Gashora Girls Academy

My first exposure to Rwanda beyond hazy memories of page three news stories came at dinner with good friends Soozi and TJ McGill. Casually, as if telling us about the PTA bake sale, Soozi mentioned that she was building a girls school in Rwanda. So, it was really incredible to be in Rwanda and able to visit the finished project some two years later. 

The school was far nicer than I expected. A boarding school that will ultimately have 270 female student residents, it sits on about 12 acres on a gentle slope to a small lake.  From the outside, The school is reminiscent of any small new-ish private school built in an American suburb.  Low slung, nicely designed buildings surround a central courtyard. While we were there the maintenance crew was working an creating a large outdoor chessboard.

Once inside, it is clear you aren't in Bellevue. All the buildings have concrete floors, and while the classrooms are pretty rudimentary, even without the students being there (Christmas break) you feel a sense of earnestness. The students here are chosen from all over the country and are the best and brightest regardless of means and background.  They all desperately want to learn to better themselves and their country.

Approximately 2/3 of the property is a farm run by the school growing some crops for sale and vegetables for the kitchen of the school.  I guess some things are the same everywhere, for when the woman in charge found out I was a chef, she asked me if I had any good recipes for kale or zucchini. 

The school is trying to figure out a product they could sell to help sustain the school.  We had a quick brainstorm sorted through some possibilities, and landed on sunflower oil.  So, look for delicious GGA sunflower oil in an African-looking bottle at metropolitan market soon!


Wow.  Just returned to the hotel at 7:30 pm following an adventure filled day that started at 4 am...

Let's start with the drive out to the park where the gorillas are pretty much kept under lock and key by the Rwandan government. 

It was our first time out of Kigali, and it is really different.

So many people on the road at daylight carrying goods to market all over the country.  On top of their head, in carts, even on a large wooden bicycle.  Thousands of people out in the rural countryside, up and at 'em.  5 am, break of day, a human traffic jam of activity.  And with the exception of the rare ancient motorcycle, no vehicle traffic at all.

The countryside is lush and cultivated to the last available square inch.  Potatoes, corn, sugar cane, firewood, peas, beans; all were in evidence.  I had read that Rwanda is one of the most densely populated food sheds in the world and today's two hour drive put that squarely on display.

The villagers who live at the base of the trail to the gorillas are very poor, 3rd world farmers who grow plots of vegetables for sale at market.  When you walk through the village it seems that it is a populated entirely by children. They swarm the car with a chorus of  "hello", which seems to be the only foreign word they know.  A singular highlight for me was using my iPad to take video of the children and then play it back for them to watch.  It seemed quite certain from their reaction of sheer joy that they had never seen themselves on video, and quite probably  had never seen any video of any kind. I could have done this for hours. 

There are 80 people per day who are permitted to go see the gorillas. They are divided into 10 groups of 8 and go as a group to see 10 different "families" of gorillas. The families are in locations that vary from 15 minute hikes in, to approx 3 hour hikes.

My group, being all pretty fit hikers, was selected for one of the longer hikes.  But the payoff was we got to go see one of the strongest families, which had 19 members including three of the silverback adult males. So, we set off across the foothills. The first half hour or so was a very pretty hike through high mountain farmland. 

Then we crossed over into the National park. The border to the park was demarcated by a large steep ditch that was used to protect the villagers and their farms from the mountain buffalo.  It was at this point that I fully noticed the uniformed guard with an ancient AK 47.  Apparently he was there to protect us from said buffalo. Normally guns make me very nervous, but it was certainly calming to know we had a guy with an automatic weapon as we headed into the forest/jungle for the rest of our journey to see the gorillas.

Once across the ditch, the  trail changed. About a third of the remaining two hours was tight paths in flat, open fields where the overgrowth featured a lot of stinging nettles but the path was fairly dry. The other two thirds was steep with trees overhead and ankle-deep mud covering the entire trail.  At first we tried hard to stay as clean as possible by leapfrogging to the best parts of the trail, risking a fall and a back full of mud. Ultimately, we all gave in to the eventual demise of our footwear and simply slogged right through.

Finally we reached the gorillas.  Incredible.  Well worth all the slog to get there. The gorillas are 100 percent vegetarians and quite comfortable with human visitors.  We were able to stand and observe them in groups as close as 5 ft away. The silverback, or number one ranking male, is the ruler of the group. Our family consisted of three silverbacks, five adult females and a variety of juveniles from one year old through ten.  The juveniles were acting just like a pack of human children, play fighting and wrestling around and the silverback was a little like a cranky Dad who became irritated when they made too much noise. They are really remarkable animals who exhibit a lot of human characteristics.  After a strictly time-kept hour we had to depart. I know our group could have spent many hours there, fascinated by the gorillas and luxuriating in our close access to them.

