Going to the Source: Chicaoji!

November 26, 2013

Chicaoji Hot Sauce is one of my favorite products we sell, not just because it’s local and tasty, but also because of the down to earth guy who makes it: Randall Waugh. He’s a solid guy!

I recently got to go to Lopez Island to interview Randall and watch Chicaoji being made – check out the video below:



Truffle Hunting in Italy

November 04, 2013

One of the highlights of my recent food scouting trip to Italy was getting to hunt bianchetti truffles & fresh morels.

I love wild foods –especially wild mushrooms. The forest contains some of the most delicious foods and some of them, like mushrooms and truffles, are defenseless and just waiting for you to pick them.

I wish it was that simple. Our hosts can see the forest floor like Neo can see the matrix.

My guide was Luigi – a 26-year foraging veteran in Emilia Romagna who started out with a farmer’s market stand and is now king of the small specialty food & hospitality empire that produces our favorite Selezione truffle oils.

Luigi and one of his foragers brought a dog along to help with the truffles. Dogs help locate truffles with more accuracy than humans – allowing them to be gathered without digging up large portions of the ground. This is better for the forest and better for the truffles. By not disturbing the delicate mycological organism underground that produces truffles, you help ensure they’ll still be around next year. And, dogs can tell at a distance whether a truffle’s fully ripe, so you’re not plucking truffles before (or after) their time.

You’ve probably heard of people hunting truffles with pigs, and some still do, just not in Italy. It’s illegal to use pigs there because of Italy’s forests are different and pigs would damage the ground.

We were especially glad to have the dog with us on this trip because bianchetti season was almost over – the truffles still out there were tiny – about 5g each. They’re really, really hard to find if you don’t have a trained nose down on the ground.* As it turned out, they made the truffle hunting so easy for me that it wasn’t very rewarding. The dog did most of the work and then my guide pushed the dirt aside and said something like “here, take it.” It was like taking an egg out of an unguarded chicken nest. Too easy.

Next we moved on to the morels. Believe it or not, despite having eaten tons of morel mushrooms over the years that grow within a couple hundred miles of my home, I’ve never actually hunted them myself – so this was a great treat.

Unfortunately we couldn’t use our canine assistant here…the only way we could find them is to train our eye to watch for the white/cream color of their stems – picking them out amongst the leaves and debris on the forest floor.

Luigi’s got the eyes of a hawk, I’d walk right past a bunch of leaves where he’d immediately spot six morels. Foraging at this level really is an art – a combination of eyesight, knowledge, experience and perseverance. I got better at spotting them the more time we spent looking, but I’m not going to be at his level anytime soon.

The entire trip to Italy was an incredible experience – the food, products, and the people producing them here are amazing, but this foray out into the wild was a particular highlight.

*Note to self: I need to put Nyoki to work next Oregon truffle season – it’s time he earned his keep.

Post Written by Justin Marx



What We’ve Been Reading

November 01, 2013

Now a Test Can Tell If Your Pricey Cup of Cat Poop Coffee is Fake
Yep, that’s right, there are people pretending their coffee beans have been pooped by a cat when they haven’t.  Just mull (brew?) that over for a second.

Now that you’ve wrapped your head around the concept of civet-poop-coffee-fraud…read this article to learn why people would want to pull such a “dirty” trick.

 

Bringing Home the Woolly Bacon from Hungary
Let’s be clear, the bacon itself isn’t actually wooly, the pigs are.  This article discusses the heritage and wondrous properties of Mangalitsa pork – it also includes a fabulous photo of a mangalitsa pig, standing proudly like a stylishly coiffured porcine gentleman.

 

FDA Defining What ‘Gluten Free’ Means on Food Labels
Those of us who are gluten free or live with those on restricted diets know how tricky “gluten free” products and restaurant offerings can be.  It can mean a lot of things and it isn’t always clear how gluten free they actually are.  It sounds like the USDA’s finally stepping in to change that.

 

Ancestors’ Exposure to DDT May Contribute to Obesity
We hear about America’s Obesity Epidemic all the time…but this is the first time someone’s suggested that the cause is more complicated than processed/junk food.  This fascinating (& horrifying) article suggests that the nation’s difficulty keeping the pounds off might not be entirely our fault and that personal genetics may be more complicated than previously thought.



