Articles in Soapbox

These heirloom tomatoes purchased at a farmers market are meant to be eaten raw, not used for sauces. Credit: Sara Franklin

It’s mid-August, and my local farmers markets here in New York City are bursting at the seams, groaning under the weight of sweet corn, peaches, carrots, onions and their seasonal brethren in the produce department.

It’s a buyer’s market!” columnist Mark Bittman recently proclaimed in The New York Times Magazine. Shoppers, myself included, scurry from stall to stall, overfilling bags and lugging home more than they can eat. It’s a terrifically good thing, and I’m heartened to see how many people — especially those who once  didn’t give a hoot about food or cooking — are faithfully turning out to support local agriculture.

With the windfall of choices this time of year, it’s a buyer’s market indeed. But recently, I’ve noticed a worrisome trend that makes me wonder whether the sellers at said markets — that is to say, the regional, small farmers we’ve elevated to the status of cultural heroes — aren’t taking a little advantage of their popularity.

See, for a couple of years right after college, I farmed for a living. I worked in a few different places with varying approaches; in each, the quality of the food we grew, and the pride with which we presented it to our customers, was paramount. The farm crew didn’t complain about the backache and rashes we accrued during days spent harvesting 1,000-plus pounds of tomatoes and carefully slicing young zucchini from their prickly stalks. After all, we were in the business of selling food. Good food.

Flowering basil. Credit: Sara Franklin

Flowering basil. Credit: Sara Franklin

So last summer, when I saw a “special” of flowering basil stalks at Union Square, I thought, this is a joke, right? I, and everyone I worked with, had been taught to pinch the tops off of basil plants before they came close to flowering, harvesting them in such a way so they would continue to produce and so the leaves we put on the stand were full of sweet, pure flavor. If a basil plant had just begun to flower, we’d pinch the buds off, leaving it to put its energy into growing leaves instead of flowers. If the plant were left to keep flowering, we knew the basil leaves would grow bitter.

I was hopeful the basil I saw that day would be marked down, “on sale” as it were, like milk about to expire in the supermarket. I was looking for a sign that said something like, “pinch off flowers, scatter over salads or float in cocktails, and use the leaves for pesto or ice cream.” But no. Instead, the basil was marked up, listed as “special” because of the attractive buds. I twisted my face into a scowl and wrote it off as a one-time error.

Then I saw it again, and worse this time. Flowering kale. Flowering arugula. It was spreading from market to market, farm to farm. Again, the greens were marked as “special,” priced above the “regular” kale, the “run-of-the-mill” arugula. At first, my annoyance had been with the gullibility of shoppers who were purchasing these products, but my frustration quickly turned toward the farm staff. Honest, hard-working, food-loving. Those were some of the words I used to describe the farmers I’ve known. But this? Who knew there would be deceit running rampant in our most wholesome arenas?

Trust is key to making farmers markets effective

More from Zester Daily:

» Changing farmers markets

» Buying local makes economic sense

» Let's take a moment to consider our farmers


Tips for shopping at farmers markets

1. For prime herbs and greens, look for stalks with broad, unmarred leaves and no flowers or buds. Avoid bolted greens, which often look elongated and have thickened center stalks. They will be bitter in taste.

2. Keep your eye out for flowering herbs and greens. If you can't wrangle a discount on these (you're not getting much bang for your buck, and they certainly shouldn't be marked as "special" or "gourmet"), take them home and use them for their flowers only. The leaves on flowered plants are bound to be too bitter to be true to taste since all the sugars have gone into producing flowers. Herbal flowers can be lovely in salads or cocktails, and flowers of leafy greens are nice as a bitter note on pizzas or in sandwiches.

3. Tomatoes can be tricky. With all the heirloom varieties popping up in farmers markets these days, identifying the varieties of tomatoes can be tough. As a general rule, rounded tomatoes (which tend to be very juicy and full of seeds) are best for raw eating or can be slow-roasted to develop a sweet flavor, while tomatoes that are elongated and tapered are paste tomatoes, which have less liquid and more pulp.

4. Deborah Madison's "Vegetable Literacy" (Ten Speed Press, 2013) is the most helpful cookbook I've come across to date in terms of learning to identify edible plants and herbs by sight and understanding the differences between varieties and various stages of life cycles. Websites and catalogs for seed companies such as Johnny's are also terrifically helpful. Keep a paper catalog on your bookshelf as a reference guide.

“The school” (if you can call informal apprenticeships a school) of farming in which I came up instilled in us greenhorns a firm commitment to knowledge. We believed ourselves part of a revolution (I know, I know. In my defense, I was 20 …) Saccharine as it may sound, we could, rightly, I believe, see that for Americans’ growing interest in local food to take hold firmly enough to shift toward any real change in the food system, a gap was going to have to be bridged — people who were unaccustomed to fresh produce or cooking for themselves were going to have to learn. And they were going to have to enjoy what they prepared enough to keep on doing it. For that to happen, two things were required: quality control on our end, and knowledge on our customers’.

