Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Farm-to-plate, part two

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series following a group of Kendall College chef-instructors and students on a trip to Southern Illinois University's (SIU) College of Agricultural Sciences.

Contributed by Dana Cox, Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, Chicago


This dewy Wednesday morning begins with a trip to the grapevine plots of Dr. Brad Taylor, who holds his doctorate in pommology, the study of fruit selection and husbandry. I am drawn in immediately when he asks us to consider the larger meaning of our time in Carbondale. He mentions the first great civilization of Mesopotamia, reminding us that cities could not exist without agriculture; transversely, farmers need cities of people to consume their products. It's thought that man, grapes and yeast came together in Mesopotamia. Wine, Taylor says, is man's version of eternal life.

Taylor grows 40 varieties of grapes on the 2 acres he manages, 30 of which are French hybrids. The need for hybridization of American and European varieties exists because Continental grapes cannot always survive our winters, but grapes native to the Americas aren't known for producing notable wines. One such wild American grape common to the area is the Norton (pictured, below), a small, deep purplish red and tightly clustered grape that is virtually devoid of tannins, the element in wine that gives it structure.

Hybrids can produce the quality desired of Vitis vinifera grapes (think Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance), with the sturdiness to thrive in our climate. We have these hybrids, Taylor tells us, because the French were trying to create a plant to withstand phylloxera, a disastrous pest unwittingly exported to Europe in the 1860s that destroyed many of the great European wine crops. What makes interesting wine, says Taylor, is warm days (providing maximum photosynthesis, flavor molecules and sugar production) and cooler nights (causing a preservation of acids). When grapes are grown in regions that have warmth nearly round the clock, like Southern Illinois, the acids are "respired," meaning they are metabolized and lost. The acids are what produce crispness on the palate, for example in a steely Sauvignon Blanc.

Taylor explains that organic grape growing is nearly impossible in this region, as they have continuous moisture. Fungal growth on grape leaves and vines needs only 6 to 8 hours of raindrops clinging to plants to begin an invasion. All the grower needs to do is go to sleep to create opportunity for rot, infection or a spore population to settle in. Fungicides used sparingly, sometimes called "soft chemistry," can protect the plants. The drier the summer and the more mature the vines, the less fungicide is needed.

Grapes are planted on hills, Taylor explains, to maximize sun exposure--needed on both the leaves and the fruit to produce good juice--and because colder air will drift into the lower spots, avoiding spring frost on plants. Twelve to 15 leaves are necessary per bunch of grapes to provide adequate photosynthesis.

Taylor uses a two-tiered system of canopy
management, or grape leaf coverage, which means grapes hang from about knee height and also just above eye level. The more rain in a season, the more cutting back of the canopy is required so that the fruit gets some sun exposure. Student Tiffany Nelson asks what the difference is between noble rot--which produces an intensely sweet, raisin-like flavor in dessert wines--and bad rot. Taylor responds that the simple difference is moisture. Noble rot requires some shriveling of the grape right on the vine, which needs some degree of dryness.

Dr. Brad Taylor displays his grapes beneath the leaf canopy

The issue of terroir arises, which is the idea that each geographic area produces a different grape; the soil's mineral profile, the slope of the hill, the angle of the sun as it strikes the plant and the number of hours of sun exposure all impact multiple dimensions of that region's grapes. Taylor bristles when he hears the wine community refer to "Midwestern wines," as there are many microclimates even within Illinois, he says. Apple trees bloom and grape vines bud three weeks earlier in Southern Illinois than Northern Illinois, for instance. We can attest to that difference. When our sweater-clad group arrived from Chicago we were met with balmy heat, dramatically different than Labor Day weather in Chicagoland.

Despite Southern Illinois' challenges of warm nights and overabundant precipitation, we would soon discover they are more than able to produce wines of distinction. The federal government has even recognized the region's winemaking prowess by designating the Shawnee Wine territory as an American Viticultural Area, similar to France's D.O.C. system of classification.

Wine tasting at Owl Creek Vineyards, Cobden, Ill.
Having seen the grapes in their natural environs, we set out for two vineyards along the Shawnee Wine Trail along with Taylor: Owl Creek Vineyards and StarView Vineyards. Owl Creek Vineyards' founder Ted Wichmann was influential in drawing the government's attention to the uniqueness of its wines. Owl Creek Vineyards owner and winemaker Brad Genung has arranged a tasting of his wines for us in their inviting, sun-filled tasting room. We try a hybrid unique to Southern Illinois, the Vignole grape, known for its tropical notes and hint of residual sweetness. My tasting notes read "pineapple Jolly Rancher" and "like Viognier on steroids." Vignole is a low-yielding grape--they harvest about 2 tons per acre, which is vastly less than mass-market wines. We decide this will be a lovely choice to serve at Thursday night's dinner with Chef Heidi's tarte tatin.

