South Australian cattle station debuts tasting room

Australian cattle stationThere was a time when Wagyu beef was eaten by only the most sophisticated of travelers. True Kobe beef is from Wagyu cattle that are raised in a very specific manner in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. Technically, Wagyu is the Japanese term for all cattle, and Kobe beef comes from a strain known as Tajima.

Kobe Wagyu receive massages to reduce stress and muscle stiffness, a summer diet supplemented with beer as an appetite stimulant, and regular brush-downs with sake (which is reputed to soften their coats, not act as some bizarre form of on-the-hoof marinade). At anywhere from $200 to $300 a pound, Kobe beef is the most expensive in the world.

Wagyu have been raised in the U.S. since the mid-seventies, but the market really took off in the nineties. Today, it’s not unusual to find “Kobe” steaks and burgers on menus, but it’s a bit of marketing hyperbole. It’s actually “American Wagyu,” or “American Style Kobe,” or “Kobe American Style.” It’s still great meat, but it’s not Kobe beef, and most American Wagyu are crossbred with Angus cattle.

What has all this to do with a South Australian cattle station, you ask? Australia has its own burgeoning Wagyu industry, and in May I visited Mayura Station, a full-blood Wagyu operation just outside the Coonawara wine region. I’m a longtime advocate of the farm-to-fork concept, and Mayura produces some of Australia’s best Wagyu beef, supplying an impressive roster of restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney, Penfold’s Magill Estate in Adelaide, and the Ritz-Carlton Singapore. As it happened, I’d tried Wagyu for the first time the week prior at Penfold’s, and it was delicious. But it was also obscured in sauce, and I didn’t have a real sense of what the big deal was. I was a bit skeptical, to be honest, so I made the trek out to Mayura to find out more.

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Australian cattle station

Mayura is owned and operated by the entrepreneurial de Bruin family, who first brought over live, full-blood Wagyu from Japan in 1998. Today, they have a sustainable operation that produces award-winning beef from one of the largest (1,700 head of breeders) full-blood herds outside of Japan. Most of the meat is exported to Southeast Asia and the UAE, but their newest business concept is likely to create a larger domestic fan base.

In May, Mayura debuted its tasting room, a professional demonstration kitchen equipped with a long counter in front of the flattop range. Visitors from all over the world can now let their tastebuds discover why Wagyu is such a big deal.

Explains manager Scott de Bruin, “We felt there was a strong need for visitors and valued clients to experience various cooking styles from a simple tasting ($80AUD/pp), through to a full degustation paired with local wines ($120AUD/pp). The tasting room is a serious take on the “paddock-to-plate” concept, designed to mirror a state-of-the-art Teppanyaki bar.”

I visited Mayura as part of a Limestone Coast excursion for Tasting Australia. The country’s largest food and wine festival, it’s held in Adelaide every other year. While there’s an emphasis on South Australia, which produces most of the country’s wine in its 16 growing regions (including designations within), it’s generally a celebration of all things edible and Australian. For one hedonistic week, there are tastings, pairings, classes, tours, dinners, seminars, demos, and a riverside “Feast for the Senses” with dozens of food stalls.
Australian cattle station
En route to visit some wineries, a group of us had arranged to visit Mayura and do a vertical (head-to-tail) tasting. The tasting room accommodates 14 to 40 guests by appointment (self-drive required if you’re not with an organized group, so call well in advance to see if you can fit into an existing booking). All visits include a tour to visit the cattle, so guests can learn more about the breed, industry, and Mayura’s animal husbandry practices. You can even buy packaged beef on-site, for domestic travel.

We were greeted by de Bruin and on-site chef Kirby Shearing. Our group of 14 lined up in front of the place settings running down the length of the demo area. A huge overhead mirror provided a bird’s eye view of Shearing, as he showed us the various cuts of beef we would be tasting, in order: tongue, flank steak, filet, bresaola (thin slices of air-dried beef), and strip loin. Then de Bruin talked about Mayura’s history and the Australian Wagyu industry.

The reason Wagyu is so tender (not accounting for feeding practices, which includes extra finishing time on a blend of specific grains) is because the cattle have a higher percentage of marbling, due to selective breeding practices over thousands of years. Most of the fat is monounsaturated, the meat high in conjugated linoleic acid, and Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Wagyu beef actually has myriad health benefits similar to those found in grass-finished beef. It isn’t aged the way some American beef is, because the fat will break down. The fat also dissipates throughout the meat as it cooks, making it more forgiving to work with.

