Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Valley Food Exchange

One thing about being surrounded by farms (and orchards, and vineyards, and...) is that you're surrounded by food--inundated by it, even. And since those who grow it have a vast oversupply when it comes in, as one person/family's cup runneth over all available storage it overfloweth toward everyone in sight. Or maybe, people are just generous. Still, it's kind of cool to watch resources spread all over the place, more or less of their own volition.

Part of it, and maybe the beginning, is the borrowing thing and the helping-out thing. The canonical example there is Jill's trailer. A good trailer is one of those resources that (for most people) doesn't get used enough to motivate the buying of it (I was shocked to find out that a decent trailer--sans engine, sans drive train, sans passenger accommodations, sans a radio even--costs nearly as much as we paid for our little car), but Jill has a good one, and she freely lends it to anyone who needs it. In fact, the main challenge in using the trailer (besides turning it around in her drive) is tracking down who's got it at the time. Huge win--for hauling compost and fence gates and sheep shit there is no substitute--and we generally leave her a pottle of Krys's jam or a bottle of wine in thanks.

Reciprocity also comes into it when you go to someone's house. By some historical convention, rigorously honored, Kiwis will bring their own drinks to dinner, and the first question on everyone's lips when you invite them over is "What can we bring?" For Movie Nights this is a great thing, as it provides us with Michelle's lovely "puddings", a term which, again mysteriously, covers all manner of desserts. Being half-French, she was "in heaven", as she put it, eating the homemade bread and jam that Krys sent her.

Helping out also seems to put people in your debt. I helped Eamon and Wendy sort out their computer problems by finding them a decent used machine and getting it up and running. Before I knew it, I had one of the best scores yet: Eamon rang me up and offered me a whole wild pig that he'd just shot. We trundled over to his brother's coldstore, where indeed there was a 100+ pound carcass, all black bristles and tusks and mean-looking eyes. We spent a half hour or so cutting it up, and before long we had wild boar sausages, guanciale and a prosciutto hanging in the cheese fridge, not to mention a freezer full of random cuts. Back at them, we brought sausages to a barbecue and had them over for a nice chile verde. And so it goes.

We went down to Christchurch last weekend and stayed with Jessica, who is bending under the weight of all the Black Boy peaches falling from her backyard tree, entirely unbidden. (new category of produce: organic by neglect) What could we do but help her out, picking through the groundfall on a cold Canterbury morning, sorting out the bottling/cooking peaches from the pig peaches from the dead loss? And now Krys has sore hands from trimming peaches and we have six or eight big bottles of canned peaches on the pantry shelf.

In general, Krys's jam turns out to be excellent currency for compensating favors and greasing the social skids, but she's ramped up that act by an order of magnitude this year with tomatoes. The polytunnel turned out to be a boon for production. Between that, the number of volunteer tomato plants popping up all over, and her unmoderated tendency to experiment--I'm not sure there's ever been a new variety of tomato she could say no to--we've got tomatoes coming in by the truckload. Fortunately, a lot of other people seem to have had troubles of one kind or another with theirs, so the floodgates are open. This year, Krys is the Tomato Lady. Nobody who comes over gets away until they've taken on a big bag of luscious fruit. Then there's all the surplus eggplant, sweet peppers, eggs and even chickens to dispose of.

...and it comes back, too. Eamon and Wendy come over bearing bags of Asian apples and pears; Uwe shows up with a box of his exotic-variety apples (trust a German to know apples), and more nashis, and quince; Debbie comes with lemons and limes; Janet brings oranges and tangerines; David shares his early apples and pears, and later his own quince; Deborah copes with her raspberry surplus by making, bottling and bequeathing a beautiful raspberry coulis; Dorit comes over bearing cucumbers and pickles. Rowan, the neighborhood's serious farmer, opens his heart and his shearing shed, pulling up great big sections of floor so I can dig out trailersfull of sheep shit for the garden. And Jenny and Jeff invite us over to get groundfall organic apples for the pigs, throwing coffee into the bargain along with a heaping helping of grapes and cherries.

