Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reichert's Dairy Air


Above: The real reason people read my blog. Pictures of goats (see below for more!)

I knew Lois Reichert and I would get a long when I first emailed her about visiting. In her response, she was sorry to say that she would be in Roccaverano, Italy, as a delegate to the Slow Foods convention. She would then be working with a small Italian goat cheese dairy nearby to learn the secrets to making Italian robbiola cheese. She could not squeeze a visit in before her Italy trip either, because she was going to be at the National Goat Cheese Competition, in Sonoma.

As I read that (rather meaty) first correspondence, I reconsidered my career choices in international business. Being a goat cheese maker sounded pretty good! However, much to the relief of my parents, the jet setting life Lois leads was not enough to tempt me away from my course of study in economics.

However, now that Lois is back in the states, I went to visit her. Well, let me rephrase that: I had scheduled a time to visit with her, but bumped into her one week early at the New Pioneer Co-Ops sample fair- what a small state (see my previous post)! After tasting her cheeses in the in the busy atmosphere, we vowed to talk more during my visit the upcoming Thursday.

When I first stepped into the dairy, I was overwhelmed. It was very different, to say the least: more like a kitchen than a barn. It was all aluminum counters, pyrex beakers and thermometers. In a corner, a rack held bulging vari-colored sacks of something dripping into a bucket. A sink contained slotted containers with a cheese-like substance. Perhaps Mario Batali’s adventures on the Food Network had made me believe that cheese is made in ancient, underground rooms, where aged artisans turn blooming rind cheeses amidst the shrieks of the French mistral.


Above: The chevre may not look too appealing while it is hung to separate the whey from the butter cream, it turns into a delicious product.


Above: Lois first run of robiola. While she in Turin, Italy for the Slow Food convention she worked with a small robiola producer. I will report back on how hers turns out!

That may sound like criticism; believe me, I mean no such thing. Lois represents, to me, the epitome of what I would like to term the “new” food artisan: clinical and clean, trying new things that are informed, but build upon, the wisdom of the ages, but with a passion for excellence and a perfectionism that comes from having a clear vision of what you want. Both Lois and Herb, of La Quercia Prosciuterria (whom I featured previously), have this vision, and it characterizes these new artisans that are reshaping the culinary landscape of Iowa.

Anyway, enough about that. Let me tell you about Reichert’s Dairy Air!

Lois’ dairy is the first micro-dairy in Iowa. From her herd of approximately 15 Nubian and La Mancha goats, she gets 10 gallons a day-barely enough to satisfy customer demand. However, she is more focused on creating the perfect cheese rather than making large amounts of a mediocre product. Her philosophy of quality over quantity expresses itself in every detail of her operation, and it springs from her passion for her goats and cheese. For example, her goats, produce very little milk, but what little they do produce is of the best quality, with plenty of the delicious butter cream that makes good chevre- the main product of Lois’ dairy. Lois milks them one at a time in a very tidy and clean milking parlor- a necessity in the cold Iowa winters! The small yield of high quality milk provides her with the optimal starting point to produce some of the finest chevre I have ever tasted. She is also a perfectionist and adventurer: while we talked, I was amazed by the amount of uses and things she had tried, from new chevre flavorings to whole different cheeses (such as blooming rind, brie style cheeses) and yogurts.


Above: The two goats on the right (brown, without big ears) are Nubians. The one on the left, with the larger ears, is a La Mancha. Now you can impress people at parties with your knowledge of goats!

