Monday, October 27, 2008

Kalona Organics

Food Tour of Iowa: Kalona Organics

Because I went to driving school in LA, I was not taught certain driving skills that might be important in other parts of the country. I don’t really know how to drive on snow, nor do I know the etiquette about passing an Amish farmer who is in a horse and buggy. Do I tailgate? Do I pass? It’s things like this that they really should teach you. Anyway, I would have appreciated that lesson when I drove into the heart of Amish farm country today to visit the Farmer’s Henhouse (FHH) and creamery (FANC) in Kalona, Iowa, right outside Iowa City.

I met up with Joanna, my young, cheerful and knowledgeable guide at 3 o’clock at the Farmers All-Natural Creamery (FANC). While not an employee of FANC, she works with a group called Kalona Organics, who work as a marketing consulting group for small organic farmers in the area. They help represent the farmers and their cooperatives to distributors and retailers, and also provide branding aid. Joanna in her role as marketing director develops new products, designs labels and helps the farmers craft products that her colleagues can easily sell to consumers.

She had thoughtfully put together a set of visits to expose me to some of Kalona Organics clients: FANC and FHH, two cooperatives for the local dairy farms and egg producers, respectively, which Kalona then represents to distributors and grocery stores. In addition, I was going to visit one of the Mennonite dairy farmers from which FANC gets their milk. So I hopped into Joanna’s truck and headed off to FHH to learn how eggs are processed.

When we arrived Mark Miller, the owner and creator of FHH, greeted us. He bought the factory in 2000, and has since managed to expand both its sales and size substantially, with the branding help of Kalona Organics. He ushered Joanna and I inside to give us a tour of what they do in an egg processing plant.

The processing of eggs is fairly minimal. The eggs are offloaded from the local farmers into the plant, where they are first washed to remove any dirt. During this process, a watchful bearded man removes cracked eggs.



Afterwards, an automatic boxer puts the eggs into flats, which are then packed and labeled. MOD_3543.jpg

From the FHH, the eggs go anywhere from California to Florida. Today, Mark’s factory uses about 20 employees each day, most of which are Amish children from the surrounding farms. He processes about 1,300 cases daily, with each case containing 30 dozen eggs. This breaks down into 39,000 dozen eggs per day; quite a number. He has managed to increase the amount sold per year by about 17% for the past 5 years, quite a significant growth factor. He attributes this to increased consumer awareness of organic, cage free eggs.


A bit of labeling background: eggs can be labeled “cage-free”, “free range” or “organic”. Cage free, in general, is not much better than caged. Free-range means the chicken can roam around a yard, and eat whatever they want in that yard. Organic eggs are from free-range birds on completely organic premises. Organic eggs are what one wants to look out for when shopping.

While not all of the farmers Mark gets his eggs from are organically certified yet, all of them have only free-range chickens. Joanna noted that studies have shown that free-range chicken eggs, organic or not, have been shown to be significantly better for you. The difference, she said, can even be seen: the yolk of a organic chicken which has had a varied diet is a brilliant golden yellow, compared to the drag yellow of a factory chicken egg. This translates into eggs with more “good” cholesterol and increased levels of omega-3 acids, which are good for you.

Part of Joanna’s job as marketing director is to research the health benefits of the naturally produced and minimally processed foods produced by clients of Kalona organics, as well as to help their clients implement practices that reduce processing.

While we were unable to go into the creamery processing area due to health restrictions, Joanna showed me the machinery through the window while talking about the benefits of FANC’s processing (or lack thereof). The creamery uses a special type of vat pasteurization, in which the milk is only heated to 145 degrees (compared to over 200 for most milk) for a longer period of time to kill germs. However, it also reduces shelf life from 60 to 15 days: in effect, FANC products sacrifice durability and convenience for flavor and nutrition. She had Iowa State University do a study about the chemical differences between FANC milk and regular milk: theirs had significantly higher levels of linoleic acid, as well as a much higher proportion of “active” enzymes (the same type you would find in yogurt). She attributes these health benefits to the milks minimal processing and low heat pasteurization process, as well as the work of the dairy farmers: most feed their cows only grass, as opposed to corn feed.


