Archive for September, 2008

The Seasons as a Muse


It is my favorite time of the year again. The huckleberries hang heavy on the bushes that surround the redwood groves here on the first ridge above the ocean, and the wild blackberries tempt me from their thickets as I drive up and down my road. There is a particularly large patch that runs along the fence of the rodeo arena, belonging to no one in particular, but harvested by many. The berries are so plentiful; I can pick a quart in less than twenty minutes without even wading into the maze of brambles. Our Gravenstein apple trees have yielded up their bounty, at least those apples we have managed to save from the predatory teeth of the little dog; which has learned to stand on his hind legs to reach up and grab the unwary fruit.  Each afternoon I steal an hour or two of time to harvest the seasonal abundance. In the coming days, I will begin the process of preserving what I pick. Applesauce will simmer away on the back of the stove, and quart bags of berries will multiply in the chest freezer. Soon the rains will come, bringing the first flush of chanterelles and the elusive Gamboni (roughly translated, “legs”), the wild porcini mushrooms of the north coast. I found my first porcini last year, Boletus edulis, growing alongside the logging road that borders the southwest side of our land. It is said that once you develop the “mushroom eye” and are able to spot the treasures of the woods beneath the leaves of the low-hanging plants, you will forever be drawn to them. I found this to be true, as on the trip out along the very same road, I saw no mushrooms to speak of. However, in a quiet clearing in the misty woods, I came upon my first bolete. After that experience, as I walked back up the road, they appeared out of seemingly nowhere, everywhere I cast my eye.
The days grow shorter, and it is dark and starry outside at five when I first awaken. Even with the morning sun, the temperature remains in the high forties until sometime around eleven. Then it is warm enough to throw open the doors of the house to absorb every ray of that Indian summer sunlight. The shadows close in again around four, and the breeze turns cool once more. The garden is pumping out tomatoes and beans as if it knows that our time together is growing short. I pull up the arugula, which has bolted and gone to seed, and cut the last large head of red leaf lettuce. The Italian salad greens can continue to be cut as needed, and will sustain us through to the damp winter days where the ground will be too wet to support even their courageous perseverance. Tall spikes of artichokes and artichoke blossoms punctuate the far southern edge of the garden, more noticeable now that the fennel forest has folded its seed spires for the season. Next spring’s onions wave their deep green tendrils in the evening breeze. The chard begins to slow its inexorable production of crisp leaves and the pumpkin vines show blowsy blossoms that hint of fall treats to come.
I too begin a season of gathering in. Most of my big events of the summer and early fall are completed, and I start looking to the slower winter season ahead. I force my pulse to slow, and find that, without the ever-replicating to-do lists; I have time on my hand and can turn to pursuits of the home. There is this underlying urge to take the production kitchen apart at the seams and clean every nook and cranny. I hold off for the moment, however, as there are jams and cordials to me made, tomatoes to simmer into sauce, and a rainbow of Gypsy peppers to roast and freeze for the days when the colors of summer’s produce are absent. My sanity in the winter months is directly related to the hoard of summer produce that lines the shelves of my pantry and the depths of my freezer. No matter how much I love the sweet caramel of a roasted winter squash, the peppers and tomatoes of summer beckon with their sweet and sour nuances of sunshine past. I also begin to stock the freezer with braising cuts from my local meat producers; short ribs, pork shoulder, and the whole beef leg bones which will yield beef stock of incredible richness to baste an entire seasons’ meals. I have already made gallons of chicken stock from the multitude of carcasses saved from summers’ grill roasted birds. One of the last items that will go down into the freezer’s depths will be pesto. When my local farmer pulls up the last of the frost-kissed basil plants, I will puree them with pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano and our own olive oil, freezing stacks of half-pint containers of the bright green paste.
Last year, in a fit of anger after a large and ostentatious wedding left me with cases of figs and champagne grapes, I made over ten pounds each of fig preserves and grape chutney. The chutney, called mostardo d’uva in the Piedmont region of Italy, graces cheese plates even today. I am down to my last scrapings of the decadent fig preserves, and hoping to be able to purchase another case of figs this year. Prices are high, but I am hoping for an early frost that will drive the farmers to pick everything at once. The fact that the fruits are misshapen, bruised or frost-kissed makes no difference in the kettle. The recipe is surprisingly simple; cut the fruit into halves, and toss with an equal weight of sugar. When the juices exuded reach the top of the fruit, the entire bowl is dumped into the largest kettle, and a cup of fresh lemon juice is added. The mixture simmers away for up to five hours, or until it is thickened to the consistency of jam. With sterilized jars waiting, I spoon the painfully hot fruit into the jars, seal their rings, and hot process for twenty minutes. The final color is amazing, deep brown and yet golden, with small flecks of seeds. The taste is pure summer, and serves to encourage us through the cold and dark months ahead, with the promise of another summer to come.
Post by Julia Conway on September 24th, 2008

