Articles in Soapbox
There is prosciutto and then there is culatello.
Proscuitto is ubiquitous. It’s draped over melon or paired with figs or mozzarella in restaurants everywhere. You can buy imported Proscuitto di Parma at Whole Foods at $31 a pound for a bone-in leg or on Amazon for $15.
Massimo Bottura serves culatello. At Osteria Francescana, his Michelin three-star restaurant in Modena that topped the 50 Best Restaurants for 2016, it appears as an appetizer, paired with Campanine apples, mustard and crunchy “gnocco” bread.
And not just any culatello. Chef Bottura procures his culatello exclusively from Massimo Spigaroli’s Antica Corte Pallavicina, an inn and working farm one hour’s drive from Modena. You’ll find that same culatello at Alain Ducasse’s Sporting Club in Montecarlo and Bombana in Hong Kong. But nowhere in the United States. The closest you’ll get is Zibello fiocco (culatello salami) for $40 a pound.
Prosciutto versus culatello
Culatello (“little backside” in Italian) is the fillet of the pig’s hind leg from which prosciutto is cured. Both are salted and left to sit for two months, which draws out the blood and kills bacteria. The process predates the Romans, and except for the introduction of nitrites, which further inhibit bacterial growth, it hasn’t changed much since. Proscuitto is then hung in a cool place for anywhere from nine months to two years, while culatello is encased in a pig’s or cow’s bladder and hung for 18 to 27 months.
All proscuitti are not created equal. Only a dozen designations are protected by the EU and stamped PDO or PGI, which guarantees they come from a particular region and, more important, are cured only with sea salt and no nitrites. All are produced in northern Italy. They vary in taste and texture depending on the terroir and the pigs. San Daniele, with its dark color and sweet flavor, is from Fruili. Parma pigs are fed whey from Parmigiano Reggiano, lending Proscuitto di Parma a nuttier flavor.
Culatello is more high-maintenance. Spigaroli’s black pigs are kissing cousins to the acorn-fed pigs that give us Jamon Ibérico. It cures throughout the cold damp winters in the Po Valley just south of Cremona. The difference between prosciutto and culatello is subtle, but profound.
In the sun-filled dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, Spigaroli’s prized culatello is presented for a tasting beneath three celadon cloches. Each conceals pink-mahogany curtains of culatello. The first two, from white pigs, are aged, respectively, 18 and 27 months. The familiar salty-sweetness of prosciutto gives way to a leathery richness. The older culatello is nuttier. The black pig culatello is smokier, with black cherry notes and a velvety texture. Between pigs, we cleanse our palates with hunks of crusty country bread and glasses of Trebbiano, served with pickled vegetables and fiocco, the chewy-soft salami made from the trimmings and the fat.
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Antica Corte Pallavicina commands several acres close to the Po, encompassing Spigaroli’s restaurant, the hotel, a cooking school, a farm, a parmesan factory and culatello cellars. Al Cavallito Bianco, a more casual osteria, is run by Spigaroli’s brother Luciano. If you snag one of the six rooms, you can meet the pigs and tour the Parmigiano fattoria and culatello caves, which were built in 1320 by the marquesse di Pallavicina for precisely that purpose.
The Spigarolis’ great-grandfather went from a sharecropper at a nearby pintador belonging to Guiseppe Verdi to tenant farmer at Pallavicina. Their father was born there in 1916. But by 1990, when the sons purchased the property, it had fallen into ruins. The extensive restoration combines rustic charm with modern conveniences. The original, ox-sized fireplace dominates the dining room, where a wall of glass doors opens onto a trellised patio. A massive decommissioned steel stove functions as a serving station.
Going to the source
After consuming feather-light tortelli, stuffed with ricotta from Spigaroli cows and Spigaroli spinach — glistening with Spigaroli brown butter and showered with Spigaroli Parmigiano — we tour the caves, down a dungeon’s stairs to the dank cellar. The culatelli, white with mold, hang from the ceiling, encased in pigs’ bladders like ghostly chandeliers. Misty air wafts in from the Po. Such cellars are increasingly rare. The EU frowns on such conditions as potentially unsanitary. Because of that flavor-enhancing mold, the FDA forbids importing it to the United States. You’ll have to go to the source.
You’ll find yourself in food heaven. Emilia-Romana is Italy’s Burgundy; Bologna, its Lyon. You won’t find a better spaghetti carbonara than the one at Pizzeria delle Arte in Bologna, spiked with guanciale, creamy with Parmigiano and egg yolks the color of navel oranges. Massimo Bottura celebrates that same Reggiano in his Five Ages of Parmiagiano at Osteria Francescana.
Our last dinner, in Milan, we sit next to three Italian businessmen. “What brings you to Italy?” one wants to know.
“We came for the culatello.”
“Ah.” He smiles. He understands.
Main caption: Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina
The garden is bursting just now with unopened blooms, with thousands of peonies, irises and poppies, all swelling in their bloom buds on the eve of spring’s main riot. And the gardener’s mind is teeming with thoughts of what needs to be done in the vegetable garden to get ready for the explosive growth of spring. So this is the perfect moment to think what we can do to help the great helpers of the garden: birds and bees, toads and bats.
