Posts Tagged ‘terroir’


Salted-caramel vanilla and dark chocolate. It was a chocolate day.

I was back in Princeton last Sunday in order to eat ice cream. I say this without the faintest trace of shame. Apparently so were the 15 people ahead of me in line at the bent spoon. It was an eerie, balmy 64 degrees in late February. But the temperature matters not. Not when it comes to this place. More on that later.

For the past three years I’ve done prop design for the February show at my alma mater, which is near Princeton. And I arrange time to get ice cream as often as I can over the course of the contract, even though it’s around an hour to the school and another 20 beyond that to Nassau Street and the smarterati. I love the trip, I love the town, and I love that scream.

Ice cream is not much of a gamble; in my experience, at worst, it’s just okay. (Calling ‘just okay’ in this case ‘plain vanilla’ would be too gratuitous. Uh oh; I said it anyhow.) I have never had bad ice cream, with the exception of one place here at the Jersey Shore that touts its product as healthy, but quite resembles very cold malleable plastic. Melt down the clear plastic bins from Target that you use to store soccer cleats in your garage, pop them in the freezer overnight, and you’d have this. It’s test-tube ice cream. No milk, I don’t think. I doubt a cow was even consulted.

This ice cream place, the bent spoon, is the polar opposite. It goes beyond even good ice cream, the way some farms go beyond organic. It is a tiny, tiny place that somehow manages to offer a few dozen varieties of ice cream and sorbet every day (along with homemade hot chocolate, marshmallows, and baked goods), and they make a point to be seasonally and locally driven.

Princeton is blessed by location, and we patrons are the enormously lucky beneficiaries. The town is at the western end of the state, and borders farmland. It’s hard to overstate how proud the region is of its produce; nearly every food venue offers locally grown products and makes sure we know it.

The picture above is no example of local, I’ll admit. But the calendar has plenty to work with: strawberry and honeysuckle in spring, sweet corn in summer, apples and pumpkin in fall. The bent spoon owners want us to taste where we come from, and where we come from is the Garden State. Even in winter the place makes ice cream flavored with evergreen; it’s spicy and heady.

I’ve gotten two scoops on days that are 36 degrees, days where the bitter wind whips down the sidewalks of Palmer Square, but does devotion care for temperature? Does love follow rules?

We closed the show last weekend, and my trips to Princeton are benched for now. But I’ll be back with the honeysuckle.

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It’s entirely possible* I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who, but as I picked honeysuckle this morning I wondered whether a plant growing in a particular place becomes imbued with the spirit and motivations of the people who spend time there.

It’s a sly sideways view of terroir, the ancient notion that says what’s produced in a certain area is the result of a confluence of factors that include sun, rain, soil, and more. The product, whatever it is, absorbs the qualities inherent in that particular environment. This gives it a singular flavor, one that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Many, many examples support this. There are San Marzano tomatoes, first developed in Italy. They’re prized among chefs, who attribute their intense richness to the volcanic soil in which they were grown. Connossieurs in India scoff at American-grown basmati rice (‘Texmati’), saying fragrant, long-grained basmati rice is not the same if grown outside India. Grass-fed New Zealand lamb has unsurpassed flavor and texture. I could go on.

If this is true, if tomatoes and rice and lamb can carry within them tangible components from their environments, how far-fetched is it to imagine they can carry intangible ones as well?

My favorite small farm is a half hour south of me. The food they grow is lovely. But I drive out there just as much for the serenity that wraps around me with the wind in those fields, for the peace that’s cultivated along with the English garden peas. I go because I know the integrity of the farmer and his family and staff. That integrity means their produce is more than an itemized scale of nutrients. It’s food plus a great deal of heart. And yeah, it tastes like it. At least to me.


A hot water and sugar treatment. It’s like Elizabeth Arden for flowers.

Another example. Native nations in the U.S. often wore animal skins, bone, and feathers—not to be decorative, but because they believed in doing so they would take on characteristics of those animals. And who couldn’t use extraordinary strength (buffalo), regenerative powers (bear), and shrewdness (coyote)?

Let’s take it one step farther and throw people into the mix. I know I am the product of my many manufacturers. They include the food I ate, the sea-and-lake misty air I breathed, and the trees I played under as a kid. But they are also my parents, my teachers, my friends, the good and bad words, the wisdom and the idiocy. They all formed me as much as the pasta I ate. All were my terroir, and I’d wager so were yours.


I’m mostly pasta, though.

Back to honeysuckle. It’s an invasive and grows almost everywhere there’s dirt and something to climb. But I still shopped around before I found my favorite place to pick the flowers. Didn’t want to pick too close to a parking lot, junkyard, high-traffic road, or residential yard. That’s about exhaust fume and pesticide pollution. But I’d equally dismiss flowers grown on perfect, organic public lands close to a contentious family, or near the home of someone who routinely chooses nastiness over kindness. It’s one of the benefits of living in a small town; information like this is easy to come by.

Tell me this isn’t the ideal spot: a fence maybe 12′ by 30′, and in between, a solid, opaque wall of flowers. If this honeysuckle hedge had eyes it would have within its view our little baseball field, train station, playground, and lake. Hundred-year-old trees shade it east and west, twice a day, and the rest of the time it’s blessed with full sun. All day long the flowers witness, and pick up the good vibes of, pick-up baseball games, kids on swings, canoers, dog-walkers, and families meeting tired commuters, the latter of whom always take a big breath when they step off the train.

It’s not all ice cream there, of course. Kids will get mad at other kids and yell, ‘No fair!’ Commuters have to go to work, as well as come home from it. There’s bad with the good. But that’s as it should be; and anyway, the good far outweighs. Even the honeysuckle flowers come in two different colors (orange and yellow), have two different flavors, and grow in pairs. A little of this and a little of that. Both are required for a well-rounded syrup.

It could all be in my head, this entire-environs theory of mine. But I don’t think so.


On the below, which I dreamed up kind of out of nowhere: I liked the idea of pairing honeysuckle with almond, as they both share floral flavors. The chocolate garnish was inevitable.

1) I made the syrup.**.

2) Next came the custard. I used Martha’s vanilla pudding recipe. I left out the vanilla, and instead, once cool, I stirred in about 2/3 cup of syrup.

3) For the tart shells, I also used Martha’s pate brisee recipe, and substituted 1.5 cups of almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour called for. Baked it in cute little tart pans.

4) Then I piled up the custard into the shells, shaved some really good-quality bittersweet chocolate (Noi Sirius Pure Icelandic Chocolate, from Whole Foods) into the middles, toasted a few sliced almonds, and added those to the top, too. Made a heckuva good teatime treat today, along with the extra custard I ate out of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

(Did I say ice cream in a honeysuckle post? Honeysuckle…ice cream! Next on the hit parade. :))


Honeysuckle Custard Tarts with Salted Almond Shells, Shaved Chocolate, and Toasted Almonds. Righteous ensemble.

*Let’s call it likely and move on.

**For more on the embarrassingly simple process, see last year’s post.

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October’s the Nigella Lawson of the year, an earth mother clad in warm colors, exuberant with life and heart, and eager to feed everybody. In temperate climates, farm stands overflow with the last of Summer’s tomatoes propped next to Fall’s butternuts. Apples, pears and figs hang heavy from trees, and the lustrous bloom on grapes foreshadows the frost soon to come.

With such abundance, it’s the best time of year to appreciate terroir—that ancient notion of place, and the confluence of elements from sky and soil that makes whatever that place produces unique.

In Italy in particular, each region takes enormous pride in the food that grew from its own soil, nourished by the peculiarities of the climate and the conditions of the land there. The pride of ownership comes from knowing that that patch of soil has its own character and what grows there can’t really be reproduced anywhere else.

What’s more, bringing together the produce of a region creates a unique harmony of flavor. Pasta made from local wheat, a sauce made from tomatoes from the garden, wine from the vineyard down the road, and ground beef from your sister-in-law’s farm—together they sing in their own distinctive way.

Calimyrna fig, a couple of days shy from ripeness.

Think about what your region produces. Is it known for specific types of fruits and vegetables? Unusual varieties, stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere? Or does it just grow the basics really, really well?

