Friday, July 18, 2008

Biodynamics - What is it?

Those of you who are really into the organic and green worlds are probably familiar with a growing-in-popularity agricultural practice called Biodynamic Farming. Some of you have most likely come across this when buying wine - as the wine industry has made tremendous strides in advertising their biodynamic alternatives and touting superior wines with stronger flavors, as well as a significantly longer shelf life.

Wines are arguably the most noticeably affected by farming techniques, and wine-makers across the globe go through great pains to control and adjust every aspect of the growth, cultivation, fermentation and aging aspects of their grapes and wines. Oftentimes, they are controlling pH balances, as well as composte and fertilizers (which I understand, they try to use as sparingly as possible). It's no secret that the same wine varietal from the same region can taste vastly different from one vineyard to the other, with only a few yards distance between them.

The biodynamic agricultural movement, to overly simplify, is like the organic movement on steroids. The biodynamic movement is centered around the insights of Rudolf Steiner, a spiritual philosopher. The main focus on biodynamic agriculture is the organic approach to farming with the idea that farms and plants are unified and individual organisms. There is much stress and emphasis on maintaining a holistic balance between the plants, soil, and animals as a sort of micro-eco-system onto itself. The overlap into organic farming is on points like using manure and composte instead of artificial or chemical additives to the farming experience. However, biodynamic farmers even go so far as to following astronomical calendars to determine their planting and cultivating seasons.

Surprisingly, biodynamic agriculture has been around since 1924, and according to wikipedia had its d├ębut in a series of eight lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in Silesia (now in Poland, then was a part of Germany). This lecture series was actually given in response to degraded soil conditions, and local farmers were in search of a viable solution.

In 1938, the Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Association was founded in New York State, which marked the official beginning of biodynamic agriculture in the United States.

As for the verdict on whether biodynamic agriculture really is much better...well, there seems to be a bit of controversy around that. There are measurable and significant benefits like soil with higher biological and physical quality; the soil had a marked increase in organic matter, as well as the content and microbial activity. There was a greater number of earthworms and the overall quality of the soil structure was better. However, the differences between biodynamic farming and organic farming was not significant.

As for what the carbon footprint on biodynamic farming is, I do not know, although given what I've read about the philosophy and methods, it seems to be relatively low in terms of carbon emissions. Biodynamic farming may actually be the best balance between Organic vs Being Green. In the end, I think that biodynamic farming is another great and "natural" form of agriculture. Those who align themselves with the spiritual philosophy behind it are sure to truly appreciate the fruits of the farmers' labor.

Miracle Fruit - What's With All the Buzz?

A few months ago, I came across an article in the NY Times' Dine In/Dine Out section about a new trend that's taken off called Flavor Tripping Parties (The Miracle Fruit, a Tease for the Taste Buds - NYTimes May 28, 2008). Needless to say, it caught my attention.

What's a flavor tripping party? And better yet, why is the New York Times discussing drugs in the food section? The article continues to discuss a berry that is native to West Africa. According to wikipedia, it was originally discovered by the explorer Chevalier des Marchais during a 1725 excursion. The plant, known in some circles also as Magic Berry, Flavor Berry, and Sideroxylon dulcificum/Synsepalum dulcificum has the interesting property of interacting with our sense of taste in interesting ways.

When consumed, it's effects are only useful on the tongue. It must coat the taste buds on your tongue and binds with them so that when you consume food, it changes how you taste them! The Chevalier first noticed its usage when observing tribes chewing on the berries before consuming their meals.

Further study into the plant uncovered that the fleshy part of the berry contains a chemical called miraculin - an active glycoprotein molecule - which when bound to our taste buds transforms bitter and sour foods to taste sweet! What a novelty! Apparently, effects can last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.

First of all, I'm truly fascinated by this berry and find that it's not a psychological "tripping." It's a purely temporary effect, and it would be very interesting to experience the transformation of foods, especially when you are expecting to taste one flavor, and you experience a different one altogether.

Apparently, the berry is very difficult to procure in the United States - although one may order them online from countries abroad. There also seems to be a freeze-dried version available, which has a longer shelf-life, but more chewing and longer contact with the tongue is required since the substance doesn't work when consumed (the effect is on the tongue, not the brain - unlike a psychedelic drug the affects your perception by messing with your brain chemistry).