On the matter of the first, we took full responsibility. We turned our greens back into the soil when they started to bolt or bud, and diligently topped our basil. Never did bolted spinach or flowering bok choy appear on our stands. It would have been dishonest, we felt, to pawn off a subpar crop on our loyal buyers. Per the second, while we had grown comfortable tossing around terms such as speckled trout (a romaine lettuce) and bull’s blood (a red beet variety), we knew those names wouldn’t mean a thing to our average customer. So we took it upon ourselves to act as translators. When setting up the farm stand, we’d carefully separate varieties, writing their names and descriptions on our board. When people asked, “What do you do with a fairy eggplant?” we gave them suggestions or pointed them toward a favorite cookbook or website for more advice.

We wanted them to be empowered enough to experiment in the kitchen while leaving growing and harvesting the best products possible in our reliable hands. Trust was key. It still is. The whole thing — this scheme of local food, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture groups and the like — hinges on trust. We bemoan a “lack of trust” in Big Food, decrying E. coli outbreaks and mislabeling of “natural” foods. Big, we reason, can’t be trusted. All it wants is to make a buck. But what happens if even the local farmers — who, by definition, are intertwined (and benefiting, for that matter) in this whole local food movement — aren’t keeping us in the loop?

Yes, part of the burden of knowledge falls on consumers. Part of it, too, I like to think, falls on the media. Thankfully, a bunch of fine cookbook authors, such as Deborah Madison and Joe Yonan, are answering the call. But farmers have to do their part to aid in transparency. Honest marketing that helps buyers understand the difference between a paste tomato (for cooking) and a beefsteak (for slicing) and why flowered greens are past their prime is imperative if we want people to take interest in, and control of, the food they purchase, cook and eat.

Farmers, give us the best you’ve got, and give it to us straight. You want those buyers to keep on buying? Remember, it turns on trust.

Top photo: These heirloom tomatoes purchased at a farmers market are meant to be eaten raw, not used for sauces. Credit: Sara Franklin

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Adrian Miller, author of

“We need to have an honest dialogue about race.” I’ve heard or read a variation of that statement a lot this summer. I agree that we do need dialogue, but making it happen raises questions. How and when would that conversation take place? How do we get people who are reluctant to talk about race to engage in a dialogue? How do we create a safe space to explore uncomfortable topics? What would reconciliation look like once we’re through talking? I thought L’affaire Paula Deen gave us a good conversation starter on race, but the feeding frenzy served to only reinforce how people already felt about race.

Adrian Miller, author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time." Credit: Bernard Grant

Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.” Credit: Bernard Grant

Still, there was some thoughtful commentary moving us toward a teaching moment about how the South’s cooks and cuisine are emblematic of the region’s conflicted past and complicated future. I have imagined that with a different cultural dynamic that focused more on forgiveness rather than condemnation, Ms. Deen could have played a pivotal role in stimulating a productive, public dialogue. But, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Those of us hungry for a dialogue need not wait. Food is one of the easiest ways to bring people together, and Southern cuisine — with all of its diversity — gives us a great platform to have a racial reconciliation dialogue through food. If you’re game, here’s my four-step plan for forming a cookbook club that facilitates a dialogue on race.

1. Form your group. If you may already belong to a book club, this project would be fairly easy to adopt. Otherwise, you’ll have to form a group and recruit members. There is a lot value to talking about these issues with people you already know, but I encourage you to stretch and invite someone of a different race who you don’t know so well.

2. Select your reading material. I think the most stimulating conversation will come from reading and cooking from two Southern cookbooks — one authored by a white Southerner and the other authored by a black Southerner. Though you are free to choose any cookbooks that you’d like, here are my recommended pairings:

For an interesting contrast in home cooking:

The Deen Family Cookbook” by Paula Deen (2009) and “Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way” by Sallie Ann Robinson (2003).

For classic texts on rural Southern cooking:

The Taste of Country Cooking” (1976) or “In Pursuit of Flavor” (1988) both by Edna Lewis and “Cross Creek Cookery” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1942).

For a survey of overlapping cuisines:

The Welcome Table” by Jessica B. Harris (1995) and “Southern Memories” by Nathalie Dupree (1993) or “Classical Southern Cooking” by Damon Lee Fowler (2008).

For a good look at working-class Southern food:

The Soul of Southern Cooking” by Kathy Starr and “White Trash Cooking” by Ernest Mickler (1986).

For those who like the greener things in life:

Vegan Soul Kitchen” by Bryant Terry (2009) and either “Butter Beans to Blackberries” by Ronni Lundy (1999) or “The New Southern Garden Cookbook” by Sheri Castle (2011). Though the latter two have meat recipes, there’s plenty for vegetarians.

Books that aren’t available online may be at your local library.

3. Plan your meal and the conversation. Ask the participants to make a dish from one of the cookbooks and bring at least one question to get some conversation going. If you’re stuck on how to start, take a look at the One America Dialogue Guide that was published in 1998 under the auspices of President Clinton’s Initiative on Race. It has sample questions that should prove helpful.

4Let’s eat on Aug. 28th! If you can, gather your group to cook, eat and share on Aug. 28, 2013. Why? Because 50 years earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” Let’s do it for real and expand the table by making it as inclusive as possible. If this timeframe is too ambitious, have your communal meal as soon as possible.