I don't mean to imply that the tit-for-tat is all that rigid. The connection between giving and getting is pretty loose--as it must be, when things don't come in at the same time. But there's no getting around the pleasure of giving, and of getting, and of feeling like people sort of help take care of one another. It's another lovely strand in the social fabric.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mussels from the beach

There's this thing around here of late-middle-aged men mountain biking. Women too, though there's an edge missing there--the edge that I too cultivate not having, perhaps out of orneriness, or contrariness, or perhaps I'm just a girlie man after all. Maybe the guys really are into fitness, or that endorphin buzz (though maybe not; it COULD be cannabinoids, which is funny on its own), or just proving you're not getting older. Be that as it may, I ride with these people, and follow them on their not-obviously-insane jaunts, but I take up my place at the rear of the pack and stick to it. (This is the kind of thing that makes a virtue out of having no pride.) I think of it as a humanitarian gesture: I make it okay for anybody else to be a loser. You know how a road event will have a support vehicle tracking the last participant? I like to think of myself as the spiritual support vehicle. To sum up: there's a 70Km ride through rough country next weekend, with the biking crowd traipsing off for the death march/ride, and I'm going to be doing my best to not do anything.

But I'm not above a little training.

...and so it was that on a lovely Sunday morning I set out with the Mothballs on a three-hour ride up in the hills. The usual: starting from down near the river and pedalling up into the forestry tracts that blanket the hills from there to Kahurangi National Park on the Tolkienesque mountains beyond; the usual epic views of the river and Tasman Bay beyond; and the usual alternation of cool pine forest and blasted moonscape (after the trees have gone). I don't know the elevation profile--600 feet up? 1000?--but it gets fairly grunty for a fairly long time, then it's ride down and down on a rutted, eroded four-wheel-drive road that makes you (makes me) feel like 10 years old again, riding the corrugations, skidding through the turns, splashing the streams, riding the gravity. Took my first spill of the season too, not quite making it out of that one rut, hooking my front wheel and taking a nice sail over the handlebars. I guess my judo training when I was six years old still pertains, because I got up wondering what had happened, back covered in dust, a little stunned but with no internal injuries in evidence.

After getting down from the hill, five or six miles of (PAVED!) country road following the river upstream, and that was three hours, and that's the preface to the main event: Krys had the brilliant idea of taking a picnic to the beach. We wrangled the majority of the biking crew and hit the beach at Kaiteriteri. There's a reason they call the area north of there Golden Bay: the sand really is gold in color, set in a sweeping curved bay, surrounded by hills and rocky outcroppings, and if it weren't for the pile of white-elephant houses--really comical in their desperation to impress--thrown onto the hills, it would be the perfect getaway.

There are two things I've fully articulated only recently, not at the same time: First, I hate swimming. Paddling about inshore is one thing, but from the moment my feet leave the bottom I never lose the feeling of thrashing to stave off drowning. But, conversely, I really enjoy swimming with a mask and snorkel. It's actually relaxing, it's fun, and it's entertaining, what with the clear view through the glass. So off I went across the bay, enjoying that marvelous jade water, swimming amongst the rocks and fish, passing from cool water to currents of warm. My aching muscles sang with pleasure.

After twenty minutes or so of that, I came out, lay down on the blanket, and had the sweetest nap I've had in an age; exhaustion from the ride toned by relaxation from the swim, just yanked down into somnolent bliss. I eventually emerged from my coma to the gang lollygagging about the beach, in a virtual fugue state of idyllic splendor, time passing idly by. Drinking beer, nibbling on cheese, tomatoes and fruit, shooting the shit and in all ways doing exactly what the moment prescribed: nothing much of consequence, everything to do with savoring life.

So what does this all have to do with eating? Well, like basically every rock offshore in this country, the underwater territory at Kaiteriteri is generously festooned with mussels, generously sized. So after briefly weighing the trouble of going out to get them against the fact that we haven't had any mussels this year, I took a plastic grocery bag into the water and plucked a few dozen for me and Krys. At home, they got steamed open in garlic and wine, then joined with chorizo, tomatoes and other savories in a Portugese pasta sauce that we ate at sundown with just the right wine. If that sounds like rather an anticlimactic punchline to such a long story, consider it as icing on the cake of a super day.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Eggplant Rules

Can you imagine anyone waxing rhapsodic about eggplant? Pretty weird, huh? And yet...

