Monday, December 31, 2007

An Autumn Afternoon at Eccolo

This is the first in a handful of posts that will fill in some gaps from last year. Posts that didn't quite happen, thoughts that didn't get expressed. If I was sure there would be 10 of them, I could call them the Top 10 Missing Posts of 2007.

In the third week of September, I headed to 4th street in Berkeley to pick up my son's birthday gift. It was late afternoon, sunny and mild, I was feeling like an escapee. I'd ducked out of work half an hour early. I walked past the patio of Eccolo where Christopher Lee was sitting at a table under the trees, in his chef's whites, with a glass of something. I think he may have even had a towel thrown over one shoulder.

I had preconceived notions about him that this still-life complicated in unexpected ways. My wife worked as a busser at Chez Panisse while Chris Lee had been there. I understand that he established the tradition of serving fried chicken there on Martin Luther King Day. A few years ago, someone told me that his salumi depended on a nitrite crutch.

I can't even tell you what a nitrite crutch is, let alone if the claim is true. Blogs make fragments of description like this public, at least findable, without any journalistic imperative on the part of the author to address their veracity or implications. Mario Batali was getting at this when he wrote that he hates bloggers:
Many of the anonymous authors who vent on blogs rant their snarky vituperatives from behind the smoky curtain of the web. This allows them a peculiar and nasty vocabulary that seems to be taken as truth by virtue of the fact that it has been printed somewhere. Unfortunately, this also allows untruths, lies and malicious and personally driven dreck to be quoted as fact.
An equally one-sided assessment of traditional media would have to address it's proximity to corporate dollars, an almost mechanical objectivity that keeps the discourse in the shallows, and a tendency to reduce human complexity into a handful of quotes. There's something to be said about the currency of personal professional relationships too.

However little it matters, what I felt when I saw Chris Lee that day was that he'd made it about as much as a chef makes it. That the scene was a kind of perfect. I'm not saying I'm right, or that it means anything, but I was happy for him.

Photo Credit: Ingrid Taylar.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Release Day: St. George's Absinthe Verte

This past Friday I stuck out the three hour wait and picked up four bottles of the first legal batch of absinthe produced in the United States in nearly 100 years. The parking lot at St. George's Spirits was sliced by a line of a few hundred people. I saw my plumber there, along with a guy who used to work for me, a woman who works at Speisekammer, and a handful of other familiar faces from around the East Bay.

The wait began a few weeks ago when a friend forwarded me a link to this New York Times article on absinthe's comeback. Laboring under the delusion that absinthe was still illegal in the states, I was unaware that two european brands (Kubler & Lucid) had been on sell for months. With the ban lifted, and after years of experimentation, the folks at St. George's Distillery in Alameda would be bringing theirs to market on December 21 - which just happens to be my birthday.

I'd had some serviceable absinthe at a party in New York during the summer of 1997, listened a year later as a friend described being served homemade absinthe at a party in Berkeley ("My senses all stopped working sequentially, like lights going off on the bridge during an attack on the Star Ship Enterprise..."), and with both of these things in mind I passed on some that a friend had "scored" online. Still, I was intrigued and I was not the only one.

The San Francisco Chronicle published an article on St. George's absinthe efforts. Googling turned up blog posts, announcements on Yelp!, and a thread over at the Republic of Absinthe forums.

So, just before lunch I made the short trip from my employer's offices on the island of Alameda, over to St. George's Spirits. My first inkling of what I had gotten myself into came as I pulled into the parking lot. A line of 200 to 300 people snaked out from the door, through the lot, and out through the gate. Through the gate.

The line moved five people at a time
As people came out with multiple 6-bottle cases, we learned there was no bottle limit. Of the 3,000 or so bottles that had been released in this batch, only 1600 were available. The line gasped audibly as a guy came out with a dolly-load of cases. Spirits were bolstered when people came out with single bottles wrapped in popcorn bags. The line constantly assured itself that the staff would let us know if there was no hope, that a limit might be imposed as supplies dwindled. The length of the line seemed to always be right around two hundred people.

We wondered what the street value of a bottle would be by the end of the week as women dressed in militaristic uniforms (with absinthe spoons in their pockets) came out to pour the line hot chocolate. While the Bay Area Bites blogger who posted on the release didn't flash their press credential, the line seethed at a woman who did flamboyantly flash hers. This prompted a group of guys near the front of the line to shout that they were part of the Photoshop development team, and that a swap for software was not out of the question.

Entirely Worth It
We drank some with our friend Jenny that night, dropping water into our glasses one drop at a time. It was thicker than we'd expected, very complex tasting. Each drop trailed oily legs through the glass. No one claimed hallucinations, though the flames in our fireplace seemed brighter than usual to me. I also dreamt that I could see through the blanket I'd pulled over my head.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Lablabi Is Very Tunisian

I'd been meaning to post a follow-up entry on lablabi for a couple of weeks now. Turns out my original post ran roughshod over the dish, by attributing it to Algeria rather than Tunisia. The friend who introduced me to lablabi pointed my gaffe out this morning, and observed that a Tunisian friend of his wanted this corrected ASAP - by the Eid certainly, or a fatwa would be forthcoming. Edits made, I'll include this handy map:

I also considered a Jam Phat style chart or graph on where they make lablabi and where they wouldn't dare. I'll go with one of the classics instead:

Here's the thing I wanted to say about lablabi - if you make mediterranean food a couple of times a month you almost certainly have what it takes to whip up a bowl of it lying around your kitchen. And yet it will taste new. This overlap was the point, really, of Mario Batali's ill-fated cooking show Mediterranean Mario.

