Food Republic Where Food, Drink & Culture Unite Fri, 31 Jul 2015 19:00:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Food Crimes, Homemade Burgers, Whole Hogs: 10 Hot Topics On Food Republic Fri, 31 Jul 2015 19:00:05 +0000 With temperatures reaching unbearable highs across the country, you might find yourself staying indoors this weekend. But what to do? We’ve got you covered here at Food Republic. You could start by binge-watching all three seasons of The Mind of a Chef, available on Netflix starting tomorrow. Mix things up between episodes by watching the second installment of our original series Food Crimes, in which we investigate the rarefied world of saffron — both as the world’s most precious and valuable spice and as a lesser-known commodity tied up in the nuclear-armament dealings between the U.S., its allies at the U.N. and the ostracized outlier Iran. As a snack break, why don’t you incorporate some of our homemade burger advice and put together our popular broccolini recipe? Find yourself with some serious time (and ambition) on your hands? Check out our guide to cooking a whole hog. All that and more on this week’s Hot Topics on Food Republic.

  1. We launched episode two of our original series Food Crimes, investigating saffron.
  2. Here’s how gritty NYC history inspired the city’s acclaimed Dead Rabbit bar.
  3. Binge time! The Mind of a Chef season three is available on Netflix this weekend.
  4. How do you make the perfect homemade burger? We’ve got you covered.
  5. A Paris food writer tells us where to eat in her city.
  6. Go ham! Here’s how to properly cook a whole hog at home.
  7. Allow us to tell you why Indian pickle is a great condiment.
  8. Mix up this vegetarian broccolini recipe with grilled lemon, pine nuts and chili.
  9. We ask bartenders about their favorite moments from Tales of the Cocktail.
  10. Meet Abe Schoener, the wine world’s enigmatic cult hero.
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A Japanese Whisky Takes On The Negroni Fri, 31 Jul 2015 17:00:12 +0000 Much has been said on the beauty of the iconic balance of spirit, bitter and fortified wine that comprises the classic Negroni. The ratio of this drink, originally made with gin, can be applied using almost any base spirit, though the real art is knowing which two modifiers come next.

Lauded barman Sam Ross has concocted an array of Negroni variations for a restaurant in Los Angeles, Hinoki & the Bird, most notably his Harajuku, which uses Hibiki 12 Year Old whisky. As Ross describes it, “the floral notes of the Hibiki really mesh well with the chocolate and bitter components of the drink.” Those components are Byrrh, a grape-based spiced-quinine aperitif, and Gran Classico, a bitter orange, rhubarb, wormwood and gentian-driven bitter.

With equal parts of each ingredient, the layers of light grain sweetness from the meld perfectly with the Byrrh and Gran Classico after being brought together with an orange twist. It’s very easy drinking, and in New York, it can also be found at Ross’s Attaboy, located in the original Milk & Honey space and designated one of 2014’s World’s Best Bars. I certainly hope to sip this one again soon. Enjoy.

Negroni Cocktail

Serving: 1 cocktail

1 ounce Beefeater Gin
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth


  1. In a chilled rocks glass, combine ingredients with a large block of ice, and stir for 10 seconds.
  2. Garnish with an orange twist.

Harajuku Cocktail

Serving: 1 cocktail

1 ounce Suntory Hibiki 12 Year Old
1 ounce Byrrh Grand QuinQuina
1 ounce Tempus Fugit Gran Classico Bitter
2 dashes chocolate bitters


  1. In a chilled rocks glass, combine ingredients with a large block of ice, and stir for 10 seconds.
  2. Garnish with an orange twist.

Prep time: 3 minutes
Difficulty: Easy

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Don’t Mess With Delta Spirit’s Coffee Set-Up Fri, 31 Jul 2015 16:00:12 +0000
Delta Spirit, a band with elevated tastes, plays Lollapalooza in Chicago this weekend. (Jon Jameson, interviewed below, is second from right.) (Photo by Matthew Pandolfe.)

Indie rockers Delta Spirit may no longer be full-time residents of Brooklyn (where they recorded their latest album Into the Wide — a deluxe edition of which with new tracks debuted on June 29), but the band is back together again for their An Evening With Delta Spirit & Friends tour, which has taken them across the country since May. The group (including singer Matt Vasquez, bassist Jon Jameson, drummer Brandon Young, guitarist Will McLaren and multi-instrumentalist Kelly Winrich) will be stopping in Chicago this weekend for their fourth appearance at Lollapalooza and between sets are planning to visit some of their favorite spots, including the Girl & the Goat and Nellcôte. We caught up with San Diego native Jon Jameson as the band made its way to Grand Rapids to learn about his time working at Mast Brothers chocolate, the band’s high and low Chicago hot dog experiences, and why restaurants need to stop closing shop on them.

