Chefs, Modern Grange

In Search of ‘Real’ Balsamic Vinegar

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is a coveted but sometimes misunderstood condiment, especially because most of the balsamic vinegar we see in the grocery stores is not real balsamic at all, but rather mass produced red wine vinegar sweetened with sugar and flavored with caramel. With varying viscosity, traditional balsamic vinegar, the dark, brown, syrupy variety, is often taken for granted by the untrained palate. And although the commercial type is ubiquitously found on dining tables and supermarket shelves across the country, making traditional balsamico is time consuming and complicated. A 4.5 ounce bottle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is the distillation of some 200 pounds of grape juice that has been boiled to a must, carefully skimmed, innoculated with a "mother of vinegar" and then poured into wooden barrels to age, allowing extra liquids to slowly evaporate over a long period of time — typically 12 years or longer. Each year, the vinegar is re-barrelled as it condenses, a large barrel's worth poured into a smaller sized one, and so on down the line.

Master chef Paul Bertolli makes his own traditional balsamic vinegar in Sonoma County, not his native East Bay climes, because of our dry hot summers — a perfect environment for slow evaporation. He started a batch for his son when the child was an infant, 15 years ago, to impart the idea of continuity to his son. There's a cycle to balsamico making analogous to the human life cycle: the young or new vinegar must have time to mature and age. 

Former Marin County resident Steve Darland and his wife Jane (shown above) make their own balsamic, too, in New Mexico, on land they've named Monticello. Steve studied under Paul to learn the secrets to this truly ancient art, and he traveled to Modena and Reggio Emilia, the two homes of Italian balsamic. In Italy, he engaged a cooper to build his barrels just as the man's family has done for others for over 500 years. A mixture of woods, these barrels impart a taste to the vinegars, becoming more flavorful as the years progress, and more valuable. The Darlands store their balsamic in a manner traditional to Italy, too, in an acetaia, or attic, that they constructed on their property that features thick natural walls that breathe in the summer's heat. And they use the Trebbiano grapes revered in Modena and Reggio Emilia for the best balsamics.

The resulting vinegar is one they've dubbed Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monticello. Retailing for $150, each 4.5 ounce bottle contains 100 servings, and only 1,000 hand-numbered bottles are released each year. Because that's the thing with "real" aged balsamic vinegar: A drop, a drizzle, is more than enough to enliven and alter a bowl of ice cream, a clutch of strawberries, a round of fresh cheese, one half of a peach. It's extraordinary stuff; transformative, really.

Steve Darland comes to SHED to share his Balsamico and his knowledge on Saturday, Aug. 2, at 5pm. Please join us and taste what Paul Bertolli has called "The best and most authentic of the New World balsamics I have tasted."

Artisan Producers, Farming, Modern Grange

‘The Organic Life’ Rethinks What’s Sustainable in Farming

"I'm always going to have to convince people that my vegetables are worth what I'm asking for them." —Austin Blair

The toil, strain, and occasional pleasures of one young farmer's year is the basis for the new documentary, The Organic Life. The filmmaker was in an unusual position to document this process, as she lived it herself.

Following her live-in boyfriend Austin Blair's travails as he learns to farm under the guidance of Sonoma Valley veteran agriculturalist Paul Wirtz, filmmaker Casey Beck says that she made the film "partly to comfort myself, partly to show other people, and partly out of complete awe."

Austin and Casey will be onsite with us on Saturday, July 19, when we screen The Organic Life in our upstairs Grange.

The two met in college when Austin was just transitioning from an engineering program and Casey was studying filmmaking. After college, they went to Argentina on Casey's Fullbright and then WWOOFed on a farm. Seeing their host family's cellar loaded with homemade preserves, pickles, cheeses, salumi, and other stored foodstuffs jolted Austin in deciding that he wanted all of that. He wanted to farm.

A sweet-faced man who is seen chewing something off of a plant in nearly every scene, Austin really likes food. But, as he tells the camera, he didn't grow up eating anything special and probably never had anything indeed as special as a "real" carrot. (He did, however, have the Taco Bell menu memorized.) Learning to grow and eat only "real" food brought a profound change upon him; in fact, it's become his life's calling.