In our rambling old house with its maze of attics, we have a strong colony of bees that live with us. Every spring, a huge swarm emerges and forms on the north eaves at the top of the house outside the kids’ playroom, before flying off to begin a new colony. It is much larger than a basketball and very dense, with great gobs of honey dripping all over the patio. It is quite a mess but we love the free honey, which doesn’t get any more organic and local than that.
Be kind to bees
Global crops pollinated by bees are worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. But all over the world, bee colonies are under stress and many are suffering from the devastating phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), where the worker bees disappear and leave behind only the queen, some food and a few nurse bees.
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CCD has doubled the normal rate of colony loss in recent years and is causing drastic agricultural impacts. Imagine a world without bees or merely where they are rare — it’s unthinkable, really. Experts are not sure what is causing CCD, but heavily implicated are a class of powerful insecticides called neonicotinoids.
What can we do to help? Well, a great place to start would be with the American Beekeeping Federation. For people willing to explore beekeeping, you can learn there how to go about it. Short of becoming a beekeeper, there are many things you can do to help. If you have space in your garden, you can let a local beekeeper install and care for a beehive; you get all the benefits of the busy bees in the garden, and the beekeeper gets a place for his hive. It’s also very simple to build or buy habitats for orchard mason bees that require no attention from the gardener, and you can get them from sources like Gardener’s Supply Company.
Going to bat for creatures of the night
Bats are also a great help to the gardener, both as pollinators and as voracious insectivores, though many people are squeamish about them. They also live in some of our attic spaces and we benignly look the other way, for all the good they do in the garden; what a joy it is to see them swooping through the evening garden, ridding us of all manner of nuisance bugs. Each bat eats a third of its body weight in insects every night, and several hundred insects in just a few hours. If bats were ever to become extinct, our planet would be overrun with insect pests and we would live in a nightmare world.
It is easy and interesting to have bats live in your garden, and you do not have to have them in your attic as we do. All you need to do is hang a handsome cedar bat shelter in a quiet part of the garden and let these helpful creatures do the rest. A good source is BestNest.com, and there are many others.
Make your garden toad-friendly
"The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty"
By David Jensen
Morgan James Publishing, 2016, 282 pages
Have you seen any toads in your garden lately? Toads do not have many friends, though it is hard to see why, but for an unreasoning prejudice against their appearance and thousands of years of superstition against them. Just one ordinary toad can devour thousands and thousands of garden pests in a single summer. If you are plagued by slugs and cutworms, as so many gardeners are, this is the helpmate for you.
They should be part of every healthy garden, and if you do not have friendly toads around the place, you can also provide a habitat that will attract them. Any sort of covered shelter will do, and you can certainly improvise your own but there are also good commercial providers, like Gardener’s Supply Company, and the National Wildlife Federation is a good source for general information about these great helpers and how to make your garden toad-friendly.
And we all like birds, right? They will strip your garden of insect pests faster than anything. What all these helpers have in common is that they will come to you if your garden is free or nearly free of insecticides and other chemicals. This spring, consider ending or at least curbing your reliance on chemicals in the garden. Let your garden heal, and enjoy the delightful, diverse company of these healthy garden helpers.
Main photo: This spring, be kind to the bats, bees, birds and toads that help your garden. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Jensen
Between revelations by Italian police in December linking organized crime to 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil, and an estimated four-fold increase in adulterated extra virgin following the dismal 2014 olive harvest, there is no denying that fraud remains rampant. With 72 percent worldwide sales of olive oil at stake and all eyes on industry practices, Italy is fighting back.
EU and Italian government and trade organizations, including members of parliament, the Italian Trade Agency, UNAPROL (a consortium of Italian olive oil producers), and even an emissary of the Vatican, met last month to both address the problem of olive oil fraud and to outline their plans for a comeback.
“We must recuperate our damaged reputation,” said Colomba Mongiello, an Italian senator and president of the Counterfeiting Commission. She was responding to a survey conducted at Expo Milan 2015 in October, showing that 99 percent of foreign visitors involved believed that Italian olive oil was adulterated and that the consumer was being cheated. “Our objective is to reach the U.S. market and make them understand the difference between what looks Italian and what is Italian,” she said.
The conference, billed “Extract,” is part of a larger Italian effort to promote the country’s food and wine in the U.S., where imitation products labeled with Italian names, or colors of the Italian flag, are often mistaken for genuine imports. The strategy is two-pronged: legislating tougher penalties for fraud by going after Italian producers who don’t follow regulations, and launching the largest marketing effort ever made to inform American consumers how to taste and use extra virgin olive oil.
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“We have to do the same thing we do with wine to get people to understand olive oil,” said culture guru Franco Maria Ricci, who spoke. “Four-year old children in France are taught that wine is an angel. Italy is an olive oil culture and [its] significance needs to be transmitted in the same way …. If we don’t understand its qualities and terroir, we won’t understand its value.”
