Fall on the Farm

 

Ah, Fall is here. It’s about time.

I am longing to wear sweaters and warm snuggly boots.

I lust for loud snow, crunchy beneath my boots as I wander our pastures capturing images of worn barns that have fed and housed generations of families and livestock. I love how they look stately holding snow off the charges they house.

I long for chilled fall evenings around the fire holding hands, toasting marshmallows and laughing with family.

It’s been a long, hot, wet summer. Before I know it, I know I will be longing for summer days again.

Such is life. We often find ourselves craving what’s next instead of realizing what’s important is right before us.

Maybe it’s age, my time simmering here on Earth, listening and learning. God’s way of giving me just enough insight to realize it’s time to pay attention.

My dog Moose and I recently took a road trip. Moose is a rotund, eight -year old hound dog that’s become a couch potato since he’s been confined from running free and hunting at will. He is a great cuddler. I set out on a mission to surprise my mom and family in Connecticut and also give the old dog his first long road-trip.

It turned out we both got so much more from the journey.MVIMG_20181005_144520

Moose got a renewed love for life. Perhaps it was visiting the beach for the first time.  The vast ocean ahead of him, he ran on sandbars and was allowed to wildly chase the birds (an action he is sternly scolded for on the farm).

Perhaps it was a new smell every day from the farmlands of Virginia to the city smells in Philadelphia to the shore smells of Long Island Sound and Cape May, New Jersey.

Whatever the case, I came home with a newly energized dog.

And me? I filled my soul with the sounds of family around the table. I celebrated my mom’s 83rd birthday over three separate dinners with nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters, friends that are family and new grand nieces and nephews. It was great to pause and celebrate them all.

 

It was great fun – just Moose and me – driving familiar roads of my youth; sitting in my best friend’s living room where I grew up. There were no locked doors between our homes as kids, whether I was in her house or mine, I was home. Her mom reminded me of the time she was in the tub and three-year-old Michelle opened the door to ask if Alice was home.

“I was sitting in the old claw tub. Do you remember? I said, ‘no Michelle, go back home.’” she laughed.

I suppose my three-year-old self-figured I was home. I can still remember plenty of times sitting in their kitchen at the green Formica breakfast table eating snacks while waiting for someone to come home and play with me.

My trip was filled with such memories. And great bear hugs. And laughter.

Next, Moose and I loaded the car with a New England seafood feast and set off for New Jersey to catch up with Danny’s family. More laughter. More joy.

And it warmed my heart to have his brother pause to take a family photo, adding that their parents, sister, and brother –  would have been proud to see them all sitting around and sharing a familiar feast. Something their mom Janet would have loved. Danny grew up in a large family of cousins and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. Through the years, life has taken many of those people from the table and left them only in their family’s hearts. They come alive again when they gather at the table. For me, that was another miracle of the journey. I love to hear Dan and his brother tell their sister’s girls about their mother Rebecca who died when the girls were young. I love to watch the “boys” and catch a look on their face as a laugh or a glimmer in their niece’s eyes brings Becca back to life in the room.

Again, I had a moment of feeling blessed to have so much family to celebrate. I used to think my family was a little on the small side – we didn’t often connect with cousins and aunts and uncles. This next generation of Moran’s is different. I am grateful for their connection to family – because around the table it is a sight to behold.

My only regret is that my Dad died when I was young and his branch of the family tree became neglected. Some of my fondest memories as a kid was visiting them and playing with the huge Irish Catholic brood my Uncle Pat and Aunt Mary brought into the world. And the startlingly honest and funny conversations I would hear at my Aunt Ann and Uncle Vincent’s house.

My drive gave me time to relax and remember all these things. I had time to hear my own thoughts. Now, I am looking forward to pruning and feeding those connections to my Dad again. I look forward to a warm Spring with new buds and blossoms. And as winter approaches, I feel less a sense of loss of another summer and fall, and more a time of celebration preparing for a new year of family and friends; births and deaths; joy and sorrow. No longer will I mark another year gone by with regret, but look forward to gaining more appreciation for each moment, each person, and my own mark on the world.

My only hope is that decades from now, when those I have touched in this life sit around a table to celebrate is that they remember me fondly. I know I will do the same.

Barbecue, BBQ, Bar-b-Q, Barbeque

What is Barbecue? Is that one of the most loaded questions in the South?

I must admit, I was born in the North. And while my heart is Southern now, I am still one of those uncommitted barbecue enthusiasts.

I have a confession to make, and I will apologize now, but growing up, barbecue to me meant grilling hamburgers and hot dogs. You really must forgive me, but the reality is that when Dad really spiced things up we had Italian sausage patties or Polish Sausage.

There wasn’t a lot of red sauce in my house growing up other than ketchup, and well, red sauce.

Simple BBQ Ribs Recipe and Video - Simply seasoned ribs are boiled, then oven baked in the barbeque sauce of your choice for easy BBQ ribs.

Mom’s Country-Style Chinese Ribs.

