June 19, 2011 § 12 Comments
I’m spending this summer in Nashville, Tennessee, helping the new Commissioner of Education to create a three-year strategic plan to improve educational outcomes for all K-12 students in the state. Although the work will be intense and I’m away from my San Francisco garden, I’m soaking up what I can of the food culture here in the Volunteer State.
First up: Blackberry Farm near Knoxville, a celebration of locally-produced food, where the hubby, our friends, Jim and Katie, and I ate an enormous amount of Benton’s bacon, gorgeous tomatoes and other fresh produce grown on-site, and as you likely guessed, the best BLT I’ve ever sunk my teeth into. For you, our time in pictures…
October 31, 2010 § 16 Comments
Much to my disappointment, my husband and I don’t get trick-or-treaters at our house. It’s perched atop a steep hill; you have to lean into the incline and be in pretty good shape to reach the peak without huffing and puffing. Not exactly an easy feat for a five-year-old in a costume carrying a heavy bucket of candy.
But we went for a walk today, on Halloween, and we saw our fill of trick-or-treaters with their parents, siblings, friends, cousins. Luke Skywalkers and elephants and witches zigzagged from door to door, excited and hopped up on sugar, collecting even more candy in their pumpkin-shaped pails. It was fun to observe these kids keeping a tradition alive, having a blast with their families and friends, and to see the adults’ inner children — and their own creative costumes — emerge.
In this age of rising obesity and diabetes rates, much of the discussion around candy and refined sugar is about how awful it is. And I agree that too much of anything isn’t good for you. But most things in moderation are fine. And with the holiday season now in full swing, there’s nothing like biting into a delectable confection — whether it’s a Milky Way or home-made toffee — to conjure up memories of traditions that you’ve shared with family or friends.
One of our family traditions: my mother-in-law, Anne Lynn, creates 350 pounds of Christmas candy every year.
There are many awesome things about this tradition, even beyond that 350 number. For example:
The 30 or so varieties — including butter brickle (hard toffee coated in chocolate and walnuts), peanut butter cups, pretzel cups (crushed pretzels in white chocolate), chocolate-covered cherries, chocolate-dipped pretzels, butterscotch-coconut marshmallows and Christmas-tree-shaped peppermint patties. Anne Lynn has a core set of recipes that she makes every year, and she experiments with a few new ones based on flavor combinations she encounters in chocolate shops while traveling.
The sheer volume of production that’s somehow executed in six weeks in your average home kitchen, with a four-burner stove and a normal amount of counter space. But once candy time comes, the kitchen and dining room are given over completely to confection creating, and as my mother-in-law says, “You’ll be really lucky if you get to eat anything but chocolate.” She’s not kidding. It’s a good thing they have a grill out back.
The straightforward system Anne Lynn uses to determine who she’s going to give the candy to. Every year, she gets out her yellow legal pad with last year’s list. Anyone who was particularly helpful, or kind, to her or her family gets added — even if it’s the woman at the department store she met only once, but who went out of her way to assist. Anyone who didn’t write a thank-you note gets crossed off — even if it’s a long-time friend. Simple, efficient and based on the Golden Rule.
But perhaps the most awesome thing is seeing how many connections and fond memories have been formed over the years because of the candy. Thirty years ago, Anne Lynn’s elderly next-door neighbors invited her into their kitchen to teach her how they made their Christmas candy. She made half a pound that year. Anne Lynn carried on their tradition, keeping their varieties — and now that they’ve passed away, in some small way, them — alive.
When Anne Lynn expanded from half a pound a year to ten, her mother would come over, and they’d crank out the ten pounds in a single day. Now, her brother and sister-in-law, kids, nephew, niece, their significant others and friends travel from as close as a few miles away to as far as thousands of miles away to help out and learn in the candy kitchen.
Convening at the candy kitchen is a chance for family and friends to re-connect to Anne Lynn and to each other, and in some cases, to form new bonds.
Friends of ours who’ve never met Anne Lynn but are smart enough to write thank-you notes receive the candy for Christmas, and when they finally meet Anne Lynn, there’s an immediate spark. When we wanted a family tradition integrated into our wedding, Anne Lynn was gracious enough to make a few trays of candy, and our guests still talk about how much they enjoyed the sweets.
As the holidays approach and many of you prepare to drive or fly to visit relatives or dear friends, consider this:
Is there a food tradition you remember fondly? Your dad’s deep-fried turkey, your grandma’s mushroom stuffing, your aunt’s pumpkin bread with a cream cheese swirl, your friend’s cardamom cookies?
