Saving Smoked Grapes: Vodka and Climate Change

Saving Smoked Grapes: Vodka and Climate Change

We at DFC HQ are looking forward to New Year’s Eve – spent in the cozy comfort of home yet again, trying to stay out of the way of the latest COVID wave. If we can’t put a positive spin on that apocalypse, we can certainly raise a midnight glass to another one:  A beverage that turns the fallout of climate change into the flavour.

Napa vintner Nicolas Quille is no stranger to “smoke taint:” a fault in wines pressed from grapes grown too close to wildfires. California has had a rough couple of years in that regard, and after Quille tried, and failed, to save his 2020 vintage by harvesting his merlot and malbec grapes early, he didn’t want to just pour his spoiled wine down the drain. So he partnered with local distillery Hangar 1, and they turned the sooty-flavoured liquid into something eminently more drinkable: vodka.

“‘The texture is very nice. It’s smooth. You get almost like the taste of a barbecue from far away, you know someone’s using coals,’ said Michael Kudra, principal bartender at Quince in San Francisco [… ]

Quille said they took a financial hit with the lost product but concedes having the vodka option could be a way to salvage smoke-tainted grapes during fire seasons to come.

Scientists have said the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires are largely attributable to prolonged drought and increasing bouts of excessive heat from climate change.

‘If things turn for the worse and those fires become more violent and more frequent, it’s definitely an option that needs to be on the table,’ [Quille] said.

This beverage seems a bizarro version of Torched Earth Ale, the repulsive tasting beer of our climate-challenged future. But I can see how vodka, with its intensive distilling process, can tame the nasty flavours of out-of-control wildfires. And I suppose “acceptance” follows naturally after the “denial” and “bargaining” steps of grief. In this miserable future (2023??), we’ll at least have a little something to take the edge off.

Marz Ketchup Features Tomatoez From the Future

Heinz has leapt aboard the same extraterrestrial (chuck) wagon as Chateau Pétrus wine and NASA’s homegrown Hatch chilies, with the debut of its “Marz edition” ketchup – a condiment made to its exacting corporate recipe with tomatoes grown under Mars-identical soil conditions here on Earth.

The company enthuses that future travelers to (and settlers on) the Red Planet will have a little taste of home to enjoy on humanity’s remotest picnic ever. But, though corporate money funded it, this ketchup is more than just a publicity stunt. Its tomato harvest was overseen by the Aldrin Space Institute at the Florida Institute of Technology, and the team there added a heaping cup of science to the recipe.

“‘Before now, most efforts around discovering ways to grow in Martian-simulated conditions are short term plant growth studies,’ said [team leader Dr. Andrew] Palmer at Florida Tech. ‘What this project has done is look at long-term food harvesting.’ […]

To demonstrate that the tomatoes could be harvested on Mars, the plants were grown in Martian simulant –  Earth-based soil chemically matched to the Red Planet’s regolith – under the same temperature and water conditions as found on Mars. Heinz and Aldrin Space Institute experts analyzed soil conditions, selected seeds and implemented agricultural techniques to ensure the end result was the recognizable taste of Heinz ketchup.”

Heinz has packaged the ketchup in special “Marz edition” bottles, which made the rounds on social media last month. Though not available for public sale, these bottles signify the high corporate standards the “Martian” ketchup cleared.

While it’s great we have a proven ability to grow tomatoes on Mars, the reality is, with our current social stratifications, the vast majority of we earthlings will never make it there. (You’re going to be lonely up there, Elon.) I much prefer keeping the focus on the Earth-side benefits of this experiment: how it pushes the limits of food plant habitats and challenges our understanding of what grows well here –  whether it’s tomatoes, or rice, or wheat, or chickpeas. Food is a human right. And while we humans stay earthbound, we need to eat here.

