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cukes
“If you think I am going to make
A sexual joke in this poem, you are mistaken.”

So says Robert Hass, in his playful poem, dryly titled “Poem With a Cucumber In It.”  The poem contains etymological musings on “cumbersome” and “encumber,” musings on the Berkeley sky, memories of travel, and a rough recipe for cucumber salad with dill and yogurt.

Perhaps the most famous poem with a cucumber in it is “The Task,” published in 1775 by William Cowper.  Like Hass’s, this poem contains something of a recipe: for growing a hothouse cucumber.  Cowper meditates for pages on the challenges of growing this sun loving plant in the English winter.  He describes the construction of the greenhouse, the creation of fertile soil out of a “rage of fermentation,” the coddling of seeds and sprouts, the fertilization which in winter requires that “assistant art/ then acts in nature’s office.”

The cucumber takes on social significance as well.  It is the object in a meditation on two main topics of eighteenth century political economy: value (“when rare/ so coveted, else base and disesteemed—/ Food for the vulgar merely”) and labor (“To raise the prickly and green-coated goard/ So grateful to the palate […] is an art” requiring intensive, careful labor unappreciated and unacknowledged by the wealthy purchasers of winter cucumbers).  Cowper advises “ye rich” to “grudge not the cost” because:

Ye little know the cares,
The vigilance, the labor and the skill
That day and night are exercised, and hang
Upon the ticklish balance of suspense,
That ye may garnish your profuse regales
With summer fruits brought forth by wintry suns.

Cowper’s socioeconomically-conscious advice might sound familiar to those of us who write and think and read about our current food culture: learn about how the foods you take for granted are grown; don’t take them for granted; consider the farmer’s labor; grow some food yourself; keep a compost heap; build a cold frame; consider the social and economic costs of unseasonal foods.

To read this eighteenth-century meditation on the economics, culture, and cultivation of cucumbers is to be reminded that our current “good food movement” exists in an historical context.  Skepticism about and moral indignation toward the modernization of food—whether that means hothouse-cultivation, refrigeration, or genetic modification—is as old as modernity itself, and probably older.   Praise for farmers and their ancient art—and injunctions to praise them—are as old as the art itself.

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hi

hi

I spent the morning in the Pomfret, Vermont hills among cows and affable, talkative farmers happy to have me help to spread their gospel: eat locally and sustainably, and preserve the traditions of good food and respect for the land.  I’ll save Cloudland Farm for another post, because my visit to Thistle Hill Farm was so involved as to have me elbow deep in the copper vat of warm curds and whey.  This was the warm soup that would become the delicious, nutty Tarentaise.

John and Janine Putnam, the owners, farmers, and cheesemakers, were nice enough to let me watch and trail along and ask questions while they dealt with their uncharacteristically chaotic morning: it was a cheesemaking morning, which involves precise timing; and one of their cows had escaped the night before in search of a private place to birth her calf.  When I arrived with my sister and our two sons, the Putnams were harried.  John was measuring the temperature in the vat and watching the clock, while running in and out of the cheese house, changing his shoes each time, to keep dirt out of the cheese room.  Janine was walking all around the steep hills of the property searching for the new mother and her calf.  “Some are good mothers, some are bad.  The bad ones will just leave the calf, and we have to find it.”  They both disappeared for awhile, and Jack and Jeremiah found the Putnam children’s old tractor toys in the back of the barn, and played happily.  I snooped around the cheese house, where there is a wall covered with awards and accolades for their organic Vermont alpine cheese, named Tarentaise, and made in the style of the alpine cheeses of France and Switzerland.  On the wall a map of this region shows, with red circles, where the Putnams traveled with their four children, almost ten years ago, when they decided to make real cheese.

pasture

pasture

curds & whey in copper

curds & whey in copper

Jackboots

When we all bustled back into the cheese room with too big boots, Andrew, the Putnams’ 21-year-old son, was there to help his father lift out the heavy curds.  My glasses fogged up.  It was much hotter and more humid in the room, and the air smelled both sweeter and more acidic.  The curds had reached one degree shy of the critical 48 degrees Celsius.  John said he can tell where it is in the process by the smell.  When he was apprenticing, he said, he was told that at a certain point, “just put away the instruments and the thermometer.  Your senses will tell you what you need to know.”

the cheesehouse

the cheesehouse

The American consumer, too, is learning to trust and hone his senses when it comes to cheese (and wine–the two go together).  The kind of business the Putnams run, and the kind of cheese they make, are helping to put Vermont in the vanguard of what some are calling the good food movement.  Consumers–literally–are willing to pay good money for good food.   John and Janine can speak both poetically and pragmatically about their chosen methods.  They love their loyal local customers, but they also love selling their cheese to D.C. restaurants.

Suddenly, John was gone again, and we found him and Janine in the barn with the newborn 45-pound calf and its mother.  They’d been at the top of a woodsy hill, together, and Janine had carried the calf on her shoulders back to the barn.

the newborn

the newborn

John ran away again, this time to the house to change his clothes and shoes.  You can’t go in the barn when you’re making cheese.  They even have the cheesehouse uphill and upwind from the barn, so that its “perfumes” won’t be detectable in the cheese.  The Tarentaise, instead, will carry the aromas of the terroir—the characteristic soil, grasses and forages of the North Pomfret hillsides.