Could you ask that person to teach you to make it when you see them? Could you make the time to reconnect with a tradition and with a loved one, carrying an old custom, a new memory and a stronger bond into the future?
October 27, 2010 § 4 Comments
I love learning about the foods my friends and family enjoy: what they grew up eating and how that’s informed whether and how they cook and what they eat today; tastes that were formed as children or emerged or shifted in adulthood; dishes and traditions served at holiday tables and the nostalgia and appetite that float to the surface as they recount those tales. Occasionally, people share with me their grandmother’s cookbooks, some neatly organized into binders, others collections of scribbles in yellowing notebooks. In Italy, people share their family’s limoncello recipe.
Hearing these stories can give you insight into not just people’s eating habits, but also into the people themselves — the food and family traditions that they’ve sustained across generations, and in turn, their values and passions.
In Italy, I was struck by seeing, time and time again, food traditions that had been preserved, often within the same families, for 75 to 200 or more years.
Today I invite you to experience two of those Italian traditions…
THE OLDEST SWEETS SHOP IN ITALY
You’ve arrived at Milan airport, bleary-eyed after an overnight flight from JFK on which you didn’t sleep much because the guy next to you got a little (okay, a lot) drunk and talked to himself quite loudly for the entire seven hours. But excitement overcomes your fatigue, because this morning you’re driving 2 1/2 hours to Bologna to visit the oldest sweets shop in Italy, opened in 1796: Antica Casa Majani.
You’re armed with a GPS device, but there’s this curious glitch where the names on the device don’t seem to match any of the street signs. You get lost multiple times and at one point drive smack-dab into the middle of a pedestrian piazza (where none of the perambulators were perturbed by a car in their midst), but you laugh it all off, determined to find the shop. Then, thanks to an extremely kind hotel concierge who draws you a map and, perhaps lacking confidence in your ability to wind your way down side streets successfully, walks you to your destination. Finally, you duck under a stone archway and float into a cloud of hazelnut and chocolate.
There you manage to communicate with the shopkeeper in your broken Italian and animated hand gestures, sampling their famous Fiat candy, first created in 1911 to celebrate the launch of the Fiat Tipo 4. The traditional version is a cube of chocolate layered with hazelnut and almond cream; they also sell one shaped like a little car, as well as bark-like scorza, the oldest existing form of edible chocolate, and bars of hazelnut-studded chocolate.
Majani was among the first chocolatiers to produce solid chocolate. Given the attention to detail and commitment to quality evident in the neatly-kept, gorgeously arranged shop and the candies themselves, you can see why Majani hasn’t changed their chocolate-making technique since the Tipo 4 was a new car.
THE FAMILY PIZZERIA
Not wanting to drive in Southern Italy…
…you hop on a train from Tuscany to Naples for the next leg of your trip. People warned you about the insane driving (true), the garbage mounds on the sidewalk (true) and the mafia (untested!), but it’s not so different than NYC. And, you’re only going to Naples for two reasons: (1) as a base camp to visit the Pompeii ruins 30 minutes away and (2) to eat a really good pizza.
After seven hours trekking around Pompeii, you’re tired and hungry. You walk a few blocks from your hotel and take a chance on a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria, Ristorante Marino.
You and your traveling companion order two glasses of the house red, and your waiter (who, you later learn, is the owner/manager) advises you to order a carafe; it’s cheaper. It arrives in a ceramic jug. You start to wonder if this is going to be like one of those places that serves beer in buckets in the U.S.
But the wine is a good solid one, and all of the other customers are clearly locals. When your pizza arrives, you are not disappointed. The crust is impossibly thin and tender in the middle and expertly cooked on the edges (not too charred, not too raw) to a crispy-chewy consistency, with a pleasing dash of salt that enhances the flavors of the simple and fresh toppings. And the generously-sized pizza is only four euros!
The pizza maker, Ciro, and the owner/manager, Luigi, see you snapping photos of your meal and naturally, their interest is piqued. You learn that the pizzeria was founded in 1934 and originally Luigi’s grandfather’s; now, his father and uncle own it while he manages it. They invite you inside to watch how they assemble a pizza…
…and deftly slide it into the wood-fired oven to cook for just a few minutes before serving it, piping hot, to customers.
The passion for making perfect pizza is palpable. In fact, Luigi tells you that the apprentice came all the way from Japan to learn how to make pizza here. Luigi brings you one, then two, glasses of his family’s limoncello on the house, asks if you’ll email your pictures to them and welcomes you back anytime. You leave feeling a little bit like family.
