September 27, 2012

Hokkaido's Star Turn at Mitsuwa Marketplace

I managed to sneak away to Edgewater, NJ, today to catch my first Mitsuwa Marketplace fair. Hokkaido-Ten opened  this morning and runs through Sunday, and it's unbelievably fun for anyone who loves looking at and tasting new and interesting foods. If you've ever been to the Japanese depachika, the gargantuan food-stuffed basement wonders where regional festivals or celebrations of seasonal delicacies abound, this will feel reassuringly familiar. 

Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, is famous for its beautiful scenery and seafood. So of course there was tons of it the latter, as well as many varieties of kamaboko (fish cakes), spicy things, unusual confections, and melon soft ice cream. 

These are slippery seafood and shellfish preparations, including combinations
 of herring roe and rapeseed plant, and engawa (a part of the scallop) and wasabi.
Loads of dried mackerel of all kinds, and in the center, a Hokkaido specialty,
horsehair crab.
An abundance of king crab, a lot of it over sushi rice. Here, sea urchin,
delicately shredded king crab and some superior salmon roe.
Pollock , cod, and salmon roe, any level of spiciness you want!

The fair is pretty kabocha-crazy, too, which made me happy.  These cakes are made from a mix of pumpkin and rice flour, so they are chewy like mochi. All were delicious but I was partial to the one on the left, flecked with black sesame and filled with a kabocha custard and bits of the steamed pumpkin itself.

More kabocha: a traditional red bean manju confection is steamed, enrobed in pumpkin paste, and then wrapped again in pie pastry shaped to resemble a kabocha pumpkin. Happy Fall! 

September 25, 2012

In Napa, Wine Colors All

So about that trip to Napa. One of the things I found intriguing was how the dominant wine culture of the valley seemed to set the tone in quality and obsessiveness for everyone from chocolate makers to tea purveyors.

Just picked.

From our hosts at the Cakebread Cellars' American Harvest Workshop, we learned a little about the constant experimentation winemakers engage in to keep improving their product. Variables such as root stock; clones; time of harvest; whether the wine is barrel or tank fermented; Brix, or sugar levels of the harvested grape; tank temperature, the choice of native yeast vs. non-native, are all carefully calibrated.

This level of minute tasting and tweaking was evident in chats with representatives of Tcho chocolate. Just as Cakebread Cellar Master Brian Lee told us, "you can't make good wine with bad grapes," Tcho focuses on going to the source of their cacao beans and working with growers to improve plant genetics. They also strive to improve fermentation techniques and have created "flavor labs" that sound, in name at least, like the high-tech Cakebread lab where an infrared wine scanner has made measuring important chemical parameters in everything from freshly picked grape juice to finished wine a speedy 30-second process.

Nice packaging, Tcho!

Tcho further classifies its PureNotes single varietal dark chocolate by tasting descriptors: "fruity," nutty," "citrus," and detects "hints of red berry," mandarin oranges or roasted nuts, pointing out that tasting chocolate is an exercise of both "intellect and emotions." The maker liberally adopts the language of wine, but it's also closely tied to Northern California's other locus of power and influence, Silicon Valley; its founders are the people behind Wired magazine. So it's not surprising the company has devised an iPhone app to remotely control its chocolate lab, crowd-sourced the development of flavors, and connects with growers via the cloud.

Drink the Leaf's Dragon Eyes Blooming tea.

Another wine-influenced purveyor was Drink the Leaf  a Napa tea importing business started by Dan Ritzenthaler, a wine and restaurant industry veteran. At a tasting of Japanese and Chinese teas he gave for our group, I was struck by the uniformly high quality of his selection, how all shared a smoothness and elegance that is by no means commonplace in these teas. The palate of a wine person at work seemed obvious.

