Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Almond Butter. What's Up With That?

At the Ferry Plaza market recently, I counted four vendors selling almond butter. At the Berkeley market, where we usually shop, I counted three. At the Temescal market, I counted two.

I bought some out of curiosity; now I’m a convert to its deep almond flavor. Melissa and I frequently have almond butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and I made almond butter cookies recently by swapping it one-for-one with the recipe’s peanut butter.

Have I just been blind to this before?

In part, yes. Lagier Ranches has sold a range of almond butters for 10 years now, says Casey Havre, who manages the company’s livestock and the company’s subsidiary, Loulou’s Garden. Of the three types of almonds they grow, Lagier uses one, the Butte, only for almond butter. They use whole almonds, since broken almonds turn rancid more quickly. They know their almond butter.

But there has been a surge in almond butter at local markets. Massa Organics, best known among foodies for their flavorful, locally-grown rice, started making almond butter within the last year, says owner Greg Massa. And a quick look through Riverdog Farm’s newsletters shows that they started selling it at about the same time.

Probably everyone is selling it for the same reason: product diversity. Small farms succeed when they can sell a range of items. One crop pays the bills even while the market for another one tanks; one crop in season covers costs while another one lies dormant. “Almond butter for us was just a natural extension of getting into the almond business,” says Massa. “ In 2004, commodity rice prices were so low that we planted our first-ever almond orchard in an attempt to diversify our farming operation.”

It’s surprising that more farmers haven’t started selling almond butter before now. Almonds are everywhere here. California’s $2 billion almond industry is the only commercial one in North America, producing 75 percent of the world’s almond supply, according to the California Almond Board. Almond butter plays straight to our locavore crowd as a peanut butter substitute sourced from nearby. It plays straight to our gourmet crowd as an interesting, flavorful ingredient. And It plays straight to our health nut crowd as a “superfood,” a concentrated nutrition source.

But it doesn’t play to our budget-watching crowd, unfortunately. Almond prices are higher than peanut prices — though they’ve dropped off sharply this year — and almond butter reflects that cost. Most of the jars of organic almond butter I’ve seen cost about $1 per ounce, although non-organic brands seem to cost about two-thirds of that.

If you’ve got the budget, you can find Massa’s at the Berkeley market and the Ferry Plaza market. You can find Lagier at the Ferry Plaza, Grand Lake, Marin Civic Center, and Temescal markets. Any vendor will give you other ideas for using it beyond AB&Js and cookies. Massa likes his almond butter on toast with honey, but he also uses it in peanut sauce recipes. Havre likes it with her oatmeal, but she suggested a combination so odd I just have to try it: almond butter and homemade sauerkraut sandwiches.

Add your suggestions for almond butter in the comments.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

1984 Terrebrune, Bandol

Two years ago and some change, Melissa and I went to Provence. Before we left, I booked us winery appointments in Bandol, saying that I was a wine writer but that I wasn’t on assignment. While the town itself is a checklist of Riviera requirements — a cycle of bedroom-sized creperies, souvenir stands, and Egyptian cotton sellers repeated a million times along the beach — the wine region is probably the best of Provence’s appellations outside of the Southern Rhône.

It would be hard to pick our favorite winery visit. At Domaine Tempier, the darling of Richard Olney, Alice Waters, and Kermit Lynch (who imports the bottles), the wine maker played "guess the age" with a bottle of Tempier from the early 80s (I guessed early 90s). At Chateau Pradeaux, we met the seemingly endless stream of dogs and walked in among the foudres in the old cellar. At Chateau St.-Anne, Bandol’s biodynamic estate, the wine maker drove us to a remote vineyard in the forest and then to a vantage point — complete with an old ruin — where he explained the different terroirs of Bandol by pointing to the streaks of color in the hills across the valley.

But our visit to Domaine de Terrebrune (also a Kermit Lynch import) may top them all.

Once we arrived, the wine maker’s assistant took us around the winery, explaining in slowed-down French how the winery works. She took us downstairs to show us the gravity-fed system, which was busy with staff handling the harvest. The owner came down and chatted with us about his farming philosophy and his thoughts on Mourvedre, the dominant grape of Bandol. He then suggested we eat at the restaurant on the grounds (he tried to pick up our tab, but I explained my rules about such things).

I will never forget that meal. A heavy drizzle of rain plopped and pitter-pattered just outside the restaurant. It was open to the elements at one end, but the crackling fire for cooking all the food warmed the room. The first course was a plate of mushrooms with thyme and a hardened streak of grilled ham. The second course was an arc of steak cooked rare.

I don’t mean rare the way Americans think of rare. It was arranged by doneness, and the most well-done piece on the plate was what a good American restaurant would call rare. (And many restaurants can’t even deliver on that: A “rare” order often comes out medium-rare.) I can still picture the plate and conjure the taste of each piece of that meat. We ordered a bottle of a decade-old Terrebrune to go with it.

After lunch, we stopped at the front desk to buy some wine. We’ve found that European wineries often have good prices on library wines. We had brought shipping boxes on the trip, knowing that we’d be buying wine, so we still had plenty of room for two bottles of the 1984 Terrebrune. Like most premium Bandol wines, this one is 95 percent Mourvedre, a tannic grape that benefits from a bit of age: Seven years seems about right for the wine to start opening up, but it will last much longer.

We opened the first bottle earlier this year. We took our friend Sean-Michael to dinner at Jojo as thanks for getting me the Maxis job. We knew he’d appreciate it. We opened the second bottle the other night, just because. I made a pot roast, mashed potatoes, and braised greens. We burrowed our noses into the glasses, inhaling the smell of lush violets and leather. The tannins had dissolved into nothingness, but the acidity and the fruit were still lively and invigorating. A decade from now, we still would have loved this wine.

But it almost didn’t matter what the wine tasted like. Every sip and every sniff brought us back to that meal, that tour, the wine maker, and his staff.

Yes, yes, I have once again been neglecting OWF. Let me give a word of advice to you relatively new bloggers: Don't stop blogging, because you'll find it hard to start up again. Nonetheless, I intend to get myself back in this habit.