Scaling the PMA Fresh Summit

Right before the PMA Fresh Summit opens. All photos by Amy Sawelson

Right before the PMA Fresh Summit opens. All photos by Amy Sawelson

Since the first food show I attended back in the last century, I have donned my most comfortable career gal shoes shoes and trudged up and down the aisles of industry conventions at least a few times a year. I’ve been to them as an exhibitor– sneaking up onto stepladders to hang signs before the union workers can stop me and shifting from foot-to-foot in a booth at 3:47 p.m. counting the minutes until we can break down at 5:00. I’ve been an attendee, cruising the aisles like a shark, looking for the next hot thing and alternately seeking out the people I want to meet and dodging a few I want to avoid.

This last October 18th and 19th, I attended the Produce Marketing Association

Trade show architecture.

Trade show architecture.

(PMA) Fresh Summit convention in Anaheim, CA. It’s huge, with over 1000 exhibitors spread over four giant halls and hosts 22,000 attendees. The show floor is so big, that you could probably run a good-sized farm in the space. You walk in and are dazzled by the architecture of the booths. I say architecture because many of them have the square footage of a decent-sized house. The samples are plentiful and mostly healthy, people are open and positive and with 60 countries represented, there is an international vibe. There is a Mexican section, Guatemalan, Argentinean, Peruvian, Dutch, Chinese, Thai and certainly many more that I missed. Where to begin?

Exhibitors in the apple business are lucky, because mid October is prime time for new crop apples in most of North America. One of the new stars this year is Autumn Glory® grown by Domex SuperFresh growers out of Yakima, WA.

New apple obsession

New apple obsession

You couldn’t walk three feet into the hall without one of their  staffers handing you a wedge of this incredibly juicy, sweet apple. It has a light red striped skin and a mild, heirloom taste, but with firm, snappy flesh. Not too far away was a display of Envy ™apples, a New Zealand-grown variety I was already familiar with. Happily, they are now being grown in the Lake Chelan, WA area. They had been available for a short time during the summer from New Zealand and now with the Washington crop they are available in late fall as well. The Envy also has a light red striped skin and creamy-colored flesh that resists darkening. Both apples have a mild, complexly sweet flavor and an almost complete absence of tartness. Move over Fuji and Honeycrisp!

At other food shows, new companies and exhibitors are relegated to Siberia. At the PMA, one could hardly move through the ’newbie’ aisle the first day. Attendees were actively engaging in the booths to learn about new offerings. One of these new exhibitors was Volcano Produce,

GoldenBerries

GoldenBerries

a ten-year-old  grower, shipper and importer of certified organic produce. They also import exotic fruits from Latin America and are the largest importers of GoldenBerries (sometimes know as Cape Gooseberries). A bona fide superfood loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, these members of the nightshade family look like tomatillos with a papery shell resembling a part-open umbrella. But that’s where the similarity ends. The fruit is bright yellow, the color of a raw, fresh egg yolk and the taste is almost indescribable. It’s tart and sweet; a bit of tomato flavor, with some blueberry and grapefruit thrown in. I observed hundreds of people walk by the booth and most happily tried this unusual fruit and gave it good reviews. There were some attendees who had made a beeline to the booth expressly to try the GoldenBerries and inquire about availability. Volcano Produce principals Toni Rodosta and Ingrid Peñuela kindly gave me samples to experiment with. GoldenBerries caramelize nicely on the griddle with shrimp, onions, mushrooms and other vegetables. They also went particularly well with chicken baked in a sauce of tangerine marmalade, ponzu sauce and sharp honey mustard. With Thanksgiving coming, I’m thinking GoldenBerries will add a whole new dimension to cranberry sauce.

A few booths down I was intrigued by a very well designed display promoting a company called Go Green Agriculture located just north of San Diego.