Or to put it another way, some of you know that I toiled briefly as an independent video game developer. I play video games rarely these days but I do still follow them, and I do still read Penny Arcade - a webcomic and blog that focuses on video games. In one of their blog entries, they discuss open source digital video recorders and offer up that most people reading could probably make one out of stuff they have in their closet. This is how I feel about my readers and lablabi.

Editor's note: At the risk of starting another international incident, I can't let mention of a fatwa pass without sending you here.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

One Last Day Of the Dead Photo: Axel's First Calavera

The colored wax on this skull was more vibrant a month ago, and it's starting to dissolve around the edges. Still, it is my son's first art project and there was no way it wasn't going to be photographed. Just in time too, I've started to see ants in the kitchen.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Making Tortillas on El Dia De los Muertos

Not sure why I'm posting these photos now. They were shot at this year's Dia De los Muertos festival at Oakland Museum. I've had Oaxaca on the brain for a couple of years, and the New York Times "36 Hours in Oaxaca" caught my eye over the Thanksgiving break. Tonight we stopped at Cancun Taqueria on the way back from Tilden Park. Who knows, next I'll probably be posting my long-overdue review of Tamarindo.

Close-up of corn being ground into paste on what I want to call a molcajete. Not sure if a molcajete is ncessarily round-bottomed or not.

One of the things that stayed with me after the festival was the way that you would notice someone's painted face on a second or 3rd glance, through a crowd, or after you'd already photographed them grinding corn for tortillas.

Don't remember exactly how this corn kernel basket worked, but the cheap irony of the little girl wearing a Cornell shirt lingers on.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lablabi: Something New to Do With Your Turkey Carcass

On Friday we were invited to a Tunisian breakfast that our host described as a poultry broth with cumin over day-old bread. Only in this case he'd be using the turkey carcass from his Thanksgiving dinner. I phoned back to say that Amy had plans for a bike ride, but that it sounded right up my alley and that Axel and I would be there with bells on.

We met our hosts recently, and knew that both of them had spent time in northern Africa. First with the Peace Corps and then later to work on a documentary in Sierra Leone. Their twin girls are one month older than Axel. It was cold Saturday morning, Forty-one degrees when we piled out of the car and up the steps to their house. I could smell turkey broth through the front door.

Lablabi was as described but also included ras el-hanout, olive oil, lemon, capers, olives, harissa, and diced onions. Some of these were on the table as we sat down, and others appeared as Rob remembered them. He offered up that a more authentic version would also include a soft-boiled egg, that his non-traditional addition of choice is avocado, and that "ras el hanout" translated literally into "head of the shop".

You can dig up a handful of lablabi recipes through Google, but nowhere near the number of results you get for —say— tagine. I'm guessing there would be more recipes out there if the dish required some specially-shaped pot that Sur La Table et al could sell you. I'll be trying a version this week with a chicken carcass, and might have more to say about the various recipes then.

You can watch a video of the dish being prepared —egg and all— here.

Images are courtesy of, and linked to, and respectively.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Night Before Thanksgiving and No Wine

Somehow, despite my well documented interests and habits, the 21st of November arrived and we had no wine appropriate for Thanksgiving dinner. Last year, we nipped this problem in the bud by hosting a kegger. But we'd committed to bringing something red and something bubbly this time around. So at 6:00pm on the day before Thanksgiving, Axel and I headed down to Lakeshore Avenue with a $50.00 budget.

This didn't necessarily mean that I was phoning it in. On the north side of Lakeshore Avenue, across the street from Blockbuster Video sits the shoe-box sized Buckingham Wine and Spirits. You can drop by there now and pick up a bottle of Opus One or Silver Oak, something from Praeger Port Works, or a bottle of Rosenblum's Rockpile Road Zinfandel. Until recently you could even pick up a few bottles of Williams Selyem Pinot. Someone seems to have rescued those from the dusty shelves opposite the beer cooler.

Still, I figured I should check out the wine aisle of the new Trader Joe's. During a recent hotel stay in Santa Rosa I'd grabbed a bottle of England-Shaw Vineyard Syrah there, and it was good enough that when I spilled the little plastic cup of it that I was drinking on a hotel patio I nearly wept.

The Lake Shore Trader Joe's opened on October 26. On weekdays in the half hour before nine, you can see people queueing up outside the front door. I've dropped by a couple of times to pick up 3.00 goat cheese and it is almost always busy.

The night before Thanksgiving, no fewer then 10 people were milling in the wine aisle. Someone had managed to get the attention of the "wine guy". As soon as he spoke, every prospective wine buyer in the store took a step toward him. As we walked toward the exit I could hear him saying, "Spicy? This one is the least spicy. This one is spicier, and this one is really spicy."

