Food Day: Monday, October 24th

Food Day seeks to bring together Americans from all walks of life — parents, teachers, and students; health professionals, community organizers, and local officials; chefs, school lunch providers, and eaters of all stripes — to push for healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way. Food Day is in partnership with Slow Food USA and the Napa Local Food Advisory Council. Please click the image for a larger view of the flyer.

If you’re interested in attending, please click here to register for the event through Napa Valley College.

Slow Food Napa Valley Brunch @ Ehlers Estate, September 2011

The dining area outside Ehlers Estate.

Slow Food Napa Valley hosted a pig roast and potluck this September, in conjunction with Ehlers Estate in St. Helena. The following photos highlight the event, which provided a forum for SFNV members to discuss the future of SFNV, and how they can help to increase interest and awareness of the Slow Food movement. Naturally, the brunch was amazing. Please click on any photo for a full-screen view.

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Pig cracklins, up close.

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CIA instructor Patrick Clark carves the Mulefoot Hog, which was provided by Michael Fradelizio of the Silverado Brewing Company and Beer Belly Farms.

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Michael Fradelizio (left) and Patrick Clark (right) remove the pig from the Caja China roasting box. A hungry crowd gathers.

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A look at the just-finished pig inside the Caja China.

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The Mulefoot hog, just a couple hours into cooking.

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The Ehlers Estate line-up. Delicious.

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Ehlers winemaker Kevin Morrisey (far left) talks shop with SFNV members.

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The Ehlers Estate tasting room, built in 1886.

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Debbie Fradelizio (left) and Corrie Beezley (right) greet SFNV members as they arrive for the potluck with baskets in hand.

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One very impressive apple pie.

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A beautiful honeycomb and cheese platter from Marshall's Farm.

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Heirloom tomato platter.

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In Ehlers Estate's BioDynamic vineyard.

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Flowers outside the Ehlers Estate tasting room.

 

Book Review: “Au Revoir to All That” by Michael Steinberger

I suspect that in middle America — and perhaps anywhere else the Western world — most people would assume that the French have cemented their reputation as the world’s culinary avant garde. It’s certainly a fair assumption. Not only have the French enjoyed an enviable culinary tradition for the last two centuries, but Western pop culture has reinforced this idea again and again. The notion of sophisticated French cuisine has become an enduring cultural archetype both here and abroad, as seen recently in movies like 2007′s “Ratatouille,” or even going back 20 years prior, to the Danish film “Babette’s Feast.” Within the media, French cuisine has been portrayed as the Western standard for decades now, and pop culture has continued to reinforce this hierarchy. Even one of America’s earliest and greatest culinary icons, Julia Child, had deep roots in French cuisine.

But for those who have been following culinary trends for the last 10 years, the center of culinary relevance has slowly shifted outside of France. As author Michael Steinberger points out in his book “Au Revoir to All That,” several factors have contributed to France’s declining culinary influence, including the nation’s poor economy and its general complacency, the rise of chef Ferran Adriá and Spain’s nuevo cocina, the increased competition of fine wine from the New World, and the recent “franchising” of French chefs in overseas markets, such as Las Vegas and New York. Of course, based upon its long history of culinary contributions, France will still continue to enjoy a large stake in the game, but its chip count has steadily eroded over the years, and perhaps for good.

With each chapter, “Au Revior to All That” delivers an insightful analysis of the French malaise, supported with thoughtful and compelling research. Steinberger also provides many terrific first-hand anecdotes along the way, making the text both approachable and engaging. What surprised me the most, however, was a statistic in the book’s seventh chapter, titled “Fast-Food Nation,” in which Steinberger reveals that France has become the single-biggest market for McDonald’s outside of America. Talk about undermining some deep-seated stereotypes — the French have actually embraced the Golden Arches? While it may still be true that most Westerners might still give France the benefit of the doubt when it comes to gastronomy, in reality, globalization seems to have cost France far much more than it has gained.

Book Review: “New Classic Winemakers of California” by Steve Heimoff

America’s growing fascination with wine has fueled an increasing interest in all sorts of topics that might’ve seemed superfluous only 10 years ago. Just consult a set of wine notes from the average Napa Valley winery, and you’ll discover data relating to everything from barrels to brix, to pH levels, to harvest dates, to clonal selections. In any area of interest, the true enthusiast will always embrace the minute details, whether that topic is wine, baseball statistics, or Star Trek episodes. But I will say one thing about some of these oenological facts and figures: if you’ve taken a genuine interest in the pH level of the wine you’re swirling, then you’re more than just a wine drinker — you’re pretty far gone.