Chef Javier Castro & Elena Sleiman of Go Green Agriculture

Chef Javier Castro & Elena Sleiman of Go Green Agriculture

They are a hydroponic grower of organic spinach, butter lettuce and kale. The Millennial-aged founder, Pierre Sleiman Jr., was a self-described science and engineering geek in college with no farming experience and came up with the idea of small, sustainable organic farms on the outskirts of cities. Go Green cultivates without soil and uses 80% less water than conventional farms. Sleiman’s goal is, “To be the first national farming company with a network of small farms that grow and sell produce locally with a brand that is recognized by consumers as ultra-healthy, premium-quality and always consistent.” Right now the company is selling direct to local restaurateurs as well as specialty markets like Gelson’s, Whole Foods and Sprouts. This company seems to be onto the future of farming.

I was frequently drawn to interesting versions of familiar fruits and vegetables. For example, colorful bell peppers are nothing new, but individually wrapped? Red Sun Farms, which is a  grower of greenhouse peppers, tomatoes and eggplant headquartered in Ontario, Canada, says that by wrapping the peppers individually as soon as they’re picked, shelf life is increased by several days. Not to mention this is appealing to the most fastidious shopper!

Individually wrapped bell peppers

Individually wrapped bell peppers

 

 

 

 

 

What’s more ordinary than romaine lettuce? Coastline Family Farms

Burgundy romaine

Burgundy romaine

is just about to bring to market burgundy romaine. It is a beautiful wine color down to the base and contains many more nutrients than regular romaine due to its high amounts of flavonoids and other antioxidants. Coastline has also come up with an interesting package for this colorful new romaine that allows it to be displayed vertically, maximizing impact on the shelf.

I saw a unique new potato called, Klondike Royale.

Purple-kissed Klodike potatoes

Purple-kissed Klodike potatoes

It’s has thin, golden yellow skin with what look like purple lipstick marks around the eyes. The flesh has a buttery flavor when baked and the skin crisps-up beautifully.

 

 

 

If there was a celebrity booth at the show, it was probably Babé Farms.
Extravagant radishes

People were standing about six deep to take a photo of their beautiful, unique vegetables. Red, pink and purple baby carrots; golden, green and purple cauliflower; extravagantly-colored radishes, stunning chartreuse romanesco and more.

Colorful carrots, radishes & romanesco

Colorful carrots, radishes & romanesco

 

 

 

Like the Louvre in Paris or the Uffizi in Florence, it would take a week to fully absorb all there is to experience at the PMA Fresh Summit. As a foodie and industry professional, it’s encouraging to see the tremendous amounts money and resources put towards feeding us Americans well. Yes, everyone participating is in it for profit, but the result is win/win all up and down the food chain. Purple Brussels sprouts, anyone?

Melon art

Melon art

 

Looking Sharp at the Encino Farmers Market

 

purple caukiflower

Too beautiful!               Photo by Amy Sawelson

I have not mastered the sharpening steel, so when my knives become dull, I take them to the Encino Farmers Market where a fellow named John Powers, a professional knife sharpener, holds forth. Knife sharpeners, like shoe repair people, work miracles with everyday items. They restore function to items whose function is diminished, making shoes like new and knife blades slice with deadly precision. The cost is modest compared to replacing shoes or knives, and it gives me a little thrill to bring these items back to life.

Romanesco

Romanesco Photo by Amy Sawelson

Best of all, the process takes about an hour, which gives me a good excuse to explore the market and be seduced by all the fresh and prepared offerings. This day, I practically shrieked when I spotted beautiful rainbow-hued bell peppers across the aisle at Enrique Acevedo’s stand. The colors of sunsets, these peppers start off deep purple and turn to orange and red as they ripen. Of course I had to buy some as well as some glossy green beans. My other great fresh finds were giant, fat carrots and very large purple carrots. I’ll probably slice them lengthwise into big, flat slices, roast them in the oven with a little olive oil than dress them with some aged balsamic vinegar.