Visiting Appenino Food

October 28, 2013

I’m man enough to admit that sometimes I walk around in little plastic blue bootees.  Hey, they may not be the most stylish footwear on the planet, but when you’re going to the source you sometimes have to eschew fashion for food safety.

On a recent food scouting trip to Italy I got a chance to tour Appenino Food, producers of fine all natural products like our selezione truffle oils, truffle salt, and truffle butter.

Luigi, the head of the company, showed us around.  The man knows quality produce when he sees it, and he should – he worked his way up from selling foraged edibles at a farmers market to this beautiful modern facility.  He clearly hasn’t lost sight of what matters along the way.

Not only was the place spotless but stylish too – check out this handle for their walk-in cooler.  His cooler had a big basket of fresh white truffles for local restaurants, and his freezer was packed with the best frozen porcinis I’ve ever seen.

When we visited, his employees were hand-packing artichokehearts in sunflower seed oil with vinegar.  The artichokes come right into the factory from the field, and every step from that point on, until the jars are closed, is done by hand to preserve quality.

Take a look.  They’re absolutely gorgeous.

This hands-on method allows an impressive level of quality control – the employees scrutinize the artichokes every step of the way.  If they don’t pass muster they get chucked right there.

Sure, it’s a factory, but Luigi’s found a way to balance safety and efficiency with maintaining top quality.  I’m proud to sell his products.



Balsamic Vinegar’s Secret Ingredient

October 22, 2013

On a recent food scouting trip to Italy, I got to visit Compagnia del Montale, producers of our aged balsamic vinegars and two-time winners of the Spilamberto Prize for best balsamic in the world.

We’ve discussed how balsamic vinegars are made elsewhere.  All traditional balsamics are made from cooked grape must, but there’s actually another, very important ingredient: wood.

Just like you’ve probably heard sommeliers and foodies discussing the “oaked” characteristics of wine, the type of wood you age balsamic vinegar in imparts different flavors to the finished product.

Producers can use whatever wood they want, and as many different aging barrels as they want.

So here’s CdM’s award winning recipe (pencils ready?):

Six Barrel Set
Cherry -> Mulberry -> Ash -> Acacia -> Chestnut -> Oak

I’ll let Enrico explain why:

Oh…and you’ve got to pick just the right grapes, cook them just the right way, and treat them with love, respect and incredible care over the course of 12-25 years.  Easy, right?

Want to know more? Here’s a description of the whole process straight from Enrico:

___________
Related Posts:
Guide to Compagnia del Montale Vinegars



Food Factories

September 30, 2013

Pretty much any product wrapped in plastic in a regular supermarket has been made by a machine.  Ignore the pictures on the label of smiling workers or farms and imagine a really BIG machine.

It doesn’t matter how many factories I go to.  They are always surprising.  On a recent procurement trip to Japan, I toured three factories, all of which were for supermarket products (high-volume, low-quality products that I knew were not for me).  In some regards, the tours were a waste of time, but it is always either enlightening or frightening to visit a factory so I will never turn down an invitation.  In this case, I visited three: a fruit in jelly factory (a la those jello molds with fruit in them); a corn snack factory; and a ready to heat udon factory.

Some common characteristics of those factories were:

  1. Factories are staffed with uniformed Japanese workers that are somewhere between Willy Wonka and the product of 1980s era American factory worker nightmare.
  2. The factories are very clean and the workers are completely covered up.  I was surprised that they were more covered up than in a slaughterhouse and then realized that it is probably because the foods these factories were making are ready to eat.  With meat, you know that it is going to get cooked by a chef or consumer and that will kill any remaining bacteria.  You have to take your shoes off before you step in the building.  The only thing showing from behind your smock suit is your eyes.  In some factories we had to go through a lint brush and then an “air shower” which basically puts you in a wind tunnel and sucks everything off of you.Everything in Japan is extremely clean, except the air which is apparently the fault of China.  I’d be furious but the passive Japanese apparently just suck up the dirty air and hope they can sell the Chinese their clean air technology.
  3. No human hands touch the product once the raw material enters the stream.  Wheat and water go in the mixer and cooked, bagged and chilled udon comes out the other end.  A human doesn’t touch it until it places the individual bags into a box.  Corn meal goes in and bagged popped corn snacks come out the other end.  Jelly and fruit go in one end and a human hand doesn’t actually touch the product until someone in the supermarket removes it from a box and puts it on the shelf.  That line is automated all the way through.  The individual jelly cups get sealed, pasteurized in a hot water bath, chilled in a cold water bath, boxed, shrink-wrapped and even palletized by machine.  Then an automated system moves the pallet into the warehouse.