Pig Plan May Prevent Plane Pickle

pig patrol

This is a sentence I never thought I’d write: An experimental herd of pigs may save Schiphol airport’s bacon by controlling the population of overeager geese. What sounds like a setup for a Babe sequel is actually a six-week-long pilot, underway right now, that aims to ensure safety at one of Europe’s most significant air travel hubs.

Unlike pigs, birds are the kind of animal that blends into the background of modern daily life – until they get in the way of a moving airplane. A “bird strike” – the term for when a plane hits one or more birds in the air – can seriously compromise the safety of a flight. (The famous “miracle on the Hudson” ditching of an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River was the result of a collision with a flock of Canada geese that were drawn into both of the plane’s engines, blowing them out.) Schiphol’s surroundings are a type of grassy marshland, called polder; that, and the sugar beet farm next door, attract large numbers of the dreaded geese looking to snack on greens. So the airport’s management turned to a local pig farmer, Stan Gloudemans, to try an innovative, two-pronged approach to flight safety. Said Mr. Gloudemans to the Guardian during an on-site interview:

“‘Geese like beet, and when it’s left on the fields, they flock to eat it,Over there are 30 geese enjoying the beet, but those geese are a danger to aircraft. Here, the pigs have eaten up the beet so the geese stay away.

All of our pigs are outdoors, we have around 300 a year, and they eat things like nettles, Japanese knotweed for municipalities, and other plants in nature reserves: they like everything. Schiphol asked if they might be able to eat beets and chase away geese.

Geese are dangerous, but they are animals, and you need to deal with them in the right way. The pig is a double enemy: he tries to catch the geese and he also eats their food. It’s a dual attack.’”

The trial, on two hectares of land similar to that around the airport, seems to be going well; the pigs are eating and patrolling, and the number of geese is significantly reduced. Data will be fully analyzed in the coming months, which will be used to determine if Operation Pig Patrol will be rolled out fully. I can’t wait until the Other White Meat menaces the Original across these Dutch fields, all in the name of human safety. (And I would watch the heck out of that sequel to Babe!)

Overclocking the Humble Chickpea

The (in my opinion) world’s most perfect legume is on track towards even greater perfection, thanks to some dedicated international scientists and a hardworking AI.

A huge recent project, led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), has assessed more than 3000 wild and domesticated varieties of chickpea, nailing down 1582 novel genes and mapping out the entire species’ pan-genome. A sub-team made up of University of Queensland researchers then processed this data with FastStack AI technology, and modelled what they call the “ultimate” chickpea. This uber-garbanzo features, in particular, perfect genetic traits for seed weight – a solid predictor for yield.

“Germplasm sequencing efforts in some crop plants have provided insights into the global distribution of genetic variation, how this diversity has been shaped by the genetic bottlenecks associated with domestication and by the effects of selective breeding, and, finally, how we can link this genetic variation to phenotypic diversity for breeding applications. Haplotype maps developed using whole-genome sequencing (WGS) data have helped to determine the percentage of the constrained genome and detect deleterious mutations that can be purged for accelerated breeding. Furthermore, sequencing and genotyping of a germplasm collection allows better conservation and management in genebanks.

On the basis of WGS of 3,366 chickpea germplasm accessions, we report here a rich map of the genetic variation in chickpea. We provide a chickpea pan-genome and offer insights into species divergence, the migration of the cultigen (C. arietinum), rare allele burden and fitness loss in chickpea. We propose three genomic breeding approaches – haplotype-based breeding, genomic prediction and OCS – for developing tailor-made high-yielding and climate-resilient chickpea varieties.”

Aside from the first world problem of developing a better-tasting hummus, unlocking the genetic secrets of this protein-packed pulse can mean more accessible and bountiful crops for different populations worldwide. To paraphrase Herbert Hoover, a “chickpea in every pot” – or the opportunity of it for anyone who needs it – sounds like a delicious nugget of heaven to me!

Taco Night in the Void

hatch chili used in taco recipes

After popularizing such legendary foods as astronaut ice cream and Tang, NASA has once again set a high bar for outer space dining: an orbital Taco Night! A crew on the ISS recently harvested peppers grown entirely on the station, recorded data about the crop, and then ate a couple – for science. The peppers were all the more delicious as they represented the only fresh food the astronauts would have for the duration of their mission.