While I was there, I tasted her plain, cranberry walnut and roasted red pepper chevre’s, as well as a feta. They were all delicious, and dare I say it, the prime exemplars of what chevre should taste like. They had the creamy texture and taste, with a pronounced mineral flavor that lacked the “goaty” taste that drives many away from chevre. The flavored chevre’s show insight into Lois’ impeccable sense of taste as a chef, not just as a cheesemaker. The cranberry walnut tasted, first and foremost of the cheese, and then the chevre taste is complemented, not overpowered, by the taste of walnuts and cranberries. The roasted red pepper, again, serves as an enhancement to the natural purity and deliciousness of the cheese. Her feta though, really was a showstopper. It was salty, with that delectable mineral finish that I always can detect store bought cheeses striving to imitate and then failing at. Alice Waters, a shared idol of Lois and myself, would be completely unsurprised by Lois’ results: Lois’ “secret”, if you can call it that, is simple, old fashioned trial and error, combined with the freshest and highest quality ingredients. All this is motivated by one thing: love of her goats, their milk, and the cheese. I realized this vividly when we stepped outside into the chilly breath of a Iowa winter in the barn.

Her love of goats was instantly obvious: they were more like dogs in their personality than farm animals. The Nubians pushed their heads up to be patted, and they flocked to Lois with obvious affection. I could tell immediately that was why she makes her cheeses.

And her love of chevre and her goats have not gone un-rewarded or un-recognized. At the extremely competitive National Goat Cheese competition in Sonoma, Lois took home 2nd in the unflavored feta category, 2nd in the unflavored chevre category, and first in the flavored chevre category. After tasting the cheeses, I am unsurprised by her results, simply happy that the rest of the world recognizes the superb work Lois is doing.


Above: Lois proudly shows her three ribbons (two second place, one first place!) from the highly competitive Sonoma goat cheese competition.

Artisan chefs like Lois are reshaping how the world should think about Iowa. They are tapping into Iowa rich natural resources to make products that are truly world class, and they are doing so with a modesty and perfectionism that is unmistakably Midwestern. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Lois should be a model to anyone considering making any product, culinary or otherwise.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Food Tour of Iowa: Iowa Farm Families

Food Tour of Iowa: C and C Farms (of Iowa Farm Families)MOD_3765.jpg

If La Quercia’s prosciutto was the food product I most wanted to see, the pork industry is the one that I most wanted to write and educate people about when I started this blog.

In my opinion, factory farmed pigs, pumped full of hormones, antibiotics and steroids, are one of the worst travesties in the modern food landscape, and epitomize the change in the food landscape of foods into “products”. The flavorless, tough and fatty cuts of meat the Hormel’s of the world turn out don’t deserve to be called food, and have unnecessarily soured many people to the delicious and healthy meat that is pork. The same can be said of so many things: of picture perfect tomatoes that are flavorless, of honeydew melons that are a gorgeous green, but taste of nothing. It’s an epidemic.

Thank goodness, Iowa Farm Families are trying to change that perception, at least with pork. They popped up on my radar screen about a week ago, when my delightful neighborhood grocery store started carrying their delicious looking cuts, from chops to ham to bacon. They all looked great, with good marbling and very little fat. Their pork also appealed to me because it was in small packages. For a student, being able to buy a pork chop that weights a quarter of a pound means that I will actually be able to eat it without freezing it: a godsend. However, I know how labeling and packaging can be misleading, and I didn’t want to be fooled. Perhaps anticipating this, IFF thoughtfully provides a pamphlet of who they are, and why their pork is superior, and worth the (very minor, in my opinion) price premium. This of course piqued my curiosity, and made me want to find out more. To find out the difference in person, I visited one of the “farm families” down the road, about 20 miles away (how’s that for local?).

C&C farms is owned by Craig and Corey Daumann. However, they had to be absent, so I was led around by Steve McNeal, director of marketing for IFF. The first difference between commodity pork and IFF pork, Steve explained, is the breed. All IFF pigs are Duroc hogs, which have a good, marbled flesh but overall lower fat content. This makes for healthier food. In addition, IFF hogs are never given antibiotics, hormones or synthetic growth chemicals. Instead, they are allowed to stay with their mothers longer to grow up large enough to weather the harsh Iowa climate. This means that the final product is not artificially enhanced, as it usually is in larger factory farm setups. You can even feel this difference in IFF pork: the flesh is much firmer, less watery and more tender than a comparable Hormel chop.