Then, it was time to lift out the curds, with huge pieces of cheesecloth and one foot against the wall—so as not to fall into the vat when leaning down to scoop from the bottom.  John and Andrew worked together wordlessly, in sync, with the familiarity of father and son and habit.  They make cheese every other day.  “Cheesemakers don’t need to go to the gym or to the spa,” said John, in constant movement in the humid room.

curds 1
curds2

curds3

They first lifted the huge sacks of curds into draining-compressing vats, and then, after about 15 more minutes, when the curds had glommed together in big jiggly discs, John sliced them into quarters with a chef’s knife, and lifted the sections into the round containers where they’d be compressed with the weight of 65 pounds.

curds4
curds5

Then they cleaned up, which was a time consuming and wet process.  Part of the clean-up is lifting the “pig cheese”—the curds left at the bottom and no good for cheese but good for the local pigs—out of the vat, which John let me do.  (I’m using my teeth as a third hand to hold the corners of the cheesecloth.)

cheesecloth

then to the aging room

then to the aging room

The Putnams have an eloquent website which describes their practices and tells their story.  Here are some of their links:
About the farm
Story
Home

And don’t forget to heed Janine’s advice:

Janine's shirt

As for me, I’m already looking forward to the Norwich Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning, when I can buy some more of the delicious, honey-colored Tarentaise.

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wagon

Strawberries were the totems of childhood today, at Cedar Circle Farm’s 7th annual strawberry festival.  Of the milling, stooping, picking, licking population, about two-thirds were fewer than four feet tall.  Many wore the totem on their shirts, hats, or cheeks. The folks at Cedar Circle make this day as much a celebration of childhood as of strawberries and local food in general.  There were three horse-drawn wagons, a mural-drawing section of the barn wall, a coloring station, face-painting teenage girls, a sandbox, strawberry smoothies and shortcake, coffee for the parents, puppetry, kite-making, tractors to sit on, and live music.  And, of course, picking.

tractors

wagon ride

We hit the face-painting table first; the boys both got trucks.

my son, the sceptic

my son, the sceptic

cheek truck

Then we walked around the food stations.  There were local sausages from Hogwash Farm on the grill, organic pizzas cooking in a wood-oven on wheels, and strawberry shortcake with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream from Strafford Organic Creamery.  In honor of this berry, which has been cultivated since medieval times, everything was very forward-looking.  The food was served on compostable dishes with compostable utensils; there was a complex trash station.  Near the coloring table there was a photo-and-text display (a low-tech, stop-time PowerPoint presentation hung with clothespins) about “The Real Costs of Cheap Food”, which included descriptions of chemicals that flow and leach from non-organic farms into ground water, lakes, and rivers, and a definition of food miles (how far a food travels from farm to table, with the fossil fuels required a big consideration), and some charming spelling errors.  There was also a photo-narrative of strawberry growing, from bed preparation during the winter to picking in June.  This display included lots of pictures with hay around the edges, in the middle, and present as a general tone (hay keeps down the weeds) as well as shots of very tan, lightly clad interns happily working the dirt.

real cost

Cedar Circle grows eight varieties of strawberries, and an array of vegetables—all certified organic.

and flowers

and flowers

My mom and I, with the occasional help of Jack and his cousin Jeremiah who preferred sitting on tractors, and my sister, Bridget, who helped them up and down the tractor steps, picked four pounds of berries.  We chose two varieties: Wendy, known by its petite size and light sweetness, and Mesabi, which is bigger, and almost raspberry-like in flavor. The plants were so high that lifting the leaves to look for spots of red was like opening the curtains—in a doll’s house.  The pleasure of discovery became addictive.  It’s hard to stop, even when the basket’s full!

Strawberries fresh off the stem, warmed by the sun, melted into juice in an instant in our mouths.  There were many worshippers.

worshippers

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24farm_190

There’s a great little article in the New York Times today about liberal arts undergrads getting summer internships on organic farms. I like how Kim Severson, the NYT food writer, commends the idealism and willingness to act of this “new generation,” but also winks ironically about the ways in which undergraduate idealism and willingness to work aren’t always equally calibrated.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/dining/24interns.html?_r=1&hp

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We went to the first farmers’ market of the year at “Ag Heritage Park” today in the drizzle.  I and everyone else there seemed to be wondering the same thing: why aren’t there more farmers around here?  The line for the most varied vegetable selection was almost thirty minutes long. The berry farm stand ran out of strawberries at ten past the opening hour.  Peaches were gone by the time Jack and I made it out of the veggie line.   Hundreds of people arrived in the first hour and stood around in the rain, beaming at each other as they hefted canvas bags full of local lettuce, peaches, cucumbers, honey, cheese, and eggs—if they were lucky enough to get some before it all sold out. There’s so much pent up demand for fresh local food, and too few CSAs and small farmers to meet it with their supply. This may be because the market is young in relation to the agricultural history of the state, in which commodity crops like cotton and lumber dominated.

The exciting thing, though, is that small farms are popping up or remaking themselves to meet this demand.  And if you ask around enough you find out about other producers who have been in the area, quietly serving up their grass fed beef or organic greens for decades. (For example, the Ritches of Goose Pond Farm, one of whose scrumptious chickens we enjoyed with friends the other night.)
fm haul
Jack and I took home a small haul: red leaf and butter lettuces, an armful of baby summer squashes, veggie goat cheese from Bulger Creek Farm in Notasulga, and some honey.

Eggs were available, but we already had a dozen of the local “Frank’s Famous Eggs” in the fridge.  (Their yolks are molten orange! And if you happen to eat a supermarket egg when you’re used to the density and flavor of these, you’ll say: what’s this tasteless rubber?)
frank'sThe lettuces made a crisp bed for some eight-minute eggs.

salad

I roasted the summer squash in a skillet with olive oil, salt and pepper, and a sprig of backyard rosemary.  Jack insisted he didn’t like “fwash” but he ate every sweet and salty morsel.

squash

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oh, great.

Frito Lay and Pepsi Co. are attaching the adjectives “local” and “sustainable” to their products and practices:

Here‘s the NYT article.

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