Of course, many people never concern themselves with any of the technical aspects of winemaking. I feel that to some extent, ignorance is bliss, especially when wine can be appreciated without some requisite evaluation. But for those folks who cannot drink wine without dissecting it, without trying to guess the percentage of malolactic fermentation in Chardonnays, or without sniffing for hints of Cabernet Franc in a classic Bordeaux blend, then Steve Heimoff’s “New Classic Winemakers of California” offers some revealing and insightful interviews.

In many ways, “New Classic Winemakers” presents a fairly current state-of-the-union for California’s fine wine industry. Along the way, Heimoff addresses several hot-button topics during his interviews, including wine’s recent rise in alcohol level, a phenomenon that is sometimes justified, but rarely embraced. To his credit, Heimoff also inquires about removing alcohol after-the-fact, which is one the wine industry’s dirty little secrets (google “spinning cone column” to learn what no winemaker would personally care to admit). Of course, Heimoff does not elicit any scandalous confessions in his book, but at least the author has the gumption to address the issue.

Even in the modern age, discussions with winemakers are also bound to contain some heavy doses of philosophy, and Heimoff succeeds in drawing out some cerebral discussions of terroir, which help to strike a balance with the technical digressions. Even so, “New Classic Winemakers” is definitely geared towards a niche audience, and therefore my recommendation is astonishingly simple: If you recognize the names of some of the winemakers in this book, then there’s a good chance that its contents may interest you.

Book Review: “The United States of Arugula” by David Kamp

During my first six weeks of culinary school, I spent many afternoons trolling the campus storeroom, trying to learn the differences between things like ginger and galangal or radicchio and red cabbage. The sheer inventory of the CIA storeroom was impressive: A veritable dungeon, it was stocked with foodstuffs ranging from the exotic to the mundane, all of which would become the raw-food materials for 18 different kitchen-classrooms on campus. As new culinary students, we were expected to visit the storeroom as part of a class called Product Knowledge (the class final itself — a line-up of about two dozen fruits and vegetables — would be culled from the storeroom’s very shelves).

One of the most challenging tasks was to identify the litany of salad greens in the walk-in: mache, shiso, watercress, mizuna, mustard, little gem, frisée, arugula. Depending on how far someone had lived from a decent farmers market, many of these items could have been completely unknown to some students. Fortunately for me, I did have the benefit of growing up in California, so I at least had some basic familiarity with things like arugula and frisée. However, some of the other greens were more esoteric, and they demanded closer attention.

After I finished chef school — just 21 months later — I hastened my retreat to the Napa Valley, where the produce became even more dynamic (light years beyond Hyde Park, in truth). Once back in California, I landed a job at Auberge du Soleil, whose easy-going kitchen manager ordered the very best produce with free-wheeling abandon. It was an eye-opener: Auberge would have every type of heirloom tomato, every type of wild mushroom, every type of whatever-was-seasonal.

In keeping with trends, Auberge naturally embraced microgreens, those barely-sprouted versions of common plants like arugula, spinach or beets (the bull’s blood beets were the best). Amazingly, I had onbly seen microgreens once or twice in chef school, where they were presented mostly as a curiosity (in a small, plastic clamshell container, no less). In contrast, microgreens were one of the de riguer garnishes at Auberge du Soleil, where we carefully snipped them from large nursery flats every afternoon just before service.

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Over the years, it’s occurred to me that in its basic, fully-mature form, arugula has fast become the iceberg lettuce of today: somewhat quaint in its ubiquity, an all-too-common garnish for a grilled chicken-breast sandwich (granted, arugula is far more nutritious than iceberg lettuce, which is nice). Yet, I can clearly remember a time when, not too long ago, arugula had plenty of novelty and cache, even here in California. Servers always used to describe arugula as “peppery” to those who inquired about it — these days, no one even has to ask anymore, do they?

In “The United States of Arugula,” David Kamp happens to use this leafy green as his metaphor, documenting America’s remarkable gastronomic shift over the last 70 years. The book explores our sociology to a large extent, drawing clear connections between our increased industrialization and our tendency to relegate eating as a necessity more than a pleasure. “The United States of Arugula” pinpoints where we had gone wrong and what ultimately inspired our steps in the right direction.