In addition, the milk tasted better. FANC produces “cream on top” milk: it is not homogenized, and therefore must be shaken to distribute the cream into the milk. As I tasted it, it did taste better than normal milk. It had a sweeter taste, and was creamy without being buttery, even compared against other milks of the same fat content. Joanna informed me that anecdotally many lactose intolerant customers had said that they could drink FANC milk: another benefit to their low impact processing policies.

Having examined the stunningly space age looking processing equipment, we went into a conference room so that I could sample some of the goods produced by FANC. IN addition to the milk, she also brought out some sour cream, low fat cottage cheese and a Muenster, the development of which she had guided. As I tasted each one, she related the challenges of taking a modern food product and changing it back into “real”, minimally processed food.

My first sample, and also the one that tasted the most unique, was the sour cream. While the sour cream is the most processed, it had a flavor and texture that was much more like a crème fraiche than a regular American sour cream. The cottage cheese was also delicious. Instead of being a soup of curds in whey, it was almost entirely curds. To develop a homogenized cottage cheese (thought by most modern dairy farmers to be impossible) Joanna had to research older techniques for making cottage cheese. Due to this approach, the flavor and texture are much more like a very light ricotta. It was very good, and would pair extremely well with a sliced up banana in the morning. The Muenster cheese was also very good, although substantially stronger than I am used to, most likely due to the grass fed nature of the milk used to make it.

Kalona organics also makes their own yogurt brand (Cultural Revolution), which Joanna helped develop as well. Although it is not made by FANC, and I did not sample it there, I have it routinely before bed, and Joanna and I discussed it. The yogurt is a much looser, liquidy concoction because it is completely natural and minimally processed; most American yogurts have significant amounts of artificial fixatives that give it a more gel-like texture. Joanna urged the producer of the yogurt to use a more European approach, which involves less processing and fewer additives, resulting in the liquid texture. As I can attest, it pairs extremely well with some fruit as a before bed snack.

Kalona Organics fills a unique roll in the local, sustainable foods landscape. By representing clients such as FANC and FHH, as well as encouraging them to use minimal impact processing practices, they both help consumers get access to local organic produce, and encourage more farmers to see that this is a profitable venue, increasing the supply. I can only hope more firms like Kalona Organics emerge to further the conversation about “real foods”.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Linn Street Cafe: review

Food Tour of Iowa: Restaurant Review: Linn Street Café

On my way to Kalona Organics dairy, I decided to stop somewhere in Iowa City for lunch. It would only take me about 15 minutes out of my way, and I have a list of restaurants to try in Iowa City as long as my arm. After canvassing friends and checking menus online to find the best lunch spot, I settled on the Linn Street café. It was an excellent choice.

The trendy north side neighborhood of Iowa City, which is chock full of restaurants (including past fave Devotay), is within walking distance of the University of Iowa campus; this gives it a great youthful feel. Linn Street was located just a few doors down from Devotay.

When I first walked in, I felt a bit out of place; in my sweatshirt and sturdy boots (for my subsequent visit to Kalona and the dairy there) I felt a bit under dressed. However, the menu was more in keeping with my outfit: most of the entrees were pleasantly located in the 8-12 dollar range. After some inner wrangling, I opted for the slow cooked BBQ pork sandwich, with sweet potato coleslaw and a side of beet salad. They were all great choices.

