a house with fermentation projects is a happy house

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Here are two homely jugs of happily fermenting homely home-squeezed plum wine. It’s been far too long since I engaged in fermentation projects, and I feel a tear coming on.

This particular project was a medley of expedients. I am bullish on plums, though. One day, perhaps next week, I’ll go land fifty pounds of Damsons and do it right.


the hiatus, and bees

The hiatus is largely due to the death of my vintage laptop last January. A blog is not worth much without a computer, time (new child), or dedication. Perhaps the next year will see me with a personal computer again, and perhaps then I’ll post more here—though I’m imagining the content will be less narrowly focused. I’m tired of talking about food and sustainability. Everybody is talking about food and sustainability. It hurts my brain.

That said, my latest obsession is beekeeping. Beekeeping theory, actually, as I’ve never yet kept bees, nor spent more than a few minutes hanging out with one. But for weeks now, when I’ve not been reading The Sot-Weed Factor, or a high-school electronics textbook from 1991, (really), I’ve been stripping my local libraries and going cross-eyed on the internet, reading about beekeeping theory. In case you’re the sort of person who believes that obsessive research without practical experience by someone like myself is of some value, and you take any interest in bees, I suggest you take a look at the Bush Farms beekeeping site—after much outlandish consideration this guy has me sold.


eight pounds of miscellaneous pig fat

Got a bag of pig fat the other day. About six different types of fat on a pig, to judge from my bag—I’ve written here before about the fat of different animals having different uses, well, I suppose hairs can probably be split indefinitely. I chopped it all up pretty fine for rendering on the stove, a batch of this kind of fat and a batch of that. Just to see what happens. If the skies part I’ll tell you about it.

Got sore hands, nearly a couple blisters, sore shoulders, sore feet, just cutting up that eight pounds fat. Gave me a little new respect I may have lacked for professional cooks, and for people who take down whole animals. I’ve sometimes ambitions to raise a couple pigs. And this is good to know: I can’t just throw them on a table and cut them up, not by myself and not just with a little help. Takes brains.

Next wad of fat I process, I’ll take the fatback and just salt it in steaks. Call that salt pork, people. Call that a huge saving in labor and energy: rendering takes all day on the stove. It’s a process should really be done in late fall, which is really when pigs ought to be killed anyway—then you want the heat, anyway, and the fat might taste better; older animals, finished on the mast crop, if you know where to buy them. But I needed my fat right away, and pig sellers need inventory all year round, so.

I cannot abide by a lack of animal fat. In my house we insist on good things, like in olive oil we must have extra virgin and it must be organic; even by the five-gallon bag-in-a-box pouring the stuff on feels profligate. Our commercial options, frankly, are awful. Like in many things food, there are shades here of be rich or die. Yet, the lard this year is a buck a pound, and everything I could ask for. And I’m a snot.

Sorry I’m writing so funny. Lately I have to take what I can get.


embarrassingly good beans

Dry beans were the first trick, reasonably fresh.
Simmered them up slow, with salt at the start.
Almost done? Added some canned tomato,
and a couple chopped onions,
and a few tiny sprigs of oregano–
and let finish.

Vegetarian even. For Christ’s sake.

If you’re not already aware of it, the dried-beans thing is a revelation. But now I think I’m souring on the pressure cooker too.


home again

but can’t find trowel, pruning shears, or half of kitchen. Garden almost from scratch, orchard hasn’t been worked in at least sixty years—looks like something out of Grimm. Forthcoming. Many things, perhaps.


more sugaring

Here is a lovely piece about sugaring season (mud season, really) in Vermont. Makes me homesick. The author is someone I grew up around, and her family figures large in my earliest memories.


cultivating wild eatable plants

A post by Hank Shaw on cultivating wild native plants—ramps and such. I’ve been intending to do this with fiddleheads—young ferns that people in Vermont eat like people eat ramps in West Virginia. I’ve never found them in West Virginia.

Also, I’m keen on Jerusalem Artichokes, probably the most famous vegetable Hank mentions. More of those in my future.