We planted the polytunnel (plastic greenhouse) with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and tomatillos. The polytunnel was a raging success, so now we have a raging excess of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and tomatillos. The eggplant in particular is hard to avoid. Everyone LOVES tomatoes, but eggplant is sort of the homely relative at the wedding. It arrives in these enormous, appealing lumps with that alluring color, but they sit there on the counter, daring you do do something useful with them.

And what DO you do with them? Most traditional uses start with frying, which in my experience means that the lump of appealing color first gets turned into an oil-soaked sponge before anything else happens with it. We've always had two alternatives to that course, one of them pretty much an end in itself and therefore not much use for anything else. You can 1) slice them thickly, brush with oil and grill them in the oven (avoidance of frying); or you can 2) cut them into cubes, toss with a little olive oil, and bake them into colorful, reasonably tasty oven fries.

But not this year. This year, I'm amazed to report, eggplant has come into its own. It has won a place of honor on the Upstill plate. More important, most of the deluge from the polytunnel has actually found its way into our stomachs rather than the pigs'.

The first stroke was from Deborah Madison (Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone). It turns out that you actually can sautee eggplant without it taking up a significant fraction of your annual uptake of dietary fat. Starting with cubes the size of a fingernail, you heat up a regular amount of oil, add the eggplant, toss to distribute the oil, and carry on sauteeing. Like the guy said about torture ("The trick is not making it not hurt; the trick is not minding that it hurts."), you just resolutely deny it any more oil. Keep sauteeing over medium heat for about 15 minutes, and you get tasty, texturelicious cubes with just the right amount of browning. DM then tosses it with garlic, parsley, toasted pine nuts and a little olive oil, and what do you know? You get an actual, bona fide vegetable out of it! Marvelous picnic food.

Extending the concept, Krys suggested: Why not try dry-frying it? So I put it in a hot non-stick pan that was just filmed with oil, and kept tossing until I couldn't stand it any longer, then added a tablespoon or two of oil and tossed a few minutes longer, adding some salt and pepper at the end. Again with the tasty morsels! Again with the conservation of the cooking oil. Again with eggplant turning into an actual vegetable!

Thus emboldened, I marched confidently into a recipe for Sichuan-style eggplant with bits of meat and a hot, oily sauce. Oh, the glories of Sichuan. Oh, the caloric price to pay, for the first step is the dreaded deep-frying of the eggplant. But the recipe waxed so rhapsodic about the melty texture of properly fried eggplant, and so emboldened was I by the sauteeing success, that I did something I haven't done in at least 30 years in the kitchen: I loaded up a frypan with a real depth of oil and went for the gold.

And it worked! Now, granted, I was using Asian eggplant, which, even after you cut it into chunks, still has at least half its surface area covered in oil-proof skin. So that's cheating a little. But still: I heated the oil quite hot from the get-go, added not too much eggplant at a time, the better to maintain that roiling fry temperature, but still did a not-small amount of eggplant in two batches. And when it was done, there was very little less oil in the pan than when I started. The eggplant was indeed creamy, with a lovely caramelized outside, and if you squeezed it, did it exude oil? It did not! But when it was joined with the aforementioned hot, oily (and meaty!) sauce, it was eyes-rolling-up-in-the-head good. We'll be revisiting this area of Sichuan real soon now.

But still, there's that pesky onslaught of eggplant to contend with--not to mention the peppers and the tomatoes, etc. Come on, we're only two people. We can only eat so much sauteed eggplant with parsley and pine nuts, no matter how scrumptious it is. I don't know how it happened, but early this afternoon the light came on. Even if it took a while for the vocabulary to render up the name (vanishing verbal memory: I hate it), can this be the answer? Caponata: Sicilian relish of eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and a laundry list of savories including celery (yes! Sauteed celery! Who knew?), garlic, capers, olives, vinegar and herbs. Italy's answer to ratatouille it is, and my question is, Why can't we bottle this stuff up and have a blast of summer whenever we want it?
Well, it appears the answer is, Why, no reason at all, grasshopper!

