Jul 16, 2013

Kent Walker:: Arkansas Artisan Cheese

by guest blogger, Sam HedgesDirector of Operations, Arkansas Local Food Network

Kent and I are sitting in Diamond Bear Brewery's tasting room, talking about his new cheese shop.  The visit didn't begin here; it began in Kent's kitchen, which he leases from Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, but at some point in our conversation it became clear that we were going to have to continue with a beer at Diamond Bear.  It fits Kent's style: he loves fermented products (like cheese, beer, & wine), and tends to drive every interaction towards something more relaxed. Plus, I hadn't had a Diamond Bear in a long time.

I have to apologize because I am jumping over some of the basic fact nuggets on Kent's artisan cheese operation.  I've interviewed him before and wasn't crazy about rehashing the same questions, albeit for the benefit of those new to Kent’s work.  Here's a summary to catch you up: Kent started hobby making cheese while he worked at a winery in Oregon. He moved to Little Rock, started making so much cheese that the only logical step was to start selling it, and subsequently birthed Kent Walker's Artisan Cheese. His milk is sourced from Coleman Dairy and a local goat farm. Someday, Arkansas legislation willing, he'll use raw Arkansas cow's milk.  He does things in the artisan fashion, meaning with simple ingredients (milk, rennet, and the naturally occurring molds that make aged cheese possible) and old school techniques. His current cheeses are aged 3 months in his mock cheese cave (it's a party tent in a giant walk-in, in which Kent created a 80% humidity environment and other things cheese caves need. Kent is nothing if not thrifty), and the usual list includes Habanero Cheddar (a spicy young cheddar), Garlic Montasio (an earthy Italian cheese), Leicester (a funky English cheese, named for one of Kent’s dog), Bluff Top Feta (a briny goat’s milk fresh cheese) and Ophelia (a very funky wash-rind goat’s cheese, like feta times ten. Also named for one of Kent’s dogs).

Kent’s drawing of new cheese shop
Over an Irish Red ale and a Paradise Porter, Kent turns his attention to the future and, in relation to me, the unknown.  Big things are afoot.  He grabs a pen and scribbles on his coaster.  The little lines and geometric shapes formulate into Kent's future plans: the cheese shop he's moving into on Main Street.  What I see are four rooms of different geometric shape: a production room, an aging room, an office, and the tasting room.  The production and aging rooms are where Kent's head is: his own production space and adjacent aging room are going to allow him to multiply his cheese output by, like, ten, as in the 250lbs of cheese a week he puts out now x 10 = 2500 lbs of cheese a week.  Don't quote me on that, but the point is that he will be making a lot more, with the help of his new 500 gallon cheese vat.  For a guy working out of an incubator kitchen on rent and aging his cheese in a warehouse walk-in fridge 5 miles away from his kitchen, this is a big deal.  The answer to his logistical prayers, the future of his business.
Kent Walker showing off his Bluff Top Feta, aging in its tasty salt water brine.

What I'm interested in is the tasting room.  In the tasting room, according to Kent, his cheeses will all be available in whatever quantity your heart desires, alongside a few very rare imports (including a 50lb wheel of  10-year aged parmesan) plus wines (his parents are wine brokers, so you know the wine will be good), charcuterie, and beer, either by the bottle or on tap.  From this little foodie haven of a room, customers will be able to observe the cheese making process through windows that overlook his production and aging spaces.  All in the renovated basement of the historic Main St building off 6th.  It's going to be a cool place.

Ultimately, Kent and I both are both jazzed about the cheese.  At the moment, Kent is hitting his rented kitchen's roof, and he hasn't got the capital or space to age his cheese past 3 months.  This side of the cheese business I haven't considered much, but it's worth appreciating that, for cheese makers (as well as brewers, wine makers, and distillers), a return on their product can take years.  It hurts the brain a little to consider the schedule: Kent has to think 3 months in advance when he makes his cheese, or in reverse, he has to deal with whatever decisions he made three months earlier.

 Milk becoming cheese: with the addition of heat and rennet, an enzyme, 
the solids and liquids begin to separate, allowing cheese to take form.       

