top 4 ways to improve your sourcing

You don’t have to run a food business to source high-quality food. Here are a few steps you can take to improve the quality of food in your kitchen.

1. Shop at a farmer’s market.
 

The best way to learn about your food is to meet the farmer who grew and/or raised it. Farm tours are wonderful, but it is far more practical to venture to a farmers’ market. There you can find far more interesting produce than at typical grocery stores. Plus, there are many farmers who follow organic or biodynamic practices without being certified—the only way to know that they grow sustainably is to talk to them!
Here’s what to ask your farmer:

(And isn’t sprayed on the fully grown fruit or vegetable. The preference is for plants that haven’t been sprayed at all.)
• What steps do you take for weed and pest management? (They should be taking suppression measures instead of eradication measures.)
• Do you keep animals on your farm? How are they raised? (Listen for the words pasture, grass-fed, humane, and warm, dry shelter.)

• How do you keep your soil healthy? (They should use natural compost and shouldn’t plant the same crop in the same spot for more than one growing cycle.)
• Do you rotate your crops? (The answer should be YES!)
• Do you spray? If so, with what? If they do spray, make sure that it is
100% organic. 

2. Join a meat CSA.

eat CSAs are a great way to save money on high-quality pastured meat. If you have the freezer space, buying a share of an animal cuts down on waste and will introduce you to many new cuts of meat. Marin Sun Farms, Pastoral Plate, and The Bay Area Meat CSA are all great resources in Northern California. If you live outside the Bay Area, Local Harvest is a great resource for finding a good meat CSA.

 3. Take a foraging class.

Get connected with the native foods in your area by going on a foraging trip or by taking a class. It is the best way to learn how to safely hunt for wild food. ForageSF, Sea Forager, and Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook offer foraging classes in the Bay Area.

4. Plant a garden.

Like foraging, growing your own food keeps you intimately in touch with your food. Gardening guarantees complete control over growing practices and allows you to experiment and play outdoors.

 

Nerd out on sourcing:

What is Organic?

At its best, organic farming blends traditional agricultural methods with modern technology and current ideas in the science of ecology, and places an emphasis on sustainability, openness, independence, health and safetys. Organic farms rely on a number of farming principles to improve soil fertility and crop vitality:

  • Soil management: Farms rely heavily on the natural breakdown of organic matter to fertilize and replenish the soil. Compost made from livestock manure and organic matter is put into heavy use. Often, farmers will plant legumes, which fix nitrogen from the air back into the soil. Reducing the practice of tilling also helps to maintain soil health.
  • Cover cropping: Farmers do not plant the same annual crop in the same place for more than one growing cycle. Instead, they plant weed-suppressive cover crops (like legumes) or other crops with dissimilar life cycles to confuse pests and discourage weed growth.
  • Crop diversity: Farmers plant a variety of crops in order to support a wider range of beneficial insects, soil microorganisms, and overall farm health
  • Weed management: Farms promote weed suppression rather than weed elimination through cover cropping and crop diversity. They may also utilize tricks like high-density planting or tight row spacing to minimize the space in which weeds can grow.
  • Pest management: Instead of overusing insecticides, farms make use of natural pest suppression by encouraging beneficial insect predators and microorganisms. Reducing tilling and maintaining a high level of sanitation also helps to suppress pets. Sometimes farms make use of insect traps and physical barriers to discourage pests. Organic farms are allowed to use natural pesticides and herbicides, but this use is not ideal.
  • Livestock: Animal husbandry is encouraged, as animals can be complements to fruit, vegetable, and grain farming. (For example, they provide a great source of natural compost.) Organic farms must attempt to provide animals with natural living conditions, but these standards are not required unless the farm intends to process the animals for meat, milk, and/or eggs.

In addition to following these principles, organic farms are not allowed to use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, plant growth hormones, antibiotics in livestock, GMOs, or sewage sludge. They can, however, employ natural fertilizers and pesticides when needed. We found an amazing video that lays out the basics of organics. It's great for kids and for anyone who wants to brush up on the good, simple facts:


Organic farming was officially codified in the late 1930s and early 1940 by farmers in Britain, India, and the United States and was a response to the rise in artificial pesticide in the newly industrialized world. Albert Howard is considered to be the father of modern organic agriculture, as he was the first to apply scientific principles to traditional farming practices, but other botanists and farmers like Gabrielle Howard, J.I. Rodale, and Eve Balfour all played key roles in the codification of organic standards.