Japanese beef is graded on a scale of one to five (highest), based on marbling, yield, meat color, firmness and texture, and fat quality. Wagyu should be at least 25% marbled fat (by comparison, USDA Prime meat must have six- to eight-percent, and our grading system doesn’t include a classification for Wagyu). Thus, Japanese A-5 Wagyu is considered primo, top-of-the-line. It should be tender, with lustrous fat and a sweet, fine flavor, even when eaten raw, as with a carpaccio.
Australian cattle station
Shearing started us off with a tasting plate of tongue that had been brined and poached. It was silky and mild, practically melting in my mouth. Next came flash-seared cubes of flank, a lean cut that is usually marinated, and cut across the grain to make it more tender. Not this steak. It was unctuously fatty, in the best possible way. Buttery. Juicy. Addictive.

Filet is already a rich cut, so I was especially curious to see how Wagyu compared to Prime.
The meat fell away at the touch of Shearing’s knife, it was so tender. Absolutely delicious, but as with regular beef, I prefer a ribeye or New York steak, because they have more flavor and a bit of chew to them. The flank steak had a little more complexity to it.

The bresaola was made from eye of round, and my least favorite, only because I’m not a big fan of the preparation. But the strip loin that concluded our tasting was a unanimous hit. While Wagyu is undeniably more subtle in flavor than standard grain- or grass-finished beef, it was deeply flavorful, and just slightly toothsome. Yet it still retained that glorious, fat-infused richness. Paired with a side of Shearing’s crisp, airy onion rings (his secret weapon: adding gin to his beer batter).

Our visit concluded with a tour of the open barns where some of the cattle were being finished on grain. They’re pretty things: Stocky and chocolate brown, with short horns that slant upwards. I was duly impressed with the property we saw on the tour. As a food and agriculture writer, it’s easy to tell when you’re dealing with a facility not on top of its sanitation or animal husbandry practices.

So here’s the thing about Wagyu…or Kobe beef. It’s pricey as hell, but get the good stuff, and it’s so rich, you can’t eat more than a few ounces. I now understand why true Kobe beef, and the cattle it comes from, have such a reputation. A little Wagyu goes a long way.

Getting There

The Limestone Coast is located in the southeastern part of the state. It’s a diverse mix of remote beaches and sand dunes, pine forest, ancient caves (including Naracoorte World Heritage Fossil Site, worth a visit, especially if you go caving), and farmland and vineyards. The adorable seaside town of Robe, in particular, is a great place to spend a weekend and feast upon the crayfish (actually spiny lobster) the town is famous for.

Of the Limestone Coast’s six wine regions, Coonawara is the most famous (primarily for its Cabernet Sauvignon). It’s a one-hour flight from Adelaide to the pleasant town of Mt. Gambier, famed for its stunning Blue Lake, which is actually a volcanic crater. Mayura, which is located just outside the town of Millicent, is a thirty-minute drive away (you can rent a car at the airport). The Barn in Mt. Gambier makes a good overnight base for Wagyu- and wine-tasting excursions. Just in case you return still hankering for a ribeye and a glass of red, The Barn Steakhouse wine list has over 400 selections from the region. .

Qantas and the South Australia Tourism Commission are giving away unlimited flights for two from Los Angeles to Adelaide for one year, in a contest running through December 31st, 2010. To enter, visit unlimitedflightstoaustralia.com.

Tasting Australia 2012 will be held April 26-May 3.

Nuts about Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve

Nuts–if you think about these things, which evidently I do–evoke blustery fall afternoons, or wintery evenings before a roaring fire. You bust out the nutcracker, and get to work. At least, that’s what my family did when I was a kid, even though I grew up in Southern California where, let’s face it, the weather is seldom blustery. Anyways, we always had a lot of Brazil nuts in the communal bowl, and consequently, they’re one of my favorites. They’re big and easy to crack, with rich, oily meat.

Nuts have been associated with the winter solstice since Medieval times (they provided much-needed fat and nutrients). What most of us don’t associate nuts with are steaming jungles, machetes, or endangered wildlife. I certainly didn’t, until I visited the Brazil nut camp in Tambopata National Reserve (TNR), in Peru’s Amazon Basin.