Sunset Bells

I named these, “Sunset Bells.”
Photo by Amy Sawelson

My last purchase was Afghan flat bread called, bolani. They come in stuffed with several fillings including spinach, pumpkin, lentil and potato. The bread part is delicate and flaky.

Bolani

Bolani, my new obsession. Photo by Amy Sawelson

They claim the breads are low calorie and low carb and maybe they are, but they taste too good! The company,East & West Gourmet Afghan Food, Inc., also makes ten sauces including basil pesto, garlic mint cheese, sun dried tomato and sweet & sour carrot. Throw a piece of the bread on a griddle, spread on one of the sauces and that makes a delicious, healthy lunch or snack.

A Trip to the Market

I finally did something I have wanted to do for ages; take a trip to that superstar of all Southern California farmers markets, the Wednesday Downtown Santa Monica Farmers Market. Not to be confused with Santa Monica’s three other farmers markets—one on Saturday also downtown, one on Saturday at Pico and Cloverfield and one on Sunday in Heritage Square on Main St.—this is the largest growers-only

Santa Monica Farmers'Market

The Santa Monica Farmers Market scene on a beautiful November day                              Photo by Amy Sawelson

certified farmers’market in Southern California and the one that all the coolest chefs in town scour for the newest and best produce items available.

It was a beautiful, crystalline November morning as I headed from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Monica. It also was unnaturally hot for November—in the high 80’s. As I parked near 4th and Arizona at about 8:30, I saw energetic Santa Monicans scurrying away from the market, having already purchased their fresh treasures. The market is open 8:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., but I imagine the vendors would dismiss anyone who shows up after 9:30 as an amateur.

Squash & blossoms

Squash & blossoms      Photo by Amy Sawelson

The market is overwhelming for a newbie. Over 75 stalls of magnificent fruits, vegetables, eggs and some fish and meat. I walked around, head down, looking at all the fresh offerings, barely able to take in the parade of old hippies, young women in yoga wear and moms with toddlers promising their kids the “BEST” strawberries are just down the street. Every so often I would spy white-coated chefs or their staff purposely pulling hand trucks loaded with fresh produce destined for tonight’s menu.

Pineapple sage

Pineapple sage                                         Photo by Amy Sawelson

My first stop was Jaime Farms, where I was drawn to some greens with beautiful, long red flowers. “Pineapple sage,” I was told. They also had a supermarket of carrots in various shapes, sizes and colors, potatoes of all colors, root vegetables, greens and dozens of other items. The next stop was Harry’s Berries, where I succumbed to some Sweetheart Cherry Tomatoes with incredible flavor and umami, that incredible, rich, savory quality that foods like grilled meat and Parmesan cheese possess.

Tomatoes from Harry's Berries

Luscious tomatoes         Photo by Amy Sawelson

Harry’s famous Gaviota strawberries are heavenly tasting and at over $120.00 a flat, heavenly priced. In another stall, I picked up some Roysum plums after sampling these nectar-like fruits. In November! California really is golden. Heirloom garlic? I had to pick up a couple of heads. I bought some Albion strawberries which proved juicy and incredibly sweet and a little less pricey than the Gaviotas.