Talking honestly about race is not easy, but we need to try and we need do it out of love. Let me end by apologizing to any readers who I might have  offended with this racial reconciliation idea. Please understand that I am who I am, and I’m all about changing for the better.

Top composite photo:

A sampling of books recommended by Adrian Miller to start the conversation on race.

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Baked goods. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran

New York State has malt fever. This January, the Farm Brewery Law went into effect, and people are amped up about homegrown beer. The law makes it easier to open small breweries that use the state’s agricultural products like hops and grains. Everyone from politicians to home brewers thinks this is swell. Not me.

Amy Halloran. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran

Amy Halloran. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran

I’m a baker, and I’ve been following flour back to the field for a few years, meeting people who are putting wheat into local markets. I’m getting to know the brewers and distillers who are thrilled about barley for malting, which turns the grain into base ingredients for beer and spirits. Barley and wheat are small grains, and need similar infrastructure for growing and handling, so the interest in alcohol has the potential to expand small-scale grain farming overall. Still, I’m sorry this frenzy didn’t happen over bread.

Why does beer command more attention than bread? At the state level, I believe it is strictly mercenary. If there was a bread tax, I’m sure I would have met politicians on my flour tours a long time ago.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been meeting farmers, millers and bakers working outside the wheat belt. They are passionate, and devoted to helping grain production get rolling in the Northeast and elsewhere in the country. So are the researchers and food activists they work with. But those with beer fever outnumber them.

The interest in localizing beer is impressive, but confuses me. Meetings about hops and barley are booked beyond capacity, crowded with people thinking of planting hops to get agricultural tax credits, and farmers who have never grown grains.

Beyond beer

I am not immune to the powers of alcohol. I used to adore India Pale Ales, or IPAs, especially any made by Stone, but I can’t drink anymore. It just makes me feel lousy. Still, I remember how beer brings unity and bliss, creating a brotherhood of the bottle. Even cheap beer can do this — I never understood baseball better than when I held a plastic cup of Budweiser in Yankee Stadium. America, understood.

Bread is also communion. This social symbolism works even for the non-religious. We break bread to be together literally and figuratively, yet neither the concept nor the practice influences our expectations of cost. If bread means so much, why do we think that the staff of life should be cheap?

Sure, artisan breads command our imaginations and a good market share in bakeries and supermarkets and at farmers markets. But think about the way you think about staples. Don’t you want your milk and bread inexpensive, so you can spend money on treats like lattes, cupcakes and craft beers?

Milk doesn’t have as many philosophical strings attached, yet it, like grain, when removed from standard pricing systems (commodities for grains, fluid milk prices for milk), costs more than the price of production, and more than most people are comfortable paying — myself included.

The dairy industry is working to change the way fluid milk is priced. The current system was developed in the 1930s and is bizarrely linked, by an algorithm few can understand or explain, to the price of cheddar set by the Chicago Board of Trade. Making milk is often more expensive than farmers can earn selling it. No wonder, then, that over the last 30 or 40 years, dairy farms have disappeared quicker than ice cream on a hot day.

Bread makers know the cost of cheap

We get cheap flour and bread because grain production is centralized on 2,000- to 5000-acre farms in states such as Kansas and Montana. While heirloom tomatoes are almost clichés of local food, grains are late to local tables because these low-value crops need a lot of land, labor and equipment. Prize vegetables such as arugula or heirloom tomatoes can bring a lot of money per acre. Grains generally cannot. Grain growers need costly tools, like combines and grain bins. A nuanced understanding of planting, harvest and storage techniques is required to produce high quality grains.

We’ll pay 4 bucks for a cupcake, but bakers have a hard time making the numbers work for flour whose cost is not balanced by federal subsidies for commodity crops. Beyond price considerations, bakeries of all but the smallest, most hands-on scale are hesitant to work with flours that do not have the predictability that comes from blending seas of pan-American wheat.

Bakers used to know how to work with flour that varied from field to field and year to year. Mills were local — look for the abandoned millsones at the edge or your most tumbling stream. Is the answer to retreat from industrialized food so that what we eat costs what it costs to grow? I don’t know, but I would like to see fewer fields of corn and soy and more amber waves of grain.

Sowing outside the grain belt

That is happening, bit by bit. Farmers are figuring out what varieties of wheat grow and harvest well in the humid Northeast summers. Having more demand for barley for malting or wheat for baking will help build the infrastructure required to get grains in the ground and get those grains to market.

There are discussions of community mills and cooperative granaries in New York, Maine and elsewhere. Many partners — the Northeast Organic Farming Assn.-New York, the Pennsylvania Assn. of Sustainable Agriculture, Cornell, Greenmarket Regional Grain Project, OGRIN and others — are in the middle of a four-year grant sponsored by the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. They’ve been educating farmers about growing practices, building a mobile cleaning unit to help process grains, and conducting field trials of wheat varieties.

Despite my sour grapes at the beer frenzy, I am hopeful that the desire for local barley will feed the need for local flour, and help bring prices closer to manageable for bakers and eaters. Let’s see whether beer — in a sense — grows bread.

