Curious Appetite

organic

Organic, sustainable cheese tasting in Tuscany

Historical town center of Montepulciano

I recently visited a local farm for a cheese and wine tour in the Tuscan town Montepulciano, (just 1.5 hours south of Florence) and I have to say I had my mind blown just a little bit.

The farm I visited has a little over 100 sheep and goat to produce the typical pecorino toscano cheese that is so fundamental to Tuscan cheese culture.  Pecorino is Italian for sheep milk cheese (although some mix in some goat milk), and  Tuscany is not the only region that has its own pecorino cheese. Like you may have heard of pecorino romano (from Lazio) or pecorino sardo (from Sardinia). History of sheep’s milk cheese dates back several centuries as the food was a luxury item for the nobility but also at the same time a form of sustenance for pastoral peasants as the cheese packs a lot of flavor when aged (perfect for enhancing a peasant vegetable soup) or a lot of nutrition when fresh (like fresh pecorino).

curious farmimals

What was interesting to me is that the farm was completely organic and produced also grains (which they use for pasta and bread making), olive oil (like everyone in Tuscany- olive trees are everywhere here), wine and apiculture (honey!). I was happy to see some young people working the farm because this today is sort of trendy but realistically, a self-sustaining farm is how Italians have survived in historically poor eras and how many rural societies operate today.Rural communities produce and exchange (or sell) with their neighbors and on a small (organic) scale, it can work.

Peacocks are on the organic farm because they are a sort of snake control patrol

However, more and more people are becoming less and less interested in working in the fields and migrating to cities for office jobs. Part of this has forced big farms to become the norm and thus increased their thirst (and need) for profit by using non-organic means. There is no way the world can produce natural, organic small scale produced food for what like 7 billion people especially when agronomists and farmers are dwindling and land grabs for urban sprawl are increasing.

As much as I am a huge proponent for sustainable, organic food- I also realize that at this current time it is impossible to expect. However, in a small country like Italy- it could make sense. Except the fact that people are generally poor here and it makes sense for a family to buy a kilo of breakfast cookies for €4 euros by a huge multinational who is probably sourcing flour from several countries (whose quality standards I question) than buy organic whole grain locally baked ones for more than triple the price. There is no way a bag of cookies that weighs a kilo could cost €4 without cutting corners, and in my opinion- safety.

More and more I see the importance of organic food production. Digesting agri-chemicals which leave residue on our food undoubtedly is unhealthy and increases our risk for disease when constantly exposed. It’s not just consuming the food with chemical residue- it’s the production plants that undoubtedly pollute the air and water of nearby towns. It’s a risk to the farm workers breathing in the sprays in the fields.  It’s the petrol chemicals being refined in order to produce them. It’s the fracking for oil which then pollutes our environment (water included) which is then needed to extract energy to produce agrichemicals. But as much as I am lecturing on about this- I don’t see any other realistic alternative at this time. Unless of course, we all go back to nature and learn to be somewhat self-sufficient. Or until green energy becomes profitable. Organic food is definitely profitable but that means only a select few can actually afford it. And that’s not right. Everyone has the right to clean and healthy food that won’t poison them. But something has got to give. We need to learn how to even just grow herbs on our windowsill. I have friends in Italy who are letting their family vineyards be demolished because they have no interest in carrying on the tradition of family wine production. We need to somehow bring back interest in self-sufficiency and pressure our elected officials to invest more in organic agriculture and divest in agribusiness. We decidedly depend too much on the market to provide things we can’t be bothered to produce and demand too much from it to be perfect.

Cheese drying, fresh ricotta and Pecorino Cheese flight- starting from 2 days old to 2 years old. Honey included.
Cheese drying, fresh ricotta and Pecorino Cheese flight- starting from 2 days old to 2 years old. Honey included.

So I didn’t talk so much about the amazing cheese flight, floral thick honey and the lovely homestyle organic wine…because well, these topics impressed me more. That a group of people have chosen to go against the grain and live a rough, rural lifestyle for the sake of clean food. These people have to work hard to maintain an organic production site- it’s not always rosy. They have to decide to live in the inefficiencies of the countryside in total isolation. But it is a sacrifice that creates beautiful foods that nourish not only the people that visit, but keeps the idealism alive that the world can be a healthy, organic and green planet. 

The grass is always greener on the other side
The grass is always greener on the other side

Yours in organic advocacy,

Curious Appetite

Golden Beetle: Maria Hine's tipsy spinoff

You know that feeling when you and millions of other people discover a movie so good it becomes a cult classic? It’s so good that you almost want a sequel so the genius of the 1st one just keeps entertaining you? Without further adieu, that much anticipated sequel arrives…

Golden Beetle is Maria Hines’ newest venture following Tilth, a local, organic comfort food institution. Lady Hines even competed on Iron Chef and sliced everyone away.  You do not wanna mess with these skills. Tilth is unlike any other New American restaurant in town. So what do you do when you are so well received; not only by your eaters and Iron Chef judges, but by The James Beard Foundation, The NY Times AND Food & Wine Magazine? Naturally, you come up with a sequel.

Tilth seems to always be bustling and humming, making it hard to reserve a seat less than a week in advance. Golden Beetle has been open for about a year and I am not convinced of its soul quite yet. I see tables filled but it still seems a little sterile. The food is good, but I think it’s a little too forced. By the way, “good” is probably one of the most frustrating descriptions you can give for “food.” What is good, exactly?

For happy hour, they have some reasonable small plates all under $5. I really can’t ask for a better value from such the highly revered chef. The good stuff to order is the Lamb Chickpea Stew. Its small but packs a filling punch with chickpeas bathing in Moroccan spices and little studs of lamb popping out behind preserved lemon notes.  Another good item to order if you would like to be confused would be the Skagit River Ranch Sliders with tomato sauce and pickled cucumber. I’m a tad befuddled, how is a mini-burger (aka a pretentious “deconstruction” of a White Castle burghetto) Mediterranean? In Golden Beetle’s case, its cramming the patty with a confusing mix of Greek-Turkish-Italian spices and herbs then getting roasted pepper tomato soup poured on top of this constructed “slider.” I mean, at the end it was good. But not very impressive.

Another baffle was the service. Also ordered was a Hummus and Pita small plate ($4). This came with a generous ramiken-sized serving of decently garlicked chickpea mash, but it came with 6 tiny squares of fresh pita. Obviously, there was more dip than bread could handle. When asked to bring extra bread, considering the obvious underestimation of bread:dip ration, this came with an additional $3 cost. So the happy hour item turned out to be $7 and when I looked at the normal menu, the same hummus plate is priced at $3. Hmmmmm.

I was a little frustrated by the haphazard over-spicing and a little put off by the pretentious gloat of all the “handmade” goods like sumac bitters and harissa sauce. Ever been to Mediterranean Mix in Pioneer SQ? Well, it’s a little hole-in-the-wall that serves up steaming fresh gyros just glazing with homemade from scratch hummus, marinated juicy lamb, raw grassy gyro-friendly herbs and cradled by a pillowy soft slightly spotty charred pita. For probably $6 bucks. And made by the Mediterranean-sourced owner themselves who isn’t afraid to look you in the eye, say hello and ask how many brothers and sisters you have. I feel like no matter how much one travels to these parts of the world, doing culinary research, and trying to merge the local ideologies they hold back home, you just can’t imitate Mediterranean culture, food is culture. I don’t care if its local and organic, the fact is you are trying to stick it to me for 6 cubes of bread. And you’re missing the warm personable spirit of the Romance cultures you are trying to impart into your sequel. And that just won’t fly with me, lady. No matter how fancy your bitters are.

Emmer and Rye.

Emmer and Rye, ahhhh. A few weeks back I was refused a dining experience due to lack of reservation. I did succeed in getting a table, and miraculously I lived through the icy spine splitting awkwardness of our waitress to tell about it.

Emmer and Eye is a seasonal celebration of the local goodness artful chefs and the Pacific Northwest have to offer, perched on the top of Queen Anne in a cozy 100yr old Victorian home.

Emmer is basically the ancient wheat grain. Like Farro. Which is Spelt. But grown in Washington. Rye is Rye.  Recipes change according to Season. We are now in Spring. So we ordered a bunny. Ill get to that in a sec.

Starters:

These “Farro Fries” basically looked like fish sticks but were made with a farro batter and lightly fried. A tad crunchy on the outside like a crisp fry but saltily buttered texture inside with beads of farro grain to give you some chewage. Then this yogurt sauce that came on top was slightly minty and garlicky. Not too garlicky. I really resent that adj. “garlicky”. But it kinda was.

