By Micah Cheek
“May third, we had a serious freeze. We lost about a quarter of the grapes,” says Steve Darland of The Darland Company. “One year we had a family of bears.” Darland’s farm is located in Monticello, New Mexico, a former ghost town just north of Truth Or Consequences. This arid environment, though sometimes unforgiving, is an ideal place to age balsamic vinegar. Darland personally inspects and prunes his grapevines throughout the growing season. Every grape counts; it will take 200 pounds of fruit and at least 12 years to make each bottle of Traditional Organic Balsamic of Monticello.
Grapes that make it to harvest are crushed and heated over a wood fire. After being reduced and fermented, the grape must is poured off into handmade barrels. These casks are crafted by Francesco Renzi, whose family has been making them in the same building for 500 years, long before balsamic vinegar was considered a viable mass market product. The grape will spend 12 years circulating through casks made of oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, acacia and ash, drawing volatile compounds from each to develop its snappy, resinous flavor. Darland says, “Periods of intense work are followed by long periods of time where grapes are growing or vinegar is aging in its casks.”
Monticello is a hub for organic farmers, despite the spring frosts and animals. They all meet in Truth Or Consequences for a farmer’s market, which the Darlands helped start after their first grape harvest. The revenue for their first batch of balsamic was over a decade away, so other sources of income came from the farm. “A great way to fill the time is to grow unique, but potentially popular, healthy, delicious organic crops which thrive in this environment,” says Darland. The farm produced shishito peppers, pomegranates, and other organic products. “My wife, Jane, became the Johnny Appleseed of Sierra County by helping other growers choose, then order and plant the right fruit trees to survive and thrive in our climate – thousands of trees,” he adds.
The more you learn about Darland’s process, the farther removed it is from the balsamic vinegars readily available on shelves. These products, known as industrial vinegars, are generally aged for as little as hours or days before being thickened with sugar, molasses or mosto cotto, a sweet grape syrup. This thick and sweet vinegar is made to mimic the traditional balsamic flavor, because demand for the product has long ago outstripped supply. This demand has fueled a massive market for the sweetened balsamic. “It may be a polite fake, but with an estimated quarter billion dollars of annual US sales, it is a much, much better business than it is a gourmet food item,” says Darland. For him, these products do not even fit into the category of real balsamic vinegar. “The key thing for people to learn: when you read the ingredient list on the label and it has more than one, it is industrial balsamic. Like it or not.”
The Darlands devote their down time to travel. They conduct tastings at stores and restaurants to highlight the differences between their balsamic and the less expensive industrial alternatives. “We take nearly every opportunity to visit islands of foodies, wherever we can sample and talk about the real thing, since ours is the only American commercial balsamic and probably the only organic version in the world,” says Darland. Surprisingly, one of the most difficult groups to convince is chefs. “Chefs are challenged with being fashionable, and making a profit. In culinary school or other training, chefs are shown how to make faux balsamic,” says Darland. Many chefs will cook down inexpensive industrial vinegars with sugar to make a facsimile of a rich, aged balsamic to use for plate presentation. They end up with a sweet product that clings to the tongue, but has had all the subtle flavors and volatile compounds cooked out of it. “It’s a hoax on the menu. It makes everyone the fool – the wait help, the kitchen staff, the chef and the diner all get the wrong lesson without ever tasting balsamic.” says Darland. “There’s a cruel humor in it.”
While cost-conscious chefs are reticent to pick up a bottle of Monticello vinegar, Darland has had to turn away many retailers trying purchase his product. Producing a maximum of 1000 bottles per year makes relationships with retailers a delicate balancing act. Each new retailer thins out the number of bottles that go to all the rest. “We sell online and through very special retailers, and have to be judicious with supply. We sold everything we bottled last year, and we were down to just two bottles when the year ended,” says Darland. “So, we want retail allies with smart retail staff who we can rely on for sales. In turn they can rely on us for supply.” In addition to the 1000 4.5-ounce bottles, limited batches of one ounce bottles are released, as well as a condiment balsamic version made from the same grape must, but aged for less than 12 years.
