I really do try to avoid getting tangled up in bureaucratic or politically influenced issues since they are so difficult to change. However, when food integrity, quality and traditions are involved, my patience starts to wear thin. Traditions are so important to a culture and essential when trying to preserve the experience of foods that are representative of that culture.
In recent years it seems that these traditions have been attacked relentlessly and in some cases even legislated out of existence. Some may be challenged because of cost, others for environmental reasons and now and then because someone reveals definitive research that disputes the need for these traditions. What is most important, from my perspective, is that we should be working harder to protect traditions even when research may demonstrate a lack of support for the traditions basis. Why should we protect some process even if it is not needed? Some things simply cannot be proven right or wrong just because of research. Some things are a mystery and quite often, cannot be adequately explained. Other times there is evidence through experience that a traditional process does, in fact, make a unique difference.
Most chefs will, as an example, prefer cooking with gas rather than electricity for a variety of reasons. The most significant is that food tastes better when cooked with an open flame. Can this be scientifically validated – maybe not entirely, yet it is, for most cooks, the definitive rule. Certain wines benefit enormously from aging in oak barrels. Aside from the wonderful undertones of flavor, many of the tannins present in wines that help with bottle aging are drawn from the barrels used during cask fermentation. Artisan breads need to be turned on wooden tables and are improved when they proof on that same wood. Lionel Poilane used many original tools and specific environments for mixing, proofing and baking his breads that in turn were uniquely his. Most would agree that Poilane breads were the best in the world.
So, where am I going with all of this? It is certainly critical that any operation that grows, processes, produces and/or packages food product for consumption be designed with guest health and safety as a top priority. At the same time we can and do throw out traditions far too quickly without having a true understanding of what is at work. What is amazing is that at the same time we embrace modern science, chemistry in particular, with little question and assume that modern science can always make everything better. The Public Health Service and local Departments of Health would love to mandate that every food production facility be surgically clean as a precaution that will protect the general public. Temperature is the friend of food preservation and when refrigeration is not feasible then science is used to add complementary preservation methods that incorporate chemicals and chemical processes. Farms claim they cannot function on a large scale without fertilizers and insecticides so science promotes modifying the genetic makeup of the seeds that farmers use so that excessive amounts of fertilizer and insecticide are not absorbed at a rate beyond what is considered “safe”. All of this is deemed acceptable and preferred over some of the traditions that were in effect for generations and still used in some parts of the world considered not as “advanced”.
Here we are, living at a time when food has never been more exciting, where a food culture in America has been emerging to become as significant as those of European countries, where people have never been more engaged with the quality and source of their food and where more people have chosen to dedicate their careers to food production and preparation than any other time in history. What fascinates people is not just the flavors and technique of cooking, but the culture that food is an integral part of.
The FDA has recently decided to enforce a nebulous standard for cheese making that will radically change the face of a wonderful, exciting, growing artisan cheese industry in the United States. Purportedly due to fears of Listeria, the FDA will no longer allow artisanal cheese makers to ripen (affinage) their cheese on wooden planks. This may not sound like a big deal, however, if you are a cheese maker it changes the whole process of making a great cheese.
“Cheese has been aged on rough wooden planks made from locally harvested spruce for over a thousand years. Rooted in ancestral tradition and sustainable local practices. The use of planks is now scientifically proven to preserve the life of the micro flora in and on the cheese, which are necessary for the formation of the rind and for the cheese’s specificity of flavors.”
The assumption is that artisan cheese makers are not capable of operating a safe cheese ripening process using traditional methods that have significantly more time and exposure to the process than the FDA.
I am not a cheese maker, nor do I profess to fully understand the process by which some of the most extraordinary cheeses are made, ripened and prepared for us to enjoy – what I do know is how passionate, meticulous, talented and serious these cheese makers are about their product. It would seem to me that the easy way is not always the right way. It is easy to simply legislate tradition out of a process when it would likely be more historically prudent to work with cheese makers in the process of refining the inspection process that helps these food artists protect and improve their traditional methods.
Once we begin to simply accept new mandates and not question others like the use of GMO’s, chemical fertilizers, irradiation of fruits and vegetables, insecticides and excessive use of antibiotics then it is only a matter of time before our food supply becomes generic, uninteresting and maybe even harmful in the long-run.
If we don’t question this new FDA mandate then we must begin to accept that beautiful cheeses like aged goat, blue vein cheese, farm cheeses like the French Epoisses and Morbier will either disappear from the shelves of our stores or evolve into something that is less exciting and uninspired.
If we don’t question this FDA mandate then what will be next? Will organic farming become taboo in the eyes of the USDA? Will a government agency decide that the process of grape fermentation that includes natural yeasts in the air; the use of oak barrels for aging and chalk caves with generations of mold is unsafe and inappropriate? Will artisanal bread bakers find themselves unable to nurture the natural yeasts used in sour dough starters because these organic microbes are living and somewhat unpredictable? If we don’t protect those traditional processes that have been passed down from generation to generation yet accept the introduction of chemistry as a “safer” substitute, what will food growing, processing and preparation look like in fifty years?
Some may say that I am ill informed and simply do not truly understand. I will admit a level of ignorance, but will stand firm on my belief in traditions. Culture is important and the way we handle food and appreciate how our ancestors respected it is a very significant part of that culture.
I have visited, talked with, observed and built a deep appreciation for artisans. Artisan farmers, cheese makers, bread bakers, wine makers and brewers have been and continue to be the backbone of the food movement in America. They have made all of us pay attention to the source of ingredients, the way to preserve and prepare food that enhances natural flavors, aware of how important good food is to our health and well being and have made cooking in America a passionate calling for thousands of young cooks and chefs. They deserve our support and understanding.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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PHOTO IS OF THE AFFINAGE CELLARS AT JASPER HILL IN GREENSBORO, VERMONT. A photo from Farming Magazine