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Fast track to 'Slow Food'
by Stephen Morris
Vermont is becoming a state for 'foodies,' - but can it ever match Tuscany?
In his other life, William Schubart III is a smart business person who has built his distribution company, Resolution Inc., into one of the state's most successful enterprises. In his other life, William Schubart is a civic leader who has served as chair of the Fletcher Allen board in the wake of the organization's recent turmoil.
In his real life, however, Bill Schubart is a guy who likes nothing more than inviting friends over to share a meal in his "off the grid" (meaning no electric power) kitchen attached to his Hinesburg home. Preparation starts months ahead, when wood is put aside for eventual cooking. He likes alder and apple for fish, cherry and maple for meat. Wood, according to Schubart, is a spice, not a fuel.
Tonight's menu features beef filet, ideally locally grown and grass-fed, though hard to find. In defiance of every hygiene and food safety rule you've ever heard, the meat is hung for several days at room temperature after being hand-rubbed with a mixture of tamari, vinegar, olive oil, and cheap brandy.
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Schubart starts the fire a good hour and a half before the cooking begins, then slow cooks the meat over glowing embers. If necessary he will supplement the fire with hardwood charcoal, but never, NEVER charcoal briquettes.
Schubart's kitchen has a total of five flues. He has a forward-flue, beehive style oven that reaches temperatures of up to 600 degrees and that can cook a chicken to perfection in little over one-half hour. There are two Chinese firepots, one for a wok and one, says Schubart, "for cooking small animals" like rabbit, one of his favorites.
"I'm not a sophisticate when it comes to food. I grew up cooking over wood with stoves and barbecues in Morrisville. I love high-quality local foods (probably too much), and I love to sample the local cuisines when I travel. Ironically, I find that often the best food is the cheapest." He cites as an example the stew that he makes with the cheapest cut of bone-in chuck. It cooks for up to nine hours in a broth that includes tamari, miso and fresh vegetables of the season.
Other items that might be on the menu, if you are ever so lucky to be invited to the Schubarts for dinner, include fresh ham cooked in the wood oven or venison squazet (a concoction of tomato, onion, white wine and a bit of chicken liver that traces its origins to Trieste, Italy). But leave room for dessert. The division of labor in the Schubart home is as politically incorrect as can be in Vermont. Man/meat, woman/sweet.
Among the specialties of Kate Schubart are Clafoutie, a confection of seasonal fruits that is, says Bill, "halfway between pastry and pudding." Another specialty is homemade vanilla ice cream adorned with prunes soaked in a sauce that includes French prune brandy. Mmm-m-m-m.
Welcome to Vermont Nouveau, where localvores (aficionados of all things local) mix easily with the cosmopolitan foodies and where the water buffalo mozzarella comes from just down the road and where the local general store has a healthy selection of Italian Barolos. Where a high-end bistro can be found on a dirt road overlooking a floating bridge in Brookfield and where the top breakfast joint in Plainfield has its own cookbook featuring recipes rooted in the Deep South. In the Vermont of not-so-long ago, "exotic" meant the popovers at the Dog Team Tavern, red flannel hash, or "the world's only salad bar in a bathtub" (the claim of a now-defunct restaurant in Northfield). The native cuisine was standard potluck fare back in those days - and still is - but the potluck of 2007 bears little resemblance to its forebear. Compare the potluck of 1986 to one held last summer in the remote recesses of Tunbridge.
The setting is bedrock Vermont, a hardscrabble hillside farm with steeply pitched hillsides plunging down to a pond, a small pasture nearby with a herd of sheep. It could easily be 1856 ... except for the fact that there are now more trees.
On the deck a small group gathers for dinner. For years a potluck had meant four tabooli and five macaroni salads, lots of green salads and brownies, all washed down with Genny Cream Ale from the keg. Tonight's menu, however, comes from a different planet. Hors d'oeuvres are cherry tomatoes of different shades and hues, fresh from the garden, stuffed with cream cheesy mixture of garlic and basil (ffg=fresh from the garden), cumin and sea salt. There is a tangy fig tapanade topped with caper berries that were purchased from L.A. Burdicks, a Walpole, N.H., restaurant/gourmet/chocolatier partly shop owned by Ken Burns of Civil War fame.
The main dish is roast chicken with bread salad, described by the hostess as the "signature dish of Judy Rogers of the Zuni Café," as if Judy Rogers should be as familiar a figure to Vermonters as, say, the Hot Dog Lady on Church Street. Don't go looking for the Zuni Café in downtown Barre. It's in San Francisco. The dish is redolent with the aroma of fresh thyme (ffg) and features croutons made from freshly made homemade bread. (Remember when croutons were what you made with stale bread?)