At Buckingham, the guy behind the counter tried to get Axel to wave at him. I took a while to browse, before deciding on a 1999 Anzivino Gattinara and a non-vintage Beaumont des Crayères Champagne. You never really know how its going to go there. If the 8 year old bottle of some obscure nebbiolo is gonna pan out. I wasn't sure even after Googling. Most pages described the wine as dry and complex, garnet tending toward orange. It was great with turkey, and the lightest of three reds we had. Considerably more austere than the Ici/La Bas Les Reveles pinot.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Djemaa el Fna Square, Marrakech

Editor's Note: Since we began working together two years ago, Kurt Smith has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this blog. Kurt left the bay area for Barcelona earlier this year, and he has busted my chops transatlantic-style ever since over the lack of new material here. We'd talked about him guest-blogging on Barcelona's markets for months. Then, without warning, I receive this post via email yesterday morning on Djemaa el Fna Square. As Kurt would say,"And now for something completely different..."

I just returned from an all too quick visit to Morocco where one of the highlights was my visit to Djemaa el Fna square and market place in the Medina quarter of Marrakech. Mychal frequently writes about his trips to the Grand Lake and Jack London Square farmers markets and as I stood in the middle of the Djemaa el Fna I realized how far away I was from both.

The square has been listed by UNESCO as a "Masterpiece of World Heritage" and is undoubtedly the center of daily life in Marrakech.

The square is surrounded by the Souk (the traditional Arabic market place), small streets and alleys, hotels, cafes, and restaurants. I visited the Cafe Glacier for a cold coke (no booze allowed) and from their 4th floor terrace that overlooks the entire square you can watch the smoke rise from the food stalls amidst the ever changing world of snake charmers, magicians, storytellers, beggars, jugglers, musicians, monkeys and dancers. The aroma of grilled meats, cumin, and turmeric rises up as your ears are filled with a mixture of drumming and singing, Berber, Arabic, French, and Spanish. The whole experience is wonderfully intense.

As I left the relative safety of the cafe and ventured into the square, I quickly realized that there is a very active street that runs almost smack dab through the middle of the square. I just missed getting hit by a moped who was avoiding a taxi who had stopped for a donkey cart carrying who knows what. Kids on bikes swirl around everywhere as well as thousands of pedestrians. I made my way towards the smokey food stall area where locals and tourists were dining. The most popular stands serve snail soup, seafood, kebabs, grilled meats and vegetables and the local speciality, Sheep's heads. All of the food is prepared right before your eyes and since this is such an important area for tourism, the food is fresh and the stalls are clean.

The rest of the square is unofficially divided into different zones, orange juice sellers on one side and dried fruit and nut stands on the other. In between are Arabic and Berber story tellers keeping their ancient tradition alive, old women selling henna tattoos, musicians from both Arab and African lands playing all sorts of home made instruments, magicians, and just about every other form of entertainment you can think of. I even saw the old three-card Monte trick performed right before my eyes. All of this and I had not yet entered the Souk, which is literally a whole different story.

If you ever get a chance to visit Morocco and Marrakech I highly recommend it. I look forward to returning to Djemaa el Fna soon.

PS In case you are wondering I did have the Sheep's head and it was really really good.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Next Iron Chef: My Money Was On the Wrong Guy

So, my wife and son have been visiting family in Miami. Other guys may do other things when their family is out of town, but I see it as opportunity to watch a lot of football and braise a lot of meat. It also means I had to come to terms with the Next Iron Chef verdict in monk-like solitude. Congratulations are in order. I'll even withhold the lengthy judgement I nearly published a few minutes ago. Still, it does feel like the big game reserve of the Food Network, where they kept a certain old toothless lion, is now also home to something more domesticated. I quote:
"A dream," says Alex Trebek to the doctor with circumflex brows. "I have this dream where I'm standing smiling over a lectern on a little hill in the middle of a field. The field, which is verdant and clovered, is covered with rabbits. They sit and look at me. There must be several million rabbits in that field. They all sit and look at me. Some of them lower their little heads to eat clove. But their eyes never leave me. They sit there and look at me, a million bunny rabbits, and I look back."
Buffalo osso bucco with butternut squash hash and beet greens.

I'm gonna take a sip of a certain hard to come by zinfandel from dry creek valley, and assure my friends and loved ones that I'm keeping it all in perspective. We're talking about a Food Network show which featured a bunch of successful chefs, one of whom has over 300 people working for him, in a made-for-TV contest to see who will get the full weight of the Food Network's marketing machine pushing their culinary point of view on a willing consumer public.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Next Iron Chef: My Money's On Besh

I'll probably update this after I see the episode, but here goes...

Some of you know that I'm a big fan of Iron Chef America, Top Chef, and (to a lesser extent) Next Food Network Star. I've enjoyed moments of Next Iron Chef, which is drawing to a close tonight. Apparently some wiki has already spoiled the conclusion, but I haven't looked. Honest. And my money is on John Besh. This is an optimistic bet, based on the fact that I think he's cooking on a very different level from other show participants. This is not a bet based on who I think Food Network will want us to see and see again.

Each episode of Top Chef is supported by blogs from the judges, hosts, and food world notables. Next Iron Chef doesn't host blogs for the participants, and I've only enjoyed the entries from Michael Ruhlman.

I posted my take on the Next Iron Chef match-up in the comments of Ruhlman's blog, I'll quote myself here:
Coming to this conversation late, but I can't be the only one that thought the very likable Symon got his backside handed to him by Morimoto. Morimoto hamming it up and laughing that Symon didn't deserve to make sushi rice in a kitchen with him was it? Besh and Batali seemed close, even though the ingredient was right in Besh's wheel house.

Symon's mutant ability --everyone has one after all-- seems to be making good reads on situations. Cooking rather than warming his salmon with airplane oven, serving a drink with his plate of grilled birds. That knack will serve him less well in a show where the format doesn't change.