What did you miss most about your usual home base of San Diego during your time in Brooklyn?
For one thing, the street Mexican food is so much better there, like the burritos and all the stuff you can get for $3. When I first moved to Brooklyn, there was a shitty Mexican place around the corner from my house, and I went in asking for a bean and cheese burrito. They were like, “That’s $8,” and I was like, “That’s ridiculous.” I walked out. So that’s a bummer. I miss açai bowls a lot, too. I’m from Encinitas, which is a little surf spot in North County, San Diego, and there are a couple of spots there with the perfect açai bowl. We always joked about opening an açai bowl spot in Brooklyn. There are so many weird little places that do one thing really well, and I feel like that would’ve probably worked.

What were your favorite spots in Brooklyn?
I lived across the street from DuMont, which was amazing. Now it’s defunct, sadly, but I really loved their burger. Paulie Gee’s is so great. Greenpoint is where the studio was, so we’d go eat there a lot. My friends own Mast Brothers, and I worked there for a little while. Those guys are food nerds, and it was fun to get into that world with them. I worked in the back production part-time for a little while. I didn’t know many people in NYC yet, so it was actually a really cool way to meet people and see how it all works.

What was the most surprising thing you learned there?
They’re in the middle of being super-small and getting bigger. I think breweries face that too — having things be consistent but of high quality. That was interesting to me, that struggle of people making things and being a little different, but also trying to keep the quality high.

Did you talk about doing a chocolate bar for Delta Spirit? What would it entail?
We did! We almost did one for the last tour, but we didn’t have enough time to put it all together. They used to do a sea salt and almond one, and now they do sea salt and almond separately. I feel like it was the best when it was both.

Any spots you’ve been able to discover on this tour?
We randomly had three days off in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which we’d never spent any time in before. It’s a pretty small college town, but there’s a lot of good stuff there. There’s Jolly Pumpkin, which is a really great brewery. The beer is really amazing. Then there’s Zingerman’s, which is a pretty popular Jewish deli. And they have another James Beard Award–winning restaurant that was a block away from our weird hotel on the outskirts of town, so that was a big surprise. We’ve gotten to know Ann Arbor pretty well.

What city do you get amped about returning to for a restaurant?
We have more friends who are chefs or restaurant-connected in Chicago than anywhere else. Whenever we’re there we eat really well, and it’s always really fun. During our second or third time to Chicago, someone who we don’t even know that well flew in to ride with us for a couple days and was like, “I’ve got to take you to this place Hot Doug’s.” We went there for the first time, and it literally blew our minds. Now it’s sad that it closed. Back then we only waited about 10 minutes, but every time we’d come back after that, we were there too late and it was closed, or we were on a bus and couldn’t get over there. One time we tweeted, “If you bring us Hot Doug’s, you’ll get into the show for free,” and some crazy person actually did it. It was great.

Where are you definitely heading while in town?
Will, our guitarist, is a nerd about the Girl & the Goat. Every time, he has to go there. He loves it. When the reservations are too slammed, he’ll just sit at the bar and make friends with all of the older single women. I’ve been to Little Goat, which is great. We have a friend who always connects us to Nellcôte and the oyster bar next door — those places are great.

Any favorite dining experiences here?
Back when the Graham Elliot team had the actual fine-dining restaurant — which I didn’t realized had closed until recently — I was by this church, so I went in for evening prayer. It was just a nun and me in there, so I said evening prayer with her, and afterwards she came up to me and was like, “I’m so sorry, but you’ve missed the homeless meal.” I have long hair and a beard, and it wasn’t the first time someone thought I was homeless. It happened to be the day we were going to Graham Elliot for the tasting menu, and it was just this great irony of us getting such very fancy food that day. I was like, “It’s all right — someone else is feeding me.”

Where will you be drinking during Lollapalooza weekend?
I’m looking forward to checking out the Lagunitas brewery they just opened there. I’ve also heard that the bar at the Freehand, Broken Shaker, is great.

What’ll it be during the show?
Brandon and I are serious beer guys. We’re from Southern California, so we’re pretty much all about the hop-forward IPA-styles. Matt and Kelly are the whiskey people — that’s their vibe pretty much nonstop, except for when Matt randomly likes to drink nonalcoholic beer, which is just confusing for everyone. Will doesn’t really drink, but when he does, he drinks only sake. He really likes the sake.

