Hope and Reverence

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January for those who farm in New England is a time of contemplation, of planning, of hope for what you have or will put in the ground will bring some degree of prosperity, if not just the pure joy of putting something on the table that is good, and grown by your own calloused hand. A time to peruse seed catalogs by the firelight; a time to rest and think. Looking forward, with the wonder of what this next season will bring.

At the end of the month I’ll plant the eighth season of my now-famous storage onion seedlings, many of which I trade in spring for all sorts of cool stuff…When I see those tiny shoots come up out of the seed trays in the dead of winter, that is hope for King Onion, the foundation for countless stews and soups, a year from now.

I went outside to listen to the sounds of winter. There is now very little to tell about here in Ipswich: a cold wind, the rumbling of the sea on a late-night tide, the howling of a coyote far in the woods, an occasional boom of ice on the lake, but otherwise, silence. Just a couple of months ago this place was a noisy, unmanageable jungle, so dense that the weeds in some places blocked the sun.

As I look over the moon’s reflections off the ice sheet that has formed over the field since our last and only storm this winter, I wonder how the garlic crop is doing underneath. A warm December has tempted the garlic, among many other plants, to come up and mature somewhat earlier than usual for this time of year. But garlic, originating from Northern Asia, is a tough plant. And it will prevail. It will be an interesting season, though, being a very poignant El Niño year.

Wishing all of you a very happy, prosperous and tasty new season, full of culinary delights!

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TG

 

Follow the Sun

There are still a few places in the world where you can escape to see life as it actually is, raw, without those annoying marvels of civilization getting in the way, such as plumbing and electricity. One of those places is in Northern Vermont, where the night’s darkness is so profound that the Milky Way looks like a dense rain cloud about to dump the great mystery of the universe on your head.

It was time, and we were out of time… For the past couple of weeks we’d been watching the weather like a hawk. The sun was not there. It was freezing and miserable, not exactly favorable for planting, but Bill and I kept vigil and relied on our instincts. This week the weather gave us the break we were looking for: to plant the 4000+ garlic heads on the new field opened up on Bill’s property. We loaded up the truck with tools, jigs, garlic… and took off for Lamoille county, four hours North.

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This wonderful patch of dirt has a commanding view of the valley and the mountains. There is a rugged beauty and poetry to these hills, a place to get away, to think and dream at night.

The name “Gracie” popped into my mind as I inhaled the crystal air and autumn aromas, in tribute to all I was sensing here. Fields have their own personalities and micro-ecosystems, so why not name them? Every field is different, with its own virtues, challenges, exposure to weather, biology, soil chemistry, nutrients, structure, and other metrics. Also, it is history that determines the viability of a field. Millions of years ago Gracie existed at the bottom of the sea; then ten thousand years ago at the bottom of a two-mile thick glacier; and, gradually, as the ice melted, Gracie made her way to the sun.

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When we got there, Bob greeted us with his Kubota. He dragged the tiller over the field to loosen the soil, which pulled up rocks that had “grown” since the last till. Rocks and stones deposited by glaciers keep getting pushed to the surface from expansion and contraction of the soil. They gotta go. So we walked in front of Bob’s Kubota and tossed them in the bucket.

We have been planting on Bill’s property up here for a few years. The idea was to split up the garlic crop to grow in two distinctly different climates in New England, coastal and mountain. With the advent of climate change and a warmer Earth, as a farmer you have to diversify your investment. Garlic originated from the freezing regions of Northern Asia. This plant likes a good, tough winter, which it is certain to get in Northern Vermont, if not on Coastal Massachusetts.

I think the local Vermonters are intrigued (if not amused) at the fact we plant in November. After all, planting is the realm of spring, not winter. Thankfully this year the weather was fair; in previous years Bill and I watched the ground literally begin to freeze beneath our feet as we punched the last cloves into the ground, the first snow whirling around us. Maybe the locals think we’re just crazy. Maybe they just feel sorry for us, but they all drop in. All of them are characters.

Cormetia pops the cloves off the garlic heads, a very important function in the operation, and one that she takes great pride in. The cloves have to be separated quite delicately, as they tend to bruise, affecting the final product. Year after year Cormetia has come down to help us out with the planting. Afterward, she gives us tired old buzzards dinner and lets us use her showers.

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Here is the field after planting the rows. Jim came down and rattled off a story about a local farmer who lost all of his fingers except one thumb in several farm machinery mishaps. Several? He keeps on going, no problem, and runs his farm with one thumb. I find a certain peace of mind planting by hand…

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Here is Gracie with her full compliment of mulch, which will protect our young, dashing gourmet garlic from the harsh Northern Vermont winter, but not too much. Just enough cold to produce the some of the finest garlic in the world.

Stay in peace, and stay in the sun.

TG

We plant the 2016 garlic!

It feels great to plant in fall…No bugs, no heat, no humidity. It gives us hope when garden stores are now selling Christmas ornaments and the bags of bonemeal go on sale.

We are now thoroughly ensconced in the fall planting season of the Ipswich Garlic, that narrow eye of a needle we thread between the freeze and the possible. Next week we will be planting in Northern VT, where that needle eye gets even smaller.

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We work these fields by hand (and get a good workout in the process!) These small fields are granted to us for planting, and we tend the soil carefully in order not to disturb the complex biology that exists beneath our feet.