I live in New Jersey, which comes with its requisite jokes. But no one quibbles with our produce. Say what you will about us—we produce a damn good tomato. And peach, and apple, and blueberry, for that matter.

‘Liberty’ apple tree.

New Jersey’s beef, lamb, pork, poultry and cheese have a purity of flavor unmatched by those not eaten at the source. Beef stock made from local, pasture-fed cows won’t smell tinny or salty like canned stock. It will smell fresh and clean—like the grass that created it.

All of the produce in the photos here were taken at Silverton Farms in Toms River, NJ, an organic farm about which I could rhapsodize for hours. They do it right, from their philosophy (sustainability), to their work ethic (hard) to their exceptional produce (authentic flavors). They live terroir.

‘Pink Banana’ winter squash.

Now’s the time to get it all in—flavor, pleasure, pride.

Find out what’s growing around you right now and seek it out. Wherever you are, there’s something growing nearby; and whatever it is, since it’s in season, it doesn’t need much to make it taste the best it can. It might need nothing at all.

Take a bite. What you’re eating won’t taste like THIS anywhere else on the planet.  Do you taste it, the sweet conspiracy of sun and rain and wind on your little bit of the earth?

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I grew up eating Kraft singles. Probably many of you did, too. Tidy orange squares in tidy individual plastic wrappers. We called it cheese, but it was, and is, a total head fake: processed, dyed orange to look like Cheddar, and the first slice I ever ate tasted just exactly like the last slice I ever ate.

It did for you too?

Okay, now focus on the pretty picture above. That isn’t pretend. I took it last week at a farm in Lawrenceville, NJ. The sky really was impossibly blue, the sun really did shine and warm, and the cows really did politely moo. I thought I was just going to learn how this farm makes cheese. Silly me.

Kraft singles, reality TV that isn’t, Botox. CNN. it’s getting harder and harder to know when something’s real and when we’re being put on. It’s making us jaded, but even worse than that, it’s making us settle for less.

Today we’re going to look at something real. Are you in?

Boots and crocs to wear in the cheesemaking rooms.

Organic artisanal cheese, made in small batches, by hand.

Cherry Grove Farm’s head cheesemaker is also the farm manager, Kelly Harding. Sam assists, Ron interns, and Natalie makes the goat cheese. I came to talk to Sam and Ron during what they call the spring flush, when the grass is high and the cows produce the most milk. Cheese made here, from grass-fed cows, is more wholesome than average cheese; it’s full of omega-3 fatty acids which are great for your heart, and it’s higher in unsaturated fat and lower in cholesterol. (Sam tells me customer reaction to this news: ‘Wait, wait, wait…it tastes better AND it’s better for me?’) In the spring the grass is also high in beta-carotene; cheese produced now will have a yellow tint, while cheese made much later in the year, when the cows eat hay, will be whiter.

Boots on, hands washed, into the room with the big vat.

We’re making Toma, a tangy, raw milk cheese. into the 400 +/- gallons of milk goes rennet, an enzyme that coagulates the milk, turning it into Miss Muffett’s curds and whey.

This gets mixed,

the curds are cut with a curd screen,

after which they ‘knit’ for twenty minutes. The whey is drained off to be fed to the appreciative pigs that roam Cherry Grove’s tree line. When it’s ready—and Sam says much of knowing when is intuitive, determined by feel—then the curd is cut into portions:

and set into brine-soaked cheesecloth that’s placed inside cheese molds. The molds have small drainage holes at their bases, and the brine helps to form the rind.

The curds are pressed for three hours…

but they’re unmolded and inverted every half hour during this time. The below shot was taken after the first press. Looks like a cake wrapped in homemade fondant, but it smells sweet and a little salty.

Tomas are brined the following morning and need ‘affinage,’ or finishing, so I’ll have to wait until it’s wrapped up and hits the shelves to try the final product.

Right around here, when Sam inverts the cheese and I pull up a stool, I get some good back story.

Sam’s a CIA grad who burned the proverbial candle at both ends in restaurant kitchens before deciding to give cheesemaking a try. He’s been with Cherry Grove for two years and loves it. I always do a double take when someone says he loves his job. Did one here too. But he really meant it.