Owl Creek's Chardonel, thought to be a hybrid of Chardonnay and Cheval Blanc, is aged on its lees, the dead yeast cells that remain once the yeast has consumed all of the juice's sugar, creating the wine's alcohol. Aging on a wine's lees can create notes of butter and roundness on the palate. This one's not overdone, as it still has a nice acidic finish. Genung tells us that 30 percent of the wine's aging takes place in American oak and 70 percent in stainless steel, thus explaining the crispness.

The 2004 Chambourcin--a red hybrid produced by most of the vineyards in the region--is blended with 10 percent Norton grapes and could be equated to a Shiraz. It spent 12 months in new oak barrels and is also low yield, about 3 tons of fruit per acre. Genung says this wine could be credited for building the vineyard's reputation. It was served at President Obama's inauguration to represent his Midwestern roots. The 2005 Chambourcin Reserve is my favorite red here, and it reminds me of Bordeaux with more tannins than the 2004 and notes of blackberry. It's aged in older barrels for 2 years, again blended with Norton (1/3 the total volume).

Brad Genung pours raspberry dessert wine at Owl Creek Vineyards

Owl Creek's raspberry dessert wine is like a fond summer memory, so intense and fruity. Genung tells us that they use berries from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, known for their tremendous sugar and acid content. The high brix rating produces a wine with 15 percent alcohol while preserving the fresh raspberry pucker. A sip fills the room with oohs and sighs from the tasters.

Wine tasting at StarView Vineyards
, Cobden, Ill.
Down the road is StarView Vineyards, which has been newly revamped and is owned and operated by a SIU graduate who grew up in the area. Here we meet Scott Sensemeier, who purchased the vineyard in recent years and renamed it. After a brief tour of some of the grapes preharvest, Sensemeier gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the wine is made. White grapes are often harvested by moonlight or in the very early hours of the morning, as they should not be picked hot. Any heat remaining in the fruit must be removed quickly, as it can produce problems in storage.

Scott Sensemeier describes the terroir of Southern Illinois at Starview Vineyards

Whites do better with cold fermentation, which requires a huge investment on the part of the winemaker. Sensemeier takes us inside that investment--a walk-in cooler the size of which I've never seen in a professional kitchen or hotel. White grapes must be crushed and pressed the same day; juice time on the skins and seeds is not necessary for whites as it is with red wines. Sensemeier says he likes malolactic fermentation in moderation because it rounds out the acids in the wine, but the trade-off is that some of the fruit is lost. The ideal pH of wine is 3.6 to 3.8; 7.0 is neutral, so this is a pretty acidic rating. Malolactic fermentation increases pH and can produce a funky wine if not monitored.

Sensemeier show us some of the tools key to his process such as a hydrometer, a small handheld device that measures brix, or sugar concentration, in juice. The sugar content will determine how alcoholic the wine will be in the end, an important consideration for the winemaker. Sensemeier shows us his rocket tanks, tall plastic tanks that allow for some oxygen contact with the juice. He also utilizes variable capacity tanks, which have a lid that can be adjusted to sit directly on top of the wine and avoid oxidation. It all seems very modern in such a pastoral setting.

For red wines, juice must sit on skins and seeds for about 5 days to develop deep color and sufficient tannins. A cap of the solids and carbon dioxide produced by fermentation forms on top of the juice and must be pushed down every few hours to maintain the juice's contact with the skins. If not pushed down regularly, the cap can also form detrimental bacteria. Extended maceration can be done to mellow the tannins of red wine, but it is difficult to manage, as eventually the cap falls to the bottom of the tank.
Sensemeier opens a few tanks and invites us to inhale. The yeast and newly born alcohol is potent. These tanks are undoubtedly alive with activity.

Organic vegetable farming at Farmer Brown Productions
Exciting produce is always inspiring to a chef, especially of the caliber produced by Farmer Brown in Pomona, Ill. The person behind the label is Josh Brown, who farms organically and sells his greens, peppers and garlic to local restaurants, the food co-op and Whole Foods Market in St. Louis. The farm is an island clearing surrounded by 20-foot-tall evergreen trees in every direction. He and his capable friend Devin Brown (no relation) organize the farm into eight 50- by 100-foot plots. They place plants in a diamond-patterned grid, called triangulation, which allows them to set more plants than a square grid. They plant about 30 percent more plants than the quantity ordered, to account for the unpredictable. Greens are packed the day before they're shipped, and hydrocooled (dunked in cool water) prior to going into the boxes to remove any field heat. Restaurants, says Brown, can be difficult customers for the small farmer, as they demand consistency and regular delivery, which nature can't always oblige.