Based on the recent coverage, I'd say Besh's mutant ability is entrepreneurial. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's certainly something he has in common with Bobby Flay and Mario Batali.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

An Apple You Can't Get Anywhere Else

Just days after our last haul from Hillview Farms, Amy came home with a bag full of apples from our friend Penny's tree. I'd had one of her apples before and remembered it being very good, but didn't recall what variety they were. Under normal circumstances I'd have been worried about us getting through all of them, but we've been eating 5 to 7 apples a day ever since.

Under normal circumstances I would also tell you what type of apples these are, but I can't. Penny did ask a bona fide Chez Panisse forager, but he wasn't sure. I'm guessing something in the Arkansas Black family.

Looking for Apples In the East Bay?

If apples are your thing, head to the Jack London Square Farmers' Market and find Joe Stabile's Hillview Farms stand. Tell them whether you're looking for a tart or sweet apple, a cooking apple or out of hand apple, and then take their advice. They grow 200 varieties, many of the heirloom or antique, and I've been blown away by the 6 I've tried. I say this as a life-long citrus fan.

As a child, my lunchtime fruit was almost always some type of orange. Oranges were not necessarily a choice, I went shopping with my mother infrequently once school started. But, I had a preference for them over apples - the other school yard fruit option. It's worth pointing out that we're talking about conventional, grocery store fruit here. Purchased at the nearest Ralph's, available year round and with very little positive variation in taste.

During college I began to like Fuji Apples. They were the first apple I encountered that was not a red delicious, yellow delicious, granny smith, or pippin. Over the last couple of years, I've been exposed to a lot more apple varieties. I picked up my first Arkansas Black at Berkeley Bowl, Sun Downer and Pink Lady too. I'm always happy to see Crimson Gold when they start showing up, but I have not looked forward to them.

Last month we wound up at the Jack London Square market by accident. There were a lot of prepared food stands, some farmers that we shopped from at the Grand Lake market, and then there was the Hill View farms apple stand.

These apples were immediately recognizable as things that grew in a real place with weather, and most of them had names I'd never seen before. He had Thomas Jefferson's apple of choice the Esopus Spitenzberg, red-fleshed apples like the Hidden Rose and Pink Pearl. Last week I grabbed some Jonathans and Winesaps. Less exotic than the red-fleshed Hidden Rose, but more complex and delicious than any apple I'd ever eaten.

So, all things being equal, given the choice between an apple and an orange - I'll go with the orange. But my conversion to a seasonal produce shopper means there are at least two months where that's a choice I don't have to make.

Photo credit: Len Vaughn-Lahman / Mercury News

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Paw Paws, Bronx Grapes, and the End of Summer

Axel and I bumped into friends at the Farmer's Market this morning, they were in the process of polishing off of a pound of Lagier Ranch Bronx Grapes. One offered up that he was sad to have decided he liked them during the last week that they would be available. So I seemed to have failed in my annual duty to alert friends and other browsers to the availability of the "Rolls Royce" of table grapes. There's a chance you'll be able to grab some next week, but it's no sure thing.

I should have know really, the Lagier Ranches stand also had Paw Paws today. A quick scroll through the archives suggests I haven't written about these before. The largest fruit native to North America, Paws Paws have a dense, creamy texture and taste something like a cross between a banana and a mango.

There are other indicators that summer is drawing to a close. Lakeshore Avenue was thick with people wearing Cal Bears gear. Big game against Tennessee tonight. In addition to the Gala apples we'd been eating for a few weeks, there were Fujis today. I was able to bring some home because Amy was out on a bike ride. If she'd been there, she would've insisted that she wasn't ready to have them in the house yet. Wild Boar Farms should have their Evan's Purple Plum tomatoes next week. And Andy Roddick just made quick work of an early round opponent at the U.S. Open, dispatching Thomas Johannson of Sweden in straight sets.

Housekeeping: Fall '07 Edition

A while ago, the not evil folks at Google changed their search mechanism. This seems to have broken the handful of "Filter" links I'd provided at right (pesky 500 errors). My blog roll suffers from my not really being much of a blog reader. The two blogs that I do link to couldn't be more different. A bunch of the wines that Alder writes about over at Vinography are press samples these days, while Jessica of Feed and Supply suspects that her handful of readers must surely be friends and family (we've never met, but mutual friends from Chez Panisse and a former colleague of mine all have very nice things to say about her).

This blog has accomplished a few things that I am proud of. It holds the top Google rank for searches on "sabelfish", if not "sabel fish". I've helped get the word out about Brad Gates and his tomatoes. I've also managed to capture a share of the online market for Watermelon Mojito recipes - far and away the most visited page of the site this past month despite a Page 2 Google rank.

There's more I'd like to do though and, despite the various pursuits that are consuming my time, I'm optimistic that as summer turns into fall and fall turns wet with rain I'll be able lavish attention on my fledgling food publishing empire.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

On Vacation: Back from Hog Island

Wanted to let you know I'm alive and eating well. We're recently back from an extend stay in Pt. Reyes Station and, like last summer, vacation zapped my posting mojo. There's a lot I'll try to say about Pt. Reyes and its food culture at some point, but for now enjoy this bay-side picture of six oysters on the half shell (+1), with a lime cilantro mignonette. I'd just paddled by kayak from Marshall to Hog Island (map | history) and back, with enough cash in hand for lunch at the Marshall Store.