In addition, they are not “confinement farmed”- contained in a cage that leaves them unable to do more than scarcely turn around, if that. Instead, they are raised in “hoop” barns, in which they can frolic and walk around. This makes for a happier pig, as well as flesh that has had some exercise. From my experience on the farm, I could definitely see friskiness and running around- those pigs were having a good time! Steve assured me that the lack of hormones and synthetic growth additives, presence of the ability to exercise and unique breed combined to create some of the best pork in Iowa.

But does this pay off? I did the work to find out.

Having sampled a variety of their chops, bacons and other cuts, I have to say that IFF makes some of the most delicious pork products in the market. While cooking with their meat, I used fewer spices and marinades, as the tender and delicious flavor of the pork was front and center with their product, in a way that I had rarely tasted before. For their pork chops, I like to just chop them up and stir-fry then with a little soy sauce; they need nothing more. They impart their own unique and delicious flavor to whatever they are cooked with.

What Iowa Farm Families is doing is extremely laudable, and gourmets everywhere should celebrate their efforts. Their commitment to a return to local, real foods that, first and foremost taste good, is something that is lost all too often in today’s world. I tip my hat to them, and look forward to a delicious culinary relationship with their pork.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Food Tour of Iowa: New Pioner Cooperative

Food Tour of Iowa: New Pioneer Cooperative and the Local Foods Festival


I love the Iowan attitude towards giving food to strangers: Please! Take some!

That seemed to be the motto of the many different vendors who were present at the Coralville branch of the New Pioneer Cooperative Grocery Store. First, I’m going to talk about the fabulous vendors and local food producers who were present, and then discuss why the New Pioneer Co-op is such a representative Iowan store.

When I walked into NP this beautiful Sunday morning, I was immediately faced with two types of home made applesauce, from apples grown not 20 miles away. With a shameless greed that I have developed since starting the blog, I devoured both samples and squirreled away the business card. This would typify my visit.

The festival was lively, with music from local bands The Beggerman and Gilded Bats, which set a lively mood that definitely perked me up. Local restaurants, such as the Red Avocado and Falafel Oasis were represented, as were growers of apples and chestnuts, and food producers, such as Sutliff Cider and Reicherts Goat Dairy.

I will just run down a bulleted list of the independent producers who were there, and then I will discuss the samples that the store (which houses its own bake house and delightful dairy) was offering.

-The Red Avocado: A local (and very popular) vegetarian and vegan restaurant was giving out samples of it delicious veggie burger, as well as its delicious vegan-cheeses, which were served on top of crackers with a smidge of Red Pepper Jelly. Both were delectable. The Veggie burger didn’t strive to re-create beef flavor- instead, it tried for its own vegetable heartiness, an endeavor in which it succeeded. The cheese spreads lacked the consistency, but not the unami flavor, of real brie and mozzarella- a delicious (and healthy!) alternative for cheese, if it is ever needed. Link:


Above: The Red Avocado's table. On the right are some of their dairy-free cheeses.

-Cocina Del Mundo: A local spice blender, she had a particularly delicious spread of home-made samples, ranging from delicious quiches to a hearty veggie stew. See picture below


Above: Cocina Del Mundo's delicious quiches (on the left)

-Annes Gluten Free bread: A vendor of ready-made gluten free bread mixes. They showcased four different types, the mixes for which were all available: herb, pumpkin, banana and wheat. Their gluten free nature, atleast to me, was not readily distinguishable: they tasted simply like delicious breads. The highlight of the booth? Their banana bread. Link:

-Sutliff Cider: A local cider maker of both hard and soft varieties. I much preferred the soft; I felt the hard sacrificed apple flavor. Link:

-Reichert’s Dairy Air: A local Goat Cheese dairy in Knoxville. I am actually going to visit her this Thursday, so stay tuned for more news about her and her dedication to Slow Food and Goat Cheese! At the fair, she had samples of her plain, chipotle, cranberry-walnut and herb chevre’s. They were all delicious. Link:

-Grass Run Farms: Definitely the best smelling booth; they were grilling up beautiful hamburger sliders, which enclosed some of the most tender and flavorful beef I have had in a long time. I look forward to trying to visit them in the future. Link:

-Falafel Oasis: Another local restaurant, they had samples of their pita, both in the fried and un-fried variety, along with some delicious Hummus. Based on the quality of their pita (thick and flavorful) I look forward to getting a Falafel from them when I am next in Iowa City.