The project is cited as one of the most complicated space-set plant growing attempts to date, with the astronauts studying plant-microbe interactions since the peppers were planted in July. An important aspect of the study was an assessment of the peppers’ flavours and textures – naturally, shown to the best advantage in Tex-Mex cuisine. From NASA:

“This investigation is part of ongoing efforts to establish ways to grow food crops on long-duration space missions. It contributes to future production of crops in space by examining the reliability of the APH environmental control systems, LED lighting system, sensor-controlled water delivery system, and data downlink and control capabilities. […]

Across both harvests, 20 total peppers are wrapped in aluminum foil and stored in the Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS (MELFI). Eight total peppers (one from each plant during both harvests) are collected for microbial analysis, and three peppers from each plant during the second harvest (12 total) are collected for nutritional analysis. Four additional peppers collected during the second harvest are provided to the crew for palatability review.”

Astronaut Megan McArthur tweeted her enjoyment of the tacos filled with “fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes and artichokes, and HATCH CHILE!” as she dug in on October 29. McArthur’s crew is about to return to Earth, swapping with another who will accomplish the second pepper harvest later this month. I hope they get plenty of data in addition to piles of peppers – when I take that civilian spaceflight to my Martian vacation in 2050, I look forward to a fresh, spicy in-flight meal!

Fraction Traction: Re-Branding a Burger

n the marketing failure Hall of Fame, the A&W 1/3 Pounder hamburger is right up there with the Edsel and New Coke. The tale of this ill-fated burger starts in the 1980s, with the success of competitor McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, which A&W longed to unseat. A&W decided their best bet was a bigger burger at the same price – even going so far as to name their burger after its weight, too. Unfortunately, the majority of American consumers saw the “3” in “1/3 Pounder,” and assumed it to be smaller than the Quarter Pounder – because four is obviously bigger than three. So, A&W’s surefire hit tanked, and entered the zeitgeist as a cautionary tale about trusting your public’s math skills.

This saga has become so well known that A&W has recently decided to lean into their most famous flop. How, they asked, can we possibly create and name a hamburger that no one will mistake for being smaller than a Quarter Pounder? Enter the Cornett ad agency.

“Forget everything you know about fractions and wrap your mind around the whopping A&W 3/9 lb. Burger.

A&W is launching the 3/9 lb. Burger with a dramatic reenactment of the ‘Eureka!’ moment. That video, featuring mascot and math prodigy Rooty the Great Root Bear solving the unsolvable equation in his study, is the centerpiece of a paid media campaign that will run throughout the promotion. […]

Fans of big burgers and big digits are encouraged to grab an A&W 3/9 lb. Burger from any of A&W’s 525 US locations while supplies last. If sold out, a 2/6 lb. Burger can be specially made at no extra charge.

This is a daring move on the part of A&W: Commissioning an ad that straight-up pokes fun at their audience’s understanding of fractions while pretending to let them in on the joke. After 40 years of hearing this story, would your average burger fan seriously keep making the very same math mistake? (Too bad we can’t vote with our wallets in Canada, as – fun fact – our A&W is a completely different company from its southern counterpart, and has been since 1972.)

I bet A&W is hoping the new commercial goes just as viral as the original story. But does marketing lightning strike twice in the same place? Can you make lemonade with lemons that people think are smaller but are actually bigger than those of your competitors? We’ll see if the company is finally vindicated through pure sales when stacked up against its quarter-pound white whale. Then, like the Edsel and New Coke, we can finally put this tall tale to bed!

Contraband Confection: UK Food Standards Spike American Sprinkles


In a turn of events that sounds like a premise to a Christmas TV movie, a bakery in the north of England has gone public with news that their favoured sprinkles – a signature component of their raspberry-glazed doughnut cookie – have been banned.