Organic farming has grown rapidly since the United States officially began regulating such farms in 1990. Since then, organic farms have been certified at a growth rate close to 10% per year. As of 2011, approximately 91,000,000 acres of land worldwide are officially farmed organically. There are likely even more farms practicing organic methods that have yet to be certified.

In the United States, organic farming is regulated by the USDA as well as smaller bodies in specific states. Here in California, farms who wish to call themselves organic must be certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). The CCOF was founded in 1973 by over fifty grower members for the purpose of defining standards for organic farming. It took another 17 years for the USDA to establish its own certifying body, called the National Organic Program (NOP). The certification process today is long and expensive, and there are many small farmers who opt out of full certification. The only way to know if an uncertified farm follows organic principles is to meet the farmers and learn their process.
There are many different styles of organic farming. The following are just a few examples:

  • Biodynamic: Biodynamic farms go above and beyond organic standards, and they have their own governing body. Read more below.
  • French Intensive and/or Biointensive: This method focuses on achieving maximum yields from a small area of land, while also improving soil fertility. The goal is long-term sustainability in a fully closed system. Biointensive is an ideal method for backyard and small-scale commercial farms.
  • Permaculture: This method encompasses ecological design and architecture as well as farming. It emphasizes regenerative and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled on natural ecosystems. Permaculture methods aim to work with rather than against nature, relying on thoughtful observation of plants and animals in all of their functions.
  • No-Till: This system of growing crops and/or pasture never disturbs the soil through tillage. It increases the amount of water that can infiltrate soil, organic matter retention, and cycling of nutrients in the soil.

What is Biodynamic?

Biodynamic is considered by many to be a step-up from organic farming. These farms follow all of the above principles and more, viewing the farm as a single, interconnected organism. The goal for each biodynamic farm is to be entirely self-sufficient, producing everything needed for effective and sustainable farming from within the farm. Biodynamic farms place emphasis on the cycles of the sun and moon, and rely upon tangible and intangible forces of nature to dictate farming cycles and rhythms. As a biodynamic trade association explains, “The root of the Biodynamic system is the relationship of the farmer and his or her practices to the local ecosystem, which in Biodynamics reaches the extent of including the influence of the cosmos and subtle life forces on local habitats.”


The biodynamic farming system was founded by Rudolf Steiner in 1924. As the story goes, he was teaching a course of agriculture when he was approached by farmers who had noticed a rapid decline in seed fertility, crop vitality, and animal health after adopting modern agricultural methods. Steiner responded by questioning the long-term benefits of the industrial view of farms as factories, presenting instead a vision for farms as self-contained and self-sustaining organisms. A few years later, in 1928, a biodynamic governing body was formed in Europe. Called Demeter, this organization codified Steiner’s principles into a series of standards that could be used to certify farms. Today, Demeter has branches across the globe, and is one of only a few biodynamic governing bodies.


In order for a farm to become certified biodynamic, it must first meet organic standards. The most successful biodynamic farms are highly diverse and organized so that the waste of one part of the farm can be used to fertilize and promote other parts of the farm. (For example, raising pastured chickens can help to revitalize the soil because their constant digging and pecking incorporates their waste back into the soil.) This constant recycling of resources gives back to the earth instead of taking from it. In addition, the following standards are required:

 

  • Crop rotation: No annual crop can be planted in the same field more than two years in a row.
  • No bare tillage allowed; land must retain a green cover.
  • Biological diversity: At least 10 percent of the total acreage of the farm must be set aside for a “biodiversity preserve.” This preserve can be things like natural forests or wetlands, or it can be an area like an intentionally planted insectary.
  • Pest, disease, and weed control: Any strategies should originate from the farm itself, and should be addressed through species diversity and crop nutrition, deemphasizing predator habitats, and paying close attention to light penetration and airflow. Weed control should be based on prevention, identification, and avoiding the spread of invasive species
  • Livestock: Farms should integrate livestock when possible. Any animals on the farm must be raised in the most humane manner possible. Their housing must allow the animals to move freely and protect them from the elements. They must have clean, dry, and insulated areas to sleep and access to the outdoors and free range. Farms may not dehorn, debeak, clip wings, cut tails, or dock lambs; they are also not allowed to use antibiotics. Homeopathic remedies are encouraged. When animals are raised for meat, eggs, or milk, a minimum of one half of their feed must come from the farm. Of the outside feed, at least 80% of it must come from a Demeter-certified program.
  • Preparations: Farms are required to use nine different substances called preparations as homeopathic care for the soil and compost. According to Demeter, these preparations “revitalize the soil and stimulate root growth, enhance the development of microorganisms and humus formation, and aid in photosynthetic activity.” Farms can make them on site or can buy them through other farmers or farming institutes. The preparations are made from manure, minerals, and/or herbs in combination with animal organs and bones.