Who’s the pickiest eater in the band?
Brandon is a very picky eater. He feels like they always screw up his order, but then he feels guilty telling the waiter they screwed up the meal. He tries to play it off like he’ll eat anything, but he’s hard to please.

What’s something you guys don’t leave home without?
The coffee setup is essential. Stumptown gave us a pound of coffee and some cold brews, which is amazing. We used to bring a Chemex, but it’s way too cumbersome. So now we have a legit Bonavita auto drip and a good grinder. When you’re on a bus — especially with about 10 people traveling with you — having a good coffee setup is great, so you don’t have to find the one good coffee place in say, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Any memorable late-night bites?
The one problem with tasting menus is that there isn’t very much food, and if you drink a lot, then you’re going to be really drunk. That happened the night of the Graham Elliot tasting menu. We were back at our hotel, and I was totally drunk and starving. We went over to 7-Eleven and got like, three hot dogs each. They were great, too. Thankfully, those are still available — unless they’ve shut down the hot dog program.

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Introducing The World’s First 100% Chocolate Beer Fri, 31 Jul 2015 14:30:47 +0000 You can put down the O’Doul’s. There’s a new nonalcoholic beer out there, and — get this — it’s made entirely out of chocolate. No hops or sugar added.

Acclaimed chocolatier Mast Brothers has come up with two chocolate beers, Brooklyn Blend and Vanilla Smoke — with two more in the works — currently available at its Brooklyn factory location, according to Food and Wine. The beers are poured from a tap, naturally.

So why are these bearded dudes calling their chocolate concoction a beer when there’s no sign of alcohol? Well, for one, it’s brewed using the same methods as beer. Cocoa beans are roasted, shelled, then “cold-brewed for 24 hours in stainless steel fermenters,” just like small-batch beers. Delving deeper into the beer aspect, carbon dioxide is added when the beer reaches the kegging stage. Nitrogen is also present when the liquid is poured out of the tap.

Food and Wine reports that the drink is “like a cold hot chocolate,” while describes it as “a little nutty, very rich and buttery, and even lends some warm caramel notes.”

There’s also talk of bottling the brew. Think of it as the perfect gift for DDs and chocolate lovers everywhere.

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How To Quickly Shuck A Bunch Of Oysters Fri, 31 Jul 2015 13:00:04 +0000 Shucking oysters can be one big time-consuming party foul. Literally. Say you’re throwing a big party and want to serve fresh oysters. Well, preparing a lot at once can be a huge shucking pain that takes hours. Besides, it’s tedious and frustrating work. But it doesn’t have to be.

Our friends at ChefSteps wrote in this week with a way to easily shuck hella oysters in a matter of minutes. It involves softening the adductor muscle — the bit that connects the creatures to their shells — by sticking the oysters in boiling water, then icing them down right quick so they don’t cook. When they make contact with the hot water, some of the oysters will actually open on their own, and the ones that don’t open by themselves will be a breeze to shuck. Pretty darn easy, right? Check out the short demonstration video below and host your next luxe get-together with confidence!

ChefSteps comprises a team of award-winning chefs, filmmakers, scientists, designers and engineers focused on revolutionizing the way people cook by inspiring creativity and encouraging expertise in the kitchen. The site is currently offering free online classes called Cooking Sous Vide: Getting Started and Burgers, as well as a $10 class called Cooking Sous Vide: Beyond the Basics.

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Is It Afternoon Yet? Meet Your Next Pre-Dinner Libation, The Café Cocktail Thu, 30 Jul 2015 18:00:36 +0000 AperolSpritz
You don’t have to be in Venice, Italy, to enjoy an Aperol spritz. (Photo: Aperol Spritz/Facebook.)

Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s contributing cocktail editor and the author of the column Easy Drinking. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.

I’ve had the good fortune to travel a lot throughout my life. I was raised by parents who instilled a deep love of getting to see the world, and my job certainly hasn’t hindered that in the least. And, of course, I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the way people drink in other parts of the world beyond just the city where I tend bar. One style of drinking that I’ve always been enamored with is the European tradition of low-proof highballs in the afternoon. I’ve come to refer to them as café cocktails.

I think of the Americano as the prototypical café cocktail: Campari, sweet vermouth, and sparkling water on ice with a citrus garnish. Gary Regan, in his seminal work The Joy of Mixology, classifies the Americano as a Milanese cocktail, which applies to basically anything with Campari in it. But with respect and admiration to Gary, I’ll stick to my own classification, as not only are there too many drinks that follow the rules of a café cocktail, but the Americano also gave birth to the Negroni, which I consider in another family altogether.

