Friday, July 28

Arrival in Milano

(Below you will find the start of a multi-part European journal-mining retrospective starting in Milan and ending in Paris that took place last fall. I hope you enjoy the stories.)

Milan, Italy (September 2005)
I'm never coming home. I love it here. I'm sure any of you who have been to Italy are not surprised whatsoever.

I arrived in Milan with no problems. The biggest logistical difficulty was in Brooklyn when, for some unexplained reason, my subway just ended prematurely and we were all shuttled out en masse onto some street where we waited and waited for a shuttle bus to take us to a different part of the line. An hour later I was back on track... and just got to the airport on time only to find the plane was delayed anyway.

I had missed the opportunity to study here during college when, instead, I thought blowing out my knee and spending a year on crutches in upstate New York was preferable to studying art in Florence. Fast forward 14 years to this moment.

It was pouring rain and with the help of some nice folks, I found my hotel. My hotel room redefined the word quaint. What I most loved was the French doors that were wide open upon my arrival, the view of the side of some gorgeous building, the rain coming down and within 10 minutes of my arrival the most beautiful woman's voice singing opera. Turns out I didn't realize that my hotel is 2 doors down from La Scala, the famous opera house. I napped to a free 1 1/2 hour concert.

Afterwards I had a shower in what has to be the smallest stall shower in history. I joked to my Dad and step-mom that 75% of Americans would have to be airlifted in and out of that shower. No wonder there's so little obesity in Europe; no one would be able to shower. I had the unfortunate misstep of dropping my soap and then the jet lagged notion that I should bend over to get it and promptly smacked my head into the door. I had to turn off the shower, get out and get the soap and then get back in. And I won't even begin to tell you about how fascinating the toilet arrangement was to me.

Spent a day on my own in Milan where the highlight was touring this amazing arcade with 4 huge arches on all sides, a massive domed ceiling in the middle, a mosaic on the floor on each of the four corners. Most notably, facing the direction of Torino, a tiled bull where I noticed many Italians with one foot pointed on the bull's balls and spinning clockwise 3 times. A nice man explained to me in Italian (and I barely understood) that this practice was for good luck, one spin for health, 2 spins for wealth and 3 spins for sex. The lady at the hotel had a slightly modified explanation saying that the third spin is good luck for love. Ah, different interpretations. Apparently they replace the mosaic every year and a half because it gets so worn down.

(next installment: on to Turin/Torino)

Tuesday, July 25

We interrupt this blog to bring you a real life moment.

I apologize for my absence over the last few weeks. I'll keep this brief and real. I'm going through a break-up of a 12 year relationship, a home sale and moving. Blogging has taken a back seat for a spell. However, tomorrow I start posting my culinary Europe flashbacks that should tide you over while I'm short on current creative energies.

In the meantime, as well, I point you to my friend Traca's new blog. In her very few initial posts, I became instantly hooked into her writing style and insider knowledge of all things relevant to the Seattle food scene. A vivacious, joy of a woman, Seattle Tall Poppy is worth following.

Saturday, July 8

France vs. Italy

Today in World Cup finals action, France takes on Italy. I have no idea who to root for. Why? Because in September and October of last year I took a 2 month trip to just these two countries and journaled at the time I entered France (specifically Paris) that I felt like I was cheating on Italy. Ultimately, though, I never arrived at a firm stance on which country I preferred. And let's get to the point: what I'm really talking about is which country's food did I really go more crazy about.

I've just taken you back 2 years ago to my Quillisascut farm school experience. Question to readers: would you like to see, over the next month, France v. Italy in these pages? I'm happy to continue Hardtack Goes Retro and post bits of my Europe journal. Or, would you rather I keep you in the present moment and not live in the past with my sordid tales of fine cheeses, wines, handmade pastas and cured meats. Prefer to hear stories of current dalliances with jam-making (as I'm doing today with a friend) or do you lean towards a nostalgic meandering through fall 2005? Let your voice be heard.

Until then. Go Italy! Go France!

Friday, July 7

Retro Musings from a Goat Cheese Farm, Part III

(This is the last part of a 3-part journal about my experiences studying at the Quillisascut Farm School in Eastern Washington in 2004. As another warning to squeamish folks I continue to discuss butchering in detail in this final part.)