And when my mom made ribs – it was with those big, chunky country-style ribs with that sticky sweet Chinese barbecue sauce that comes in a glass jar. I can still remember her brushing it on with her little basting brush she used for chicken. And I remember giggling with my sisters at the name “Ah-So” sauce.  “Say it five times fast,” my sister would dare.

 

Mom cooked those big ole stocky “spare ribs” in the oven. Man, I loved them, even though they resembled pork chops more than the slab of baby back ribs I know and love today.

So, when I am asked to judge barbecue greatness? Well, my ratings are somewhere between the Texas comparison of dry rubbed, bark-o-luscious beef ribs from Black’s and the green tomato kimchi topped pulled pork sandwich at Heirloom BBQ in Atlanta.

It’s all simply beautiful food. And to me, what matters most is the time and love that goes into the preparation.

BBQ is very personal, regional, and always argued about. Everyone has their way of doing things and bitter fights and rivalries go on all the time. BBQ politics are unbelievably intense.

Kansas City versus Texas versus North Carolina versus Georgia. It sounds like a college football gameday. It may as well be on that level since the argument over who’s barbecue is best is really the equivalent of the hottest college football rivalries. Like Georgia and Alabama.

I love them all. To some people that is sacrilege, but to me, each region has its pros and cons.

Sorry.

Personally, I think it’s all about the meat and the smoke. A good dry rub is essential. The best BBQ has no sauce at all, just a hint of spice from the dry rub and the intensely sweet, meaty smokiness of good care and technique. The best BBQ is made with slow-burning woods logs and chunks. Also, the meat should be cooked slowly, smoked more than seared. As much as 12 or even 18 hours, and if it’s less than four forget it, you’re getting fast food.

Lovers of Barbecue argue there should be no sauce on the meat. I am with that one because to me that is the difference between great and everything else. Great BBQ doesn’t need help. Sauce is help. I am of the camp that sauce belongs on the side.

Some places care about the sauce. They’d serve meat like my mom would fix up with a yummy secret-recipe sauce. If I am going to pick a saucy side, well I must admit I am a mustard girl or even sometimes a white sauce girl, but then there are my Georgia tangy sweet heat moments.

Okay, whatever. I like them all if they are good.

White bread versus Texas toast is another quandary for me. You must have bread with BBQ, but should it be toasted? I just can’t decide here. I like that slopped up Wonder Bread on the typical southern plate, but I would rather eat Texas toast. My only problem with the toast is then I want a sandwich.

One of the things I have no opinion on is Brunswick Stew. It makes no sense to me and everyone has their own crazy interpretation. I am sure there is some purpose for it, but whatever it is I don’t get it.

Now, mac cheese on the other hand. I am specific on my likes here. Creamy and smooth is a must at a proper BBQ and topped with slightly toasty breadcrumbs for some added texture. Not at all the same as baked mac cheese that I want to get at a southern table service restaurant.

Speaking of table service. A good BBQ place rarely has table service. In fact, some of the best ones I have ever been to are like long cafeteria lines and you’re just happy to get a tray.

Texas has the beef going for it. From brisket to beef ribs, I gotta say my best beef was in Texas. I can still taste those first bites of Black’s Beef brisket in Lockhart and the near-immediate feeling of my heart valves clogging from the rich beauty of it all.

Massive Smoked Beef Rib On Butcher Paper.

Texas barbecue with pickles and onions.

Then there are places like Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta in a small place next to a liquor store, along a busy service road for the Perimeter. Heirloom is not the easiest restaurant to find, but it’s worth the journey.

The food at Heirloom is simple and honest – my kinda food. They fuse both Korean and Southern flavors, the natural product of two chefs with two very different backgrounds working together—Jiyeon Lee was a young pop sensation in South Korea, Cody Taylor a self-described hillbilly, raised in Texas and Tennessee.

And now, I would like to know what you think.

What’s your take on meat versus sauce? What’s your favorite side? Do you have a favorite region? What MUST a BBQ restaurant serve on their menu? What is the best fuel source? How long should meat be smoked? Dry rub? Brine? Oh, there are so many questions to ponder!

Send me your photos of your favorite places from around the world – from barbeque to barbacoa.

And now, let the arguments begin….

Neighbors & Nations

Do I want to really say I have been pondering my next blog post for a year?

No.

But well, I have.

And I have had great thoughts and major subversions.

And finally, I am here. Computer keyboard and a blank slate. And babbling words.

The past year has been a whirlwind. No, not really. It’s been a tsunami, followed by a hurricane.

And yet. I am at peace.

We have opened two new restaurants. Fought floods of criticism from old clientele and old-timers. Everything on arguments about the proper way to cook veal to the proper way to hay a field.

But the main argument of late is how to be a good neighbor.

And really this final argument is the one that matters most.

Fence In Disrepair At Sunset On An Autumn Evening.

Whether it’s nations or neighbors its all the same subject and somehow we have really lost sight of the importance of it all.

And that is our word.

I was raised in a town where we knew our neighbors. And well, as it happens, turns out my Dad had a neighborly conflict I had no idea of while raising me at the beach in Connecticut. Seems folks who had been around the area forever were part of a neighborhood beach association. He thought, when we moved there, our house was part of the same block. It was, after all, in the neighborhood. So I guess he figured he had the same rights as the landowners who came before.