The Organic Life doesn't labor to impress us with the poetic grandeur of organic agriculture. Rather, it underscores the stresses of the life that Austin's chosen. Is sustainable farming truly sustainable, Casey asks, if it can't actually financially support the farmers who do it?

"Just seeing the quality of my produce makes it worth it, but — it's not enough to pay the bills," Austin admits to the camera. He shrugs. "But how fun would it be if it were easy?"

His partner could probably tell him. Now that the film is finished — it took three years, two crowdfunding rounds, two fundraisers, and all of Casey's savings — she's working a day job in Richmond to help support them, teaching video skills to underserved youth. Reached by phone at her East Bay office, Casey admits that she's an unusual figure in the farming world — because she doesn't much care for it. 

"If Austin needs help, I'll go out and do it," she says. "In the same way that he doesn't enjoy filmmaking, I don't really enjoy farming. We're very different people that way. I like being outside, drinking a lemonade with a book, but I don't like all the random projects he has going on. And farming is really a profession where people want you both to do it. And it's like no, we can't do this. We couldn't stay married if we did it. You don't expect that of any other profession."

But she does like farmers, saying that presenting the film and talking about it after the screening has been a true highlight. "It really never gets old with audiences to have that light bulb turned on," she says. "On some level, we all know it, but when you actually see it, there's a Eureka moment of 'Oh. There is a person out there growing my food.' It's so incredibly rewarding to have people say, 'Now I want to go to the farmers' market.' I know that I did a good thing for these farmers. It's just really beautiful to witness that."

The vagaries of weather during climate change and the effects of pure physical exhaustion become themes in The Organic Life as the fields remain water-logged well into the planting cycle and the couple finds themselves too tired to enjoy activities their 20something friends take for granted, like going dancing or taking a three-day camping trip. For Austin, life is work, work, and more work — none of it resulting in any kind of a real fiscal respite. For now, at least, he's resolute: farming is what he loves and being a farmer is what he does. Since the film's release, the couple has been offered land of their own to farm later this year; currently, Austin still works for Wirtz at Paul's Produce. 

For Casey, The Organic Life was a labor of love conceived of love. Austin amazes her and she wanted to highlight the effort he and all farmers share. "The real goal of the film is to get people to go out and meet their own farmers," she says.

"I know mine pretty well."

Join us after hours on Saturday, July 19, at 8pm for a screening of 'The Organic Life.' Casey Beck and Austin Blair will be in attendance. $5; farmers, free.


Artisan Producers, Modern Grange

Meaty Matters

Have you ever pushed past the Pilgrim and wondered why we eat turkey for Thanksgiving? How about: Because that's when turkey is in season.

Exactly. Just like tomatoes ripening in the summer, many animals have seasons of harvest, too. Cows and pigs mate year-round, but turkeys, goats, and sheep, for example, only reproduce at specific times of the year. Which means that, to be in tune with nature's cycles, we should only eat them at specific times of the year.

Patrick Martins would like you to know this and many other meat-related facts, rants, letters of interest, and first-person pig paeans as found in the 50 swift chapters that comprise his new book, The Carnivore's Manifesto: Eating Well, Eating Responsibly, and Eating Meat

A founder of Slow Food USA and of Heritage Foods USA, a purveyor and supporter of small producers who raise heritage animals, Martins has something smart, pointed, and pithy to say to everyone from vegetarians (stop focusing on the wrong problems!) to purists (there really is no need to make your own ketchup when Heinz already exists) to the meat-buying public (sleep with your butcher and hey, maybe your bartender, too).

Co-written with writer, musician, and all around heretic Mike Edison — the former editor and publisher of High Times as well as of Screw magazine — Manifesto seeks to delight, alarm, and inform while making the reader increasingly hungry for real food. Slow food should be fast, the authors insist. After all, a perfect pork chop only takes eight minutes to cook and needs little more than salt, pepper, and perhaps a slosh of good olive oil.

Martins and Edison bring their self-proclaimed Magical Meat Tour to SHED on Father's Day, Sunday, June 15, from 10:30am-noon. They'll reveal more from The Carnivore's Manifesto and share some Heritage Foods ribs to eat. Edison promises to tote an instrument (think: theremin; pray: guitar), planning to regale us with songs, naturally, about meat.

Ribs, rants, and antenna-u-ated music. What more could Dad want on his day?