In the meantime, there are things you can do to urge flour along. Ask your artisan baker if they make a local loaf. Buy that local loaf once they start baking. And get your co-op to carry that flour and use it for your biscuits, pancakes and pie crusts, OK?

Top photo: Baked goods. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran

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Old olive trees in Kritsa, Crete. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Greece’s agony is painful to watch. For those who know and love the country, the long fiscal battering, now in its third year, has often seemed excruciating, most of all, of course, for the Greek people,  especially the young, who face a staggering unemployment rate of 54%. But there are ways to help, small perhaps but nonetheless significant. One is to seek out, buy and use some of Greece’s many fine food exports. Extra virgin olive oil should be at the top of that shopping list.

Patriotic Greeks, not content to sit by, are looking for ways to encourage not just economic recovery but the development of a new generation of innovative thinkers, which the country so desperately needs.

One such patriot is Aris Kefalogiannis, CEO of Gaea, a leading exporter of olive oil products. With what friends say is characteristic aplomb and imagination, Kefalogiannis thinks he has found a simple but effective solution: using income from sales of an exclusive high-quality organic extra virgin called Antiparos Agrilia Estate to fund a unique competition to promote young entrepreneurs.

Kefalogiannis is what would be called in France a négociant of fine extra virgin olive oil. He doesn’t actually produce oil himself and has no ancient trees to show off to visitors. Instead, he works with existing producers to promote and market high-quality olive oil and olive products. Gaea is a specialty foods giant, with award-winning olive oils and other olive-based products — such as tapénades and cooking sauces — in its inventory. In the U.S., the products are sold under the “Cat Cora’s Kitchen” brand.

Extra virgin export

Greece is primarily what economists call a domestic demand-oriented economy, meaning most products are geared to the domestic market. It has the lowest ratio of exports to gross domestic products, or GDP, in the European Union, just 27% (compared to the EU-wide average of 45%). Most experts think Greece should be selling more abroad — much more. And olive oil, given the high quality of Greek production, should have a big role to play. Keep in mind that about three-quarters of all the oil produced in Greece is extra virgin — unlike Italy, for instance, where extra virgin accounts for a little less than half, or Spain where it is barely a third of total oil production. Most of this extra virgin comes from modest family farms, the backbone of the country’s agricultural economy. But such small enterprises find it difficult to compete on the international scale, lacking both investment capital and marketing skills necessary to play the game.

The statistics surrounding Greek olive oil production are amazing. First off, Greeks consume more olive oil per capita, by far, than any other people in the world — 18 kilos or nearly 40 pounds per person annually, according to the European Commission. (By comparison, Italians consume a little less than 11 kilos — about 24 pounds — each, while the U.S. is still less than a measly kilo). A third of all Greek oil is exported to other countries, mostly extra virgin, mostly to the European Union. But 90% of that is sold in bulk to Italian and Spanish packagers who either bottle and rebrand the oil or blend it with more expensive home-produced oil to make the kind of cheap, indifferent oils found in supermarkets all over the world. Only 10% of this remarkable product is exported in branded bottles.

For consumers aware of the price commanded by a bottle of premium quality Italian, French or Spanish oil, or for anyone who has experienced the quality of top Greek olive oils, there is something inherently odd about such high-quality extra virgin oil being sold off as a cheap bulk commodity. True, no one is forcing Greek producers to sell in bulk, but the olive oil market, like most agricultural niche markets around the world, is deeply conservative. The Italian market for Greek oil has always been there, going back probably several millennia, so why change things now? In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Tapping a young market with Greek olive oil

But Greece’s economy is indeed broken. Faced with a steady drain of exactly the youthful population that should be helping to put Greece back on track, Kefalogiannis has set up a think tank where young Greeks, straight out of high school or university, present business plans for evaluation by a group of expert judges who then select the 10 most likely to succeed. Each of the 10 winners is awarded seed capital amounting to 25,000 euros (about $32,500) plus a low-interest loan from a reliable Greek bank, plus access to Gaea’s broad international distribution network.

Single-estate solution

The whole project, “Reinspiring Greece from the Youth Up,” is funded through sales of Agrilia, a remarkable single-estate, certified organic olive oil from Antiparos, a tiny Cycladic island in the heart of the Aegean. The oil, which comes mostly from the favorite Greek olive variety koroneiki, is extraordinarily high in polyphenols — 550 mg per kilogram at the time of processing. High polyphenols mean the oil is not only exceptionally healthful, but also that it has a long life, protected by its own polyphenols from the taint of rancidity.

When I heard about the program, I rushed to buy a bottle of the oil through the Greek America Foundation, which sponsors the project.

So what does Antiparos Agrilia Estate oil taste like?

In short, it’s an outstanding oil, beautifully balanced among the three critical points of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. (That last characteristic is an indication of the presence of polyphenols.) I found delicious hints of apple and fresh almond, and a balanced roundness, without the least hint of greasiness or fatty textures.