Farmer Brown Productions Tuscan kale

Brown grows Tuscan kale, or laccianato kale, also referred to as dinosaur kale because of its almost prehistoric appearance. It is a gorgeous blueish green and has a nubby texture. I can attest from the chef's perspective that it is a lovely addition to menus with unique texture and flavor. It also doesn't lose quite as much volume as a wimpier green like spinach.

Picking peppers with farmer Josh Brown

Brown's peppers and chiles seem to spark the most interest among students. Some are the garden-variety bell peppers, but he also has interesting heirloom specimens like a tiny, deep-purple Peruvian pepper that looks like a shiny kalamata olive. They are primarily grown as an ornamental chile, but are edible and quite hot as we discover with a taste. We would use some of his chiles the next day in a spicy a
ïoli for our BLT "bombs."

The group displays the peppers they've picked

We escape from the punishing sun for a moment and head inside Brown's barn. It's like a gallery of garlic, with varieties we've never seen, like musik and porcelain, German white varieties, as well as Lorz Italian (brought to Washington state from Italy in the early 1900s) and Inchilian Red, an international prize winner for its flavor. Varieties with larger cloves are popular among chefs, as less labor is required to peel them.

The gallery of garlic at Farmer Brown Productions

We ask Brown about the effort and expense involved in organic certification, required if a farmer makes organic claims on packaging. It's not as expensive as we'd imagined. The farmer must pay $590 annually for certification, $450 of which can be rebated from the State of Illinois. In addition to the fees, farmers must submit a field plan with maps and plant locations, records of seed purchases and logs of fertilizers, natural pesticides, or mulch used. An independent inspector is hired to evaluate the farm's compliance with these rules and test water from Brown's well. Brown says the certification process helps a farmer be more efficient, as he can return to those records and examine what was planted and how and evaluate yields of crops.

Stubbs Lamb Farm
Thursday starts with a drive to Cobden, Ill., with Dr. Rebecca Atkinson, who teaches in the beef science department of the ag school. We are on our way to meet Walter Stubbs, a Texel lamb farmer. Stubbs' place evokes Norman Rockwell's visions of America as a shepherd collie pup lopes up to the van to welcome us. A sea of green pastures surrounds Stubbs' home and barn, as grazing is an integral part of his finished product. This particular breed of sheep was originally from the island of Texel off the coast of Holland, crossed with British breeds. The sheep are known for their meaty build and leanness, as well as their ability to adapt to extreme temperatures and forage with little grain supplement. They've been bred here in the states only since 1990 and average 225 pounds for the rams and 150 pounds for ewes, according to the Texel Sheep Breeder's Society brochure. Stubbs likes to market his animals at 100 to 120 pounds, when they are approximately 4 to 5 months old.

Up close with a Texel sheep

Stubbs, like Farmer Brown, prefers natural methods of production to modern chemistry and engineering. The challenge for lamb farmers, he says, is a specific worm that invades the sheep, impacting its respiratory system. Infected sheep develop a persistent cough that can be fatal if severe. The worm, Stubbs explains, must have access to the animal for about four weeks in order to be successful. Stubbs outwits the worms by utilizing a five-pasture system. His sheep graze for two weeks on a segment of the land, then move to another plot of grass. By keeping them on a rotation, the worm is never able to complete its cycle, so the animals can be kept healthy without the use of artificial dewormers and pesticides.

About 30 animals are here at any given time; most of the lamb is sold to private buyers who commit to buying before the lamb is mature. His clients prefer the mild flavor of Texel lamb and appreciate the natural lifestyles of the animals as well as the nutrients the meat possesses resulting from a diet that includes grass and vegetation. As we observe the sheep and talk with Stubbs, the massive Pyrenees (a large guard dog) that works at the farm comes to make friends with us. He leans on us with impressive force, probably trying to herd us closer together as he might the sheep. Stubbs says these dogs are unbelievably devoted to fulfilling their purpose as guards. They sleep with the sheep each night and will fight to the death if faced with an intruding wolf or coyote. He tells us a story of a farmer friend whose Pyrenees rescued one sheep at a time from a burning barn until he perished.

During our visit, about half the sheep snack on a mixture of hay and corn, which supplements the grass diet. Stubbs also grows alfalfa, the "Cadillac of forages," he says, which is high in protein. From the looks of the other half of the flock that are sunbathing, it seems a very pleasant life there.