The Tambopata is a tributary of the Amazon, and the 275,000-hectare Reserve is home to some of the world’s most diverse and pristine rainforest. This conservation area, and the adjacent Bahuaja-Sonene National Park were designated by the Peruvian government to protect the watersheds of the Tambopata and Candamo Rivers. Rainforest Expeditions operates three Puerto Maldonado region eco-lodges within the confines of the Reserve: the Posada Amazonas and Refugio Amazonas eco-lodges, and the Tambopata Research Center. It’s at Refugio that one can visit the Brazil nut camp, and harvest the nuts (April through July).

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Even if nuts aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other reasons to visit. The area is noted for its wildlife, especially birds. If there’s an active nest, there are tours to check out endangered harpy eagles (they live in Brazil nut trees), or hike to clay licks teeming with macaws or parakeets. That may not sound thrilling, but it’s an amazing sight to see (and hear) that many explosively colorful birds in one spot.

Rainforest Expeditions integrates its jungle properties with educational/voluntourism experiences for adults and families. Besides the clay licks, activities include forest walks, wildlife viewing, philanthropic visits to local communities, seminars on the ecology and biology of the region, kayaking, catch-and-release piranha fishing, or cooking with the indigenous staff (an activity reserved for rainy weather, and something I really enjoyed, from a cultural standpoint).

Refugio is located in a 200-hectare private reserve (which is adjacent to the greater Reserve, you see). To get there, one must fly into the tiny jungle port of Puerto Maldonado from Lima. From there, it’s an hour drive to the boat launch in the indigenous community of Infierno, which works in partnership with the Posada Amazonas Lodge. The Refugio property is a two-and-a half-hour trip upriver, through a park ranger checkpoint.

The gorgeous, four-year-old, open-air lodge is built from traditional native materials such as wood, palm fronds, wild cane, and clay. It has a communal dining room with a bar (yes!), and clean, breezy rooms with gauzy, mosquito-netted beds. There are also luxe touches, like the pretty little guest soaps made of–wait for it–Brazil nuts. The food–a daily buffet of international and Peruvian dishes, and loads of fresh fruit, far surpasses what you might expect. Some of the produce comes from organic farmer Don Manuel, across the river. He grows tropical and citrus fruits, yucca, and chiles; on his farm tours, (if you love food, definitely go for it), you can sample Amazonian fruits such as cupuaçu and pacay.

Getting back to nuts, the brazil nut camp is a concession owned by the Peruvian government, although a local indigenous family has rights to the nut harvest. There are thousands of Brazil nut concessions in this region. They’re an important cash crop that provides the local families with income, which also helps to protect the Reserve from slash-and burn-agriculture.
The local Ese’eja, as well as other indigenous peoples of mestizo and Andean descent, live within four communities in the buffer zone of the Reserve. Many are employed by Rainforest Expeditions (the company tries to hire as many local people as possible), or harvest Brazil nuts during the wet season.

The nuts are technically an edible seed, clusters of which are found within thick seed pods. The trees don’t make good timber, although they are tapped for rubber in the dry season. They’re considered one of the most sustainable crops because their harvest and tapping have little ecological impact, especially in areas where hunting is prohibited or restricted during harvest season.

Brazil nut trees are an interdependent species, because they rely upon several animals to perpetuate their life cycle. Agoutis and other rodent species eat the nuts, spreading seeds in their droppings. A species of rainforest-dwelling bee is necessary to pollinate the trees, which is why they aren’t cultivated.

It turned out I’d just missed the harvest, but I walked the short trail to the deserted camp to check it out–basically, some leftover seed pods in a small clearing. Back at the lodge, however, Brazil seed pod cracking is like an Olympic sport, in part because it brings out the competitive spirit. They’re exceedingly difficult to open, necessitating a scimitar-like machete and serious hand-eye coordination- something I am seriously lacking. I finally managed to whack one apart without losing any digits, and made use of the lodge’s industrial-strength, communal nutcracker. You see a lot of people walking around, picking Brazil nuts or bits of shell out of their teeth.

The handsome, coconut-like pods turn up all over the lodge in the form of napkin holders, and votive-receptacles on recycled wood chandeliers. At the Puerto Maldonado airport, you can find Brazil nut candy, and oil, which is intoxicating, with a smooth, clean, complex flavor. Unfortunately, it has such a short shelf life that it isn’t suitable for the export market, but it’s worth bringing a bottle home with you (I honestly have no idea if Customs permits this, but that’s never stopped me before). Use it to dress salads, or drizzle on roasted potatoes or root vegetables.