It turns out you can't swing a dead cat at our bookshelf without hitting a recipe for caponata, so popular is that concoction. I don't know, maybe there are a lot of polytunnels in Sicily; can somebody address that question? Anyway, it's one of those basic ideas with a million variations: olives or not; capers or not; hot peppers or not; even sweet peppers or not. But the basics are clear: you're looking for a jam-like consistency, vivid flavors, tomatoes as a binder rather than an independent element, and a maximum distinction between vegetables from cooking them independently. For crying out loud, have you ever heard of sauteeing celery all by itself? Then tossing it with fresh thyme? Only at the end, for the last two minutes of cooking, do you put it all together.

So we took a batch to a birthday party tonight. It didn't eclipse the guest of honor, and there were a lot of dishes there, but it definitely left the also-present ratatouille in the shade: vivid flavors, still-distinctive textures, and many different flavors swirling around in the mouth, of a brightness that you only get from just the right amount of cooking.

We're definitely going to be finding some space on the pantry shelves for a big pot of caponata. I definitely like the idea of opening up a jar of summer on a cold spring day when the garden is just getting started.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Animals Amok!

Not long ago, we made the annual trek to Totaranui. The best way to summarize Totaranui is: New Zealand has marvelous parklands. It has epic, underpopulated beaches. And family camping is the national recreation (unless you count watching rugby as a recreation, but that's another story). Totaranui is the place where all three are at a peak: at least a half mile of gently curved, golden-sand beach with that wonderful jade water (and an estuary that drains with a very rideable current when the tide goes out), and a rough but convivial campground, all several miles of gravel road into the Abel Tasman National Park. Plus, no cell phone coverage! Plus plus, ...or Internet!!
Our gang typically go for a week or more around the end of January, us for four nights this year. The venue is a particularly lovely enclave, a bush-enclosed "bay" on a cul-de-sac. One rolls up, pitches the tent, and gets right to work eating, drinking, reading, basking, strolling, swimming and yakking, with the occasional feint toward something resembling exercise, like an hour's hike or a bike ride up the hill in. Yes, it's every bit as idyllic as you imagine.
But this year we have animals: a cat, two pigs, four chooks (chickens) and seven head of cattle of various ages. They don't need a lot of attention, but they do need to be fed once or twice a day, except for the cattle, who are content to browse and drink from the creek. One of our neighbours volunteered to look in on the others for the three days we'd be entirely absent. We showed her the drill, said See you on Wednesday, and buggered off to paradise.
Well, it was a holiday weekend with Monday off, and three repetitions of "We'll be away for four nights" wasn't enough to convince her that we weren't coming back on Tuesday. So when we rolled up to the house, the animals were 48 hours away from the last human intervention, which was instantly made plain when the pigs strolled up to greet us as we got out of the car. This was a lesson in how big our pigs are and how strong their snouts/necks are, since they had punched a hole right through the chicken-wire fence that I erected back when Miss Piggy was not much larger than the cat.
Of course their first target was the chicken enclosure, since it has the only standing water around. They made short work of the fabric bird netting there, and so the chickens were also casually wandering about, scratching, uprooting and generally bringing their birdie brand of low-key chaos all over the place. But the pigs had burrowed themselves some nice cool holes against the heat, snagged all the grapes they could reach, and generally made themselves at home. They seemed quite proud of themselves as they ran up to us as if to say "Hey Mom, Hey Dad, look what we did!"
As for the cat, you'd think he'd be fine with or without us, since he's perfectly content to eat birds and mice and drink their blood. But he was nowhere to be found. I don't know whether he decided to flee the porcine chaos or went off hunting for a more dependable home, but we didn't see him again until well into the next day.
Oh yeah: where the hell are the cattle? Normally, they're happy down by the creek, but not now. So as the sun set on our paradisaical retreat and memories faded like the pit crew in the rear mirror of a dragster, Krys and I patched up the chook enclosure, herded the pigs back into confinement and wired the fence back together, and I set off in a hunt for the cattle. Indeed they were where they couldn't be seen from the house or the drive, among the wee young trees on the back part of the property. They were amenable to being herded (all except Psycho, of course), and with only the usual inconvenience of setting up a tapeline to funnel them into a gate, everything was battened down by bedtime--though not before dark had descended far enough that Krys thought I had fallen into some gully or gotten trampled by some panicked steer.
However, there was long-term blowback from this debacle. It turns out that animals can acquire a taste for freedom. Now that the cattle know how to get out of confinement, they periodically stop their browsing, lift their doey eyes to the hills and the trees and the places they're not supposed to go, and tramp over the fences in their quest for adventure. (Of course, "adventure" mostly means eating grass on the other side of the fence/property, but there's no accounting for taste.)
...and the pigs now, when they get out, there's no way to get them back but with the prospect of food. So they now have the irresistible double call of the wild linked to their piggy bellies. The day after our return was Movie Night. We had three groups of people show up, and each group got the same reception we did: two not-small pigs trotting up to them with the silent and in all ways unremarked but still unmistakable message "What'cha got for me?" All three times we tossed some food into a pot, lured them back into the pen and did a patch job on yet another breech. We finally had to lug the cage from a trailer into position on the outside and use it to weigh down the fence wire. I don't know if it was really effective or the pigs just got too full to bother, but it held them for, oh, 24 hours.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reticulation Blues