There are a number of online vendors who sell either tablets of freeze dried Miracle Berry - the integrity of which I cannot attest to. However, should anyone come across this berry, or be brave enough to order some, I would LOVE to hear about your experience. Regarding the hechsher/kashrut of these products, short of procuring the actual berry, you would have to consult with your local rabbi.

For those of you with a green thumb, and the energy to care for the plant, it seems that there is a reliable supplier of this plant at Pine Island Nursery.

Just think about some of the uses:
  • Another boring wedding/bar mitzvah/sheva berachot - just pop the berry/tablet in your mouth, and seconds later all that boring food becomes a lot more interesting!
  • Hosting another shabbat meal? Offer these to your guests and REALLY get the party started!
The list goes one....but I hope I got your creative juices flowing!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Organic vs Being Green - Which is Better?

As consumers in the United States we are being bombarded with terms like organic, sustainable, local, farmers markets, carbon footprint and others. After a while, it all begins to mesh together into one large cloud of vaguery, and we kind of just get lost in the whole process.
Sure, we all want to be healthy, and we also care about our environment. I mean, this is our planet, and we need to live here. Furthermore, this is my body, and it's the only one I've got, so I have to make sure I treat it like a temple. Two very important sentiments, that seemingly go hand-in-hand, right? However, we seem to be forced to have to strike a balance between "organic," "pesticide free," and "free-range" (we can't forget about the ethical treatment of our food-source), and concepts like "local farming," "sustainable farming," and "low-carbon-footprint" sources of sustenance. Just to throw a wrench into the equation, we all want to make sure that we can afford to maintain this delicate balance. I mean, organic products are not cheap! Wise Organic Pastures, a company that provides kosher organic poultry and beef, charges almost double the price per pound on their chickens than do some of the local non-organic purveyors of the same level of kashruth.
Sometimes, the local farmer providing you with your delicious apples and strawberries, also happen to be organic - GREAT! Two birds with one stone. Sure, it comes with a bit of a premium to buy orgnic, but you're doing great things for the environment by making sure you're buying from a farmer who didn't have to travel very far to make sure his consumers get the freshest and best of his offerings. This means lower gas consumption (ahh! the big one! at close to $5/gallon in NYC - this is REALLY important), and a lower carbon footprint.
But, and it's a big but - most consumers aren't really aware of what goes into the total calculation of a single item's carbon footprint. If one is to really try and be green, and they're serious about it - one must really do their due diligence in researching the products they're interested in buying.
Let's take apples just as an example. Say you have Great Apples Farm up in Hudson Valley, NY. Not very far from New York City - which means that the consumers are not buying apples from a state outside of their own (like California!! Talk about a waste of gas). Great, so we've lowered the carbon footprint of these apples because it's travelling less to get to the consumer. Well...let's take a step back and look at the larger picture. First of all, where did the apple seeds come from? What if the owner of Great Apples Farm bought his apple seeds from China or Chile? Well....that means that bags and bags of apple seeds were harvested from China or Chile (and we don't even know what kind of carbon emissions the harvesting emitted....and considering these are not first-world countries, it's probably pretty high), then shipped on some cargo boat all the way to some port in the United States - most likely somewhere in California, only to the be shipped all over the country by a distributor to get to the retailer - who may or may not even be in the same county as the farmer - then eventually shipped from the retailer to the farmer. Phew! That was a LONG trip....
Wait! There's more. Then we need to consider the farmer's planting and harvesting practices. Where is he getting his fertilizer, top-soil and all the other things he needs to effectively do his farming? And what about his watering system? Is that an efficient and effective, or greener method?
The list goes on, with each of these components contributing in varying degrees to the carbon footprint of that ONE apple. In the end, it is quite plausible that buying apples from your local supermarket (that apple may have come all the way from China) would have a lower carbon footprint than the local farmer's apple.
This whole concept was really brought to my attention by an article in The New Yorker back in February of 2008. The article, Big Foot, really puts into perspective what it takes to calculate the carbon footprint of our items - and not just food, our clothes, our furniture - everything!
In the end, what are we supposed to do? Is it better to go the organic route? Or the local,sustainable route? At this time, we may not even be prepared to answer that question, but in order to start being able to do that, we have to start here. As time progresses, I believe we'll be in a better position to be able to determine what the best route is. Until then, live well, live healthy, and be happy.


Welcome everyone to At Your Palate's weblog. Here is where I will be posting about all things related to the food industry, restaurant industry, the kosher world, and of course the latest in organic and "green"-ness.