There was also a booth from Kalona Organics. For notes about them, I direct my dear readers to an earlier post in which I visit them.

In addition, the NP was showcasing many of its delicious products. Their bakery was giving out liberal samples of their delicious pecan and pumpkin pies. The deli had huge slabs of a delectable onion tart for the taking. Their ready-made lunch section had samples of their California rolls. All of their products gave me the utmost faith that any product made at or retailed by NP will be of the utmost quality and taste.

However, they did not just have fantastic foods that were made on site. They also were showcasing their impressive selection of bulk foods, such as nuts and cereals, as well as their jams. Overall, I was extremely impressed with the entire NP operation- from their on site bake house, to their dedication to only stocking high quality and local products. If you are ever in Iowa City, I cannot recommend a stop at the New Pioneer Co-Op Enough- either to dine on one of their delicious sandwiches or ready made lunches, or to stock up on high quality produce, meat or dry goods.


Above: New Pioneer Co-Op's staggering collection of bulk goods- they had everything from nuts, to flours to cereals.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

La Quercia Prosciutteria

Food Tour of Iowa: La Quercia


This was a notable visit for me. You see, La Quercia was the place that inspired me to travel around Iowa and look for local foods and local producers. To me, it is an exemplar of how I think food should be produced: Herb Eckhouse, the owner and lead prosciutto maker at La Quercia, describes what he does as making food, not making a product. I could not agree more fully. Both he and his wife, Kathy, are prime examples of people who live and preach the idea of “real” foods.

Herb’s commitment to quality is evident in every part of the prosciutto production process at La Quercia. From the rigorous standards with which he selects his pork, to the scientific precision with which he controls the curing process, everything in La Quercia speaks volumes about Herb’s unstinting commitment to creating the best prosciutto he can.

It all starts with local, organically raised ham, which he gets from a handful of local purveyors, depending on what the final product will be. All the pork is from local, sustainably raised animals. The reason for this is obvious: only three ingredients are ever in his products: pork, sea salt and spices. The essence of great prosciutto, he told me, is the rich concentrated flavor of the pork after it has been cured. This is only possible when you start with best pork.


Above: The fresh hams start with a chilling period, which emulates the fall and winter.

After the pork has been sourced, it is brought by truck to the state-of-the-art prosciuterria at La Quercia. There, a variety of climate and humidity controlled room’s mimic the four seasons, in order to produce prosciutto that is not too dry or salty. At the most basic level, prosciutto is very easy to make. Italian peasants originally made it, in order to preserve the meat so that it could be eaten in the winter. However, there is nothing simple in the process Herb employs today, although the product speaks volumes to its correctness. Essentially, the entire process simply involves rubbing the ham with sea salt, and perhaps spices, and then curing it over a long time. However, Herb has perfected his technique with a state of the art curing process. His involves a set of rooms that cool and warm the prosciutto slowly, so that the salt has the optimal conditions to extract the water from the ham and concentrate the innate flavor of the organic Iowa pork. All of Herb’s equipment is imported from Italy, and a computer controls the humidity and temperate of each room individually.


Above: The central computer the ensures that La Quercia is cured in the optimal conditions

As we walked through the rooms, I saw the results of the process at each step. The hams were slowly condensing and becoming smaller, as the salt leached the water out. Herb is currently expanding his operation, so as to be able to approximately double his weekly output in response to strong consumer demand.



Above: As you can see, the hams become more and more condensed and finished. The second photo is of an experimental batch, where Herb cured the entire leg. Usually, the ham is separated. Note the yellowing of the salt cure.