1.5 ounces Campari
1.5 ounces sweet vermouth
3 ounces sparkling water

1. Combine all ingredients in a tall ice-filled glass.
2. Garnish with an orange wedge or twist, as you prefer.

Looking at the Americano, I see three important elements that I consider the foundation for a café cocktail. First, there is a bitter component. Bitter is crucial for a preprandial libation, as it ostensibly prepares the stomach for digestion. Second, there is a wine component. Wine or fortified wine gives the drink body and provides rich flavor without a lot of alcohol. This is also important when taking one or two drinks in the afternoon, as a higher-proof cocktail defeats the point of something gentle to sip before dinner. And finally, there is a sparkling component. Carbonation is refreshing; it’s pleasant on the tongue and in the stomach.

Legend tells us that the Italian count Camilo Negroni created the again-popular stiffer version of the Americano by requesting that his bartender swap out the soda water for gin. I’m wary of these simple origin stories, but until someone comes along to refute the claim, I’ll accept it. But gin for soda isn’t the sort of swap I’m interested in for this lineage of cocktails, because, remember, we’re talking about low-proof ingredients here.

Another legend tells us of a drink that takes its name from the transportation preferred by little old Southern French and Italian men after an afternoon at the café, the Bicyclette (or Bicicleta, in Italy). And when you take a look at the recipe you’ll see that it’s little more than an Americano with the substitution of dry white wine for the sweet vermouth. The result is drier, crisper, and even more suitable for the height of summer than the Americano.

1.5 ounces Campari
1.5 ounces dry white wine
3 ounces sparkling water

1. Combine all ingredients in a ice-filled wine glass.
2. Garnish with an lemon twist.

Venturing a little further into Italy, one drink has emerged as the modern champion of café cocktails. Popularized, if not created, by the city of Venice is the Aperol spritz. And while my detractors might argue that the Aperol spritz belongs in some sort of meaningless catch-all category called spritzers, I contest that the Aperol spritz is a café cocktail of the highest pedigree. Comprised of the orange and rhubarb liqueur Aperol (the bitter component), sparkling water (obviously) and prosecco (the wine component), the Aperol spritz has taken on a life of its own in recent years as Aperol has become more readily available outside of Italy.

Aperol Spritz
1.5 ounces sparkling water
1.5 ounces prosecco
3 ounces Aperol

1. Combine all ingredients in a tall ice-filled glass.
2. Garnish with an orange wedge or twist, as you prefer.

The great thing about a café cocktail is its versatility. Try experimenting with sparkling flavored sodas, other bitter liqueurs and wine components within this basic framework and see for yourself just how great summer can be with a café cocktail in hand.

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The Grind, The Patty, The Grill And The Bun: How To Make The Perfect Burger Thu, 30 Jul 2015 16:00:54 +0000 Food Republic’s column Ask Your Butcher seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer founded Philadelphia’s Kensington Quarters and helped develop a renowned butcher-training program at Brooklyn’s Fleisher’s. Today, he consults with farmers, chefs, butchers and anyone else who will listen. In each column, Mayer tackles a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks. Here, he explores how to make the perfect burger at home.

My obsession with burgers predates my obsession with grass-fed beef and butchering. Sometime around 1999, a few friends and I would meet weekly at places like the Burger Joint, J.G. Melon, Bill’s and Peter Luger, to name a few. I developed a love and appreciation for burgers the way some do for pizza or pasta. In fact, there are some similarities: None are extremely difficult to make and all require minimal ingredients. The permutations and variations are limitless. And still, the mastery of each can take a lifetime. I’m not here to tell you what the best way to make a burger is — that’s entirely up to you. Whether it’s a simple beef patty from Louis’ Lunch cooked the same way for over 100 years on cast-iron grills or a Daniel Boulud burger stuffed with everything in the fridge, here are a few things you should know and do (and not do).

The Grind

We’ve all heard it so many times: The best burgers come from meat you grind yourself at home. And while that might have been true at one time, today’s expert butchers do things a bit differently. Any butcher worth his or her weight in beef trim grinds fresh every day. More important is what winds up in the grind. Sure, your whole-animal butcher would be happy to grind for you — at full retail price — all the chuck, brisket and short rib you’d like. But contrary to what some meat “experts” out there say, that is not how to get the tastiest meat for your Labor Day BBQ.

Using grass-fed beef ensures added flavor from well-worked muscles.