Refugio and its sister properties may take some getting to, but if you’re looking for responsible, soft rainforest adventure, it’s well worth the trek.
All the more reason to load up that bowl with Brazil nuts.

Sea kayaking off Washington’s Whidbey Island: easy Labor Day getaway

Another bald eagle. Yawn.
I had just completed a tranquil, one-hour paddle from Whidbey Island’s Dugualla Bay, to Hope Island State Park. This dollop of land is a 106-acre marine camping park, reachable only by boat. It boasts a hiking trail and just four stunning, primitive, beachfront sites hidden amongst ferns and old-growth Douglas-fir forest. As we approached the island, my guide, Simon, and I watched six eagles alight on the tops of the tallest firs. Maneuvering our kayak almost beneath one of them, we then spent the better part of an hour entranced by the giant bird of prey. Meanwhile, a curious harbor seal bobbed and dipped around us.

At 45 miles in length, rural Whidbey is the longest island in the lower 48 (Long Island having been ruled a peninsula). It’s just 30 miles from Seattle, making it an easy, economical, uncrowded alternative to the San Juan’s farther north (although Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island, off Whidbey’s northern tip, is the ferry dock for San Juan-bound visitors). Whidbey juts into Puget Sound like a bent, bony finger, its western coast also accessible from Pt. Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. Whidbey is one of the oldest agricultural regions in Washington state, and family farms, farm stands, and mariculture operations are still prolific on the island, although it’s also become a haven for artists. The only real-world distraction on Whidbey is the Naval Air Station in Oak Harbor, at the island’s northern tip.
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Getting there from Seattle is a snap, whether you drive or take a boat, although you should note that ferry schedules change seasonally. You can shoot up I-5, and head west on Highway 20, over the famed Deception Pass Bridge, or take the ferry from Mukilteo, as I did. A 20-minute ride landed me in Clinton, on Southern Whidbey.

From Clinton, I headed up the road to the artist colony of Langley to meet up with Simon, who guides for Seattle’s Evergreen Escapes, a sustainable adventure travel company. Like most of the island communities, Langley is a haven for creative types, and while summer and fall weekends and festivals bring in tourists, island life is easygoing and relaxed (the best time of year to visit, weather-wise, is September/October). A “whale bell” sits in a town park overlooking the waters of Saratoga Passage, to signal passing orcas and gray whales. If you’ve got an extra day on your itinerary, the newly-expanded Boatyard Inn is right on the water down at the Marina. Styled after an old cannery, the 12 charming, spacious units boast modern amenities, and decks and windows that offer unbeatable views of the Sound and snow-capped Cascades.

I only had part of an afternoon and one night for my trip, and so left the details to the folks at Evergreen. (FYI, there is also Whidbey Island Kayaking Company, which specializes in custom and short paddles, and whale watching trips (which begin in mid-March). It’s also possible to rent boats and equipment, provided you have a certificate from a certified instructor, or demonstrate proficiency at time of rental. A great resource for Washington tide charts can be found here.

I’ve done a fair amount of paddling, but didn’t know how to read tides, which is why I asked for a guide to accompany me. I prefer to be in my own boat, but due to time constraint, we decided a tandem was best, for easier on- and off-loading. We made the scenic, 40-minute drive north to Dugualla Bay, passing farmland and forest. Simon was knowledgeable, capable, and cheerful, and his tide tutorial during our paddle gave me the confidence to plan a return trip, sans guide. It’s an easy, straightforward paddle to Hope Island, but the scenery and wildlife are so amazing, we took our time. After we tore ourselves away from the bald eagles, we paddled to the take-out, only to discover six more landing in the trees near the campsites.

The roomy sites are elevated above the beach. There’s a rustic but well-maintained outhouse up an overgrown path, and rudimentary fire pits, and that’s it. The only thing marring the experience are the distant smokestacks near the port town of Anacortes, and the odd jet from the Naval Air Station streaking overhead. These are mere blips, however, because Hope Island is just so damn beautiful and peaceful. The other two sites were empty, and aside from a few trails through the overgrowth, there’s not much to do except read, daydream, watch the sunset (at 10pm in high summer), and stargaze. Do be sure to bring rain gear and a waterproof tent. Although sunny skies prevailed during our paddle, it started pouring in the middle of dinner (and didn’t stop until the early morning hours), necessitating the hasty set-up of a tarp.