Crime has always been associated with olive oil, a substance so precious and prized in Mediterranean culture that its production and trade has invariably had a dark side. Merchants have been known to cut extra virgin with cheap oil to increase their profits since ancient times, and farmers had to fear brigands waiting in ambush as they transported oil to market.
Today there is a different kind of criminal on the olive oil trail. It is the unscrupulous producer who intentionally mislabels oils to mislead consumers into thinking they are buying genuine Italian virgin olive oil when they are not. Such murky practices have both hurt ethical producers and confused consumers. As journalist and Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” told me recently, “The problem … is that there are two kinds of olive oil in the world: commodity oil and excellent oil, which is usually estate-bottled and always very carefully produced …. [but] we keep trying to judge excellent oil as a commodity and vice versa.”
World’s best olive oil
If Italy, which arguably produces the best olive oil in the world, has been a hotbed of fraud, it is also at the forefront of combating crime in the business. Where else are police trained to sniff out fakes at every stage of the supply chain? And who, but the Italians, have a system–IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) and the more stringent DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin)—that regulates the way it is made and that can lead us to the very trees it came from, and practically, the humans who crafted it?
From the terraced slopes and soft valleys of Italy’s central regions and the microclimates of Veneto and Liguria, to the expansive southern plateaus and sun-drenched islands, come some of the most sublime olives oils, produced by artisans who have the passion for making it in their bloodlines. Like the country’s new breed of winemakers who focus on quality over quantity, they are making delicious oils with the flavor peculiarities of their particular landscape. Utilizing the benefits of modern technology for cultivation while practicing sustainable growing and traditional picking methods, they are no doubt making better oil than their ancestors did.
How to buy good olive oil
That said, not all well-made olive oil carries the DOP seal. If we were to limit ourselves to those alone, we would miss out on many fine extra-virgins. As with “USDA Organic,” the rigorous and costly bureaucratic process discourages many a small ethical producer from applying.
Assuming you are not an expert, the best approach to finding good olive oil is not unlike that for choosing good wine: Find a knowledgeable retailer to guide you. If such a place doesn’t exist in your neighborhood, you can order online from vendors whose buyers are experts. Each of these retailers carries a selection of fresh olive oil that is ethically produced from the current harvest:
Gustiamo in New York City, New York (www.gustiamo.com)
Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California (www.markethallfoods.com)
Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.zingermans.com)
Main photo: In Italy, there’s a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales
With ubiquitous food porn and hyped health headlines, 2015 was the year of sizzle over substance. At Oldways, a 25-year-old nonprofit celebrating cultural food traditions, we predict 2016 will reverse that formula with these six food trends for the new year that will affect what we put on our plates.
Our appetite for healthy food continues to grow
The movement toward healthier food choices continues to gain momentum. A recent Euromonitor survey projects global sales of healthy food products will hit $1 trillion by 2017, almost doubling the figure from 2007. It’s no wonder as consumers are now exposed to, and educated about, food choices practically everywhere: restaurants, grocery stores, TV food shows and schools. Based on Nielsen data, with nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, this provides significant incentive and opportunity for manufacturers developing new products.
Sustainable diets move to the center plate
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Food literacy finally catches hold
The term “food literacy” is gaining currency. Thanks to the 75 million members of the experiential millennial generation, and technology, the youngest American adults connect good health with knowing where their food comes from and who produces it. As Eve Turow, author of “A Taste of Generation Yum,” said in an interview in The Atlantic, “food is also allowing us to access the globe, so we can find out what harissa is made with and how to prepare something with it, in two seconds on our phones.” This extends to appreciation for personal food traditions and a desire to reconnect with the culture of one’s ancestors. That’s good news, as heritage is an ever more powerful motivator for healthier eating, inspiring home cooking, which saves an average of 200 calories per meal.
Supermarkets are the new health hubs
According to the Food Marketing Institute, a food retail trade group, Americans make 1.5 trips to the grocery store each week. That far outstrips visits to health care providers. To help customers make balanced food choices, supermarkets like Hy-Vee, Wegmans and Giant Eagle are hiring registered dietitians in their stores. These RDs will bring good health to consumers (and financial health to the grocery business) by demonstrating how to move healthier choices from shelf to table.
Raw milk cheese is hot
More than half of all cheese lovers say they prefer raw milk cheeses (think Le Gruyère AOP, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Roquefort, Grafton Village Cheddar, and Pont-l’Évêque, a favorite of Prince Charles) and purchase them regularly, according to the Oldways Cheese Coalition 2015 Raw Milk Cheese Consumption and Attitudes Survey.
However, the FDA is looking carefully at unpasteurized cheese, and new regulations could limit availability of traditional cheeses in the United States. Still, 90 percent of U.S. cheese lovers believe they should be able to choose raw milk cheeses. This may be the impetus to give these products, created through the old ways of cheese making, the attention they deserve.
Increased consensus on what to eat
A study in the Journal of Health Communication showed contradictory nutrition news creates consumer confusion, leading people to doubt health and nutrition recommendations. But that may change.