When it comes to good cheese, three months is, Kent will tell you, not the sexiest time frame.  Really good cheese needs to age longer, and the new space is going to free Kent up a little to do some longer aging.  Last September, he put aside a few wheels of Cheddar and Montasio to age for 1 year. Come this September, when he celebrates the grand opening of his new space, those suckers are getting wedged open, and they will be good.  But that's just the beginning, and the prospect of more specialty cheeses, more varieties and experiments, longer aging, is exactly why having a local artisan around is fun.  At any point, you're able to ask Kent what he's got up his sleeve, and the list can be ever changing,  so ever changing that it's hard to conceive of his cheeses inhabiting the same world as Kraft singles and Velveeta.

Kent’s cheese press, where liquid is removed from the cheese wheels 
with the pressure of time and weight.

This brings me to the final slice of future about which I am excited.  Are you still reading?  Pay attention to this part. Reserve Cheese.  Kent's done a little creative business planning, and he's using the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model for his aged cheese.  Like a CSA program, the customer pays up front to help offer a little financial security to the producer and receives the product in due time.  For Kent's cheese, this is how it works: you request a wheel of cheese for reserve and pay a portion of the cheese's cost up front. Then, Kent ages it as long as you want him to, like a delicious round wheel of investment.  At this moment, you can have him start a 2-year cheddar for you, and in 2 years you can try a core sample and even say, "Know what, Kent? Let's age it another two years." Your call.  In addition, Kent invites any reserve customer to participate at any stage of the cheese making process, from fresh milk to flipping your aging wheel.  In return, Kent get's some of the profit up front to help his business out.  Know what I think? This is a fantastic gift in the making. I can't wait (but will have to wait) to give my folks a 2-year cheddar.
cheese making vat
To boil it all down, Kent Walker is a cheese fish in a vegan pond* indeed, and he is enjoying the space to grow.   His cheese is available in retail spaces all over Arkansas and beyond, courtesy of Ben E Keith, as well as a big handful of restaurants. Tusk and Trotter of Bentonville did a special dinner just for Kent last week: a four course meal, of which each course was paired with one of Kent's cheeses.  As long as Kent makes cheese, the chef told him, Tusk and Trotter will buy it exclusively.  You can count on that kind of community response in Arkansas, where the local food market isn't saturated and people love their roots.  I can personally say that, as long as Kent makes his cheese, I will enjoy my cheese locally.

- Sam Hedges
Director of Operations, Arkansas Local Food Network
*because Kent makes cheese, and "vegan" is the opposite of cheese, and Little Rock only has one artisan cheese maker, so he's the only one in the pond. Get it?

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Jul 11, 2013

Why Grass Finished Beef Costs More

Andy and Tracy Youngblood, along with a few other families, opened MeatWorks a butchery and market in Mena, Arkansas this spring.  If you live in that part of the state, you should go visit.  It's really a one-of-a-kind store. Today's post was written by Tracy.  She also wrote about the benefits of bulk buying local meat here.

Why Does Grass Finished Beef Cost More than Grain Finished Beef?

To answer this question simply, it has to do with three important elements:

1. Genetics
First, properly finishing animals on grass is very difficult and requires specific genetics and attention to forage quality and quantity.  Approximately 95-97% of the US Cattle Herd producers have transitioned their genetics to fit the industrial feedlot system, which has advocated larger animals that will gain muscle fiber and fat consistently over time.  Initially, the feedlot system was built to take advantage of low-priced grain and convert it to higher-priced beef, which is why the typical cow weight has increased well over 300 lbs in the past 35 years.  While production geared for this system provided a relatively brief profit opportunity for industrial agriculture (about 50 years), it fundamentally changed the phenotype of most of the cattle in the US, which has resulted in a US Cow Herd that is relatively inefficient on grass and simply wont gain the proper fat covering on grass alone.  We have invested only in heritage grass-type genetics which are highly sought after and cost about 2-3 x that of conventional genetics.

