Tales of Things

I really enjoyed this story, Tales of Things, on the radio on my way home this evening.  It’s about a resale shop in the UK where a digital artist recorded the histories of the things that people were bringing in to be donated.  Hearing the personal experiences with the random objects being donated (a stuffed bear, a striped sweater, a handbag) gives them an added dimension, one invoked by another person’s memory, and lends an intimacy to an otherwise cast-off thing.

It made me think about the pasta makers in Italy, the olive oil producers in Spain and the Basque fishermen that we talk about to our customers in the Deli.  We like to know who are producers are so that we can tell people about where the food comes from.  Through the telling of a personal experience of being in the fields where the wheat was grown and then in the warehouse where the resulting pasta was slowly drying, or being on the port where the fish are brought back from being caught, or knowing the history of the family growing the olives, it lends an assumed familiarity to an innate object.  To me, its value is increased by tying it to a living person whose mission it is to make that one thing the best that they can.  Sometimes I feel like we’re selling art, and we are- the humble art of craftsmanship.  The humble, unsigned work of sometimes generations of people who have refined their skills and become experts at what they do.  There is a trust to that.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) sounds horrible, and it is when you consider the repercussions.  It’s the umbrella term for what’s occurring in beehives around the world, where essentially what’s happening is that entire colonies of bees are dying off.  The overall cause is still under speculation, as detailed in the wiki article linked above.  Mites, viruses, pesticides, electromagnetic radiation and environmental-change related stresses are all potential contributors.

I learned about CCD years ago during a lecture by a local bee keeper.  He was skeptical about it because at the time there was some yellow journalism about the sudden mysterious loss of entire colonies being linked to cell phone use and GMO crops.  He didn’t think that those two reasons were viable, and with time and research it seems as though scientists have found more probable causes. I hadn’t heard about it in a while, though, until the other day when I spoke with one of the honey producers in California that we buy from at the Deli.

He said that it’s still very much a problem affecting many beekeepers around the world- he hears and sees it every day.  He himself started this year with five hives, and currently has only two remaining.  In his instance, they’ve linked the deaths to a mite that lives in the honey-making cells.  It chews off the wings of the bees, preventing them from being able to fly.  In his experience it’s worse in the fall, winter and early spring.  They’re not able to treat the colonies with pesticides during the honey-making process for fear of it getting into the honey.  There is a new pesticide that’s being reviewed for safety that if passes, could be used year-round to kill the mites.

To put it in perspective, honeybees are responsible for pollinating “about 100 flowering food crops including apples, nuts, broccoli, avocados, soybeans, asparagus, celery, squash and cucumbers, citrus fruit, peaches, kiwi, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, melons, as well as animal-feed crops, such as the clover that’s fed to dairy cows. Essentially all flowering plants need bees to survive.”

PBS is a good resource for further reading.  They suggest a few things that we can do, including becoming a backyard beekeeper, though not everyone has the space or the interest in keeping a hive.  On a more approachable level, you can grow ‘bee friendly’ plants to give your local bees something to pollinate.  Some plants attract bees more than others, but they like large patches of flowers planted in close proximity to one another.

Late August in the Garden

With the days growing shorter and the nights getting cooler, the season is shifting into fall.  South-eastern Michigan’s growing season is nearing its natural end.  There’s still a lot of life in my garden, though- loads of kale and tomatoes, swiss chard, peppers, cabbage, pie pumpkins, squash, eggplant and some carrots slumbering underground.  I took some photos this evening as the sun was setting, as soon I’ll be harvesting and clearing out my rented plot in County Farm park.

Already I’m seeing some of my neighboring gardeners abandon their plots, allowing them to be reclaimed by weeds and grass.  It’s sad to see some produce go to waste on the vine, but Project Grow, the group managing the community gardens, has put out a covered bin to collect unused produce to be given to Food Gatherers.

The Girasol Sunflowers have been quite prolific.  Their smaller flowers range from red to yellow, with multiple buds on a single stalk.