When asked how he is planning on expanding, Darland states, “I’m not.” While some nationwide retailers have tried to bring Traditional Organic Balsamic of Monticello to their shelves, Darland doesn’t have enough stock, and more importantly, doesn’t like the way they do business. “If we had done that, we would have done it 23 years ago,” says Darland. “The retailers we have are really smart and really know what they’ve got.” Though making organic and artisan products is more involved, Darland steadfastly believes that small production of quality ingredients has a growing place in the market. “These days, everything is monetized. But with true balsamic, there is no short term fiscal shortcut. Rather than repeating the classics, people have settled for fakes. Still, there is room for real, and things made with great care,” says Darland. “Handcrafted, organic, small production is a lively segment for balsamic and many gourmet products.”
By Hannah Hollins
Twenty years ago, Marietta DeAngelo was an American exchange student living on the Stöger family farm in Austria, where the family grew pumpkins and pressed the seeds into oil. DeAngelo quickly learned that pumpkin seed oil was a much-loved condiment. “It went over everything,” she said. “On scrambled eggs in the morning, with bread and meat for lunch, drizzled in soup for dinner! For dessert, they ate vanilla ice cream with pumpkin seed oil.” When DeAngelo returned with her husband and children to visit the Stöger family farm in 2009, family members were still eating pumpkin seed oil with all their meals.
The first bottles of Stöger pumpkin seed oil to arrive in the United States came in DeAngelo’s suitcase. “We sent it away for analytical testing, and the results showed that pumpkin seed oils had the benefits Omega 3, 6, and 9,” she said.
After she introduced the product to local stores, retailers immediately began demanding bottles of it for their shelves. For the 2009 holiday season, DeAngelo ordered 216 bottles and sold them locally and to grocery stores in Manhattan. “In the beginning, I was cold calling people,” said DeAngelo. “I’d send a bottle, and they’d buy a case!”
At the 2012 Summer Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C., Stöger Oils’ booth backed up to the Los Chileros booth. When Marietta and her husband Alan DeAngelo crossed paths with Ian Johnson and Chuck Waghorne of Los Chileros, they found that they were instantly compatible. “Los Chileros first advised us to change the bottle and the label and pick new flavors,” said DeAngelo. “We went with chile, tomato and cherry to go along with the original pumpkin seed oil.” Los Chileros served as an important mentor to Stöger Seed Oils, as the company grew into a larger company. The chile product company provided Stöger with valuable marketing resources, knowledge and distribution channels.
The new Stöger Seed Oils relaunched with a refreshed look and product selection at the 2013 Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. The company entered into the sofi Awards judging under Los Chileros’ name. Stöger’s cherry seed oil won a sofi Gold Award for Outstanding Oil, and all four products were nominated in the Outstanding Product Line category. The wonderful reception at the Fancy Food Show brought Stöger Seed Oils into a new level of success. The company has seen a 192 percent increase in sales since January, and Stöger Oils can now be found at over 200 Whole Foods stores. As of this month, the products are also available at Williams-Sonoma.
Still, DeAngelo does not attribute Stöger Seed Oils’ success solely to the quality of the product, but rather she says that it is the teamwork and passion behind the oils that continues to move the company forward. “After the Fancy Food Show, people said we won for ‘best acceptance of the award.’ We were dancing across the stage! We didn’t do it for the money. We just love the product. We’re just loving selling it!”
For more information on Stöger Seed Oils, visit www.stogeroil.com.
By Hannah Hollins
Thirty years ago, John Harney decided to take his 13 years of experience with tea and start a business of his own. After starting the business in the basement of the family home, Harney & Sons eventually moved into the garage of a 19th century house and then into a remodeled auto repair garage. Ten years ago, Harney & Sons expanded into a 90,000 square foot factory, where company operations currently stand.
Today, Harney & Sons continues to be a family affair. John Harney comes to work every day to work alongside his sons, Paul and Mike, who have divided up the major tasks of the business. Mike heads business and finance and travels around the world sourcing quality teas, and Paul manages the factory production and sales. Mike’s wife Brigitte is the head of retail. Michael’s sons Alex and Emeric are also very active in the company. Alex runs the cafe at the Millerton Shop and Emeric runs the SoHo shop, and they are also involved in the marketing and branding for the company.
Mike’s work sourcing the teas takes him around the world. “We go over to Asia to establish contacts, and we bring back lots of samples,” he says. After the tea is ordered, it is shipped from abroad in 60-pound boxes to the Harney & Sons factory, located in Millerton, NY. There, it is processed and repackaged into tea bags for Harney & Sons’ distinctive tins and boxes.
Harney & Sons recently announced its latest product, The Ambessa Tea Collection, a unique custom tea line created with celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson. The four teas of the Ambessa collection represent the four different phases in Samuelsson’s life. The Safari Breakfast tea reflects his Ethiopian roots: it is made from Kenyan black teas, sourced from the tea-growing country near his birthplace. The second tea, Lingonberry Green, is reminiscent of his Scandinavian upbringing. The third tea, Choco Nut Blend, is a black tea blend with warm chocolate notes, representing Samuelsson’s culinary training in Switzerland. The fourth and final tea of the Ambessa tea collection is the Earl of Harlem, nodding to Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Harlem restaurant.
Harney & Sons teas and products are available for purchase at its shops in SoHo and Millerton, as well as online and at a number of retailers nationwide, including Barnes & Noble, Whole Foods, Williams-Sonoma, Hannaford and A Southern Season in Charleston, S.C. The teas can also be found on Delta Airlines in first class, business class and international cabins, as well as at the Hilton hotels, the Waldorf-Astoria and many restaurants.
For more information, contact Harney & Sons on the web at www.harney.com/, on facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Harney-Sons-Fine-Teas/49697304292, or on twitter at @HarneyTea.
By Hannah Hollins
Thirteen years ago, Alef Sausage company was created with the aspiration to produce European-style sausage in the United States. “We couldn’t find it before,” says Alec Mikhaylov, owner of Alef Sausage. Mikhaylov came from Donetsk, Ukraine in 1992, where he was a construction engineer. “All my life in Ukraine, I loved to cook things, to create.” Upon his arrival to the United States, Mikhaylov longed for an authentic taste of Europe—one he knew he could create. He switched professions in order to “do something about making a product that [he] couldn’t find in the stores.”
Initially, the brand operated production in a 2,000 square foot, USDA-inspected plant in Mundelein, Ill. It was at this location that Alef Sausage got permission to sell through other retailers. The retail connection eventually led to a relationship with a New Jersey distributor that brought Alef Sausage products to customers in New York and to customers on the West Coast. In 2005, Alef Sausage moved to a bigger, 16,000-sq. ft. plant, and renovated it with new equipment, including some of the best technology in the world. In 2010, Mikhaylov bought another acre of space to build out an additional 20,000 square feet. Today, the plant is about 36,000-sq. ft.
With every step, the company’s goal remains the same: to make a very good product, of the best quality, with authentic spiciness and without any fillers or artificial products. Alef Sausage’s commitment to the all-natural label satisfies a current demand. “People don’t want to eat chemical preservatives, sodium nitrate, sodium phosphate or sorbates,” says Mikhaylov. The company’s product line uses no additional fillers or artificial colors, no chemical products or preservatives and no liquid smoke. The meats are smoked with wood chips in an all-natural process.
Alef Sausage offers a number of different varieties of fully cooked sausages, dried shelf-stable salamis and bolognas made from pork, chicken and veal, as well as well as several other deli meats. All of the company’s products are ready-to-eat. “We were the first in the U.S. to make an all-natural, cooked, dried salami,” says Mikhaylov.
Today, the Alef Sausages brand is shipping 300,000 pounds a month to customers across the country. Alef Sausages directly ships its products to 40 states throughout the United States, and it also ships to distributors who then ship to stores outside that area, including to Canada. “I decided to create something new for my new country,” says Mikhaylov, “And so far, it’s working.”
For more information on Alef Sausage and the company’s product line, visit www.alefsausage.com or call 847.867.2402.