City-Style Ranching

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Seville oranges ripen on a 100-year old tree at E. Waldo Ward’s orchard. Credit Susan Lutz

I read books and magazines about urban farming the way many people read cookbooks.

Sometimes I intend to use the information I read, but usually I’m just daydreaming. I love visiting urban farms for the same reason. I justify these trips by saying they’re good for my children’s education. But what I’m really after is to see how urban farmers have managed to carve out a bit of undeveloped land to grow crops, raise chickens or wrangle livestock in the midst of the city.

The E. Waldo Ward Ranch in Sierra Madre, Calif., is not an “urban farm” in the usual sense. That is to say, the ranch is not the product of urban land reclamation for agricultural purposes. It was here first, long before suburban sprawl took over. E. Waldo Ward started his ranch in 1891, and the city grew around it.

The ranch is situated in a quiet, “un-ranch-like” suburban neighborhood of Craftsman homes. But behind a stately house with a large lawn, you’ll discover barns, tractors, pick-up trucks and a “backyard” that stretches to the next block. It’s like a farm that’s been carefully camouflaged by surrounding it with suburban homes.

The barn at the E. Waldo Ward Ranch Museum. Credit: Susan Lutz

An empire built on marmalade

We parked behind the house and I went inside the small gift shop for our tour. I was greeted by Jeff Ward, fourth-generation rancher. Jeff pointed out the ranch is still a working ranch, even though it’s only 2.5 acres, and it still produces the same product that his great-great-grandfather (E. Waldo himself) started producing more than 100 years ago.

Our first stop on the tour was the original processing room, built in the early 1900s, where the company’s first product was tested. On the day we visited, soft winter light filtered through the many windows that wrapped around the room. It was here that E. Waldo Ward launched an empire based on marmalade.

Edwin Waldo Ward imported two Seville orange trees from Spain in 1891. He planted these new trees in the rich soil of the San Gabriel Valley. As a luxury food salesman, E. Waldo knew that the best marmalade came from Seville oranges, and no one in America was making high-end marmalade.

E. Waldo slowly built a grove of more than 600 trees that covered 30 acres using his two Seville orange trees as grafting stock. By 1915, he believed he could take the big step — quit his job, and launch his product.

Within a few years he was selling massive amounts of his high-end marmalade to his old sales clients, the railroads. He was harvesting oranges, making marmalade and packaging the product in his canning “factory” behind his house.

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Jeff and Richard Ward in front of a 100-year old Seville orange tree. Credit: Susan Lutz

Into the modern era

Jeff walked us past pallets and a small lift truck to the barn that E. Waldo built in 1902. Today it’s part store-room, part museum — a treasure chest of crazy old machines and relics of early 20th century preserve-making. One side of the tiny museum showcases examples of kitchen tools and family photos of the ranch over the past 100 years. The other side contains a workbench that looked (and smelled) just like my grandfather’s workbench on his farm in Virginia. In these quiet corners it is easy to feel that E. Waldo’s spirit is still very much alive at the ranch.Marmalade jars in the Ward ranch gift shop

After leaving the barn, we entered a series of much more modern processing and packing rooms. It is here that Jeff, and his dad Richard, spearhead the marmalade and jam processing operation that still bears E. Waldo’s name.

Jeff also applies the family’s know-how to help others create their own commercial food products. The company now offers consulting and co-packing services, helping small-time entrepreneurs take a handcrafted food product to market, just as E. Waldo did in this same spot more than a century ago.

The tour ended back in the gift store where we were offered the ranch’s high-end jams, marinades and sauces. I managed to taste, and ultimately take home, a number of delicious goodies, including blood orange marmalade and sweet spiced peaches.

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Ward Museum apple peelers. Credit: Susan Lutz

As we packed up our jars of preserves and headed back down the path to the city street, I watched my daughters scamper amid the orange trees playing hide and seek. I remembered hiding behind the gnarled old apple trees in my grandfather’s tiny orchard in Virginia in much the same way. Although I was 3,000 miles away from my family’s farm, I couldn’t help feeling that I was giving my daughters a glimpse of their own agricultural roots. This tiny piece of old California rancho history conjured up the spirit of 19th century while creating a vivid memory of the pleasures of living in Southern California today.