 

One jelly line makes 6,000 pieces per hour.  I know you can do math, but that is 100 per minute or 1.66 pieces per SECOND.  No human can work that fast.  The fruit jelly factory had 12 lines making 1,100,000 units per day.  Staggering!  Imagine a football field of machines moving product through the line and out the door.

The noodle factory might have been the most interesting process to see because they basically take a huge batch of dough and then roll it out through a series of six rollers.  Each roller thinned the continuous pasta sheet a little bit more and also moved faster because it had to process more length than the previous roller.  Once at the right thickness, it went through a cutter that sliced it into noodles, then it got cut into 8 inch lengths and dropped through a hole in the floor into the giant boiler that was on the level below.  Each portion landed in a cage that went through the boiler, then through a water bath with lactic acid that had a low enough pH to make the noodles such that refrigeration was not necessary on the shelf.  Then into a chiller, then into a bag.  Once it was bagged it went into another hot water bath for pasteurization, then into another chiller.

The machines are enormous and staggering and automated.  In some of these places there are probably more engineers than production line workers.  Basically, any product that is on a mainstream supermarket shelf wrapped in plastic is made by machines.  Know it.  The level of automation is always staggering no matter how many of these places I see.  I don’t see many, truth be told.  Most of the non-meat producers that I visit are small-batch, hand-made artisanal products.

Some of the factories are shiny and new, others are a few decades old with big hunking rusty exteriors with steam billowing out from all cracks.  Sadly, none of these factories allowed us to take pictures.



Gruesome Slaughter

September 23, 2013

I have seen a lot of forms of slaughter, but none creeped me out more than the way I saw eels being killed at the Tsukiji Fish Market on a recent food scouting mission to Japan. My initial notes read:
“One disturbing thing at this market was that the eels apparently need to be filleted alive in order to optimize quality. They hold them in shallow trays and apparently keep them mellow by cutting their vertebrae and holding them in the community blood pool that results. You can see that they are still alive as they barely slither around. Then someone plucks one out, puts a nail through its head to hold it on the cutting board and fillets them. That’s quite a miserable death. Possibly the worst form of slaughter I have ever seen.”
But before putting that judgment here on the blog, I did some more research about it and discovered that it is a practice called ikejime and it looks a lot worse than it actually is (read more about it on Wikipedia and Cooking Issues). The vertebrae cut basically paralyzes the eels, so they can’t feel anything, but they are still a sentient head swimming in a pool of blood. That’s definitely gruesome. The nail to the head apparently kills the brain, so the eel isn’t actually being filleted alive. It’s already dead. The gastronomic reason for the practice is to minimize the stress and flopping because that degrades the quality of the flesh.
So, what is my judgment after doing more research? It’s complicated.
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I’d say that ikejime is actually pretty humane if the brain is killed quick. Much of what I saw, however, was brain-alive eel in holding tanks. I don’t know if an eel knows the feeling of frustration, but it can’t get more frustrating than that. I’ve never cared for the taste of eel so I really never eat it. Certainly, what I saw isn’t making me crave it.

On this topic, I live in a glass house. What can I say? We sell over a hundred species of fish and meat that are processed (see, “processed”, there’s my marketer’s euphemism) in a whole variety of ways. I haven’t seen them all and I’d bet that some of those kill floors can use improvement. What I have truly seen consistently is an evolution toward more and more humane practices as a result of a mix of government-pressure, consumer-pressure and, believe-it-or-not, operators that want to improve. As cynical as you may want to be, believe me that there are good operators out there who do better than the minimum required of them.
This stuff is hard to write about and hard to think about. I grew up in a slaughterhouse and despite my heightened level of desensitization, it is still tough to stomach sometimes. There’s a reason why a few generations of food marketers have offered only happy food images and avoided talking about how food gets to the table. The reality of it is that nature is gruesome. No matter how much we think we are different from any other animals, we still kill things and eat them. And no matter how hard we try as a society to be more humane (we do get better all the time), we have to kill things to eat them.
Slaughter is an unavoidable part of the whole thing. There’s probably no way to make it perfect. Apart from incremental improvements, the biggest impact we can have is to constantly improve the lives of food animals because slaughter is only the last little bit of the process.