2.  Forage Quality/Quantity
Additionally, the forage quality/quantity has to be adequate to allow these animals to express their genetic potential, which requires management intensive operations and a higher level of expertise in agronomy.

Most of the grazing lands have been stripped of micro-biology and nutrients due to excessive extraction (hay making, cropping) over many decades.  Conventional fertilizers, while causing a short-term boost to forage growth, cause tremendous harm to soil life and structure.  A true "grass-finisher" must put several resources into re-establishing the soil micro-biology so that forages can truly thrive and produce high levels of nutrients for our animals.

In general, this requires time consuming methods such as foliar spraying, compost and compost tea preparation and application, intensive grazing and other methods geared for bringing the soil back to life.

3.  Additional Time To Finish Animals
Simply put, proper grass-finishing requires more time than grain-finishing which results in increased land requirements and feeding costs.  The conventional producer will usually wean and sell their animals at about 8 months old, which doesn't require any wintering costs of the calves.  The grass-finishing producer typically keeps their animals until slaughter at about 24-28 months, which results in carrying these animals through two winters, not to mention a requirement of about 40% more land to ensure adequate stocking capacity for raising animals to finish.  While some may argue that the cow's time on grass is relatively inexpensive, we would encourage you to look at the current figures regarding the necessary land investment $$/cow in the state of Arkansas, which is now in excess of $10,000 per cow.

In summary, we strive to operate our farms in a sustainable and holistic manner, with a strong focus on the soil and animal fertility and a loving stewardship of the small piece of God's earth we've been blessed enough to "borrow."