As for dinner, Simon made an admirable stir-fry, followed by the ultimate in pie- a purchase from Greenbank Farm’s shop. Located en route to Dugualla Bay, it was once the biggest loganberry farm in the world. You know what makes for a really kick-ass pre-paddling breakfast? Leftover loganberry pie.

Early the next morning, rainstorm over, we put in and paddled half an hour to our take-out at Coronet Bay State Park’s boat launch. In front of us loomed Deception Pass Bridge, an architectual triumph that has helped make this area Washington’s most-visited state park. The pass connects the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Skagit Bay; at high tide, the waters rushing into this narrow passage get pretty hairy, so again, check tide charts if on your own.

Try to allow yourself at least enough time to walk the bridge and take in the view. You can also camp at Deception Pass State Park, which has miles of shoreline. If nothing else, grab some post-paddle clam chowder and souvenir smoked salmon to go from Seabolt’s Smokehouse in Oak Harbor; a fitting island-style end to a weekend on Whidbey. For more information on the islands, click go the Whidbey and Camano Islands vistors center website.

Colonial Williamsburg farms for the future

Guilty confession: I got “D’s” in U.S. History. I just don’t get all wound up about battlefields, or ye olde anything. It may come as a surprise, then, that I recently paid a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, a registered historic landmark and living museum on the Virginia Peninsula. Why would I do such a thing, given my very unpatriotic educational record, and tendency to be freaked out by period costumes worn in public? Two reasons: love, and cows. Rare breed cows, to be exact.

I grew up on a small ranch where we raised horses, mules, goats, rabbits, and chickens. My dad is a large animal veterinarian who once observed, in all seriousness, “Laurel has a way with cows.” It’s true I was a bit of a bovine-whisperer in my youth, although I wasn’t too stoked when Dad felt it necessary years later to impart that information to my gleeful college roommates. I did, however, manage to convince my parents to let me raise a Jersey heifer for a 4-H project, so at least my talents weren’t wasted.

My love of dairy animals led to my current position as a contributing editor for a consumer cheese magazine, and I frequently write about humane livestock management. When my boyfriend moved to rural Virginia for work last year, I suddenly found myself looking for local story material to pay for my visits from Seattle. That’s how I discovered CW’s Rare Breeds program.

CW’s Coach and Livestock department started the program in 1986, as a means of “preserving and showcasing” heritage livestock and poultry breeds similar to the ones used to help establish the agricultural economy of the colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. While authenticity is in keeping with the CW’s educational objectives, there’s a bigger reason behind the breeding program: preserving genetic diversity in livestock, and preventing the extinction of the historic breeds still in existence.

The advent of modern agriculture has led to the development of a few select breeds of livestock and poultry, designed for maximum output, in order to meet global demand for commodity products such as eggs, milk, and meat. Many heritage animals retain genetic traits such as disease resistance, tolerance to climatic extremes, mothering traits (sometimes lacking in modern breeds, who are often separated from their young at birth), and physical characteristics that make them better suited to specific geographical environments. Some of these breeds are so scarce, their estimated global population is less than 2,000. The Rare Breeds program has been so successful, the American Livestock Breed Conservancy has declared it an “outstanding historical, agricultural representation. Colonial Williamsburg is a pioneer…in conservancy and breeding.”

Richard Nicholl, director of Coach and Livestock and founder of the Rare Breeds program, has a more simple way of explaining it. “We’ve distilled our meat, poultry, and dairy industries down to just a few hybrids. If something happened to one of those breeds, it would have a serious global impact upon our food supply and food costs. Here, our job is to give life to the Historic Area, and provide education. I want children to be able to walk up to a fence, and be encouraged to pet an animal. We’re so totally disconnected as a society about the source of our food.”

Last month, Boyfriend and I spent a few days in CW, so I could talk to Nicholl, and take a tour of the state-of-the-art stables- something that’s available to the public through CW’s “Bits and Bridles” tours (book them at the main ticket office, when you purchase your visitor’s pass). Nicholl, a native of England, grew up working on various farms. While an agriculture student, he visited an uncle in Virginia who raised carriage horses. Nicholl’s fascination with the animals and heritage of horse-drawn transportation eventually led him to his present position, although he’s also the Chairman of the Driving Committee for the Federation Equestre Internationale, and a Course Designer for the sport of Combined Driving.

