Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Case for Trade: Learning from Each Other

 The growth of good-tasting, small-production food in America—and parts of Europe—over the last decade has been great to witness. Eating here is so much better than it was twenty years ago. In restaurants alone the change is staggering. On recent trips to Italy I've found myself wishing I was eating pasta in New York, something that would not have occurred to me in 1990.

I’ve also seen several food making communities blossom where before there had been only large industrial operations. The number of small cheesemakers in the Northeastern U.S. and England has exploded. America’s Midwest is littered with excellent new artisan chocolate makers. So is most of Italy. Craft beer has had a solid run and craft distilling is coming on strong, especially in New York. Charcuterie and butchers are next. They have been growing in number, first in London, now New York and California. They will be headed inland.

This has all happened alongside a growing interest in locally made food.

To some extent it’s easy to think of the local food movement and international trade as opposite sides of the same coin. The perceived wisdom is that Local is small, worthy, good and environmentally sensitive. International trade is thought of as large, unsustainable, evil and environmentally harmful. I’ll leave most of those arguments aside for now (though I’d be happy to discuss them since many economists and food writers like Michael Pollan have shown that foods made farther away—those made in the best suited climate—can be more environmentally responsible than those made locally).

The case I want to make for trade is this: a lot of our excellent, local, American food wouldn’t be here today without trade. The expertise, the learning, the standards, the give and take—all were a product of trade. Great American food became that way as quickly as it did because we had superior food from other places to learn from and build on.

I’ll use one example from my own experience. Neal’s Yard Dairy is our London connection for handcrafted, farmhouse British cheese. They’re not just Zingerman’s connection, though. Many cheesemongers in America have visited them to learn how to do affinage (cheese aging), to select cheese, to learn their time tested processes. That has made American cheese shops much better. The cheeses that we import from Neal’s Yard have set a standard for excellence that has also inspired American cheesemakers. Many of them, most notably, Andy & Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill  have visited England to learn from the British, to design their new American cheeses and to build their own caves for aging and selection. Before Neal's Yard, American cheese was at a lower level. They're certainly not to be given all the credit for its revival and surge in quality. But to say they did nothing wouldn't be true either. They played a very meaningful part, especially through trade.

For me, trade and local are part of the same coin. Choosing local food doesn’t mean you have to opt out of the global economy. If you choose good companies to trade with, be they across the globe or next door, the food will be better and more sustainable. Great  food companies, no matter where they are located, feed each other, teach each other, learn from each other and, if done right, make each other, and the world, better off.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What's Breed Got To Do With It? La Quercia's Radical Take on Ham.

 At Becker Lane Farm in spring the piglets roam outside their huts.

Talk to Herb Eckhouse, the founder of La Quercia, and you might forget that he cures ham for a living. You’d be forgiven for confusing him for a winemaker since he uses a similar vocabulary. He calls pig breeds “varietals.” He refers to his standard cured ham as the “house blend.” And he describes ham aroma and flavors like he’s got his nose perched over a prize vintage, using words like “beguiling,” “fruity” and “perfumed.”

This may come off as frippery—until you taste the ham. Trust me, he's not being over the top. This is ham that deserves a rotund vocabulary. The similarities with wine are not just show. They illustrate something that La Quercia is doing that few others are: focusing on breed. Herb feels the breed of the hog is the main conributor to prosciutto flavor in the same way the variety of grape contributes to wine flavor.

This may seem obvious but it's certainly not standard wisdom in the cured meat world. While living in Italy in the early 1990s Herb visited prosciutto makers to learn what they did. He was regularly told that he would probably not be able to cure ham in Iowa because there was something special about Parma’s air. To them, that was a key factor. Breed was never mentioned. Being American and scientifically skeptical (a trait we share), he thought air might not be that important. But he kept his mouth shut.

Truth is, I hear this kind of thing all the time. You can’t make bagels outside New York because New York has special water. You can’t make bourbon outside Kentucky because Kentucky has a special climate AND special water. Far more often than not, in my opinion, these kinds of claims are more atmosphere than fact. Like with Herb’s hams, it’s the ingredients—in this case, the ham itself, the breed of pig—that influence the vast majority of the flavor. How much is the air affecting a four inch thick dense chunk of meat coated in salt? Probably not much. Herb cured his first ham in his living room. He told me it tasted delicious.
While nearly all Italian prosciutto makers and American ham curers use standard breed white pigs, La Quercia focuses on heirloom breed Berkshire and Berkshire cross hogs. Berkshire hogs have been bred for flavor. They are renowned for their distinctive “porkiness.” Standard breed white pigs haven’t exactly been bred for lack of flavor, but their flavor-enhancing characteristics have been downplayed to market pork as “the other white meat” and to encourage fast growth and consistent, large litters.

Berkshire hogs were rediscovered by chefs in America about ten years ago. Until then most were sent to Japan. (Sometimes it seems like you can build a successful food business by simply researching what we export to Japan and sell it back to Americans.) Today, Herb works with Paul Willis, Jude Becker and other Iowa farmers who raise heirloom pigs humanely, with outdoor access, common social area, and no sub-theraputic hormones. The cured ham we've just started carrying, exclusive to ZMO, is all from Jude Becker's farm, 100% organic, 100% Berkshire.

Italian and Spanish cured hams have long ruled the roost. That may change. After all, European wines had a nearly exclusive hold on greatness until thirty or forty years ago. In 1976 Californian wines went to Paris and famously won a blind tasting against some of France’s most prestigious vintners. There hasn’t been a comparable international ham tasting. But if there is and La Quercia is among the contestants, I woudn’t bet against the Americans.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Vote for Zingerman's Holiday Catalog Cover

The Fall Buyers Guide catalog is in homes next week. Ryan Stiner illustrated the cover, above. If you're a  graphic design buff you might recognize the debt to Saul Bass. He was an iconic American graphic designer who's probably best known for his work with film posters like these:

We're going to pick up on Saul's theme again for a catalog that comes out near Christmas. The cover will feature holiday cakes (gingerbread coffeecake, stollen, panettone and so on). We're down the road a bit in the process, near final approval. These are Ryan's two latest sketches. 

Care to cast a vote for your favorite? 
Do it in the comments section at ZMO Journal.