Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nocino, Midsummer's Day

It was five years ago that I tasted nocino for the first time, the Italian liqueur made from green walnuts. I was the sous-chef of an Italian restaurant in Portland, and we were buying salt and olive oil from Jim Dixon. He also makes his own nocino at home. It was rich and bittersweet, nutty, of course, but something dreamy, something full of mystery.

You'll find nocino throughout northern Italy, but it is still relatively unknown here in the States. I wanted to learn as much as I could about it, and make my own. As good fortune would have it, my neighbor across the street has a grand old walnut tree. I climbed into the branches with a basket, and after a few twists and scratches, had plenty of nuts to flavor some spirits.

The green walnuts are traditionally picked on the eve of the Festa di San Giovanni. This is Midsummer's Day, the 24th of June, and the time of year when the walnuts are starting to reach their full size, but have not yet started to harden. The shell and the nut inside the husk are still soft and white. I quartered the nuts, mixed them with sugar, some cloves, cinnamon sticks and lemon peel, then covered them with alcohol. According to the tradition, the mixture should be stored with exposure to sunlight for forty days, then filtered and drank deeply to honor the dead on All Soul's Day, November the 2nd (and throughout the winter months).

While I was researching different recipes, I noticed a trend. Many of the American recipes are pretty straightforward, simply covering the nuts, sugar and spices with vodka. The Italian recipes use grappa or grain alcohol. This facilitates a stronger flavor infusion, because of the higher alcohol content. Toward the end of the process, they add a simple syrup to dilute the proof of the liqueur and adjust the sweetness. I have certainly experienced the effectiveness of this method of infusion in the making of limoncello. Just to be sure, I made both recipes on the same day (St. John's Day, of course) to find out once and for all which renders the finer result.

For now, we wait. There will be a toast at my house on All Soul's Day. Come on over.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Let Them Eat Grass

A Home on the Range

This Sunday, the Park Kitchen team took a field trip just south of Scio, Oregon to meet our friend Joe Schueller at his ranch. Joe started Rainshadow el Rancho in 2001, and we have been buying pigs and rabbits from him since 2006. Joe has been working hard on a poultry processing plant for the last few years, and it is finally operational. We all wanted to take a closer look at his work on the ranch.

Joe keeps a diverse population on his ranch. He has a small herd of buffalo, a warren of rabbits, a few sheep, cornish hens, chickens and ducks (both layers and meat birds) and turkeys. During the construction of the processing plant, Joe's hogs have been raised on his neighbor, Claude's land. When they come back to Rainshadow, they will rotate on the pasture with the other animals. He has over 140 acres of pasture, and this is the primary diet of his animals. During our tour, Joe mentioned the writings of Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms, author of "Pastured Poultry Profits," as an inspiration to his own model of pasture raised farming.

There are a number of hatchling coops near the house. They stay under the lamps for the first three weeks before they go into the pasture. Then the chickens and ducks live in portable huts that are moved every day, so the animals have fresh grazing, and the manure is evenly dispursed. The animals are rotated in the pasture as well. The chickens will eat the bugs out of the manure of the larger animals and help to break it down, layering the nutrients in the soil. Once the soil is healthy, the environment is favorable for the growth of nutritious legumes like clover and lupine, dandelions and bluegrasses. This is the lifeline of the pasture. Once this harmonic balance is achieved, just letting the animals graze naturally perpetuates the pasture, which minimizes the cost of nutrient grain feeds, antibiotics to combat illness and malnutrition, and drugs to accelerate growth and weight gain.

The laying hens and turkeys have a more permanent residence, grazing under Joe's orchards of apple, cherry, plum and asian pear. The birds seem very happy there. Their eggs are delicious, and a bargain at $5 per dozen. This year will be the first for his Black Star chicken layers and Ancona duck layers. I'm looking forward to his first year of duck eggs and meat birds.

If you build it, they will come.

Joe began building the poultry processing plant on his ranch after twenty years in construction contracting. Joe said this was one of the most difficult projects of his life, in large part due to the difficulties of securing skilled workers for a small, rural project. After $600,000 worth of headaches and more than three years of work, Joe can process his own chickens, ducks, turkeys, game birds, and rabbits. Small growers and distant neighbors can bring their animals for custom processing as well. Today, small processing plants (less than five hundred head per day) are increasingly rare, but a great asset to everyone in the area.

This is Joe's wife, Karen in the doorway of their processing plant. The first room contains the funnels seen here for bleeding, as well as the scalder and plucker machines for poultry. When we were here, Joe had not yet acquired the wax tank for duck processing.

The poultry enters the cleaning room through a chute from the centrifugal plucker. The hangers hold the poultry by the head and feet, and the belt turns around the processing table. Then they enter the chill room, followed by bagging, weighing and freezing (unless they will be shipped fresh). With the plant running at 40% capacity, Joe said the electricity bill is about $450 per month. The economics of the small processing plant are challenging, but they cover the real cost of processing meats. Unlike their large scale competitor, the CAFO infrastructure is usually funded with tax dollars, and so is the waste treatment. Guys like Joe aren't using your tax money to sweep costs under the rug.

An Exceptional Breed

Joe has been raising rabbits, and they have always been outstanding. After a suggestion from a friend at OSU about cross-breeding, they have become the finest rabbits in Oregon. By cross-breeding three commercial breeds (Californian, Satin, and New Zealand), he has cultivated a rabbit that has good weight gain and a finer bone structure, which means a meatier rabbit that costs less than most of the competition. You can see the dressed weight written on these rabbits are all over 3 1/2 pounds! As with most of Joe's products, quality is high and prices are competitive.

The mighty buffalo roam in their own pastures. This is an entirely different scale of animal. There is about one bull for every ten cows, and right now Joe has a bull near 2,000 pounds! The average buffalo weighs about 1,200 pounds and dresses out to about 600 pounds of meat. It's nice to see the buffalo returning to American pastures. It's a rare sight, but Joe has a rare vision, and it's exciting to watch him bring it to life.