Guest Bloggers
My Coffee Farm Quest, Part One
Jenn Burns

I've been thinking a lot, lately, about my recent adventure on a coffee farm in Costa Rica. It was, for me, a life changing experience--or at least it forever changed my relationship with that powerful bean -- and I don't even drink coffee. But now I can't even smell it brewing without thinking about how disconnected most people are to where it comes from and what the real costs are to turn those little coffee "cherries" into the most consumed beverage on earth. Here's what I wrote in my journal about it:

A coffee farm is nothing like I had imagined.  Coffee is able to grow at a 90 degree angle from the earth, surviving where I thought no life could grow.  I know this because I furiously move my feet in hopes of gaining traction or chancing on some small foothold on this mountain of mud.  I claw the ground wishing these puny herbs could offer something more substantial than an aromatic allusion to being at a spa.  When I stand on the hillside I can reach my hand straight out and touch the land.  It is that steep.  Gravity, a force I normally disregard and under-appreciate, is now my nemesis in climbing this mountain hiding behind the pretense of being a coffee farm.  I finally emerge on the ridge, at the top of the farm, to a beautiful view of at least a third of all of Costa Rica.

Day 1: I am researching the differences between organic and conventional coffee farms in Costa Rica as the final portion of my study abroad program.  My natural resource management professor, who I refer to as Always Accurate Achim, a German (complete with goatee and pony tail), fearlessly leads me and my fellow student researchers.  He laughs the loudest when anyone's feet slip out from under them.  Perhaps we were wooed by access to some of the best coffee in the world; I don't know what else could have made us not just agree to participate, but fight to sign up for this specific project.  I don't actually drink coffee, so I have no idea what I could possibly have been thinking.

In my assignment, I compare organic and conventional coffee using an ecological index, a system that quantitatively measures farm soil, stored carbon, and biodiversity.  As this study uses an amalgamation of my fellow researchers data, I am available to help others collect data.  For example, I measure coffee plants, collect soil samples, or identify and count trees.  I was available for any job that needed to be done.  Most of my time was spent walking the perimeter of the farm, creating the necessary one hectare research plot, and then usually re-marking the plot, as it was never perfect, and Achim always likes to be accurate.  To say the least, my glutes got a good workout.  I emerged from our first day in the field, and felt like I had been "birthed from the coffee," as fellow researcher Eunice eloquently described it .

Fun Fact of the Day: It takes 55 beans to make one cup of coffee.  This equates to 27.5 two-bean cherries, about a full branch on an organic coffee farm, or half a branch on the conventional farm.  Imagine these stout plants with cups of coffee rather than fruits hanging from them, like little apple pies hanging off branches in an apple orchard.

Day 2: Again, my feet are sliding, no surprise as I have taken the path much, much less traveled to ensure proper GPS tracking.  In fact, the farmer of this plot isn't exactly sure how much land he has, as even he has never explored this little corner of paradise.  There was a thin layer of leaf litter that acted like skates on this slanted rink of mud.  To lower myself with at least a wee bit of control, I grabbed hold of bare trunked Cana India, the common vegetative border between organic and conventional farms.  I threw my lower body around my pole, as a firefighter or exotic dancer might do.  Whew, one body length lower and, again, I was sliding.  I lunged forward to grab hold of the next sturdy Cana India to stop my momentum.  Tricked!  This tree I just threw my body weight towards was a very similar looking tree, but with one

 
Following the Chalkboards
Brad English

A long time ago, I took a trip with my high school buddy, Milan.  We went to Europe one winter to ski and roam around a little.  The two of us didn't have any real plans, beyond hitting some key ski spots like Chamonix, Zermat, Davos, St Anton, and Kitzbuhel among many others.  We had a stop planned in a small farm town in Slovakia to visit his relatives but, other than that, our planning consisted of getting tickets and reserving a rental car. 

We hit the ground driving.  Leaving Frankfurt, we eventually made a stop in the Black Forest for some German beer on Lake Titisee.  It was a cold day, and a blanket of snow covered most things.  There weren't many tourists there that time of year, but we found our beer and it was as beautiful a place for a cold beer as I had ever been.  I would find many such places on this trip.

 
Balance and Neapolitan Pizza
Caleb Schiff

 

By Guest Columnist Caleb Schiff

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about balance and pizza. A Neapolitan pizza, for example, is best summarized by the short description: "Fresh ingredients on good bread." It's really a simple concept. Yet, because of the focus on the basics, the room for perceived-error is small. Other pizza styles that may be heavily topped or have many components can hide inconsistencies in the dough or the sauce or the cheese.

While recently traveling in Italy, I felt completely in my element concerning my ability to discuss and compare pizza. It's a lot of fun and oh so tasty. And when it comes to casting judgment on pizza I take it seriously. After visiting countless Neapolitan pizzerias and preparing innumerable pizzas from my wood-fired oven at home, I also believe I have the discerning palate to identify good pizza. Two pies I ate during my time in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, located north of Puglia and east of Campania, offer a case-and-point of what constitutes a good pie.

On Nov. 8th, I visited Oi Mari in Matera. The place has a cavernous atmosphere with low lighting. It's built into the Sassi, which are ancient dwellings built into the limestone cliffs of Matera. A very

 
To Be a Sacred Baker
Michael Hanson

Recently I have been thinking about artisanship, integrity, and the pizzaiolo. I am an Englishman with no Italian heritage and, as such, do not feel well qualified to make pronouncements about what constitutes an authentic pizza, if in fact there is such a thing. But I am a professional pizza maker, and have been wondering what shortcuts can be made without sacrificing authenticity.

I perfected my pizza making skills with second and third generation pizzaiolos at London's most talked about pizzeria, Franco Manca. The owner, Giuseppe Mascoli, went to remarkable lengths to create authentic Neapolitan pizza. My father and grandfather were time-served master bakers, and I have spent forty years bread making.  So I do know my pizza and my dough.

I am sure there are as many opinions on what constitutes the perfect pizza as there are pizzaiolos. How far can one stretch the rules before one is no longer an artisan? And does it matter anyway?

I currently co-own a mobile pizza business with a wood fired oven, which we take around to festivals and community gatherings in the UK. I have been doing this for several years and the business has become very successful. For this coming season we have decided to expand again; bigger oven, more staff. What is the price of expansion?

I have always used a wood fired oven, designed and built by myself, but some competitors use gas fired ovens for that stone baked taste.  I have always mixed my dough totally by hand, it is hard to move a mixer around and there is never any electricity, and the quality is far superior to my competitors who mostly use a mixer or brought-in frozen dough balls.  I have never used a mechanical pinner on the dough, preferring hands, flour and marble. I always use 100% mozzarella, but never San Marzano tomatoes.

I would like to retain the quality of our pizzas; can this be done, I am always wondering, if we compromise on the process or the product? Does mechanization jeopardize both my personal integrity and my pizza integrity? When I was a professional artisan baker fifteen years ago my motto was No Compromise, yet somehow I ended up with a huge bakery and  twenty full time bakers, and working eighty hours per week. I managed to maintain an artisanal product but I had to sacrifice my personal integrity. I do not want to do that again this time.

My decision is now guided by my personal spirituality which is centered on upholding my integrity. Hence this summer I am mindful to retain our antiquated and artisanal process. No modernization, no mechanization; off the grid, in touch. These choices are based on my belief that by using his or her hands the dough maker has a direct personal relationship, possibly one that is divine, with the bread. Rolling and shaping the dough by hand is crucial, I believe, if one wants the complexity of texture: moist, chewy, crispy, and charred.

As for the oven, I have seen nothing that can re-create the magic of fire. Real flames; real wood. Sourcing good wood is time consuming. Then, there is the chopping, kindling, and grading; finally hand-feeding the voracious fire inside the alchemical belly of the forno, where the temperature reaches 1000 degrees F. and the pizza bakes in sixty seconds. This is, in my experience, a transformative sacred fire to be honored. How would I feel if I simply turned on the gas and pressed a button? Or electricity? I grapple with wondering if it is un-whole, or unholy.

This is why I no longer call myself an artisan baker, but a sacred baker. I‚ have come to believe that our customers can see and taste the passion with which our pizza is made. By contemplating the whole, I feel that I can transmit the holy through my hands and, with honor and respect, create a sacramental meal.

Of course, that's just me. I would love to hear what you think about pizza making integrity; what do you feel is sacrosanct and what is compromise.

 

Note from Peter: You can follow the progress of Michael's mobile pizzeria on Facebook, at From The Hearth. What are your thoughts on this notion of sacred baking or sacred cooking in general?

 
Pizza as Self Expression, Part Two
John Arena

 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about three inspirational pizza makers. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I often call them the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of pizza. They are three men who couldn’t be more different in their contributions to the world of pizza, but together create, represent, and inspire all that we should be in our quest to serve pizza that is both delicious and meaningful.