While Nicholl’s passion is for horses (the farm currently has two rare breed animals in residence: an American Cream Draft, and a Canadian horse used for carriages and riding), he’s equally devoted to the flock of 45 Leicester Longwool sheep- one of the only breeding herds in the U.S.-and his Devon Red cows. The farm also breeds heritage chickens such as Nankin Bantams, Silver Spangled Hamburgs, and Dorkings (I wonder why that name was lost to antiquity?).

The Rare Breeds program came about when Nicholl and his staff were trying to improve the crossbred flock of sheep they had at the time. They acquired a Leicester ram, although in 1986, finding heritage livestock was no small feat. Nicholl specifically wanted existing breeds that were also native to the region in the 18th century. He tracked down a Leicester breeder in Australia, where the animals are used for milk, wool, and meat, and had the ram shipped over. The next acquisition was a Red Devon cow, a breed that originally arrived with the Pilgrims, via Southwest England. Small, hardy, handsome cattle with russet hides, Devons were a multi-use breed, used for draft, milk, and meat. When CW’s first cow was purchased from New Hampshire, there were less than 100 Devons left in the U.S., and they were extinct in England.

Today, the program has approximately 20 cattle, which are variously used for public demonstrations on plowing and (occasionally) milking. Says Nicholl, “We’ve lost many of the dairy breeds of cattle to extinction, but the Devon is increasing in popularity-another rancher in our area is now using them for their grass-finished beef. This is a great example of the importance of the Rare Breeds program. It’s been very successful, as well as popular with visitors.” Nicholl is quick to point out that having too many animal species in the program is problematic. “It’s hard to let go; you can’t save every breed. We don’t have pigs now, but we encourage Mt. Vernon to raise them. It’s not sustainable to have too many animals.”

Some shops in the Historic Area sell wool from the sheep, and there are scheduled kitchen demonstrations of 18th-century food preparation, as part of CW’s Historic Foodways program. Some of the demos, including meat cookery and ice cream, butter, and cheesemaking, feature mutton and milk from the farm. It’s ye olde observation only, but fellow dairy dorks will enjoy The Cheese Shop, a family-owned, modern store in Merchant’s Square, adjacent to the Historic Area. There are over 200 domestic and European offerings to choose from, including Virigina farmstead cheeses from Caromont Farm, and Meadow Creek, as well as artisan bread from Richmond, a beautiful array of condiments, made-to-order-sandwiches, and other picnic fixings.

If you’d rather have a restaurant meal, skip the touristy taverns, and eat at the Fat Canary, which adjoins The Cheese Shop (and is owned by the same family). The restaurant is a pleasant, contemporary, casual-to-fine-dining spot with a patio and hopping bar. The food is mostly of the Southern American genre, with an emphasis on regional ingredients. Boyfriend and I had a very nice dinner that included a starter of housemade mozzarella with Virginia ham, roasted tomatoes, and pesto, and crispy Virginia soft-shell crab with roasted chili butter. If you’re still in need of a cheese fix, the Williamsburg Lodge offers “Wine, Wit, and Wisdom” classes, which are essentially cheese tastings punctuated by lots of wine and banter between their executive chef, wine and beverage manager, and sommelier. Not for serious oeno- or turophiles, but entertaining.

The Rare Breeds program is funded through the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; Donations can be made here. Be sure to reference the program on the form.

Go here for a Devon clotted cream recipe, a traditional English treat that really needs to be embraced Stateside, like the cows who inspired it.

My trip to Virginia was sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Greater Williamsburg, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

Top 10 farmers markets in U.S.

There’s an innate pleasure to eating seasonally, especially this time of year, when berries, stonefruit, peppers, corn, and tomatoes are at their peak. Farmers markets are one of the best ways to enjoy these ingredients, not only because they afford the chance to connect with growers, ranchers, fishermen, and food artisans, but also because they’re a window into the soul of a community.

I’ll be the first to admit I can’t afford to buy all of my groceries from my local market, and I get toilet paper and other household essentials from generic grocery chains. In our present era of food-related pretense, being on a first-name basis with your local farmer has become a form of culinary oneupmanship. Forget all that. The best reason to shop local and grower-direct, besides supporting family farms and local food security, is that you have access to fresh food, which is higher in nutrients, and often just tastes better. The bonus is usually a lively scene, with music, cooking demonstrations, tastings, and seasonal events.

