Sunday, August 30, 2009

A cool August morning. A bowl of warm blue barley porridge with buckwheat honey and cream.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pick and Pickle, Pick and Pickle

On Pete and Xander's kitchen counter in Le Gers, the little cornichons reflect a moment of the days work. A highly quaffable, inexpensive and local pink wines is perfect for hot summer days. A loaf of bread, a bowl of ratatouille that begs volumes of words and discourse and Sam's portrait of Mattie the dog. Perfect.

The cornichon at the Little Land produces rapid a succession of blossoms and fruit to seed and reproduce. I undermine it's success. I pick and pickle as fast as I can. Day in and day out. Slowly, the stores are filling.

On the dining room table sits an old American stoneware crock passed down from my mom. Right now it holds about 30 half sours. Before the half sours, it cured two gallons of tarragon vinegar and years of sauerkrauts. The crock's previous life is a mystery but it is a warehouse of beneficial microbes and secret ingredients that provide the layers of patinated smells that shape every batch.

On the counter, to the left of the stove, is a pottery bowl that holds little cornichons in batches large enough to fill a pint sized jar. One jar and two days at a time the shelf in the basement gets a little fuller twice a week. The cornichons are a crispy noisy bite. Picked when tiny, young and crunchy, they sit overnight in a bowl of salt. They weep. They absorb salt. They turn a brilliant emerald green. Then, into a pint jar with a dousing of wine vinegar, add some herbs and something from the allium family. "Shoo! Off to the basement with you!" There is no recipe, just a basic brine adorned with whimsical accessories and the mood of the day. On the six month horizon I can see ham, butter and pickles on a baguette for a gray winter lunch.

The refrigerator has a half gallon mason jar of senfgurken curing. Anthony at Ayers Creek turned me on to senfgurken. Anthony, will pickle anything. His inspiration is contagious. Senfgurken requires large, yellow cucumbers that are lost in the dense vine foliage. No time to lament the lost harvest, these oldies are as good as gold. The recipe uses a similar process as the cornichons but requires mustard seed. Lots of mustard seed. A plate piled high with pale white spears of senfgurken will add a special "je ne sais pas" to most meals.

The half sours in the dining room are a different story. They are the current occupant of the American crock and require testing daily. At this rate, they will be gone on the day they are done. Thirty cucumbers, thirty days. What a pleasure. Everyday the fermentation smells a little different and the texture of the pickles changes. Some mornings, the smell of the live brine escapes and climbs like tendrils across the dining room table, beckoning another taste, another sample and another entry in the pickle journal. It is just so hard to resist.

Peyrusse Vieille

Peyrusse Vielle is a little village in Le Gers. It is at the heart of a triangle whose boundaries are defined by The Pyrennes, The Mediterranean and The Atlantic. Consequently, Le Gers sits where glorious summer thunderstorms are common. Here, the weather is just another guest passing through. Some days you can spend the whole day waiting for this tempestuous and overly dramatic diva to arrive. Some days she is a gentle and constant presence that you hope will stay a while.

Le Gers is the most sparsely populated area of western Europe. The pastoral landscape is cut and divided by valleys and rises that are dappled by sunlight, fields and forests. Life is slow and even tempered. Modernization is discrete. Homes have internet and other conveniences but the landscape is void of visual and noise pollution. The oceanic sky rolls over the horizon, swallowing and releasing The Pyrennes.

The forests are rich in deer, pheasant and wild boar. The communes, or municipalities, annually declare how many animals will be taken from the forests. At the seasons end, there is a feast of wild beasts and jars of fat preserved sanglier go home to the pantries. Of course there are memberships and dues, taxes to be paid, accounting to be done and reports to be filed with the Department. All in all, a good system of wildlife and land management, allocation of food preserves, and the continuation of traditional cultural ways.

Specifically, Le Gers is rich in duck and we ate duck daily. We pan seared magret, the large breasts of the fatted duck, and ate it with bread and salad. We ate duck hearts sauted in duck fat with enough left over for a potato and heart hash the next afternoon. We roasted a whole split duck over the fire in the garden. Not to lose our tacky American roots, we roasted yellow and purple Peeps over the fading coals for dessert.

Duck is the foundation of the regional diet. Containers of duck fat grace the refrigerated shelves in supermarkets and homes. Indeed, the highest percent of people over the age of 90 in western Europe live in Le Gers. They eat mainly duck, legumes, red wine, vegetables and potatoes. The combination is clearly good provided human characters mellow with age.

While my freezer holds pork, beef, chicken, and lamb from the Willamette Valley, it is hard to source good fatted ducks here. Not that there is a shortage of fats in the pantry, but freshly dug new potatoes, or any vegetable, sauted in duck fat are simply dreamy. But my goal is to build a diverse and interesting pantry that is self reliant and seasonal as well as flavor and nutrient dense. All this and a short jaunt to the dinner table. The geographic and commercial isolation of both Le Gers and Transylvania inspire cooking from the source. Limited ingredients are available and markets are a 20 minute drive away. Consequently, creativity and home economy are pre-wired with frugality. But a priceless frugality cannot be imported so it does little for the global economy and is dismissed as seemingly useless and too much work. Ah, but there, for the love of work, go I.

For additional love of work and all things ducky and more in the urban farm world, read Esperanza Pallana's exploits at pluck and feather .

(photo: Peyrusse Vieille from Nora's house)

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Sally in the Fields

After readying garlic, Frumento, Arabian Blue Barley, Fava di Carpino, and shallots for the market I make my way through the rows, roads and mounds of Ayers Creek Farm. As the summer wanes, the fruit blooms in rapid successions. Tens of pounds of Triple Crown and Chester blackberries ripen daily. Greengage plums show off their dusty bloom while tight clusters of yellow Mirabelles weigh heavily on bowed limbs The sweet smell of ripening grapes rides the warm air pockets that drift through the fields.

The cooler weather comes for a brief visit, the light is soft in the fields and the air blankets the valley in worn flannel. The wildlife responds to the shift. The voices of the young Acorn woodpeckers in the oak stand more consistent. The babies are now adolescents and the adults have given way to more freedom. The bees at the marble watering hole are less in number. Perhaps the cooler temperatures require less drinking water or maybe the rich fallen fruit in the orchard provides them with seasonally necessary nutrients. I don't know. But the frogs have moved upland.

The Pacific Tree Frogs, hyla regilla, congregate late winter through early spring in the wetlands and waterways of the Pacific Northwest for breeding. In the summer they retreat to a more solitary existence on land to dine on spiders, beetles and other insects. Because the Pacific Tree Frog is an indicator species it responds quickly to the health of it's environment. In exchange for a good home and plenty to eat, hyla regilla provides pest management services for the farm. Unfortunately, there is no cost benefit analysis of these services into the overall economic profile of this organic farm. For now, these partners get the goodness of caring for the other's best interest and that is not a bad thing in community relations.