-Tracy Youngblood
Youngblood Grassfed Farm
MeatWorks Butchery and Market

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Jul 9, 2013

A Visit to Farm Girl Natural Foods

 - written by guest blogger, Angela Gardner after a farm tour in April 2013.
Driving along highway 10, through the Lake Maumelle Watershed and towards the misty convergence of Ozark and Ouachita hills, Sam Hedges and I quickly find ourselves immersed into the rural landscape of Perry County.   We have ventured out of the city to visit two farms nestled into this land and gain an understanding of how these sustainable powerhouses supply numerous retail and business operations in central Arkansas.  Our first stop for the day is Farm Girl Natural Foods operated by Katie Short and company.
Growing up in Berkeley, California, immersed into a developed culture of local food and liberalism, Katie intuitively knew that she was a farmer, connecting her aptitude for natural science and creative work with her hands.  As a teenager she notes the homogeneous urban elite identity that was created over the years as budding a curiosity and rising to see a new world of “true salt of the Earth” farmers.  With the local food markets already established by veteran farms and affordable productive land hard to find, Katie decided to venture out of Berkeley and seek opportunities where a young farmer could experiment, learn and work with the land.  Her first (and only) stop was Heifer Ranch, the launching pad for Farm Girl.
One of Farm Girl’s many stocked freezers in their farm store.
Over the years, the success of Farm Girl has expanded to a 30 acre wooded homestead where we first meet Katie.  She leads us into their new farm store, built out of sweat equity and filled with freezers for meat shares, milk jars and timeboards for the farm.  Every Thursday from 10am-6pm, the store provides customers an opportunity to come out and deepen their ‘farm-to-table’ experience.  Bring the whole family for a great educational day trip!
Land restored to productive beauty thanks to Katie’s pigs
Venturing out of the building, Sam and I, though ill prepared for the terrain and weather, set forth into the scrubby forestland in wonder at what may lie beyond the grassy slope.  Through the clearings, Katie points out the landscape impact hogs create under a woodland grazing rotation. These porkers do a fantastically efficient job of clearing out understory brush, providing an ample opening to reseed the area in regionally appropriate cover crops.  This cooperative act of clearing and reseeding in rye and clover helps to enrich the properties and nature of  soil by replenishing nutrients to the surface layer, and, I might add, it’s nicer on the ankles to romp through.
Industrious pigs at work on Farm Girl’s woodlands.
Approaching an undisturbed section of woodlot, we are introduced to the first litter of hogs busily roaming the new terrain of lush wilderness.  The pigs are rotated to a new 1 acre area twice a week in order to maximize grazing, add nutrients to the land (in the form of manure) and limit soil compaction.   For all of their livestock, Farm Girl uses mobile electrical fencing for pasture rotation as it is easy to work with and adaptable for any terrain.  At (4) months old they had not yet ventured too far from the grain feeder but had already started working on the vegetation.  The pigs associate the grain feeder as a ‘home base’, a familiar comfort zone, when they move into the new lots.  The grain is supplied as a supplement to their diet to ensure they are receiving all the nutrients that are required for their growing bodies.   These are some of the healthiest and most inquisitive pigs in the region.  They are a mix of 4-5 different breed lines that Katie has been experimenting with over the years in order to select physicality traits that work best for her operation as well as the overall innate nature of the pigs she raises.  She tells us that she is particularly fond of the red haired pigs as they seem to cope with the sun and heat better than their fair and dark haired cousins.
Buster, a 3,600lb boar
Deep snarls and grunts reverberate through the trees as Katie leads us up the hill to visit the breeder pen.  Sam and I meet Buster, all 3,600 lbs of him, and stand in awe at the shear amount of life in front of us.   He shares the pen with three sows, one of whom, Mudpie, is due to deliver soon.  Beneath this canopy of trees, another litter will soon begin their journey from woodlot to woodlot, grazing to their hearts’ content while frolicking amongst the clover.
Baby chicks beneath the warm glow of the heat lamps.
Pigs are a big market for Farm Girl but chickens certainly have their share of conscious nurturing from brooding to customer.  The chicks that are raised at Farm Girl are purchased from S & G Poultry, who specialize in breeding chickens for southern US pastures.  Red Rangers and Naked Neck (or Poulet Libre) are the broilers and Grey Ladies are the lead laying flock that Katie has purchased from S&G.  While sitting in the brooder surrounded by 300 baby chicks, we learn that these ‘classic’ varieties are traditionally bred and raised to naturally maximize their potential physical nature (equates to a more developed flavor and natural growth development) whereas most conventional chicken operations use breeds that were developed for speedy frankenstein-ish growth habits that are not only are detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the animal but also distort our concept of humane agricultural production.  She understands that agriculture is a business and needs to be profitable and by focusing on these varieties of chicks and livestock, Farm Girl Foods is paving a middle ground for the community.  By being built upon this ethical foundation for all of their animals, Farm Girl Natural Foods has recently been granted their Animal Welfare Approved status. Way to go Farm Girl!
For the final leg of the Farm Girl tour, Katie takes us to Heifer Ranch where we journey towards 10 acres of the Fourche La Fave River Bottoms leased to Farm Girl for their cattle and roaming chickens.  Along the way, the mist begins to accumulate into light rain droplets and as the breeze flies through the fields I again realize that I should have brought a jacket…..what a chilly spring we have had this year.
Stepping out onto the land toward the chicken pasture, my eyes soak up the blurred scenescape of rolling mist, clouds and green hills.  Our route through the tree break creates a corridor of vibrant colors and sounds as the wind blows the pine branches Donkeyabove us.  This technique of planting trees along the fence row provides not only an aesthetic function but multiple purposes for the farmer:  a wind break, shade for livestock and firewood.  Breaking through the pathrow of pines, Katie takes us onto a fenced patch of land where the mobile chicken coops are housed.  Currently there are 2 houses in production with two more houses ready for action.  After 2 weeks in the brooder, the chickens are relocated to a mobile chicken house where they are moved twice daily with the help of a living tractor: the antiquated farm donkey.  Again Katie points out the lush vegetated patches where the chickens have moved through providing generous nutrients for cover crop reclamation.
???????????Heading to the last pasture of our tour, we follow Katie towards a mob of grazers: Jersey cows, a donkey and a Shetland pony. Being managed by a practiced grazier, this ultra high density forage-cattle interaction, know as mob grazing, produce quality gains for cattle (a grass-fed diet) and much higher than average gains from the land (a manure-fed diet).  As Katie talks about how she utilizes the Jersey breed for both milk and meat, the donkey makes a bee line straight for us.   After a few pets and acknowledgements of our attention, we learn more about the efficient physiology of Jersey cows to convert grass into fat providing both flavor and marbling that customers seek in meat products as well as flavor and fat content for milk products.  These cattle are rotated through the pastures twice a day and are milked every morning.  Milk shares are a new venture at Farm Girl, for more information please contact Katie Short.  Be sure to check out their blog.
At Farm Girl, they are aspiring to capture the land of their flocks and herds, the ‘terroir’ of Perry County.  Try their offerings of sausages, chicken, pork or beef available on littlerock.locallygrown.net, Argenta & Bernice Garden Farmer’s market and see if you can taste the place.  Before we head onto the next leg of the journey, Sam and I give a cheer to real food with fresh raw milk and share our delight of this liquid ice cream that only Jersey cows grazing on the county of Perry County flora can naturally express.

