Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Things I Love About Switzerland (Part Three)

The world's greatest foods are produced in unique geography, the great hams of Spain, the whiskey of Scotland, the spices of India, and the cheeses of the Swiss Alps. Throughout Europe, the migration of pasturing animals is known as transhumance, and each region has it's particular ceremonies. In southern Switzerland, the ritual of transhumance is at the heart of the outstanding milk used to make some of the world's finest cheeses.

In May or June, when the snows have melted and the vegetation is lush and verdant, it is time for the migration of the black cows toward their alpine pastures for the hundred days of summer. These cows are called stacha in the Swiss dialect (or herens in French), meaning "to puncture," since they must battle each other to establish the hierarchy of the herd. This festival is called the Stachfascht, and determines which cow will be the queen for the season. Then the cows are groomed and decked with flowers, adorned with exquisitely embroidered straps and bells, and paraded up the mountain. This pageant is known as the alpaufzug (inalpe in French), and is commonly depicted in artworks, and painted on walls and facades of the chalets and farmhouses of Gruyere.

The summer days are spent in the pristine alpine pastures, and the cows are numbered to identify their various owners. My friends in the canton of Der Wallis (Valais), the Treyer family, have a summer cabin in the high Alps, and they often lease their mountain pastures for grazing. The luscious milk produced during these summer days in the high Alps is very rich in butterfat and herbal nuances, and has established the worldwide reputation of Swiss cheeses. In September, as the days grow cooler on the mountain, the herd is brought down before the snows return, and the celebration of alpabzug (desalpe) begins. For their triumphant return into the valleys, the cows are often immaculately groomed for beauty pageants, and twelve foot trumpets are sounded in their honor.

Regrettably, the variety of Swiss cheeses is little known in America. Generic "Swiss cheese" is often a cheap imitation of emmantal, a firm, sweet and nutty, unsalted cheese whose famous eyes or holes are created by carbon dioxide given off by the bacterial cultures during aging. Gruyere is also quite well known, a little more firm and intense than emmantal. Fresh cheeses like quark resemble the fromage blanc of France, and the outstanding double cream Vacherin Mont D'Or is creamy, with a washed rind, wrapped in a strip of bark for structure and aroma. One of my favorites is the tete de moine, which is a semi-firm, salty and sweet cheese that is made in small cylinders, and shaved into delicate curls with a clever tool called a girolle. The ancient Schabzieger had been made since medieval times, a thousand year tradition. The curd is powdered and ground with herbs like fenugreek and ziegerklee (shepherd's shamrock) before being pressed into little three ounce cones called stockli. At this point, it is a very shelf-stable condiment to be grated over any number of dishes and casseroles.
Most Swiss cheeses are best appreciated soft and warm. The croute au fromage is a rustic lunch of sliced toast and ham smothered with melted cheese, and if you like, a fried egg. It is a deep dish version of croque monsieur. The raclette holds a special place at the Swiss table. A half wheel of cheese is heated near the fire, or under a special grill, and scraped from the rind, served with warm, boiled potatoes, pickled vegetables, a few turns of the pepper mill, and a few glasses of the local fendant.
Undoubtedly, the quintessential cheese preparation is fondue au fromage. Fondue is served over a flame in a glazed earthenware or metal casserole called a caquelon. Grated cheeses are melted with white wine, garlic and kirsch, and eaten with skewers of cubed country bread, which you dip into the molten cheese and pop in the mouth while piping hot. The cheeses used are usually a blend of two or three, gruyere and vacherin, with additions of appenzell or bagnes according to your taste. The age and ripeness of the cheese is crucial to obtain the necessary smoothness in melting.
After the cheese has been devoured, there is often a brownish orange crust of caramelized cheese on the bottom of the caquelon. This is not some dreaded dishwashing chore, but the coveted pinnacle of the fondue experience. Use the skewer to peel the crust from the pot, and enjoy the slightly chewy, deep rich caramel snack the Swiss call the religieuse. It is named after the color of a nun's handmade garments, which it resembles, or perhaps the reverence with which it is eaten.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dew Magic