With the imminent release of the updated Dietary Guidelines, along with movements such as Oldways Common Ground — launched with a gathering of 75 top nutrition scientists, medical experts and media members to reach consensus on what Americans should be eating — and the True Health Initiative, started by Yale University Prevention Research Center’s founding director David Katz, which enlists hundreds of experts to spread evidence-based truths about lifestyle as medicine, clarity will begin to trump confusion.
Main photo: Consumers globally are willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, according to a recent study. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways
When it comes to Hanukkah, are you of the latke persuasion or are you in the fried pastry camp: sufganiyot, buñuelos, zengoula?
"The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen"
By Amelia Saltsman,
Sterling Epicure, 2015, 320 pages
Before we jump in, I should tell you that Hanukkah is my favorite holiday. And that I’m the daughter of an Iraqi father and a Romanian mother, whose families immigrated to Palestine in the early 1930s. My parents met in the Israeli army, came to Los Angeles a few months before I was born to further their education and stayed.
You should also know that I’m devoted to the farmers who grow my food. All of which make fertile ground for what comes next. As the young child of busy students, my affection for Hanukkah didn’t stem from elaborate presents, large parties or even alluring aromas from the kitchen. Far from extended family and time-honored traditions, we drew to the glowing candles of the Hanukkah menorah (hanukiyah) as though to a cozy fireplace. The sense of warmth and togetherness fed my soul long before I could have articulated the concept. Little did I know that I was tapping into Hanukkah’s very heart.
A child’s favorite holiday
Much of the Hanukkah story is common Sunday school stuff. The Festival of Lights, a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, commemorates the triumph of Judah and his band of Maccabees over Syrian-Greek rule and forced assimilation, the rededication of the temple and the miraculous bit of oil that lasted eight days, which is why we eat fried foods.
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So far, so familiar. But here’s the thing: Hanukkah begins on the dark moon closest to the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the pre-electric world would have most craved light and warmth. With autumn crops tucked away and the rebirth of spring far off, a festival of light to cheer a dark winter would have been just the ticket. Aha! The seasonal touchstone is the absence of growing things, the hiatus that drives us all indoors. However did I channel that at the age of 6? Funny how one’s life passions are present before we ever understand their implications. For me, this little marvel is on a par with the eight days of oil. (For the record, Hanukkah is thought to be a reenactment of Sukkot for the fighters who had missed the autumn harvest pilgrimage festival.)
Doughnuts and latkes
My Hanukkah food memories from those years are pretty sketchy, other than the Israeli holiday favorite, sufganiyot (doughnuts) that my father would bring home from the bakery where he worked evenings after class.
Latkes entered the scene when I was 9 and my sister was a baby. My mother received a gift of Sara Kasden’s “Love and Knishes,” a popular Jewish cookbook filled with Yiddish schtick. Although Hanukkah latkes are a European Jewish (Ashkenazic) custom to symbolize the oil, my mom considered them a New World treat and embraced them with gusto.
Kasden’s book defined our latke approach: thin, crisp and made from grated — not pureed — potatoes as the secret to great potato pancakes instead of ones that are raw, burnt and greasy all at the same time (a sort of negative miracle of its own). Over the years, three generations (my mother, me, my children) have perfected our skills into a zen-like rhythm, three abreast at the stove, to produce enough delicious latkes to satisfy our now-large family gatherings. (More hot tips: heat oil — no more than 1/4 inch deep — over medium heat, get oil hot enough that batter sizzles on contact, keep latkes thin — one generous tablespoonful of batter flattened with a spoon makes a three-inch pancake.)
A grandmother’s legacy
It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered another Hanukkah miracle: my Iraqi grandmother’s recipe for zengoula — crisp fried funnel cakes drenched in simple syrup. The coiled pastries are a centuries-old favorite in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia (where they are called jalebi), and were adopted by Iraqi Jews for Hanukkah.
The Sephardic treats are addictive, each crunchy bite shattering to a burst of sweet syrup. How had I missed the fun all these years? Although our family began transatlantic visits back and forth in 1961 and I had vivid memories of the dishes my Safta Rachel cooked for us, this one had escaped me.
But my cousin Elan Garonzik remembered them. Whenever our Safta visited his family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before heading west to us, Elan took careful notes as he cooked with our grandmother and still has his handwritten zengoula notes from the 1960s. I needed his help to work up a proper recipe.
Relearning a recipe
As luck, or miracle, would have it, I visited Elan, now a New Yorker, when the Museum of Jewish Heritage was showing “Iraqi Jewish Archives.” The exhibit depicts the discovery by a U.S. army team of thousands of books, Torah fragments, shopping lists and other ephemera that tell the 2,500-year story of Jews in Iraq, instead of the WMD they were seeking in that Baghdad basement. Go figure.
Elan and I whisked up the simple batter, set it to proof and headed to the museum. We wandered the exhibit, gazing at photos of youngsters who reminded us of his mother and my father. We came around a corner to a display about Hanukkah, which described local holiday customs including zengoula, the only dish mentioned in the show. It was, as they say in Yiddish, beshert (meant to be).
Today, we’re four generations celebrating together. Over eight days, our latkes, zengoula and sufganiyot pay tribute to “free to be you and me” diversity and remind us that it is indeed about the oil — not too much and hot enough. And in the spirit of our forefathers, we bask in the warmth of candlelight as we embrace a “minor” holiday to its fullest measure.