He was wrong.

I don’t really know all the ins and outs of it – but I guess the families who I know now as my childhood influencers and best friends – let him know in no uncertain terms that we weren’t welcome to visit the beach.

From what I understand from my best childhood friend, there were some words. And Dad did what he always did he talked and persuaded his way into the association. Don’t ask me how. He was a charmer.

Fence In Disrepair At Sunset On An Autumn Evening.

But it’s odd because I always felt there was something different about our family the whole time we grew up there. Like we had something to prove.

I guess the neighbors were not as welcoming as I thought, maybe my young empathetic mind caught the story that was being tossed to me.

And it’s a shame. I always felt as though my Dad kept trying to prove himself and I never understood why. He was successful and handsome and a good provider. And no matter how, at the core, we were different from these people born and raised in the neighborhood. We were great neighbors.

And despite how I felt. I was still raised to be a good neighbor. An upstanding member of the community. A business person who gives back more than they receive – and I hear my Dad whisper that in my ear every day.

My partner is the same way – we were raised on your word is …well…your word.

There is nothing more important.

And while we all continue to argue borders and neighborhoods and walls and fences and guns and well – argue everything – I guess I have been searching for a story in all of this. Some sort of meaning I can tell my children and they can tell theirs about these years.

But I have nothing. Because even in these beautiful hills and mountains, I have discovered that sometimes walls are more important to neighbors and neighborhoods than a simple word.

And that is sad.

And so I take solace in my animals. My chickens, passersby can attest, know no fence line. And my pigs, well they yearn for open pastures and one blade of grass is as delicious as the next.

And my Pyrenees guard and respond with one word from me – or even one look. We know we can trust each other.

Because, after all, that’s what it’s all about.

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The Perfect Adoption

This New Year brings us exciting news. We worked to create a vision for the next 10 years for our company and part of that was building our restaurant properties to a place where we could own the land beneath our business. Along with that goal, comes many other desires for both creating a place where our staff can learn alongside us, and a place where our guests can come and relax for more than a meal.

As we were working on these concepts, an opportunity arose. Our friends Isabella and John Molinari decided it was time for them to take a break from the business. We’ve known them for more than 20 years. We all operated restaurants on the same small island in Florida decades ago.

When we first bought a second home in Blue Ridge nearly 15 years ago, we were excited to be able to escape to such a beautiful place. The only thing lacking in our visits was a food scene in the county. But we were happy to relax and cook at home.

After a couple of years of traveling to town from Bonita Springs, Florida, my friend Lisa Mitchell told me about a new restaurant. It was Valentine’s Day and I wanted to surprise Danny with a dinner out. I must admit I smirked when she told me I needed reservations in Blue Ridge!

But I jotted down the name of the new place – Cucina Rustica – and I called for reservations when I got back to the cabin. This loud New York voice came on the phone. I started to spell our last name M-E-L-L-M-A-N … ‘What!” the voice on the other end said. I started to spell it again and he interrupted, “Mellman? Danny Mellman.” I handed the phone to my husband and he and John began one of their normal loud conversations back and forth.

And that was that.

Dinner, of course, was fabulous. And whenever we got to Blue Ridge without the kids we’d stop in and grab a bite.

After a few years, we sold our restaurant in Florida. I told Danny he had to take three years away from restaurants. I continued running the magazine group I worked with in New York, and Danny began writing, traveling and catering. And then his restaurant bug came back.

You can’t keep a chef out of the kitchen.

Many of you know our story. Danny wanted to open again in Naples, Florida. I wanted to move to Blue Ridge. Somehow, my prayers were answered and our friends Randy and Janice Durden offered us the opportunity to create a restaurant downtown. And Harvest on Main was born.

Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think I would somehow become so involved in Danny’s business. Now, our businesses.

Never, did either of us imagine we’d be creating the vision that we now have for our restaurant group, our staff, our family and our community.

But here you have it. John and Isabella have decided to retire (I am sure for just a moment or two) and we have been blessed with the opportunity to adopt their restaurant babies and add them into our growing family.

As of Jan. 4, 2017, Cucina Rustica and La Pizzeria are now part of the Lit’l Pond Hospitality Group – joining their sibling restaurants – Harvest on Main, Masseria Kitchen+Bar and The Blue Ridge Fry Shop. Along with our 30-acre farm, the new property completes one portion our Vision 2027 plan.

We are excited for John and Isabella. We are excited for our Group. We are thrilled to be continuing the traditions that John and Isabella have created both at Cucina Rustica and La Pizzeria at Cucina Rustica – from great food, to great family to great fun. They have created a destination and we are so inspired to be building on their vision and traditions.

As fate would have it, we had also planned a trip to Italy with our Partner-Chef Ryan Beadnell to learn more about pasta, cured and aged meats, and traditional methods. We hope to inspire Ryan with the sense of place we feel when we are in Europe. We want him to find motivation in the emotion of days spent immersed in Italian life. We look forward to bringing all this new knowledge back to our group.