6:30 am, Day 3: Morning milking
Well, technically morning milking was at 6 am, but little miss sleep deprived slept right on through the farm’s alarm clocks. Wool sweater on, fleece cap pulled low over my ears I jog up to the milking room just off the back of the goats fenced in area. “Just in time Becky,” says Rick, as he pulls another goat up the ramp and secures it to its holding bar.

It’s simply amazing to me that there I am milking a goat and just 5 minutes earlier I was sound asleep. This one is named “Pamelot” and she hardly has any milk at all. She’s so sweet Rick and Lora Lea can’t possibly get rid of her; this confirms that Pamelot is an honorary member of the "special farm". She finishes her alfalfa while I’m still struggling to figure out this whole teat-milk-pail relationship. Milk is running down my arm and soaking into my sweater. I can barely hear myself think over the explosive sounds of milk hitting the side of a pail that Lora Lea is making.


I’m breathing hard and a distinct cramp is forming in my hand. Meanwhile Pamelot is nuzzling my ear for more alfalfa. I think I’m in love.

We finish the milking and all these black cats show up from every corner of the farm (until this moment not one of us has seen any of these cats) to drink the foam left in the bottom of the pails. One runs off with a paper filter they use to trap any sediment. Rick says this same cat consumes the entire filter every morning. Their furious licking scoops froth all over each other’s backs.

Meanwhile, Jet, the puppy, runs back and forth with a lamb hoof in her mouth.

8:45 am: This ain’t no Chick-Fil-A

So it’s chicken butchering time here on the farm and back home at this time I’d be hours from waking up. Regardless, here I am handing over 10 pound plus chickens to Rick as he lays them down over a 2x4 and while his left hand holds them by the legs, his right swings the hatchet. It’s a difficult maneuver that requires a lot of dexterity and a very sharp hatchet. He wishes the hatchet were just a bit sharper. I mean, the head almost came off in one chop. Some of my queasier comrades walk down the hill. The rest of us stand there sort of amazed, disgusted, in awe. I thought I wanted to kill a chicken myself. I thought it would be the right thing for me to do. You know, complete the circle of life. I wimp out. I just had these bad scenarios playing over in my head and none of them were pretty.

So I learned two things about chickens this morning. I always heard that chickens still move around when they lose their head. But I imagined that to mean some reflexive movements, sort of subtle-like.

Lesson one: chickens go freakin’ crazy. Head off, Rick holding their feet, the chicken is flapping it’s wings FULL FORCE, for a disturbing minute, at least.

Lesson two: if you unintentionally (or later, intentionally) press down on a chicken’s cavity when plucking it, it can cackle aloud just like a live chicken. Apparently, their voice box or voice box-equivalent does not need a head to function. This happened inadvertently to someone’s chicken on the table where we were working and we all jumped back in horror!

We dip the chickens in scalding hot water to loosen the feathers and fix to pluckin’ them (which takes a really long time). Where the lamb was very clean to butcher, the chicken is dirty, dirty, dirty. The only real way to remove all the internal organs is just to dig them out carefully with your hands, trying really hard not to puncture the intestines. I am treated to an unexpected surprise when I pull my hand out and see two small oval sacs. “What are these?” “Oh, great! Those are chicken balls. They’re a tasty delicacy.” says Rick. Later, I fry them up in butter and learn another important lesson…always poke a small hole in chicken testicles before you fry them. Basically they just got bigger and tighter in the pan until I exploded them, spreading hot butter all over myself and anyone in a 10 foot radius. What was left was certainly tasty though.

Meanwhile, Jet, the puppy, runs back and forth with a chicken head in her mouth.

Picnic Lunch at Roosevelt Lake
We carry a couple of large picnic baskets down to the beach and lay out blankets. It’s sunny and warm and the food is wonderful: mugs of borscht and gazpacho, sandwiches of all types, rose hip iced tea, and Italian plum salad with grapes and elderberry syrup.

Reluctantly we pack up and go on a farm visit to Cliffside Organic Orchard. We tour through the peach, nectarine, apple, and pear trees and watch the family and crew sort and box up the apples for a wholesaler who will take the fruit to Whole Foods, PCCs, etc. in Seattle. We eat the best Jonathan apples.