This is Part 1 in a two-part post about keeping food traditions alive. Check back later this week for Part 2 — a tradition my family is keeping alive. It involves 300 pounds of chocolate.
Antica Casa Majani, on Via Barberia at Via Tagliapietre near Piazza Galileo, Bologna. The best landmark is Piazza Maggiore, about 6 blocks away.
Ristorante Pizzeria Marino, Via Santa Lucia 11/81/20, Naples, Italy. 081-764-0280.
September 19, 2010 § 1 Comment
It was 59 degrees in San Francisco, the city shrouded in mist and fog. But as soon as I got on Route 242 at Walnut Creek, heading north to Concord and then east to Brentwood, I entered a completely different microclimate: the block of gray fog gave way to a bright blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, and the sun warmed the air to a toasty 80 degrees.
I drove through what looked like a standard-issue, nicer Bay Area suburb, passing by a Starbucks and a golf course, before heading east out of town on Route 4. Quickly, shopping plazas gave way to farm fields, quilts of green lining the two-lane road. I turned right just past a cemetery and rumbled down a narrow gravel lane, following an irrigation canal to a circular drive that announced the presence of a two-story shed-like building.
I’d arrived at Frog Hollow Farm for my tour with Farmer Al, which all started with my solo attendance at the Food Heroes event a week prior.
I didn’t know what to expect. And, since I wasn’t a journalist writing an “official” story on the farm, or someone in the food business with a particular learning objective, I honestly didn’t know how to approach the visit. But when Farmer Al invited me to hop onto his golf cart for a leisurely ride around the 133-acre orchard, I eased into simply being me: asking lots of questions whose answers I was curious about.
Somehow, two hours passed, apple pie was shared and the farm’s marketing director’s birthday was celebrated before I left to drive back home. I learned a lot about what it takes to run an organic orchard in California. But the biggest thing I learned is applicable in any career and life path: how important it is to take risks; how true it is that fortune sides with those who dare.
Farmer Al has achieved what many devotees of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and participants in today’s dialogue about the “corporate-ized” food system worry is extremely difficult to accomplish: he runs a profitable, organic, small family farm, and has for years. He sells a bulk of his produce locally via groceries, farmers’ markets and a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program (plus a portion through mail order). Farmer Al’s view is that his farm is profitable in large part because of his willingness to take risks.
“Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind.” –Louis Pasteur
First risk: Going into farming at all. Farmer Al’s training was in education, not agriculture. He wanted to go back to the land, and 34 years later, he grows and sells, as Frog Hollow Farm’s tagline says, “legendary fruit” (and in my opinion, the plums and pluots, now in season, live up to their claim). Now, Farmer Al is the first to say that he got lucky on the terroir (the special characteristics that the geography imparts to his produce) of the plot of land he chose for the farm. But as Pasteur said, sometimes discovering the next thing in your life happens when you’re ready to turn an accident into an opportunity.
Personally, I have experienced this first-hand: if I hadn’t decided to leave my last job to figure out how to create a more balanced, joyful and fuller life, I never would have discovered my newfound passion for edible gardening or rediscovered my love of cooking and writing. I didn’t plan to love gardening or get back into cooking and writing, but I did purposefully keep my mind open and ready for whatever might capture my imagination. And if I hadn’t, I’d never be writing this very line.
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” –Seneca
Second risk: Farmer Al leaves his fruit on the tree, on average, three days longer than other farmers do to allow an extra 5-10% of sugar to form so that when customers buy his fruit, it has a riper, sweeter flavor, distinguishing it from much of the other fruit on the market. Most farmers will pick sooner so they don’t risk waste from fruit dropping off the tree or becoming too ripe to sell.
This idea has been a theme of sorts for me over the past eight months that I’ve taken off of work. There are so many things I didn’t know how to do eight months ago – shoot a gun, make and can jams and preserves, do a headstand, make a good pie crust, bake tres leches cake, grow vegetables, figure out creative ways to defend my strawberries from the critters — that I probably wouldn’t have learned to do if I had approached each opportunity to do them with the mindset, “Why?” instead of what I did, which was, “Why not?”.
“There is the risk you cannot afford to take, [and] there is the risk you cannot afford not to take.” –Peter Drucker
Third risk: Farmer Al vertically integrated his operation. Typically, 75% of the fruit grown can be sold wholesale to groceries and direct-to-consumer through farmers’ markets and the CSA. Much of the remaining 25% is perfectly good fruit, but because it may have a surface scar or a slight bruise, or be a bit over-ripe, it can’t be sold through those outlets. So Farmer Al spent the funds to build a gleaming commercial kitchen to craft conserves, jams, olive oils, tarts and dried fruit products — meaning that what would otherwise be waste is transformed into tasty and value-added products.