I don’t recall the name of the varietal of small yellow tomatoes here, but they’re deliciously sweet.  Their size is a midway between a plum and a grape, and their flavor stands as a clear reminder that technically, tomatoes are classified as a fruit.

This red cabbage, photographed nestling in its leaves, was harvested just after I took this photo.  The loud, crisp snap it made when I separated it from its stem surprised me a bit.  It was the first time I’ve ever really noticed the scent of fresh cabbage, all vegetal and clean.  Afterward I uprooted some dill that had gone to seed and I felt like I could have spent a long time savoring both smells, so distinct and engulfing as the sun was setting.

The above top-heavy behemoth is an elderly Russian Mamouth Sunflower, it’s head so heavy with seed that it’s slumped over with a bad case of osteoporosis. They were early bloomers- beautiful in their youth, but puttered out in the hot days of early August.

Tomorrow I’ll begin clearing out the squash and pumpkin area of debris.  There has been a fair bit of squash bug damage resulting in the loss of some of the vines.  We’re to have our plots entirely cleared by mid-end of October so they can till the field before winter.  I’m going to miss walking there with my dog, and walking home with a heavy sack of sun warmed vegetables.

Spring tea from Darjeeling

This morning I’m cupping a first flush from Jungpana Estate in Darjeeling, in West Bengal, India.  Ari brought this tea back from Teance, and it’s arguably the best I’ve tasted from the 2010 harvest.

It was just over two years ago that I was in Darjeeling, in March of 2008.  I stayed at the Goomtee estate, and could see the Jungpana estate at a slightly lower elevation down the hills.    You can see the name of the estate on the roof of the building above.

The 2010 harvest was pretty hard fought they had a bad drought through the winter and there was much concern about how much tea they would actually be able to harvest in Spring.  I’ve tasted through about 10 different estates and they’ve reminded me less of what I would expect from a first flush (bright, almost like a green tea) and more like a mid-summer second flush (deeper, more winey flavors).  I’m really enjoying Jungpana’s, though- it has a nice complexity to it and a pleasant, lingering astringency.  It seems like everyone has different opinions about the best way to brew a first flush, but this one calls to be brewed at 205F for 1 minute, and is good for 3 infusions.

Pristine freshwater beaches, tall sand dunes, virgin timber forrests, and the decaying reminants of a once successful farming commuinty.

South Manitou Island, 16 miles off the north-west coast of Michigan, is a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.   In the mid 1800’s- mid 1900’s it was a frequently traveled spot along that waterway, being the only natural harbor between Chicago and Michigan.  In 1901 the U.S. Life-Saving Service (now known as the Coast Guard) built a station on the island to assist ships in distress, though with the advent of new technology, it was permanently closed in 1958.  Around that same time, with boat traffic greatly diminished, almost all of the islands inhabitants left for the mainland.

To get there nowadays, you take a ferry across Lake Michigan departing from Leland most mornings at 10am. The boat docks at 11:30 am and departs at 4 pm, allowing people to take day trips or depositing people for backpacking/camping trips.  On days of inclement weather, the boat will come to the dock, unload and reload, and head right back to the mainland.

We had the (fortunate? unfortunate?) experience of making this passage on a day of high winds, so the open air top deck was not available for seating and many of the passengers became seasick in the rocky waves.  It was thrilling- the boat heaving up, down, left and right, sometimes so high that the horizon line would dip below the bow.   As we approached the deep eastern bay of the island, the waters calmed down significantly and everyone was excited to get off the boat.

We hiked a mile or so through the forest to the Weather Station Campground along the south edge of the island, which has three big group sites and about 18 individual sites, some more separated from one another than others.  We decided on spot #16, nice and removed from other sites, and just off from the beach.  We set up our tent with the door facing the little path to the water.  The waves were constant, cooing up to the shore day and night.

As we walked along the south end of the island heading west and then north, we found a large old house with no indication of date- it was in really bad shape, though the porch facing the waterfront seems to have been recently repaired.  I could have sat there all day.  The photograph below is taken on that porch, and you can see the outline of the sleeping bear dunes on the mainland off in the distance.

Around the bend, we came upon the remnants of a shipwreck from 1960 just off the waterfront.  The Francisco Morazan was a Liberian freighter transporting grain, and on a particularly stormy night it got too close to another shipwreck under the surface of the water.  Forever moored in that very spot, it has become a perch for birds and a stunning image of decaying metal amidst the waves.

The next day we hiked north through the center of the island, past the inland lake Francis.  The schoolhouse from about 100 years ago is preserved in good condition, a relic of the days of one-room education for all grades.  Just north of that we came across the farmlands, situated in the center of the island.  Farmers here were self-sufficient, growing prize-winning rye, beans and peas and raising livestock.  Being so secluded from the mainland, their crops were not at risk of cross pollination and therefore highly regarded as certified seeds.  They made their livelihood by selling seeds and surplus grain to passing ships.   I found this excerpt in one of the farming families history:

Prior to and during the 1920’s, the island played an important role in plant genetics when George Conrad Hutzler and his son Louis introduced a new strain of rye and developed their internationally award-winning Rosen Rye.  Several years later the same Hutzlers introduced the Michelite Bean to the island.  Again, due to the island’s climate and isolation from the mainland, and their innovative farming techniques, the Hutzler’s produced beans that won ribbons in state and international seed competitions.

From there we continued north, past the cemetery and up to the Popple Campground on the northern beach.  It’s quite remote, and the forest trail leading there is beautiful.  It’s the only campground of the three on the island without a drinkable water source.  It’s also the furthest hike from the port, so it’s the least frequently used.  We saw some campers up there that had been at the Weather Station Campground the night before.  They had headed north to get away from the noisy kids that were near their site.

The north edge of the island is quiet and calm.  The black flies seemed to appreciate this fact and were mostly populated there, though it wasn’t too unbearable.  We went for a swim and had some lunch, noshing on crespone salami and piave cheese while we warmed up some stew on our little propane cooker.

Afterwards we headed back to camp.  The nearly 10 miles of hiking around put us in the mood for a nap, followed by a great campfire cooking experience involving a cornish hen on a big stick.  Once the sun set, we filed our thermos with hot chocolate and took a walk along the beach in the moonlight.

I didn’t realize that such a beautiful place existed so close to where I grew up.  Even though it’s taken me 32 years to find it, I’m glad I did and looking forward to visiting again, for a longer trip next time.

Petali Intergrali con le Mandorle

Years ago when I was working at an Italian restaurant in Las Vegas, we used to have a cookie plate on the desert menu.  I’m glad I snapped a photo of one of those plates before it left the window, on some long forgotten busy night in the kitchen.

From left to right are petali intergrali con le mandorle (almond petals), cimbeline (made with white wine and olive oil), anise-almond biscotti, baci di dame (‘ladies kisses’ hazelnut cookies sandwiched with nutella), and viscotta ca giuggilena (sesame cookies with anise essence).

I’ve been thinking about them recently because a good friend used the same recipe to make her own version of the baci di dame cookies.  They were very different and yet equally delicious.  Heli’s post about her baci di dame can be found here.  To add to that, I wanted to share the petali intergrali con le mandorle cookie recipe (pictured on the far left above).  These little almond tear drops are delicious with coffee or tea and not too sweet.  I like how the shape of the cookie mimics the shape of the almond, though I can’t take credit for it- they’ve been a part of the Italian cookie lexicon for ages.

Petali Intergrali con le Mandorle (Almond Petals)

200g butter
180g sugar
½ vanilla bean, scraped
2 eggs
1t vanilla extract
200g flour
150g almond flour, fine ground
50g ‘oo’ flour
toasted whole almonds for decoration

-cream butter, sugar and vanilla bean lightly
-add eggs and extract, one at a time, mixing between each addition
-add sifted dry ingredients
-shape into tear drops with your fingers
-add a whole almond to garnish
-bake at 325f (convection, low fan) or 375f for about 10 minutes, turning halfway through, until golden.