This is an oil to reserve for garnishing. Dolloped generously over buffalo-milk mozzarella or a fresh goat’s milk cheese or added at the table to a plain bowl of pasta with tomato sauce or a hearty beans-and-greens soup, it will take such simple dishes to heights of elegance. At $38 for a 17-ounce bottle, Agrilia Estate is not cheap, but it’s worth it: It’s worth it to support Aris Kefalogiannis’s generous vision, it’s worth it to celebrate the potential of Greek recovery, and it’s worth it to experience one of Greece’s finest products.

Top photo: Old olive trees in Kritsa, Crete. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Raw tuna. Credit: Holly Botner

“So where’s your sushi from?” I asked politely, still sweating the effects of Fukushima on fish from the Pacific Ocean.

“From Japan,” said the waiter.

Well, duh, what should I have expected? We were in a Japanese restaurant.

For more than a year now, scientists studying the effects of the March 2011 deadly earthquake and tsunami that triggered the disastrous breakdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have suspected that the plant may still be leaking. Levels of radioactivity in the waters and fish around the plant have not been declining, as would be expected. Recently, amid reports of surging radiation levels, Japan finally owned up: The plant has probably been leaking for the past two years, acknowledged Japan’s chief nuclear regulator.

So should we, sitting comfortably across the Pacific, be worried about consuming Pacific fish?

Nicholas Fisher, a State University of New York at Stony Brook professor, has been studying radioactivity and metals in marine life for more than three decades. He’s part of the research team examining Fukushima’s effects on the seas.

Last year he reported small amounts of Fukushima’s cesium in Pacific bluefin tuna caught off California’s coast in summer 2011. Those tuna had spent their early days during that momentous spring off Japan’s Pacific shores, then migrated across the ocean, as some species do.

Last month he published another study saying the amounts of cesium are nothing to worry about. “The biological effects of any contaminant are generally dependent on the dose received,” he wrote. And the dosages of cesium in those 2011 tuna and attendant risks are extremely low, he said — too low to detect any damage and declining in fish caught in 2012. In fact, he’s more concerned about mercury in tuna than radioactivity.

Fisher compares the dosage of cesium you’d get from eating a 200-gram portion of that tuna to the naturally occurring radioactive potassium in one banana: The banana would give you a dose 20 times higher. When’s the last time you had a CT scan? That dosage is at least 1,000 times more — depending on the scan, up to 10,000 times more — than the amount an average American seafood consumer would get eating that contaminated tuna for an entire year, he said.

But what about the fish being exported from Japan?

Seafood from Japan monitored

To its credit, Japan lowered its levels of acceptable cesium in the wake of the disaster from 500 to 100 becquerels per kilogram. The U.S. limit is 1,200 becquerels per kilogram, and the Canadian limit is 1,000 becquerels per kilogram. Japan has been testing fish and posting results on the Internet. Some clear patterns are emerging:

– Some freshwater fish (landlocked salmon, for example) have higher levels of cesium, which is not surprising. Cesium mimics sodium and potassium. both of which are abundant and naturally occurring in the sea, meaning they would displace cesium uptake.

– And some of the ocean’s bottom feeders are showing levels above limits, which again is not surprising. Contaminants are getting trapped in sediments near the Fukushima nuclear plant, experts say, providing a continuous source of food for marine life that feed along the bottom near the shoreline.

The fish that feed in this area include many familiar species: cod, haddock, grouper, bass, halibut, flounder, sole, snapper, shellfish, monkfish, turbot, sturgeon, shark, eel and greenling, which was once a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. Last February, a greenling caught near the plant registered the highest level of contamination yet, which is 7,400 times the amount of radioactive cesium that Japan deems acceptable.

Meanwhile, Japan is working to keep contaminated fish off the market. Immediately after the incident, its fishermen voluntarily agreed to a ban on most commercial fishing off Fukushima prefecture. (The ban did not include fishing for skipjack tuna and some mackerel, all caught far enough offshore that it didn’t seem to worry the decision makers. They’ve been inspecting samples of those species, they say.)

Japan uses a testing program

Today, a few of those restrictions have been lifted. You can now buy Fukushima octopus and snow crab, for example. And the country relies on a testing program that’s managed by the prefectures and depends on the fisherman’s voluntary compliance.  The prefectures regularly test samples for cesium, which builds up in muscle (and irregularly test for strontium, which accumulates in bone), at least weekly,  often daily, explained a spokesman for Japan’s embassy in Canada. If a fish contains cesium above limits, the fisherman is responsible for keeping that species off the market. That responsibility means they must not sell any fish of that species in that day’s catch.

If a species from a particular area continues to show contamination, the central government can step in and ban fishing for that species in that area of the prefecture, as it has done in several instances. Then, if testing over multiple places within that area shows results consistently below limits, the feds can lift the ban.

Take Japan’s Pacific cod. Today, it’s banned in Fukushima and neighboring Ibaraki prefecture but can still be snagged elsewhere and sold. At one point, it was prohibited in three other prefectures because its contamination levels were above limits, but the ban’s no longer in force. Do fish know prefectural boundaries?

Global efforts to track contamination

In North America, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its Canadian counterparts no longer single out imports from Japan for inspection like they did after the incident but they do still monitor radiation in all foods, spokespeople said. The FDA has also issued an order authorizing agents to seize certain foods from certain prefectures that Japan’s central government has already banned from exporting due to high contamination levels. Recently, the American Medical Assn. passed a resolution urging the FDA to monitor seafood carefully, and a group of physician organizations instrumental in that resolution, led by the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Erica Frank, are calling on U.S. and Canadian authorities to be vigilant.