Zengoula With Lemon Syrup: Iraqi funnel cakes (Pareve)
Prep time: 30 minutes, plus 6 to 24 hours to proof
Cook time: 45 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Traditionally soaked in sugar syrup, zengoula are infinitely more wonderful when infused with a tangy lemon syrup. It takes only a few minutes to whisk together the forgiving batter the night before you want to serve zengoula, and the pastries can be fried early in the day you want to serve them. You will need to begin this recipe at least six hours before you want to serve zengoula.
For the dough:
1 1⁄8 teaspoons (half package) active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water (100 to 110 degrees)
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cornstarch
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
For the syrup:
2 to 3 lemons
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 quarts mild oil for frying, such as grapeseed, sunflower or avocado
To make the dough:
1. In a small bowl, stir together the yeast and 1/4 cup of the warm water and let stand in a warm place until the mixture bubbles, about 10 minutes.
2. In a medium bowl, using a fork, stir together the flour, cornstarch and salt. Stir in 1/2 cup of the warm water and the yeast mixture. Slowly stir in enough of the remaining 1/2 cup warm water until the dough is lump-free and the consistency of thick pancake batter.
3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until doubled in bulk, at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours.
To make the lemon syrup:
Using a five-hole zester, remove the zest from 1 of the lemons in long strands. Halve and squeeze enough lemons to yield 1/3 cup juice. In a small pot, stir together the lemon juice and zest, water and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar is completely dissolved and clear, about 1 minute. Pour into a pie pan and let cool. (The syrup can be made 1 day ahead, covered and refrigerated.)
To make the fritters:
1. Scrape the dough into a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag or large pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain pastry tip and set the bag in a bowl for support. Let the dough stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
2. Pour the oil to a depth of 3 1/2 inches into a 4- or 5-quart pot, wok or electric fryer and heat to 375°F. If using a plastic bag for the dough, snip 1/4 inch off one of the bottom corners, cutting on the diagonal, to create a piping tip. Roll the top of the pastry bag closed to move the batter toward the opening.
3. Pipe a bit of the batter into the hot oil. The oil should bubble around the batter immediately. If it doesn’t, continue heating. Pipe the dough into the hot oil, creating 3- to 4-inch coils or squiggles. Be careful not to crowd the pan. Fry the dough, turning once at the halfway point, until bubbled, golden and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes total.
4. Use a slotted spoon to fish the fritters out of the oil, drain them briefly on a towel-lined plate, and then drop them into the syrup for a moment or two, turning them to coat evenly. Lift them out of the syrup and transfer them to a tray in a single layer to cool. Repeat with remaining batter, skimming any loose bits of dough from the hot oil between batches to prevent burning.
5. The cooled pastries can be piled on a platter. Pour any remaining syrup over the top. The fritters taste best served the same day they are made, although they will hold their crispness overnight. Store loosely covered at room temperature.
Adapted with permission from “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition” © 2015 by Amelia Saltsman, Sterling Epicure, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
Main photo: Zengoula are infinitely more wonderful when infused with a tangy lemon syrup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Staci Valentine; reprinted with permission from “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen”
Grenache is in the midst of a renaissance in California, proving that decades of abuse can’t keep a great wine grape down. Two decades ago, it was being pulled out of California vineyards at an alarming rate. An increasingly sophisticated American wine-drinking public was giving up the simple, fruity jug wines into which most California Grenache had gone in favor of darker, more robust red grapes. Between 1994 and 2004, Grenache acreage declined from 12,107 to 7,762, and to 5,909 in 2014.
A tale of two Grenaches
At the same time, Grenache has never received so much buzz. Writers with such diverse tastes as Wine Spectator’s James Laube (“Grenache … is proving to be one of the most exciting and enticing wines to emerge in California in the past decade, capable of stardom”) and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné (“The hopes for Grenache ascendent have come to pass”) have championed the grape in recent years. And wineries are betting on Grenache’s future. A search in Wine Spectator’s California ratings database for Grenache from the 1994 vintage returns 11 matches, just two of which were red wines labeled Grenache (an additional three were Grenache rosés, and the other six blends that included the grape). By 2004, the same search returns 30 matches, 13 of which were labeled Grenache. From 2012 (the most recent vintage for which most reds have been submitted for review), the search returns 130 matches, 45 of which were labeled Grenache.
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Both the decline and the renaissance can be understood by looking at where Grenache was and is being planted. In 1994, just 256 acres, less than 2 percent of the total, was found in the coastal or mountain counties that make California’s best wines. The rest was found in the deep, fertile soils of the Central Valley, where it was a key component of the field blends that went unacknowledged into jug wines (think “Hearty Burgundy” and the like). As those wines lost popularity in the American market, so too did the demand for the simple, fruity juice that Grenache produced in its Central Valley home.