Ritzenthaler confirmed that his former focus on wine production and in restaurants prepared him for his adventure in tea. Not only is tasting paramount, but both share "great stories rich with history, farming, harvest, production, blending and the rituals" that accompany imbibing. Just as one would with wine, before launching his business, he says, "I studied well-known tea regions, researched varieties, tea estates blends," approaching it "as if I were producing a great wine." He and his wife continue to study and blind taste all of their selections, and Ritzenthaler notes that writing tea descriptions makes the same demands on the brain and palate as writing about wine. He's also seen the same "ah-ha" moment with tea that people have when first discovering wine. (For him that moment came with a bottle of Chateau Rayas; he still has the empty bottle).

Another example is Napa purveyor, Whole Spice, launched  in 2000 by Shuli and Ronit Madmone, who began by selling fresh-ground spices, herbs and blends at the local farmer's market. An online business followed, custom blends for restaurant and individual clients, an all-organic line. They opened their first retail store in 2009. I loved Cakebread resident chef Thomas Sixsmith's dish of Whole Spice vadouvan-dusted Devil's Gulch rabbit, which showed off the products of two purveyors in one dish and was served to us on the first night of the workshop.

The Madmones say that not only did their Napa location inspire them to create blends that work well with wine (herbes de provence salt, fennel salt and lime salt), they also blend per winery specifications, such as an ancho chili-thyme mix to pair with pinot noir for Bouchaine. Not surprisingly, the Madmones cook with spices often, says Ronit, noting, "We very much enjoy a white wine chardonnay."

Liam Callahan, Bellwether Farms

Winemaking may be a big influence on purveyors, says Liam Callahan of Bellwether Farms in Petaluma, CA, (makers of delicious sheep and cow's milk cheeses) but there are bigger and older forces at work. "There is something unique about the Bay Area and its love affair with great food," Callahan says, and it's one that "predates both Bellwether Farms and the high-end wines of our region." He's referring to the area's "incredible climate for food production," which gave San Franciscans access to the best and freshest ingredients, the raw material needed to develop epicurean tastes and standards.

"Once the winemakers of the region discovered how truly unique our vineyards could become they were able to cater to this local demand," Callahan says, adding that in the past 15 or so years, craft beer makers have tapped into this same market. Plus, he notes, the wine industry has the visibility to help purveyors "spread the word about our products because it commits so many resources to raise awareness of the region as a whole."

Okay, so soil, climate, a long history of great food, a food-loving audience, and an established wine-making industry with clout: It's all there, and it's all exceptional. It's no wonder none of us wanted to leave!

September 19, 2012

For a Day, Apples Rule the Roost at Astor Center

From a stinky "Sidra Natural" Basque cider, left, to Slyboro Ciderhouse's Old Sin cider, far right , a Cider Week preview.

For a brief afternoon yesterday, the grape ceded center stage to the apple at Astor Center.

The event was a trade and media preview of October’s CiderWeek in New York, designed to showcase the refreshing fermented beverage once brewed by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
The affair had the secret-handshake feel of a persecuted religious sect revival, where makers—many of whom started out as small apple growers trying to figure out how to stay relevant in a globalizing market-- shared not-so-distant memories of being “treated like complete martians” at wine events, or being asked at tastings “where are the doughnuts?”

All that’s changing, though. Sales of apple cider were up 23 percent last year, and the big beer manufacturers, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch included, have all bought stakes in the emerging market, according to David Flaherty, operations and bar manager at Hearth and Terroir Wine Bars and a blogger of all things alcoholic. 

The small artisanal producers are feeling the pressure to show Americans what the good, small-batch stuff tastes like before the bigs move in. Judging by the impressive selections they had on offer, as well as their enthusiasm, drive and ability geek-out on a par with the most hard-core winemakers, they could be on their way to becoming the next artisanal breakthrough product.