I’ve noticed, in picking dandelions for wine, that the biggest and healthiest I could find (three to four times bigger than the ones in my yard—handy for such an endless task) grew as weeds in my weedy garden. I didn’t try the greens, though. I wonder how tender they’d be, whether they might not have a longer season than scrubby ones. With pork, they are among my favorite things.


‘old southern apples’ back in print

The classic in what is hypothetically my field, Old Southern Apples has been out of print for years. Used copies were ridiculously expensive. Now it’s back, and the Times has taken notice.

In honor of this joyous occasion (well, reminded) I’ve added a permanent link to Century Farm Orchards, the main commercial outlet for the author’s collection.


reading

An article in Outside Magazine, titled “Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden.” Lovely things like ten foot long catfish, and peasantry to put us to shame.


blood is in the air

Recent reading: Ken Albala’s blood sausage and blood pie and Hank Shaw’s blood pasta.

I’ve been eating a lot of blood oranges as has my young daughter, who is less dainty about it and thus necessarily gives rise to jokes in my presence. I am looking forward to being home and having access to whole animals to eat again, with all their funny bits intact. It has been a question with me as to how much gore to show on this blog. While tact and good taste argue that perhaps one should avoid the impression of gratuitousness (so easily reached when the subject is gore), the counter argument is that taking apart animals, is, well, fascinating. Such a funny thing, how killing animals developed into a taboo. My father remembers the style in which his mother used to dispatch chickens, which to me sounds almost flamboyant—and which I am shy to post here. (And she was one of my more genteel ancestors—went to finishing school in Gulfport Mississippi during the Great Depression.) It was just something that was done.

Dunno. Nothing to fear from me for the moment. I am accidentally living part time in a vegetarian religious community and seem to get most of my protein from peanut butter between meals. There may be a post in me forthcoming, on peanut butter and rice cake subsistence.


we have a lot to learn bout eating

Sauteed up some sausage and threw in some bitter greens and some salt—ate with bread and butter—wife says, “why don’t we eat like this all the time?”

Good question.


my over-light roasts aren’t, after all

It turns out than when, numerous times over the life of this blog, I have modestly claimed that my cast-iron-in-the-oven green coffee bean roasting technique was inadequate for evenly roasting light roasts, I was wrong.

The characteristics that I used to judge a roast as under-roasted—difficulty in grinding (I use a hand-grinder), over-light body, and a peculiar and (to my stomach) somewhat unpleasant acidity—these characteristics are all alive and well in the coffees (nearly all of the coffees) roasted by a number of über-fashionable San Francisco roasters.

I just don’t like it.


they would [maple] sugar but for so much boiling

“Some time in February, we scaffolded up our fur and skins, and moved about ten miles in search of a [maple] sugar camp or a suitable place to make sugar. . . . We had no large kettles with us this year, and the squaws made the frost, in some measure, supply the place of fire, in making sugar. Their large bark vessels, for holding the stock-water, they made broad and shallow; and as the weather is very cold here, it frequently freezes at night in sugar time; and the ice they break and cast out of the vessels. I asked them if they were not throwing away the sugar? they said no; it was water they were casting away, sugar did not freeze and there was scarcely any in that ice. They said I might try the experiment, and boil some of it, and see what I would get. I never did try it; but I observed that after several times freezing, the water that remained in the vessel, changed its colour and became brown and very sweet.”

–James Smith, in his An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, of 1799. I found it in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984).

McGee goes on to note that “Despite the last sentence, this early version of freeze-drying would not of itself have turned the sap brown and developed the rich flavors we associate with maple syrup; these are the result of browning reactions that require high temperatures. In all likelihood, the nightly frosts were used to reduce the sap to volumes more easily handled in clay pots.”

