The dining room at Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park
I spent Saturday evening at the Third Annual Harvest Dinner at the Bale Grist Mill, hosted in conjunction with Slow Food Napa Valley and the Silverado Brewing Company. The event was held to raise money for the mill, which was originally constructed in 1846, and is the only operating mill of its kind west of the Rocky Mountains. The majority of the feast was provided by Number Fourteen, a delicious American mulefoot hog raised locally by chef Michael Fradelizio of the Silverado BrewCo.
Number Fourteen enjoyed an amazing diet of local fallen fruits, spent grains from the SBC, and all sorts of other organically-sourced tidbits (including a “California” brownie to put him at ease on his last day). Through patience and diligence, Number Fourteen grew to become a prodigiously large swine, yielding enough tasty marbled flesh to feed 165 guests at the Bale Grist Mill Dinner. Of course, Number Fourteen appeared in many forms at the country buffet, ranging from pâté to ribs to pulled leg meat (the menu scan posted below lists the accoutrements).
Mulefoot hogs, claimed by many to be the best tasting pigs in America, are the rarest of American swine breeds. Although eating an animal that is facing extinction may sound counter-intuitive, Number Fourteen was raised specifically for this event, and was part of a porcine lineage dedicated to keeping this particular breed alive (if I remember correctly, Number Fourteen is survived by three family members at Fradelizio’s Beer Belly Farms). With the help of this event, the American mulefoot has an improved chance of survival.
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Naturally, there was plenty of beer and wine at the Bale Mill Harvest Dinner, and my favorite wine of the night was the 2006 On the Edge Charbono, which featured a terrific dark fruit profile with an inherent sweetness. I have mentioned Charbono before, in my tasting notes from Summers Estate, but I didn’t realize that the grape itself has its own Slow Food connections, being listed on Slow Food’s U.S. Ark of Taste (along with the American mulefoot hog, of course). Given its rarity, Charbono is difficult to find, but well worth the search.
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All the pork you can eat, and then some
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Detail: The old Bale Grist Mill's 36-foot water wheel
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Number Fourteen: One delicious American mulefoot pig, deconstructed and smoked
As the former employee of a BioDynamic winery, I’ve had dozens of opportunities to promote the theories of BioDynamic farming. Unfortunately, the vagaries of BioDynamics are founded upon some very challenging ideas. For this reason, and despite my rhetoric on the subject, I feel that the BioDynamic movement remains largely misunderstood. At worst, BioDynamics is labeled as mere superstition. And while this dismissal is entirely unfair, I will admit that the underlying principles of BioDynamics are indeed strange and esoteric. I will also admit that, honestly, I don’t even understand many of the theories that surround BioDynamics — some appear intuitive, while others seem outlandish.
With its roots in cosmic energies, BioDynamics must seem like a big step backwards to many, a movement away from the hard realities of scientific fact and investigation. Inevitably, any deep discussion of BioDynamics requires an explanation of such things as planetary cycles and constellatory alignments. At this point, once the conversation turns cosmic, most people begin to roll their eyes, which is why I rarely ever delved into the real, core principles of BioDynamic farming. Before long, my dumbed-down explanation of BioDynamics became: “BioDynamic farming is basically über-organic farming.” And that was it.
But even though this statement is both true and easy to grasp, there is clearly much more to BioDynamics than the simple tenets of organic farming. Unfortunately, I’m not going to launch into my own explanation here. After all, in spite my own reading and research, I am still largely baffled by much of the “science” behind BioDynamics. When it comes to this growing agricultural movement — even though I’ve definitely been sipping the Kool-Aid — I still only half get it. As a result, having recently finished “BioDynamic Wine, Demystified” by Nicolas Joly, I cannot say that the book’s title is entirely accurate.