So could Pacific cod that had been feeding in those contaminated sediments make it to your faraway platter? Possibly, assuming it swam a few miles from Fukushima and through a few loopholes. If you indulged on a little sushi, would there be enough cesium to do harm?

Fisher’s now starting to study the levels of radioactivity in those coastal bottom feeders along with the possibility of radiation in other migratory species.

Being a worrywart, I ordered the mushrooms. But should I have asked where they came from? Sure enough, fungi feast on cesium, too.

Top photo: Raw tuna. Credit: Holly Botner

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Liz Vilardi. Credit: Michael Piazza

I went to college in Boston, where I now live and work. I mention this because it was in Boston that I happened to pick up a pretty good J. Crew habit. Mind you, the J. Crew I love now has a bit more conviction and is much more dynamic — thanks in large part to Jenna Lyons, its creative director and president. She’s credited with all the cool innovation going on around there. Hello! Michelle Obama is lovin’ up the J. Crew.

To me, Michelle Obama equals strength, progress, tradition and some serious smarts. Somehow her choice to endorse J. Crew says those same things about the brand, and J. Crew somehow says those things about our first lady. My point is that it’s a mutually respectful relationship because J. Crew and Michelle — and probably Jenna, too, share the same values.

Brand loyalty

Why do I bring this up? I’ve been thinking how to tell you all to trust wine importers and their, well, brands. I tend to go back to my tried-and-true, especially when it comes to food and wine. “I don’t like food, I love it,” says Anton Ego, the food critic in Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” “If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” This speaks to me on a strangely deep level. I’ve paid, but I’ve walked out on many a mediocre experience.

As a consumer, the places where I find what I’m looking for time and again are the places I go back to, whether it’s clothing, grocery or furniture stores; farmers  market stands, coffee shops or restaurants. I choose each for different reasons, but all in all it comes down to me liking, often loving, what they make, curate, inspire and support.

But here’s the question (pretend I’m Carrie from “Sex And the City”): Why is it we don’t shop for wine this way?

Wine intimidates us into thinking this approach won’t work — it couldn’t possibly be that easy. But it can. We can rely on the importer, the person or group that researched, tasted, chose and organized a specific selection of wines on our behalf, the same way Jenna Lyons makes choices on fabric, jewelry and shapes.

Read the label

In short, you can go shopping for wine the same way you’d shop for anything else — by the label. Turn the bottle over. What does it say? Hooseewhatsit Wine, John David Blah Blah. Ask your retailer about the importer and the wine, and if you like the answer, buy the wine, go home, Google it, drink it and make some critiques. Do it again and again, and in time you’ll find the importers you can rely on. This is how their wines can become the awesome pencil skirt, the local strawberries, the pork buns you love so much.

If we enjoy what they’ve whittled down, we can follow these importers to the ends of wine terroir. If we find an importer we jibe with, it can be like a well-paid-attention-to Pandora radio station. We can go back repeatedly to an endless well of tasty drinks. Thumbs up.

De Maison Selections logo

I’ve got several tried-and-true importers who choose quality wines that suit my taste and ideals. These guys avoid the bad things (wood chips, sugar, acidification, de-acidification and stabilizers) and promote the good (hand-harvesting, wild yeasts, low yield, natural viticulture and unique wines). Here they are:

De Maison Selections focuses mostly on Spanish and some French producers. They are easy to recognize not only by their name but their logo of a porron — which is a vessel from the Basque region for drinking a delicious wine called Txakoli. Da Maison’s mission is to find unique, high quality wines made with integrity.

Dalla Terra Winery Direct deals in Italian wine. Slightly different from a traditional importer, they’re brokers — they cut out the middle man and save us all money, and by us I mean the producer, you and me. Dalla Terra and one of their producers — Alois Lageder — are the reason I love wines from the Alto Adige. Dalla Terra represents other reputable, small and delicious wines such as Adami, Selvapiana, Vietti and Inama. They deliver conscientious wines.

At Louis/Dressner the mission is to bring small producers with some crazy ideas to America. Started by the late Joe Dressner, to me, the first hippie of wine, it is now run by his wife Denyse and their protégé, Kevin McKenna, Almost all their wines are natural. I like a lot of Louis/Dressner French bottles and their funky Friulian stuff.

Circo Vino is my Austrian importer of choice. Their producers are top-notch and include winemakers who care about the land and the environment and grow/make wine that fits that list of “good” criteria. Circo Vino is relatively new, but man they’ve got me hooked on Rotgipfler.

SelectioNaturel + Zev Rovine: These two, just in San Fran, New York and Massachusetts right now, work together importing fine wines by really small producers, with some very stringent requirements on the natural process. The wines are unique. I like their French and Italian bottles.

Now, remember, there are small local importers, too, that you shouldn’t overlook. So keep turning your bottles around, investigate the back labels on the ones you enjoy and ask your retailer to tell you more about them and their importers.

Top photo: Liz Vilardi. Credit: Michael Piazza

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Paul Lukacs. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

Myths are fictional stories that satisfy shared desires. In the contemporary world of wine, the most pervasive myth is that of terroir, the story of how a wine’s essential identity comes from where the grapes for it were grown. Like all myths, this one contains a metaphoric, not a literal truth. Terroir’s story fulfills our longstanding wish to believe that wine comes from more than human hands, and so possesses a significance that transcends artifice.

Grapes were first cultivated and wine made deliberately some 8,000 years ago. From its earliest origins, wine assumed a special because a sacred cultural status. In societies as different as ancient Babylon, the Pharaohs’ Egypt, classical Greece and Imperial Rome, it was viewed as a gift to humanity coming directly from the gods. No other beverage, indeed no other foodstuff, was thought of in this way.

Wine and the divine — absent terroir

Why was wine valued so highly?  Unlike other food and drink, it did not require human agency. And unlike other natural products such as milk or honey, it possessed a seemingly mysterious power to relieve care. Put simply, drinking wine made a person feel good. That is why Euripides in “The Bacchae” has the prophet Tiresias declare that “when we pour libations . . . it is the god himself we pour . . . and by this bring blessings on mankind.”

In today’s world, we do not credit a god with wine’s power. Instead, we attribute that power to the presence of alcohol, which is produced through the interaction of living yeasts and the sugar in ripe grapes. And we no longer consider fermentation to be mysterious. From a rational modern perspective, wine is simply fermented grape juice. It can be controlled, even manipulated, by human beings.

The problem with this perspective is that it robs wine of its uniqueness. And the solution appears to be the story of terroir, according to which wine is, if not sacred, still special because it reflects its origins. Or to be more exact, it is special because it can embody a specific natural origin — not just a region but a vineyard. Many contemporary wines, particularly mass-produced ones, do not do this. But artisanal wines made with attention to the distinctive character of each plot or parcel of land — those are the wines in which one supposedly can experience the gôut or taste of terroir.

The back story

Terry Theise, a leading American importer of artisanal wines, makes the case for terroir eloquently. “Wine can be a bringer of mystical experience,” he declares, adding that the wine “has to be authentic . . . [with] a rootedness in family, soil, and culture.” And what constitutes “rootedness?” Thiese recalls a well-regarded German vintner telling him, “I hope my wines convey a story.  Otherwise they’re just things.” It’s the story of the vineyard and, if this doesn’t sound overly sentimental, a man in love with the vineyard, that enables wine to be what Thiese calls “a portal into the mystic.”

This all sounds great, if admittedly a bit New Age-ish, and it’s true that many of the world’s best wines convey a sense of place. They would not taste the same if made with grapes grown somewhere else. But that does not mean that they actually taste of a specific place. After all, tasting a place literally means eating dirt. Moreover, plenty of fine wines are made with blends of grapes from different vineyards. And some of the world’s most prestigious wines — many classified growth Bordeaux, for instance — come from vineyards containing separate plots, with diverse soil types and exposures.

It’s worth noting that the very concept of terroir is a relatively recent invention. The word, derived from the Latin terratorium, entered the French lexicon during the Renaissance, when it meant “territory.” Not until the 1920s and 1930s was terroir used to designate a vineyard’s natural environment. Then it began to signify a particular feature of wines grown in that environment, features that may be both sensed physically and recognized intellectually.

The emergence of the story of terroir corresponded precisely with a period in which fine wine experienced a profound crisis. The phylloxera plague of the late-19th century had devastated vineyards the world over; virtually all winemaking countries were experiencing deep economic depression; a generation had been bled dry by world war; and people with money to spend on drink were increasingly downing cocktails, all the rage among the middle and upper classes. Even in France, wine was being valued less for any magical properties and more simply for its alcohol.

A drink apart

The people who still cared about wine — some consumers surely, but more significantly, vintners, merchants, agricultural ministers, and then importers, writers, critics and others — needed to elevate wine and separate it from its competition (beer, hard spirits, and in the second half of the 20th century, when refrigerators became a household staple, fruit juices, soft drinks, and the like). What better quality to single out than terroir? It, after all, was what allegedly distinguished wine. Its story made wine special.

The elevation of terroir as the primary source of a wine’s value was not the result of some grand conspiracy. Nonetheless, marketers have used it with great success. And though terroir is not always considered a portal to the spiritual, its story continues to satisfy an apparently widespread desire to consume something that is more than just another man-made thing. In reality, the wines we drink are modern consumer products. They come in many different forms, but the differences have less to do with the taste of the wines themselves than with the attitudes that human beings bring to them. Put another way, if you want to taste terroir you can, but its source will be as much in you as in any vineyard.

Top photo: Paul Lukacs. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

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Bottled olive oil. Credit: foodistablog

The European Commission has shown customary timidity in abruptly withdrawing a proposal made last week to exert minimal control over the quality of olive oil served in restaurants. The idea behind the proposal was admirable — that olive oil be served in original, tamper-proof bottles that state the oil’s credentials on the label, rather than poured from an anonymous jug into cruets or bowls on the table. In that way, consumers would be certain of what they’re being served and there would be no easy way of substituting bad oil for good. Restaurants, in the commission’s words, should be “obliged to use oil bottles equipped with an opening system which cannot be resealed after the first time it is opened, together with a protection system preventing them from being reused once the contents indicated on the label have been finished.”

This was not a sudden decision. It had been discussed for at least a year. And to those of us who have encountered, over and over again, rancid, fusty, smelly, old oil in those colorful little bowls or cruets on restaurant tables — even in some very fine establishments — it made good sense. But the proposal evoked an outcry from journalists, chefs, restaurateurs and the public at large such that you might think the EC had proposed reinstating capital punishment.

Baffling backlash

Consumer protection? No way! This was out-and-out interference in commerce, the naysayers cried, especially commerce that involved “little guys” — small-scale restaurateurs and café owners and small-farm producers of olive oil. This was Brussels interfering with time-honored traditions, forcing out modest concerns in favor of big industrial-sized multinationals that promote commodity olive oil. The virtue of this argument is difficult to understand because large producers would have very little to gain from the proposal. But in the end, the EC, bowing to pressure on all sides, withdrew the regulation.

Much of the uproar came from sources with nothing on the table. I cannot speak for the German press, but British journalists suddenly had, as they themselves might say, their knickers in a twist over the proposal. Silly Europeans, the Brits snickered, there they go again, fussing over trivia, imposing ridiculous rules on innocent restaurateurs, as if they didn’t have anything else to worry about in Brussels. Why don’t they do something about the economy instead?

Elsewhere, however, the outcry was even more difficult to understand and I got the impression that most people simply had not read the proposal. It is not a hardship for restaurateurs to provide tamper-proof bottles of olive oil since that is the way most small quantities of olive oil are sold. I buy oil in half-liter bottles or tins in local shops where I live in Tuscany. These containers almost uniformly have a plastic pour spout inside that is difficult to remove, and through which it would be difficult to refill the bottle. Furthermore, bottles such as these are the product of many different olive oil purveyors, from small, local farmers to substantial wineries that also produce oil for large, supra-national concerns. Disposing of the bottles once the contents are gone is also an easy task — they simply go into the glass-product recycling bins that are universal in most of Europe.

Check out the following excerpt from Public Radio International’s “The World,” a daily NPR news program:

At a little café in a Spanish village. . . the owner, a guy named Aris, says he’s indignant [about the new regulations]. Aris drives to his favorite olive orchard . . . to buy his oil right out of the presses. He tops up his big five-gallon jugs, and each morning at the café he fills his oil flasks by hand, then sets one on each table. . . . He says he doesn’t understand how Europe can have a problem with this.

Not necessarily extra virgin olive oil

The problem, simply stated, is that all over Europe, thousands of restaurateurs, large and small, top off oil flasks or cruets or bowls with what is most likely not extra virgin at all but a much lesser grade of olive oil — if, in fact, it is even olive oil and not some cheap substitute. And if it is extra virgin, it will most likely be rancid, fusty and several years out of date — just a few of the most common faults in extra virgin olive oil that not only give bad flavors and aromas to the food served, but also ultimately are bad for diners’ health. And even if it happens to be good olive oil when it goes into the flasks that are filled, day after day over the years without being cleaned, it’s inevitable that the “fresh” oil added will be thoroughly contaminated by the nastiness at the bottom of the flask.

I would hazard a conservative guess, based on long years of experience, that at least 70% of the oil on tables in European restaurants, and at least 85% of the oil on tables in American restaurants, would not pass muster if the research team at UC Davis’ Olive Center were to take up the challenge and test them for their extra virginity. When they tested imported extra virgin oils available in California retail shops a couple of years ago, 73% failed to meet sensory standards.

BYO EVOO

Which is why, when I go to an ordinary restaurant, and even sometimes to extraordinary ones, even in the olive oil-producing regions of Spain, Greece, Italy and California, I carry with me a small, discreet tin of high-quality extra virgin to adorn my dishes when necessary in order to avoid what’s in those cute glass, or rustic terracotta, or other type of cruets that sit on every restaurant table. (Of course, that doesn’t save me from the fact that they’ve been cooking my food with that junk, does it?)

Fresh-pressed extra virgin olive oil in Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Fresh-pressed extra virgin olive oil in Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Essentially, the problem the EC was trying to address was consumer fraud, a serious concern with olive oil, in Europe as everywhere else in the world — as many of these same journalists have been whining about for years. The new requirement would have prevented unscrupulous restaurateurs from filling their cruets with questionable oil. It was a tiny step forward in government efforts to combat fraud and to prevent what is all too often nasty, out-of-date, fake, unacceptable oil from being served up as if it were something genuine and special.

One simply cannot have it both ways. We cannot moan over fraudulent olive oil masquerading as fine extra virgin, and then gripe and sneer when the government takes a first, tentative step toward rectifying the situation. If we truly want reform, if we truly want to be sure that the oil in that bottle or on that table is what it says it is, then we must expect a lot more similar, and quite possibly even more stringent regulation in the years ahead. And welcome to it!

Top photo: Bottled olive oil. Credit: Flickr / foodistablog

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