For me, not taking the risk of taking a year off of work would have been dangerous. Not spending days learning about S.F. microclimates and the fact that artichokes grow a heck of a lot better in this city than do tomatoes, or trying different pie crust recipes until I found one that was buttery in taste and flaky in texture, would have meant significantly less happiness in my life. And ultimately, given that we all have this one life to live, can any of us afford to forgo the small joys we can discover and incorporate into even the busiest of daily lives?
“The universe will reward you for taking risks on its behalf.” –Shakti Gawain
Now, let’s be clear: while Frog Hollow Farm is profitable, Farmer Al doesn’t appear to be a wealthy man by U.S. capitalist standards. He works hard, and he’s plowed his profits back into his business to enable its continued growth and success; the trade-off is that he, his wife and two kids still live in a very modest trailer on the farm. But, at least from the perspective of an outsider who’s spent a few hours with him, he’s rich in other ways: he’s built a reservoir of agricultural and managerial knowledge; he has his health and a lovely family (his wife, Becky, runs the commercial kitchen and makes a mean pie crust); and he’s found — and cultivates — his calling in life.
“The joy is being part of the full circle of creating food and sharing it with people.” –Farmer Al
Yeah…I can’t sum it up much better than that.
September 9, 2010 § 11 Comments
How — and where — might this happen, you ask? Well, imagine yourself walking down a fairly empty street in a city after dark, searching for a wine bar that’s hosting an event that you’re intrigued by — so intrigued that you’re attending this event all by yourself on a Wednesday night. You’ve never been to this bar, so you don’t know where it is, and after you pass an oil change shop and a laundromat but no signs of a lively affair, you feel a slight thread of anxiety weaving its way into your mind as you wonder, “What am I getting myself into?”
But then you see a giant portable pizza oven set up on the sidewalk, spitting out what looks like gourmet thin-crust pizza, and some hipster-y looking folks milling about with paper cups of what you soon discover is Four Barrel coffee, and someone pulling up on a Vespa. You suddenly recognize that you’re in the right place.
You walk into the bar, the room bathed in warm light and the walls lined with hundreds of bottles of European wine. You push your way through a huge crowd of people sipping wine and sampling the goodies offered by eight artisan food producers that are there for the evening — everything from vanilla pear butter that has an unexpected but lovely savory quality, to a whiskey chocolate truffle, to lacy florentine cookies, to spicy dry salami.
You feel a bit unmoored, being there alone in a crowd of people who have all clearly brought a friend — or five. You’re nibbling on another chocolate truffle — this one with fresh raspberry jam inside — and you’re wondering if you should go home, even though you’ve only been there for 10 minutes.
Then, suddenly, you notice a celebrity of sorts, commanding presence in the room. He stands out in this room of hipsters and young professionals. He’s a tall guy in overalls, silver streaks in his hair, and tanned skin that crinkles at his eyes when he flashes his electric grin, which he seems to do often. People seem eager to talk to him. The chocolate producer goes a bit agog when this guy comes over to nab a sweet, telling him that he visits his stand every Saturday at the farmers’ market.
You have absolutely no idea who this guy is. So, you decide to eat another whiskey chocolate truffle. When a soft moan escapes your mouth because it’s so darned good, and you ask the chocolate producer if he makes those with bourbon, and you get into a spirited dialogue about where to get the best bourbons*, you sense that the guy in overalls is smiling at you. Perhaps he’s amused that someone he doesn’t expect to loves bourbon.
Well, this is how I got waylaid by a farmer. Farmer Al of Frog Hollow Farm.
Those of you who frequent the Ferry Building in S.F. know this place — they have a shop in the building that sells their jams, pastries, coffee and some fruit, and a farmstand out back on Saturdays that sells 25 varieties of peaches, nectarines, cherries, apricots, pluots, plums, Asian and European pears and table grapes grown on a 133-acre organic farm on the Sacramento River Delta.
For whatever reason, Farmer Al and I got to talking. He brought me over to his table, where I sampled Flavor King pluots and Emerald Beaut plums, peaches and cherry tomatoes (those pluots and plums were out of this world!). He told me his life story: how he grew up in Berkeley, started out teaching in Hawaii, then realized he wanted to go back to the land before anyone was doing that. How he didn’t know a thing about farming until he started doing it by planting his first peach tree in 1976. How he didn’t think he wanted kids until he married a woman who wanted them, and how it’s transformed his life into an even better existence. About his nephew, named Khyber, after the pass. About how much he loves his life.