In year's past, when I'd ask if the Marshall Store was a good lunch spot, the staff of the kayak rental shop had always said that eating there was way risky. Ownership seems to have changed though, and multiple patrons were served their food by Blue Waters Kayaking staffers. The oysters were tasty and also available BBQ and Rockefeller.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Watermelon "Mojito"

I am uncharacteristically going through a fruity drink phase. Perfect for after work, particularly when I've taken my bike into the office on a hot day. I'll only say that the fresh watermelon in this drink gives it a slightly more sophisticated taste than you might expect and that in public I still drink Ketel One martinis. Up with two olives.

In a break with Happy Consumptive tradition, I'll also approximate a recipe for this concoction:

1 cup watermelon chunks
1/3 cup Rum: A flavored rum adds some aromatic oomph, but is not neccesary.
1 lime
2 long sprigs of mint
Sparkling Water: We use Calistoga with lime flavor
6 ice cubes

Add watermelon chunks, the juice from one half of the lime, the mint leaves from both sprigs of mint (leaving only the top-most leaves on one spring, for garnish), the rum, and 3 ice cubes to a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously (at least 20 times). Using a cocktail strainer, pour the contents of the shaker into a pint glass. Watermelon pulp and mint shrapnel should make it into the glass. Add the remaining ice cubes, the juice from the remaining lime half, and top off with sparkling water. You might also want to stir.

Orthodox Mixology
This drink runs enthusiastically afoul of orthodox mixology where Mojitos are concerned. Those of you who have read the Lime and Mint Cocktail recipe in Chez Panisse Fruit, or were there when we developed the recipe, probably won't be surprised. Here are the transgressions:
  1. There's no muddling of the mint leaves with the lime juice. You could muddle if you like, but it's not necessary.
  2. Mojitos tend to be made with soda or tonic water - not sparkling water. But, in season watermelon is sweet enough that either seems like over kill.
  3. There's probably also a school of mixology that would take a dim view of tossing all of those things in a cocktail shaker. In this particular recipe, the shaker is the blunt instrument of a refreshing policy.
  4. Some believe that cocktails should be shaken exactly 20 times, but with this recipe there are a lot of solids to get cold. It may take 4 to 6 more shakes than usual.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Farmers Raving About This Year's Stone Fruit

My intention with this post is to encourage all of your Nothern Californians to find your way to a famer's market this week and buy some cherries, some apricots, basically any fruit with a pit. My assurances that tasty stone fruit were there for the taking last year were based on a lifetime of experience eating grocery store fruit, and a concerted few years of eating farmer's market fruit.

This year's fruit blows last year's away to a startling degree. Startling that is, unless you happen to be a fruit farmer. In which case you probably know that the last couple of years have been good but not great, or maybe even okay but not really good. If you've only recently acquired serious food religion, this is the sort of thing you can't know.

Two Saturdays ago I was surprised to see the Wild Boar Farms booth at the Grand Lake Farmer's Market decked out with cherry tree boughs. I asked Brad if he'd had cherries last year, and he said that he only got a crop every two or three years - when the conditions were just right. As I grabbed a sample cherry, he had Bings and Rainiers, a woman who was arranging to have a case of them delivered to her restaurant offered up that they were the best she'd ever tasted.

This past weekend I stopped by the Lagier Ranches booth and made small talk about how well cherries seemed to be doing. The guy working the stand bellowed,"Finally!" He went on to say that he expected it to be a great year for all stone fruit. As service-oriented as anyone I've ever encountered at the market, he went on to offer to "call John" to find out when Sour Cherries would be available.

It's not just cherries either. One of the guys at the Blossom Bluff Ochards stand, described the taste of their apricots as completely out of left field. I had sampled the fruit and wasn't completely convinced, but there I was at work yesterday looking at a puddle of apricot juice on my desk - unsure of whether or not I could resist slurping it up.

Incidentally, I did not have the guy working the Lagier Ranches booth ring John Lagier at 9:30am on a Saturday morning. Probably the surest sign that I am not cut out to be a high profile food blogger.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Interview with Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms

Chez Panisse Vegetables pegs bay area tomatoes as a late summer phenomenon, but I wasn't hooked on Wild Boar tomatoes until my first taste of an Evan's Purple Plum in October of 2005. Like any self-respecting internet professional, I headed to Google to see what I could find out about the source of these intensely flavorful tomatoes. I couldn't find out much, other than that Brad Gates also sold lilacs. Of the three reference guides I have consulted, all maintain that it is not advisable to grow lilacs in the Bay Area.1

Last year, unable to find an email address to send my well wishes, I printed up the handful of blog entries I'd posted on Wild Boar tomatoes and dropped them off at Brad's farm stand. Over the months that followed we struck up an email correspondence that exposed me to several online outposts of the tomato cult, revealed that Brad had been meaning to look into the Slow Food movement but hadn't yet, and that (all my ramblings aside) terroir wasn't really on his mind."Is that a dog breed?", he asked.2

None of which is too surprising when you consider that Wild Boar Farms, and its six thousand tomato plants, are largely a one-person operation. Brad does hire one person to help him out during the picking season and has been known to bribe his kids to help out, but otherwise from January to November he's the primary care giver for all those plants. When I dropped by the farmer's market on May 19th, he described the previous work day as having started at 5am and having wrapped up at midnight. I think I replied something like,"Oof." To which he responded,"You've gotta cast your net while the grunion are running."3

This year it shouldn't be quite so difficult for folks to get the goods on Brad and his farm. He recently launched an online store for his seeds, and is hard at work on a website. He also agreed to this interview, which we conducted in April. Given how infrequently I've been able to post this spring, I suppose the editorially shrewd thing to do would be for me to break it up over a couple of weeks, but the content doesn't really lend itself to doing so. So here, in it's entirety, is my interview with Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms.