You need but two things. One is a grind from grass-fed animals that spend their entire lives out on grass, working those muscles. Flavor comes from worked muscles, not cereal grains! And you need shank meat in there, as these muscles are responsible for locomotion, and that means they work…a lot. And since our grass-fed animals are out there on pasture much longer than their commodity-market contemporaries, there’s a whole lot of flavor development going on. The caveat with the grind-your-own mindset is that your home grinder probably isn’t going to cut it. Literally. You’ll need some serious horsepower to break down those muscles; we’re talking 5 to 7 hp. Your top-of-the-line Kitchen Aid’s got about 1.5 hp, which is nowhere near enough to break down all that sinew. And the amount of stress you’ll put on the machine will generate a lot of heat from friction, which is a burger’s mortal enemy. You don’t want to be rendering fat before you start cooking. If you’re set on grinding your own, you’ll need to spend some time denuding and getting your meat really cold. A bit of freezer time should take care of that — let a little bit of “crunch” develop on the outside of the meat.

One of the reasons that the Big Meat bosses love to talk about chuck, short rib and brisket in burger blends is because of fat. These are fairly fatty muscles, and fat is flavor! In fact, fat is now being recognized as a sixth taste…whatever that means. Well, guess what comes with a whole animal? A whole lot of fat. Fat that never sees its way into boxed meat. Grass-fed animals can be just as fatty as their feedlot counterparts. Okay, so maybe we’re not talking Kobe fat, but you get my point. And if all that great, natural fattiness isn’t fatty enough for you, most shops will grind an 80/20 (lean-to-fat) ratio — they’ve got the fat on hand to bring it up to the perfect 70/30 burger blend! Add to that all the custom grinds that many shops do these days — beef and bacon, dry-aged, beef and pork — and there is more than enough creativity out there to satisfy any palate.

The Patty

As if we haven’t already added enough subjectivity here by talking about taste, we’re now going to talk about patty formation. Whether you keep them super-thin or go for a thicker bistro style, there are a few rules you’ll want to follow. For the bistro-style, handle the meat as little as possible. Your hands are conductors of heat, and that heat will smear all that delicious fat, potentially winding up on your hands and not in the burger. So, I employ the 1-2-3-4-5 method: Count to five and whatever the shape is, that’s what it is (I use a similar method with meatballs, with just three seconds). It’ll be a perfect six-ounce burger.

Less handling is more when it comes to forming homemade patties.

Tip: Use two takeout container lids and press your ground meat between them until you get your desired thickness. Not only does this method avoid heating of the patty, but it also prevents it from being compressed too much. You want that fat to seep into all the little spaces between the strands of meat. It’s the equivalent of tearing an English muffin in half instead of cutting it — you’re creating texture and keeping fat. You’ll have a Heston Blumenthal–quality burger without the need to take a week off to prepare it.

For the smash-style burger, it’s even simpler. Just weigh yourself out a four-ounce (a little smaller is better here) patty, roll it into a ball and that’s it. You’re ready to cook.

As for seasoning, there are only two ingredients needed: salt and pepper. You should use fresh cracked pepper if possible, but feel free to sprinkle on whatever salt you have handy. Just please resist the urge to use bread crumbs, onion, garlic or any other powder, for that matter. These are burgers, not meatloaf! One final note: Do not salt your patties before they are formed! We’re not making sausage. It’s best to do this right before they hit the grill.

The Grill/Cook

What good is all this talk of which type of ground beef to buy and which type of patty to form if you’re going to turn it into the puck from Jaromir Jagr’s next hat trick? No amount of cheese or secret sauce can save an overly charred burger. So here’s what you’re going to do: Keep your burgers off the grill. That’s not to say that you can’t use your grill — by all means do — just be sure to use a skillet or a flat cooking surface. Think about it. You’ve got, in my opinion, the perfect 70/30 blend, your grill is blazing hot and all that’s needed is just a bit of animal fat to set it all ablaze, leaving you with flavorless, charred little meat disks. Cooking your burgers on a flat cooking surface allows the fat to render instead of dripping away into oblivion. You get a moist, tender burger.

Use a skillet or flat cooking surface when grilling burgers to avoid charring.

If you plan on a bistro-style burger, feel free to flip away. I usually make mine at about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2-inch thickness. This flipping will allow for a faster, more evenly cooked burger. However, you can never replace a thermometer. So for perfectly cooked burgers, go for that rare/medium rare zone of 125°F to 130°F. For the smash-burger style — my personal favorite — I go for the 1-2-3. Drop that four-ounce ball of ground meat onto your flat cooking surface, wait one minute, smoosh it down to a thickness only Ant-Man could measure, wait a minute and flip it again, making sure to scrape up all the good bits with it. Just wait one more minute and you’re done.