His passion for growing the best fruit out there, and for doing it sustainably, was infectious**. To play on a theme I wrote about earlier this week, here was a man who was clearly following his bliss.
I think we ended up talking for 40 minutes. Not that I was keeping track; I was having too much fun. And not that I had a plan for that night with which this conversation interfered.
In fact, one thing I’ve discovered this year is that often, the best things happen when you have no plan. They happen when you allow yourself to go with what feels good and right, when you are fully present in the moment, when you keep yourself open to whatever might seem intriguing.
*If you, like me, love bourbon, try Pican in Oakland, which has an impressive bourbon tasting menu (BIG thanks to our friends Andy & Georgie who introduced us to it). The San Francisco Wine Trading Company also has a killer selection.
**So infectious that I asked Farmer Al if he’d take me on a tour of his farm. He said yes! So I’ll share that story with you once it happens. UPDATE: Here’s the link to the post about my visit.
So, what exactly is this event I went to, you might be asking?
It was an event celebrating the launch of a book called Food Heroes by Georgia Pellegrini at a wine bar, Terroir. Food Heroes tells the stories and recipes of 16 culinary artisans across the world. Georgia’s own story is fascinating: she started at Lehman Brothers but decided that analyzing spreadsheets for 16 hours a day wasn’t her thing, at which point she enrolled at the French Culinary Institute and landed jobs at renowned farm-to-table restaurants (Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and La Chassagnette in France) before publishing this book. She has another, Girl Hunter, on the way, along with a TV show.
Click here to see photos of the event and descriptions of the artisan food producers who were there, and to learn more about Georgia.
Click here to learn more about the book, Food Heroes.
I’m going to read the book over the next couple of months. If you want to read it with me, let me know. I’d love to have some like-minded locavores to read and discuss it with.
And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with someone else you think would be tickled by it.
August 13, 2010 § 8 Comments
Friends from San Francisco drove up yesterday afternoon, and with their hearts set on wine tasting, I did some digging to see if there was an off-the-beaten path winery we could visit. I found the family-owned Freeman Winery, just outside of Sebastopol on the way to Bodega Bay, whose pinot noirs had garnered acclaim and whose story intrigued me: a wife-husband team (she Japanese, he white – you can see already why I could relate) that were living their wine-making dream.
After driving down a bumpy country road and pulling into a small gravel drive presided over by a red barn, we met Akiko Freeman, half of the pair behind the winery. She led us into their wine cave, dug out under a grove of redwood trees, for tastings directly from a couple of barrels plus their 2008 Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs.
The wines were lovely. I’m just not the type of person to come up with descriptions such as “supple and graceful with the delicate aftertaste of rose petal” (which is actually how one of the Freeman Pinots was described by Wine Spectator). But the Chardonnay was made in the French style (not heavily oaked, not buttery, but fresh and clean – my preference) and the word that came to mind when sampling the Keefer Ranch and Akiko Cuvee’s Pinots was simply: pretty. Very, very pretty. Pretty enough that we bought a case to take home.
In 2002, their first year, they produced 500 cases, which sold out quickly, so they thought, huh, we may actually be able to do this. Now they produce 4000 cases of well-regarded wine that’s sold primarily to their mailing list and also in some of the top restaurants around the world.
We also met Craig Strehlow, owner of Keefer Ranch in the Russian River Valley, who grows grapes for wineries such as Kosta-Browne and Siduri. The arc of his life was similar to Akiko and Ken’s: his parents bought the ranch when he was younger, he went away to college and into tech in Silicon Valley, but then decided to move with his wife back to the countryside. His passion now is farming grapes, and he invited us to tour the ranch. I definitely want to take him up on that offer!
My husband and I dream about one day having a house in wine country where I can take this “living local” lifestyle a few steps further. I want fruit trees and a plot to grow vegetables — maybe even cherry tomatoes (one can dream, right?). I’d love to keep a goat for dairy, pigs for luscious meat and bacon and chickens, some for eggs and some for roasting in a salt crust (though I’d have to do serious crash courses in animal husbandry, goat milking and pig and chicken slaughtering, as I have done exactly zero of the above).
Hearing how Akiko, Ken and Craig’s dreams and lives wound their way together into one reality showed me that though it may be long and circuitous, there is a path to living the life you desire.
You know, just:
(Go ahead. Click on it. There’s nothing like seeing Steve Perry belting it out in leopard print.)
What are your dreams?
P.S. If you love a great pinot noir, you really should try Freeman’s:
Freeman Winery, 707.823-6937. www.freemanwinery.com