Savor local flavor y’all!

by Angela Gardner 

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Jul 5, 2013

Roasted Red Peppers {Preserved by Lacto-Fermenting}

Last fall my friend Brandy made and gave me lacto-fermented roasted red peppers. They might be my all time favorite fermented food.  She used the recipe straight from Nourishing Traditions.  If you've tried to like sauerkraut but just don't - well, let me encourage you to try these.  They're not too far from "normal."  If your family freaks out about the word "ferment" then just call it "pickled."

{Currently I'm not in my home kitchen so I had to make due with a few substitutions - like a pickle jar instead of a mason jar and aluminum pie pans instead of glass roasters.  It's all good.}

Onward and upward.

First preheat the oven to 450*.  Cut peppers in large-ish chunks and lay them skin side up in an oiled dish.  I used coconut oil and aluminum pan.  Three abnormally large red peppers and two pie pans were harmed in this demonstration.
Roast for 10 minutes or longer until you see blisters forming.  The blisters are important for removing the skin later.  Once you have decent blisters, flip them over and roast the other side for 10 more minutes.  Blistering could also be achieved over a flame (think grill or campfire).
When sufficiently roasted, sweat the skins in a plastic bag for about 10 minutes.
Now peel the skin off your feet peppers.  It's an easy task if they blistered properly.  A few of mine didn't blister completely and I couldn't get the skin off.  So I just left it on.  For the most part the skin came off easily.  Next time I make these, I will really burn these babies.

Now you have roasted red peppers.  Of course you can stop at this point or you can keep going and ferment them to increase their vitamin C as well as enzymes and probiotic power.

“The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anticarcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.”

  --Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, pg 89

To get a strain of lactobacilli, you can use the liquid that puddles in your yogurt container (or strain the yogurt to get this whey).  I have also used starter liquid from other ferments like sauerkraut. 

In a clean glass jar, dissolve 1 tablespoon of sea salt into 1.5 cups of warm, de-chlorinated water.  Next add 4 tablespoons of whey.  Drop your pieces of roasted red pepper in the jar then screw on the lid.  Be sure to leave some head room at the top of the jar.
Twelve hours later I had to relieve the pressure from the jar.  When you see bubbles forming on the sides or near the bottom (like above my thumb nail in below picture) that's when you know magic is happening.  Eventually I left the lid un-screwed (is that a word?).  The pressure kept building and I had other things to do than stand around and relieve pickled pepper pressure.  Say that 3 times fast.
Let it ferment or pickle on your counter for 3 days then refrigerate.
Mexican Potato Salad

How to use this delicious goodness:
- in hummus
- on a green salad
- give color to potato salad
- pasta salad
- sky's the limit!

Be sure that when you add a ferment to food that the food is cooled enough so as not to kill the beneficial bacteria.  Just don't add it to a casserole and bake it.

Other fermented pickled peppers:
banana peppers
jalapeno peppers

EDIT: Cultures for Health says that whey or a starter is not need for peppers.  If I have extra whey, or starter from a previous ferment, I like to use a little to ensure that "the good guys win."

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