The man gets up at 4a excited about the day ahead, has much less stress, and says he sleeps better than he ever has. He is also almost entirely a locavore, eating Cherry Grove fresh produce along with their fresh eggs, lamb, beef and pork (see ‘appreciative pigs’, above). Sam cans and freezes produce as well.

When the cows stop lactating from mid-December to mid-March, Sam loves (there’s that word again) going to farmers’ markets with Cherry Grove’s wares in tow. He gets to meet old/loyal customers and new/curious customers, and they get to ask questions and shake the hand of the guy who made the incredible Brie they’ve been smearing on Ritz crackers all year.

Ron, most amiable intern, calls himself a ‘recovering chemist’ with a specialty in milk. He always said he wanted to retire a farmer; bored and burned out sitting in a cube, he figured he’d get a jump on it now. A month in, he says he’s happier waking up at the crack of dawn to work for no pay than he ever was in corporate America. I should mention that at the end of a very physical day at Cherry Grove he drives the hour home to tend to his own 3/4 acre, on which grows a garden, a handful of fruit trees, goats, and chickens. And he loves it—all of it.

These two guys worked like demons at their jobs and went home every night dissatisfied, not knowing exactly what they had accomplished. Then they got up again the next morning and did it again. Show of hands for who understands that feeling.

Here the three of us get into an animated discussion about terroir. Your great-great-grandmother probably didn’t call it that or even have a name for this idea, probably because it was so natural that it wasn’t necessary. Terroir is the ancient notion that food cultivated in a certain place, with that place’s peculiarities of sun, soil, and rain, makes that food unique. All national cuisines were built on this, America’s included, but we got away from it in the middle of the last century. We’re starting to get reacquainted, slowly, and I think we’re the better for it.

At Cherry Grove, terroir is a way of life—every 4 o’clock, rainy Tuesday, drowsy August. It’s business as usual, same as for your great-great-grandmother peeling wild apples over a bowl so she could feed the scraps to the pigs. The pork from her farm had a different flavor than the pork at her brother’s place in Ohio; the confluence of her climate with the work of her own hands made it different, even if it was the same breed of pig. That was a point of pride for her.

Similarly, when it comes to cheesemaking at Cherry Grove, no two batches are ever exactly the same. Yesterday’s milk is today’s cheese, made from whatever the girls, the soil, and the weather offered that day. The character and texture of the cheese will vary slightly, the way handmade wine or olive oil will. That’s a good thing, I think, in an increasingly homogenized world. Cherry Grove’s cheese bears its own stamp of identity, right down to the combination of diverse kinds of cows’ milk.

Next we visit the three cheese ‘caves’. They’re rooms kept at a certain temperature and humidity, based on whatever’s best for whatever cheese. Serving as a cool incubator, the unripe, ‘green’ cheese lives there until it’s ready to eat. The smell in the caves is salty, tangy, earthy.

Here’s Brie, young and sweet. Next it will be wrapped in waxy paper, creating a micro-climate inside which it can ripen further.

Here are Somersets getting good and moldy,

and Tomas, buttery yellow when youngest, and getting orangey as they age.

Full Nettle Jack. Flecked with bits of green nettles, the name is not just clever, but surprisingly apropos. Dark, earthy, moody—this a cheese that, if it had a thing for movies, actually would go for Kubrick. It’s complex and wonderful.

Cheese, like wine, or olive oil, or a person, for that matter, is the product of environment—stormy or sunny, dry or saturating, stressed out in an open-cube farm or stress-less looking out over an open-pasture farm. And when it comes to that person, it makes a difference knowing he isn’t just auto-piloting through his days, but instead is crafting something, every day, with pride, something that has its own unique character and texture. And behind the scenes, without even necessarily knowing it, he’s doing the same thing for himself.

Your great-great-grandmother knew exactly what she put out into the world every day and was proud of it. She would have laughed at the idea of Botox—what woman who knows what she’s made of needs that? She didn’t settle for fake. She didn’t have to. Neither do we.


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