...is where the water comes from. It turns out that in the country, where water isn't piped to every single house, getting moisture is an issue, and access to water is a key differentiator between properties. Is there a spring? Can you put down a bore and draw from the ground? Do you live near a river and have riparian rights? Or is the hill on whose shoulder you live seeping water day in and day out?

The water comes down the gully you see to the right. We have a pipe that runs upstream about 500 yards from the storage tank you see on the very left, which is about 70 vertical feet and several hundred more horizontal yards from the house. The good news: we have access to all the water we can use--lovely, tasty water--for flora, fauna and family. The bad news: if something goes wrong, there's well over half a mile of places to look for trouble.

You don't want to know all the ways it can go wrong, even if I could tell you, which I can't because, of all the things I'm sure of, I'm most sure that we haven't seen all the ways it can go wrong. But on the house end of things, we've been experiencing a slow-motion disaster that was built into the way the system was put together. You see, we filter the water, using two filters in the garage which collectively remove everything larger than a micron. Which is great, because the drip system in the garden doesn't eventually get plugged as though by an infusion of concrete. But on the other hand, it means that all the faucets in the yard, all the water used for irrigation in the garden, on the lawn and for the trees runs through two filters which, replaced on an annual basis, aren't a big deal, but get to be a serious fiscal annoyance when they slow the house water to an exaggerated trickle on a weekly basis.

So this week's project is to tap into the water on the way down from the tank, distribute it to the garden (with robust new pressure that would allow us to sprinkle more than a couple of square yards at a time), get set up to irrigate the soon-to-be-planted row of wind-shelter trees (that's next week's project), get easy water to the pigs and provide water in two paddocks for the cattle, allowing us in turn to fence off those paddocks, enabling us not only to plant trees along the drive but to free us and all our guests from opening and closing two gates between the road and the house. You can see why it's important.

It all begins with tapping into the pipe on the way down to the house from the tank on the hill. Which means finding the pipe on the way down to the house. Under at least two feet of dirt. Where the ground has enjoyed fecund growth and prosperity. Where there are new fences and all manner of earthworks having accrued since.

Here, this is what I mean. Before:

...and after:

The one feature in common is the gate at the bottom. The right-hand gatepost started both the old and the new fences. The water pipe follows the old fence to its right, then veers left toward the house. What path does it take? Where does it veer? Where does it wind up at the house? i felt confident that the pipe crossed the other new fence...somewhere...probably.

This question haunted me for weeks before the water guy showed up, primarily because I had volunteered to find the pipe before the water guy showed up, so we could proceed with alacrity to install all the nice new water features festooning the plan. It all depended on finding...the damn...pipe. And I had to find it armed with nothing but my wits, my shovel and my grubber.

After much poring over the pictures above, noticing irregularities of growth in the paddock, feeling about for an indentation in the ground and throwing the runes on the full moon, I carefully scraped the grass away from a small patch of ground near the first fence post away from the gate on the house fence. Not a bad guess, don't you think? I agree, and so you can imagine how gratifying it was to notice, in that small swath of ground, that the bare patch revealed earth that had a visible change of color. Cleared a little bit more ground, and the change seemed pointing in the right direction. Cleared a foot or so away, and the color changed back again--and again in the right direction. By god, this looks like a trench.

Let me pause here to remind you of something. I'm 57 years old, and I haven't done genuine physical labor since shortly after high school, an experience which provided all the motivation my young self needed to get into a professional position to pay OTHER people to dig ditches for me. In other words, I'm a thinker, not a digger, and let's face it: 57 is a bad time to start digging ditches. Not to mention the fact that I was less than 24 hours off of a four-hour, 19-mile biking expedition, most of it cross-country. And also: I had two other trenches to dig for the project.

So digging this ditch was hard. My 57-year-old body had been dreading this task for upwards of a week, a dread which turned out to be strangely prescient.

...and in the opposite corner, weighing in at 54 billion metric tonnes, nemesis of farmers throughout the district: Moutere Clay! Moutere is the territory stretching from here to Tasman Bay, and its soil is best approached with heavy machinery, if not tactical nuclear weapons. It chuckles condescendingly at hand tools. The best you can do is chip away at it with a grubber, pausing regularly for the catching of breath and sober reflection on lifestyle choices.

Thus, you can imagine my excitement and rushing relief at how obviously it was the right place to dig, the earth being marginally less rock-like than the surround, the color continuing to be correct. And indeed, it came to pass that when I was about two feet down, my shovel struck a pipe. Could it be true? Could I have nailed it so exactly? Incredulity raced in my head with the joyful anticipation of having this monkey off my back, both whirling furiously about—until, that is, I noticed something peculiar about that pipefall, a certain scratchiness, a hardness, anunyielding metallic quality that, no denying it, was far out of character for the plastic irrigation pipe I was looking for.

But surely not. Surely it's impossible that there would be a metal pipe up here, in the middle of nowhere, agriculturally speaking, in this exact spot, pointed in exactly the right direction for my house pipe. Surely...not...

Well, it was. It was an old, rusty pipe, planted exactly where my grail should have been, its trench a snare and a delusion. I had to pack my celebration back in its bag and face starting over.

I'm going to fast-forward over the next part; you don't want to read it and I don't want to write it. The telephonic huddle with the guy who entrenched the pipe in the first place. The clearing of about 30 linear feet of ground in vain hope of finding a similar vein. The water guy arriving this morning, and the hours of discussion, photo-scouring and rune-tossing with him (which actually made me feel better, because he was just as flummoxed as I). More scratching at the surface a due with him. The late-morning throwing up of hands and running to the rental place for a 1 1/2 ton digger. The better part of an afternoon digging down, and along, and back, over 75 feet now, ever downward through strenuously uniform earth. The thrashing and convincing ourselves that it must be over here, no, over here, no, if we just dig a little farther...

Cut to 3 PM. Frans is dejectedly pawing at the ground with the digger, and I'm taking one last look at the photos. Finally, I become possessed by an iron certainty that the pipe must be running between the first two fence posts. To hell with it, who cares if we break the pipe? Dig, dammit!

And so it was, that about 3:30 PM, at a depth of two feet plus, we struck water. It gushed and sprayed from the pressure coming from the tank, and we gushed in turn, for our open-ended sentence, the mystery stretching out before us, leading who knows where, now had an end.

When the waterjet subsided, and our jubilation with it, it was then that I realized: the pipe we sought? It was right there with the metal pipe I first struck--I mean, less than a finger's width away, and the merest millimeters lower. It had been there all the time.

Aliasing: it's a bear.