Dubbed #sprinklegate on social media, the kerfuffle has its source in the red dye used in the American-made sprinkles: Erythrosine, or E127. In the UK, E127 is only cleared for use in maraschino or candied cherries; its appearance in the sprinkles renders the colourful accents verboten.

For such a seemingly low stakes situation, the loss of the sprinkles has resulted in a major headache for Rich Myers, founder of Leeds’ Get Baked bakery.

“Myers said he bought the offending sprinkles from a UK wholesaler, and said he had no idea there was any issue until West Yorkshire Trading Standards visited the business on September 30. ‘I thought it was a joke at first, I thought it was someone pulling a prank,’ he said on Thursday.

‘It’s quite an intimidating process really, being interviewed by Trading Standards. It’s not something you expect to happen when you run a little bakery. […]

For now, the bakery has swapped the sprinkles for icing sugar. ‘British sprinkles just aren’t good enough, they’re just not worth using,’ said Myers. ‘Until I can find a sprinkle that’s legal that is worth using we’ll just continue to use something else.’”

As food-makers ourselves, we at DFC recognize the importance of being careful about ingredients. Though it’s an inconvenience to Mr Myers, the banning of his sprinkles is actually a food safety success story – pointing toward how lax American standards can be compared to other countries’ standards.

That the dye is okayed for candied cherries in the UK is a bit nonsensical, as, I assume, more of it would end up inside a consumer per treat… But then I’m not an expert, nor am I a representative of West Yorkshire Trading Standards (who in the Christmas movie version I imagine to be played by Dabney Coleman, opposite Idris Elba as The Baker). Hopefully, Britain’s industry will kick in and fill the sprinkle gap with a better – and legal – product Until then, I’d happily put up with icing sugar!

Cheers to Mustard: A Classic Brand’s Boozy Reimagining

As a professional mustard-maker, I respect those who blazed a trail for us. Once upon a time, the flavour of mustard itself was exotic enough; now, we get to mess around with all kinds of amazing taste combos! One such old-timer is Grey Poupon, the venerable dijon whose “Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?” tagline was everywhere for a while. (Remember when we got our viral content from T.V. commercials? A simpler time…!)

Grey Poupon is now cashing in on its fancy-schmancy reputation and updating its image in one fell swoop, by premiering a product called La Moutarde Vin – a white wine infused with… mustard grains?!

Upon encountering this news, I briefly thought I could hear the sound of Aldo Sohm rolling in his grave, but a) the world-class sommelier is still very much with us, and b) the creators seem to have paid a good deal of attention to the craft behind this wine. Like the Taco Bell Jalapeño Noir we wrote about last year, La Moutarde Vin seems more than just its surface gimmick. From Forbes:

“The wine is a 2020 Viognier that has been infused with the same mustard seeds used in the mustard. Unlike many mustards which have a base of vinegar, Grey Poupon’s recipe uses white wine, which adds richness and flavor, says Danielle Coopersmith, brand manager for sandwich enhancers at Kraft Heinz, which makes Grey Poupon. […]

Coopersmith describes this full-bodied Viognier as having bright hints of spice and pronounced citrus and floral characteristics, balanced by vibrant acidity. ‘It delivers the typical texture and roundness on the palate you’d expect from a Viognier,’ she says. ‘It is best served chilled, and pairs perfectly with a classic croque monsieur, Dijon maple-glazed salmon, or a beautiful meat and cheese charcuterie board and of course, Grey Poupon.’”

Of course, the enjoyment of any wine is in the mouth of the beholder. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to withhold my opinion because the limited edition “perfect wine for those who want to have their lunch and enjoy it too” is, naturally, sold out.

I commend the wine experts hired by giant multinational conglomerate Kraft Heinz for their creativity, even if I don’t get to enjoy it! And I will take inspiration from them as well – perhaps a DFC-mustard wine could be somewhere in our future?

DNA Decodes Lobster Lifespans


I have deep respect for the lobster. Any creature as ferociously familial, as gorgeous, and, yes, as tasty as these crustaceans are deserved our admiration.  We can add to this list of lobster pros their long-rumoured longevity – now confirmed by science, and rivalling our own lifespans!

The University of East Anglia, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science of the United Kingdom, and National Lobster Hatchery (UK) have teamed up to find a foolproof method of figuring out the true age of lobsters. Until now, size has been used as a rule-of-thumb, as well as (like a tree!) counting the rings on abdomens and eyestalks. However, the former method can be inaccurate, and the latter can only be performed on dead individual lobsters. Knowing the age spread of a living population helps inform us of the lobsters’ general health, which is key to keeping them stable and fish-able. Recently published in the journal Evolutionary Applications, the team’s results are chock-full of delicious genetic science!

“The method the team came up with relies on the ribosomal DNA of the European lobster (Homarus gammarus). As the crustaceans age, parts of the DNA strand will gain or lose a methyl group, which typically attaches to where cytosine precedes guanine in the genetic code. The way some of these methyl groups are added or removed from the lobsters’ DNA is precisely correlated with the animals’ ages, the team realized. […]

The technique isn’t perfect. As the animals get older, the team’s model must extrapolate their ages to a greater degree. So while younger lobsters’ ages could be determined within a couple of months of their true age, things get hazier when the animals have a good run at life. Some of the lobsters the team looked at in their study were over four years old, but European lobsters can live to 70 years – nearly the average human life expectancy – and American lobsters can become centenarians.”

The next time I have the privilege of tucking into a bisque, mac and cheese, or even perfectly poached tail, I will spare a thought of thanks for the former owner of the meat inside. As well as to the scientists: Thanks to their human curiosity, I can rest assured that the contents of my plate will have been carefully managed. That’s the least we can do as animal eaters; be responsible now and set up continued responsibility in the future – where there will be lobster for everyone!

Cooking With (out) Gas: New Feed Additive Cuts Methane Emissions in Cattle

gas from cows

As any eight-year-old will tell you, cows are hilariously gassy. Not so funny: the, ahem, emissions of cattle are mostly methane – a greenhouse gas – making herds full of tooting bovines major contributors to global warming. While we humans work to ease up on the factory farming that requires all these animals to begin with, science is looking at other options to keep cows from burping us out of house and home.

One major innovation has just been approved for use by Brazil and Chile, two of the world’s biggest beef exporters. Bovaer is a cattle feed additive (produced by Dutch bioscience company Royal DSM) that has undergone 48 peer-reviewed studies over a decade-long testing period dubbed “Project Clean Cow.” Made up of 3-nitroxypropanol (a “bio-based alcohol”) and nitrate, Bovaer has been shown to significantly cut a herd’s methane emissions.

“São Paulo State University (UNESP) professor Ricard Reis said the supplementation with Bovaer was an efficient strategy to reduce methane emissions by finishing feedlot beef cattle, without adverse effects on performance.

A Royal DSM statement said just a quarter teaspoon of Bovaer per cow per day consistently reduces enteric methane emission by approximately 30 percent for dairy cows and even higher percentages (up to 90 percent) for beef cows. It described the product as ‘the most extensively studied and scientifically proven solution to the challenge of burped methane to date.’

Upon feeding, it takes effect immediately.[…] After suppressing methane production in the stomach, Bovaer is broken down into the same natural compounds again, which are already present and processed by the cow’s normal digestive and metabolic processes.”

This news is great for us (who need to hit the brakes on climate change by whatever means necessary), and for cows (who I bet are a lot more comfortable in the digestion department). With approval from Brazil and Chile as precedent, Royal DSM is looking to get Bovaer certified in other big cattle countries, including the U.S. and Australia. For insight into the Canadian market, I’m tempted to run this by my neighbours. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to understand them – I don’t speak Cow. But while we wait for our regulatory bodies to approve the additive, I’m sure I can brush up on my moos!