Last year was my first season making nocino, the beloved digestive elixir made of green walnuts. In Italy, the walnuts are traditionally harvested on June 24th. This is mid summer's day, the day of San Giovanni by the Catholic calendar. They say there is something magical in the morning air, the nuts are covered with dew magic. Well, this year mother nature was moving things a little slower than usual. The nuts were less than half their mature size on mid summer's day. I waited another forty days before harvesting. I didn't know if there would be any dew magic lingering in July, but I was willing to give it a chance.
I wanted to try some variations inspired by Jim Dixon. I would make my traditional nocino, but instead of flavoring it with cinnamon and clove, I would try cinnamon and vanilla. The first stage of making nocino couldn't be easier. You pick the nuts before their hard shells form, slice or smash them, and macerate them with alcohol. If you want to add flavorings, throw them in the jar as well.
Then you wait. I usually just set the jars out in the garden, exposed to sunlight for about sixty days. At this point, you need to dilute the alcohol level with sugar syrup. If you start with 95% alcohol, you will want to cut it at least 50%, but be careful of the balance of sugar and alcohol. It should be bitter, not sweet, and it should be a sipping drink. I like the balance at about 75 proof, but many people like it a little more mellow at 60 proof. It's up to you. After the flavors have fully developed, you'll need to strain it and discard the solids. There will also be a good amount of sediment, so filter or decant, or both. Then bottle it and finish a hearty autumn or winter meal with a nice digestif.
I had heard of another green walnut liqueur, but hadn't tried vin de noix until this year. As the name implies, this is a French variation using both distilled alcohol and wine. I was surprised at how smooth it was, and the flavors were very pleasantly balanced. I was expecting it to be very astringent and tannic, but that wasn't on the palate at all. The method is even more direct, since you use wine instead of the sugar syrup, you can mix everything in one stage. In fact, some people make their nocino in one stage using a lower proof spirit like vodka instead of hard alcohol, but the walnut infusion is not as good. The recipe is very similar, but the leaves are also used in vin de noix.

Now the jars are sitting patiently in the garden, soaking up the sun and the walnut's power. Although San Giovanni wasn't blessing the process this year, I hope I've captured a few drops of the dew magic.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Setting the Field on Fire

Chefs are always looking for great ingredients, whether they are new or unusual varieties of produce, or unique methods of cultivation that will entice their guests at the restaurant. For the farmer, it is a little more of a challenge to grow something little known or understood. First, they have to learn the particulars of how to grow it, often without guidance or counsel, and second, they have to inspire people to try it, use it, and buy it.
I feel grateful to work with a community of such creative farmers who are able to bring new products to market, and take chances year after year. Such was the case in 2006, when I first tasted a mesmerizing whole grain called frikeh, from Ayer's Creek Farm in Gaston. The story begins a few years earlier.
In 2003, Anthony and Carol Boutard bought a small thresher for their dry bean business, and decided to buy some concaves and screens for grains as well. Their dried beans are widely loved, and they had been considering growing some specialty grains. Although grain crops are aesthetically wonderful, the economics are often very difficult for a small farm. Wheat prices usually fall between $4 and $6 per sixty pound bushel, not nearly enough for a small, diversified farm. The Boutards are always looking for exciting new prospects, but they are very conscious of the fact that there must be an economic reality in the market for their enthusiasm.
Anthony and Carol are diligent in their research. Because they come from that ilk of farmers who actually eat from their own crops, they are often inspired by cookbooks, and had read about naked barleys in Jenni Muir's "A Cook's Guide to Grains." These hulless grains do not require pearling of their fibrous exterior for digestion, and are thus more nutritious and delicious than the hulled types. Specialty grains like farro have regained popularity in recent years, and command a higher price than durum wheat or barley, but the Boutards had become interested in harvesting green wheat. In the fields of Europe, they harvest hard wheat in its green stage, called grunkern. In the Middle East, they have an ancient tradition of parching the green wheat harvest, where it is known as frikeh, or farik. The Boutard's had read about frikeh in an online discussion of Paula Wolfert's "Mediterranean Grains and Greens," and they were hooked on the idea.
Anthony determined that "for a small farm, it was a perfect crop." With a harvest window of about three days, and being labor intensive with no domestic producers, the market price was feasible at $6 per pound! The grain must be parched during the transition between the milk stage and the soft dough stage, halting the conversion of sugars to starches. The grain at that point is still green, with enough moisture to withstand a flame. Despite this advantage, there is still an art to burning the awns all the way down to the tip of the grain, and then cooling the head before the grain gets scorched. Properly done, the crop is uniquely smoky, yet still sweet, grassy and nutty, with a pleasant toothsomeness.
Frikeh is traditionally used in salads like tabbouleh, or fried in minced meat croquettes called kibbeh. I like using it with delicious summer flavors, a grain salad with cherries, cucumbers and feta, or a late summer salad with grilled corn and chanterelles. My thanks go out to Anthony and Carol for bringing an ancient delicacy to life here in the Willamette Valley.