Local Bounty

Brian Pelletier, owner of and chief chocolatier at Kakao, slices layers of fruit-flavored marshmallows made specially for Easter. Photo by Jason Mueller

Do you know where the tomatoes on your sandwich came from? What about the wheat in the bread? If you’re a ‘locavore,’ chances are you do. The locavore movement, comprised of people who try to buy food from sources as geographically close as possible, has been growing over the past few years. St. Louis is centrally located in an area rich with farmlands, so it’s not surprising that Missouri-raised meat and dairy can be found at local farmer’s markets and grocery stores. But did you know that beekeepers in the city number in the hundreds, and they’re producing honey with flavors distinct not just to the region but to the very neighborhood where the hive is situated? Or that chocolate can have as many flavors as wine? We talked to a handful of local food producers to find out about the joys and challenges of food production here in St. Louis.

Holly Atkinson of Greenwood Farms

    “We started farming as a way to raise the children, to teach values and learn about life, and lots of death,” says Holly Atkinson, who lives on a 500-acre farm in Newburg, Mo., with her husband, Steve, her two grown children, Julie and David, and David’s wife, Kindra. The Atkinsons first started farming in the early ‘80s, when Julie and David were kids. Steve kept his dental practice, and they farmed on the weekends and after work. They got draft horses first, then Jersey cows, and then Atkinson started a dairy and sold the products locally.

    Julie, now 40, and David, 37, both decided eight years ago to leave corporate jobs to farm full-time. “After they left home, they realized how much they loved the farming they grew up with,” Atkinson says. “It just seemed like for them, the corporate world, they were making good money but it wasn’t enriching.”

    Atkinson started the dairy again, this time making raw milk instead of pasteurized. “It’s just a good, fresh, wonderful product, and if you raise your cows properly, manage the milk properly and process properly, it is safe,” she says. “Raw milk actually has nutrients that are destroyed by the pasteurization, enzymes that the high heating kills.” In October, she adds, Greenwood Farms became the first and only dairy in Missouri to sell milk approved as Grade A by the state.

    All the animals are grass-fed on the Atkinsons’ land or on nearby farms. “All grass-fed beef, which we produce, has as many omega-3s as Atlantic salmon,” Atkinson says. “It has great taste, and it lets the cow do what it was created to do.”

    For the younger generation, especially Kindra, who had never lived on a farm, adjusting from nine-to-five life was a challenge. “The hardest part is that you’re ‘on’ all the time,” Atkinson says. “You’ll sit down to dinner and there’ll be a sick calf.” Having animals die is especially tough. “David is particularly sensitive, and yet he’s taken it upon himself to be the one to take the animals to the butcher shop,” Atkinson says. “He accompanies them all the way so they’re never shoved by a cattle prod or touched by a pin. He believes that we owe that to them.”

    While farm life is challenging, Atkinson says she wouldn’t trade it for anything. “All of the stress is balanced by the beauty of this lifestyle,” she says. “When it really comes down to it, we do this because we love it. Even though it’s hard, we like being responsible for all these lives.”

Bob Sears of the Eastern Missouri Beekeeping Association

    Did you know that honey produced in small batches in St. Louis yards can taste like goldenrod, tulip poplars, lindens, or dutch clover? “That’s the real fascination with honey today,” says Bob Sears, president of the Eastern Missouri Beekeeping Association and a beekeeper for the past 16 years. “There are very wide variations depending on the predominant nectar source.”

    Sears’ hive in the Central West End, for example, produces honey with a “tangy, citrus-like, almost lemony flavor” when the ailanthus trees are in bloom. Also known as the ‘tree of heaven,’ ailanthus is a city tree considered by many to be a nuisance. “It grows in cracks of the sidewalk, in alleys,” Sears says, “but it produces a spectacularly flavored honey.” Bees in the city actually produce more honey, Sears says, because there is more forage material from gardens and other plantings than in the country.

    “Honey is an extraordinary food for many reasons. It’s the only food made by insects for our consumption,” Sears says, “and the only food that doesn’t spoil. It doesn’t support bacterial growth. Honey has been found that is literally thousands of years old!”

    Sears is a lawyer specializing in design and construction law, but beekeeping is his passion. “For hobbyist beekeepers like myself, the greatest fascination and attraction to beekeeping is working with the bees,” he says. “The honey production is like a reward.” Sears estimates that his 28 hives in St. Louis and Franklin County generate about one ton of honey yearly, which he sells to retail outlets, restaurants and bakeries.

    Honey produced in small batches, like Sears’, can be finely tuned for flavor and color, whereas the large honey suppliers tend to blend their honeys, he says, in part because supermarkets want consistency. Mass-produced honey is also often heated to facilitate the bottling process. But blending and heating both reduce flavor and aroma.

    “The symbolism of honeybees throughout history has always represented cooperation, communication, industry, hard work and purity,” Sears says. “I don’t think that beekeepers are consciously drawn to beekeeping because they associate honeybees with that, but as beekeepers begin to learn more about the life of the colony, those are the aspects and qualities that they find so interesting.” 

Brian Pelletier of Kakao

Listening to Kakao owner and chief chocolatier Brian Pelletier describe the truffles, caramels and seasonal candies he produces is enough to make anyone drool. Take the caramels, for example. Pelletier simmers fresh cream, sugar, honey and vanilla beans together, then shapes the mixture into morsels and dips them in warm, semisweet chocolate. A scattering of sea salt on top provides the finishing touch, enhancing the sweetness of chocolate and caramel. Then there are the marshmallows Pelletier made for Easter. Invented by his assistant, these have layers of apple, strawberry, blueberry and apricot marshmallow all in one. “I can’t help saying this: they’re extraordinary,” he says.

    But chocolate is Kakao’s specialty. Pelletier combines all-natural ingredients to create a dozen varieties of truffles, including lavender, mint with candied lemon peel, and smoke (made with Lapsong Souchong smoked tea.) When he can, Pelletier uses local ingredients, like spiced rum from Square One Brewery or Schlafly’s Irish style extra stout beer, used in his St. Patrick’s day special.

    Pelletier has owned Kakao for only a year. Before that, he spent 20 years working in media relations in international marketing. But in early 2008, he realized he wanted to do something different. Heather Wessels, a friend, had started Kakao not long before, and when she said she wanted to sell the business, Pelletier knew he had found his next job. “I have always loved to cook for other people. Outside of that, I really had minimal experience with chocolate, so I had to learn a lot,” he says. “Chocolate is surprisingly technical.”

    The process of creating truffles involves a careful combination of complex flavors. “Chocolate is just like wine, with a lot of different flavors in it,” he says. Creating an Earl Grey tea truffle began with sampling a number of teas. Pelletier chose an Earl Grey variety blended with white tea tips and bergamot. Then he steeped the tea in cream and sugar before combining it with chocolate to make ganache. Once cooled, Pelletier sliced the tea-flavored ganache into pieces and dipped them into three types of chocolate melted together.

    The final step is deciding what to put on top. “How can you decorate that truffle with something that’s going to make it look distinctive, that’s going to make it look unique and pretty and that’s going to enhance the flavor?” Pelletier asks. After trying a few different options, he chose a mixture of raw sugar and orange peel.

    In the works is a retail store for Kakao at Jefferson and Shenandoah avenues, set to open this summer. While Pelletier is currently operating out of a building on Cherokee Street and selling chocolates in stores and farmer’s markets, the new store will give Pelletier space to make and sell his confections.