Roysum plums

The taste of summer in autumn                     Photo by Amy Sawelson

My only plan for the market was to meet up with my friend and business acquaintance, Jill Overdorf. Jill is a CIA-trained chef, all-around produce diva and Director of Business and Culinary Development for Coosemans Los Angeles Shipping, a highly respected source for uncommon produce that supplies distributors and culinary professionals throughout the U.S. Jill spends most Wednesday mornings at the market filling orders for customers and seeking out new trends and products. I tagged along for a while to soak up some of her expertise and to meet some of her vendors. Jill knows everyone worth knowing and the growers respect her knowledge and support. When I commented on the expense it must take for these growers to take their ‘show’ on the road, Jill replied with authority, “These are business people first and foremost. They do this because it’s profitable but they’re also driven by their desire to contribute to the food landscape of LA.  A number of the farmers grow things because local chefs have requested that they try unusual items like spigarello (a leafy green that tastes like broccoli sprouts), agretti (a thin-leafed Italian green that looks like chives on a stalk), aji amarillo (a hot yellow chile originally from Peru) and San Marzano tomatoes (a long, plum variety with low acidity, firm pulp, deep red color, easy to remove skin and low seed count). These are items that chefs couldn’t find and they have collaborated with the farmers to grow.  So while this is a business endeavor, it is also a community collaboration.” This gave me new respect for the growers. Maybe some start out with the dreamy idea of going back to the land for a simpler life, but clearly these farmers are sophisticated, resourceful and dedicated to contributing to the culinary scene.

Albion strawberries

Like candy                    Photo by Amy Sawelson

 When you get to see and taste such beautiful produce, it’s easy to forget about things like patty melts and curly fries. The care, the effort, the expertise that goes into producing these luscious fruits and vegetables really borders on art. Yes, produce at the farmers’ market is expensive, but this is artisan farming. Like sun dried tomatoes and ‘designer’ pizza from the 1980s, with time and luck, the products and techniques will trickle down so even more of us can enjoy them. Sooner rather than later.

 

Back in the last century, when I was a child, watermelon was strictly a summer treat. Those juicy, giant, 20 lb. ovoids full of black seeds and suitable only for parties, since they never fit into the average home refrigerator. Watermelons were the taste of summer and my friend, Betsy’s favorite fruit. As far as I was concerned, the other melons readily available in those days–  cantaloupes and honeydews– were something my mother’s friends ate with cottage cheese when they were on diets, which was regularly. That was then.

Golden Kiss

Golden Kiss. Photo by Amy Sawelson

Today’s new melon varieties live up to the sensuous reputation associated with melons. You can still get the rock hard, tasteless cantaloupes and honeydews if you insist, especially in winter, which traditionally is out of season. But growers have been developing amazing varieties that go beyond the usual supermarket assortment.

On the vine.

On the vine. Photo by Amy Sawelson

 

My obsession since last year are “Kiss” family of melons—Sugar Kiss, Summer Kiss, Golden Kiss and Honey Kiss grown and marketed by Sandstone Melon Co. Of these, the Sugar Kiss is my favorite. It looks like a cantaloupe on the outside with webbing on the skin. The inside looks like a cantaloupe, too, but that’s where the similarities end. The flesh is soft and unbelievably juicy, so much so that when you eat it down to the rind you can still squeeze some juice onto your spoon and slurp it up. The flavor is rich and candy-like—a perfect dessert even for chocolate addicts.

Melons fresh from the field

Melons fresh from the field. Photo by Amy Sawelson

The Summer Kiss originated in Israel. It’s slightly oval with yellow netted skin and juicy light green flesh. Its flavor is less flamboyantly sweet than the Sugar Kiss, but still a delicious treat. Try wrapping a wedge with a thin slice of smoked turkey or prosciutto, if you must. The Golden Kiss melon looks like the currently popular Tuscan melons with attractive green ribs and bright orange flesh. The Golden Kiss was developed from Galia and Charentais melons, which are popular in Europe. It has a firm, almost crunchy texture with intense aroma and flavor typical of heritage-style melons. The oval Honey Kiss melons have Chinese ancestry and were developed from the Hami melon variety. These have a slightly crisp texture, light salmon-colored flesh and a distinctively sweet honey aroma and flavor. Cut them into chunks and refrigerate for a delicious, healthy snack.

Photo by Amy Saweson

Photo by Amy Sawelson

According to the Sandstone website, these luscious melons are available June through October, but I suspect they will be hard to find soon. Get them while you can. Oh, well, we’ll always have the memories. And something to look forward to next summer. Forget the cottage cheese.

