The dictionary defines “locavore” as someone who practices eating food that is grown locally. “Farm to table” is another buzz phrase that marketing wizards use as often as possible to let diners know that the food on their plate was at the farm recently, and did not rely on oil guzzling transportation methods to get it here from across the country. Locally grown also means that the food is probably fresher, more nutritious, and hopefully tastes better than the week old stuff in most supermarkets. Its tough to try and make an argument against locavore and farm to table best practices, but there were a few times lately when it seemed restaurants had gone a bit overboard attempting to “do the right thing”.
It’s sad that our food delivery system has “advanced” to the point that we even have to differentiate between our farm and their farm. Tony Bourdain gave a talk in Kingston last week, and chuckled at the thought of using these terms in Italy, or Spain, or many “less advanced” countries where any food served is “farm to table”. They just wouldn’t get it. Where else would you get the food from? Why would anyone ship it from the other side of the country? I guess we got spoiled by the fact that we could get lettuce and tomatoes – and artichokes – all year round, even if the tomatoes tasted like cardboard and it took a quart of oil to fly the artichoke here. So now we righteously focus on local, and what is in season. This of course is a good thing, but there are limits.
I and my group of friends eat most of our meals out. In the last eight weeks I have seen the same three “local”, “seasonal” vegetables on every menu, every day, almost without exception – brussel sprouts, butternut squash, and kale. I have had steamed brussel sprouts, brussel sprouts prepared in a hash with winter squash, sauteed in olive oil – with and without garlic – and fried with pancetta. I used to think that butternut squash came with sage and butter automatically. Period. I had no idea there were so many ways to cook a butternut squash, and that’s not counting making soup. It can also be the base for a hash, or tossed with penne pasta, or stuffed in ravioli, or mashed like potatoes. It can be the basis of a casserole, or blended into risotto. I saw one presentation of butternut squash and rosemary pizza! Thankfully we haven’t figured out more than a few uses for kale. I like kale more than most people, I think, but I like bitter greens like broccoli rabe and swiss chard. I think kale is the most bitter of the group, and it doesn’t have a very large fan club.
Where locavore has gone loco, in my book, is where restaurants insist on using only local wines. As well intentioned as that may sound, I’m sorry but there are few local wines that can compete with what is available on the world stage, especially when it comes to red wine. The short story is that upstate New York does not get enough sunlight to fully ripen most grapes, especially red wine grapes, but that is really only ten percent of the story. Making wine requires a magical combination of many things. Growing wine grapes is of course the first and most important factor, and growing really good grapes is hard. First you need to have the right dirt, in the right spot, and the right conditions. The French call it terroir – a sense of place – but it is more than geography; it also encompasses the geology and the weather. A great wine grape requires the perfect combination of sunlight and sun direction, the right temperature and humidity, and soil, with the right incline and proper drainage, and the perfect amount of morning mist and the right size bees. There are few places in the world that lay claim to all of these conditions. You can take the same grape vine that is growing in Burgundy and plant it in your backyard – or anywhere in the Hudson Valley, or in the Finger Lakes – and you are going to get a totally different grape. There are in fact some very nice wines produced here – particularly some seyval blancs, reislings and some fabulous ice wines, but they are few and far between, and usually too expensive to use as a house wine by the glass. I think we should focus on our strengths. Why are we still trying to figure out a way to produce a red wine in New York that we might actually be able to drink?
A few years back we spent a week in the Finger Lakes touring wineries. We were invariably offered a glass of Cabernet Franc – a blending grape often used with Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux. We did taste a few that were drinkable, but an inexpensive village wine from France, or any decent Napa jug wine would have been better, and at one third the price. Why bother? So if you are trying to restrict your wine lists to wines grown locally, I applaud your intentions, but we will be applauding from another restaurant. Everyone deserves a place to compete, and local vintners should be represented on the list, but please – not the entire wine list.
I totally agree with merchants that feel that local products should be used whenever possible. I will be first on line at the farmers market for locally raised chickens, and produce and cheeses. I am more than happy to pay a premium for quality fresh products that also support the local business community. It’s an easy decision because locally grown fresh produce tastes better. But locavore has its limitations, and there are boundaries that should never be crossed. Red wine in upstate New York is one of those boundaries. Another was the white wine(s) we were served at a new restaurant in Highland last week, where only local wines were offered. And please, I love brussel sprouts, but enough is enough. I’m ready for some frozen broccoli. How about you? Would you rather have local under any circumstances? Have you found a great local wine? Tell us about it. Please!