In the beginning, there was Anthony Mangieri, or at least someone very much like him. I’m not talking about some dubious pizza pedigree that goes back to 19th century Naples. What Anthony does is more rooted in ancient Rome or perhaps even Egypt. Walk the ruins of Pompeii and you will see bread ovens and marble work tables that could have been the prototype for Anthony’s pizzeria. This is food at its most elemental, 3 or 4 simple ingredients, natural leavening, fire, and the hands of a gifted and uncompromising artist who serves as a conduit between nature and man. Anthony’s pizza is as primal as it gets. Take away the mozzarella and tomatoes, add some garum and it is possible that Mangieri’s ancestors were baking these pies for hungry citizens on the day that Pompeii was buried. You won’t find a diploma or certificate of authenticity in Anthony Mangieri’s pizzeria. What he is doing with pizza pre-dates those organizations by thousands of years. Certainly there have been many innovations and additions to our craft, but everything leads back to the original elements, and no one is more dedicated or consumed by this than Anthony Mangieri. With Anthony, you either get it or you don’t. There is no place to hide, and where you stand when you experience his pizza reveals everything about you. The latest incarnation of his Una Pizza Napoletana can be found in San Francisco (much easier to get to than Pompeii).

If you don’t believe in miracles I suggest a visit to a quiet corner in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. There you will find Spacca Napoli, a piece of Naples somehow transported to the Windy City. More importantly, you will find Jonathan Goldsmith. If Anthony Mangieri represents what came before, clearly Jonathon exemplifies the heart of what the Italian pizza experience has become. Genetically, Jonathan is not an Italian pizza maker. He did not discover his true nature and calling until adulthood. Yet, he embodies everything that a pizzaiolo should be. Dedicated and knowledgeable, a gracious host, a generous teacher, and a self sacrificing steward to his staff and community. Jonathon had the belief and resolve to bring his message of authentic Neapolitan pizza to a city with a long standing pizza tradition of its own. He has been embraced by thousands of loyal supporters, including expatriate Italians who find Spacca to be a comforting reminder of home. His pizza and his beautiful restaurant continue to evolve, but always reflect a simple message, that a neighborhood pizzeria can be a place where people gather to restore both body and soul. In short Jon is the pizza maker that I wish I had both the talent and courage to be.

What would a religious metaphor be without a journey into the desert?  As every pizza enthusiast knows, Chris Bianco is at the forefront of America’s pizza renaissance. It’s important

 
Pizza as Self Expression
John Arena

Lately I’ve been thinking about pizza as a form of self expression.

On a recent holiday shopping expedition I found myself fascinated by what are called Fine Art Galleries in the mall. I’m sure you’ve seen them, places that sell the mass-produced work of a particular “artist” who seems to be capable of turning out thousands of paintings at an alarming rate, each new one eerily similar to the last. Well, just as I was about to turn my nose up at this array of McArtwork, I looked across the aisle and noticed a food court that housed the standard chain outlets including, of course, pizza. There, on an illuminated display I spied a huge number of mass-produced pizzas, each new one eerily similar to the last. I realized that in pizza, just as in fine art, there are different goals that can tell us quite a bit about the maker, and the consumer as well.  Trying (with little success) not to make any value judgments, I’ve identified three distinct types of pizza-makers.

The first types are what we might call CPA’s: Certified Pizza Assemblers. The CPA has been carefully trained to mass produce identical pizzas according to a template that is designed with one goal, profit. Don’t get me wrong, an assembler may be highly skilled in the mechanics of cranking out a huge quantity of pizzas. However, the pies themselves must conform to a corporate ideal. In no way should the individual hand of the pizza-maker show through in the finished product. In many cases the CPA’s will have only a rudimentary understanding of the true nature of the ingredients, equipment, and techniques that they are using. In truth, the pizza assembler is sort of making pies phonetically. The end result may appear correct, but it lacks meaning. I have to admit I get a bit depressed when I see those sad Stepford Pies lined up on display, each one denied any personal connection to its maker. Most of the pizza-makers at your local chain pizza shop are CPA’s, and many pizza makers at independent pizzerias are also CPA’s. They simply mimic the methods they have been taught, with no real understanding; they know the how but not the why.

At the next level we have what I call the PC:  Pizza Craftsman. The PC has learned and polished all of the tools of the trade. He or she understands the origin and nature of the

 

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