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And so, it is from a coffee shop in Parma, Italy that we write this note. It’s still crazy to imagine that just a few short days ago, we closed on the purchase of two new restaurants and then boarded a plane to Italy. Crazy and nerve-wracking juggling whether to stay open or close with a snowstorm headed toward our businesses. Fielding calls and e-mails, coordinating the call to close up shop and preserve the safety of our precious staff at all our locations.

What a whirlwind.

And so, we pause here in Italy and think of Isabella and John. We hope the snow gave them a chance to stop as well. I hope they are relaxing at home sitting by the fire celebrating the fact they don’t have to shovel the driveway to the restaurant or call all the staff.

We hope that all our guests and friends in Blue Ridge are as excited as we are about our new family members. We hope the loyal friends of Cucina and La Pizzeria are thrilled for Isabella and John, and have no anxiety about our new role in their former business. We want only to continue what they have started. We welcome your advice, your friendship and your ideas. We are excited to have the Molinari’s talented staff join our team and we cherish each of them as well.

And with that we want to share with you part of our Vision 2027, to give you a sense of what we envision. The vision is what we see for ourselves and our business group 10 years from now. Cucina and La Pizzeria will live and grow where they are now on a property we have named Terra Madre:

Blue Ridge itself has continued to grow and developed into a creative landscape of food and art. There are breweries, wineries……. The train continues to entertain, but a wealth of additional outdoor and indoor attractions have come to fruition that continue to build and strengthen the economy of the region. The old town main street continues to thrive along with the outdoor adventure area- but the food and art scene is building and driving the new growth and customer-base.

Terre Madre is the center of the energy. Our properties evoke a sense of place. Our central location is reminiscent of a small, town center with gardens, chickens, bees and entertainment. Guests come for the experience of not only great food and great service, but to connect their food to a sense of place.

And that is what we see for ourselves, for our business family, for the county, and for all of you – our friends.

Cheers!

 

Danny, Michelle & Ryan

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Dreaming of Castles & Clams

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There is such a sense of place for me in Portugal. I have never been able to explain why – it’s just a comfortable feeling like going home. I recognize the people as they pass by me as if I have met them in some other life. I somehow was raised on their cuisine. I crave the classic Portuguese dishes of Bachalau and traditional Amêijoas in garlic, wine and butter. And while I have never been a fan of the cheese danishes and pastries my husband adores, well, don’t get me started on Pastéis de Belém or Queijadas de Sintra

And still, I have no explanation of why everything in this country is so familiar to me. And why it beckons me home.

When I was a little girl, I would argue my unwinnable arguments with my older siblings explaining that “when I was big” I had done all these things before and knew all this information. It was only because I was reduced to being small again, that I had forgotten what I once knew.

It’s like that for me in Portugal. I feel like a small child again ready to have that same strange argument that would explain it all – When I was big … I was Portuguese. I have been here before; had these conversations; devoured clams on the beach. It’s odd.

I don’t speak Portuguese. I do understand bits and pieces – mostly because my Portuguese friends toss in words of English so I can almost follow the conversation. But the language has never been a barrier for me. The Portuguese are a friendly tribe, the nearly always break into a smile when you pass. And that is such a thing to see especially on older folks with weathered faces who smile true greetings every new person they meet.

The countryside itself is a mix of children’s fantasy and grownup dreams, Old World charm and amazing natural beauty. Everything and everyone is embodied in this country.

I am inspired by the water. By the care that’s put into securing each stone in the sidewalks. Being raised in a disposable economy, I have always relished in the care and love I see in restorations of old buildings and spaces. Portugal embodies this sense of pride in its history, construction halts when Roman ruins are found in the base of building renovations. Excavations are often done bucket of dirt by bucket of dirt, so that the structural integrity and history of the building is not impacted. The bones remain strong ready to support the next generation.

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The castles are well-preserved visions of my own childhood dreams. Romantic turrets where the prince can climb up and rescue me. Draw bridges to keep marauders at bay; and even complete cities walled behind their own comforting blanket of stone. In a day and age when building a wall has become such an awful metaphor for exclusion, Portugal’s walls are art and history. The invite you in. They sooth my soul with the stories they tell.

Every time I return I am home again. And every time I return home, I bring a piece of Portugal with me.

 

Springtime Chores

I sit, watching the sky darken, and contemplate the task of mucking out our sow’s stall. I need to dispose of the straw she’s kept so warm for her litter this winter, the lice have not died off despite bone-chilling weather.

I’ve finished my basic daily chores. I revisit the list in my head.photo 2(1)

Quail, fed, watered, eggs collected. 

Rabbit’s hutch cleaned. Now the doe h  as some space to run from her growing 4-week old litter. 

Fed, watered and collected eggs from the chickens.

Fed watered and collected eggs from the geese.

Inside the house, the eggs get piled up in a basket; quail eggs and chicken eggs separately. Goose eggs go to the garage for incubating, although today I pack a half-dozen to send to a friend in Louisiana to hatch under one of his broody Cotton Patch geese.