Accompaniments include Spanish potatoes, a spicy blend of local new potatoes (ffg), red peppers, paprika, chilies, and garlic, and a Persian salad, a chopped and nicely spiced blend of about eight different "ffg" ingredients.
Dessert is a fresh fig filo tart. Yeah, figs again! That's the risk with a potluck; dishes may overlap. The tart is made even more decadent with a dollop of either strained, imported Greek yogurt or sheep's milk yogurt from the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. just over the border in New York State.
No Genny Cream, but there is alcohol. The wine selection features a Californian Pinot, an Italian Chianti Classico, and a reserve Chardonnay from the tiny Husch Winery in Mendocino County. Beer is from the nearby Harpoon Brewery. Coffee is fair-traded, shade grown, organic from Equal Exchange served with certified organic raw milk.
The dairy farmer from up the road a piece does not bring a food dish, but provides a magnificent centerpiece of red beebalm set against variegated hosta leaves, with whimsical shoots of bittersweet soaring playfully above it all. Yes, he's totally organic.
So, what is significant about this food scene? Ironically, in the quest for all things local, organic, and renewable, Vermonters are seeking something the state already achieved a 150 years ago. In the mid-19th century, all food was organic, even the basics like grain. All food was local. Petrochemical fertilizers and herbicides had yet to be invented. Many towns had their community greenhouses for season extension and their farmer's markets. Many towns had the equivalent to Burlington's Intervale.
At the time of the Civil War, Vermont was known as the "breadbasket of New England." But that changed as the railroads moved west to states that had up to six feet of topsoil that could be plowed into furrows that might seem as long as Lake Champlain.
Grain farming migrated quickly to the West, much as "making things" has recently migrated to China. Vermont was left with farms that grow things that somehow can coexist with rocky soil and sub-zero temperatures.
Not even the most rabid localvores want to turn the clock back to the traditional, limited spring diet of turnips, potatoes, dried apples and pumpkins that the Vermonter of yore faced. The task today is to have the best of all worlds. Vermonters want their food fresh, locally grown and, increasingly, they want it "slow."
"Slow" is the culinary buzzword that suggests all sorts of healthy, social and economic things in the food world. It has achieved "movement" status, as in: "The Slow Food Movement." It even has an official organization.
Slow Food International was started by an Italian activist, Carlo Petrini, in 1986 to protest the opening of a McDonald's near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Petrini wanted to draw attention to the rapidly disappearing food traditions of his native country. Just as plants and animals can become extinct due to loss of habitat, pollution or resource depletion, so can nuances of taste. Moreover, the loss of "gustatorial biodiversity" can have devastating effects on local cultures and economies. "Slow," by the organizational definition, extends beyond the palate to include the health of the individual and community.
For those not inclined to think of it terms of biodiversity and social justice, it can be just as effective to view "slow" as the polar opposite of "fast." Your average Big Mac is a vestige of a cow that was raised on the clear-cut rainforests of Brazil. The finished product is industrial, homogenized, sterile, and above all, standardized. It is served in an environment that obliterates any differences between Bangor and Beijing and is designed to be operated by minimum-wage droids.
Now, the opposite. You are in France, in an outdoor café in a hilltop town in Provence. In front of you is an assortment of olives, cheeses and sausages. Every item was created in this one village, including the crusty bread still warm from the brick hearth. The wine that you sip has no label on its bottle, as none of it is ever shipped outside the town. Now you know "slow."
Slow Food has struck a responsive cross-cultural chord. The organization now claims 80,000 members in 50 countries. Although the United States was, well, slow to embrace the concept, Slow Food USA now counts 12,000 members who subdivide into more than 150 local "convivia," volunteer groups, that organize harvest dinners, farm tours, cheese tastings and potlucks.
The mission of Slow Food is in transition, according to Erika Lesser, the executive director of Slow Food USA. "Our mission has evolved over the years, beginning with the ideals of old-school gastronomy (long lunches, good wine) in the late 1980s to a new concept of 'eco-gastronomy' (biodiversity and pleasure on the plate)." The organization's current mantra is "good, clean and fair food," a systems approach to food that incorporates politics, social justice and new definitions of quality.
It sounds like a contradiction, but Vermont, compared to other states, is becoming "slow" at warp speed. Think of what didn't exist 20 years ago: the New England Culinary Institute, Vermont Fresh Network (a collaboration of restaurateurs, small-scale farmers, and specialty-food producers), 31 farmstead cheesemakers, 17 microbreweries, nine wineries, numerous bread bakers, and even a half dozen specialty coffee roasters. In a generation Vermont has gone from a culinary wasteland to a great place to eat. The question is "how great?" and to what extent Vermont should and could become the "slow" state?