Above: The coppa; a lightly smoked and delicious product.

But the real question is, what are the results like? I am happy to report that Herb’s perfectionism yields some of the best pork I have ever tasted. Considering the complexity of the process, the result, when seen on a plate, is deceptively simple: a gorgeous ruby-red slice of prosciutto, with some snow-white fat on the bottom. To taste it is to know the essence of pork and ham. It had a pronounced flavor, which is very simple and very strong. Even minutes later, I could still distinctly taste the prosciutto’s unctuous flavor. It was incredible. You don’t have to take my word for it; no less prestigious foodies than Robert Parker and Mark Bittman have given the prosciutto of La Quercia their highest regards. The list of chefs who use La Querica Prosciutto is no less impressive; Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck both are users.


Above: Boxes ready to be shipped out to eager gourmands and restaranteurs

Afterwards, we chatted about matters of importance to the slow foods movement. Herb, like myself, is a fervent believer in the necessity of creating food, not a product, and doing so in the best way one can. I can honestly say that if every food producer approached their work with the honesty, integrity and pride with which Herb approaches his, the world would be a good deal closer to perfection.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Food Tour of Iowa: Wine Tour of the Amana Colonies

Food Tour of Iowa: Visits

Wine Tour

Hello dear readers!

Sorry I have been so long updating; school, in cahoots with a very pleasant Fall Break in California, have kept me too occupied to post much. However, this last Saturday I had a touch of wanderlust and headed out to the Amana colonies to sample some of their gourmet delights.

My itinerary for the day was fairly simple: I was going to go up and down the main drag (it’s a very small colony) and go into fun and interesting looking shops. In the end, I wound up visiting Millstream Brewery, Collectively Iowa (a wine distributor), the Amana Smokehouse, Ackerman Winery and the germanically named “chocolate haus”.

The visit did not start off well at Millstream; while they produce some very fine beers, which I sampled, the brewer was not in and the tap was manned by a young man whose main qualifications were enthusiasm and friendliness over knowledge. The beers were sampled, a Oktober lager and a winter ale, were both very good, with hearty flavor obviously informed by the frigidity of the air.

We then traveled up the road to Collectively Iowa, a wine distributor with a very comfortable tasting area, staffed by a pleasantly well-informed older woman. There, we sampled some of Iowa and the Midwest’s more serious grape wines, which were good, although they had a much stronger mineral note than the varietals I had encountered before. In addition, we tried a cranberry wine, which was very good. Similar to a very concentrated cranberry juice, it had a sophisticated kick that would go extremely well with a smoky Thanksgiving turkey- or, on that note, a good smoky pork chop, like the ones we smelled cooking next door at the Smokehouse.

In addition to delectable smoked pork chops, a personal favorite of mine, the Smokehouse makes country-cured hams, summer sausages, jerky and turkey. They also make a variety of sauces and dips to accompany the meat. The ham, sampled both with and without a horseradish-corn cob jelly, was delicious. It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and accompanied very well by the jelly. The two varieties of summer sausage, which is similar to a cured, ready to head salami, were also good, and brought back memories of simple summer sandwiches at my Grandparents house, assembled with thick slices of summer sausage, fresh bakery rolls and butter. The jerky, unfortunately, was very bad. It lacked any sort of taste, and was too tough to eat at all comfortably. However, the turkey breast was delicious, and my host assured me that they were currently working on the whole turkeys that many families buy for their Thanksgiving meal.

Ackerman winery was my final stop. A family producer of over 20 fruit wines, they produce such unique flavors as dandelion, rhubarb, apricot, cranberry and many more. While most of the wines were interesting and far too sweet for any type of large consumption, certain wines stood out. The tart cherry was excellent, as was the cranberry. They would do well with a smoky or spicy cheese appetizer, as well as perhaps for cooking. Fruit wines, while illuminating, are not something that will end up in my cellar.

I departed the colonies with wanderlust fulfilled and a new appreciation for the Midwest. The Amanas are a representative sample of Iowa; making do with what they have.