Some time later ...
Back at the farm, we salt the hard grating cheese and set it out for drying. I’m on evening chores so I help feed the turkeys, chickens, and quail. I run out to the garden by myself for some chard for the evening meal. In order to get to the garden you have to go through the goat pen. First, you disengage the electric fence, climb over, reengage it and then walk the 20 feet over to the garden gate where there is a combination lock and two latches, one a metal slide and the other, a metal clip.

I mention all these details so that you will understand the predicament I find myself in. There I am standing at the garden gate, in the goat pen, my right arm held high in the air, my fist wrapped tight around the chard stems. With my left hand, I’m trying to shoo the goats back and slide the slide, clasp the clasp, and reconnect the combination lock. One look from the border collie puppy and the goats retreat 50 feet. I try to look menacing. I lower my voice. Now one has jumped up on my back and has grabbed a few leaves of chard. This emboldens the others. Within 30 seconds, there are 15 goats around me and I’m sunk for sure. I am just about ready to give up when I see Rick down the road. In as dignified a manner as possible I squeak out a plaintive “help?” Laughing the whole way, he comes and rescues me and mentions that it’s always best to take a friend on garden trips. Got it.

Dinner that night:
End of summer rosemary zucchini soup with borage flowers
Smoked Cornish Cross chickens, foraged mushroom jus, farro squash risotto, savory scones, creamed spinach
Italian plum crisp

Day 4: Quillisascut Meat Festival
Today is a kitchen day, all day, all night we process all the foods we’ve harvested, including putting up apple butter and green tomato ketchup. We butcher and freeze most of the chickens and break down the lamb. In one day, I eat 10 plus different cuts/parts of meat.

Here is my list: simmered beef tongue with mustard, sauteed beef heart with greens and dragon tongue beans, country pate (with lard, lamb heart and meat, chicken hearts), duck and chicken gizzard prosciutto (from a previous group), stuffed lamb loin like we do at the Herbfarm filled with chard and mushrooms stuffed in lamb caul fat, an amazing handmade tagliatelle (made partially with spelt flour) with oxtail ragout, watercress and shaved curado, lamb moussaka, chicken liver mousse, lamb sausage and way too much wine that night. Oy.

Last day on the farm
We take a tour of Riverview organic orchard that also has a small business as a coffee roaster. I try my new favorite type of plum called a French petite. We gather together back at the farm for our last meeting and talk about being grateful for the week. We wrap up our many conversations about what is means to be “sustainable” and what we’ll take with us from this experience.

I mention how amazed I am at how little garbage I personally produced in 5 days. It could fit in the palm of my hand. That’s truly incredible. In a typical day in Seattle I probably produce 10x that amount, if not more. In the Quillisascut kitchen they have 7 bins, the first is for pig scraps, then down the line, cat and dog scraps (all protein), goat scraps, compost, glass and aluminum, paper and finally, the smallest bin, trash.

We load up our cars, say our goodbyes to head back to the city, each and every one of us reluctant to start our cars.

Thursday, July 6

Retro Musings from a Goat Cheese Farm, Part II

(This is part 2 of a 3-part journal of my experience at the Quillisascut Farm School in 2004. If anyone is squeamish, be warned that I discuss butchering.)

5:30 am “The Passion of the Lamb”
Surreal. That’s the word of the morning. We’re standing outside in the cold and dark. The steady buzz of industrial lights is behind us while the tractor hums in front. There’s the lamb, hung from the loader high in the air from its back legs, splayed out and tied with rope. Rick is standing there in his coveralls, knife at his side, blood on the ground beneath the lamb. He shot it with a bullet maybe 15 minutes earlier and then slit its throat. I heard it while I lay in bed, waiting for it. Now we watch and help as he butchers it.

It's hardly surprising that throughout the butchering process, the closer we get to what we recognize as primal cuts, the more comfortable we all get. The whole process is amazingly clean. There’s not much blood at all and if you are careful removing the organs, there’s really nothing much at all to clean up. The most difficult task is removing the lamb’s coat. The lanolin in and around the lamb's coat gets on our skin and if it weren’t for the gamey smell, I would have left it on all day.

2 hours later, we finish up, the lamb is split in half and ready to hang in the walk-in for several days.