Just as I close the package for shipping, I hear a commotion from the geese. I glance out the window expecting them to be in the pond mating. I can barely see the tops of their heads pointed down and straight out chasing and yelling at something.

Slipping back into my boots I run down the hill to chase away whatever predator might be there only to discover one of my ganders tearing into a hen. He simply hates the chickens and during nesting season his fervent hatred of them only grows. I gather the hen, take her to the barn and make a nest for her near the quiet rabbits and quail so she can rest and recover.

And then the rain comes. I don’t feel like mucking a pig’s pen in the rain. I decide to procrastinate and do the office work piling up on my desk instead.

A normal day on the farm.

When we moved to Blue photo 4Ridge full-time six years ago, my husband Danny and I believed there would be a wealth of farmers ready to quench the unending thirst of our restaurant for fresh product. As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. So I began to look more fervently for some space to plant heirloom produce and specialty herbs. We happened upon a small 1.5-acre parcel in town and turned into a sustainable homestead project to illustrate what anyone can do in their own backyard. It’s a great testament to the fact you don’t need 40 acres, or even 10, to have a homestead. Even a small acreage such as 2 or 4 acres can provide for a family.

The Cook’s Farm, as we aptly named it, is a good example of what you might call an urban (or suburban farm). It’s a small footprint, but produces enough product on its ½ acre garden to supply specialty items to the restaurant, feed kids during our 2-weeks of Farm-to-Fork camps in the summer, and have some extra to spare. Our chickens keep the classes, family, and CSA customers in farm fresh eggs.

My idea of homesteading is committing to self-sufficiency on whatever level you are comfortable. For us it encompasses growing and preserving food, specifically growing and saving heirloom seeds. I focus on raising animals on the American Livestock Conservancy List – breeding for meat while preserving the longevity of the breed.

Ultimately we’d like to provide our own electricity with solar or wind. I will probably never make my own fabric or clothing, but some homesteaders take the self-sufficient moniker to that end as well. Ours is a more measured approach – one that fits within our lifestyle and abilities – which I believe is one of the most critical parts of homesteading. Diving in without testing the waters is a recipe for disaster.

Chickens are a great place to test your skill set and desire. It’s where I began, researching how to build a coop; chicken attributes (layers versus meat chickens); and how to care for chickens. I was immediately hooked. Be sure to find out your local laws to make sure it’s legal, and then determine whether you have the patience for baby chicks or want to start off with pullets or hens. Honeybees are another great project for a small farm. Other than the investment in equipment and seasonal tasks, they are very self-sufficient.

The change came for larger scale production after we were gifted with a Duroc pig for the holidays in 2013. As little Noel grew into a 200-pound gilt, we knew it was time to find a bigger space. And we definitely needed to find one outside the city limits (it’s never a good thing to get a call from the neighbors to let you know your pig is heading down to Main Street).

Now we have a 28-acre parcel, slowly making the transition from the space downtown. Here, we make our own cheese, can our produce, gather our own honey, save our own seeds, and preserve our own meats. I have learned how to give an injection; hatch out chicken, duck and goose eggs; I know how to break ground and plow; how to make a cold frame; how to install an electric fence; and how to deliver and nurse piglets. We make our own sausage and hams, gather our eggs, and grow our own produce and herbs. Of course all the best product goes to the restaurants first, and the remainder is used at home.

There are plenty of things on my ‘learn to-do list’ that I will need to know with the new farm. The first on my list is to train a guard dog for our poultry and geese. We lost two of our Cotton Patch Geese the first month – a blow to my spring breeding program with the American Livestock Conservancy rare breed.

I don’t really have the desire to learn how to butcher small livestock like rabbits or chickens, but luckily that side of the equation is addressed by Danny or I can trade services with friends. One thing that homesteading has taught me is how to swap, barter and network with like-minded individuals. It’s always great to meet someone with a boar to mate with your sow; or someone who want to raise the same rabbits so we can track and trade breeding stock.

I would like to learn the differences between trees and the unique properties of various types of wood, something my husband can readily do. We’d both like to learn how to witch for water with a forked branch or a bent metal hanger (not really at the top of the list but a cool skill nonetheless). I’d also really like to learn how to reaphoto 1(1)d an almanac and to milk a goat.

I really need to learn how to set an ear tag or tattoo for animal identification. I have the tools just not the heart for it yet.

One skill homesteading has truly given me is the mental and spiritual skills to realistically deal with life, death and failure. That’s something no career or relationship has ever taught me so completely.

Items I treasure (aside from my family and animals)? I have to say, my very own tool set – including my own drill (which was my favorite Christmas gift this year).

Now, I really need to learn how to properly use the rest of the tools in our basement.

Well, that can wait until the rain passes.

Farm Girl Learning Curve

Farming is a new aspect of my life. Our passion for food and ingredients has always brought us to the doorstep of farmers and markets around the world. From the hawker food stalls in Singapore and Taiwanese night markets to Seattle’s Pike Place, Barcelona’s Mercat de la Boqueria, Tel Aviv’s Food Stalls, and the open-air markets of Athens, we’ve searched out and eaten our way through some of the best markets in the world.