Tip: If you’re planning on adding cheese, do it immediately after flipping your smash burger. You’ve got a bit more time with the bistro style. And since you’ll be flipping those more often, it’s probably best to wait for the end.

The Bun

Brioche bun for the bistro burger, Martin’s Potato Roll for the smash burger. Why mess with perfection?

Apply these techniques and you’ll be cooking perfect burgers year-round, as you should be. After all, it’s burger season all year long.

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The American Ex-Military Team Bringing Afghan Saffron to the Western World Thu, 30 Jul 2015 15:08:46 +0000 kimberly_saffron
Kimberly Jung of Rumi Spice

Among the entrepreneurs on cellphones negotiating big deals with firms in Silicon Valley or else reminiscing with one another about the jobs they left behind on Wall Street, Kimberly Jung’s company sticks out at Harvard’s Innovation Lab. In fact, her innovation hinges on a product that has been around for many centuries: She’s bringing the Afghan saffron trade to the world market.

The journey her product has taken to arrive at Harvard is also unique. Her farmers’ harvest often requires that they resist pressure from the Taliban, which prefers that its regional farmers grow lucrative poppy plants instead — it is poppy, after all, that creates highly marketable opium. Delivering the saffron brings risks as well: roadside bombs, complicated cultural barriers and international customs holdups, to name a few. Still, Jung points out that Afghan saffron is competing in some of the most exclusive food circles in any market. Many believe that of all the traceable, legal and transparent saffron, Afghanistan’s is the finest.

“The country where people think of war and desolation has actually made some of the best saffron,” says Jung. “Our saffron has come a long way.”

On a recent July afternoon, Jung’s flip-flops slapped along the floor of Harvard’s Innovation Lab as she answered colleagues’ questions about how to take the saffron grown by farmers in Afghanistan and deliver it to the company’s rapidly growing roster of name-brand buyers, including a major distributor to Whole Foods. She settled in beside her colleagues as they donned masks and hairnets to separate, weigh and place the fragrant spice into tiny glass jars. Long after the startup businesses at neighboring tables had gone home, Rumi Spice’s staff were still bottling saffron threads. Jung compared her current job to the career she left behind as an officer in the United States Army based in Afghanistan.

“It’s the same thing as being a platoon leader, because as a platoon leader, you’re solving all of these random problems,” says Jung.


But Jung’s efforts to sell Afghan saffron to the U.S. market forecasts a future that economic-sanctions experts have struggled with in their debates about resuming trade relations with Iran. Farmers in Iran produce 90 percent of the world’s saffron, yet sanctions preclude it from reaching the great majority of world markets. As such, it is often brought to the United States and other Western nations through underground channels. The potential end of economic sanctions — a scenario created by a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions — could financially empower Iranian farmers with a new market in which to sell their goods. A deal bringing Iranian saffron to the world could have enormous effects on saffron’s price point, simply because of the volume it would unleash on the market. For now, Afghanistan, through Rumi Spice and others, is building an infrastructure predicated on a superior product.

In the first year that Jung employed 11 farmers to grow saffron in Afghanistan, farmers who previously made about $500 a year growing more typical agricultural products, like grains, earned $2,000 producing two kilograms of saffron. There’s also hope that offering this alternative livelihood will keep more men in Afghanistan. Keith Alaniz, the 33-year-old cofounder of Rumi Spice, spent nine years in the U.S. Army himself and explains that in many of the Afghan villages he visited, young men were forced to leave home for Pakistan to find work, often leaving their families to dangerous, opportunistic ends.

“You look at these cities or these towns that are just emptied of young men, and it’s no wonder that a handful of insurgents can come in and take control. I mean, there’s no one there that’s going to stop them,” says Alaniz. “If we’re successful with saffron and increasing the production, then men like this don’t have to leave to other countries to go to earn a living.”

Keith Alaniz

Jung was first introduced to Afghanistan’s farming culture in 2010 when she was deployed with her army platoon to the Ghazni and Wardak provinces, looking for roadside bombs and working with provincial reconstruction teams. Military service was inspiring but tedious. She eventually left for the private sector, enrolling at Harvard Business School in the fall of 2013, where she was inspired by a single question asked of students there: “What would you do with your one wild and precious life?”