Of course, I never expected “BioDynamic Wine, Demystified” to answer all of my BioDynamic questions. At just 150 pages, this essay could really only scratch the surface, with Joly himself deflecting many of the specific explanations to his bibliographical sources (another reason why I don’t dare offer my own take on the subject). Often, the book must be taken with a significant grain of salt, as many unfounded statements are offered as fact. Ultimately, too many of these statements may coalesce into doubts for the reader, spawning more and more questions along the way.
In all fairness, “BioDynamic Wine, Demystified” does deepen one’s understanding of BioDynamic farming, even though it fails to offer any satisfying explanations. Instead, it offers a philosophy of farming, complete with a heady world view. Nonetheless, practicing BioDynamics does appear to have its merits, especially considering its strict rules against pesticides and other chemicals (BioDynamic farming is far more regulated than any form of organic farming). I have also heard many first-hand accounts about the successful results of BioDynamic farming, so I realize that the empirical evidence does exist. However, the actual science behind BioDynamics remains a large gray area: I certainly acknowledge the theories and the results, but the cause-and-effect connection between the two is still shrouded in archaic farming traditions.
As it is, “BioDynamic Wine, Demystified” will not be the last book that I consult on this particular topic. I am still searching for any book that can align some truly scientific data with this uniquely metaphysical approach to farming. At this point, I suspect that such a text may not even exist. Until then, books such as these can only be as convincing as the actual science behind them.
If you were a wine drinker 10 years ago, successfully naming five of the red Bordeaux varietals was enough to establish your wine-drinking credibility. Twenty years ago, this may have qualified you as an expert. Of course, back in the heyday of Hearty Burgundy, times were much simpler. These days, as wine has gained popularity in the United States, the stakes have increased dramatically. To a certain extent, the French word terroir seems to have become the American wine drinker’s buzzword of the moment — perhaps the secret handshake for some — as U.S. consumers attempt to develop and demonstrate their oenological knowledge.
In many instances, mentioning terroir almost smacks of elitism, as if uttering a bit of French might invoke some sort of Old World insight. But as much as I would enjoy taking the term terroir to task, there is no denying that this concept has a profound significance in relation to wine. From the American perspective, the word terroir is usually a convenient, one-word synonym for “soil and climate,” since these two factors seem to exert the greatest influence on a wine’s sense of origin. But while these two attributes are certainly key components of terroir, the actual French meaning of the word transcends these two physical elements. As Amy Trubek points out in her terrific book, “The Taste of Place,” the true nature of terroir is embedded deep within French culture itself.
Trubek begins her book from the French perspective, illustrating the ways that terroir can provide a nostalgic connection to France’s past. In this era of increased industrialization, Trubek argues that nostalgia trades at an all-time premium, and that the French take extreme pride in their culinary traditions. Trubek describes France’s idealized notion of the peasant farmer, an iconic symbol which — in 2008 — mostly exists within the French national conscience. But even though the peasant farmer has already become a quaint anachronism, France continues to embrace its agrarian roots: eating well remains a hallmark of the French identity, and as a result, terroir encompasses culinary traditions as much as it encompasses taste.
Beyond the early chapters, Trubek ultimately shifts her focus to the United States, detailing many aspects of our own culinary history. Although we do not have the time-honored culinary traditions that can match those of our French counterparts, Trubek does argue that the United States is developing its own culinary practices and ideals. “A Taste of Place” explores many facets of the American culinary landscape, including a spotlight on Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm and a history of the farmer’s market in the San Francisco Ferry Plaza. After her foray into California, Trubek continues east throughout her book, highlighting chef Odessa Piper in Wisconsin, and finally ending up with a history of the Vermont Fresh Network.
As an overview, “A Taste of Place” proves extremely insightful. To her credit, Trubek only uses California as her point of introduction, quickly expanding her focus to the national level. Along the way, “A Taste of Place” fleshes out the complete meaning of terroir, placing it within a uniquely American perspective, and uncovering its many cultural implications. In doing so, Trubek explains that the notion of terroir should not simply be limited to its tangible elements, such as weather and terrain. Likewise, the reader also learns that the discussion of terroir should not simply be limited to wine.