In other meaty matters, we're happy to share the good news that Rian Rinn and Jenine Alexander's Sonoma Meat Co. opened to the public last week in Santa Rosa. We'll be purveying some of their locally-produced excellence in our larder soon.

Also coming this summer, look for SHED to be the only drop-off point in northern Sonoma County for Marin Sun Farms' CSA program. We'll keep you posted as we get more details.

To inelegantly mash-up book titles, the Carnivore's Dilemma is no longer whether to eat meat. As Martins argues, we were born to do it. The question is: Which meat to eat — and when? By sourcing locally and eating in season, you won't ever have to ask that question again. Bring on the local butchers, the fresh CSA, and the theremins!



Foodshed, Modern Grange

Jon Bonné Wine Panel: Taste of Place

"What's happening now in California wines is as significant as what happened to California wines 40 years ago," said San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné at his May 9 panel discussion at SHED. 

Forty years ago, Calistoga's Chateau Montelena won the 1976 Judgement of Paris and shocked the wine world. With the rise of the House of Mondavi, California wines were soon on the map. But they were of a certain type, often featuring a taste profile specifically created after harvest.

Joining Bonné onstage that evening were vintners Ted Lemon (Littorai), David Hirsch (Hirsch), and Duncan Arnot Meyers with winemaking partner Nathan Lee Roberts (Arnot-Roberts). Bonné hails them and others in his debut book, The New California Wine.

Hirsch proved to be the straight man on the panel, referring to wine critic Robert Parker's point system as the work of "one or two people who can count to 100 really well."

What's different 40 years on, Bonné said, is that the winemaking is really done in the field. These vintners' wines are expressions of their place, not articulations of a winemaker's overarching vision.

"California is making its case once again in a global context," Bonné stressed. "We're witnessing the true maturity of the California wine culture, resurrected after Prohibition destroyed wine in America — not just in California. There is a true curiousity and a true interest in the sense of place."

Sense of place dominated the conversation as each winemaker, led by questions from Bonné, discussed their "strange" grapes, often purposefully grown in stressed conditions, and the wine that results from them. 

"When I bought an old sheep ranch near Ft. Ross," Hirsch said, "it was a gift, because it's a Pinot paradise. The only wine I knew was from Burgundy, so I had no interest in making the big wines of the time."

Meyers and Roberts are childhood friends who grew up together in Napa. Meyers became a cellar rat; Roberts' father was a cooper. Eventually they began making their own wine. The pair don't own any land, but buy grapes from all over. The Clary Ranch vineyard they patronize, they say, "pushes Syrah to the limit," resulting in a "hallmark" wine that's not actually liked by everyone. That's OK, they said.

Ted Lemon also evoked the "sense of place" phrase, saying that even though Cabernet Sauvignon had defined California wines internationally, it didn't make a fit for his Sebastopol property and, when he and his wife Heidi bought the land, "a path based on the site just wasn't done." Not that that stopped them.

"It was evident to me that site was everything," Lemon said. "We found it crazy that, in 1990, we knew a lot more about the Pinot region of the Willamette coast then we did the area right around us."

Hirsch added, "'Big Flavor' was a marketing fad, but it wasn't connected to anything. The Big Flavor [of the ’90s] really created distance from the sense of place. Returning to the land allowed us to go back in time to when most of the wine consumed was made within 10 miles of home."

The rise of the Internet has had a satisfactory impact, each said in his own way. Lemon remembered that there used to only be two critics who mattered and wineries that went unreviewed had no "portal to entry" in the consumer's consciousness. Bonné hailed the wine bloggers and internet writers who have championed the lesser-known California vintages. Hirsch talked about the consumer almost as a painter would, saying, "the consumer is part of the circle of production because without the consumer, there is no end to the circle," just as painter might bemoan that without someone to view her work, the work remains unfulfilled.

Also on hand that night were five other wineries that Bonné profiles in New California Wines: Lioco, Anthill Farms, Copain, Limerick Lane, and Radio-Coteau. After the panel concluded, attendees had a chance to taste various Pinot and Chardonnays from these newer houses. None of them tasted like the other, regardless of vintage. Each tasted exactly, well, like itself.

