December 17, 2015
The lone fig hung on the frost-laden tree framed perfectly as the only sign of life that remained. The first strike of winter had made its attack. Sad, necessary but way too early for cold’s army to unleash its wrath. A wave of sadness usually sets in at this point but experience has taught me this is nature and I am only along for the ride so enjoy. This year is a rebuilding year for the winter garden as I lug wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of horse manure to replenish the soil. A small bed of kale is fighting to get a start, the rows of seeds I planted failed to sprout or became victims of slugs and earwigs and a rogue raccoon decided to rip up the beds looking for grubs. Coming home after a time away to these discoveries was enough to put me into an early winter gloom but I fight on.
The arrival of the new batch of chicks I ordered through the mail is bittersweet. Yesterday they reached their four-week birthday but we lost two along the way. Try as I may to mentally prepare myself for weak babies that might not make it, it never works. For two days, we bottle fed these little runts and tried. Tried to help them along, tried to give them strength, tired to make them live. How could I have so much emotion for a baby chicken that I only knew for two days? But there I wept holding the lifeless body in my hands that only hours earlier contained warmth. I have directed my full energy into the survival of the remaining batch.
Painted Lady, our miniature horse, is pregnant and fattening up on feed to give life for two. Motherhood has not softened her stubbornness but we are excited with the prospect of a new addition to the farm. The fava bean plants are growing tall and I’m planning a second batch of seeds to have a nice long season. Try as it might, the frost lost its match against these resilient plants and I cheered out loud for them to “Carry on!” with the season.
My routines are changing. How did I become a seed saver? Somehow after attending many farming classes, lecturers’ subliminal or not so subliminal messages have sunken in. I find myself letting some plants go to seed and collecting for next year. I am learning to choose the most successful plants with the hope that next year’s crop will be even stronger. Some of the seeds like fennel, cilantro and mustard are finding their way into my spice cabinet. It turns out that saving seeds is time consuming and I’m finding fewer visitors willing to come during this season unwilling to be roped into harvest. I have counteracted with increased wine pouring and more appetizers during work.
Becoming artisanal with what the farm provides is kicking in like a drug. I now have my husband pickling green tomatoes and wet curing olives. I love watching him beam with pride as he serves our guests his creations. I’ve made fresh jams successfully and unsuccessfully just hoping I do not kill someone with botulism. I still make guests sign a waiver. And don’t get me started on homemade hot sauces. My hot chili obsessed brother sends me great recipes that I’m perfecting. My favorite involves Fatali peppers and lemongrass which I shamelessly suggests goes with everything. Hot fudge sundae? You need some Fatali sauce on that! We have rows of California pepper trees that produce multi-colored berries that taste an awful lot like regular pepper. We harvest, set out to dry and have fresh peppercorns in our grinders year round. I think they are edible.
I’ve recently become a scavenger. I’m not picking up roadkill but funny enough I did have some neighbors ask half seriously if the prosciutto I was serving one night was cured gopher. I guess I’m getting a reputation. I’m a produce/veggie scavenger. Driving home one afternoon I spied my neighbor’s olive tree heavy with ripe black olives. They would be perfect for making the dry cured Italian ones with olive oil and rosemary that turns my father into a selfish baboon. Innocently, I stopped and asked what they were going to do with them. “Nothing” was the response and I was informed that they were mine for the picking. In the past I’ve imagined harvesting these trees like in the movies with a blanket spread underneath, a shake of the tree, a bottle of wine, and some Italian neighbor girl laughing at the spectacle with music in the background. The reality was; me, a ladder and trying not to get poked in the eye by the branches. I loved it. I now have a bag of olives and salt hanging in my barn curing. It takes about a month I’ve read with another week or two in spices and olive oil for finishing. I have no idea how they will turn out but you can be sure that my neighbor will get the first batch and my dad will be on the first plane to California when they are ready. Oh, and I notice the mushrooms peeking out from the fallen leaves beckoning me to pick them but I know with my luck that will be my demise. Some things I’ll just leave to the experts. I’m getting close to stopping along the road to pick wild fennel but am not there yet. Plus, I know the supermarket in town has certified death-free mushrooms and always a sale on fennel.
And so my journey goes. Another winter is upon me, another year of knowledge under my belt and another year of mistakes I hope not to repeat. A light frost blankets the grass outside as I view it from the reflection of the bathroom mirror. Somehow a glimmer of that grey white has touched my temples and spring’s return cannot come soon enough.