Saturday, October 04, 2014

Seeds of an Idea: Chefs Working with Farmers

You remember Mendel's peas from your fourth-grade science class, don't you? Where this guy named Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian priest, grew peas in his abbey's garden and noticed how certain traits were dominant, meaning they could be passed on to future generations, helping to establish many of the rules of heredity.

Talkin' squash with Alex Stone of OSU.

Historically, farmers bred vegetables for themselves and their local communities, choosing seeds that would flourish in a particular climate or elevation and that their families and neighbors could enjoy. For the last several decades, the advent of large corporate agriculture, where crops are grown and shipped to markets far from where they are grown, has meant that new vegetables have been bred for traits like yield, storability, appearance and the ability to withstand the rigors of transport.

You want peppers? We got peppers!

Flavor, that most ephemeral of qualities, has fallen by the wayside in the industrial model, resulting in bland tomatoes, greens that taste like cardboard and fruit that has all the appeal of munching on a tennis ball. Lately though, the rise of farmers' markets and the beginnings of a return to sourcing foods locally has flavor rocketing back to the top of the list.

"Eeh…what's up, doc?"

World-famous chefs like Ferran Adrià are starting to work with farmers and seed breeders to bring back not just ancient varieties of wheat, but to develop new lines using traditional, non-biotech methods, like those used by Mendel. Here in Portland, that work is being forwarded by Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network, a project of the Organic Seed Alliance and Oregon State University's Department of Horticulture.

Gorgeous indigo cherry tomatoes.

This past Monday, many of Oregon's top seed breeders, chefs and farmers gathered around tables overflowing with carrots, potatoes, peppers, cilantro, corn, beets, squash, onions and tomatoes to sample and rate new varieties. The chefs, like Greg Higgins of Higgins Restaurant and Bar, who had teamed with Good Stuff NW contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm to make a hominy soup with Amish Butter corn spoonbread, got to work with farmers growing new varieties of these crops, each choosing one to prepare for sampling.

The most valuable part of the evening, though, was the conversations that spontaneously erupted over the rows of raw and roasted beets, the bowls of neon-colored peppers and the waving stems of cilantro. You can look for the results of those conversations to appear on restaurant menus and market tables near you.

See the Flickr photos from the Variety Showcase. Top photo and photo of Alex Stone courtesy of the Culinary Breeding Network.


Anonymous said...

A quick clarification. Greg and his Chef de Cuisine, Patrick Strong served a plate featuring three states of being for Amish Butter: hominy, cornmeal and popcorn. It started with a Brazilian Moqueca broth with hominy and shrimp. Next on the plate was a simple spoon bread using cornmeal, followed by cracker jack using popcorn with a gentle hint of chillies as a sweet finish.

The fact that all three parts of the plate used the same variety of popcorn shows the remarkable versatility of this variety we have grown for the last decade.

Wednesday's Dining section of the New York Times featured a large spread on popcorn. Sadly, they did not explore the full potential of this ancient crop, confining their discussion to everted kernel. Obviously, they didn't consult the recent literature on corn. In fact, Amish Butter produces a great baby corn ear as well.

Greg and Pat did a great job of showcasing the variety. Other chefs who participated in the event likewise worked with the featured plant breeders to draw out the qualities of their crops. Under Lane's project, we can look forward to more such culinary collaborations.

Thanks for writing about this effort.

Anthony Boutard
Ayers Creek Farm

Kathleen Bauer said...

Thanks so much for the clarification, Anthony. Greg and Patrick made an amazing effort to showcase a unique crop.

And I saw the feature on popcorn in the Times and also thought it lacked depth.

Thanks for elucidating!