Oysters. Think lemon spritz mini explosion washed down with a touch of olive oil.

Chunked slices of Pork belly over heirloom beans and Chicory Greens.  The Pork belly looked like slices of pure fat but had a surprisingly meaty punch. The fat was so sweet mesquity that I could swear these pigs grazed on hazelnuts. The texture almost reminded me of Bulgogi beef rib meat, you know the real fatty meaty ribs that melt in your mouth that makes you growl in guilt the morning after for eating 12 of them. The beans? Well we tried to figure out what put the “heirloom” in these beans because they just looked like a mix of pinto and black beans. They probably were but had a better fiber mouth feel. Anything with bacon is a winner. 5 bucks for this locally sourced seasonal happy plate. When i told my So. California based sister about this dish she questioned its seasonality for Fall.  Yep, thats the PNW for you, basically always Fall year round. But if bacon is a Fall food, i’m glad to be in the PNW.

We also got a cheese plate. a Black truffle brie like creme soft gooey cheese. A sharp cabot cheddar from Vermont. Which obviously was not local, and consequently my least favorite cheese, not sharp and a little too hard.  Then a semi hard scotch washed rind white almost cheddar cheese. Smelled like feet, tasted like scotchy nutty cheddery crumbly hard cheese. Yummmm. Then a baby boy blue cheese. Super almost really creamy yet firm, with just a streak of blue (hence the baby) which gave the surrounding a more fresh cream compliment to the aspiring gorgonzola. This plate came centered with an apple cherry conserve and house baked apricot studded whole grain bread. 8 dollars. Take that wolf cooker, Stowell!

These were just apps.

The 1st main: Half Chicken with morel cream, wilted greens and orzette potatoes. They were the happy chickens. They had to be, the skin was so oily and tender yet crispy and the meat moist and beaming with juicy happy flavors. The Morels were perfect, perfect touch of cream, perfect cookature, perfect foraged mushroom earth to compliment the greens and buttery golden tater slice.  I never thought of morels to be so yummy and meaty-like.

Then we ordered the bunny. Actually we ordered the braised rabbit over fresh nettle in-house made pappardelle pasta with carrots and thyme but when the waitress came out she said “here’s your bunny!” Talk about mortified! She said thats what they call it in the kitchen, and apparently thats what they called it on the bill.  It was my 1st time ever eating rabbit and I wasn’t grossed out, it was a very interesting reminder of game and chicken. Shredded and slightly smidgenly juicy. The pasta was interesting, never thought of eating nettle pasta but it tasted like a very grained herbaceous yet almost basilic pasta. Al dente.

DESSERTS! So our waitress was really akward, she maybe warmed up to us after 3 hours, meaning she smiled. is a smirk a smile? She had a real hard time looking at us and i’m pretty sure she cast a spell on us and our bunny. It wasn’t that she gave bad service, I don’t think she was even capable of utilizing any personality except awkward and plain-face stare at a wall while you order.  It was quite the hurdle to get our hands on the dessert menu as a result, but when we did, we let our taste buds play with salted caramel rocky road toasted marshmallow brownie and a mini apple galette with a golf ball of browned butter gelato. I wasn’t a huge fan of the apple tart thing, the crust was good and dense with butter, but the apples were kinda bland. But the brown butter gelato was some story. Flecks of vanilla bean and good burnt butter flavor. Full bodied for just butter and vanilla gelato. But the brownie!!! The caramel was so rich and salty (good) and sweet but tart and dark and of course tasted of butter! Ahhhman it was good! I licked the plate basically! And the hazelnuts were toasted and still super fresh and complemented the fudgey chocolate brownie. The toasted marshmallow was adorable. I spooned it with the brownie caramel and hazelnuts for the best explosion of sweet sour bitter and butter I can put in my memory. Yummy  sticky vanilla chewy goodness. Ahhhh.

So the verdict, with all that food (plus a leek nettle-mint hazelnut soup I left out) plus crisp white wine and a rye manhattan, our bill had us each pay out less than 25bucks. We did make happy hour, but still that was totally worth it and way better than How to Cook a Wolf. The atmosphere was less snooty, more homey, and despite our (new) awkward waitress, the people were pretty nice and unpretentious. I highly recommend this joint. Its some of the best food i’ve had in Seattle yet.