Some of the state's greatest business successes in recent years (think Ben & Jerry's, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Cabot Cheese) have had the palate in common. When we peer into the state's future, do we see a place where the hardscrabble farmer has been replaced by the farmstead cheesemaker and the ubiquitous Holstein has been joined by a menagerie that includes goats, sheep, llamas, alpacas and water buffalo? And should our political leaders be trying to encourage what the marketplace is saying? Will Vermont become the place to eat, drink and be merry?
Bill Schubart, who is not a food industry professional but who wears the label of passionate amateur comfortably, experienced his personal "Eureka!" moment in Manhattan at the renowned Dean & Deluca gourmet grocery store. He asked for a sample of their best sheep's cheese and was served a delightfully creamy morsel. Inquiring about its origins, he was delighted to learn that it originated not in Provence or Tuscany, but at Major Farm in Putney, Vt. He gladly paid the $22.95 per pound for a half-pound, a small price for a large pleasure. He did a quick calculation and concluded that the farmers at the Major Farm were receiving approximately $8 per pound for their product, compared to the $0.12 per pound that a conventional dairy farmer receives for commodity milk.
Schubart serves on a Hinesburg town committee that is looking into ways to strengthen the distribution loop for local agricultural products. His involvement is part of a grassroots effort in communities across the state. While he sees plenty of activity with small-scale producers in the marketplace, he sees a disconnect when it comes to the state agencies for agriculture and tourism. "Vermont is half-in and half-out of the Slow Food movement. Our state government is struggling so hard to find the palliatives for commodity farmers (who are) looking to compete in the world of agribusiness, that they are overlooking what can be done to help Vermont become a destination food Mecca." The strategy of staying competitive in commodity markets is one - Schubart believes - that will never be successful. "In Vermont our labor is expensive; our energy is expensive, and our hillside farms can never compete with the mega-farms of the Midwest and elsewhere."
Tom Bivins, executive chef at the New England Culinary Institute and a board member of Vermont Fresh Network, concurs. He has recently returned from Turino, Italy, where he attended two "slow" events, the Salone de Gusto, a consumer-oriented celebration of the pleasures of food and beverage, attended by more than 150,000 food-loving hedonists, and Tierra Madre, an invitation-only affair that brought together the movers and shakers of what has become farm-to-table advocates.
"Slow Food is a revolutionary concept so simple it's beyond genius," Bivins says. "When we can replace the iniquitousness of fast food with the sanity and health of slow food, then more than just a food movement will succeed. This organization brings together farmers' collectives, co-operative food movements, traditional food producers and small-scale beverage producers with their economic partners - restaurateurs, chefs, nutritionists, environmentalists and consumers. Eventually, this will give the academics and politicos an alternative vision to return food production to sane and sustainable production practices."
Bivins adds more strong words:
"Slow Food focuses our attention back on the producer and the consumer, and away from the food commodities geo- market, bankers and lobbyists; back to the local farmers markets and away from the international commodities market; back to local and indigenous people instead of multi-national corporations; and back to environmentally sustainable farming practices rather than slash, burn, and exploit agro-fascism and ecological nihilism."
Just where is Vermont on the food map?
Provence, France, is on the same latitude as Vermont, but it boasts lots of sunlight per year and topography that includes 900 kilometers of Mediterranean beaches and the French Alps. It includes the cities of Nice, Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence. The region has a population approaching 5 million and is roughly one-third the size of Colorado. Of note is that Provence has appellation d'origine contrôlée, which translates as "term of controlled origin," an important agricultural certification. It is granted to certain French geographical indications for wines, cheeses, butters and other agricultural products, by the government.
"Vermont" has its own cachet, but Provence gets the nod when it comes to respect for food.
Tuscany was founded by the Etruscans in the 11th century BC. Vermont at that time was probably still under a glacier. Like Provence, Tuscany is larger and more populated than Vermont. It has 3.5 million people spread across its territory. It is dotted with small farmsteads, Medieval castles and more than 1,000 wineries. In addition to its wines, cheeses and artichokes, Tuscany is known for its fine cigars.
In the Chianti region, visitors are treated to rows of grape vineyards alternating with rows of olive trees. The native cuisine is deceptively simple, often consisting of two or three main ingredients, so spectacularly flavorful that they require no convoluted spicing or preparation. Naturally, the sun shines constantly, and small open air cafes and local markets abound.
Hm-m-m ... 1,000 wineries compared to 9 in Vermont; the winner is Tuscany.
In the United States, Napa/Sonoma is a favorite destination for tourists, many from Europe. The two counties combined are roughly half the size of Vermont with approximately the same population. Of course, there, as in the other great culinary regions, the sun pours down relentlessly - as we Vermonters are spinning our way into snowy or muddy ditches.
This area is famous for its wines, and boasts ... gulp ... more than 700 wineries. OK, we get it. Vermont is not yet a world class destination food region.
Marialisa Calta, a food writer, whose work appears in such publications as Gourmet and The New York Times, is the rare Vermonter who is just back from a visit to Tuscany. In an e-mail message she wrote: "The growers/producers of Vermont are equally dedicated to producing high-quality foods as their Italian counterparts, but the consumers here, and elsewhere in the United States, have a long way to go to reach the level of enthusiasm and appreciation (notice that I did not say 'sophistication') of the Italian or French consuming public. I visited France a few years ago, and my cousin, an office worker, waxed poetic about a certain cheese made when cows are grazed on clover instead of grass. This fine discrimination and enthusiasm is only found here in 'foodie' circles."
Calta describes a visit to an "agritorismo" in the Italian Alps where the residents made their own wine and sausages, raised their own animals and grew their own produce. "What struck me is that the farmers there don't have to scramble for basics like health insurance, because they get so much government support. The farmers I met there worked hard, but seemed less harried and anxious than small farmers here."
It's true. Whenever organic farmers in Vermont get together, it seems, they compare notes on what second and third jobs they are working.
An interesting comparison, from a culinary perspective, can be made between Vermont and its neighbor to the north, Quebec. While Vermont's leadership has dallied with portraying the state as a gustatory destination, Quebec's has not. "The vision in Vermont has been inconsistent," says Schubart, "while in Quebec they've developed a real strategy that ties the regional identity to high-quality, delicious food. Cross the border to the Atwater or Jean Talon Street markets in Montreal, and it's like shopping in Paris." Both Montreal and Quebec City have established themselves as eating destinations on the order of New Orleans or San Francisco. Vermont, so far, has no comparable appeal.
Still, the advances have been dramatic, and in the right direction. "Vermont has been working diligently to become one of the great artisan food production areas in the United States," says Bivins. But we can't quite claim to be world class yet: "When every town has a local butcher, patisserie, boulanger, fromager and local farmers are selling to their local communities, and we're all eating locally purveyed wild foods, then we will rival Tuscany and Provence."
But don't underestimate this state, he stresses. "Vermont is a tough little competitor, especially when it comes to great cheeses and organic products. "Besides," he says with a wink, "thanks to global warming, Vermont promises to become the next great wine region."
The successes of Ben & Jerry's, Cabot Cheese and Stonyfield Farms in neighboring New Hampshire all point to the regional strength of dairy. Ellen Ecker Ogden is a food and garden writer from Manchester who has spent much of the past year criss-crossing the state for research on her upcoming book, "The Vermont Cheese Book." She also serves as a coordinator for the Vermont Cheese Council.
Ogden sees a bright future for Vermont in specialty cheese. "The landscape often defines the agriculture of a region, whether it's crops or livestock. The French word 'terroir' describes the impact that geography can have on a food product. Vermont's terroir is evident in naturally aged cheeses that reflect the commingling of healthy pasture and the natural spores that form on the cheese to create characteristic flavors."
If Vermont is not yet world-class, it is at least "hemisphere-class." At the most recent American Cheese Society Awards held in Portland, Ore., this past July more than half of the Vermont cheese submitted won an award. Cabot Creamery took home "Best of Show" with its cloth-bound, naturally-aged cheddar.
Great cheese regions, Ogden points out, do not crop up overnight. "It often takes several years of experimentation for artisan and farmstead cheese makers to successfully match a cheese recipe, culture and technique to the milk of their livestock," she says. "Dedication to the health of the land, which in turn results in a well-tended flock, is critical."
High quality milk, she points out, is the starting point for superb cheese, she says, and Vermont has high quality milk.
Even with 150 varieties (and counting) of cheese being made in Vermont, the state is not yet a threat to France which has 400. However, in combination with the microbreweries, bakeries, organic farms and fanatical foodies like Bill Schubart and the participants in the Tunbridge potluck, it's clear that Vermont's culinary reputation is on the rise. If the present growth rate continues, look out Tuscany! This is a state fast becoming slow.
Stephen Morris is the founder of The Public Press and the editor/publisher of Green Living (greenlivingjournal.com). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Published February 25, 2007
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