Kamp begins his food history at the very beginning, when pizza and sushi were still relative unknowns, long before they earned “comfort food” status here in America. The book follows the early days on the East Coast, when the “Big Three” of American cuisine — James Beard, Juila Child and Craig Claiborne — became the nation’s taste-makers. Naturally, during the latter half of the book, the focus shifts to the West Coast, with a detailed and frank history of Alice Waters and the many Chez Panisse alumni.

For the food enthusiast, “The United States of Arugula” is resplendent with entertaining footnotes, and Kamp has clearly researched his topic thoroughly. Originally published in 2006, the book touches upon the recent rise of the Food Network, as well as the recent trend towards “franchising” in Las Vegas. In many ways, “The United States of Arugula” is yin to the yang of Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” — while the latter book reveals how food in America has gone awry, the former book illustrates a few of those things that have gone well.

Book Review: “Noble Rot” by William Echikson

The term “noble rot” has long been a secret handshake among wine connoisseurs, an English translation of the French pourriture noble, or what biologists would officially call “botrytis” (and even more officially, Botrytis cinerea). At its essence, “noble rot” is a benevolent fungus, critical to the production of many of the world’s top late-harvest wines. Botrytis appears in the fall — with the onset of humidity in the vineyard — helping to concentrate the sugar levels in the grapes as it facilitates dehydration. For this reason, the words “noble rot” are often synonymous with the Bordeaux region of Sauternes, the legendary home of the world’s most expensive dessert wines.

Given its title, one might assume that “Noble Rot” is limited to the realm of Sauternes, but William Echikson’s book actually provides a survey of the entire Bordeaux region, from the upstart garagistes to the most famous chateaux. Echikson presents a revealing portrait of the region, which has only recently begun to feel the effects of the globalization of wine. These changes have ushered in a new era of modernity in Bordeaux, creating a growing niche for high-priced winemaking consultants, as well as a new market for French cult wines.

With the advent of globalization, “Noble Rot” also examines the recent American influence in Bordeaux, especially that of übercritic Robert Parker, who established his reputation with the legendary 1982 vintage, and who has continued to influence tastes on both sides of the Atlantic. Depending upon whom you ask, Parker is equal parts hero and villain in Bordeaux, although the region itself features plenty of its own home-grown controversy. In some cases, this controversy has garnered a public forum, and “Noble Rot” also details the region’s most infamous family feud, a bitter legal battle that lead to MHLV’s hostile purchase of the legendary Chateau D’Yquem in 1996. Among this recent context of courtrooms and multimillion dollar lawsuits, the term “noble rot” certainly assumes a whole new meaning today.

SFNV Event Recap: “A Tail of 2 Pigs” @ CIA Greystone, April 3rd

In April, Slow Food Napa Valley hosted its first event of 2011, “A Tail of 2 Pigs,” at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone. Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of  “Righteous Porkchop” was the guest speaker at the potluck event. If you missed it, the turn-out was fantastic (thank you for your support). And yes, the food and wine was clearly abundant. Click on any photo for a full-screen view.

Nicolette Hahn Niman (far right) discusses her book, "Righteous Porkchop."

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Yes, please.

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Slow Food Napa Valley board members Michael and Debbie Fradelizio.

Book Review: “Righteous Porkchop” by Nicolette Hahn Niman

Factory farming continues to be the norm for animal production in this country despite its obvious shortfalls. This exists, only because there are not enough people aware of the problem to generate the outrage that will one day be heard. “Righteous Porkchop” is Nicolette Hahn Niman’s memoir about that very topic.

How could I not be intrigued, she is or has been a lawyer, animal rights activist, vegetarian and cattle rancher. In an arena where many well-researched texts list so many facts and statistics, hers is a refreshingly clever and witty love story that also tells a grim tale of animal cruelty above all else.

Beginning with the poultry industry, Niman paints a picture of torturous conditions for animals, externalized costs of environmental abuses, worker conditions in factory farms, and the affects on communities. She then proceeds with similar stories of hog farms, dairy farms, beef cattle ranches, and even fish farms. Her ability to weave personal narrative into an otherwise depressing tale is what makes the book unique.

