Grain, the key ingredient to human civilizations around the world, faces a variety of pressures. This week food writers explore the protection and preservation of wild rice beds in the Northwoods region of Minnesota, which have been negatively impacted by sulfates. And as the craft distilling sector continues to boom, liquor makers are competing with bakers for the most flavorful, high-quality grain. In New York, critic Ryan Sutton discovers that the city's best finest tasting menu drink pairing is served sans alcohol. Across the pond, one writer trudges through the heirloom orchards of Normandy. Here now, are four of this week's top longform food stories.
Roads and Kingdoms
For the past century, wild rice beds across the region have steadily diminished, forcing the state to conduct a comprehensive survey of waterways where wild rice grows to determine the threats to Minnesota's state grain and how to protect it for future generations. There are several hazards: climate change; invasive species, including genetically modified wild rice cultivated in paddies; dams; and encroaching farmland. Yet the state's focus has fallen on one culprit identified more than 70 years ago: sulfate.
Inside the weathered, white barn that sits at the end of a gravel road, huge vats encompass the room —gravity boxes that hold up to 300 bushels each — filled with soft and hard wheats, oats, spelt, open-pollinated corn, emmer, and einkorn. The dust and particles from the grain turns the air cloudy. Breathe deep and it smells rich, nutty, and sweet. A milling room tucks around the corner from the stored grain, a well-lit, spotless space framed by metal shelving stacked with flour-filled plastic containers. In the center, a mill sits on display like a museum piece, except it sees plenty of use.
You take a bite of the dish — beads of fish roe rolling around on the tongue until they burst into a briny, oily mess, amping up the umami of their frozen base — and then a sip of the drink, which cleanses the palate with its vibrant acidity. It's all perfectly normal, all par for course — except for one little thing: The glass of what appears to be Champagne is entirely alcohol-free.
Cut to an apple orchard in Normandy, many years later, beneath a tree covered in fruit just like the crab-apples of my youth. I pick one off the branch and take a bite; it's like sinking my teeth into a raw turnip. The flavor is intensely astringent. It's juiceless and tannic, almost pointillist, as individual flecks of pastel dust explode all over my taste buds. "Oui, a classic cider apple," Julien Frémont exclaims, smiling as I grimace my way through it.