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Basque, Spain

We plan our excursions and vacations around food. And when we haven’t mapped out these edible details in advance, as soon as we land in a place we interview locals about not only where they eat, but where they shop. How does their food arrive to their town or city? Are there farms nearby? Fish markets? Fabulous butchers or bakers?

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Pike’s Place Market..

And whether we were searching out great cheese in Israel or Washington State, we were always happier when we could visit the cheese maker; see the cows and the goats and the people behind the final product.

So when we found ourselves settling down in Blue Ridge, planting personal and business roots, we discovered the fine food craftsmen we yearned for were just outside our reach. Our restaurant space came with an ample space for an herb garden, so I began there planting between traveling and writing for my old Executive Editor post and helping to get the restaurant up and running.

I immediately wanted more space. So when a small one-acre property came available in town we expanded to plan a garden and cooking school. My altruistic plans to build a community center to teach less fortunate people how to become self-sufficient off the land, quickly proved itself to be a full-time job and one I could simply not do alone. Working the tiny parcel itself was more than I imagined. Weeds don’t sleep. And the chickens we inherited on the site needed more space and attention than I thought in that first year. And so the building, although renovated, never took precedence over the garden and animals and our other projects in town.

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The girls – Kudzu, Freckles and Amelia – came to us from Flip Flop Ranch in California. Descendants from the original Tom Walker Cotton Patch restoration project.

And still things grew. And I added heritage Cotton Patch Geese. And we built our first Farm to Table camp for kids (who are much more forgiving about incomplete kitchen spaces and imperfect facilities) who taught me that digging for potatoes can be an aerobic exercise and watching chickens play tomato football never grows tiring.

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Our first hive was courtesy of Linda Clement, but we lost it along with many folks in North Georgia last year. This year we’ve begun anew with four hives. We’ve already expanded one in less than a month’s time. They are hard at work!

This year we are on our third growing season at what we fondly named The Cook’s Farm. My geese are hatching goslings. My chickens are fervently trying to hatch chicks arguing with me each time I gather eggs. And I am learning, finally, the definition of patience and perseverance.

I may have had perseverance in the past, but never patience.

The garden itself is a lesson in time management and science. There is proper rotation. The elements of compost and getting the right mix of nutrients into the soil. We do everything by hand – adding organic nutrients to the soil and gathering seeds at the close of each growing season.

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Pappa Prince and gosling Alli.

Add to that this new part of my world – animal husbandry – and you have more science lessons – biology and medicine. Subjects foreign to a woman who has made her living the past 20 years through the written word.

This spring season of birth and growth has been particularly trying and joyous for me. I have learned how the seemingly incredibly simple process of hatching an egg is such an intricately difficult process of nature. It boggles my mind how the egg develops, the hatchling flips and pecks and rolls inside to make its fight out of the safe shell where its life began.

This season I learned the hard way the delicate balance that’s needed for successful hatching. The first time I incubated eggs two years ago was when we purchased the little house downtown. A roaming chicken found her way under the construction dumpster and started her own nest. About a week before the eggs were to hatch, we came to work to find signs of a ruckus and a pile of feathers. The Mother Hen was gone. And so I rushed out and bought an incubator and took the eggs home. Twelve of the thirteen eggs hatched on Easter morning.

It seemed so simple to me. Until my geese began laying this year. The process is so different from chickens, eggs laid every other day and no one sitting on them to keep them warm – you have to pull the eggs and keep them cool until you gather enough to incubate. Of the twelve I brought home, one hatched perfectly. I helped one gosling from the egg after another had pipped, but died in its shell. After that loss, I read that sometimes it’s okay to lend a hand and decided to take action with the third.

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One lesson learned. Monitoring the gradual growth in the air pocket within the egg helps guide you in the hatch. Dipping the eggs in water, not just misting them, also helps provide better success.

Then I waited for the others. But unlike chickens, geese have to be hatched at really high humidities. It turns out much higher than even the incubator recommended. It was heartbreaking. And more heartbreaking.

So I left the other eggs to the Mommas, they hatched one perfectly just after my hatch at home. But their new gosling had a bent foot – either at birth or broken from the less than coordinated movements of three Mother Geese nudging her about. Then came more waiting, I checked their nest daily and pulled the infertile eggs. I was about to give up when finally one was ready to hatch. When I checked back the next day, the egg was crushed and the little goose struggled to survive. I brought her home, but it was too late.

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Baby Chicks! Three have a new home coming to them with kids from our Farm-to-Table Camp last year…here they Sullivan tribe! Grant are you ready?

So off I went and gathered the remaining eggs bringing them home to try to finish the incubation artificially. The incubation period for geese, as it turns out, can go well beyond the 30 day average. As I type, there is still another hatching in the incubator. I had expected a complete clutch at the end of March. Now, nearly to May we have seven goslings (one with a foot still to mend somehow); a loss of six eggs that I may have given up on prematurely; and five tiny chicks. The little guy who I helped from the egg never developed quite right and we had to “cull” it. I spent days trying to do it, when finally Danny did the deed after finding me teary-eyed on the porch holding the gosling and trying to get the nerve up to be a responsible “farmer” and cull him myself.

