When I originally set out to do this episode I really wanted to theme it around 'Labels'. Keeping up with the pertinent information on a label is a battle I constantly come up against; whether I'm shopping at my neighborhood market, speaking to friends of the show, or in the field filming. The misinformation on our food labels today is atrocious. It's uncouth. It's trickery. It's frustrating as all hell and I'm frankly quite tired of it.
Look no further than the world of olive oil for this misinforming mayhem-- the deceit in the industry has spawned best selling books, lawsuits, and even involved organized crime. But in my research for the episode I was thrilled to learn that the Olive Oil Commission of California keeps tightening our labeling laws here in America to maintain some sense of integrity in the region's growing industry.
So as I got into the actual filming of the episode, the story began to take broader shape and my sights set on a new target: Farm to Table.
This obnoxious buzz word has been plaguing my food obsessions for the last handful of years and seems to be growing in strength, yet the substance dwindles. Just look at what this Florida journalist uncovered once she looked beyond the flowery language on her Tampa restaurant menus. And once I grow a proper sized pair of lady balls, Portland Oregon is going to get a nice kick in the ass with all the bull shit they've been getting away with. (Sorry guys, but it's my job.)
What happens when chefs or restaurant owners or farmers or food kingpins declare something as authentically "farm to table" that is not- the actually authentic suffer. Slow Foods Ark of Taste list gets larger. Farmers go out of business-- or likely get sold to larger companies. And eaters like myself keep perpetuating this vicious cycle while blindly throwing our money at items we think are doing good things in this world.
In this episode I visit two *real* extra virgin olive oil producers in Sonoma County, explore oyster farming with a very charming guy in Humboldt County, and spend a sweaty afternoon harvesting an Ark of Taste ingredient: Sonora Wheat on Kingbird Farms.
Farmer Adam's drought-tolerant Sonora Wheat became somewhat the canary in the coalmine on this whole farm to table thing in my eyes. My reasons? 1) California is going through a very public, very controversial drought and agriculture is at the center of who to blame (just google 'California farmers water war' and get to reading. You kinda end up where you started), 2) Wheat is already such an argued around ingredient given the onslaught of gluten allergies these days, and 3) Grains are rarely what gets celebrated as 'farm to table' on hip restaurants chic menus. Plus, in my days of doing this show I've learned we lose an incredible bulk of the nutrients with mass-harvested grains and wheat is hugely subsidized taking over patch works of American land (and many folks in the know believe mono-cropping is ultimately not good for our internal or external health).
Could grains serve as a new opportunity for farm to table to hold some weight again?
You'll see in the episode that harvesting, thrushing, and milling grain on a small-scale is a real pain in the ass. It's time consuming for the volume and quick to see why it became a scaleable production the way it has. Like anything worth doing, creating a better grain production system is not going to be easy. But it is happening. I've seen it in Northern Italy and North Carolina at former baker Jennifer's new mills: Carolina Ground. The idea of co-operative grain production, Adam speaks of in the episode, is not only doable, it's happening.
When chefs or food producers engage with farmers like Adam to bring things like his wheat to the table, it enhances and lifts a whole food system efficiently with massive potential. And given the amount we consume olive oil and wheat on a regular basis-- the story becomes much bigger than our labeling system. It's Farm to Table done right.
CREATE YOUR OWN CULINARY ADVENTURE IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA:
- The Delta region in Sacramento County is a step back in time with tiny, quiet towns dotting the Sacramento River. The Walnut Grove area makes a perfect base camp to explore dive bars, farm stands, roll on the river, and maybe catch a few crawdads. Spend a few nights soaking and snoozing in the restored Japanese bath houses: Miyazaki Bath House.
- Checking out Apollo Olive Oil and Trattore Farms in Sonoma will give you a perfect contrast of production size but each with an emphasis on quality.
- If you prefer the city life, I had a great time hanging out with Chef Oliver at Grange Restaurant. He's not just a spot-on chef, but a pretty swell guy. Plus, it's in the Citizen Hotel, which is the best place to stay in Sacramento.
- Wow was I blown away by Humboldt Bay! Jon has created an amazing visitors center (that's the bar with the oysters and cool looking beer glasses you see in act 3) and a slew of tours you can take. Oysters and Weed would make a pretty fun two-day weekend! Plus, Jon rents out really cool vacation homes right on the beach. Cue the campfires and morning walks.