She met Alaniz when they were both deployed to Battery Park City in Manhattan during relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy. Alaniz had also previously been stationed in Afghanistan, working on building long-term relationships with Afghan government officials. He compares regions of the country to visiting the Swiss Alps, considers the cuisine as welcoming as Mexican food and praises the people for being incredibly welcoming. Alaniz described to Jung how Afghan farmers were growing saffron but had no one to distribute the product. Jung started developing the idea and sought Alaniz’s wisdom from the front lines on implementation. She flew to Afghanistan with her business-school professor in the spring of 2014 to meet with farmers. Back in Boston, the company quickly attracted employees, mostly veterans who spent time in Afghanistan and who are now Harvard students, people whose memories are imprinted with acres of opium fields ablaze in an effort to eradicate the local drug trade.

Immediately there were challenges.

Hamid Herzai, whose family owns a 2,000-acre farm in the Wardak province that grows grapes, apples, apricots and alfalfa, was one of the first farmers Rumi Spice began working with — and saffron wasn’t a crop his family was especially familiar with. Although Herzai mainly lives in Texas, he had been trying to launch a business exporting dried fruit from Afghanistan and met Alaniz through a business-school friend. He explains that the first growing season taught his family plenty about the challenging business of growing saffron, like the best distance between plants, the quantity of water needed, whether to pick the saffron flower once it blooms in the mid to late afternoon and the importance of the size of the seed. The farm produced one kilogram of saffron last year — a success, but not at the necessary scale. Herzai says he hopes to raise that figure to three to four kilograms.

But there are other costs. Herzai’s family faces enormous political pressures and considers the Taliban the legitimate governing authority where his family’s farm is based.

“There is definite pressure from taxation,” says Herzai. “A certain amount has to go to the local government.”

It is also dangerous.

Abdul Shakoor Ehrarri, an irrigation and agriculture specialist from Herat who collected the saffron from the 11 farmers spread out among the Wardak, Gurian and Pashtun Zargol regions, met a Rumi Spice worker who had flown over to Kabul in late November to pick it up. But during that week of November 18, there were five bombings in Kabul, including a bombing steps from where the worker was staying.

“This was probably the worst two weeks of violence in Kabul in at last the four years that I have been following Afghanistan,” says Alaniz. “Throw in that the Taliban want to assert themselves as a staying power, and all that came together in this two-week span.”

In the United States, the difficulties continue, minus the explosives. Jung has found herself returning repeatedly to the airport to pick up saffron that was held up in customs. Attract distributors isn’t easy, either. But Rumi Spice is making progress. At the Fancy Food Show in New York City in July, Jung was able to pitch Rumi Spice to Williams-Sonoma, and she was following up on delivering saffron to distributors in deals worth up to $13 million.

Phyllis Hunter, who runs the Spice Diva shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and attended the show said her shop has started selling the saffron to customers captivated by Rumi’s story. She packaged Rumi Spice’s saffron green tea with a book about Rumi the philosopher. That package sold out quickly. She has invited Jung to speak at the University of Virginia’s Jefferson Society about Rumi Spice in the fall. But despite these promotional efforts, she added that scent of Afghan saffron is enough to sell the product.

“When you open the jar, the fragrance knocks you out,” says Hunter.


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French Farmers Are Staging A Massive Revolt. Here’s Why. Thu, 30 Jul 2015 13:00:46 +0000 France-RouteBarree
French farmers have set up roadblocks to prevent cheap imports from making it to market. (Photo: FNSEA/Facebook.)

Farmers in northern France are blocking the roads where Slovakian-made Babybel cheese enters the country. In the southwest, they’re ransacking trucks bringing meat and fruit from Spain. In western France, farmers formed a roadblock, holding banners that translate to “We want to make a living from our work.” They’ve confiscated hundreds of pounds of meat, dumped manure in front of government buildings and let their pigs run loose inside supermarkets, Vice reports.

What’s next? Storming the Bastille? Beheading royalty? The unrest may not quite reach such 18th-century-level severity, but serious economic issues are nonetheless prompting people to take some pretty drastic actions. Farmers say they’ve had enough of France being flooded with lower-priced products from neighboring countries. As reported in The Guardian, a local leader of France’s top farming union (the FNSEA) told France Info radio that farmers wanted a “level playing field” within Europe.

Globally speaking, farmers face all kinds of challenges. Virtually nowhere is farming a simple, profitable vocation. But in France the situation may be exceptionally ire-provoking, mainly because French terroir — a site-specific confluence of soil, climate and food culture — and the ingredients it produces are held in the highest esteem. Because of this national pride, France has strict and abundant regulations in place to protect each region’s agricultural products, cheeses and wine. But despite such protections, France is experiencing a real crise agricole. Lower-priced goods produced elsewhere in the European Union have caused the prices of French beef, pork and milk to plummet. And given the rise of supermarkets — as opposed to neighborhood purveyors selling regional products — consumers may not even know the provenance of what they’re buying, so they are inclined to grab whatever is cheapest.