 

Destination: Burbank

 

 

Flipping through the extension catalog of the local junior college I spotted a Saturday class on “Supporting Your Local Farmers Markets.” The price was right (free!) so I signed up.

For an hour, the very knowledgeable and soothing Diana Rogers, manager of the Mar Vista, CA farmers market, talked to the group mostly about what makes a farm certified—a lot of paperwork and documentation of acreage, number of trees, variety of crops, etc.; organic (even more paperwork) vs. non-organic (which frequently uses organic practices but doesn’t bother with the oppressive paperwork) and the perils of genetically modified organisms (GMOs—a very polarizing subject). All very interesting, though not necessarily news to those of us in the food business. Then Diana announced that there were two buses waiting outside, so about fifty of us shuffled out and piled on like lemmings. By this time we were all getting to know one another and our eating habits—vegetarian, vegan, only consuming organic foods and various combinations thereof.                                            

Photo by Amy S. Landes

Photo by Amy S. Landes


Photo by Amy S. Landes

Art Deco fountain at Burbank City Hall         Photo by Amy S. Landes

After about 10 minutes heading east on the freeway, I turned to one of the vegans and asked, “Where are we going?” I knew the Encino and Santa Monica farmers markets took place on Sundays and Wednesdays respectively and for all I knew we were being kidnapped en masse. Finally, someone said that we were headed to the Burbank farmers market.

If you haven’t been to downtown Burbank for a while, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s a manageable size and borderline charming. There’s a very attractive art deco city hall and a small town feel, at least on a Saturday morning. The Burbank farmers market is in the parking lot next to City Hall. It’s fairly small as farmers markets go, but at 30 years in existence very well established. There’s something about a farmers market setting that makes everything look so appealing and appetizing. I bought glossy Blue Lake green beans and asparagus thinner than pencils, hardly exotic, but so tempting in that milieu. There was a very long line to purchase eggs. Granted, they were organic and from free-range, pasture-raised and presumably pampered hens, but after all, just eggs. But again, in that environment, as coveted as jewels.

Tempting Blue Lake green beans. Photo by Amy S. Landes

Tempting Blue Lake green beans. Photo by Amy S. Landes

That’s what’s so great about farmers markets. The most mundane produce, being sold by the people that grow it in a setting that showcases the beauty of the agricultural arts. If one didn’t have it already, one develops an appreciation for these fruits, vegetables and other comestibles as objects of glamour and inspiration.

 Burb leafy greens cropped

We all trundled back to our buses, loaded down with our prizes and a sense of culinary possibility. And maybe the thought that Burbank might be worth exploring further.

 

 

Beating Out the Local Fauna

 

 

What is it about backyard fruit trees that makes the fruit taste so good? Part of it is that, “back to the Earth” feeling when you gather your own food. There is no intermediary between you and your sustenance. No farmer, packer, shipper, distributor, no retail store. Just you and the tree.

 

My neighbor across the street has a couple of apricot trees. Sadly, apricots are one of those fruits that almost always disappoint when you buy them in a store. They’re usually mealy and tasteless due to being harvested before they’re ripe so they’ll endure long travel. Then the commercial apricots are put into cold storage, which murders their taste and texture and they wind up in the produce department, looking lush and rosy but invariably leaving much to be desired.

Photo by Amy Sawelson Landes

Photo by Amy Sawelson Landes

But the apricots from my neighbor’s tree, now that’s another story. Most years the birds and squirrels get to them before I do, but this year Michael called to me from across the street and said, “They’re ready.”

Photo by Amy Sawelson Landes

Photo by Amy Sawelson Landes

 

 

These apricots are tiny—not much bigger than a kumquat, but they are so delicious. Each one is juicy and flavorful, with a tidy pit that separates easily from the fruit. I always   eat them in twos and threes and marvel at how ingenious Nature is to create such a thing. And how grateful I am that at least this year, the local wildlife (and my neighbor, Michael) shared this backyard bounty with me.