The sandwich was served on a crunchy ciabatta roll that had the virtue of not being too bready- it was mostly a delicious crispy crust that complemented the juicier pork. The pork was perfectly tender and very flavorful, and tempered by the vinegary coleslaw which topped the sandwich. Also, it wasn’t too big; the sandwich was a pleasant size that didn’t leave me feeling stuffed, even with the salad on the side. I was very pleased with it.IMG_0938.jpg

The roasted beet salad was excellent as well; a mix of local greens topped with goat cheese and roasted beets. I was initially put off when I thought that the waitress had disregarded my request for dressing on the side, but upon closer examination it was just the juice from the roasted beets coating the greens; the dressing was indeed on the side. The salad was perfect without the dressing anyway, with the beet juice substituting more effectively. My only complaint was that the beets weren’t strong enough; they lacked enough “beety” flavor. However, the salad was still very good, and a great pairing to the heavier sandwich.

I was very pleased with the Linn Street café. The service and ambiance were great, and the food was correctly priced and quite good. I recommend it for anyone who wants a nicer lunch that wont break the bank.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Restaurant Review: Devotay, Iowa City

Food Tour of Iowa: Devotay, Iowa City
I’m pretty happy I managed to get out to Devotay; for a while, I feared it would be my white whale, and I would never manage to get to go. A combination of bad luck and lack of opportunities conspired against me for a while to keep me from actually making it to the restaurant. However, I managed to reverse that trend and made it out there this last Saturday night.

Devotay surprised me right off the bat because of its location. While I am no expert about Iowa City, I thought I knew most of the cool and youthful locations; Devotay (and the rest of the surrounding area) proved me wrong. It was packed with trendy coffee houses, a nice assortment of restaurants and plenty of students from the nearby University of Iowa. I pegged a few places for future exploration (Falafel!!).

I walked into Devotay at about 6:30, and it was pleasantly full. There is a little bar in the walkway where waiting diners can enjoy some of the delightful tapas while waiting for a table. The hostess seated us promptly, and the dining area was very nice. Tastefully decorated, it struck a good balance between having an intimate atmosphere while not being too uptight or too rowdy; it was just in the middle. The atmosphere made for a very pleasant dining experience.

Devotay’s menu consists of cold tapas, hot tapas and entrée’s. I have quite a few friends who had been here before, and they all gave me different advice. Some said to only order the tapas; others suggested I not even bother and have whatever was the special of the day. Intense disagreement over what was best characterized my “research” over what to have, which is always a good sign in my experience.

I ended up ordering the cheese platter and the datiles (bacon wrapped dates) off the tapas menu to start, and then followed those up with a 1 person paella split between my companion and I; I felt like it was a good way to maximize my returns, and I was not disappointed.

The cheese platter varies from day to day, depending on what cheeses are available and in season. Ours had a manchego, which was a very pleasant sheep’s milk cheese from Spain, as well as a semi-hard goat cheese and a third, the names of which I missed when the waitress described them. The manchego was good; creamy, it had a distinct and pleasant flavor, but left me wanting a little something else. The semi-hard was the best of the three. It had a good goat cheese flavor that was assertive but not overwhelming. The third, a very soft goat cheese was not very good. It tasted very “goaty”, but of nothing else. The presentation and accompaniments were nice. The cheeses were served with some toasted almonds, some very decent balsamic vinegar and delicious Spanish olives, which I greedily devoured (my companion didn’t like olives).

While the cheese was slightly underwhelming, the datiles were anything but. The dates were wrapped in very smoky, delicious bacon and served with a pimenton barbeque sauce for dipping. The sweet date and smoky bacon was an odd flavor combination, but one that worked extremely well, and that I look forward to exploring in my home cooking. The dates provide a very sweet, sugary taste and grainy texture that is perfectly tempered and complemented by the smokiness and meaty texture of the bacon. It was excellent, and we devoured them.

For the main course, we split a seafood paella, which was great. The rice was the perfect texture, and was topped with tomatoes and peas, as well as chorizo, mussels, chicken, shrimp and a few olives (which promptly went onto my plate). The tomato sauce was great, as were all the meats in the paella, but the chorizo particularly shined. Imported from Spain, it was delicious. I mopped up my plate with a delicious heel of bread, provided obviously for that specific purpose, and was very satisfied with life.