Bison Bluff Farms
Not far from the lamb farm
in Cobden is Bison Bluff Farms, a buffalo producer. American buffalo are not true buffalo; bison is the more correct term. They belong to the same mammal family as domesticated cattle. The owners are hobby farmers, for whom this is entertainment with an entrepreneurial bent. They have invested in a large open-air trailer that seats 20, so visitors can be driven to the center of the bison community without harm to either observer or animal.

Students observe bison in their natural habitat from the caravan

Watching them live, at different ages and sizes in their natural environment, is quite an experience. They are monumental creatures, not only because of their massive size, but their immense eyes and piles of wiry hair that cover their heads. They are very active, running, swatting at the many flies that annoy them and socializing with one another. This is the second time I've seen buffalo in the wild; the first was as a middle schooler when the science club traveled to Fermilab where they keep a few buffalo. That day, we didn't get closer than 100 feet or so. Today, we get to see bison up close, and personal.

The tour guides, parents of the owners, point out the alpha bull (pictured, above) of one group and explain that bison have a specific hierarchical social order. We inquire about how many animals are here, and they estimate approximately 250. It is feeding time when we are there, and a farm hand in a jeep sprinkles what appears to be grain and moves on as the animals charge to get a bite. They are quite obviously wild animals of extraordinary power and speed (their brochure says they can run up to 35 miles per hour). At that speed, a 2,000-pound beast is an intimidating foe.

The meat is sold on the premises in a retail facility, where customers choose the cut of meat they want from posters resembling primal cut diagrams. Most of the meat is Cryovac'ed and frozen. Customers are interested in buffalo meat because they feel it's a more natural product than feedlot-raised beef. Bison Bluff Farms bison also has less saturated fat than corn-fed beef, according to staff members, and contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids due to their primarily wild diet.

Farm-to-Table dinner at the Green Retreat
After prepping at SIU's food and nutrition program kitchens Wednesday and Thursday, we host 100 guests from the Carbondale area for dinner outside on the working farm of the Green Retreat. Among the guests are ag school professors and staff, local farmers, vintners, journalists and foodies. Much of the meat and produce we use are from local sources, and it is quite a pleasure to serve our interpretation of a grower's product to that very grower.

Chef Dina Altieri (second from right) and the students prep farm-to-plate dinner

Our menu:
  • First Course: Pit-roasted prawns, warm niçoise compote and citrus butter sauce
    The prawns were from a local aquaculture facility, some of the sweetest, freshest shrimp I've ever tasted. The green beans in the ni
    çoise we picked ourselves from Dr. Walter's organic plots. We couldn’t stop eating them raw as we cleaned them, and the flavor of a bean snapped right from the plant was amazing.
  • Salad Course: Field greens, roasted Neptune grapes, Marissa sheep's milk gouda, spiced pecans and truffle vinaigrette
    The table grapes were grown by Dr. Taylor and had a distinct floral quality. Once they were roasted, their flavor became so intense. The cheese is from the award-winning Carr Valley cheesemakers, and the truffle vinaigrette was made with a reduction of Oak Creek's Chambourcin Reserve, enhancing its earthiness.
  • Intermezzo: Fresh cucumber mint granita served in cuke towers
    The cucumbers were from local Sweitzer’s farm and were blended with citrusy Vignoles wine from StarView Vineyards. The owners of the Green Retreat provided mint from their personal garden.
  • Entrée: Chambourcin-braised sirloin tip roast, sweet corn and okra polenta and summer vegetable ragoût
    Oak Creek wine tenderized and flavored the beef from Bass Farms, and the beautiful vegetables were provided by SIU's farms for the polenta and chunky ratatouille.
  • Dessert: Jonathan apple tarte tatin with crème fraîche, buttermilk peach fritters and lavender honey drizzle
    SIU's orchards supplied the crisp apples and sublime peaches; the crème fra
    îche was from Prairie Fruits farm and was worthy of being eaten on its own with a spoon. Chef Heidi did a quick-infusion of local honey with the Green Retreat's fresh lavender. Take my word for it: The barn we cooked in that night never smelled better.
Dr. Taylor provided commentary about the wine pairings for each course, which were all from Shawnee Hills Wine Trail vineyards. At the end of the meal, Dr. Smith invited all of us out to the tent to introduce us to the group and gave each student an opportunity to explain to the diners which part of the meal they had lent their talents to. From the toasts, hugs, handshakes and invitations we received, I'd say the meal was a success. Smith said she hoped to impart to producers in the area that what they are doing is so important and worthy of attention. Our visit and the dinner would confirm how valuable their efforts are. Not only would we see the source of our foodstuffs, but the farmers would see us put those foodstuffs into action. Pretty cool.

Part one | Part three