8:45 am Cheese-making with Lora Lea
The morning milking crew has left large buckets of goat milk in the milking room. 30 goats give about 17 gallons of milk in the fall, much more when the kids are born. They only milk once at this time of year, twice daily in the spring. But first, before we use it all up, a little metal milk jug with a handle is personally delivered down the hill to Lora Lea’s mom, Daisy Mae, who claims her long life is due to drinking fresh goat milk.

We make 4 types of cheese: mozzarella, ricotta, chevre and a dry, salt-rubbed grating cheese. The mozzarella and ricotta are ready to eat right away; the chevre and the grating cheese will be ready in a few days. We are all amazed that the hard cheese will be ready so quickly. Of course it can be aged, leading to a curado type but it is also delicious now. It’s simpler, with less complexity, but still very good.

There is definitely a science to cheese-making but I was surprised at just how much artisanry and personal touch is involved.

11:00 am Burnt nuts.
We head out to the garden and turn over a long bed to get it ready to plant garlic bulbs. The soil here is gorgeous, but it wasn’t always. Years and years of amending it with chicken manure from a local chicken farmer (who thought they were crazy for taking it) plus their own compost. They grow all the usuals, and have a very healthy volunteer borage “crop” that we are encouraged to use up. The borage leaves that are large are usually very fishy and pokey, but strangely the leaves here, even the larger ones are mild.

After lunch, we go for a walk near the farm and harvest watercress down by a little creek. Soon we are also gathering rosehips, elderberry, and amazingly, pine nuts. I promise right here never to let a sheet tray of pine nuts burn again. Now I know how much work goes into harvesting pine nuts. It’s probably done mechanically but nonetheless, it took me forever just to pry one little tiny nut from its outer shell. I think it was a Ponderosa we got the pinecone from. Later we make rosehip and elderberry syrups and use the watercress to top one of the 15 pizzas we make for dinner in the wood-burning stove.

1:45 pm Sorry Al.
Al Kowitz, from the WSU Stevens County Extension drops by to give us a lecture on pastured and grass finished meat. I feel very bad for this man. We have just finished lunch, we are all very, very sleepy. What he is talking about is very interesting but the lights are out, and he’s showing us slides and we are sitting on couches. I look to the others in the group and one by one I see all their heads falling forward and then back and I realize I’m sunk. The point is that I can’t tell you very much about Al Kowitz and pastured and grass finished meat.

(The last part of this journal will be posted tomorrow.)

Tuesday, July 4

Retro Musings from a Goat Cheese Farm

I just got offered a job teaching a week long culinary farm school experience out at the Quillisascut goat cheese farm in Eastern Washington. This is the very same farm that I spent a week on 2 years ago as part of a culinary professional farm retreat. I have often said that the week I spent on the farm was one of the most exciting culinary and personal mini-adventures of my life. I wrote about it then, in a journal. I thought it would be worthwhile to post it now, 2 years later... as I get ready to teach a similar program to culinary students this August (which, by the way, still has openings. If you are a culinary student or a serious home cook interested in a week-long farm experience similar to the one I describe on this site, check out Quillisascut's website.) Today, part one in a series of three.

(Written in October, 2004)

Rice, Washington
Quillisascut Farm School, Part One

Day 1:
I arrive, road weary, very happy and excited but terribly sleepy. This will remain my state the entire 5 days: Happy and Sleepy. I’m two dwarves in one. I am the only person in the group who works late hours. I am the only one in the group who visibly pales at the mention of the daily 5:30 am wake-up.

The farm school staff: There’s Karen Jurgensen. She used to head up Baci Catering and soon will be teaching over at Seattle Central. For the farm school’s last 2 years, she has been their chef. Karen is wonderful, knowledgeable, never preachy and capable of organizing 10-12 different kitchen projects all at the same time in limited space. There’s Joanna and Carter. Joanna takes care of many of the animals on the farm and anything else that is needed. Carter tends the garden and is the group named “dish-nazi” for his humorous neuroticism around the water-conserving dish routine.

And then we meet the Rick and Lora Lea (Misterly, the owners of the farm). Right away, I know I will like them. Warm, approachable, with a good sense of humor and their values firmly in the right place, they set the tone for what turns out to be, no doubt, one of the better and more interesting weeks of my life.