The Packaged Produce Predicament

Organic specialty lettuces

Organic specialty lettuces

There is no right answer to this question: Is the trend toward more packaged produce a good or bad thing?

Way back in the last century, I spent a winter in New York City working as an intern at a display design firm. I was still in college, so I didn’t have a lot of experience yet as a supermarket shopper. New York was where I first encountered packaged produce. Back then, during winter on the East Coast,  lettuce, tomatoes and such endured long, arduous journeys from Florida (or wherever) to reach the local grocery store on the upper West Side of Manhattan. The iceberg lettuce was wrapped tightly in plastic. Tomatoes and broccoli were also encased in an armor of refined petroleum products. Even though this was before the current obsession with eating fresh, there was no way I was going to eat those sad-looking vegetables. Better to wait till I got home to California to make a salad.

Fast-forward to the 2010s. Most supermarkets and smaller grocery stores boast lush, inviting produce departments all year long. Whatever is not in season in North America can be imported from other sources, usually Central and South America. At the same time, there is more packaged produce found in stores—even items that are locally grown. At a Pavilions market in Woodland Hills, California I spotted a bag of green beans on which was printed, “Orange County Produce.” Orange County is 45 miles away. Practically the only way for those beans to be more local would be if they were grown in back of the store.  

What does this mean? A lot of the trend toward packaged produce even local in high season is in response to the increased demand for healthful ‘convenience’ foods like washed, bagged lettuce, pre-cut fruits and vegetables, ready-to-grill kabobs in sealed trays. But it goes beyond convenience. Now that consumers expect strawberries all year round, they need protective packaging more than ever to arrive on the shelf intact from whatever far-flung point of origin. Those delicate baby lettuces need containers (or bags) engineered to protect integrity and shelf life. In response, packaging companies came up with containers that ‘breathe’, allowing gases (oxygen and ethylene) and water vapor to escape, yet keep the delicate greens inside from drying out. Then there is the issue of food safety. Do you really want to eat berries or tomatoes that have been manhandled on the store shelf? Some of today’s clamshell containers have the added feature of being tamper-resistant so that consumers are assured that the produce within is safe and undamaged.

Cropped bok choyTJ asparagus

Stroll through the produce aisles and you’ll notice that produce packaging does more than protect from physical damage and prolong freshness. The package becomes a merchandising tool, providing not only nutritional information but recipe ideas and serving suggestions. Just what do you do with that baby bok choy you saw at Trader Joe’s? What is special about this bagged asparagus?– it’s washed and trimmed, ready to roast or barbeque. Whole leaves of kale may be healthy, but their preparation intimidating. A bag of washed, chopped kale with recipes for salads and sauté right on the package can inspire someone to try preparing this nutritious vegetable. That 1 lb. bag of golden, cubed butternut squash is just inviting consumers to bake it or turn it into a delicious soup. If you’ve even noticed whole butternut squash in the produce department, there’s a good chance you may have dismissed it as too difficult to handle.

TJ bn squash

Trader Joe’s bounty of packaged vegetables

The environmentally conscious among you may say, “Packaging for fruits and vegetables adds to waste and landfills. It uses up resources, increases our carbon footprint, winds up in that giant, Texas-sized ocean trash vortex in the Pacific.” All true. However, packaged produce makes it easier to eat a more healthy diet any time of year. It helps fruits and vegetables stay fresh longer. It educates consumers and encourages them to try new things, creating demand for variety, more produce and healthy options.

As I said at the top, there is no correct answer. But the question is worth pondering.

Who says Coca Cola isn’t healthy?

 

Florida oranges

Photo by Paladin

In principal, I am not a huge fan of the giant food manufacturing companies. In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked– mostly with a degree of professional satisfaction–   for many years in the business of marketing processed food and creating advertising for the foodservice divisions of such companies.

