Beth Falk

Words matter.

Farm-to-Table: Right Next Door?

I’m intrigued by a piece in last week’s New York Times about a planned community in Arizona that features a working farm in the midst of a residential development. The development is called, perhaps a bit too adorably, “Agritopia.”

photo from terrain.org

photo from terrain.org

On its face, this seems a pretty interesting concept. The development contains about 450 single-family homes surrounding 16 acres devoted to certified organic farmland. The self-sustaining farm and related operations – a coffee shop, a farm-to-table restaurant and a produce stand – are, as the article describes, the “hub” of the community. Residents can participate in a CSA program for $100/month, and  the farm’s produce is  also sold through a neighborhood stand, at local markets, and to area restaurants.

Apparently there are dozens of similar communities operating or in development all over the United States. Part of me finds this concept quite appealing; a farm seems like a much more practical and sustainable centerpiece for a development than a golf course. An “agrihood” teaches families about sustainable food systems,  gives residents access to good nutrition, and encourages relationships among residents and farm workers, all of which seem like good things. Still – there’s something about the cookie cutter design of this particular place that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s just that the name is a bit too precious, or that the uniformity of the houses feels incongruous for a community with agriculture at its center (nature is not often neat or easily contained). Or perhaps it feels strange to me to have a farm at the center of a community where residents don’t actively participate in the growing process. But perhaps the ideal of truly participatory shared labor is too idealistic, and in turn unrealistic. I know plenty of people who profess their love for natural food systems but who really don’t want to get their hands dirty.

The “agrihood” concept could well be the root (I know, painful pun, sorry) of an interesting and good trend in development and design. I can easily imagine support for cooperative community agriculture in which residents exchange farm shares for some amount of shared labor, or educational work, or other investment. I live in a semi-rural area outside Boston, and our town cherishes the farms in our community. One  local family farm has legions of loyal supporters, and I know that we all think of a little bit of the place as our own.

photo from localharvest.org

photo from localharvest.org

Disneyfication aside, I’m encouraged to see this kind of re-imagining of the way that agriculture can support a community. I want to believe that developments like Agritopia are part of a long-term appreciation for food systems and not just part of a passing trend. If we can find  a way to put agriculture at the center of truly affordable housing, then perhaps there’s some real hope.

Boston Local Food Trade Show

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New friends at Tuesday’s event

There are times when I fear that the “local food movement” is just an abstraction, not much more than a set of ideals that don’t pan out in real life practice.

This week’s Boston Local Food Show went a long way towards putting some of my fears to rest. Sponsored by the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, the show welcomed more than 120 attendees representing New England farms, fisheries, restaurants, distributors and food system non-profits. The event made it clear that there are people out there who are deeply committed to supporting and diversifying local food systems and who are bringing food to families and schoolchildren, not just to high-end restaurants and urban foodies.

A view of the trading floor at Tuesday's Boston Local Food Trade Show

A view of the trading floor

I met Kate Petcosky of New Entry Sustainable Farming and Sarah Bostick of Cultivating Community. These organizations support beginning, immigrant and refugee farmers  in the development of viable farm businesses, with the goal of creating community through food systems. I learned that the Franklin County Community Development Corporation’s “Extend the Season” project processes local produce for freezing/canning in order to make it accessible to institutions like schools and hospitals year-round – a viable solution to the challenges presented by New England’s limited growing season.

Producers from Vermont Farmstead Cheese and Granby's Red Fire Farm

Producers from Vermont Farmstead Cheese and Granby’s Red Fire Farm

I was encouraged to hear Tom Barton, Northeastern University’s Executive Chef, talk about the fact that as much as 25-30% of Northeastern’s food comes from local, sustainable sources. That’s an impressive number, and it’s not necessarily an easy one to sustain. Barton clearly has to invest a significant amount of time and effort to seek out those sources. Gary Weiss of Northampton, MA’s Cooley Dickinson Hospital outlined some of the work he does with farmers in Western Massachusetts to bring local produce and meats into the hospital’s dining program. There were at least 15 representatives from schools, health care institutions and hotels at the show, there to make connections with farmers and distributors, and it’s that kind of institutional focus that will go a long way towards supporting regional agriculture. The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources presented information about its work to promote regional agritourism, which helps educate consumers, sustain local farms, and keep people entertained and well-fed.

But all this local food enthusiasm isn’t just about specialty foods, preserving New England’s beautiful farmland or feeling good about adorable baby animals (though photos of those things do a lovely job of attracting attention to the cause). Small farms are critical to maintaining biodiversity and supporting regional economies worldwide (a new report by the Food Tank, using UN research, shows just how significant the numbers are). Institutional support for those small farms will bring significant economic and educational resources to the effort.

I’m usually on the consumer side of food issues, and I tend to focus on enjoying artisan products and farm environments. The trade show gave me a different – and deeply encouraging – perspective on New England’s food systems. And the food samples, of course, didn’t hurt.

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Apples from Apex Orchards, Shelburne, MA

New FDA Food Labels – A Good Idea from Government (Really!)

While nothing that involves the plodding march of bureaucracy is ever simple, today’s FDA proposal suggesting changes to nutrition facts labeling is a very good thing indeed. New labels, if approved, will update serving sizes, make information about calories per serving and added sugars more visible, and clarify the recommended “daily values” of important nutrients. The bold typeface makes it quite difficult to miss the important numbers:

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Food and Drug Administration

One alternate label design would even categorize certain nutrients under “eat more” or “eat less” headings – critical information that’s often misunderstood.

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FDA

While writing this, I had to take a moment to step out of my Cynical Shoes and think carefully, because I very much like these proposed changes. The new labels will eliminate some of the confusion about calorie counts and critical nutrients, and will force those of us who’ve been known to work our way through the better part of a pint of ice cream to grapple with reality when we think about serving sizes. As usual, I find myself agreeing with the esteemed Marion Nestle on this news.

Is this proposal perfect? Of course not. It’s a great thing for people who actually read the labels, but there are plenty of people who don’t, and you can’t benefit from information you don’t have. But big changes happen incrementally, and I’m all for even small steps in the right direction.

If you’re feeling ambitious, or perhaps if you’d like to drag your friends and family through a demonstration of participatory government, you can check out the Federal Register listing for this proposal, read it, and submit a comment. You know that Big Food will make its voice heard – the nice thing is that you can speak, too.

And now I think I’ll go enjoy my slightly-more-than-a-half-cup serving of ice cream.

Massachusetts Cheese/Cider Pairings

As part of some ongoing work I’m doing with the Massachusetts Cheese Guild, I’ve had to do a lot of taste-testing. My recent research (arduous work, you know, but someone has to do it) led me to sample a few local hard ciders, which I love in the fall and winter. It seems that living in a state with lots of cows and lots of apple orchards has its advantages.

I’m a firm believer that there’s no right or wrong in food and wine pairings – if you like a combination, then it’s a good one.  But there are a few iconic pairs whose reputation for universal appeal is well-deserved, and make it clear, for example, why all those old English gentlemen insisted upon having port and walnuts with their Stilton. The right hard cider/cheese pairing can create the same kind of “aha” moment for a food lover.

Here in Massachusetts, we’re lucky to have our pick of truly great locally produced hard ciders and even more lucky that some of our Massachusetts cheeses pair so well with them.  If you’re in search of the right hostess gift for dinner, or a simple hors d’oeuvre for your own event, explore a cheese and cider pairing. Here are some starting points for your journey.

