“Free range” doesn’t come without sacrifice.
The cows had to be stopped from contaminating the water supply, or a 200-plus acre nature preserve in Delaplane, Virginia, where a creek of piss and shit almost made it’s way into the Potomac, could have been catastrophic.
Daniel Liberson’s family bought the sprawling property in 2006 and, in a joint effort with the Nature Conservancy and the Army Corps of Engineers, set forth in the largest private undertaking of a stream restoration in Virginia’s history. By ceasing the herd mentality through privatization and paddocking, cattle no longer trampled the riverbanks, saving water from contamination, in turn encouraging cultivated growth on the land rather than chaos. Which makes this a story about preservation––not once, but twice.
New flora was planted to anchor the land, and Bolling Branch Stream became a tributary to greater things. What was once a worried site of runoff became fertile enough ground to reintroduce native plants such as pawpaw, spicebush and mulberry. Liberson, with the humor of a Jewish comedian from the Catskills Mountain Borscht Belt and the cynicism of seasoned cook, picked weeds off his family’s estate. In time, this foraging (inspired by his time in the kitchen with John Shields at Town House restaurant in Chilhowie, Virginia) became a stockpiling of ingredients to build his inadvertent vinegar company, Lindera Farms.
Using his seasoned palate and the nuanced hand of a farmer, Liberson crafted a line of vinegars devoid of that expected acetone punch-in-the-chest you get with other brands. He began collecting ramps in the early spring, applying malolactic fermentation to the leaves and creating a layered effect in his vinegar that tastes like drunk nachos—no joke, there are notes of sour cream and chives. His year ends with ripe persimmons in late fall, but the seasonal approach to vinegar allows Liberson to capture (and sell) the essence of wild black raspberries far past the summer months. Unlike the wine calendar, where a bottling is often released a full revolution of the sun (if not years) beyond it’s harvest, Lindera Farms is operating off a “living pantry” full of acetobacter. It’s funny then, that Liberson is a non-interventionist; it’s hard for anyone in the industry to just let whatever it is happen naturally. With a newfound sense of patience, Liberson waits for the right moment to release his vinegars into the world.
Part of this story is pure business, driving around the country to kitchens in hopes of swapping out industrial white distilled vinegars. Liberson now sells to some of the top fine dining restaurants in the country, including Minibar in Washington, D.C., and Per Se and Gramercy Tavern in New York City. Chef Sean Brock’s McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston bought his whole supply of last year’s ramp vinegar. This is also an allegory for “planting a seed”—maybe even seed saving. If you’re pickling the most gorgeous and temporal produce, have you considered the solution you’re about to pickle it in? That’s not to say Lindera Farms vinegars should be used for such techniques—they’re more a finishing type, added towards the end of cooking processes to deglaze a pan, or perk up sauces. But it does seem counterintuitive to go to the farmers market, only to put your cucumber in a jar with some manufactured acetic acid, devoid of any intrinsic value.
Lindera Farms is central to the idea of permaculture—of working with, rather than against, nature. One of the core tenets, aside from caring for the earth, is caring for the people. The third tenet, a “return of surplus,” is a reinvestment back into the first two ethics. Liberson works with Virginia-based producers like Golden Angels Apiary to make a glowing bottle of honey vinegar that is sweet and lively; he buys sorghum syrup from The Moyer Family Farm, and hickory syrup from Falling Bark Farm, where owners Joyce and Travis Miller take only fallen bark from the Shagbark hickory trees, a sustainable resource. They then roast them to create coffee- and cigar-like smokiness, which translates into idiosyncratic vinegar unlike any I’ve ever had. Used sparingly in vinaigrettes with roasted vegetables, or to spike a barbecue sauce—even as a splash of acidity in a cocktail. You won’t have to rely on frugality, these fleeting flavors are available, thankfully to Lindera Farms, where habitat and vinegars are in perpetual motion.