I was around for the birth of “Seasoned Fries,” which are French fries coated in potato starch or spicy breading so that when they are fried, they are extra crunchy, flavorful and even more irresistible. I wrote ads extolling the virtues of the “two fry menu,” plate coverage and added value.

However, that didn’t stop me finding perverse glee reading Eric Schlosser’s, “Fast Food Nation,” which is billed as, “The dark side of the all-American meal.” And I am anxious to read, “Sugar, Salt Fat,” Michael Moss’ 400+ page disclosure about how the world’s huge processed food companies—including Coca Cola—formulate foods that addict us to just the things that aren’t good for us. I like to think that I’m capable of working earnestly on behalf of big food companies while gobbling up criticism of them because I am so open-minded. Not unlike being a loyal American during the Vietnam era while demonstrating against the war.

But an encouraging story came to my attention via an email from the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). It reported an article in the Detroit News that said Coca Cola, maker of Minute Maid and Simply Fresh juice brands, would be purchasing and planting 25,000 acres of orange groves consisting of 5 million trees in Central Florida at a cost of over $2 billion. This will reverse a trend toward land for citrus production in Florida being used for development.  The new groves and the juice production will generate over 4100 jobs in the state. And think of all the oxygen those trees will generate for the atmosphere! The Florida Citrus Commission has been working on a study on Coca Cola’s investment.

According to the Associated Press article by Tamara Lush that appeared in the Detroit News, a preliminary draft indicates that, “Over a period of 25 years the expansion will add more than $10.5 billion — or $422 million per year — to Florida’s economy.” According to Coca Cola, the company purchases a third of all of Florida’s oranges.

Retro orange ad 8214347856_18f26338ae_m

Coca Cola is dancing and their stock has shot up to a record high.  They deserve it! All of this looks great for everyone involved. Florida agriculture, commerce, jobs, even (to a small degree) the environment. Here’s a food industry giant that is using its economic muscle to grow the Florida citrus industry as well as American jobs. As far as a win-win-win situation goes, it’s the real thing.

Now I can sip my Coke Zero with pride.

Good to Goat

 

goat at petting zoo

Photo by Kris Horvath 81

I was wandering around the Encino, California Farmers Market last weekend. It’s not huge as farmers markets go, but it’s always a good place to stop for culinary inspiration. I came upon a booth, Drake Family Farms , that was selling artisan

Drake Family Farms goat cheeses

Some of Drake Farms’ artisan goat cheeses

farmstead goat cheese. What stopped me was the tag line, “Where Every Goat Has a Name.” How cute is that? I couldn’t resist.

Until fairly recently, it was my opinion that goat’s milk and cheese pretty much taste the way goats smell. Several dozen designer pizzas and salads over the years later, I have acquired a taste for goat cheese. The slight tanginess plays especially well with sweet/tart flavors of salads with candied nuts and apples in them. And goat cheese melts into lovely pools of creaminess on a pizza.

Drake Family Farms was sampling and selling 4 oz. containers of chèvre in various flavors including lemon/pepper, apricot/honey, basil, French herbs, garlic, jalapeño and my favorite, herbs de Provence. It’s the little bits of lavender mixed in with rosemary, thyme, fennel, basil and savory that does it for me. It imparts an especially luxurious taste spread onto crackers, crumbled into a salad or as part of a toasted portobello mushroom panini sandwich. These spreadable cheeses are almost like flavored cream cheeses, except that they are handmade in small batches, and contain less fat, cholesterol and carbohydrates than regular cream cheese and more calcium.

Back to “Every Goat Has a Name.” Checking out the website, the goats do indeed have names and you can buy them (or rather their offspring) if you are zoned right and so inclined. According to the Drake Family Farm website, “All the goats have names and are registered with the American Dairy Goat Association. We love our goats and give them a very high standard of care. Goats are like dogs with individual personalities and we consider every goat a pet. The herd consists of Nubian, Saanen, Alpine, and Snubian Goats.” The Drake Farm was started in Utah in 1880, but the farm in Ontario, CA began about 28 years ago with 143 goats brought over from the Utah spread. Dan Drake is a veterinarian specializing in dairy cattle during his “day job” but his real passion is raising his goats and marketing their creamy, flavorful cheeses .

Drake Farms' Danny Elkin & Jordan Kalish

Goat cheese experts Danny Elkin (L) & Jordan Kalish

At the Drake booth I met employees Danny Elkin from Boston and Jordan Kalish of Woodstock, NY (an aspiring vet!) who were handing out samples and knowledge about the Drake farm and chèvre. They seemed to share the enthusiasm for goats and their cheese, despite the chilly turn in the normally warm spring San Fernando Valley weather. The labels on the cheese containers say, “Artisan Farmstead Goat Cheese.” Danny and Jordan explained that “farmstead” means made on the farm with milk exclusively from the farm’s own goats.  “Artisan or artisanal” is a cheese that is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, using as little mechanization as possible in its production.

Presumably with milk from goats with names.

The Summer of Sumac

In July of 1996, we were fortunate to celebrate a family anniversary in Aspen, Colorado. We had previously been to Aspen many times to ski, but never in summer. The locals were right. It is glorious that time of year. Aspen is known for great skiing, but it is almost as well known for its huge number of excellent restaurants. Many of these are very interesting, even delicious, but some are a bit too precious for my taste. Personally, after a long day in the mountains of hiking or skiing, I’m more in the mood for a perfect piece of roast chicken and pommes frites rather than a complicated dish with a long list of ingredients.

One evening during that magical week in July, we scored a local teacher to baby sit our young kids and took the opportunity to try one of Aspen’s wonderful restaurants. We selected one with a Mediterranean menu. I don’t recall the name, but that doesn’t matter. We sat down and a charming accented waiter came by to take our order. I was intrigued, where was he from? “Yugoslavia,” he replied. How does someone from Yugoslavia find their way to one of the most beautiful, remote locations in the U.S to be a waiter in a Mediterranean restaurant? I’m sure there was a good story there, but I thought it would be rude to grill him.

We ordered salads and our main course. I don’t remember much about the latter, except that it was probably fish (which I order often when I am out) and it was delicious. But the simple salad was a revelation. Greens, tomatoes, maybe some sweet onions dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and sprinkled with a spice I could not identify. What was that flavor? A little bit astringent, a little bit fruity, a little earthy, but clean. I finally asked our Yugoslav server. “Sumac,” he replied.

I had heard of sumac—usually associated with “poison.” Poison sumac, like poison oak has a resin in it that it an irritant to human skin. Obviously, this wasn’t the same thing. The sumac I was enjoying is a decorative shrub found wild in the Middle East and parts of Italy. The berries are dark red or purple and are ground up to add to all sorts of dishes—chicken, fish, salads, meats, rice, on top of hummus to add a bit of color and flavor. Sumac adds a pleasant tartness to foods, almost like lemons, but less acidic.

Greek salad with sumac

Greek salad with sumac

At home, my favorite way to use sumac is on my “everything-in-my-fridge” Greek salad. This is a very satisfying meal of fresh spinach leaves, Persian cucumbers (smaller and sweeter than the regular or English varieties), sweet onion, bell pepper, avocado, feta cheese and diced chicken. For the dressing I squeeze fresh lemon, a little extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle liberally with the sumac.

Tuna or chicken salad also get an unusual new flavor profile when you add sumac as do egg dishes or anything you’d barbeque. Something about sumac gives me a feeling of well-being. It’s just a little exotic and it really adds to the flavor of fresh, healthy Mediterranean dishes I love. Or maybe it’s that whenever I sprinkle sumac on food, I’m reminded of that simple, perfect salad during that perfect evening in Aspen all those years ago. And I still wonder about the young waiter who found his way from war-torn Yugoslavia to a posh ski town in the Rockies.