I am pausing today to give thanks for the lessons. For the failures and the successes.

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Gosling Angel still drying in the incubator.

 

 

Perhaps someday. I am not quite there yet, but after selling this clutch of geese – watching them leave…perhaps I will get used to the ebb and flow of life and farm preparing myself for the coming of rabbits and hopefully a bigger parcel of land in the future.

Giving Thanks & Baking Our Daily Bread

So it’s been a year now since I quit my full-time writing gig. I don’t know what I thought when I quit. That I was going to write the Great American novel in twelve months? Great books have been written in less time. Great books have been written in more time. And horrible books have been written in both. I am more of the mind that any book written is better than none. And there is a reader for everyone. Even if it’s just your mom.

But I digress. I didn’t quit my job to write my elusive novel. But I did quit to focus more on my work at home in Blue Ridge and figure out what I want to do next. So what have I been doing for a year?

Honestly, I have been thinking I should be writing and dreading sitting down to begin. So this is it. No more promises of tomorrow, but a concerted effort to do some daily writing – which should result in at least a weekly post or two.

And, just so you don’t think me horribly lazy. I did start our first Farm-to-Table Camp last year and we’ve scheduled two more camps this year. We also have an intern arriving next month to help grow the farm and its cooking and garden class focus. We are also a couple of weeks away from opening our new Bakery-Market-Café called Blue Ridge Grocery.

The Grocery is a combined dream. One of our favorite places to stroll around is the gastronomic temple that is Barcelona’s Boqueria – Mercat de la Boqueria – the controlled chaos of the fish and cheese mongers, stall after stall of fresh produce forming a rainbow of beauty alongside whole animal carcasses awaiting the skilled hands of the butcher to fabricate the perfect cut to take home and prepare the daily meal. It is a place that begs for daily shopping, daily cooking – celebrations of where our food comes from – a place to not only taste, but to see and touch and honor.

ImageThat’s the kind of place we’ve always wanted to open and revel in the bounty the earth provides to sustain us ­– a humble homage to the farmers who grow and graze our meals; a home for the artists who craft their works in cheese and meat and bread. And so we’ve built our own tiny translation, staffed it with a fabulous baker and a crazy pal who loves coffee as much as we do (these are actually two different but oddly similar women), and they’ll be serving up breakfast, lunch and snacks.

It’s been said we’ve been vague on our response as to what exactly is going in to the grand space we’ve leased – the old Cigar Shop next door to Harvest on Main – it’s not deliberate ambiguity. The Grocery is a work in progress. It will open with breakfast items, freshly made sandwiches waiting patiently to be chosen and pressed for service, alongside fresh salads (some traditional, some not-so). We’re kicking off with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program bringing a diverse selection of fresh, Appalachian-grown product to town for weekly pick up; fresh flowers from a local farmer; fresh from-scratch bread and pastry baked daily; locally roasted coffee; and our own house cured meats and pickles. And there is room for so much more – we’ve packed a lot into a tiny space. But there is so much more to reveal we just can’t contain ourselves.

Anyway…so that is what’s been goin’ on.

Cheers!

 

The Science of Learning

I was drenched in physics today. And chemistry. And a bit of mathematics. All subjects that normally make my head spin, but today it was delicious learning.

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The Zingerman’s culture teaches its staff and its customers the value of empowering and motivating people.

No, I was not reliving the drudgery I experienced with college science classes, instead I baked my way through the physics of bread, learning where to place cuts so the steam can escape. I learned the art of combining the perfect weights of ingredients so the result is a silken ball of dough gliding through my hands ready for fermenting, rising, cutting and the ultimate braid that defines Challah.

Donning the gloves of both baker and chemist, I bathed twisted dough in a solution of lye and water to create one of the best pretzels I have ever tasted.

Today was my first day of Bake!-cation at Zingerman’s Bakehouse. An Ann Arbor icon, the Zingerman’s family of businesses are a model of the entrepreneurial spirit that built this country. I have known co-founder Ari Weinzweig, a handful of the managing partners of Zingerman’s businesses, and a collection of staffers for nearly two decades now.  I worked with ZingTrain managing partner Maggie Bayless editing columns she wrote for one of the magazines I ran for years in my former life as a trade magazine editor – a role I happily traded in this year to raise chickens, work side-by-side with my partner Chef Danny Mellman and relearn how to write what I truly want to write.

So when Danny and I found our search for a baker leading nowhere this year, and I heard myself utter the strange sentence, “I can learn how to bake bread.”  My first thought was to reach out to Ari and figure out how exactly I should learn. And two months later, here I am in Ann Arbor baking Challah and pita and pretzels and having poolish fun.

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So this is day one, of a two-day intensively-fun workshop. I would love to stay here a month and take all the programs Zingerman’s has to offer, from cheesemaking to seminars on how to truly make your training work for your business. They have so much to share here – and while I love to learn and have so much further to go – today I learned that the simple complexity of measuring, mixing, kneading and fermenting dough brings more joy to my day than I could have imagined.