Based on my ten years of working at markets in various states, below are my picks for the top ten farmers markets in the nation. I’ve based my criteria on their “green,” growers only (i.e., vendors must sell their own product and adhere to sustainable practices) policies, diversity and quality of product, and community involvement. If a visit to one of these markets isn’t on your Labor Day travel itinerary, not to worry. With over 5,000 markets operating throughout the U.S., there’s sure to be one near you.1. San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market

Top honors go to this thriving market for its gorgeous food displays, Bayside location, and nationally-acclaimed educational programs. Taste olive oil, cheese from Andante Dairy, June Taylor’s heirloom fruit preserves, and Marshall’s Farm Honey, and ogle the exquisite produce from Knoll Tairwa Farm and Dirty Girl Produce. Afterward, stroll the adjoining Ferry Building Marketplace and visit permanent shops from some of the state’s top food artisans.

2. Union Square Greenmarket, New York

The ultimate urban market boasts everything from Blue Moon’s spanking fresh Atlantic seafood, and artisan cheeses from Cato Corner Farm and Bobolink Dairy, to farmstead maple products and a staggering array of apples and cider from Upstate. Go with ample empty shopping bags; you’ll want souvenirs.

3. Santa Fe Farmers Market, New Mexico

Alongside pristine, high desert-grown produce, you’ll find Native American growers from local pueblos selling grassfed buffalo and heirloom crops descended from 300-year old indigenous seed stock; dried posole, and more varieties of dried chile than you knew existed. Come with an empty stomach, so you have room for tamales, bomber breakfast burritos, or goat milk fudge.

4. Boulder Farmers Market, Colorado

Regional farmers prove that a short growing season can still be spectacular in the form of red sunchokes, fingerling potatoes, maroon heirloom carrots, and peaches to die for from Morton’s Orchards. A kaleidoscope of cut flowers and an adjoining prepared food section make this bustling market a colorful-and delicious- community hot spot.

5. Berkeley Farmers Market, California

Although just 13 miles across the Bay from San Francisco, this revered urban market has a distinct flavor all it’s own. Grab a rustic loaf from Brickmaiden Breads, pâté or charcuterie from Fatted Calf, cheese from Redwood Hill Farm, and some produce, and you have the ultimate picnic.

6. Dane County Farmers Market, Madison, Wisconsin

Even in frigid winters, this college town market keeps on, providing hearty fare such as artisan brats and sausages, rabbit, delicate Fantôme Farm chevre, honey, and sweet, Northern European-style baked goods. This time of year, expect an abundance of produce, including cherries, elderberries, foraged hickory nuts, and other wild foods.

7. Seattle “U-District” Market

Seattle’s most popular neighborhood market is “farmers only,” meaning it’s limited to food products. It hosts over 50 regional growers who gather to sell free-range eggs, hard cider, hazelnuts, a multitude of berries, foraged mushrooms and other wild foods, goat meat, fresh and smoked salmon, and native geoduck clams.

8. Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market, Washington DC

Credited with teaching Washingtonians to add produce to their agendas, this immesely popular, yearround market offers a regular “Chef in Market” program, and sells everything from ice cream and handcrafted soap to meat, seafood, pasta, and cow, goat, and sheep’s milk cheeses. Most of the product comes from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and is grown, raised, or caught within a 150-mile radius.


9. Austin Farmers Market, Texas

This beloved market is limited to local (within 150 miles) farms, and boasts a distinct Southwestern flavor. Pick up Creole pralines, pecans, heirloom zipper, cream, black-eyed, and purple peas, then dive into locally made empanadas and Oaxacan and Cuban food.

10. Kapiolani Community College (KCC) Farmers Market, Honolulu, Hawaii

Co-sponsored by the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at KCC, Oahu’s most thriving market requires growers to be in attendance, and provides locals and tourists with a real taste of the islands. Purchase grassfinished beef from Haleiwa’s North Shore Cattle Company, farm-raised moi (a tasty, white-fleshed fish once reserved for Hawaiian royalty), Molokai purple sweet potatoes, vanilla beans grown by the Big Island’s Hawaiian Vanilla Co., and produce like taro, lilikoi (passion fruit), and guava. Finish up with a plate lunch of kalua pig and lau lau, and prepare to tackle a hike on nearby Diamond Head to burn off the calories.