It's a tight-knit group, Littorai buying some of its Pinot grapes from Hirsch. Ted Lemon  said at the panel's conclusion, "The highest compliment we can receive is that the Hirsch grapes we got from Hirsch taste like Hirsch."

Sense of place, the land's expression, new California wines.

Artisan Producers, Farming, Modern Grange

Michael Pollan and Davia Nelson at SHED


"The secret to good cooking," Michael Pollan said emphatically, "is good farming." A round of applause greeted that remark, the last of an hour-long talk we were fortunate enough to host with the author in conversation with The Kitchen Sisters' own Davia Nelson on May 3 at SHED.

Pollan was in town to promote the paperback release of his latest title, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Exploring the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air, Cooked took Pollan on a journey from barbecue to bread to cheese to fermentation. "As soon as you think about cooking," he explained, "you start thinking about transformation. All of my books are about that, actually."

As he began to explore cooking, Pollan refined his philosophy somewhat, realizing that by relying on corporations to cook for us — as, say, at a Burger King — not only are we doing our health a disservice, we are doing poorly by our very souls.

Along the way, Pollan says that he came to a greater appreciation of the role bacteria play in our health and our food. "Bacteria wants all the same things we do," he told the sold-out crowd at SHED. "Food and sex and babies." In researching Cooked, Pollan says that he delved deeply into the world of the "fermentos," those fermentation geniuses who do everything from brew beer to make cheese to coax kombucha and beyond. "Bacteria are our friends," he said, and "are responsible for our favorite things. Getting on better terms with bacteria was one of my main goals."

Fire, Pollan said, is directly responsible for the growth of the human brain over the millennia. As our brains grew, he explained, our guts shrank. Think of cows and how much energy their bodies devote to digestion, he suggested. Then consider their intelligence level. Spending less time processing food and more scheming to get food helped us leap forward evolutionarily.

Water and air inform bread, and Pollan soon found himself a man obsessed. He searched out the owner/baker at Tartine Bakery, Chad Robertson, and also made bread with baker Nathan Yanko (who now co-owns M.H. Bread and Butter in San Anselmo, which bakes SHED's bread). Robertson was then so protective of his sourdough starter that Pollan says he would take it with him on vacation. 

Host Davia Nelson hailed Pollan as the "George Plimpton of food." Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review, was known for his "participatory journalism" (think: playing pro football in order to write about it). Examples of Pollan's participatory journalism include his travails purchasing a steer and following it from field to plate. Along the way, he says that he came to understand why ranchers might use hormones to promote steer growth. One shot results in $50 more at the slaughterhouse.

Soliciting audience input, the conversation soon ran to children's lit versions of Pollan's books, distributed in schools, and the health care industry, Pollan pointing out that most hospitals still serve unhealthy food. "Ask your doctor how much nutrition training he or she received," he exhorted. "The answer will be in hours and minutes. Their training is in pharmaceuticals."

oEBgt1_Xf-k-WTa-UwLJAQM3RdfF5qK1jh_nrg32O2YBut he saved his criticism for food service corporations. "It was the outsourcing of our cooking to corporations that got us in trouble," he said. "When you layer fat and salt and sugar together, food literally becomes addictive. Cooking is the only way to take back control of our diet. It's a critical life skill. We need to teach our kids to cook. Ten dishes is all they need."

The talk moved to allergies and gluten. Pollan attributes the rise in celiac disease to the gluten that is added to commercial foods as a protein; now, it's even found in tortillas. "We are allergic to a lot more things than we used to be," he said, "this may owe to a general stressing of our species or to the community of microbes in our guts." Noting that Wonder Bread can now be made from yeast to loaf in two hours, he circles around to making your own food yourself. 

It's worth reiterating: "The secret to good cooking is good farming."


Artisan Producers, Chefs, Farming, Foodshed, HomeFarm, Modern Grange, Supper series

What a Difference a Year Makes

Today, April 16, 2014, marks the one-year anniversary of the Healdsburg SHED. We are amazed and humbled by the year we have just experienced and the community that has gathered around us at SHED.

Our aim with establishing this venue was to honor Healdsburg's rich agrarian history while celebrating the farmers, artisans, wine- and beer-makers, bakers, cheesemongers, artists, filmmakers, butchers, dancers, musicians, ranchers, writers, and other folks who make our area such an immensely satisfying place to live.