More Bad News for Bees

CAPA (the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists) released it’s annual report on Colony losses across Canada for the 2013-14 winter.

3 Numbers are glaring:

  • A typical winter results in 15% colony loss is considered ‘acceptable’
  • The National Average loss last year was 25%
  • Ontario lost 58% of it’s colonies

Beyond the survival of the bees, continuous losses of 50%+ will create an environment where very few people will invest in or nurture bees.  The commercial collapse of beekeeping is a potential threat as considerable as the many other factors included in the CAPA report.

There are 3 things you can do to help, regardless of where you live.  I list them in order from easiest to lengthiest (step 3, the longest, will take about 10 minutes):

  1. Read this article in the Toronto Star that summarizes the report and some of the reasons why this is happening.  While Ontario had a bad winter, Ontario didn’t have the worst winter in Canada last year.
  2. Email The Honorable Jeff Leal (Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) to let him know that you are concerned and ask him to share that concern and treat this issue as important.
  3. Read the actual report (it’s 4 pages in very plain English)

Please also share your concerns with those around you; without bumblebees we will lose up t0 30% of our food choices.

The Fundamentals of Fermenting Alcohol

I had no idea how easy it was to make booze.

Truth be told I now know that I’d made it many times as a lazy adolescent who had a habit of leaving the jug of cider on the counter after pouring a glass.   I can remember more than one occasion that I returned to find it ‘spoiled’ as it bubbled and frothed on the counter.  I would wash it down the sink (even if I knew it was booze I probably would have any way – I was ‘straight edged’ and dead sober through my teenage years).

When I started to learn about making mead or wine or beer I had a really difficult time figuring out where to start.  Everything I read suggested big giant books and lots of reading and research and these things are good ideas if you want to learn how to make REALLY GOOD booze but I’ve always been the type that simply wants to learn the basics from top-to-bottom and then learn how to improve my creations.

GREAT BOOZE includes something that’s dependably safe to drink, tasty, often has a controlled and measured alcohol content, is repeatable and often made to some form of scale.  But that’s a long way from the fundamentals; which are, to me, essentially something that has alcohol and is safe to drink.

I’m not suggesting that this is how you should make your alcohol nor am I recommending the technique (though I’ve done it and do it with mixed results).  But I think it’s helpful to understand the very basic process of creating alcohol via fermentation.  By understanding the basics you can grow your technique and it’s easier to understand the fine print when you know where each step is headed.

There are a few basic principals when it comes to fermenting things to create booze:

  • Yeast helps convert sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol.  Too little sugar will starve the yeast; too much will also prevent fermenting.
  • Not all yeast is equal.  You can use ‘wild yeast’ (that’s the stuff floating around your kitchen at all times) but you won’t know what type of yeast you’ll get and you could end up with mixed results (for example, some yeast is prone to creating vinegar which, while tasty, is a different end-goal).
  • Many use a campden tablet to kill wild yeast before adding brewers yeast to sugar and water to make booze.  This is often an overnight process.  Yeast and campden tablets are available at most homebrew stores or online.
  • Fermenting happens when sugar and yeast are introduced to each other at the right temperature (avoid extremes on either side).  Sugar can be in many forms including raw, honey, molasses or even from fruit.  Most yeast will not tolerate alcohol greater than 20% (40 proof) which is often created with a still.
  • Sometimes people add a yeast nutrient which will help ensure the yeast grow strong and bold.
  • Sanitizing everything is important as you go.  Again, a homebrew store is your friend to get you started here.
  • Yeast will have a certain alcohol tolerance.  Once it raises a certain percentage, the yeast will die.  This often creates sentiment at the bottom of that fermenting vessel which you remove by siphoning the liquid above it (this is often called ‘racking.’)
  • Most fermenting is done in an anaerobic environment (i.e. without oxygen).  An airlock is a device which uses a small amount of water to form a barrier between the inside of the fermenting vessel and the outside world – as CO2 is created it forces the oxygen out of the environment.  This is important because a sealed jar (i.e. with a lid) could easily shatter with the pressure created by the ferment.
  • Fermenting is sometimes done in stages (often referred as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’).  This is sometimes done to remove the sediment but often used to add other flavors (such as fruit) at different stages of the process.

Booze made is this way is often referred to as country wine, fruit wine or (in the case of honey), mead.

When sugar, yeast and liquid are combined with the lack of oxygen, they will create booze.  This is often aged then bottles where it’s sometimes aged again.  Sometimes people add a small bit of yeast just as they bottle their final product.  You must take care not to add too much yeast or the bottle can explode (you can get guidance from a brew-shop once again).

When I was young I was making booze by accident; the cider fermented with wild yeast in the air (or yeast that was already in the unpasteurized cider we got from a farmer) and booze was being created when I tossed it.

If you’re more experienced, would you add anything to the list above?

Looking for more information?  Here’s a recipe for T’ej which is an Ethiopian Honey Wine that’s made with water and honey and the wild yeast around you!

Is Maldon Salt Worth the Price?

My Father and I have taken a few cooking course together at a local college and we’ve often heard the Chefs praise “Maldon Salt.” I’d heard the same from Chef friends and really hadn’t experienced it until about a year ago.

If you haven’t heard of Maldon Salt before, it’s a type of Sea Salt that is produced in the U.K. The manufacturers claim that it doesn’t leave a “bitter after taste that some salts leave; instead a freshness that enhances the flavour of all natural and fine foods.” I can vouch that it tastes like salt but I haven’t experienced a bitter after taste in any salt that I can recall.

If the virtues of Maldon Salt were limited to taste then the benefits would be tough to justify when compared to the cost (it can cost 2-3 times the amount of other sea salt).

The real magic of Maldon Salt is it’s texture.  The salt comes in flaky pieces.  Each piece is a different size and shape and adds legitimate texture when used to finish (i.e. used when serving) a dish.  Salad, fish and meat are enhanced with a subtle crunch that’s added with the salt.

Although I’m sure some people cook with it, I keep other salt on hand for that.  When used to finish dishes, maldon salt can last a long time and add a noticeable different that, in my mind, is worth the increased price.

Are you willing to pay extra for maldon salt?

Inglorious Fruit and Vegetables: France Battles Food Waste

In my TEDxToronto speech I called out the practice of wasting ‘ugly fruit and vegetables.’  I’m not the first one to make this plea and I won’t be the last.

The David Suzuki Foundation estimates that “Over 30 percent of fruits and vegetables in North America don’t even make it onto store shelves because they’re not pretty enough for picky consumers.”

The main reason that’s usually given for not selling ‘ugly’ food is that consumers will not buy it.  A major retailler in France just challenged this assumption and found quite the opposite.  Watch this 2.5 minute video and see how they’ve brought attention to this issue and celebrate the ‘ugly’ food: