There’s a new trend in food. You can see it on restaurant menus across the island. At Bar Acuda in Hanalei, you’ll find Kaua‘i Kunana Dairy goat cheese, Kailani Farms greens and Hamakua heirloom tomatoes. At Beach House restaurant in Poipu, you’ll find Omao greens, Molokai watermelon and Kamuela tomatoes. At Hukilau Lanai in Wailua, you’ll find Medeiros Farm chicken.
All these ingredients are sourced locally—either on Kaua‘i or from a neighbor island. It wasn’t so long ago that “organic” was the far-out domain of hippiedom. Then, suddenly, organic produce made its way to grocery stores, and now organic doesn’t just mean fruits and vegetables anymore. You can find organic food—from yogurt to prepackaged pasta—in every aisle in the grocery store. Organic has come so far that Safeway even has its own branded line of organic foods. Indeed, organic is almost blasé.
Enter the local food movement. You’ll find stories on it in the food sections of all the major daily newspapers across the country. It’s a topic of conversation that has fueled books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver to bestseller status. Some catchphrases you may hear are “farm to fork,” “field to table” and “food miles.” And the word for people who eat locally grown food and produce is, aptly, “locavore.”
The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa reported in 2004, the average distance for locally-grown produce to reach institutional markets was 56 miles, while for conventional produce to reach those same grocery stores, it took a whopping 1,494 miles. On Kaua‘i, of course, those numbers are higher. More like 3,000 miles. Staggering when you consider 90 percent of food purchased on the island arrives from somewhere else, according to the Kaua‘i Food Bank. But those numbers maybe changing. At least, at our local restaurants. Bulb onions. Honeycomb. Cherry tomatoes. Baby fennel. Lemons. Kale. Chard. Mango. Papaya. Banana. Sea salt. More restaurants are sourcing locally-grown foods.
There’s a saying around Kaua‘i: Throw a seed in the ground and get out of the way. It makes sense that an environment that’s hospitable to people is the same for plants. Indeed, Hawai‘i is a place where houseplants grow into trees. That’s why Bar Acuda owner/chef Jim Moffat looks forward to the day—which he hopes could be coming soon—when 90% of the ingredients on his menu come from within 20 miles away. “I shop locally, because I want to support local growers—and they deliver to me,” he says. That means Moffat no longer has to pay exorbitant shipping rates.
He also has more control over quality. “I just got a case of peaches and nectarines from the mainland,” Moffat says. “It took seven days to get here, and the whole case of peaches was mush. It’s difficult to grow stone fruit here, but I think that’s only a matter of time.” At the heart of great food are great ingredients. Foods freshly plucked from the ground simply taste better. Lucky for Kaua‘i there are those who believe in cultivating great ingredients.
Philly White is Kaua‘i’s local mycologist. Simply put, he loves studying and cultivating mushrooms. Twenty-five years ago, he started hunting for wild mushrooms in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and he was hooked. He learned mycelium is a loose network of delicate filaments that forms an underground neural network and is widely considered the largest-known living organism in the world. What we call “mushrooms” are the fruiting body of this network.
White joined the Cascade Mycological Society and started studying with mentors. He found mycological facts fascinating. Unlike green plants, which turn to photosynthesis for nutrients, mushrooms ingest their nutrients from dead organic matter. This process makes mushrooms one of nature’s greatest, natural recyclers.
When White moved to Kaua‘i in 2004 and discovered no commercial mushroom farmers, he knew his days of digging in the dirt were really just beginning. After all, Kaua‘i’s year-round, humid environment was perfect for his warmweather friends. In September 2007, White harvested his first mushrooms, the Phoenix oyster, and headed to the Waipa Farmer’s Market. He sold 12 pounds in 12 minutes. It was apparent White had tapped an underserved market.
Indeed, fresh market, per capita consumption of mushrooms across the U.S. has quadrupled since the mid 1960s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition to adding taste and texture to meals, mushrooms are low-fat, low-calorie and low sodium—key components of today’s diet. Plus, mushrooms are a good source of B vitamins, especially niacin and riboflavin, and may even help prevent the occurrence and aid in the treatment of chronic diseases. In his shade house located on 12 acres of north shore farmland, Kaua‘i Fungi is presently cultivating two varieties of oyster mushrooms—the Phoenix and Pink. Kaua‘i Fungi plans to add Shiitake and Blazei (Almond Portobello) later this year. These fresh varieties are available to consumers at farmers’ markets and directly to local restaurants. Plus, White is creating a line of medicinal mushrooms which are available on his website www.kauaifungi.com, where he’s also posted a menu of recipes featuring, of course, mushrooms.
Now, when White looks at the velvet-green mountains and clear-running streams that are so prevalent around his island home, he knows there’s much more behind the obvious beauty: There’s an intricate underground web of life contributing to the health of the island’s environment. And it tastes good, too.
Goat cheese. It’s sprinkled on pizza, sliced in wheels on salads and dollop’ed on vegetables. It’s become such a staple on restaurant menus around the island that Louisa Wooten can’t even remember all the restaurants serving her family’s cheese. But she never forgets a kid.
There’s Lani, Gladys and Aretha. And Carmen, Cora and Calypso. Even Sweetheart and Precious. A couple dozen in all. They are her goats and, yes, they come when they’re called. In addition to having names, she says, each goat has her own personality too.
The organic dairy farm is a full-time operation for Wooten, her husband, two sons and a daughter-in-law. The goats are milked twice a day. Once the milk is cooled, it is pasteurized and then cooled again. The pasteurized milk is then inoculated with a culture and mixed with a vegetable-based rennet that helps coagulate the milk and separate the curd from the whey. Hanging in cheesecloth, the whey is drained off, leaving the curds, which becomes the cheese. It’s a two-day process. Because there is virtually no aging, goat cheese is called “fresh cheese” in the industry.
Cow’s milk has historically led cheese consumption in the U.S., yet goat cheese is gaining a reputation as the better health choice. It is easier on the human digestive system and lower in calories, cholesterol and fat. At the same time, it is rich in calcium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin K, phosphorus, niacin and thiamin. The Kaua‘i Kunana Dairy in Kilauea makes many varieties of this soft, fresh cheese, including garlic and chive, sun-dried tomato and the ever-popular lilikoi. Interestingly enough, however, the Wootens don’t just make cheese with their goats’ milk. They use the protein-rich whey byproduct—after it is separated from the curd—to make hair conditioner. Goat’s milk body lotion, soap and shampoo rounds out their body care line.
In addition to the many restaurants at which Kunana Dairy goat cheese is served, the Wootens set up at Hanalei’s two farmers’ markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays. You can also find their goat cheeses at Foodland in Kapa‘a and Princeville, Windward Market and Papaya’s in Kapa‘a, Kilauea Town Market, Healthy Hut in Kileaua and Big Save around the island. www.kauaikunanadairy.com.
Hawai‘i is the only place in the entire U.S. where the cacao tree grows. And Steelgrass is the only cacao farm on Kaua‘i. On their two-hour “From Branch to Bar” tour, you’ll learn all about growing, harvesting and processing raw cacao into the smooth sensation we all love. Tastings included, of course. Reservations required. 808-821-1857. www.steelgrass.com.
Reprinted from Kauai Magazine, 12/09-11/10 issue
By Kim Steutermann Rogers
Published Originally: 07/01/2008