Through her diligence working with Robert Kennedy at the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance to her most unlikely romance with rancher Bill Niman, she gains insight into the world of meat production and CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Armed with this new found knowledge, Niman steers the story toward a personable discussion of what animal husbandry should be. Using several modern examples of farmers bringing animal welfare and sustainability to the forefront of their businesses, she closes with a practical guide to buying meat and animal products.

“Righteous Porkchop” will leave readers empowered to make more sustainable choices, a little pissed off at the current state of our industrial food system, a little leery of our government leaders shaping these policies, and a lot entertained.

Book Review: “The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc”

While killing some time between meals the other day, I finally turned up a copy of “The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc” at a used bookstore in Berkeley. It was a nice find, and one of the best discoveries that I’ve recently made “in the field” (as opposed to trolling eBay for such an item). Originally published in 1987 — just six years after the eponymous author earned his third Michelin star — “Natural Cuisine” earns its stripes for its lavish photography, with the pictures outnumbering the recipes by almost three to one. Although long out of print, the book remains a prescient example of the cookbook-as-coffee-table-book concept, an approach to food-related publishing that has become increasingly popular over the last 25 years. In the case of Blanc’s “Natural Cuisine,” however, the photography itself is rather straight-forward, although maybe that’s actually for the best: Blanc’s classic geometric designs and vivid color contrasts ensure that his plates will shine on their own artistic merit, no outside assistance necessary. Here’s a taste (photography by Christopher Barker):

Zuchini Flans with Sliced Zucchini and Salmon Cream

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Pineapple with Raspberry and Kiwi Sauces and Pineapple Sorbet

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Sauteed Eggplant and Baked Whiting in a Butter Sauce

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Tomato, Red Pepper and Olive Tart

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Pineapple Fritters with Macerated Kiwi Fruit

Book Review: “To Cork or Not to Cork” by George Taber

In his book “To Cork or Not to Cork,” author George Taber devotes 265 pages to bottle closures, a fact in itself that demonstrates at least one universal truth: that wine aficionados are an odd, yet passionate lot. After all, who else would read an entire book on this particular subject? Even wine guru Karen MacNeil, who contributed the foreward to the text, was at first a bit skeptical, and for very good reason. An entire book dedicated to the cork-versus-screw cap debate? Honestly, I sometimes feel that wine aficionados must be the Trekkies of the culinary world.

Admittedly, I had been looking forward to reading “To Cork or Not to Cork” ever since I learned of its release last year (which says an awful lot about me, I suppose). Taber’s previous work, 2006′s “The Judgment of Paris,” was a terrific book, and I felt that the cork-versus-screw cap debate had rarely ever been addressed in depth and without bias. I approached “To Cork or Not to Cork” with the hope that I would be able to discern, once and for all, which side was correct, and which statistics I should ultimately believe. Of course, nothing that has been debated for this long can ever be that simple.

The debate, being as heated as ever, could easily continue to play out for decades; but even though Taber does not provide his readers with all of the answers, he certainly provides every single bit of evidence along the way. And while casual wine drinkers may not particularly care about the difference between a “technical cork” and an “agglomerated cork” (or, for that matter, an “extruded cork” and a “molded cork”), the first chapter of the book does provide a wonderfully concise overview of traditional cork production and its long-standing connection to fine wine.

I would be delusional, however, if I claimed that the remainder of “To Cork or Not to Cork” is geared towards anyone but the true wine aficionado (in which case, Taber’s book is most definitely required reading). I must admit that this situation is a bit ironic in some ways, since even the most novice wine drinkers can easily appreciate some of the main issues behind the cork-versus-screw cap debate. In particular, one major angle of the controversy — tradition versus innovation — is extremely simple to grasp, regardless of one’s level of wine knowledge.

But even though some of these core cultural issues are certainly approachable, the actual science behind this debate remains far too heady for the casual observer. Who, besides the most devoted wine drinkers, really cares about the villainous chemical compound TCA (otherwise known as “cork taint,” and also at the heart of the controversy)? To take this question even one step further, who besides an experienced wine drinker can readily identify TCA? Quite frankly, “To Cork or Not to Cork” is a book aimed only at those of us who are already too far gone, Spock ears and all.

Slow Food USA’s “Ark of Taste”: Links to Local Producers of Charbono Wine