I'll post some pictures as I get the chance to sort through them.

All in all one of the most interesting and incredible days of my life.

Wheelbarrows and workgroups

The main reason we are here in Rwanda is Father Ganza, a Jesuit who has been attending Seattle University and is the leader of the project to build the secondary school of St. Ignatious in Kigali.

The last two days we have all joined the building crew of the school.  Fascinating, seeing the building methods that are used in a country where labor is $1.50 per day.  There is a concrete mixer and a dirt tamping machine. Other than that it is shovels and wheelbarrows.

So here we are, 17 members of the four Seattle families, joining right in with the  50 or so local workers.  The project is at the foundation stage, and is being built on a hill.  So they pour a concrete wall and back fill it with dirt, which is where we come in. First pick axing the clay rich dirt into submission, then shoveling it into ancient wheelbarrows with shovels that appear to be vintage WW One.  Wheelbarrows wheeled up and over the wall, dump into the hole, repeat.   All of this manual labor has had a strangely should satisfying effect on me and the rest of the group.

The workers all smile and seem to love having us there. They Especially seem to like my 11 yr old Liam who may have found his calling as a dirt workerand shocked us all with his hard work ethos.  

The highlight of today was getting to see the "kitchen" where lunch is prepared for the workers. It consists of a metal roof shack where the roof has been peeled up on one side to act as a "chimney"  Inside there are two women, and an open fire on the ground of the shack that they use to cook.  Three rocks lay on the ground with a makeshift fire in between them.  On top of this large pots are placed for the cooking.

The lunch for the workmen consisted of the following:

1- about three cups of mashed potatoes with just a little salt. Mixed in the cooking water.  Very starchy, with a consistency more like oatmeal
2- about one cup of local brown beans,  in a sauce like lightly dressed baked  beans, poured over the potatoes
3- half of a very large mild avocado

Actually a very nutritious, calorie rich lunch for workers that are really burning through food. 

A great day!  Tomorrow we go see the gorillas.

Brown Eyes Blue

Well, we are here! 

I am not sure quite what I expected but this is not it.

Rwanda is rich, Rwanda is poor. We have seen whole developments of amazing houses that would fit right in in the toniest American suburb.  And we have seen women carrying enormous burlap sacks full of leaves on their head and a baby on their back.  There must be an upper class that has money and lives in those houses, but the workers on our job site make about a dollar fifty a day, some with no shoes.

Our hotel, the Serena, is as nice as any hotel I have ever stayed in.  Service impeccable and a steady stream of suited business men in and out.  Last night someone had what sounded just like an American wedding reception at the pool in the center courtyard. Complete with a standard wedding band that played a pitch imperfect version of Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.

Which seemed like an apt metaphor for this brown eyed country with the dark past that is so hurriedly trying to Americanize.  I hope they like it when their eyes turn blue.

Rwanda for the Holidays

Father Ganza with the kids coming on the trip. (credit: Mercer Island Reporter)
I’m about to set off for a few weeks in Rwanda with my and a few other families. This trip started with my friend Julie Coleman introduced us to Father Ganza, a Jesuit priest and a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He is currently back in Rwanda completing his third Master’s degree through Seattle University and building the new St. Ignatious school. When we met, he compellingly urged us to come to see the miracle of recovery happening there. We’re going to pitch in to help build a room in the new school house.

From there, other opportunities started to crop up seemingly everywhere. We’ll visit the Gashora Girls Academy, the school created by the Rwanda Girls Initiative which was co-founded by my friend Soozi McGill to develop secondary education for Rwandan girls. We’ll also visit Rwanda’s only ice cream shop, opened last June by Blue Marble Dreams, the non-profit side of Brooklyn’s own Blue Marble Ice Cream, and we’ll get to see the dairy farm and co-op that supplies their milk.

Next time you hear from me it will be from the other side of the world!

What's the deal with affinage?

What's the deal with affinage?
There’s a lot of discussion going on in the cheese blogosphere right now about affinage. For those unfamiliar with the term, affinage is the process of aging cheese to bring out different characteristics of the cheese. One who practices affinage is called an affineur, and you can find them in almost any stage of cheese production and distribution. Some cheesemakers do their own aging (Beecher’s does this). Some affineurs, the simplest form of them, are effectively middlemen who buy young cheese from the cheesemakers and, at best, meticulously care for them as they reach the ideal age to be sold to a cheese shop.  They’re also found in cheese shops themselves, as many stores have decided to buy direct from the cheesemaker and doing their own aging.

The question floating around is whether affinage is a legitimate, value-added part of cheesemaking, or if it is just a way for the industry to jack up prices for the consumer. Those in favor of affinage suggest that aging cheese goes beyond the science of temperature maintenance and mold cultivation. For them, there is an element of art and intuition: the affineur is uniquely capable to aid the cheese in its ripening process. That’s one side of the argument, and opinion ranges all the way to its contrary, which says that all the delicate care espoused by the pro-affinage camp is merely a marketing gimmick. Although I’m not sure how interested people are in my opinion about it, I’ll offer my opinion for the sake of spirited debate.  As with most divisive issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s not magic, but I think affinage is an incredibly useful part of the industry and its proper growth immensely beneficial.

Ultimately, cheese is a living thing. Each type of cheese has its own life, all of various lengths. How it gets treated before it gets to your mouth has a huge effect on the quality when it gets there. That isn’t to say that how it’s stored provides the majority of the flavor. On the contrary, if we were to have the nature versus nurture debate about cheese, I would staunchly advocate that it’s pretty much all in the nature, the milk and the cheese-making. The nurture side can’t make the cheese any better than it would be, but it can certainly ruin it. The best practices for maturing cheese include temperature and humidity control, and rotation. There is also the skill of knowing when the cheese is at its ideal age to be put out on the shelves to be sold. Not everyone ages their cheese the “best way” for the “best time,” but a lot do a really good job. It’s important to clarify that it’s not all or nothing, it’s not “best” versus “bad.” The key is that cheese is not really difficult to care for. They are fairly durable creatures. After all, everyone does some sort of affinage, even those who buy a block of cheese and forget it in their fridge for a year. When it’s done well, you can tell from the quality of the cheeses that those caring for it have an excellent sense of a cheese’s maturation process. They are very in sync with the trajectory of the cheeses under their care, knowing the ideal point for them to be eaten - à point, as they say.

Great affineurs, at whatever point in the supply chain you find them, play a really important role in the marketplace as both partners and consultants for small-scale cheesemakers. They buy the cheese young and directly from the cheesemaker, and pay close attention to providing a stable environment for the cheese to reach its ideal maturity. Digging deeper into what they do, they are essentially a type of distributor. Before the cheese even gets to their cave, the affineurs provide working capital for the cheesemakers, most of whom would be hard pressed to hold their entire inventory until perfectly ripe. They also relieve the cheesemakers of responsibilities that might be outside of their particular core competencies. The true affineurs are their own kind of distribution channel, who specialize in fitting the cheese to the market. They are more able to identify market trends and opportunities than the small-scale cheesemaker who may be logistically limited to regional farmer’s markets. They can provide constructive feedback for the cheesemakers on how well certain cheeses are performing in the marketplace, helping them valuate their product and improve their processes. They are not the cheese world’s version of negociants, who create entirely new wines from those brought to them. Great affineurs do not create new cheeses from the un-ripened specimens that they purchase; they cultivate them to their full potential.

Everyone benefits from great affinage. The cheesemaker gets more fluid working capital, more expansive market insight, and greater distribution. The cheesemonger gets higher quality products that bolster their reputation and their revenue. The customer, in turn, gets a more diverse selection of even better cheeses.

I'd love to hear what people think about this. Let me know in the comments below!

Red Cabbage Peperonata

With all the cooking I get to do both at home and at work, it’s no surprise that a lot of my guy friends are great cooks too. Let’s just say our football parties are often a celebration of more than one type of pig skin. We’re always trying to outdo ourselves from one week to the next, borrowing ideas from each other and trying to improve on them.  Recently, one of my friends brought an amazing sautéed pepper dish and I was so inspired by it that I built off of it to make a special for Bennett’s.

Red Cabbage Peperonata
Makes 4 servings

1/2 lb  mini sweet peppers
1/2 lb red cabbage
6 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp white balsamic vinegar
4 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp salt
Pinch black pepper

De-stem and de-seed the peppers and rough chop them on a bias.  Chop the red cabbage in roughly the same size as the peppers. Sweet pepper size may vary, so make sure you have about the same amount of chopped red cabbage by volume as you do of the chopped peppers.

Over high heat, heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a large sauté pan until it is smoking. Add the peppers and toss once to coat with the oil, then let sit until they start to brown.  Toss once more and let sit again approximately one minute. Add the cabbage. Toss again and cook until cabbage is browning.

Add the remaining oil, vinegar, garlic, red pepper flakes and oregano and toss again. Cook for approximately one minute, remove from heat and finish with the salt and pepper. Serve immediately or store for later use.
One of the great things about peppers is their versatility. They are such great complements to so many different ingredients that I often have a hard time narrowing down what I want to serve with them! At Bennett’s, we served it with a simple and succulent petite filet and some creamed corn. What will you serve it with? Let me know in the comments!
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Lover of big ideas and bold flavors. Food should be like family and friends: honest, fun, and fulfilling.

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