Wunderkind, Bantam Cider, Cambridge, MA

Carr’s Barrel Aged Dry Cider, North Hadley, MA

Dry Baldwin or Pippin, West County Cider, Colrain, MA

 While some hard ciders can be very sweet, and redolent of ripe apples, these dry and semi-dry ciders have subtle sweet notes that accent nutty, salty flavors and add some sparkle to counteract the richness of accompanying cheese. Dry ciders pair nicely with:

-       Nutty Alpine-style cheeses like Prescott (Robinson Farm, Hardwick, MA) and Herdsman Pless (Nobscot Artisan Cheese, Framingham, MA)

-       Delicate Tomme-style Pinnacle (Appleton Farms, Ipswich, MA)

-       Bloomy rinds and Camembert-styles like Berkshire Bloom (Cricket Creek Farm, Williamstown, MA) and Meg’s Big Sunshine (Ruggles Hill, Hardwick, MA)

-       Fresh lactic cheeses such as the petite Hannahbells (Shy Brothers Farm, Westport, MA)

 

New England Dry, Headwater Cider, Hawley, MA

Apfel Eis, Still River Winery, Harvard, MA

Full-bodied, sweet ciders and apple ice wine best complement full flavored cheeses. The saltiness and depth of flavor in those cheeses balance the deep fruitiness of the cider (think of the port/Stilton duo for inspiration). Some of the best accompaniments to these two local ciders include:

 
-       Chase Hill Farm Cheddar (Warwick, MA)
-       Berkshire Blue (Dalton, MA)
-       Washed rind cheeses such as Arpeggio (Robinson Farm, Hardwick, MA) and Tobasi (Cricket Creek Farm, Williamstown, MA)
 

You can find more information about great hard ciders at http://www.americanhardcider.com and Massachusetts artisan cheeses at http://www.macheeseguild.org.

Germ Warfare

I’ve been working on some recipes for the Massachusetts Cheese Guild, and in the process thinking a great deal about the vast differences between raw milk cheeses and those made from milk that’s been subjected to the indignities of pasteurization.  Some bacteria are our friends, and it’s a shame that so many of them are sacrificed in the interest of “safe” consumption.

I have a great deal to say about the way we look at food safety in America (and as you might guess, I think we’ve got it mostly wrong).  I want to talk to some real food experts – chefs, scientists – about this, and then I’ll come back with more.

If you have any thoughts to share, please expound in the comments.  I think this is a Big Deal.

There Is No Right Way To Have Cancer

Some thoughts about recent (questionable) criticism of a cancer patient’s blog and Twitter feed, on my own cancer blog, here:   My Semicolon – Does Anyone Know How to Do This Right?

(quick version: Lisa Adams has metastatic breast cancer.  She writes about it.  Two journalists, including Bill Keller of the New York Times, don’t really like what she’s doing.  I don’t like what they’ve done.)

Twelve Days of Cheese-mas

Culture Magazine‘s Facebook page featured a fun question this morning:

Silly Question: On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me….a whole round of English cheddar cheese.   What’s the next verse?

Not one to miss an opportunity for a few minutes of distraction, I thought I’d finish out the song.

On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Twelve drums of Stilton

Eleven Emmentalers

Ten lordly Leydens

Nine Abondances

Eight Maytags blue-ing

Seven Stinking Bishops

Six grated Gruyeres

(with gusto) Five Gorgonzolas!

Four Camemberts

Three French Bries

Two Tallegios

…and a whole round of English Cheddar Cheese.

And now we can all just go back to our regularly scheduled day, already in progress.  Happy Cheesemas.

 

A New England Cheese Plate for Thanksgiving

We’re counting down to Thanksgiving here in Massachusetts, where 25-30 mph winds today really drove home the fact that the temperature never reached 30 degrees.  This kind of day makes me realize how miserable life must have been for the poor souls who staggered off the Mayflower.  I imagine it was difficult to be truly thankful for life in the New World in November, 1620.

And so – with renewed appreciation for modern conveniences such as heat and running water, I’ll turn to much more pleasant thoughts of food, which seems to be the focus of Thanksgiving in the 21st century.

We’re lucky to have some of the best artisan cheeses in the United States (if not the world) right here in New England.  In the spirit of the season, a local cheese platter makes a lovely Thanksgiving presentation.  Three to five cheeses should be about right, providing a sampling of styles and flavor profiles.  I’d be sure to include:

1) A soft, spreadable cheese: The centerpiece of a New England cheese plate, for me, would be Harbison by Vermont’s Jasper Hill Cellars.  Harbison is a bloomy rind cow’s milk cheese wrapped in spruce bark.  The ivory-colored paste is bright, sweet and vegetal, and the spruce adds distinctive resinous notes to the flavor.  I’ve described this cheese by saying it tastes the way a mountain forest smells.