Why buy Pastured Meat?

All of the meat we serve at Mission: Heirloom has been raised on pasture, and our beef is all 100% grass-fed. Any animals that are primarily fed pasture grasses can be labeled “pastured,” even if they are fed supplemental food like grain and silage during the winter or before slaughter. Only animals that are fed 100% pasture for their entire lives can be labeled “grass-fed.”

We’ve made a commitment to pastured meat for several reasons. First, pastured animals grow at a natural pace, are healthier, and lead low-stress lives. They are raised as nature intended, instead of being raised as a production company has deemed efficient. Second, pastured animals are better for the environment. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are often full of manure and waste, which pile up and emit high levels of methane into the atmosphere. Pastured animal ranches rotate the animals across large parcels of grassland, which prevents overgrazing and makes it possible for manure to be reincorporated into the soil as compost. Third, pastured meat is much healthier than meat that comes from grain-fed, confined animals. Grass-fed beef, bison, lamb, and goats all have less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than grain-fed. At the same time, this meat has more protein, omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), amino acids, vitamins (A, B6, B12, E and D), minerals (riboflavin, phosphorus, niacin, zinc, and heme iron). Why? These animals are what they eat! Well-raised grasses are all high in these nutrients, and they get distributed throughout the muscle and fat of the animals that eat them. In fact, the health of the grass is so important that many ranchers call themselves “grass-farmers.”

Because of the drought in California, local 100% grass-fed meat is becoming harder to find. Pastured meat can be a good choice if you cannot find grass-fed, but make sure that the farmer raising the animals is doing so in a humane and reputable manner. Be sure to ask what the farmer is feeding his or her animals. You’ll want to avoid GMO soy- and corn-based feeds.

Chickens are a special case. Many shoppers believe that the best chickens are vegetarian fed. However, you only need to witness poultry in the wild to know how wrong this idea is. Chicken (and turkeys, ducks and other poultry) are omnivores, just like us. When they are raised properly on pasture, chickens get a chance to forage for bugs, insects, and larvae in addition to seeds, grass, and other plants.

Seafood is also an important protein in our kitchen, but it can be very tricky to source. In order for seafood to be considered sustainable, it needs to have been caught in ways that consider the long-term vitality of the species as well as the health and sustainability of its ocean habitat. Most marine ecosystems are under a great deal of pressure today, and this pressure is caused by both overfishing and climate change. Responsible fisheries can help restore these ecosystems simply by paying attention.

We purchase our seafood from Water2Table, a distributor that focuses on local hook and line fish and delivers to many reputable restaurants in the Bay Area. But even if you don’t have access to a great wholesaler like we do, there are services that will help you make a good choice. Ecolabeling programs evaluate fishing processes with set environmental standards, paying close attention to the fish’s abundance, how it responds to fishing pressure, how the fishery’s gear impacts the ecosystem, if there are any bycatch, and the fishery’s management. The Marine Stewardship Council issues the most common ecolabels, which are colored like stoplights. Red-labeled fish are considered a poor choice, yellow a good alternative, and green the best choice. Grocery stores like Whole Foods display these labels for many of their seafood products. Other organizations like the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch focus on education and awareness, and they are a great resource for research.


COFFEE & TEA

Like most of you, coffee and tea are part of our daily routines, and we pay just as much attention to these drinks as we do to the food on our plate. Lucky for us, we’re living in an age of easily accessible, high-quality coffee and tea. But we’re not just looking at the best flavor. We’re also looking at the farming, drying, roasting, and brewing processes to ensure tasty toxin-free beverages. Thanks to our friend Dave Asprey, the brains behind Bulletproof, we’ve learned so much about sourcing the cleanest coffee possible.

Our coffee comes to us from Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago. Yes, we know there are many local roasters in the Bay Area, but we have chosen Intelligentsia for a few very specific reasons: First, they take the utmost care to ensure that their coffee beans never grow dangerous molds by collaborating with their coffee farmers through a Direct Trade relationship. Second, they procure beans seasonally, and this step keeps us as engaged with the coffee growing process as we are with our produce. Third, we love the idea of bringing a new roaster to the area and being their home in the Bay!

We’re partnering with Samovar in San Francisco to supply tea to our cafe. We love the exacting and passionate ways that Samovar procures and brews their teas in their cafe, and we are honored to be able to serve them at Mission: Heirloom. Samovar sources unique, organic teas from all over the world, which gives us an opportunity to taste the skilled art of this ancient drink. Like Intelligentsia, they are committed to sustainable and safe growing practices.

BREW YOUR BEST COFFEE AND TEA

Purchase the highest quality you can afford: There are many high-quality coffee roasters and tea suppliers online and and in major cities these days. Purchasing high-quality coffee is especially important for ensuring a safe, mold-free product. Find a roastery you like and then ask them about their quality control process. Listen for key words like “wet-hulled,” “wet processed,” “raised drying beds,” and “single estate,” — purchase those beans. Organic whole leaf tea is likewise your best best for quality and flavor.

Optimize your water: The water that comes out of your tap might not be the optimal brewing choice. The proportion of minerals in your water will alter the taste of the final drink. If you find your coffee and tea tasting flat or tart, your water likely needs a boost in minerals. If your drink simply doesn’t have full flavor, you may have so many minerals in your water that they are preventing full flavor extraction.

Monitor the brew: Both coffee and tea can change in flavor dramatically depending on how they are brewed. Pay attention to the directions on the tea package for optimal steeping times and proper water temperature. Coffee beans should be ground right before brewing to ensure freshness. Choose brewing methods that fully remove the finished coffee from the spent grounds to produce the best tasting drink.

Practice, taste, and practice again: Brewing great coffee and tea takes practice and familiarity with the product. You’ll find that you also develop preference for different flavors and aromas. Hone in on that taste and tweak your brews to suit your own personal palate.

NERD OUT ON COFFEE & TEA

Whether its a hot cup of coffee first thing in the morning or a refreshing glass of iced tea at lunch, most of us drink caffeinated beverages at least once a day. In fact, caffeine is the most widely consumed behavior-modifying chemical in the world. When consumed in moderation, it is likely not terribly harmful — caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, relieves drowsiness and fatigue, quickens reaction times, increases our muscles’ energy production, and can improve mood and mental performance. Of course, too much caffeine has its own share of problems, namely increased heart rate, nervousness, and insomnia.

Coffee and tea are the most common vehicles for caffeine (well, those and chocolate). Coffee beans are around 1 to 2 percent caffeine and tea is 2 to 3 percent caffeine; however, brewed coffee typically contains a greater amount of extracted coffee beans and therefore caffeine. Both coffee and tea are excellent sources for antioxidants and other beneficial phenolic compounds like catechins (in tea) and quinines (in coffee). Of course, they’re both pleasurable to drink — we can’t imagine mornings without our regular cup of coffee or tea.

The History and Production of Tea

The first teas were prepared around 2000 years ago in Southwest China, but the leaves were likely chewed as a stimulant for long before that date. Around the third century, tea leaves were first boiled and then dried for later use. The introduction of dry heat into the process began around the 8th century, producing the first recognizable “green” teas. Tea became a staple of the Chinese diet around the year 1000, and over the next couple of centuries the beverage was introduced to Japan. Buddhist monasteries perfected the art of the tea ceremony shortly thereafter.

Tea was introduced to the West in the 17th century as China begun trading with both Europe and Russia. At this point, strongly flavored teas like oolongs were also being developed, and it was this newer style of tea that captured the interest of Western traders. Over the next two centuries, tea’s popularity exploded in England: tea consumption rose from 20,000 pounds a year in 1700 to 20 million pounds a year in 1800. Perhaps because of the English love for strong tea, tea farmers and producers began to develop even stronger brews especially for export. In the late 19th century, England began planting its own tea plantations in its Indian colony, which lead to the development of their own variety — Assam tea. Assam has even more phenolic compounds and caffeine than the Chinese variety, and it produces a stronger and darker brew. Today, three-quarters of the tea produced in the world is strong and black; however, China and Japan produce far greater amounts of green tea.

All true teas begin from a single plant species: Camellia sinesis. Minute differences in tea processing changes the flavor profile and characteristics of the final tea. Fresh tea leaves are high in defensive compounds and are therefore extremely bitter and astringent. In order to unlock the beneficial phenolics, the leaves need to be pressed, rolled, and (in some cases) cooked and fermented. Green teas retain many of the characteristics of fresh tea leaves, while darker teas like oolongs and black teas harness the tea’s own enzymes to transform these defensive compounds into mellow, pleasant flavors.

The first step in most tea manufacturing is the “withering” step: the harvested leaves are left to sit and wilt for a few minutes or up to a few hours. This resting period sets off a change in the metabolism of the tea that makes the leaves more fragile. The longer the withering period, the deeper flavor and darker color of the resulting tea. A few particularly delicate forms of teas completely skip this step.

Next, the leaves are rolled or pressed to break down the structural cells and release the cell fluids. In these cell fluids are the important enzymes that transform the characteristics of the tea. This enzymatic process is often confused with microbial fermentation, but it is an entirely different process. Enzymatic “fermentation” is relatively short (anywhere from a few minutes to 4 hours) process and is entirely dictated by enzymatic activity. Aromatic compounds are released when the enzymes break down sugar-aroma molecules. The tea enzymes also bind small, astringent phenolic molecules together to create milder, larger compounds. These larger compounds give body to the brewed tea. The longer the tea leaves are pressed, the longer the enzymatic process, and the less bitter and astringent the tea will be.

In order to end the enzymatic process, the tea leaves are heated. If steamed over low heat, the tea will remain fairly subtle. If heated over high heat, tea will develop darker, cooked, and/or smoky flavor. Heating also begins the drying process, which is an important preservation step. In certain teas, like Chinese green tea, the heating step is performed before rolling, producing a very subtle tea.

After the tea is dried, the leaves are sorted and graded by the size of the leaf. In general, the smaller the tea leaf, the faster the extraction time and the lower quality the tea. The very best teas are made from young tea shoots and unopened leaf buds because these leaves are the most vulnerable and contain the highest concentrations of phenolics and related enzymes. These teas must be harvested by hand. Because most commercial tea today is harvested by machine, it will include older and less flavorful leaves and demands a much lower price.

COMMON TEA VARIETIES

Green Tea: The original variety of manufactured tea, green tea preserves many of the qualities of fresh tea leaves while heightening desired flavors and rounding out some bitterness and astringency. It is made by cooking fresh or briefly withered leaves to immediately inactivate the tea’s enzymes. The tea is then pressed to release moisture and dried in hot air (for grassy flavor notes) or a hot pan (for roasted aroma).

Oolong Tea: Oolong falls midway in the tea strength spectrum between green and black teas. The leaves are withered until significantly wilted and weakened, and then they are lightly agitated to bruise the leaves. Oolong manufacturers allow a modest amount of enzymatic transformation to occur during this process, waiting until the leaf edges turn red before pan-firing the tea at a high temperature. The leaves are then rolled and gently dried. The final tea has a light amber color and a fruity aroma.

Black Tea: The manufacturing process of this strong Western favorite allows for profound enzymatic transformation by extensive rolling and bruising of wilted tea leaves. The leaves are then left to rest for a few hours and dried in hot air after the leaves have turned coppery brown.

There are many nuanced varieties in between the above three types. White teas are dried before rolling the leaves. Pu-erh teas go through an additional microbial fermentation process. Lapsang souchongs are smoked. Jasmine teas are scented with jasmine flowers. Gyokura and kabesucha are wilted in boxes made of maboo. Hoji-cha is a variety of green tea that is roasted at very high temperatures.

Tea at Home

All teas should be stored in dark, airtight containers to limit exposure to oxygen, sunlight, and moisture. After several months, the aroma and briskness will begin to deteriorate. While neither of those problems are particularly harmful, they certainly don’t contribute to a great cup of tea. However, tea can also grow molds if exposed to moisture, and you absolutely don’t want molds in your tea! See below to learn more about molds.

Teas are brewed using different methods all over the world. The simplest method for brewing is to pour boiling water over loose leaf tea leaves in a teapot and then straining brewed tea out of the pot. However, the water temperature and steeping time can have a huge effect on the final drink. Green teas are typically steeped longer at lower temperatures and black tea is typically steeped for a shorter period of time at higher temperatures. The best way to learn how long and how hot to steep tea is to buy a few types and experiment. Taste as the tea brews and immediately remove the tea leaves once it tastes good to you. Over-steeped teas will taste harsh and astringent. (This problem can be remedied by adding milk and/or sweetener, but these additions also dampen the good flavors of the tea.) In addition, the quality of the water used for brewing can change the flavor of the final tea. Ideally, you should use chlorine-free water with a moderate mineral content.