Affected farmers are now taking action, and their demonstrations are attracting international attention. Last week, soon after the protests began, the French government unveiled an aid package worth 600 million euros to benefit local farmers. (There are laws that prohibit the government from giving money directly to farmers, but it is permitted to direct money toward tax exemptions and delayed payments.) But the government’s emergency-aid plan has done little assuage the agriculturists’ woes. Farmers tell The Guardian they are also facing “high labor charges, excessive paperwork and the financial squeeze from supermarket chains.”

French president François Hollande has professed his support for the farmers’ cause, saying, “They should know that, protests or no protests, we are by their side.” But his advocacy may not be enough to quell the unrest. Farmers have turned back hundreds of trucks, posing immediate and palpable consequences for the European market. French consumers could face fluctuating prices and possible food shortages in coming days. Suppliers, meanwhile, will have to contend with lost revenues.

Whatever action the French government and the EU might take, a short-term solution may be just a Band-Aid for larger systemic woes that are undoubtedly harder to fix. Will France’s strong culture of terroir prevail?

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You Can Buy $40 Water At This Irish Hotel Wed, 29 Jul 2015 18:00:52 +0000 Here’s a question for you, dear Food Republic readers: Would you spend $40 for a 750-ml bottle of water? No? Not a chance? Not even if it was from the Canadian Arctic?

Just don’t tell any of that to the Merchant Hotel in Belfast, Ireland, which just announced its new water menu featuring the $40 Iceberg and other H2O delicacies originating from volcanos and 15,000-year-old springs, according to The Belfast Telegraph. These waters — served, naturally, by water butlers — are treated like fine wines, each focused on source location, mouthfeel and flavor. We’ve reprinted some of the Merchant Hotel’s menu below for your enjoyment.

This bottle of melted ice will cost you $40. Photo: The Merchant Hotel.
This bottle of melted ice will cost you $40.

“It’s all about giving customers a choice if they want it,” states the Merchant Hotel’s Facebook page. And here we were, thinking that sparkling and still were more than enough options.

“And of course, if you don’t want to splash out we can still offer you a glass of ‘Belfast water,’ free of charge,” the Facebook post continues. What a relief!

Should you not want to travel across the pond for your obscenely expensive iceberg water, Ray’s and Stark in Los Angeles also has a full menu of high-end water, ranging from $8 to $20. And no, those are prices aren’t affected by the drought.

The Merchant Hotel Water Menu

Iceberg, Still: Canadian Arctic Ice shelf Newfoundland – £26.45 ($41.29) 750 ml Btl
In the Canadian Arctic, the snow froze and compacted into enormous glacial walls, sheltered from all impurities from the outside world. Thousands of years later, the ice is considered to hold the purest water on earth. The water has the lowest mineral content of any bottled water, resulting in a smooth and neutral taste. TDS 9mg – Sodium 1.5mg – Magnesium 0.4mg – Calcium 0.7mg

De l’Aubier Maple Sap Water: Canada – £15.50 ($24.19) 750 ml Btl
This is the only water of its kind in the world. A still water of vegetal origin made from maple sap. Through the biological phenomenon of osmosis, it rises to the tree’s branches during the night and flows back to the roots during the day. TDS 260mg – Sodium 2mg – Magnesium 2mg – Calcium 2mg

Borjomi, Sparkling: Georgia – £13.95 ($21.77) 500 ml Btl
This is the purest glacier water from the Bakuriani mountains and originally from the factory of Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich Romanov in late 19th century. Due to unique mineral complex of volcanic origin found in Borjomi this naturally sparkling mineral water promotes immunity and aids the digestive system. TDS mg – Sodium mg – Magnesium 50mg – Calcium 100mg

Whitehole Springs, Still: UK Mendip Hills Somerset – £4.95 ($7.73) 750 ml Btl
At over 15,000 years old, Whitehole Springs are the only Tufa springs in Europe. Tufa, a coral-like substance, is formed from the high levels of calcium as the water flows from deep within the ancient Mendip Hills, Somerset. The still water is soft on the tongue and slightly sweet in taste. It is also very refreshing, just as a mineral water is expected to be. TDS 332mg – Sodium 6mg – Magnesium 6mg – Calcium 110mg

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