Make Dinner, not War


The last month seems to have passed in a whirlwind of activity. It is as if I was just in San Francisco, participating in the National Leaders’ Congress of Slow Food USA, followed by Slow Food Nation. As project manager for the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission’s event sponsorship, I was coordinating program elements that ranged from guided tasting flights of wine at our table in the Taste Pavilion (5000 people per four hour shift sampling a virtual cornucopia of foods and beverages) to conducting workshops and finishing it all off as tour guide for a Slow Journey to Mendocino County on the final day of the three-day event. From there, it seems, we jumped right into Winesong!, which is Mendocino County’s annual charity wine auction, followed by the County Fair this last weekend. This Saturday, I will wrap up a busy catering season with a wedding for 75. 

As I reflect on the ever-changing slide show of images in my head, I continue to be struck by the opening event of Slow Food Nation. Dubbed “A Seat at the Table,” the dinner was held in the “Victory Garden,” a demonstration organic vegetable garden planted in the center of Civic Center Plaza. Tables stretched around the center of the Plaza on three sides, covered in brown paper and set for seating eight to ten guests per table. The smell of roasting porchetta (a whole stuffed suckling pig cooked on a rotisserie over a wood fire) permeated the air. I fastened my bright orange ribbon, reminiscent of the fourth prize awards at the county fair, to my jacket. I was a designated “table host” whose job it was to greet my tablemates and explain the plan for our dinner together. This was not your ordinary charity banquet, where scores of black and white clad waiters hovered around the tables like a flock of penguins. In fact, it was my job to inform my tablemates that each of them had a role to play. Under each plate was a card that read “server,” “sommelier,” or “busser.” We were all to serve each other, all of us equals at the table, sharing the blessing of the meal to come with everyone there. Was it purely a coincidence that the CEO of the largest corporate catering company in Northern California was to serve us our dinner? On the other hand, his wife was designated to clear our dishes when the meal was over. A local attorney fetched bottles of wine from the proper pavilion, and poured a glass for each of us upon his return.
The conviviality at the table was tangible. Suddenly, we had shed the mantels of our business cards, our name tags, and our places in the society that existed outside the sanctuary of the table. It did not matter who we were or where we came from, the only focus was the food on our plates and the company of those who were gathering sustenance. Each of us reduced to the level of those ancients who huddled around a fire to break bread together. Eating is not a solitary practice, nor is it a spectator sport, as the Food Network might lead us to believe. It becomes the nourishment of our bodies and our souls in the company of those like ourselves, who come together in some instinctual way that no other public forum provides.
It is difficult to imagine making war with someone with whom you have shared the table. Perhaps one of the answers to the almost constant strife between men and nations is before us at the same table. For it is at the table that we become completely human, independent but yet interdependent. Someone must gather and serve, someone must host, someone must clear away what is left and someone must pour the wine that lifts all of us to new levels of consciousness of ourselves and each other. Perhaps it is no accident that more than one ancient religious tradition cites the table and breaking bread as a metaphor for belonging, for familiarity, for safety and for solace. The grace we all receive when we sit at a table together shines like a star in the wee hours, brightly lighting our way home.
Post by Julia Conway on September 16th, 2008