And the sweet spiced peaches were delicious.

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DIY Vinegar From Thomas Jefferson

Homemade peach vinegar made from peach skins, photo by Susan Lutz 2015.
Homemade peach vinegar made from peach skins,  copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

High-end vinegar is going through something of a renaissance among foodies, chefs, and home cooks. Vinegar is alive. Literally. At least before it’s pasteurized—a step taken by most manufacturers to make vinegar shelf stable. I’m on a quest to make my own vinegar, the kind that must be consumed quickly while at its peek acidity level, or fed at regular intervals to keep it alive. This living vinegar is tastier, healthier– and can give you better bragging rights — than the expensive pasteurized product you’re likely to find in gourmet food stores.

I dove into the world of DIY vinegar at the home of America’s greatest promoter of Maker lifestyle: Thomas Jefferson. The Monticello Heritage Harvest festival is an annual celebration of food, history and the do-it-yourself spirit of the American Revolution; where authors and PhDs rub shoulders with urban homesteaders; a gathering that my husband calls “Historians ‘n’ Hippies.” My guides in the arts of vinegar production come from both ends of this spectrum: Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, and Gabriele Rausse, a pioneer of modern Virginian winemaking, and Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello.

Ancient Roots of Vinegar Culture

Hillside vineyard at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Charlottesville, VA, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

Vinegar appears in the human record at the dawn of civilization. Vinegar residue has been found in Egyptian urns from 3,000 BC. Vinegar is mentioned as a tasty treat in the Bible and as medicinal treatment for colds in the works of Hippocrates. Apple cider vinegar was a cure-all in colonial America, but by the time of the American Revolution, people like Thomas Jefferson explored vinegar as the ultimate addition to fine dining. Jefferson’s years in Paris made him a connoisseur of vinegar – and culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler declared Jefferson was positively “addicted” to tarragon vinegar.

Making Your Own

Sandor Katz at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

There are extremely elaborate, highly-measured ways to accomplish the transformation of fruit juice or wine into fine vinegar. But Sandor Katz takes a loose, DIY approach to the process. Acetic-acid-producing bacteria called Acetobacter and yeast—the two microorganisms required for vinegar- making– are all around us. “You don’t have to be a microbiologist,” said Katz, when I expressed my concerns about making fruit scrap vinegar. “Not to worry: vinegar makes itself.” My process began with fruit scraps. While making a pie, I found myself with a pile of peach skins, and several less-than-perfect chunks of fruit. I would begin with this – starting the process of turning fruit sugar into alcohol.

Step One: Sugar to Alcohol

Vinegar requires two steps to turn fruit scraps into vinegar. First, yeast naturally found on fruit turns sugars in the fruit into alcohol—a process called alcoholic fermentation. And second, Acetobacter converts the alcohol into acetic acid. A home-brewer or winemaker will use specific types of fruit sugar and add a specific type of yeast to the mixture. For my purposes, I just mixed the fruit scraps with a sugar solution in a Mason jar following Katz’s recipe in his first book Wild Fermentation. Then I covered the top with a paper towel secured with a rubber band, and let the natural yeasts on the fruit (and in my kitchen) find their way to it. Yeast consumed the sugar, excreting carbon dioxide bubbles and ethanol in the process. I gently swirled the mixture around in the jar every once in a while and within a week, I could see the telltale bubbles that showed alcohol was being created.

Step Two: Alcohol to Acetic Acid

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A “mother” begins to form in my peach skin vinegar, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

My goal was not low-alcohol peach hooch. There’s a second step: turning alcohol into an acetic acid mixture that tastes delicious. “The word we use is French,” Katz said. “Vin Aigre just means ‘sour wine.’ It is the consolation prize when alcohol goes bad.” I strained out the chunks of peach skin to stop the alcohol-creation process, then put the golden liquid into a new container with a scrap of thin kitchen towel over the top of the jar. Sandor Katz’s approach to this step is extremely simple: just let it sit there. The peach alcohol soon began to get stringy gelatinous threads that eventually massed into a noticeable translucent layer on top of my peach mixture. At first glance it seemed like a food safety disaster, but it’s actually the start of the vinegar magic.