One delicious example was the Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider that Elizabeth Ryan of Breezy Hill Orchard is producing in weekly batches. Her brew, the color of Fuji apple juice, is unfiltered, unsulphered, and sold in 2-liter growlers at selected farmer’s markets. Typically the alcohol content of ciders is low; hers is about 6 percent, and its taste will become more robust as the apple season progresses and she moves from Empire, Ginger Gold and Honeycrisp apples to Baldwin, Winesap  and Jonathans. Ryan was still high on a 12-day visit she made to Cidrerie du Perche in Normandy, France, maker of a gorgeous cidre brut that has the signature leather and barnyard funk of classic cider tempered by floral notes.

Louisa Spencer of New Hampshire’s Farnum Hill Ciders said she switched from farming Cortland and McIntosh apples to grow European cider varieties. Not only have they thrived in the soil of the Northeast, she added, they’ve become hardier, more intensely flavored and better fruit-bearing than in native soil.

Bullish on the future of artisanal cider, Spencer added, “There’s no reason that we can’t become the Sonoma of cider.” 

September 15, 2012

Report from Napa Valley: Cakebread Cellars' American Harvest Workshop

I'm just back from an eye-opening trip to the Cakebread Cellars American Harvest Workshop in the Napa Valley, where the visionary Cakebread wine-making family has been holding annual confabs for chefs, purveyors, selected loyal customers and a few members of the press for 26 years now.

Artichoke in Dolores Cakebread's garden.

The idea of the workshop is to show invitees the intricacies of wine making, introduce talented chefs from across the country to some of Napa's top purveyors, and give them a chance to both taste and cook with those products. It's also an opportunity for rarefied feasting, fun and superior imbibing, though on our first day Culinary Director and Workshop Manager Brian Streeter warned us that the schedule he devised wasn't for sissies: our days began  as early as 6:30 a.m. and were packed with tours and tastings, as well as team-building civilian-pro cooking sessions.

Among the things we learned: that the valley's high-quality wine production across a wide range of grape varieties owes a lot to its rich array of soil types. Even though it's only about five miles long and an eighth of the size of the Bordeaux wine-producing region, Napa is home to 33 different soil "series," which account for about half of all the the types of soil found in the world.

Tortilla making for our Mexican breakfast in the vineyard.

Director Vineyard Operations Toby Halkovich

After a beautiful Mexican breakfast served in the vineyard, Viticulturist and Cakebread Director of Vineyard Operations Toby Halkovich described his job to us. The level of high-tech detail that viticulturists now have at their fingertips boggles the mind, at least it did mine.  Halkovich explained how seven weather stations plus various probes and meters on Cakebread's 500 acres keep track of dozens of indicators in its many micro-climates, from minute shifts in temperature and humidity to changes in soil moisture, root activity, gas exchanges, photosynthesis and water conductivity in the plants. He can call up the changing, detailed picture painted by these indicators on his iPhone or iPad, all of which help determine decisions on leaf pruning, irrigation patterns and harvesting. Then there are soil enhancers from fish emulsion and brewed, microbe-rich compost "teas" to what Halkovich called "bugs in a jug," which consume nutrients added to the soil and dissipate them evenly via their decomposing bodies.

Forni-Brown tomatoes in all their glory.

Some of my favorite parts of the Workshop were visits with purveyors. Forni-Brown Gardens in Calistoga produces 50 varieties of the best tomatoes I've ever tried, as well as microgreens for restaurants including The French Laundry. The organic gardeners try to keep up with chef Thomas Keller's admonition, "smaller, smaller!" Among the varieties they grow are micro daikon, arugula, cilantro, chives, red mustard, upland cress, basil cinnamon (the latter of which Forni-Brown partner Barney Welsh says "on lobster will knock your socks off"). When I asked Welsh what the secret to the garden's other-worldly tomatoes is, his answer: partner Lynn Brown "is obsessed with every detail" involved in growing them. It also helps to possess the kind of patience only few are blessed with, essential when it comes to growing those labor-intensive microgreens. Forni-Brown mostly supply restaurants but is open to the public for a plant sale once a year.

Cilantro microgreens

I'll be posting more pictures and reports and blogging more about purveyors and chefs who attended the American Harvest Workshop, so stay tuned!