2) A medium-firm, Alpine-style cheese: Ascutney Mountain from Cobb Hill Farm in Vermont is a beautiful dandelion-yellow cow’s milk cheese with a pleasant nutty flavor.  Robinson Farm in Hardwick, MA also produces some lovely raw cow’s milk cheeses, including Prescott, a Comte-style hard cheese that pairs beautifully with hard ciders, and A Barndance, a nutty Alpine-style cheese with mild grassy undertones.  Any of these would provide a nice contrast to Harbison.

3) A pungent, more challenging cheese: If you and your Thanksgiving guests are adventurous of palate, you might move on to cheeses from Connecticut’s Cato Corner FarmHooligan is a washed-rind cheese with strong earthy, barnyardy flavors.  Its brine-bathed orange rind makes a distinctive visual and olfactory statement.  Lovers of  “stinky” cheese often count Hooligan among their favorites.  Cato Corner’s Desperado is Hooligan taken in a slightly different direction, washed with fermented pear mash.  Slightly stronger than Hooligan, it also has a more fruity finish – some sliced local pears would be a nice touch next to this on the plate.

For guests unwilling to venture down the stinky cheese path, Vermont Creamery’s Cremont would be a nice pick.  These small wheels of mixed cow’s and goat’s milk have wrinkled rinds that soften as they reach room temperature, with a deep, rich, creamy mouthfeel and just a hint of tanginess from the goat’s milk.

4) Something with a distinctive appearance: Thimble-sized Hannahbells from Westport, Massachusetts’ Shy Brothers Farm would provide another lovely accent to a plate.  These little bloomy-rind cow’s milk cheeses have a deep, rich ripe flavor and a creamy mouthfeel with a bit of chalkiness.  Their unusual format is rarely seen in the United States.

5) A classic New England cheddar:  It’s hard to go wrong with Cabot Creamery’s clothbound cheddar or Block House cheddar, aged at Jasper Hill Cellars in Vermont.  These cheeses have the characteristic crumble and sharp tang of a traditional English cheddar, with their own distinctive crystalline texture and creamy finish.  Chase Hill Farm in Warwick, MA also produces a traditional style cheddar, bound in black wax, with a sharp, sour-to-sweet flavor profile.

Serve these cheeses with some sliced pears, fig jam, good crusty bread or white crackers.  What to drink?  Bantam hard ciders from the Cambridge Brewing Company pair nicely with cheese.  Enjoy, and be thankful for what New England has to offer, despite the cold!

Truffles and Tribulations

I had my heart broken by a truffle.

I should have known better.  It’s a familiar story: you dream about meeting your true love.  You anticipate the magic.  You envision the perfect romance.  And then, inevitably…disappointment.  Prince Charming turns out to be a dud.

It began simply enough.  I saw a note on a local market’s Facebook page announcing that fresh black truffles had just arrived from Italy.  I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to make the financial commitment to an entire truffle, but I couldn’t resist going over to at least take a look.

I did some research about how to care for these little gems, just in case.  I wandered around the Web, read a few articles, perused a preview of  Simply Truffles by Patricia Wells.   A day later, armed with this information, I set out.

The market manager was thrilled when I asked about the truffles, and told me he’d been waiting for a kindred spirit to come along and share his excitement.  He produced a large glass jar full of shredded paper, a few lovely examples of tuber melanosporum, and some eggs that he was “truffulating” (no, that’s not really a word, but it should be).   He opened the jar and we both inhaled and smiled.  At $1.29 a gram – roughly $585 a pound – the truffles were clearly an indulgence, but I found a tiny 10 gram specimen and decided it was worth a try.