Overall, I highly recommend Devotay. The atmosphere and service were excellent, and the food was superb. The Chef is one of the main proponents of “slow food” in Iowa City, and is a great supporter of local agriculture; the menu is packed with Iowa foods, from Northern Prairie chevre to Kalona cheeses, as well as the more predictable local meats and produce. This reliance on local, seasonal food ensures that everything is fresh and delicious; my experience there definitely confirms it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Oktoberfest in Iowa

Food Tour of Iowa: Reflection: Oktoberfest in the Amana’s
This post is a slight detour from normal, but still, I think, quite an interesting experience. This past Saturday some friends and I went up to the (slightly) touristy Amish colonies of the Amana’s, which are about 10 miles West of Iowa City for the Oktoberfest celebrations. Our goals were to absorb some German culture (Lederhosen on men of a certain age and dinner menus with lots of “wurst” and “schnitzel”), have a great meal at one of their family style restaurants and sample some of the beers from local Iowa brewers (Millstream brewery, mostly). I forgot my camera, so we will have to do this without pictures. I swear that will not happen again.

4 friends and I rolled into the picturesque Amana colonies at about 5:30 on Saturday night. We had planned to go to the “actual” celebrations in the germanically named Festhalle barn, but opted out after we saw it was $8 each (!). Instead, we walked around the main street, which was just as good, if not better. We stopped by a few old time general stores, which contained such quantities of jam I have yet to see equaled in one place, as well as other predictably tourist shops (furniture makers, geode sellers). However, the town had definitely gotten into the spirit of Oktoberfest. Most restaurants had a live band (always with an accordion) and lots of outdoor seating so diners could appreciate the gorgeous autumn day, if not the tunes from the accordion.
In lieu of the ludicrously expensive official celebrations, we walked down to the Millstream brewery at the end of Main Street, which was having its own brat and beer fest. A few of my compatriots who were above the age of majority ordered the Oktoberfest lager, which they said was delicious. We browsed the amply stocked Millstream brewery shop, and then walked back uptown to get to our dinner stop, the Ox Yoke Inn. We were in a bit of a hurry to get away, as the brewery, not to be outdone, had its own band with another one of those satanic accordions.
On our way, we stopped at a “Weingarten” (wine tasting) put on by one of the local wineries. While its serene and accordion-less atmosphere attracted us, we felt slightly out place in the august atmosphere of a wine tasting. However, the proprietor was extremely willing to share his knowledge with all, even delinquent college kids. We sampled three very nice wines before heading off for our reservation.

I have to admit, I headed through the restaurant doors that night with stratospheric expectations. You see, as a small child I had been to the same restaurant, and remembered it extremely fondly: bowls of sides that were both delicious and bottomless, as well as entrees that were finger-lickingly good. My friends had spent the hour-long car ride and subsequent walk around town listening to me gush hyperbole about never-ending sides and chicken that was “like, so good!” Needless to say, we were all ready by 6:30 to see what the reality on the ground was.

I am pleased to say that the visit did not disappoint. The sides at the Ox Yoke Inn are refilled as you empty them, and come free with the meal. One passes them around family style. We were provided with a breadbasket, cottage cheese, corn, scalloped potatoes and sauerkraut. They were OK- the cottage cheese was the best by far. It had a distinctly cheesy flavor that was subtle but memorable. We all agreed that it was delicious, and that more cottage cheese should have that much flavor.

For my main course, I got the barbequed ribs, which were delicious. Tender and falling off the bone, I thought it was the best choice. Others in my party got the fried chicken, a wurst plated (knockwurst and bratwurst), and a schnitzel. The chicken, despite being a favorite of my Mom’s, was merely good. The wurst plate was OK, but most disappointing was the schnitzel: greasy and gravy covered, it had almost no flavor, relative to the other entrees.

