[This particular write-up is taking me time, so I’m going to split it up. Here’s part 1. ~Mikan]
Last night’s lecture with Dan Barber of Blue Hill/Stone Farm was very different from the previous lectures. Whereas the lectures so far have been about manipulation of ingredients and cooking technique, Dan was there to talk to us about everything that happens before the ingredients even get into the restaurant kitchen.
To start off, Mike introduced the theme of the lecture as “Microbes in Food and Cooking.” There was no recipe of the week – it was listed as “final presentation.” But the lecture wasn’t really about microbes. It was about sustainability. There was a mini-presentation by Roberto Kolter, the co-director of Microbial Sciences Initiative (MSI) at Harvard, where he explained that there was a finite amount of room on our earth to support life and the human population grows exponentially so we should take better care of the environment. (Kind of cool and random, MSI helped equip the lab students of this class so that they could do DNA sequencing of pork.)
Mike made the audience think about bacterial population homework problem (ie. how long will it take for the mass of Salmonella to equal the mass of steak?), and then Dan got up to speak.
Dan described himself as the “purity guy” as opposed to the Ferran Adrias of the world. He was interested in the “manipulation” of food before harvest, and the pursuit of flavor in the ingredients themselves.
Regarding Blue Hill at Stone Barns, here’s the blurb on their official website:
“In spring of 2004, Blue Hill at Stone Barns opened within the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. The Barbers helped create the philosophical and practical framework for Stone Barns Center, a working four-season farm and educational center just 30 miles north of New York City, and continue to help guide it in its mission to create a consciousness about the effect of everyday food choices.
Sourcing from the surrounding fields and pasture, as well as other local farms, Blue Hill at Stone Barns highlights the abundant resources of the Hudson Valley. There are no menus at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Instead, guests are presented with a list of over a hundred ingredients, updated daily, which contains the best offerings from the field and market.”
The amount of research and development at Stone Barns, by Dan’s presentation, is insane. And all of it, in the pursuit of great food.
Dan’s first “recipe” was lamb. How do you get the perfect rack of lamb? Stone Barns starts with Finn-Dorcet sheep, a crossed-breed sheep that is half Finnsheep and half Dorset breed. Then you give it room to graze. Now, it’s not free to roam per se. A farmer fences in a large area of grass for the sheep to graze in (“free range” is a bit of a misnomer – they are free to roam within an alloted area). Over the course of the day, the fence and the sheep are moved. There’s a variety of reasons here. First off, grass-fed livestock is going to be superior over grain-fed livestock. Sheep and cow are herbivores and herbivores have a part in their digestive system called the rumen which is specifically designed to process grass. If the herbivore is put on a grain diet, the rumen does not function as it is supposed it. (Explained to me by a nutritionist once, the digestion system goes from alkaline to acidic, and it’s the acidic digestive system that encourages bacteria growth.) A grain fed animal will suffer increased likelihood of sickness which in turn increases antibiotics/steroid use for animal health. A grain fed animal will also see fast growth, increase in wrong fats, and diluted flavor on the palate of the diner. Dan showed us a slide of two racks of lamb, one grass fed and one grain fed. The eye of the meat was essentially the same size, but the grass fed rack suffered from twice the amount of fat and thereby looked two times larger than the grass fed rack. Gross and fascinating, right? Throwing out all that extra fat is like “throwing out Iowa” and just increased waste.
So what about the grass grazing rotation? Sheep search for the sweetest grass to eat and the sweet grass is embedded into their memories. Grass at about 4″-6″ tall and are sweet will have the best nutrient density for the animal. If given a choice, a lamb will return to the same spot of sweet grass over and over again. However, this will exhaust the grass, discourage it from growing back, and create empty spots on grazing land.
After the sheep are forced to move, chickens are allow to roam around the spot just vacated. Chickens will eat bugs around the manure (ewww!) and scratch/distribute the manure around more evenly which will encourage better fertilization (still kind of ewww even if I know it’s nature/necessary). Even spread of manure will also mean less empty spots of grass on grazing land.
Stone Barns determines their grade of meats via a sonogram on the 12th and 13th rib. Why bother, you might be asking. Aren’t you just going to kill the animal for meat? Well no, not necessarily. If you know a particular animal has superior meat for cooking, wouldn’t you want to try to breed it and re-create its fine features? Stone Barns does. And so they use a sonogram.
Dan also explained a bit on the science of slaughtering. Government guidelines require that meat be stored/hung at a temperature of 31.5F after slaughter. This works ok for grain fed animal meat. The increased amount of fat works like a winter coat and keeps the meat from getting ruined. Not so for grass fed animal meat. A grass fed animal could be as healthy and as happy as possible, and you can still ruin your meat if you don’t slaughter it and age the meat correctly. If grass fed meat, which has less fat, is stored at 31.5F after slaughter, it will produce unwelcoming chewy results. Meat that is “fed right, slaughtered right, and hung right is like buttah.”
The next “recipe” was cured meats, meaning pork. Stone barns will be crossbreeding Berkshire pigs (which can live in colder Northeast conditions better than other pigs) with Ossabaw boars (closest thing to a wild boar and has good fat distribution). It’s almost crazy the amount of data that the farm is compiling. Controlling the pig diet within the free range category means manipulating the forest floor where the pigs will graze. Stone Farms has thinned out a forest area on its property and is growing a variety of grass that will be nutritious to their pigs.
But what of all the trees that were cut down for the pigs? No worries, Stone Farm given purpose to the wood. Half of the wood is used for grilling (so Dan and the Blue Hill restaurant has been doing a lot of grilling recently as opposed to a couple of years ago) and half of the wood is dedicated to biochar.
What is biochar? According to the International Biochar Initiative:
“Biochar is the carbon (C) rich product when biomass, such as wood, manure or leaves, is heated with little or no available oxygen. In more technical terms, biochar is produced by thermal decomposition of organic material under limited supply of oxygen (O2), and at relatively low temperatures (<700°C). This process often mirrors the production of charcoal, which is perhaps the most ancient industrial technology developed by humankind. However, it distinguishes itself from charcoal and similar materials by the fact that biochar is produced with the intent to be applied to soil as a means to improve soil health, to filter and retain nutrients from percolating soil water, and to provide carbon storage.”
From what I can tell, it is a charcoal like product that is meant to be mixed into the soil like a super fertilizer or like an extreme vitamin boost to the system. It sounds like it can do other environmentally awesome things (on cursory glance), but we’ll keep this conversation within the use of Stone Farms. Stone Farms pulverizes the biochar and mixes it with their soil. This along with their composting methods means that their dirt has a huge retention of water and nutrients, and a positive impact on their farmland and environment. Dan showed us a slide of artichokes growing in dirt with biochar and in dirt without. It’s not a formal science experiment by any means, but the artichokes growing in the dirt with biochar were growning faster and larger.
Char doesn’t stop at wood. Blue Hill and Stone Farms have started carbonizing leftover items from the kitchen. Pork bones used in stock? The leftover corncobs? Leftover lobster shells? They’ll carbonize it all, and then use it for grilling. And the carbonized products DO carry over the original aromas. Dan passed around a tray of carbonized pork bones, cobs, lobster shells and the smell was smoky with hints of flavor. So, you can perhaps imagine a chef at Blue Hill grilling lobster over carbonized lobster shells. Dan called it “lobster times two.”
And some links if you are curious!