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Providing food made with real ingredients is central to the mission of Harvest on Main. My Bake!-cation illuminated what this truly means to our business and how I can better define it to my staff and customers.

Learning something new is so much more than simply learning. It revitalizes your soul, renews your spirit, and makes you a better person. Even if the new skill you are acquiring is something you will never perfect, use professionally, or share with another person – the experience alone will lend itself to every facet of your life.

At least that’s what learning does for me. The lesson itself is the science that makes life worth living and reminds me what it means to be human – growing and learning reminds me to truly live and not just walk through life.

I will continue my baking lessons tomorrow, and as I lay my head down tonight I have already baked up some new ideas for our menus, classroom, and our own Harvest on Main staff training back home.

In the meantime, I am resting up for Day 2, eager to learn what Zen inspirations and business insights my sourdough starter will reveal.

 

Coop DeVille

We recently took a drive down to Madison, Georgia for a little R&R. Our pal Bo Chance said we should check out the town for some ideas we might want to introduce to Blue Ridge. What a charming place. And while I have some great ideas for some new online ventures to help local farmers and consumers connect, some of my best ideas came from 100-Acre Farm.

The Center of Madison features a fabulous Town Park, recently developed, which adds to the community charm.

The Farmhouse Inn at 100 Acre Farm.

Our quick two-night adventure brought us through Atlanta to southeast Georgia, a stone’s through from Athens. We found a great farm stay online – The Farmhouse Inn at 100 Acre Farm, packed up Josh and Danny and some snacks and hit the road.

The Inn itself includes five private guestrooms and a five bedroom farmhouse. Plus there are meeting rooms, a great outdoor terrace and beautifully landscaped garden area – perfectly coiffed with rustic charm. Danny and I took back some great garden ideas, along with 17 pounds of blueberries and enough Thai eggplant to feed the whole of Blue Ridge.

It’s a simple and pretty drive once you get past Atlanta with lots of farm country and tiny towns to give you some geographical lessons along the way.

Madison itself is a town preserved in history. We hadn’t done much research when we hit the road other than looking for farms that raise chickens, beef and checking out local cheesemakers. So when we started seeing the beautifully preserved architecture of Madison we were in heaven.

There are fine examples of Antebellum homes in Madison, all due to the fact that during the Civil War Joshua Hill, a Madison attorney, former U.S. Senator and staunch Unionist, travelled through Federal lines and met General Sherman at his headquarters. An agreement was reached and Union forces spared Madison.

Post Civil War architecture also abounds, during the 1880’s and 90’s many Victorian homes were built, enhancing the charm of a town already replete with fine ante-bellum structures. In 1895, the Madison Graded School was completed. The massive neo-Romanesque structure with its central bell tower was the South’s finest small town school building. These structures and more await in Madison.

But what I really wanted to talk to you about is the chicken coop at 100 Acre Farm.

Deluxe digs.

It gave me coop envy.

And if I showed my girls these pictures, they would surely work in flying or walking south.

Josh and Danny Mellman joined Ellis and Crystal Johnson outside the Red Barn at 100 Acre Farm.

Crystal & Ellis Johnson are the hosts at the Inn. Ellis designed the property and works it in his “retirement” with his wife Crystal who moved here from China. Their story is another tale altogether, but suffice to say Crystal’s love of chickens and turkeys and all things farm is a recently acquired

She’s a bit like I am, walking that fine line between pet and barnyard animal.

That might explain this coop.

It’s a renovated old barn that existed pretty much before anything else on the property. It’s equipped with self-waterers, a fabulous wall of nesting boxes, and rows upon rows of rustic ladder-styled roosts.

Add to that the fact the girls have the run of the farm in their coop area, sharing space with cows and turkeys and a couple of ornery goats.

I was guilt-ridden watching their joyful jaunts.

Unlike my space where the girls are under close watch to keep them out of the garden. (Crystal did confide the sometimes has a daring escapee who makes the 300 yard dash toward the vegetable garden, but for the most-part most of their bad scratching can be discovered just behind Crystal and Ellis’ cottage which is why she’s given up growing anything truly chicken-delightful in close proximity).

A birds’ eye view.

I watched for hours as the 300-plus birds – Barred Rocks, Reds and Araucanas, darted about, or strolled slowly, depending on their mood.

Anyway, there’s lots more to do at 100 Acre Farm than simply play with chickens and read a book, although I am not sure why you would want to do anything else but that. Josh did finally catch his first fish on a fly rod in one of the farm’s two fishing ponds (the Apalachee River makes for another fine fishing hole on the property). It was difficult to determine what Dad and son were more excited about when they returned after dusk that second day – Josh’s fishing accomplishment or seeing an actual beaver diving down into its lodge.

And of course Josh was pretty revved up about driving a golf cart about and chauffeuring his Dad for a change that was simply the blueberry preserve topping to a perfect southern day in Georgia.

If you have a really cool chicken coop to show off – share it with us at The Cook’s Farm on Facebook! I was inspired to make some renovations to ours, while we’re also building our Goose Patch and Rabbit Hutch areas…so stay tuned!

The boys after a great day of fly fishing!

The happy driver.