This isn’t accurate, the bit about caramelization, incidentally, as any neophyte sugarer who has tried to make dark grade B syrup out of Fancy grade sap can tell you—and I can verify, from experience, that indeed freeze-concentrated sap does darken of its own accord. But as he says, freezing will only take sap so far, no matter how cold it is on however many successive sugaring nights, and the effect ultimately of this freeze-drying is only to reduce the volume of liquid that must be boiled to a more manageable level, for cooking in clay pots or indoor kitchens alike, or (as could be much more widely done that it is at present), to reduce fuel consumption for professional operations considerably.

In a primitive fashion this is still done, small producers who still use buckets typically discarding the ice that forms in the top of their buckets every morning, but the technique, I think, will bear refining. I suggest also broad and shallow pans, perhaps sleds, if you have them, and are on the cheap, as I am. I’ve also fantasized about putting such pans in a greenhouse, to freeze at night and evaporate by solar energy by day. Dunno. Might be worth trying, for the types who might try it.

The syrup itself, freeze concentrated and before you boil it, is, besides being quite thin, a little more fresh and tree-ee tasting. I’m sure a market could be developed for it, raw syrup or somesuch. Naturally, I plan to ferment it one of these years.

But the question of volume, how one must boil off forty gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup, and how this can have a way of steaming the wallpaper down in your kitchen if done too quickly, to say nothing of the fuel usage—is a key impediment to the home sugarer. Still, using this method or no, I recommend home sugaring, even if only from one or two trees. A quart of syrup boiled off slowly on the wood stove is free, and will hurt nothing.

Apologies for overlap with the previous post.


maple sugaring in your kitchen

Just a quick post, now that it is sugaring season in West Virginia. I made two gallons last year, mostly from one good tree. In the vein of encouraging posts I sometimes post here, I want to encourage you if you have even one decent sized tree somewhere convenient, to go buy a couple three dollar taps from your hardware store, hitch them up to milk jugs or something, and boil off the sap in your kitchen, or on your wood stove. The main thing to consider is, that in the boiling of sap to get a gallon of syrup, you’ll have to boil off some forty gallons of water. This is the reason that even slightly serious sugarers do it not in their home kitchens. But, with just a couple taps, not so much a problem.

The other question is when to stop boiling, but this isn’t so important. If you over-cook it, it will crystalize, and you’ll need to reheat it and add water. If you under-cook it, it won’t be as thick as it might be, and will go bad faster.


in San Francisco

Accidentally, I’ve wound up in San Francisco for the winter. Olives are dropping from trees on the streets, and I’ve been saving some for bringing home, and growing the pits into houseplants. I’ve read you can expect a crop from an olive tree in a pot, but even so the foliage is beautiful.

Also, the plum trees are in bloom. My grandmother-in-law, for some 45 years a student of Zen, told me the other day that in Japan plum blossoms are a symbol of bravery, on account of that they are the first fruit to bloom in the spring, and thus the most likely to lose its crop to frost. I like that, thinking of them as brave, rather than stupid which is what some farmers I know have called them.

The apples here are boring compared to what I’m used to in the east, but then with demand sucking them up so fast this year, the apples left in the east this time of year, at least in Vermont, are pretty boring too. More disappointing, the citrus available here, that I’ve seen so far, has not knocked my socks off. And I came too late for persimmons. But the new-harvest olive oil is in, and a joy.

Restaurants are pissing me off, as typically too precious or pretentious or expensive, often all three. I am beginning to turn against this new foodism, as readers know. But here it’s as bad as anywhere.

On the other hand, wine and cheese availability, considering only that which I can afford, is stunning, and there are shops that hurt my heart to be in, to be surrounded by such plenty, with the expectation of being able to enjoy some of it. I am currently drinking the best bottle of wine I’ve probably had in six months, a Fronton from Chateau Flotis, the second bottle I’ve bought in the city, and I spent on it $12. Gorgeous.

But I’m missing West Virginia. While I can buy fifteen varieties of mushrooms here quite easily, I’d rather learn to pick them in the woods myself for free. And make cheese, and cure meats, and ferment cider, and everything else I do and want to do, and can do there, without being a rich man. And eat no worse than a rich man. Except, of course, for wine. Achilles heel of us here at the antipasto.