But all locations are not the same for California Grenache. Over the same two decades that overall acreage has declined by more than half, the acreage in the high-quality coastal and mountain areas increased 437 percent, to 1,376 acres. Even so, in premium areas, Grenache has become downright scarce, even though it is productive and easy to grow. In the Central Coast, Grenache is now one of the most in-demand grapes and commands a premium price, averaging $1,797 per ton in 2014, higher than Merlot ($1,056 a ton), Syrah ($1,357 a ton), Zinfandel ($1,407 a ton) and even Cabernet Sauvignon ($1,464 a ton).
The world’s grape
Grenache is long overdue for its California renaissance. Widely planted in France, Spain and Australia, Grenache is the world’s second-most-planted grape by acreage. It makes up some 60 percent of the acreage in the Rhone Valley and 70 percent of the acreage in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Add in significant plantings in Spain and Australia, as well as the thousands of acres in California, and Grenache accounts for the second-greatest worldwide acreage of any wine grape.
It is little surprise why. Grenache is a vigorous grape, relatively easy to grow and productive. It produces fruit with both good sugars (producing full body) and good acids (maintaining freshness). It makes wines that are nearly always cheerful, full of fruit and refreshing. There’s a useful white-skinned variant (Grenache Blanc) and even a pink-skinned one (Grenache Gris).
Whether in a Cotes-du-Rhone or a Rioja, an Australian GSM or a Provence rosé, wines based on Grenache provide enormous pleasure for a typically reasonable price.
So what happened in California?
The bad old days
Grenache in California has had a checkered history. Largely planted in the Central Valley and irrigated extensively because of its ability to produce enormous crops when given enough water, Grenache formed the (unacknowledged) core of many of the jug wines in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve heard tales of Grenache producing as much as 20 tons per acre in parts of the Central Valley. Even as recently as 2012, California’s Grape Crush Pricing District 13 (including Fresno, Madera and Tulare Counties, which contains most of the Central Valley Grenache acreage) produced 50,029 tons of fruit from 3,640 acres of Grenache: an average of 13.7 tons per acre. For comparison, our highest-ever yield per acre from our vineyard was 3.6 tons per acre, in 2006.
As you might expect, grapes produced at those massive yields are rarely distinguished. And in the rare cases where it was bottled on its own in the 1960s and 1970s, “California Grenache” was simple, light in color, and often sweet. The grape had fallen decisively out of favor by the 1980s, when a new generation of producers, mostly in Napa, focused their attention, and the attention of the American market, on the classic grapes of Bordeaux. Acreage in California declined correspondingly, from a peak near 20,000 acres in the 1980s to 11,000 acres in 2000 and just 5,909 acres today.
And yet, in the reasons for Grenache’s decline lie the seeds of its rebirth.
Why now, for Grenache?
Several factors are driving a new interest in Grenache. First, the whole category of Rhone varieties has a new generation of devotees, both among consumers and among producers. American producers, inspired by the growing availability of high-quality examples from the Rhone Valley and convinced that California’s Mediterranean climate should be a congenial one for the Rhone’s Mediterranean grapes, started making wine in increasing numbers through the 1990s. With critical mass came organizations like Rhone Rangers, Hospice du Rhone and the Grenache Association, all dedicated to providing Rhone lovers a community in which to discover new favorites.
The American wine market’s increasing openness to new varieties, and the growth of the tasting room culture, allowed many of these maverick producers to connect with enthusiastic customers in a way that would have been inconceivable two decades ago. Blends, too, have become a hot category in recent years, and it’s hard to think of a grape that has benefited more than Grenache, whose combination of full body, generous fruit, moderate tannins and refreshing acidity make it an exemplary blending partner.
Grenache can be made in many styles, from robust and high-octane to ethereal and highly spiced, which allows it to appeal to both winemakers looking to make wines to impress with their hedonistic appeal, and those looking to make wines that are more ethereal and intellectual.
And yet, it’s likely that none of this would have happened without new clones.
Clones to the rescue
At Tablas Creek, we brought in clones of all our grapes from our partners at Beaucastel, and Grenache was a major reason why we decided to go through the considerable time and expense of doing so. When we started to research the available clones of Grenache in California, we were not excited by what we found: enormous clusters with massive berries, much larger than we were used to seeing at Beaucastel, with flavors that were fruity and friendly enough but not exciting. Sure, some of that could be attributed to being overirrigated, overcropped and planted in the wrong places, but we thought there was something inherently different about the raw material. It was this conclusion that cemented our decision to bring in our own clones from France rather than make the best of the clones that were available here.
We weren’t the only people to bring in new clones of Grenache, but the net effect of the arrival of new clones in the mid-1990s was dramatic. A new generation of producers started planting Grenache in the high-quality coastal and mountain appellations where its previous footprint had been negligible. Acreage statistics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that in coastal and foothills counties its acreage has grown at about 10 percent per year since 1995. The 1,000-plus acres of new plantings in high-quality areas has driven a critical resurgence for Grenache.
Celebrating Grenache’s present
How about the Rhone Rangers? This organization of some 120 wineries, mostly from California but also including producers of Grenache and other Rhone-style grapes from Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Arizona and Michigan, holds two big events each year, in San Francisco (late spring) and in Los Angeles (Nov. 6-7). It also oversees local chapters in Paso Robles, El Dorado, California North Coast, Santa Barbara, and Virginia, and has organized a traveling show that has taken Grenache and its brethren in recent years to Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York and Seattle. For information, visit Rhone Rangers.
Hospice du Rhone has celebrated producers working with Rhone varieties with a four-day blowout of seminars, tastings, lunches, dinners, an auction and a legendary collection of after-hours parties most years since 1991. The 2016 celebration will be held in Paso Robles on April 14-16. For more, visit Hospice du Rhone.
The wines of France’s Rhone Valley are predominantly Grenache, from humble Cotes du Rhones to the greatest Chateauneuf du Papes. This is also true of most southern French rosés. These are all promoted by Inter-Rhone. For a complete listing of their events and activities, visit Inter-Rhone’s website.
Grenache even has an international day, organized by the Grenache Association each year on the third Friday in September (this year, it was Sept. 18) with tastings organized in Rhone-producing regions from France to Australia to South Africa to California.
A bright future for Grenache
What’s next for Grenache here in America? It seems like it’s poised for a surge, for many reasons. Quality has never been better. In California, the grape is increasingly being planted in the right places, and just as important being pulled out of the wrong places. The clones that are available are better than they’ve ever been before. In general, the producers who are working with Grenache now are Rhone specialists, which suggests it’s in the hands of people who will know what to do with it, unlike, say, Syrah, which was planted speculatively in lots of the wrong locations by growers who were guessing at what California’s next big grape would be. (Syrah is only now recovering after years in the wilderness.)
In the vineyard, Grenache is particularly well suited to dry-farming, ever more important in a future where droughts are likely to become more frequent and more severe. And it has shown around the world it can thrive in many different soils, in a range of moderate to warm climates, and be made, according to a winemaker’s taste, in a variety of styles, from bright and spicy to deeply fruity and luscious.
The wine press and trade seems solidly behind Grenache right now; nearly every writer I’ve spoken with in the last few years has remarked on how they think Grenache is poised for greatness in America. And the market seems increasingly comfortable with blends, where Grenache shines.
Will Grenache be the next big thing in California? I’m not sure I would wish that on it. But will it see success over the coming decades? I think that’s an easy prediction.
Main photo: Suddenly, Grenache grown in California is coming back into favor. Credit: Copyright 2013 Tablas Creek Vineyard
My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Stockholm. As newlyweds we were deliriously happy, but as grad students we were broke. Our best entertainment consisted of visiting the city’s beautiful food hall, where we longingly eyed all the seafood we couldn’t afford. After a while, a kindly fishmonger named Tommy Henriksson took pity on us and introduced us to some local fish within our budget. Tommy taught us to make magic with fresh herring and cod — fish so inexpensive they were taken for granted. We learned how to pan-fry herring and to sear cod in a blazing hot cast-iron skillet with plenty of salt. It cooked up into beautiful, moist flakes.
But times have changed, and we can no longer take cod for granted. By 1994, the once-bounteous stock of cod in Georges Bank, a continental shelf off the coast of New England, had been depleted from overfishing. And although strict quotas were put into place, these protective measures came too late. Our native fish stocks still haven’t recovered.
The world’s largest population of native cod now swims in the Barents Sea, which washes the far northern coasts of Norway and Russia.
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These cod are called skrei, from an Old Norse word meaning “to wander.” And wander they do. The skrei live for five years in the Barents’ nutrient-rich waters, where they acquire exceptional flavor. They then migrate to spawn in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago off Norway’s northern coast.
Until the 1980s, when wet-fish and factory trawlers began to proliferate, small-boat fishing was the islanders’ lifeblood. They lived by the annual rhythms of the fisheries and revered all parts of the cod. By simmering the cod with its liver, roe and a little whey, they made a traditional one-pot meal called mølje. Besides adding depth of flavor, the liver’s high content of vitamin D kept people healthy during the dark, sun-starved winters.
The importance of cod
By Darra Goldstein
Ten Speed Press, 2015
Cod’s importance to the North dates from the earliest recorded times, both for its nutritional and commercial values. The Vikings were trading dried skrei by the 10th century. Today, the fish continues to be dried in various traditional ways, two of which are recognized by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, an international effort to identify and catalog unique regional food items.
For tørrfisk (stockfish), the cod is line-caught, then quickly gutted and beheaded before being brought to shore. Two fish of similar size are bound together by their tails and draped on wooden racks to dry for two or three months in the salt air. Klippfisk (salt cod) is prepared farther south on Norway’s coast where large, flat rocks rise at the edge of the sea. The rocks are cleaned and spread with salt before split cod is laid out on them to dry into a delicacy that is less hard and brittle than tørrfisk. My personal favorite is boknafisk, cod that has been only partially dried in the salt air. When poached, its texture turns silken.
Population is threatened
The Barents fisheries have been generally well regulated. Norwegians recognize that a healthy population of cod also means rich populations of valuable groundfish like haddock and pollock. But this piscatorial treasure is now threatened. In 2010, after years of negotiation, Norway and Russia ratified the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean Maritime Delimitation Treaty, which opened the waters to commercial interests.