We immediately sit down to an amazing cheese platter, with 4-5 of their cheeses, bread baked in their outdoor brick oven, crackers, amazing grapes from their vineyard, seckel pears from a neighbor’s orchard, and walnuts from their tree. It’s not as if I haven’t been spoiled for a few years now but the food at Quillisascut still gives me pause because, literally, for the entire week, we eat the most amazing, diverse foods and 95% of it we harvest from their farm.

Enter the farm: we tour around the 36 (?) acre farm, check out their composting system, and the garden’s early fall harvest of greens, onions, late corn, beets and herbs. There’s an orchard and vineyard and throughout the week we find millions of different ways to use up the Italian plums.

Meet the animals: there’s Jet, the border collie puppy, in training to herd the goats and her supervisor, Libby, a simply amazing dog. Libby is a Komondor, a breed descended from Tibetan dogs, bred to guard herds and protect its family. Libby has amazing white cords, like dreadlocks, hanging all over her body. A thorough afternoon search reveals that she indeed has eyes.

Then there are the goats. As Rick says, “the most photographed goats in Washington state”. They all clamor to meet us, 30-40 of them, billys in with the ladies for YEE-HAW it’s breedin’ time in Pleasant Valley and everyone’s acting a bit strange. Joanne quips that “the second they put the normally sweet boys in with the girls, they about lost their minds, grunting, eyes rolled back, tongues hanging out, attacking the other males.” Sure enough, for the rest of the week, the goat love makes for some very funny dinner-time conversations.

We meet the 2 pigs, one will be butchered for a later class, one will be sold. We say hello and goodbye and thank you to a lamb that we know Rick will kill in the morning. We all get a bit quiet near the lamb. There are several roosters. One is very off-key and needs a new watch because he starts up way the hell before dawn. The other two like to perform a duet at the appropriate time.

Meet the chickens. They are huge, the biggest chickens I’ve ever seen and only 8 weeks old. They are Cornish Cross chickens. They reach 4-5 lbs in 6 weeks and 6-10 lbs in 8-12 weeks. I think these chickens are close to 10 pounds. They are kept in a chicken “tractor”, a mobile cage that allows the chicken to eat the alfalfa between the rows of grapes in the vineyard. Every day you just pick up the edge of the cage and move it and the chickens underneath to the next spot and you feed the chickens at the same time keeping down the weed growth.

And then the rest: quail and quail babies, and 2 quail eggs a day, ducks (Muscovy and Pekins), turkeys and 2 cows out in the pasture that used to be dairy cows. And lastly, what I called the “special farm” a testament to Rick and Lora Lea’s compassion or simply their inability to kill an animal just because they’re no longer productive due to injury: there’s a duck with a clipped wing that scoots around, a very tiny quail they helped birth out of its egg because it was too weak to get out on its own. And lastly, there’s a billy goat that got stepped on as a kid and its back end is paralyzed. Amazingly, it still chases the female goats.

Dinner, a movie, and bedtime:
Karen and crew make dinner: Beef taquitos with potatoes and corn (beef from a neighbor’s cow, potatoes and corn from the farm) with homemade corn and flour tortillas, roasted tomatillo and garlic salsa, squash and corn sauté with tomatoes, cumin scented slaw, pickled red onions and Carter’s home-brewed beer. Dessert: Cajeta ice cream with candied walnuts and cherries. Maybe it’s the smell of the country air and the big table overflowing with food and beer and good conversation but we all agree everything tastes better here.

We watch a documentary, Broken Limbs, about the Wenatchee apple industry and the struggle to stay small, organic, and sustainable in a world of small orchards being destroyed because they can’t compete with the huge operations. We see Wal-marts sprouting up everywhere. Concrete, corporate crops replacing orchards where apple trees lived for generations. Ultimately, the movie is about how to survive in this world by becoming a different kind of farmer, one who markets directly through CSAs or at farmer’s markets, or fruit stands… any creative way to sell directly to people, avoid depending solely on a middleman and be paid the money they deserve for the amazing product they provide.

It’s 9:30 p.m. and I’m supposed to go to sleep now because everyone else is and we have to get up at 5:30. But my night is just beginning. I finally drift off as the rooster with the bad watch starts up.

(Part 2 in a few days)