This was the beginning of the “vinegar mother” – a gelatinous membrane made mostly of cellulose produced by the Acetobacter. It is the “starter” from which more vinegar can be created. After two weeks, a quick whiff at the top of the jar revealed the powerful tang of transformation.

I poured some of the vinegar into a shot glass. It tasted sharp, with a hint of sweetness – a distinct peach taste to the delicious acidy liquid. I plan to let this sit for a couple of more weeks, until it reaches its peak of acidity. I have a dozen plans for this: salad dressing, marinade, potato salad, even mayonnaise.

Making fruit scrap vinegar was an interesting experiment, but this kind of live vinegar needs to be used fairly quickly, while at it’s maximum acidity level, or heat-pasteurized and stored in a closed narrow-necked bottle for long-term storage. I wasn’t interested in the details of heating and storing this kind of vinegar safely. And it is crucial to pay attention to these details because as the acidity level in vinegar drops, other microorganisms can start to take over—a potentially dangerous situation from a food-safety standpoint. I wanted to find an easy sustainable way to keep vinegar alive in my own kitchen, so I turned to a classic Italian method for making wine vinegar.

AN ALTERNATE STEP: ACQUIRE A MOTHER

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A thick vinegar mother in my kitchen, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

The traditional method of making vinegar with wine begins with acquiring a “mother of vinegar” from a vinegar-making friend or from a wine-making supply store. I was generously given a small jar of this vinegar mother by Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds. A passionate wine-maker and vinegar-maker, Rausse makes vinegar in his home every day using a “mother” that came from his grandmother’s house in Italy. When I asked him how long he had had his vinegar mother, he told me, “Since I was born.”

I was honored. My vinegar mother had its birth on another continent three generations ago. But such a legacy requires dedication and focus. I learned about the care and feeding of vinegar mothers at Rausse’s vinegar-making demonstration at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival.

Keep Your Vinegar Alive

Gabriele Rausse, photo copyright Susan Lutz
Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds, in Monticello’s vineyard, copyright Susan Lutz, 2015.

The key to good vinegar, according to both Katz and Rausse, is to consume it while it is still alive. Most vinegar that you buy in the grocery store or gourmet shop has been pasteurized – the living organisms killed for the sake of shelf-stability and food safety. There is an important place for pasteurized vinegar, most notably in food preservation. The USDA recommends that only vinegar with an acidity level of at least 5% should be used for pickling fruits and vegetables. Because the acidity level of homemade vinegar is unknown, it should never be used for pickling. I follow this rule in my own kitchen and encourage others to do the same. But when I want to dress a salad, I reach for live vinegar.

Up until now, I’ve bought commercially-produced vinegar with live bacterial cultures (Bragg’s makes a good one from apple cider). In a few months I hope I’ll be reaching for vinegar with a living history instead. My homemade vinegar will tell the story of at least three generations of Italian vinegar-makers, with additional flavors from my own kitchen. Over time, I’m sure my homemade vinegar will transform into something unrecognizable to Gabriele Rausse and his grandmother, but I hope it will be a delicious heirloom that I’ll be able to pass on to friends and family over the years and eventually to my own grandchildren. Time will tell.

 

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We Can Thank Bacteria For The Smell of Rain

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Yesterday my oldest daughter asked why it smelled so wonderful after it rained.  I had to admit that I wasn’t sure, but that we’d find out.  A quick internet search revealed that there are actually many “rain smells” and they do not all have the same cause.  A bit more cyber-reserach seemed to point to bacteria as the source of the smell my daughter enjoyed so much.

We’re big fans of bacteria around our house– anyone who likes bread, beer, and cheese relies pretty heavily on the stuff– but I was surprised to credit bacteria with our favorite rain smell.  According to the folks at howstuffworks.com, the particular rain smell that we associate with rain (and with being in the woods) is the smell of a bacteria called Actinomycetes releasing it’s spores into the moist air.  Check out this link for more information on Actinomycetes and rain smells in general. It’s fascinating stuff.

So it turns out that we have one more thing to add to the list of the many wonderful things that bacteria do for us human beings.

 

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