How did you get started with tomatoes?
I worked for a summer selling tomatoes for a friend at farmer's markets. I was doing landscaping at the time, because I love plants and love to be outdoors. People are not that appreciative when you do landscaping work for them but people kept thanking me for bringing them tomatoes.

Where is Wild Boar Farms located?
I farm in the Suisun Valley in Solano County. I have grown tomatoes in three counties, Napa, Yolo and Solano. Yolo is nice for real early tomatoes but to blazing hot in the summer, Napa is great for grapes but not quite as warm as tomatoes like, so my best tomatoes came from Suisun and I stayed.

The soil is unbelievable also, I grow on class I soil (the best). Places with 10 feet of topsoil are considered excellent, Suisun Valley has topsoil that is almost 100 feet deep thanks to receding glaciers that shaped the region.

Restaurants serving Wild Boar Farms tomatoes

Brad sells his tomatoes to distributors and re-sellers who supply many local restaurants. He sells directly to the following Restaurants

What do you figure the climatic variables are for the flavor of your tomatoes?
I have noticed that some varieties do good no matter if it is cool, hot or whatever. So, I may have to rely more on those varieties. Water control is also very important in tomato flavor.

You and I talked a few times about how whacky the weather was last year, in your experience is there such a thing as a typical growing season in the bay area?
I have been growing for ten years and the last two where the most challenging with last year taking the crown. Soaking rains till May and three weeks of 100-115 degree temps for three weeks straight are not what made California a produce mecca so lets hope that does not happen again for a long while.

In our conversations about what you do, you've mentioned colleagues from around the world. Is there a perception on the part of these folks with regards to climate change?
I have noticed people from other parts of the world mention odd weather. I know that in at least parts of New Zealand they did not even get summer this year. I heard of 50 something day tomatoes taking almost 100 days.

How many varieties of tomato plants do you grow each year?
I have grown 50-100 each year. Some of the varieties I am working on that are unstable may give me 50 different tomatoes, thats just from one working variety so thats a lot of tomato variables. I have made many trades from around the world this year so I am adding over 100 new trial varieties to the 100 or so I was already going to grow.

Two years ago my wife and I were all about your purple plum tomatoes. Last year it was the Berkeley Tie Dye. Do you find that a given variety changes much from year?
There are so many variables that, yes, the flavor can even change day to day. But there are other factors, like when you first tried Evan's Purple Plum I think it may have been late in the season, well that variety hangs on the vine well late season and takes on a rich flavor that usually only shows up in October. It's is a stand out flavor that very few have ever experienced. Berkeley Tie Dye does great mid season but does not like to much cool weather and does not hang on the vine so I have learned to plant different varieties at different times.

Do you have a personal favorite?
Too many good tomatoes, well, Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye.

You turned me on to, and you recently began selling your seeds online. How has the internet influenced what you do?
There is a lot to learn from a cult tomato group like Always hearing about new varieties, seeing how people react to your varieties, sharing varieties around the world, endless ideas.

As near as I can tell, you and other members of the tomato cult gather for a mid-summer tomato tasting. Can you describe the sorts of tomatoes that show up at these events?
Actually I have missed my local tastings because they have been held on Saturday's. Every Saturday is spent selling tomatoes. So this year I am offering to have the tasting at my garden on a Sunday so I can go.

You've described a few of your varieties as being basically unique. I'm thinking of Brad's Black Heart and the various 'furry' tomatoes. Can you describe the process of arriving at these one of a kind tomatoes?
A lot of them have been lucky finds which I attribute to growing tens of thousands of plants and actually being the one going up and down the rows doing the work to notice them. Once you find something unique with a lot of plants to choose from you can get some pretty bizarre looking tomatoes, the key is selecting for flavor to go along with that unique look.

Places you can buy Wild Boar Farms tomatoes:

In addition to yourself, I'm a big fan of Prather Ranch, Lagier Ranches, and County Line Harvest. Are their other farmers whose work you admire?
That's a tough one, because I do not get a chance to really get to know to many other farmers and see what they are about. Probably the smaller they are the more I admire them. The bigger they are, the more likely they are to promote bad labor practices and unfair pay for hard core work. The one employee I have I pay almost twice minimum wage which is a lot more then anyone else I know in this business. I admire anyone actually doing the farming.

Anything else you'd like to say?
Support small farmers - buy local and in season for the best tasting, most nutritious produce.


At the very least, growing lilacs here is considered challenging. Sunset's Western Garden book refers to the Bay Area as Zone 15, and says it is possible to grow them here despite their preference for decidedly chilly winters. In addition to the climatic challenges posed by our mild winters, Sunset also warns against leaf miner, scale and stem borer. Brad agrees that conditions are not optimal, but maintains that, "If you grow lots of varieties and lots of plants you will get some nice blooms." It's worth reinforcing that this philosophy isn't so different from how he approaches tomatoes.

2 Compare this to the folks at Knoll Farms, who promote their brand of 'organismal' farming under a folksy abstraction of terroir ( Tairwa´).

3 An informal survey of several friends and family members suggests that, particularly in the context of agriculture, this is a relatively obscure reference. I'll provide a link to the Wikipedia entry for grunion and let you draw your own conclusions. However, I will also take a moment to point out that Brad has a particular way with words. One weekend he brought several mature Tomato Horn Worms with him to the Farmer's Market. In response to multiple squeamish inquiries, he offered up,"I usually just squash them, these worms don't have it so bad - making the trip down to Oakland and getting to spend time with all of you nice people."

Friday, May 18, 2007

Blue Crab Comes to Berkeley

The eVite we received promising blue crabs direct from Maryland had 10+ names on it. Still, I was unprepared for the sight of nearly one hundred crabs piled into a baggage-check grade styrofoam cooler.

Our friend Spencer had picked them up on his way back from a visit to Baltimore, and offered helpful reminders about which parts to eat and not. He also pointed out that despite everyone's enthusiasm for his imported regional delicacy, that this was not high brow food. Tubs of Safeway potato salad and bags of Kettle Chips rounded out the spread.

Spencer'd expected each of us to eat six, and despite our best efforts several folks headed home with bags of bonus crab. With our leftovers, I threw together a ceviche based on the flavors of one they serve at Tamarindo Antojeria — lime, cumin, and achiote.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Scharffen Berger Looking for a Marketing Manager

A friend passed along this job listing for a Marketing Manager at what appears to be Scharffen Berger. Or at least an Artisan Confections Company in Berkeley that is owned and operated by Hersheys. What with me content to be building and plying my marketing skills at a certain publicly traded Device Software Company in Alameda, thought I'd share it with all of you folks (whomever you are).

I'm curious to see how this marriage of Hersheys and the Scharffen Berger people and brand play out. At Peet's this morning I noticed Scharffen Berger easter candies. You know, egg-shaped milk chocolate in silver wrappers, even something described as an egg with chicks inside. I suppose there's some money to be made there, but if it happened to be Easter and I was wanting an "artisan confection" I don't think I'd care what shape it was in. Wouldn't it make more sense to do something seemingly seasonal? In our house that would probably mean mint or lavendar.

Naia Rueda Verdejo and Viña La Playa's Axel Cabernet

Food and wine and the life of our newborn intersect more often than in most households. It's tough for me to know which of our blogs should play home to posts on such topics. But, as I've been remiss in documenting my consumption lately, here goes...

I spend a considerable amount of time waiting for Axel to be more interested in food. He'll suck on apple chunks (Fuji's from the farmer's market), reportedly likes pears (a non-descript Bartlett I think), and wants nothing to do with either bananas or avocados. Yesterday he seemed to know approximately what to do with a hunk of baguette. I caught myself ogling a toddler at Cafe Fanny, who purposefully clawed at the scone her mother had ordered, with something approaching jealousy. My mood was compounded by the fact that even though she was clearly older than Axel, he was nearly twice as big as she was.

And speaking of jealousy, it was with something approaching it that I observed our friends' finding a bottle of wine that shared the name of their daughter Naia. The wine's description seemed to suggest a mediterranean future for her, where she'd be the life of some warm, sandy party: The 2004 Naia Reuda Verdejo has bright, ripe peach, fresh apricot and honeysuckle aromas, with traces of lime and orange zest. On the palate, there’s zingy acidity that begins as tart, white peaches then develops into rounder, sweeter honeydew and cantaloupe melon flavors. The wine’s bright fruit and electric acidity are a real palate cleanser and the wine is very refreshing. All of which is pretty spot on, as I found out when they served a bottle at the first dinner we had at their place after our friends brought their little girl home.

After six and a half months, I was happier than I should have been to stumble into Buckingham Wine & Spirits and discover a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon named Axel; the relative rarity of the name (to say nothing of La Play's corporate clout) reinforced by a small but proud ®. Wine Enthusiast offered up this 92 point assessment:The surprise of the moment from Chile has to be this full-throttle keg of dynamite Cabernet. It’s a cellar wannabe with credentials. First off, it’s brilliantly ripe, with forceful black cherry, cinnamon and wood spice on the palate. Huge tannins, poking acids and a couple of floors’ worth of depth make it praiseworthy. Imported by Cabernet Corporation. Cellar Selection. I'd only add that the wine is awfully bright at first blush. I'd recommend decanting even if I took the more prosaic route of having a glass and re-corking for a night.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Culinary Gifts from Indonesia

To the extent that my social identity has a lot to do with food, and given that we entertain quite a bit, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that we receive a lot of culinary gifts. To mention just a few of the gifts that I haven't already posted on, there's been wild blue berry jam from our friend Pete, sourwood honey and Jacques Torres chocolates from my colleague Mia, and more wine from more folks than I can sensibly list.

Still, I was surprised when our friend Karla came back from indonesia with the salt and vanilla pictured below. I have not tried either yet and, as always, will hope to have time to say more later.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Wild Boar Farms Tomato Seeds Available Online

I recently received an e-mail from Brad Gates of Wild Board Farms letting me know that he'd begun selling seeds for some of his tomatoes online. You can check out his selection here. All of my favorites are available including Evan's Purple Plum, Pink Berkeley Tye Dye, and Brad's Black and Brown Boar. Direct from the fringes of heirloom tomato genetics you can also even buy seeds for Brad's Black Heart and "fuzzy" tomatoes - tomatoes with a variegated matte finish.

While these last two varieties in particular are probably unique in the world of tomatoes (I encourage you to check out the R&D thread at Tomatoville on this point), I believe the entire Wild Boar project borders on revolutionary.

Brad's raising and refining thousands of plants a year here, and has a colleague raising and refining thousands more in New Zealand. The rare combination of location(s) and skill that go into these tmatoes cannot be underestimated. I've sampled the goods of other folks offering comparable looking tomatoes, that fell plainly flat when eaten - they tasted like something I could do.

My belief that these tomatoes are a unique expression of where they are grown isn't going to keep me from raising seedlings, probably much later than someone who knew what they were doing would really advocate, and throwing them in the ground in Oakland.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

I'm Reading: 'Heat,' by Bill Buford

Years ago a friend of mine insisted that I read a New Yorker article on Mario Batali. It was the first piece of any length that I'd read about a food personality; at the time I knew of Batali only as the guy who concocted the 'white prosciutto' the same friend kept bringing up. What the article compellingly described was the larger than life personality that Batali brought to the table. Epic bouts of drinking and eating. Feeding a pig nothing but cream, walnuts, and apples and then serving people the fat from that pig. Showing up at a Giant's game to the delight of east coast male football fans.

It was this article, along with the first few episodes of Iron Chef America that I saw, that put Batali's Babbo at the top of my list during a trip to New York a few years back.

The article's other personality was that of Bill Buford, the guy writing it. What I accepted as a transparent literary device, his parlaying his editorial assignment into a full-time gig as a kitchen slave at Babbo restaurant, turned out to be an earnest re-assessment of the author's priorities and interests. Lasting not only for the duration of his assignment, but to this day.

Heat expands on the terrain of the New Yorker article considerably. Charting Batali's rise from guy working in a pizza shop, to Italy, to food celebrity. Detailing the story of Buford's going pro in the world of food. Each story is a good read, though I preferred the chapters on Batali to those where Buford elaborated on the nature of a food stuff (short ribs, polenta, etc.).

As he starts doing time in the Babbo kitchen, Buford commits innumerable mortifying gaffes - lost in ways diverse and confounding. As a self-described talented amateur, I may be brushing up against the walls of my roomy glass house, but I'm here to tell you that the way you pull short ribs out of a pan of spattering oil is with tongs.

It's impossible to meaningfully address either of the book's dominant narratives without also addressing Italy, which for Buford means (among other places) the small village where he learns the art of butchery. The 27 different cuts of meat that Tuscan's understand to be in the leg of a cow. If this is not the sort of thing that interests you, you may be cheered to know that this section of the book is loaded with examples of Tuscan men --young and old-- creatively referring to each other as types of dickhead.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

On the Nature of Consumption

"It is not good to be profligate, lazy and obese, but neither is it good to be a miser, a workaholic, or an anorexic." - Jim Holt, in 'The New, Soft Paternalism', New York Time Magazine
A couple of weeks back I came across an interview with Daniela Edburg over at The Morning News. The thirteen photos in her series Drop Dead Gorgeous are right up my alley. They feature folks that have already been, or are about to be, done in by too much of a good thing.

Leaving aside for now the issue that all of these folks happen to be women, the photos illustrate the considerable downside of an opportunity that a lot of Americans seem to be availing themselves of (60+% of us are apparently overweight). Ever aware of the various wings in my sprawling glass house, this blog makes clear that I avail myself of plenty.

The various types of angst that I subject myself to as a result are familiar territory for folks who write about food, and have been at least since M.F.K. Fisher's Serve it Forth. I have a hard time deciding whether I am more 'intellectually gastronomic on a bicycle' or likely to offer up posts that 'crumple under the weight of well-known names'.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Consumptive Year In Review

I missed the chance to be reflective before we embarked on the New Year. If, as Garrison Keillor offers up in Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion,"In Radio you never look back, that's the beauty of it", blogs seem to be all about looking back - but only by hours or days. Still, I'll take a seasonal liberty and point out a few memorable posts.

One last plug for my post on Satsumas. I thought briefly that I might find a wider readership if all my posts had that vibe, and then thought better of it.

I was reminded of the night we made Beef and Chicken Liver Ravioli, in the style of Babbo, when our friend Seth offered up that of all the dinners he'd attended at our digs (even more than paella cooked over an open fire) these ravioli stood out.

A post on the perils of preparing crudo at home. One of these days I'll get to southern coastal Italy, or at least Esca, and see how this really gets done.

Availability for ramps is very limited, and April isn't that far away.

This Market Recap featured the year's first appearance of Sour Cherries. A year-old lively discussion of how and where to score sour cherries is still attracting comments over at Bay Area Bites.

After ten-plus years in the Bay Area, I manage to prepare Cardoons for the first time, in June.

Not gonna say too much about Ceviche Three Times a Day.

The first weekend for Bronx Grapes fell in late August.

Bacon-Dripping Ginger Snaps remain their own reward.

October was a slow month following the birth of our first child. Still I did managed a post on This Summer's Harvest.

Just wouldn't be a year-end recap unless November's entry was our Thanksgiving Kegger.

Along with many Bay Area Food Bloggers, I offered up some thoughts on Bar Crudo and the hard times that had befallen the staff of the restaurant.