A few observations about food choices in Japan

September 16, 2013

I just had a two week food scouting mission in Japan, home of one of the world’s great cuisines.  I learned a ton about Japanese cuisine and ingredients. Here’s a few of my observations.

Food Aesthetics are very important.  Roundness, size and color together seem to be as important as flavor.  Japanese consumers will pay handsomely for perfect produce specimens.  Interestingly, some of their buying cues are very different than ours.  For example, this year’s fetishized brand of strawberries were pink.  US consumers would put their nose up to this.  I’m definitely not going to be able to sell those to Washington consumers.

No price is too high for perfection, (How about a perfectly round $12 Fuji apple?)   …but perfection is in the eye of the beholder.  Japanese beef producers look to export markets like the US in order to sell their choice cuts.  We have an expression here that anybody can sell the tenderloins, strips and ribeyes.  It’s the opposite in Japan: their beef producers are routinely backed up on those cuts.  Their domestic customers will pay top dollar for high-grade kobe beef, but only when it comes to top rounds and other inexpensive whole muscle cuts.  Japanese consumers slice the product thin, so they don’t need or want to pay for the cuts that you eat chunks of with a fork and knife … like a steak.

Marketers trumpet their products’ health benefits.  And, a lot of the benefits are extremely obscure.  All sales pitches came with some kind of benefit whether it was that the product was heart healthy or that it helped your eyebrows grow more fully or your finger nails grow faster.  Clearly health claims are a big part of their food sales culture.

Yet, additives are often OK.  For the most part, the Japanese seem to have no problem with MSG, artificial colors or other additives that a high-end consumer in the US would turn their nose up at.  I had to explain to a high-end nut butter company that if they want to enter the US market with their high-end product it is going to need be reformulated without the emulsifiers and such.  So many of the specialty products that I found were immediately dropped from my list due to these additives, with MSG surprisingly being one of the most common offenders (a product that they invented and that is apparently a household staple).

In general, taste, texture and aesthetics are king. Except for natto. Some Japanese will eat a slimy cardboardy, absolutely disgusting fermented soybean product called natto with their breakfast because it is apparently healthy.  I’d rather take innocuous-flavored supplement pills than ruin my breakfast.  (especially since traditional Japanese breakfast is so fantastically delicious)…why ruin it?

And, sometimes their pursuit of quality has incredibly positive health side-effects.  I met a pork producer who has a remarkably innovative system of feeding the pigs a fermented grain, probiotic-rich diet and thereby avoid administration of antibiotics, even though they are raised in confinement.  Surprisingly, animal welfare had nothing to do with his decision-making, he didn’t even know that he was breaking a paradigm.  He just does it because it makes the fat whiter and gives the pork a better smell.

The trip was great for learning about Japanese cuisine, for palate development, etc – but I still disagree with them on some things. I feel better equipped to handle those uber-fishy flavors, those slimy textures, etc. I ate everything put before me, even a number of endangered species (which I ate only because I didn’t order them, they were on a chefs tasting menu and it was killed already). The server at one such meal tried to tell me that they have whale because of their scientific research … yeah the scientific research study must be designed to repeatedly confirm that they like to eat whale meat. It didn’t do it for me. Frankly, it had a funky look and texture to it. Same thing with the sharks fin. Sure, it had a pleasing texture, but is it worth killing a whole animal just to eat a tenth of a percent of it? Fuck no.

Now I am confused.  I guess I need to go back and explore some more.

Note:  I did find a whole bunch of amazing products and am in the process of navigating how to get them into the US market.



Marx Foods Invites You to Bite Nite!

September 09, 2013

Marx Foods and 14 of Seattle’s top chefs are coming together to throw a party to raise money to support
WA Initiative 522 (which would require labeling GMOs). I’d love to see you there – Bite Nite’s going
to be the tastiest ticket in town!

For the price of admission you get:

15 amazing small bites from the chefs in attendance
To rub elbows with local culinary greats like:
Jim Drohman (Café Presse & Le Pichet)
Matt Dillon (Sitka & Spruce, The Corson Building, Bar Sajor)
Holly Smith (Café Juanita)
Shane Ryan (Matt’s in the Market)
Autumn Martin (Hot Cakes)
Nicki Kerbs (Cupcake Royale)
& more!
To support the Initiative with your ticket price – moving us a step closer to better information for consumers.


Mechanically Tenderizing Beef – A Danger of Omission

July 22, 2013

People have been mechanically tenderizing beef for ages – I’m sure you’ve all seen cube steaks in the grocery store with that distinctive odd-looking texture.  If it’s a tender cut from the round you’re looking for, there’s nothing wrong with taking a meat mallet, needler, or other mechanical tenderizing system to tougher cuts of beef to make them more tender…but I think needling in a restaurant should be disclosed.

The problem is the beef industry is struggling to meet the low-end restaurant business’s demand for cheap tender steaks.  To keep the beef coming, while holding prices down, they’ve taken to needle-tenderizing beef that would otherwise be too tough to serve as a steak.  The USDA (so far) doesn’t require them to say when a cut has been tenderized in this way, so most restaurants don’t disclose it.

You’ve probably also all seen the warnings at the bottom of menus telling you that the USDA doesn’t recommend eating undercooked meats.  Most people order steaks less than well done anyway, because the inside of a steak is considered essentially sterile, they figure the risk is low.

That’s not the case with needled steaks.  As the needles pierce the meat to break up muscle fibers and make it more tender, they can also force bacteria from the surface of the steak (where it would be killed during cooking) deep into the center (where it may survive at lower levels of doneness).

Suddenly your steak might not be safe to eat Medium Rare.

The Kansas City Star published a good article on the subject that I’d recommend reading.  Just be aware that there’s a fair amount of meat packer imagery attached that some may find upsetting.

News Flash: According to NPR, the USDA has just proposed requiring mechanical tenderizing be disclosed on packaging.  I hope it’ll go through – this is clearly a situation where the industry could use more transparency.



What We’ve Been Reading – July Edition

July 17, 2013

Lots of intriguing food articles have come out over

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the last month or so…here are some of our favorites…check them out!

Eating Bugs: Would You Dine on Cicadas?
Can Farmed Trout Go Vegetarian?
Chef in a Box
Germany Drops its Longest Word
Your Choice in Utensils Can Change How Food Tastes
Savory & Sweet: A Taste for Infertility

I’ve also been reading about the rising unlabeled use of mechanical tenderizers (read more here) and a new drug called “Zilmax” in the US beef industry (my thoughts here).



Congrats Chris on being named Master Sommelier!

June 10, 2013

There’s nothing like watching someone you admire work their ass off and achieve an absolutely enormous goal.  I could not be more proud of Chris Tanghe for becoming a Master Sommelier.

Most of you probably won’t be aware of the certification, the prestige that comes with it, or the incredible amount of time, work and effort that goes into it.

Let me put it in perspective for you.  The Court of Master Sommeliers was founded around 1977 as an international organization to promote, test, and certify wine knowledge at the very highest level.  They award the Master Sommelier diploma as the ultimate achievement a sommelier can attain.

You know how many Master Sommeliers there are now?  201.  In the world.

Chris was one of 63 who took the most recent exam – which includes what is probably the most brutal blind taste test ever conceived – and one of only four who passed.  His achievement has been seven years, 2000+ flash cards, and hours and hours and hours and hours of work in the making.
When it comes to wine, he is officially the fucking man.

That’s not just my opinion, either.  This diploma is so cool that when someone earns it it’s news – read more over at The Seattle Met and Sip Northwest.

But I don’t want to gloss over Chris’s other culinary achievements.  He may be one of the world’s beverage elite now, but he’s also no slouch when it comes to the kitchen.  He’s studied at the very prestigious Culinary Institute of America, he’s cooked for many great restaurants, and he’s the chef behind about half the recipes on our blog.  He has all of the gastronomic bases covered.

All this and he’s also a down to earth, solid, great guy and a wonderful friend.

Congratulations Chris, you’ve earned it!