The sea contains rich oil and natural gas deposits, and corporations on both sides of the border are eager to begin exploiting them. And although Norway is highly sensitive to environmental concerns, Russia is not. Pressure is increasing to drill for oil and gas in one of the last truly pristine places on earth.
Preservation is vital
Undamaged ecosystems are essential for fish to thrive. Unless carefully regulated, the oil and gas extraction industries will deplete the Barents Sea’s resources and then move on, leaving behind oil boom debris and polluted seabeds. The World Wildlife Fund expressed concern as far back as 2004, well before the international treaty was signed, over the potential loss of the Barents Sea habitat to overfishing and industrial development.
Because of the decline in the annual catch, the Lofotens are already less a working fishing community than a holiday destination. Rows of wooden drying racks now stand empty on some island beaches, like so many looming sculptures memorializing a once-crucial livelihood and tradition. Cod encapsulates the collective history of the Barents region and the Lofoten Islands. It is vital that we preserve the last healthy population of wild cod and protect these waters that nourish not only the body but the soul.
Main photo: Cod are hung out to dry in Norway. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday in Lowell, Massachusetts. The regular sights and sounds of the street unfold: sirens blasting, students playing in a courtyard, construction workers hammering away, and the homeless and hungry lining up outside the Lowell Transitional Living Center.
Adjacent to the shelter, tucked into a previously vacant lot, is a scene uncommon in most urban areas. Chef Nick Speros from Project Bread is harvesting arugula, kale, radishes and strawberries to create a fresh salad later in the day with our students. As a member of FoodCorps, I’m helping. People often stop to inquire about our small but productive urban garden oasis. The quick response is, “We’re growing food in Lowell for our community and schools.” But that is just scratching the surface of what we do.
Lowell is a uniquely diverse city. The birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, Lowell is also home to the second-largest Cambodian population in the country. We continue to welcome refugee families into our community while also recognizing our historic roots.
While Lowell celebrates the cultural identities that make up the fabric of our city, the challenges our families face regarding food access and finding food that is culturally relevant are real and urgent. More than 40% of Lowell residents are unable to find culturally appropriate food near their homes, and more than one in three neighborhood stores do not sell any produce at all, according to the Lowell Community Food Assessment. Moreover, nearly 80% of Lowell students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and 36% of our students are overweight or obese, according to a report, The Status of Childhood Weight in Massachusetts.
Beginning with one garden
In 2011, Mill City Grows’ founders Francey Slater and Lydia Sisson started working with the idea that Lowell could be a place known for its innovative approach to food production and food justice. Mill City Grows (MCG) launched with the creation of a community garden hidden away in an abandoned park.
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The success of that garden created buy-in at multiple levels within the community — from residents to city officials to schools. Soon, the Lowell Public School district was requesting assistance from MCG to build school gardens and provide programming for students across the city. The demand for school gardens is high in Lowell as gardens continue to prove how powerful they are in tackling childhood hunger locally.
The grassroots efforts that MCG embraces are successful. What began as a single community garden has grown into four community gardens located across Lowell, two urban farms, eight school gardens and a Mobile Farmers Market that makes eight stops around the city.
A growing garden program
To sustain this movement and continue deepening its scope, Slater and Sisson realized that they needed to reach out to a national organization to help build their capacity. In 2014, MCG became a FoodCorps service site to support the expanding school garden program in the Lowell Public Schools system, which is expected to grow from eight to 12 schools next year.
FoodCorps is a nationwide team of leaders working to bring children closer to “real food.” As the FoodCorps service member for MCG this year, I have worked with nearly 2,000 Lowell students from grades preK-12 and built three school gardens.
Looking for long-term change
This past September, we created a free farmers market outside one of our schools, sponsored by a local hospital. For eight weeks, we provided beets, kohlrabi, cabbage, apples and tomatoes to hundreds of families, along with information about how to cook with these ingredients. Every week we heard about how grateful families were and how they discovered that their children actually like fruits and vegetables. This fall, we will launch family cooking classes and introduce children and their families to simple and delicious recipes that utilize fresh seasonal vegetables available from their garden plots or our Mobile Market.
The partnership between FoodCorps and Mill City Grows is the recipe for long-term change impacting childhood hunger and food sovereignty in Lowell. The movement that MCG started and FoodCorps is strengthening is integral to increasing food security for our families. The pieces are there for Lowell to be the food-secure community Mill City Grows envisioned it could be four years ago. With FoodCorps, we are starting to put those pieces together.
FoodCorps Service Member Christopher Horne won the 2015 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for his service site, Mill City Grows, in Lowell, Massachusetts. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.
Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AmeriCorps and a diverse array of private and public donors. FoodCorps’ host in Massachusetts, The Food Project, works with local partners in Boston, Cambridge, Lynn, Gloucester, Lowell, Holyoke, Lawrence and Chicopee. Find out more about The Food Project and the FoodCorps team in Massachusetts at https://foodcorps.org/where-we-work/massachusetts
Main photo: Students at McAuliffe Elementary help plant radishes as part of a FoodCorps program. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps