Articles in People
At a time of year when most people are fixated on berries and peaches, corn and tomatoes, it’s also the season to get excited about onions — not just any old allium but a heritage sweet onion harvested by hand in Walla Walla, Washington.
Walla Walla Sweets are the unheralded heirloom stars of summertime. Juicy, mild and sweet, they are at their best in all of the great (and easy) meals of the season: grilled with sausages, caramelized for burgers, sliced raw for salads and more.
Fresh and delicate in terms of both flavor and handling, Walla Walla Sweets are in season right now — and with a very limited supply from a handful of family growers, they won’t last long.
More from Zester Daily:
» 3-ingredient pickled onions make summer last all year
» Boost cancer-fighting effects of onions and garlic
» Colorful summer salads make the most of heirlooms
» Heirloom garlic outshines the supermarket stuff
Older than Vidalias
Long before Walla Walla became renowned as an American Viticultural Area, this valley in southeastern Washington was the agricultural hub for a surprisingly sweet onion brought to the region from Corsica by a French soldier named Pete Pieri. According to all accounts, Pieri immigrated to Walla Walla with the seed in the late 19th century and began cultivating it commercially in 1900.
Grower Michael Locati’s great-grandfather, Joe, worked for Pieri for four years before going out on his own in 1909. He joined other Italian immigrant families, mainly from Milan and Calabria, who settled in this valley to become small-scale produce farmers, cultivating a seasonal onion now known as the Walla Walla Sweet.
Four generations later, Michael — along with his father and uncle — grows these heirlooms on 60 acres of Locati Farms and co-owns a packing and shipping arm called Walla Walla River Packing Co. Despite these modernizations, this is the same specialty onion, hand-selected by the family for over a century.
That’s a fair bit longer than that other famous sweet onion, Vidalia, a hybrid cultivated in Georgia since the 1930s. The Walla Walla “still has that heirloom genome,” said Locati.
It’s natural to think that sugar content is what makes Walla Walla Sweets exceptional. Not so. Their mildness has to do with the fact that they contain about half the amount of pyruvic acid that gives yellow storage onions their bite and makes you cry.
“This geographical area is very low in natural sulfur,” Locati said. The sulfur content in the soil is a catalyst to the production of pyruvic acid, he explained. “So these naturally low sulfur soils allow for these onions to be really sweet.”
Walla Walla Sweets are planted in early fall. They overwinter in snow-covered fields, then sprout and additional onion starts are transplanted in the spring. By mid-June, harvest has begun and continues through late August.
“Onions are ready when the leaves start laying down,” said Dan McClure, who began growing organic Walla Walla Sweets in 2007 with his wife Sarah. The couple currently raises over 800 tons on 27 acres at Walla Walla Organics and plans to scale up production, although the labor is even more arduous than many other crops.
“No mechanical process yet exists that won’t damage them,” McClure said. Nearly as large as softballs and weighing up to two pounds, these globular onions are delicate, with thin skins and a high water content that make them prone to bruising.
So workers harvest them entirely by hand. Carefully packed into boxes, the onions are then cured just until the necks dry out and the outer layer of turns amber. Still, they have a short shelf life — a couple of weeks at most, according to McClure.
For a community once famous for this varietal, it’s a big blow that acreage has dropped within the past five or so years from 1,000 acres to about 500, according to Kathryn Fry-Trommald, executive director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.
Compared to Vidalia’s 15,000 acres, this onion market is small potatoes. Urban sprawl (“there’s a Wal-mart now where there were onion fields,” said Fry-Trommald), consolidation in agriculture and labor pressures are all factors, as is the fact that many of those “old Italian families” are no longer in farming.
Another major threat is the competition from hybrid sweet onions — some mechanically harvested and higher in pyruvic acid — grown from Arizona to Texas. These are available year-round at much lower prices than Walla Walla Sweets.
In 1995, after discovering that other Washington-grown onions were being sold as counterfeit Walla Walla Sweets, the growers obtained a federal marketing order to protect this specialty onion, in the same way that heritage foods from Italy must be certified as locally grown and packaged.
For farmers like Locati and McClure, it’s hard to earn a living with a seasonal, fresh market onion. But they say the process of hand selection and hand harvesting is worth it for the allium’s singular qualities. There’s no sharp bite, and it has a complex flavor all its own marked by a startling sweetness.
While you don’t have to try Michael Locati’s method of tasting them raw in the field, this is a true “slicer” for using raw in salads and salsas or on burgers and sandwiches. You can grill, roast, sauté, or caramelize Walla Walla Sweets, too — just don’t wait.
Ways to cook and use sweet onions
Grill: Use a grill basket to cook large sliced or chopped onions on a hot grill until nicely charred. Toss and continue grilling until softened and translucent. Alternatively, grill thick onion slices on a well-scraped grill grate until grill marks appear; flip and cook the other side until soft and translucent. Toss onions with sliced and grilled zucchini, portabello mushrooms and red peppers seasoned with salt and pepper, a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a side dish with grilled steaks, chicken, pork chops or fish.
Roast: Place trimmed and peeled whole onions into a greased roasting pan. Rub well with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. Roast at 425 F until brown and fork tender, about 1 hour, and serve with roast pork or beef.
Sauté: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and season with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to brown. Add 1 bunch fresh, washed spinach or chard, another pinch of salt and ground pepper. Cover and let steam until the greens are wilted. Remove the cover, stir well and serve as a side dish with grilled meats or fish.
Caramelize: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they soften. Add a large pinch of salt, reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan every 15 minutes until the onions turn very soft, like jam, and the color of brown sugar, about 1 hour. Serve on hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches or pizza.
Main photo: Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry
By now, most consumers have heard about community-supported agriculture, or CSA. With a CSA you purchase a share in a local farm at the start of the growing season and, in return, receive a weekly allotment of fresh produce. This system, which arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s, ensures farmers earn fair wages for their harvests and guarantees fresh, often organically grown, vegetables and fruit for their supporters.
While CSAs may have become commonplace, the public remains less aware of community-supported fisheries, or CSFs. Granted, CSFs have not been in existence as long. The first, Port Clyde Fresh Catch, began in Maine in 2007. As of September 2015, the number had grown to 39 in North America.
Supporting local fishermen
More from Zester Daily:
Applying the CSA premise to seafood, CSF subscribers buy a share in a fishery. This payment goes directly to local fishermen. Direct payment usually cuts out costly middlemen such as processors and distributors. It also offers income stability for the anglers.
In return for this money, the fishermen provide a weekly or biweekly supply of fresh-from-the-boat seafood for their patrons. They also give peace of mind about food sourcing. With this system people know who caught their fish and where, when and how it was obtained.
Along with promising information and a steady market for their catches, CSFs allow fishermen to seek out unusual and abundant seafood. “They honor the diversity of catch of smaller-scale fisheries. These are the mainstays of fishing communities and have the smallest ecological footprint,” said Niaz Dorry, director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Dorry has been a driving force in the creation and continuation of community-supported fisheries.
Dorry points out that while New England fishermen bring in roughly 60 species of fish and shellfish, supermarkets carry, at most, 12. As a result, only the longstanding favorites get purchased and consumed. Deemed bycatch or unwanted by consumers, the remaining species are discarded.
Instead of fixating on overly popular, exploited seafood, CSF fishermen seek out healthy sustainable stocks and sell all the fish they catch. They also target invasive species such as green crabs and Asian carp. They work with, rather than against, the environment, allowing overfished populations to rebound and reducing, if not eliminating, predatory alien marine life.
Regardless of the good that a CSF can do, consumers may still shy away from joining one. Intimidated by the thought of by receiving an exotic crustacean or whole carp to cook, some may opt for the usual imported shrimp or filleted farmed-raised salmon from the grocery store.
Although store-bought offerings may feel more familiar and manageable, they won’t be as fresh. Rarely are they local; according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fish Watch, 90 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. has been imported. Along with possessing a bigger carbon footprint than locally sourced goods, seafood shipped in from overseas tends to come from less sustainable fisheries.
Community-supported fisheries aim to educate
To combat this reliance on a chosen, foreign few, consumers must be educated.
“People haven’t had enough exposure to other fish. This is why we give a suggested recipe each day, so that people know what to do with their pollock, hake, sole, redfish or monkfish,” said Donna Marshall, director of Cape Ann Fresh Catch, a 4,500-member CSF in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
For members who feel squeamish about looking their fish in the eye, Cape Ann provides the choice of receiving whole or filleted fish. For more daring cooks it offers truck-side filleting demonstrations. On designated pickup days it sends all participants an email detailing the seafood and on which of the 17 participating fishing boats their portions were caught.
Whether you belong to a community-supported fishery or not, Marshall says the public should become informed and know where their seafood comes from. “Go to any restaurant and ask where your fish is from. If it’s not local, why isn’t it? We must start insisting that we eat fresh local fish,” she said.
CSFs part of the local food movement
Demanding access to local seafood seems like a no-brainer. So, too, does backing a community-supported fishery. It helps a region’s fishing community, fosters working waterfronts and boosts the area’s economy. It embraces seafood diversity, reduces the likelihood of overfishing and delivers extremely fresh food. Ultimately, it can provide a win for fishermen, consumers and the oceans.
For those curious about whether a CSF exists near their town, LocalCatch.org has created an online interactive map of “boat-to-fork seafood.” LocalCatch.org is a network of North American fishermen, researchers, organizers and consumers devoted to the growth and maintenance of community-supported fisheries.
Its locator presents information on CSFs, farmers and fish markets, boat-to-school cafeteria programs and small fishing crews that sell dockside and directly to the public.
Main photo: Fresh mackerel. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt
A battle is raging over where to buy your fish in Seoul, and the outcome will determine the fate of one of the city’s most iconic food markets and tourist destinations.
The sprawling Noryangjin Fish Market, on the south banks of the Han River, has been where fish sellers, buyers and simply the curious have been congregating since 1927. It’s also one of Seoul’s top tourist destinations.
Conan O’Brien visited, and played with the squirting “sea penises” on American TV. A thousand Chinese tourists visit a day, according to Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper. Fox News rated it the third-best food market in the world, and when Conde Nast Travel ran a photo essay of the best markets in Seoul, 10 of the 20 photos were from Noryangjin.
Battle to remain open
Today, though, the market is quiet. There is graffiti on the top floors that reads “Demolition.” On the main floor, the fish sellers are wearing red vests that read “Together we fight.” Banners hang from the walls, and there is a militant atmosphere throughout the market.
Parent company Suhyup wants the fish sellers to move across the street to a new market. The new market is smaller than the old one, fully indoors and air-conditioned, and resembles a department store. It is also mostly empty, since most fish sellers refuse to move there, despite orders from Suhyup.
“After they built the whole new building, we didn’t get any notice or have any meetings,” said one fish seller, who refused to give his name but has been selling fish at Noryangjin for 30 years. “On March 16, 2016, we got a notice to move. After we checked the new site, we saw it didn’t match our needs, so we chose to stay and fight.”
Mixed reactions to new
Suhyup says the old building, now 45 years old, is unsafe and unsanitary. But fish sellers have a litany of complaints about the new building, chiefly that the allocated lots are too small. They say the floors are slippery (I almost fell twice), the aisles are too narrow, the rents are too high, they weren’t properly consulted and, most important for visitors, that it lacks any of the atmosphere the old building has.
The corporation, meanwhile, says the fish sellers were perfectly well consulted, rents and lot sizes are the same, and everyone signed an agreement to move as far as back as 2009.
“We have to face the fact they’re not going to rebuild the traditional site,” says Song Young-hi, a fish seller of 39 years who reluctantly moved to the new building. She complains the lots are too narrow, and that it’s “almost impossible” to display the fish. Still, she doubts the company will back down, and she has to make a living. “I have to do what I have to do,” she says. The dispute is now with the courts.
Modern, but will tourists come?
A favorite activity among tourists at Noryangjin is getting the fresh seafood cut up right in front of them and served in one of the market’s many restaurants. In the old building, all the restaurants have been shuttered and sprayed with graffiti, their electricity and water shut off by the company. In the new building, the restaurants are open, but with fewer customers.
Stella, a tourist from Toronto who didn’t want to give her last name, bought fish at the new market to eat at one of the second-floor restaurants. But she said she would rather have gone to the old market, and was under the impression the old one was closed.
“My friends showed me pictures of the old one. It seemed to have more choice,” she says.
In the old market, Achuko and Yoko from Japan look at crabs and discuss the two markets. “I like the new market,” Achuko says. “It’s so clean.” But, she adds, “It’s impossible to move all of [the fish sellers] there.”
More from Zester Daily:
She admits the old market is more traditional. “The old one is cheaper and a bigger market,” Achuko says. “So Koreans like this style, I think.”
Jang Han Gi is a fish seller who splits a 24-hour shift with his brother. It’s hard work, but after 25 years, he’s used to it. He says there’s no way he’s moving to the new market.
“The customers prefer the open site and the open style of this building,” Jang says.
Jake Yoo, a local tour guide, agrees. He says there just isn’t time to visit both markets on a tour, and the old one wins with tourists, hands-down. “This is traditional-style here, and it’s better.”
Main photo: Fish sellers, in the old market, wear red vests that read “Together we fight.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner
A stroll down the yogurt aisle of any grocery store will tell you that probiotics are good for the human digestive system and can promote a healthy gut. But did you know that they can also help make better wine? In Spain’s remote Priorat region, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, a winery called Morlanda is using probiotics to grow stronger, healthier grape vines.
More from Zester Daily:
» Rioja on the cusp
» A Spanish spring value
» Spain’s Montrasell wine seduces under a French alias
» Luscious reds from Spain’s legendary Rioja
While Priorat’s gnarly old vines produce some of Spain’s most revered wines — intense and powerful reds made from Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignane) grapes — that wasn’t always the case. The area’s vineyards suffered years of neglect during the reign of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, until after his death in 1975. Priorat was nearly forgotten as a wine region until the late 1980s, when a visionary band of vintners dedicated themselves to revitalizing it.
The region has made a remarkable turnaround in the last 15 years, but even so, Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents significant challenges to both grape vines and vineyard workers.
“The tortuous geography of this area means that the vineyards have to be cultivated on slopes so steep that it is necessary, in some cases, to build terraces,” said Judit Llop, Morlanda’s winemaker and vineyard manager since 2003. “Some of these terraces are so narrow that two rows of vines barely fit and mechanical access is impossible.”
What’s more, due to the rocky soil and hot, dry climate, “The vines are weak and consequently result in rather poor harvests, with very low grape yields,” she added.
Years of chemical treatments have further weakened the soil, leading Llop to seek out new ways to bring it back to life. “Our vineyard philosophy starts with the health of the soil, and for this reason we started to investigate how we could regenerate it,” she said. “We wanted to increase soil biodiversity and encourage microbial activity.”
In 2013, with the resources of Morlanda’s parent company, the Freixenet Group, behind her, Llop began a probiotics trial with the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in nearby Tarragona, designed to improve the soil and boost the plants’ immune systems. Sprayed onto the vineyard floor and plants, the probiotics make it easier for the vines to assimilate micronutrients.
The process is done in four stages.
“Treatment of the soil in the fall is very important and is known as ‘vaccination,'” she said. “The positive microorganisms, resistant to low temperatures, will mineralize the organic waste — leaves, dry grass and branches — and prepare the soil with the micro and macro elements necessary for plant vegetation.”
Probiotics are applied again before flowering, this time to the plants themselves. “This period is the hardest in their development,” Llop said. “Vines make a huge effort to vegetate while they are maximizing exposure to attacks by diseases. Therefore, during this time, positive microflora is given to the plant for protection and to prevent the development of parasitic and harmful microflora.”
The third treatment happens after bloom, when grape clusters are formed, and the fourth is done during the grapes’ ripening phase.
While the process isn’t cheap, as a huge amount of expensive probiotics must be applied during the first three years of treatment, Llop said the results thus far have been impressive. “After applying probiotics, the vineyard root systems have developed much better,” she explained. “The grapes produce significantly greater amounts of fiber, and that allows more intensive utilization of nutrients. Strengthening the natural immunity of the vines, they become more resistant to low temperatures, pathogens and various kinds of pests.”
Llop said she’s definitely noticed a difference in the vineyards that have not been treated. “They need more soil additions, such as sulfur and copper, in the ones where we are not using probiotics.”
Along with producing traditional wines, such as the Vi de Guarda Morlanda — a powerfully beautiful blend of Garnacha and Cariñena — Llop is experimenting with a natural wine made from probiotic Garnacha grapes and fermented in clay amphorae.
If Llop’s vineyard trials prove successful in the long term, and the use of probiotics is adopted by other wineries in the region, Priorat’s already-acclaimed wines stand to reach even greater heights in the years to come.
Main photo: Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant
“Fire is a language all its own. It’s magical. Mysterious.” No, these are not the words of a committed arsonist, but rather Francis Mallmann, one of South America’s greatest chefs, a man famous for his deftness with this most elemental of cooking tools.
Raised in Patagonia by an Argentinian father and Uruguayan mother, the 60-year-old Mallmann waxed poetic on the subject of fire when we sat down to talk at his Restaurante Garzón in the tiny Uruguayan town for which it is named.
More from Zester Daily
Garzón is a curious place for a world-renowned chef to put down roots, but then Mallmann is a curious figure — part master craftsman, part culinary shaman. He opened his first restaurant in the Argentinian Andes at the age of 19 before moving northeast to set up shop in the Uruguayan beach resort of José Ignacio, a summer destination for the Argentinian upper crust. During the off-season, he staged in some of France’s most legendary kitchens, under the likes of Roger Vergé and Alain Senderens.
By the age of 40, he’d reached the top of his field, winning Le Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine from the International Academy of Gastronomy, but instead of viewing the award as validation, he saw it as a wake-up call. “It made me sad. I’d forged a path through European cuisines, but I didn’t have my own culinary language.” In an effort to find it, he turned back to his childhood and began investigating the native cuisines of the Andes and other parts of South America.
A small town draws big names
His search led him to Garzón, a place he describes as having a wonderful aura. “It’s got great bones — the streets, the trees, the beautiful old houses. There’s a peaceful quality here.” He wasn’t the only one who saw the potential; I’d gone there in March as the guest of Bodega Garzón, a winery established by Alejandro Bulgheroni, an Argentinian oil tycoon who’s one of the world’s richest men.
To describe it as Uruguay’s most ambitious new winery isn’t saying much in a country smaller than Missouri that’s home to more cattle than people, but Bulgheroni’s $85 million project is not what you’d call a shoestring operation. Covering more than 520 acres, the complex includes a restaurant, a private wine club and an olive oil production facility that resembles a modern Tuscan villa, and there are plans to build a boutique hotel amid the vines. Mallmann was brought in to help design the kitchens and create the menus.
As you’d expect from a project this ambitious, Bodega Garzón’s wines are anything but shabby. Indeed, they’re likely to gain this small but progressive country a closer look by international connoisseurs. In particular, the Albariño and Tannat bottlings are worth seeking out.
Although the winery is opulent, its restaurant menu is of a piece with the gaucho-inspired dishes Mallmann serves at his own place down the road. His food highlights the earthy flavor combinations, techniques and ingredients (particularly the excellent meat) of Argentina and Uruguay, whose populations are a blend of indigenous and immigrant, the latter category hailing primarily from Italy and Spain. And running throughout Mallmann’s cuisine, always, there is fire.
No translation necessary
His favored medium notwithstanding, however, Mallmann brings to his food an undeniable delicacy — fire as perfume, not punishment. “People think that cooking with fire is a masculine thing, something brutal, but it’s actually quite fragile.”
He made his case at the dinner he hosted for the winery’s official opening. In the square outside his own restaurant, Mallmann and his team spent the day tending to a split-leveled fire that was surrounded by a circle of crucified lambs, which were themselves ringed by flames. By the time guests arrived that evening, the darkness of rural night had been deferred, revealing a tableau that suggested an offering to the gods — or a scene from “Lord of the Flies,” take your pick. But despite the fierce manner in which the meat had been cooked, it remained remarkably tender, and its subtle flavor was surprising.
“The ‘simple’ approaches are the most difficult,” Mallmann said, “because there’s nowhere to hide. Things can go wrong with the tiniest shift.” He pointed to the strong winds that had buffeted Garzón that day, constantly altering the fire’s temperature and, therefore, the way the meat cooked. Mastery of such a technique can only be achieved through repetition and attentiveness. “The language of cooking is one of silences — it’s of the hands and all the senses.”
Throughout our conversation, Mallmann returned repeatedly to the metaphor of language, which seems fitting for someone who has used cooking to communicate with people all over the world. “If you bring a president and a farmer together around a fire, you don’t need words,” he said. “Fire is part of our collective memory — it’s what unites us.”
Tomato, Goat Cheese and Anchovy Bruschetta
Excerpted from “Seven Fires” by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books, 2009).
According to Mallmann, the key to this recipe is to burn the tomatoes to achieve a “toasty bitterness” that contrasts with the sweetness of the liquid they contain.
36 cherry tomatoes (about 1 pound)
1/2 cup fresh oregano leaves
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 day-old baguette (10 ounces) sliced into 24 half-inch-thick rounds, toasted until crisp
8 ounces Bûcheron or similar goat cheese
24 anchovy fillets (about 3 1/2 ounces), drained and halved lengthwise
Parsley, Olive Oil and Garlic Sauce (see recipe below)
Cut the tomatoes in half and put them in a bowl. Add the oregano, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine.
Heat a chapa or large cast-iron griddle over very high heat. When it is very hot, place the cherry tomato halves cut side down about 1 inch apart on the hot surface; work in batches if necessary. It is very important not to move the tomatoes while they cook, or they will release their juices and lose their shape and texture. Keep in mind that it is hard to char a tomato too much: best to err on the side of charring; and if you do move one, you are committed and you should remove it immediately. When you see that the tomatoes are well charred on the bottom, almost black (about 4 minutes), remove them using tongs or a spatula and place burnt side up on a large tray, about an inch apart so they don’t steam.
Arrange the toasted bread rounds on a platter. Spread some of the goat cheese on each round, and place 3 tomato halves on top of the cheese. Garnish with the anchovies and drizzle a teaspoonful of the sauce on top. Serve immediately.
Parsley, Olive Oil, and Garlic Sauce
Excerpted from “Seven Fires” by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books, 2009).
1/2 cup packed minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Combine the parsley and garlic in a small bowl. Slowly add the olive oil, whisking to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. The sauce can be kept refrigerated for three to four days.
Main image: Chef Francis Mallmann. Credit: Copyright 2016 Peter Buchanan-Smith
Fans squeal with delight, marked-up tickets show up online, people travel across the country.
The latest boy band? Broadway’s “Hamilton”?
No, these days all that excitement is for cheese. On the heels of a busy spring of cheese festivals and competitions that drew nibblers by the thousands, more summer events across the country will connect many more cheese lovers with the people who make their favorite food.
This isn’t grocery store sampling. At these events, mountains of cheeses await hungry visitors — some lavishly styled, some pulled from the 40-pound blocks that judges had been sampling earlier in the week. With a game plan in hand, cheese lovers head for their favorite cheddar or brie or a hard-to-categorize original creation by a favorite maker.
“American consumers’ education about cheese has just skyrocketed,” said Wisconsin-based Jeanne Carpenter, who has organized cheese festivals throughout the Midwest since 2009. “They know what it is, they know the cheese-makers by name.”
In early April, a whopping 500 tickets were sold in two weeks to Chicago’s first-ever CheeseTopia, organized by Carpenter. The tickets sold for $75 a pop, but Carpenter, whose Wisconsin Cheese Originals organization has been hosting festivals and classes since 2009, said she saw CheeseTopia tickets for sale on Craigslist “for high amounts, which doesn’t make me happy, because I don’t like people scalping tickets.”
Cheese on the rise
More from Zester Daily
Carpenter hosted her first cheese festival in Madison, Wisconsin. Held in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace, it was designed to promote Wisconsin makers and educate consumers. It included seminars, tours and “meet-the-cheese-maker” receptions full of sampling.
“I had a hard time filling seats,” Carpenter said.
Now, Carpenter’s festivals aren’t the only thing moving tickets for cheese fans in Wisconsin. In March, the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison quickly sold out the 500 tickets for its award ceremony and tasting event.
Cheese is creating a frenzy outside of America’s Dairyland. California’s Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma, California, home of Cowgirl Creamery, was held for the 10th time in March. There were three days of seminars, tastings and farm tours, capped off by 1,500 fans gathering under a big-top tent to sample cheese, cider, wine and beer, meet the producers, get books signed and watch demos. Also in March, the Oregon Cheese Festival had 4,000 attendees at its 12th annual event, sampling cow, sheep and goat’s milk cheeses made by Oregon creameries
And tickets are available for the annual American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheese. The July 30 event, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa, charges $60 to sample the 1,500 cheeses entered in this year’s contest. Organizers expect 1,000 people to attend. On July 17, Shelburne Farms hosts the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, which has sold out its 1,750 tickets the past three years and is expected to do so again this year.
At Carpenter’s events, she requires the cheese-maker to be present. People want to meet them, she said, and then they treat them like rock stars.
“I see women squeal like schoolgirls seeing the Beatles when they see Andy Hatch for the first time,” she said of Hatch, of Uplands Cheese Co. of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, who makes the much-celebrated Pleasant Ridge Reserve. “It’s so embarrassing for him, he just lets it pass and says, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’”
For Hatch, it just goes with the territory.
“Aside from occasional blushing, I do enjoy the general buzz at these events — the sense that cheese is something exciting,” he said. “It’s flattering that people go out of their way to pay money and stand in line to taste cheese and ask a few questions. If people are willing to do that, I’m willing to go out of my way to be there for them.”
Chris Roelli is a fourth-generation cheese-maker best known for Dunbarton Blue, the cheddar-blue he introduced seven years ago. He enjoys the events, though it’s a far cry from years of anonymous commodity cheese production of the early part of his career. Now people line up to talk to him.
“I never expected anyone to ever ask for my autograph,” said Roelli, whose eponymous cheese company is based in Shullsburg, Wisconsin.
The main event
While drinks and other local foods are often featured at these festivals, there’s no doubt cheese is the star of the show. At the contest events, displays resembling edible sculptures are made from the blocks used for judging. Veteran contest-goers bring plastic bags so they can take home what remains, knowing the blocks that made up the entries are just big chunks of cheesy leftovers. A plan of attack is necessary; it’s impossible to sample everything.
Carpenter’s event was in Madison for four years, but has expanded its reach. She moved it to Milwaukee last year, and 750 tickets quickly sold out. This year it traveled to Chicago, and next year will be in Minneapolis. From there, Carpenter said, she’s debating whether to keep it in the Midwest or go national.
People have come to her events from across the country, including a couple on their honeymoon and a woman from Nashville who has been at every event Carpenter has created.
“There are cheese groupies out there, I don’t know what else to call them,” Carpenter said. “It’s so cool that people care this much about cheese.”
Main image: A fan gets a chance to sample a blue-ribbon product from Carr Valley Cheese Co. of Wisconsin at the American Cheese Society’s 2013 Festival of Cheese in Madison, Wisconsin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Ketring
We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.
“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.
Cultivating an agrihood
It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.
More from Zester Daily:
» TEDx Manhattan: A farmer's artful plea for wiser priorities
» 25 insider tips for navigating your farmers market
» The case for backyard chickens
» 6 garden-starting tips to give your kids green thumbs
“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,” Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”
Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.
A cornucopia of crops
“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”
The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.
Enjoying the fruits of their labor
The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.
Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.
Rural life, redefined
When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.
“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”
Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann
I eased my shopping cart along the meat counter in a national chain grocery store to buy a whole chicken. Roast poultry for dinner seemed like a simple enough proposition. But like so many of us making food-purchasing decisions these days, I was stopped in my tracks by the range of choices.
Should I buy free-range or pasture-raised? Is organic better? Or is the best choice a brand like Foster Farms’ Simply Raised (whatever that means, exactly)?
Confused by all of the labels and marketing claims, I gave up. My family ate a meatless stir-fry for dinner that night.
Later, I learned about a new online resource called Buyingpoultry.com designed to help consumers navigate the supermarket. Could the site guide conscious consumers like me to more sustainable chicken?
Chicken production in a nutshell
Anyone hoping to buy a chicken that truly free-ranged on pastoral farmlands at a grocery store is generally out of luck.
The fact is that 99 percent of all chickens raised for meat (called broilers) in the U.S. come from factory farms. Through consolidation and high-tech breeding practices, the poultry industry has made chicken the most efficient and cheapest animal protein available.
Since 2010, broiler production has increased by more than 10 percent, according to statistics from the USDA. This graph looks surprisingly like the steep climb section on a Stairmaster program. Chicken production, which reached almost 9 billion birds in 2015, is still on the rise. Meanwhile, nationwide demand for barbecued-chicken pizza, chicken Caesar salad and General Tso’s chicken keeps in step.
Trouble is, while making chicken America’s favorite meat, the industrialized production system has incurred an untold debt to human health, the environment and the conditions of its own workers, not to forget the chickens themselves.
Consumers demand healthier chicken
Amid a stream of salmonella-superbug outbreaks and public-health concerns over the routine use of human antibiotics, the USDA announced its plan for stricter regulations and testing in 2015. Two of the largest chicken producers, Tyson and Purdue, pledged to stop using human antibiotics to prevent disease in hatcheries and as growth promoters during maturation. Major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Walmart and Subway, then vowed to shift toward purchasing chicken produced without human antibiotics.
Still, such improvements in the poultry market do not guarantee better animal welfare. According to whistleblower reports about the chicken industry and data from the ASPCA, cage-free chickens are still crammed into windowless barns for their short, dung-filled lives. These Cornish Cross birds, the main hybrid strain for the industry, grow three times as big in two-thirds the time as heritage breeds. Such fast fattening causes bone disorders, cardiovascular issues and other health issues over their roughly 45 days of life.
A sustainable buying guide
After returning from my shopping fail, I Googled Buyingpoultry.com. Created by the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Farm Forward, it is the country’s largest online database of poultry brands, products and retailers (including eggs and turkeys).
In the search field I typed in “Open Nature” and then “Foster Farms,” two of the brands I’d considered. “Avoid,” read the bold red graphic on my screen, and below that, “Birds likely suffer from the lowest levels of animal welfare.” The fine print detailed how both brands received an F grade because they did not have any regulated animal-welfare claims or third-party certifications.
“Buyingpoultry.com lets you go to the store with experts,” said Andrew deCoriolis, the website’s architect, when I reached him by phone.
Helpfully, the search results page offered links to the highest-welfare poultry products available as well as to a glossary of labels that clearly illustrates just how obfuscating and, in some cases, downright misleading the claims “free-range,” “pasture-raised” and “humanely raised” actually are.
“Like Seafood Watch, Buyingpoultry.com can be a standard of sustainability and create more transparency,” deCoriolis said.
Buying better poultry
One of the most upsetting experiences for the site’s 5,000 to 10,000 monthly users, according to deCoriolis, is discovering how USDA-certified organic products rank. Browsing Buyingpoultry.com, they’re shocked to see organic products with a D grade. DeCoriolis explained, “Organic is better but not necessarily for the animals.” For one thing, the USDA’s definition of “outdoor access” is ill-defined and does not stipulate indoor enrichments, including perches, or space for natural behaviors such as dust bathing.
At a different grocery store on another day, I opened Buyingpoultry.com on my phone’s browser to check on a regional brand, Draper Valley, for sale. All products in this brand rated “Better Choices,” and the organic line earned a C+. Since this was the best I could get in my area without visiting a small-scale farm, I nabbed this passing-grade chicken for our supper.
So what does it take to rate as a “Best Choices” chicken? According to Buyingpoultry.com’s criteria, these are heritage-breed chickens raised by producers abiding by the highest standards of animal welfare, with their claims certified by third-party groups such as Animal Welfare Approved.
More from Zester Daily:
» For the ultimate roast chicken, go French
» Ethically raised heirloom turkeys for Thanksgiving
» The case for backyard chickens
» French chicken, part 1: Does labeling equal liberty?
There’s only a limited supply from retailers in certain markets, including Natural Grocers in Denver, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and some Whole Foods stores — but none at all at Trader Joe’s or other national chains.
Persistent consumer advocacy is putting pressure on the poultry industry, however. “The big companies are paying attention,” said deCoriolis. In March 2016, Whole Foods committed to stop selling fast-growing breeds by 2024. Starbucks and Nestlé soon followed, joining the animal-welfare initiative toward slower-growing chicken breeds raised in conditions where they can behave and interact like, well, actual all-natural chickens.
Main photo: Buying chicken can be more complicated than roasting it. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock