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Bringing nature to the mall September 16, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Nature tourism, Sustainability, Utah.
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The 1,200 acres of high-plains wetlands were saved from development to create the Swaner EcoCenter, explains Annette Herman, Executive Director.

The 1,200 acres of high-plains wetlands were saved from development to create the Swaner EcoCenter, explains Annette Herman, Executive Director.

Images featured the elegantly woodsy Swaner Ecocenter surrounded with waving grasses, long-necked waterfowl, blue skies and the dramatic Wasatch Range. So it was no small surprise that Nora, our guide, pulled into a shopping center right across from WalMart and dropped us off. “It’s right over there,” she said. “I’ll park the car and then come join you.”

I contemplated getting a gelato first, or maybe window-shopping at the little boutique. Then I remembered why I was there.

It turns out the the pictures didn’t lie. This is no ordinary shopping center, and the Swaner family is a big reason why. The ecocenter sits at the heart of 1,200 acres this family bought and saved from development and, land which has been restored into a surprisingly wild habitat right off I-80. It’s tucked into the Newpark Town Center, which is striving for LEEDS environmental design certification (the ecocenter has already set the standard with a platinum LEEDS designation, the highest ranking). Located as it is on the edge of this mixed-use condo community and resort area, it’s ideally located to reach out to shoppers and residents who might otherwise not give a thought to visiting an educational center dedicated to nurturing and raising awareness about the environment.

Here’s a sneak preview:

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Roads Less Traveled hits the Houston Green Scene August 11, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Houston, Sustainability, Texas.
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I’m excited to announce some new collaborations that will be taking Roads Less Traveled to a greater audience and in a greener direction.

YolandaGreenChannel 39’s Going Green With Yolanda Green, Houston’s only TV program dedicated to sustainability, is now featuring my blog on its website, http://www.39online.com. Going Green is an exciting initiative in itself, with Yolanda bringing conservation initiatives to a whole new audience. From the new smart grid technology to invasive species, Yolanda is on it, and all her episodes and a whole lot more can be viewed on the website. Since my focus is sustainable travel – including attractions here at home in Houston – it seemed a perfect fit. Scroll down to the area next to Going Green Highlights to find Roads Less Traveled.

HoustonGreenScn121I’ll also be collaborating with Houston Green Scene, which will feature a weekly column from my blog pertaining to sustainability at home and sustainable travel elsewhere. Houston Green Scene is an innovative new website and forum founded by local entrepreneur Mona Metzger covering green initiatives in the Houston area.

Especially if you live in the Houston area, but even if you don’t, take a minute to check out Going Green With Yolanda Green and the Houston Green Scene. You can also follow them on Twitter – @HoustonGreenScn and @YolandaGreen39 – and on Facebook.

Other environmental initiatives I’ve become involved in are the Last Organic Outpost, an urban farm in the inner city that’s currently planning a knockout Harvest Festival and the Transition Houston group, part of a rapidly growing global movement preparing for a sustainable transition to a less petroleum-dependent future. More on both of these later — but meanwhile, it’s good to know that there’s a whole lot going on in Houston’s green scene, and I’m proud to be a part of it.

Marvelous Matagorda July 25, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Nature tourism, Sustainability, Texas.
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East Bay at sunrise

Hundreds of miles of coastline stretch from Galveston to the Coastal Bend. I’d always wanted to explore that stretch in between where the Colorado River meets the sea. But aside from a state park on an island that is no longer accessible, nobody I spoke to could say much about what I might find there.

This only made me more curious. So one day I picked up the phone and started calling around. And before I knew it, I was packing my bags and headed for the coast.

What I found surprised me: spectacular beaches, abundant wildlife, great food, a fascinating history, fishing to die for and friendly folks who will make you feel right at home.

What I didn’t find was an overabundance of tourists. A couple from Fort Worth, a father and daughter from Houston, a family from Pearland and a handful of locals — but mostly, miles of white sand pounded by surf and backed by graceful dunes.

Last week I got to spend a couple of glorious days soaking up some of the best this region has to offer. On Aug. 9, the story will appear in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Meanwhile, here’s a preview.

SA hotels make “World’s Best” list July 17, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, San Antonio, Sustainability.
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Recently I was in San Antonio to visit the new stretch of the famed River Walk, and to visit with chef John Brand, the culinary wizard behind the remake of two River Walk classics, Pesca and Las Canarias.

Brand has distinguished himself with a cuisine that is both cutting-edge and creative, while being an active adherent to farm-to-table and sustainable harvesting practices. Here’s an interview I did with Brand at Las Canarias after a memorable lunch in May.

Pesca and Las Canarias and their parent hotels, the Watermark Hotel and Spa and Omni’s La Mansion del Rio, have more to celebrate this month than a new stretch of the River Walk. Both hotels made Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best Hotels” list — the only hotels in Texas to have received this honor.

Here’s the story in the San Antonio Business Journal.

Of course, it can’t hurt that they’ve got a world-class chef at the helm of their two restaurants. Congrats, y’all.

Food Inc., a horror film you must see July 4, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, Sustainability.
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Normally I avoid violent movies, but this was one I knew I had to see. And it’s far more disturbing than the worst slasher flick – because it’s true.

It’s a gripping story about the violence being perpetrated not just on the miserable hordes of dumb beasts, but on us all.

It’s a tragedy that will move even the skeptic to tears.

And it’s a message of hope in a time of change.

See the trailer, and then, if you haven’t already, go see the movie. Please. It will change your life, and maybe even the way we do business in this country.

Cultural Safari in Tanzania July 1, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Africa, Food, Sustainability.
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When I told people I was planning a trip to Tanzania, the first question was: “Are you going on safari?”

Well, I didn’t see giraffes and elephants and lions. But since “safari” is the Swahili word for “journey,” I can honestly say I did!

Look for the full story in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News travel section, or just click here to read it online. Meanwhile, njema safari (happy travels)!

TANZANIAFor more stories from this incredible journey through the real Africa, from celebrating the election of Obama in hubub of Dar es Salaam to making new friends in the Bukoba countryside, see Tracy’s blog, Postcards from Tanzania.

BUWEA women thumbnailFor a story about the amazing group of women who drew me to this remote region, and how they are changing it, see From Texas to Tanzania: San Antonio network changes African lives.

Zanzibar thumbnailAnd for story and videos from an exotic little side trip to the legendary Spice Islands — a land of Omani towers, red colobus monkeys, sparkling white beaches and mahogany forests — see Hakuna Matata in Zanzibar.

Going Green, deliciously, in Great Britain June 21, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in England, Food.
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Travel is an inherently messy business, something that produces a fair amount of ambivalence –angst, even, at times — in the eco-sensitive travel writer. So it’s particularly gratifying when I find a destination that makes it easy to reduce my impact along the way.

England is just such a destination, with recycling bins everywhere, a vibrant “Buy Local” campaign and public transport that aces ours in every way. EasyJet, the budget airline I booked for my side trip to Spain, made it easy to offset my carbon footprint by checking a box and paying a few extra dollars to plant trees or invest in renewables. Picturesque walking and cycling trails crisscross the nation, and people actually use them — a lot. And a couple of our destinations — Totnes and Dartington — I later learned are important innovators in a desperately needed transition movement toward a sustainable economy.

In London, we toured the Borough Market, a celebration of all things delicious, with a strong emphasis on locally sourced, sustainably grown food.  This market was pulsing with color, aroma and flavor when we arrive on a Thursday morning, with everything from artisanal cheeses and breads to fresh morels and artichokes to pig snouts and sausages vying for shoppers’ attention.

The Borough Market has been a key player in Britain’s food revolution in the past five years. “This Market is part of our new food story,” said Adrian Bevins, a London-based food writer who gave us a whirlwind market tour.

Enter Peter Gott, a hog farmer from Westmorland County. Dressed in plaid flannel, suspenders and bright red socks, he could have played the part of a British country gentleman farmer on TV, if such a role existed.

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Gott was among a handful of regional producers who brought this market back to life.  “Ten years ago, this place was derelict,” he recalls. “London was a desert as far as food was concerned.” A market stood on the South Thames since the Roman times, and in this very spot for the past 250 years, but industrial agriculture and the advent of the supermarket had reduced it to a few produce stands amid all the parking lots. “The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker were being taken over, pushed out by the factory farms.” 

Gott read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” and decided to do something about it. He and a handful of other producers organized a monthly market that grew month by month. Soon it went biweekly, then weekly. Word about the “Farm to Fork” movement began to spread, and a snowball effect began. Big-name chefs like Jamie Oliver became regulars, sourcing their restaurants at the market and through its producers.

Randolph Hodgson, the founder of Neal’s Yard Dairy, was another founder. His company has been credited with saving the craft of English farmhouse cheesemaking in Britain from being driven into obscurity by the corporate cheese industry.  As I heard his story I sampled a savory Cheshire cheese and a Westcounty farmhouse cheddar, heritage cheeses that linger on in the tasting-room of my mind. But it was the crumbly Coolea Irish cheese that stopped me in my tracks and made me go back for more.

Here’s a quick tour of the Borough Market:

But the Borough Market was just the beginning. Nearly every restaurant showcased on our Visit Britain tour made a point of choosing locally sourced and sustainably grown ingredients. Here are a few:

Alfie’s, the delightfully offbeat restaurant named for a dog at our pet-friendly hotel in London, the brand-new and trendy Bermondsey Square Hotel in Southeast London; 

Ottolenghi, an amazing experience packaged as a restaurant near Almeida Theater. The restaurant is described as Mediterranean which to me means hummus and falafel — which is fine with me — but the dishes I sampled here were something else entirely, and each was a work of art.

Rick Stein’s fabulous Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, which together with his other four local restaurants and cooking school have transformed this  picturesque Cornwall fishing village into a foodie’s paradise;

Jamie Oliver’s truly inspiring Fifteen Cornwall, a spectacular restaurant overlooking the surfers on Watergate Bay. This restaurant doesn’t stop with locally sourced ingredients; Oliver hand-picks 15 local Cornwall youth from disadvantaged backgrounds and teaches them to be socially conscious chefs.

Michael Caines Dining in medieval Exeter, Devon County, a hotel restaurant whose chef is so famous his restaurants need no other name;

Last but certainly not least, we dined right on the farm in rural Devon in an innovative “field kitchen” at Riverford Organic, winner of the London Observer’s 2009 Best Ethical Restaurant award. The establishment offers farm tours right along with your meal and markets tens of thousands of fresh “veg boxes” around the country.  This one was my personal favorite, and I’ve now got the cookbook to prove it.

John Brand: From Farm to Kitchen June 1, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, San Antonio, Sustainability, Texas.
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It wasn’t easy to improve on the two landmark River Walk restaurants that John Brand took over nearly a year ago. But Brand’s passion for the farm-to-table concept and sustainably harvested ingredients has taken two winners – Las Canarias of La Mansion del Rio and Pesca of The Watermark Hotel and Spa – and pushed them over the top.

His beef comes from a farmer in Floresville, his quail from Bandera, his grits from Converse and his tomatoes from Hidalgo County. But he’ll go much further afield to find the best-quality sustainably grown ingredient when necessary, such as the free-range veal he imports from New Zealand.

“If I can’t get fresh ingredients, I’m not going to serve the dish, period,” he said. This meant eliminating some longtime favorites, like the squash blossom and huitlacoche soup.

Another element came into play for the swordfish. “They’ve been heavily overfished for some time now,” he said. “We’ve come to the point that my kids aren’t going to be able to see those fish. And the crab they were using came from Southeast Asia, where they’re destroying the wetlands and making more people die from tsunamis.

“Besides,” he added, “If it’s really good, it doesn’t need to be deep-fried.”

It was a risky move. San Antonio’s River Walk draws a traditional crowd, fond of their fried foods and Tex-Mex and not as keen on cutting edge cuisine as some of the high-end resort crowds Brand has served in the past. A number of them demanded to talk to the chef.

“In most cases, when I explained to them my reasoning, they understood,” he said. “If it’s on the menu, we’d better be truthful and know where it’s from and know how it’s raised. If you can’t do it from scratch, don’t do it at all.”

Brand’s insistence on tracking his ingredients back to their source stems from his own beginnings as a Midwest farm boy, raising pigs and cattle in Nebraska. “There were two paved roads in the whole county,” he recalls. He earned his pocket money hiring himself out to local farms for $2 or $20 a day, he says. He still looks the part, his blonde and tanned good looks and a shy earnestness tempering his frank words.

He was the oldest of six, and they all took turns cooking recipes that Mom left for them on index cards. The ingredients were simple, so technique was everything.

“I didn’t know what a pomegranate was until I was 19 years old,” he laughs. “Salt, pepper and butter – that’s about all I had. Use what you have, that’s what I learned. And I learned you can’t cook with an ego. Leave the ego to the guests; let them decide what’s great and what’s not.”

Perhaps his aversion to industrialized agriculture stemmed from the time his father had to go to work for hog containment facility – a dreadful place to a sun-drenched farm boy. “Those pigs never saw the sun,” he says, shaking his head.

Despite his early affinity for cooking, he says, he never intended to be a chef. His first restaurant job was in Wisconsin at the age of 16, but it wasn’t until two years later, working as a cook in a restaurant in Spokane, Wash., that he realized he had a flair for fine cuisine. He worked his way up through the business over the next 12 years to some of the finest resort restaurants in the country in Aspen and Beaver Creek, Colo., Virginia and Scottsville, Ariz.

What’s most surprising about Brand, given the sophistication of his menus, is that he never received formal culinary training. Instead he learned from other chefs and from working his way up through the profession. It could be said, in fact, that he’s a farm-to-table chef in more ways than one.

Lunch is an excellent time to sample a few of his creations, when he has a collection of delectable “small plates” on the menu. Despite his aversion to deep-frying, he made a small concession to fine effect: the crispy jicama tacos, lightly fried and filled with fresh tuna, roasted tomato diablo, avocado and grapefruit. And his Stuffed Dates with Blue Cheese and Bacon, shimmering in an aged sherry and brown sugar crust, must be tasted to be believed.

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The desserts, from the Blackberry Tuile with Honey and Black Currant Tea Ice Cream to the Ecuatorial Chocolate Mousse, were simply divine.

Along the way, Brand read “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” an indictment of industrialized agriculture by Joel Salatin that strengthened his resolve to provide integrity in his ingredients. Now, when he’s not working or at home gardening with his three sons, he’s browsing websites like www.chewswise.com or www.blueocean.org to stay up on sustainability and food security issues.

It’s not easy, but it’s been rewarding – and San Antonio readers have just given him a resounding seal of approval, voting Las Canarias Best Hotel Restaurant of 2009.

A potluck for perilous times May 31, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Sustainability, Texas.
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My last trip was planned around a special event organized by San Antonio expressive arts facilitator and playwright Dianne Monroe. 

“I know it’s a long drive, but I’d really like for you to be there,” she told me the last time we met. Now when Dianne organizes an event, I always want to be there. She brings together the wisdom of another age with a childlike sense of fun and wonder and creativity. And when she began talking about The Great Turning, author Joanna Macy’s name for the transition times we are finding ourselves in, I listened. This event was nothing more than a simple gathering, but designed to break the ice to allow us to begin speaking of the previously unspeakable, nameless worries about global climate change, peak oil, economic crisis and pending doom that darken the horizon.

The meeting was well worth the drive; the conversations were more uplifting than disturbing, and the concept is well worth sharing. So I invited Dianne to write a guest blog entry, which I will share with you below. Please drop her a line at dianne@diannemonroe.com and let her – and me – know what you think.

I give you Dianne:

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by Dianne Monroe

I was born with a bit of an apocalyptic gene, so I’ve been watching this global economic unraveling, wondering just how far it will go – at the same time wondering just how much global warming will cause the oceans to rise and if oil will run out before our use of it will make the planet completely unlivable for higher mammalian species.

 Actually, I’m an optimist. So what I really want to know is this – how do we, within this crisis, grow and nurture the seeds of new ways to live with each other and in collaboration with our planet?

I’ve been talking about this with my friends (Tracy among them) and wondering how many similar conversations are going on in living rooms and kitchens across the country – so I decided to invite some friends, and friends of friends to what I called “A Paradigm Shift Potluck – a gathering to vision what it may mean to be alive in this time and place”.

So after vegetarian lasagna, gazpacho and guacamole salad, we gathered to share our hopes, fears and the gifts we each bring to the flowering of a more just and sustainable world.

One person feared seeing her retirement fund disappear, another feared angry, hungry men with guns. One friend brought the gift of organic gardening, another brought knowledge of alternative medicine, still another brought the gift of listening.

People spoke of simpler times and places, of different ways of being and doing. A woman spoke of her mother who grew up on a farm during the Depression, where everyone grew their own food and traded with neighbors for what they needed. Others spoke of time spent living and working in Latin America, how different cultures recycled and reused so many things we routinely throw away.

I wanted to share an approach I’m developing, an easy way into talking about difficult things, that takes us out of our heads and into our hearts (away from our endless “to-do” lists and the hectic pace of modern life and into a place where we can really listen to each other and be heard by others). It’s an approach grown out of my studies in a field called Deep Ecology, that allows us to speak our truths, listen deeply to the truths of others, and seek ways to travel together through perhaps tumultuous times, carrying gifts we will leave for the generations to follow.

If you want to learn more about Paradigm Shift Potlucks, and a workshop I’m developing, called “Nurturing Seeds of Change in Uncertain Times” (I’m offering the first one on June 13), Please email me: dianne@diannemonroe.com.