Overall, the dinner was a great success. Everyone had a great time, and despite my critiques, everyone was very happy with the food. At the end, however, there was definitely a sense of sticker shock- the meal came out to around 15-20 bucks a person! In my mind, an excessive amount for a fairly simple meal.

For desert, we went a block away to the Chocolate Haus, where I got a candied apple with caramel, chocolate and walnuts. Verdict: delicious. The apple was great, and you cannot go wrong with copious amounts of chocolate and candy. My friends got some truffles (very good) and some divinity, which I had never heard of, seen or tasted before. Apparently, it is a mix of eggs and sugar. Anyway, it was also excellent. On the hour-long drive home, we essentially passed out into a coordinated food coma. A great evening.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Food Tour of Iowa: Ebert Honey

Food Tour of Iowa: Ebert Honey

The first time I e-mailed Phil Ebert about visiting his honey farm, the answer I received told me it would be a memorable experience. To quote:

I've got about 50 colonies of bees within flying distance of our

building. They have been trying to invade. It's a little daunting if

you have never been around bees.

It should be mentioned that I have, in fact, never “been around bees”. I was happy enough to wait until the cold weather and termination of whatever processes were causing the bees to invade to quiet down. Fortunately, they had done so by this past Thursday and I was able to visit.

Phil Ebert lives in the small Iowa farm town of Lynnville. He greeted me very kindly as I pulled into the driveway, and right away gave me a quick but thorough overview of the honey extraction process, which was carried out in the building which the bees were trying to invade earlier.


Above: The honey extraction shed

In fact, to my city based sensibilities, they still were trying to invade the simple aluminum building which housed all of Phil’s honey processing equipment. With the carefree advice of “Don’t mind the bees; they won’t hurt you. At worst, they’ll just bump into you”, he ushered me into the processing shed.

The first room was filled with 55 gallon barrels, as well as more bees than I cared to count. Phil, however, only commented on the barrels, which all contained honey. As I learned from Phil, bees will come after the harvested frames until they have been put into barrels- his task last week was to extract the honey from the frames into barrels so that the bees would stop swarming, and that mites would not eat the honey.


Above: Barrels of extracted honey, waiting to be bottled

Frames are the building block of the bee “colonies”, which I would call hives. Each hive consists of two boxes stacked on top of each other, both of which are filled with frames. The bees build their honeycomb on the frames which are the building block of the honey extraction process.


Above: In the field, Phil shows me a frame fresh out of one of his colonies

For Phil to get to the honey, he first removes the frames. This is a tricky operation for two reasons: bees get angry and honey is heavy. A smoke blower attached to a truck solves the first obstacle. The smoke calms down the bees, and the frames are then removed from the colonies and put into the truck. For the second, there is not such an easy solution; just smaller boxes for the frames. Honey weighs about 12 pounds a gallon, about 1.5 times heavier than water. This means a regular sized box (the type one sees on a normal commercial beekeeping facility) weighs 90 pounds. Phil uses a mix; normal sized boxes to breed the queens and drones (more on that later) and a smaller type to collect honey. The smaller only weighs 45 pounds when filled with honey.


Above: Boxes stacked after having their frames removed. Each one of these weighs about 45 pounds when filled with honey.


Above: Two colonies

After the frames have been collected and safely stashed in the extraction shed, the tops of the honeycombs are “uncapped” by a machine specially made for the job. This machine slices off the top of the honeycomb so that the honey can flow unrestricted out.


Above: The "uncapper"


Above: The wax extracting part of the uncapper. The metal drums in the background are the extractors, which spin the uncapped frames to remove the honey. The big yellow blocks are wax.

After uncapping, Phil loads the frames into an big metal cylinder called an extractor, which spins the frames to separate the honey from the wax. This mixture is then pumped through yet another machine called a refiner. The refiner pumps the honey through a series of filters to purify the honey, and then into a 55-gallon barrel for storage. When the stored honey is ready to be bottled, Phil warms the barrel and bottles the honey for distribution to grocery stores and farmers markets across Iowa, so that Iowans may add delicious honey to their biscuits and pork chops!

In addition to honey, this process also produces wax. Phil previously used this to make his own candles; now he sells it in bulk on the Internet, to be purchased by furniture and candle makers and such. He has also had such diverse buyers as a monastery (more candles) and a antique radio refurbisher. Interestingly, he generally does not have enough wax to keep pace with demand.

After viewing the refinery, Phil took me out to see the nearest set of colonies, where his son, Alex, breeds queens. At this point, it might be helpful to elaborate on just what beekeeping actually entails- there’s more to it than you might think.

Contrary to my belief, honey sales are not the only way for beekeepers to make money. There are actually 3 ways beekeepers make money: selling bees, selling honey (and wax) and providing pollination services.

Bee selling is the process of breeding queen bees (there needs to be one in each hive) and drone bees (the workers) and selling these bees to other beekeepers that have lost queens or workers and need to repopulate colonies. This has become increasingly important as the health of bees has become more and more fragile in response to changes in the environment. When Phil started in 1980, he would ask how many seasons a queen would last. Today, beekeepers hope more and more that a queen bee will last the season.

Honey, as discussed, is the process of removing the honey from the hives. The wax generated is also a potential revenue sources, although not a primary one for Phil.

The real money, Phil told me, comes from pollination services. In his case, this means he has colonies 75 miles away at orchards and other such places to ensure that the buds are pollinated and will come to fruit. For beekeepers, this is essentially free money; they just need to park the colonies and leave them alone, visiting occasionally to make sure that they don’t die.

The way Phil generates runs his business is radically different than the way the larger operations run theirs. The first difference is that Phil is mainly in it to make honey. He breeds some queens and drones for personal use (although he still must supplement by buying queens and drones-especially early in the season) and provides some pollination services to local orchards, but honey is his main revenue source. Commercial beekeepers mainly generate their revenue by carting their bees around in semi’s, motoring up states like California, pollinating orange and almond orchards. Commercial beekeepers that do that rarely produce honey anymore; preferring instead to focus solely on pollination services.

The second difference is scale. Phil, with only about 500 colonies, is a maverick in an industry where 1,000 colonies are widely considered to be the minimum amount needed to be commercially viable. The largest beekeepers have anywhere from 35 to 80 thousand colonies- a different scale altogether.

As such a small producer, Phil is exposed to unique pressures. He faces difficulties with the variability of the bees as well as the market for honey. He is entirely dependent upon the health of his colonies and the honey they are producing. For this reason, he is more sensitive than most to the pressures on bees and their honey making capacity that have emerged in the last 28 years.

On the most basic level is a decline in the robustness of the colonies. When he started, a bad winter might kill 5-10% of the colonies under his control. Now, 50% is not an uncommon death rate. This means he needs to buy more expensive drone and queen bees early in the season to keep up with honey production. He blames the increased use of sparingly tested pesticides, as well as the increased homogenization of agriculture on the sickliness of his bees. Corn and soybeans now come inoculated with pesticides to decrease the amount lost to pests; however, the effects of these pesticides on bees are rarely understood. In addition, the homogenization of pollen producing plants limits the health of the bees, which rely on a varied diet of high protein pollen to stay healthy. If the crop of the season is one that mostly has low protein pollen, the bees healthy drops.

This reliance of the whimsical health of bees, as well as the weather and the harshness of the winters, means Phil has a lot of volatility to contend with. In his best year to date, 2004, he filled 138 55 gallon barrels of honey; a bumper crop. A few years before, he filled less than 50.

Phil is operating in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. In 1950, there were 200,000 colonies of bees in Iowa. Today, there are only 30,000, and almost all of those are in the hands of a few commercial beekeepers.