scale — between 5 acres and 20 acres of grains this year. Throughout the day, Roberts shared his tenet — about farming for flavor, not yield and farming for the soil, not the crop.

The spirit of grains

The cool wind was setting across the lush barley fields in a wave-like motion at Curt Davenport’s farm, The California Malting Co. in Santa Barbara County — the second farm we visited. Davenport was growing barley and Sonora wheat to produce malted grains for local microbreweries. He explained that the fields he is leasing have been used to grow barley and oats for years, but as an organic vegetable farmer, he wants to rotate wheat, barley, squash and other vegetables to maintain the health of the soils.

Dealing with the California drought

After picking up some tacos and burritos for lunch, we headed east for Tehachapi, Calif., to visit more farmers.  As we traveled through the golden land, we couldn’t help notice the spell of drought. All the farmers we visited decided to use irrigation or partial irrigation to grow the grains except Jon Hammond of Linda Vista Ranch in Tehachapi, who opted for non-irrigation. When I talked to Hammond in February, he was concerned about the lack of precipitation. “We haven’t seen drought like this in 130 years,” he said. But since then, Tehachapi has had a few inches of rain and snow, which gave his wheat fields a boost.

We arrived in Tehachapi rather late, but managed to see another beautiful view of the undulating wheat fields.  Hammond explained to us that such wind is called Wolf Wind — a concept that came from France, Germany and some of the Slavic countries, where they believe the grain fields are embraced with a spirit. A lot of us felt it strongly that day.

Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, famous for his fingerling potatoes, showed us his barley, rye and wheat fields.  He collaborates with Hammond on grain-growing and animal husbandry projects — trying non-irrigation on Hammond’s wheat field and raising Gloustershire old spots pigs and chickens for pasture eggs and keeping an irrigated wheat field at Weiser’s Farms to grow seed for next season. “We are here to learn what kind of grains grow in our region,” Weiser said. “We will start small. We can learn together.”

Growing landrace grains is a novel attempt and one that may take awhile to make economic sense. But those who joined our tour that day said they felt these grains could be a worthy investment for everyone, for both environmental and culinary reasons. Before leaving, Weiser and Hammond gave Roberts an old key that Hammond found in the barn, perhaps one that belonged to his grandfather, also a farmer.  We all figured it was the key to repatriate the way our ancestors grew grains — for flavor, hardiness and to maintain the health of the land. We all promised to be back for the harvest.

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