I brought my treasure home, took a few photos to share with friends, and ensconced it in a jar of Arborio rice; I was planning to shave the truffle over risotto, so it seemed logical to use the storage time to create an infusion.  My fellow foodies praised the truffle’s simple beauty, but my 8-year-old daughter disagreed and told me it looked like a little piece of dog poo.  Culinary treasure is wasted on the young.

The next day, I opened the jar and thought my truffle’s aroma a bit diminished, but I wasn’t about to let that dash my hopes.  I made a simple risotto, and then, with great ceremony, shaved the truffle into gossamer slices with my mandoline.  My husband and I sat down with our little snack, and breathed in the aroma of…risotto.  A little butter, a little cheese.  Not much truffle.  We tasted.  We waited.  I kept trying to detect a hint of that sublime earthy flavor that I’ve enjoyed in restaurant meals, but it just wasn’t there.  It was quite the letdown after 48 hours of heady anticipation.

So – what happened?  I’m not sure whether I had an inferior specimen to begin with, whether the truffle was simply past its prime – which is entirely possible, given how quickly the tubers diminish once harvested – or whether my infused rice simply absorbed too much moisture and fragrance from the truffle.  I’ve since read conflicting advice about the rice storage technique (never trust the Internet).  Perhaps I should have let the truffle bathe in olive oil overnight, and then cooked it a bit instead of relying on the heat of the risotto to draw out its subtle flavors. Perhaps it’s best just to leave truffles to the professionals and resign myself to enjoying them in terrifyingly expensive restaurant dishes.

Still, like many a woman scorned, I’m not quite ready to give up.  By some accounts, this is apparently a banner year for white Alba truffles.  What’s a few hundred dollars an ounce?

Roger Ebert: 1942-2013

Roger Ebert is gone, and I’m really sad about that.

I was not much a fan of Ebert the movie critic, though I did rely on his reviews from time to time.  I became a fan of Ebert the writer when I saw this post, “Nil By Mouth,” on his blog in January, 2010.  He wrote about losing the ability to eat, drink and speak after his cancer surgery.  He wrote about the sadness that came with not being able to jump into a conversation, to talk over dinner with a friend, and concluded with this note to his readers: “You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner now.”

Writing, for Mr. Ebert, whether on his blog or in short bursts on Twitter, was a connection to the world, a conversation with his readers.  And he did it beautifully.  He wrote about his thoughts on politics, religion, art, and the favorite candies of his childhood.  I found much of it fascinating, some of it irritating, all of it an education.  He was clearly a man who loved to think about his life.  I came back to “Nil By Mouth” a year after it was written, when I’d been diagnosed with cancer.  Ebert’s attitude helped me.  He didn’t write about soldiering on as a warrior in a battle against cancer.  He just went on living.  He found a voice even after he couldn’t talk, and he used it well.  I liked that.

On April 2, Ebert announced that he was taking a “leave of presence” from his work, and would be cutting back but still actively writing and developing new projects.  On April 3, he died.

I learned about his death on my Twitter feed.  I read the announcement and said, “Not yet!” out loud, in a room by myself.   I’ve said that too many times in the past couple of years, seen too many people make that transition into the final stage of an illness, preparing themselves for their last weeks or months, and then die too soon.

When I read about Roger Ebert, I sat down and thought about Jessica, who was in her twenties and had a beautiful 3 year old daughter.  She told me, “What I hate most about all this is that my little girl probably won’t remember me.”  Then she talked about trying to do a few more things to create memories for her child, and two days later she was gone.  I thought about Bill, who took his son’s boy scout troop camping after his sixth round of chemo and made me think I could keep on going in the middle of mine.  He had a recurrence a few months later, and started to talk about approaching the end, and then…there it was.  I thought about Sherri.  She was 35, with two young kids.  She blogged on October 30 about not feeling so great and planning a talk with her doctors about treatment options for some new lesions on her spine, and on November 5, she was gone.

Too fast.  I know there’s no real way to prepare for death, no way to predict when it will happen, but I’m reeling from this one.

The day before he died, Ebert wrote:

At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.

I would have liked to read all of that.

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