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Pep, “The Fury from Missouri” popping cloves of our finest garlic. This garlic, originating from Uzbekistan, isn’t even on the market yet, as we have been replanting it and developing the crop for the past 5 years. It is absolutely superb. We won the prestigious Topsfield Fair 3 years in a row with this garlic. If all goes well, next year we will roll it out for everyone to enjoy.

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Our work table…

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Tim “behind the wheel”. A dibble wheel marks off the plantings. Each mark will be a head of garlic. This whole thing is really not so different than how things were done back in the middle ages. I kept thinking about the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “The Annoying Peasant“.

Looking for an opportunity to plant in Northern Vermont, and this, my friends, is a race to find the sun. The past couple of weeks has seen bad weather and freezing temperatures…but the capricious nature of New England weather will work next week in our favor; for two days only it will warm up, and we are going for it…It is a roller coaster ride before the hard freeze sets in, but such is the drama of planting gourmet garlic in New England.

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“Twilight of autumn, Orion’s hard stare, sunflower’s end, too heavy to bear” -T. Gillette

Happy Halloween!

You have to start somewhere.

Yesterday I got my new soul mate, a 1949 John Deere tractor.

I had second guesses pretty much constantly as I fought my way through Boston rush hour traffic, through the tunnels, the South shore freeways and on down to Rhode Island, where the roads eventually got smaller and smaller, and finally became an old, narrow country road that reluctantly gave way to modern times and got paved.

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The Fearsome Three were there waiting, waiving me back toward the narrow slip of a driveway between the cornfields where I missed the turn in my beat up Honda. Three farmers have had this tractor in their family for generations. They stood in solidarity. The grandfather and two grandsons have plowed all their lives on this farm and on this machine. 40 acres a year. All eyes were trained on me, and I had never been on a tractor in all my life. That’s the unfortunate thing that happens when you are raised in Manhattan.

I believe honesty always prevails, so I told them where I was at in my non-experience with farm machinery. They were very cool about it to the point of almost being thankful that I didn’t pretend to know what I was doing.

As I ran through the gears, I began to feel in my body and soul the awesome power and simplicity of this machine. They delivered it to my buddy and neighbor Ray’s place, where next year’s garlic will live. We plowed the garlic field in an hour- a fraction of what would have taken us many days by hand.

Long live the old tractor!

Lautrec, France

One year ago today, after crossing the Pyrenees in a beaten up Dacia with bald tires, my family and I reached the pinnacle of our vacation: La Fête de L’Ail Rose, or, in English, the Pink Garlic Festival. We had basically planned our trip around this event because it only lasts two days, and it takes place in Lautrec, a medieval village that nestles itself somewhere between where we left and where we were going.

Lautrec is tiny. Like many old villages in France, it is on a hill with a wall to defend itself, with a pandemonium of uphill streets that eventually lead to a central gargoyle-fortified church and square with a marketplace. Further up the hill, at the summit, you can visit the old windmill. Lautrec is normally very quiet- except on the first Friday of August, when all hell breaks loose.

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Every town in France has something that it produces, the one odd thing that, for some reason or other, creates economic viability…St. Claude makes pipes; Roquefort makes the cheese; Cavaillon produces the melons; Die (pronounced “Dee”)  produces a fine Clairette wine; Castelnaudary produces cassoulet, a bean-sausage stew replete with confit de canard, not for the faint of heart. Regional delicacies abound, and in the case of Lautrec, it is the garlic.

Legend has it that about a thousand years ago, a traveling merchant passed through Lautrec. He was penniless and down on his luck. He had no money to pay for his supper, so instead he traded a couple of heads of garlic that he had picked up on his travels. The townsfolk soon realized the incredible properties of the cloves- the aroma, the density, the flavor, the medicinal qualities, as well as the unique pink color. Understanding the importance of this gift, Lautrec farmers replanted the precious Ail Rose.

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So there we were, a thousand years later, with no place to park. Walking up the hill, we wended our way to the fête from our Gîte (a bed and breakfast), La Fontaine de Lautrec, situated at the base of the hill on a farmer’s field, an ancient stone house with enormous beams. A small street navigated us through the wall. Once inside, we were greeted with a great deal of crazy farm machinery for sale. Machinery to plow, harvest, clean and peel garlic. Machinery to cut, chop, dry or grind the garlic. There seems to be no limit to the engineering expertise of farmers.

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The machinery gradually gave way to the trucks, with tons of garlic, in braids and bags, all for sale. In between them, a lone knife salesman displayed his wares. I bought my daughter an Opinel, a traditional French folding knife. It is simplicity in its finest form, a carbon steel blade that folds into a slotted piece of wood. The salesman insisted that Zoe give me a coin in return, as that is the French custom for good luck after acquiring a knife.

When we reached the village square, the heart of the garlic beast, the decadent aroma tempted us on through the gauntlets of street vendors, who, out of every small, ancient doorway, sold anything from garlic-printed potholders and T-shirts to garlic pottery. Open-air kitchens served throngs of hungry people, who lined up for free garlic soup accompanied with the appropriate wine- a nice local rosé. Everywhere you went, a large cauldron steamed with a regional delicacy. Small groups of musicians played in the streets. One guy smoked a cigarette while he played the tuba. In the square there was a large bronze sculpture of a head of garlic; and around it, old board games were set up to challenge young and old alike.

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By dusk, as the masses and free-walking musicians became a bit more rowdy, we noticed a strange presence among the crowd: dignified old men dressed in colorful silk robes and fine jewelry walked slowly in small groups down the streets, as though keeping watch over the festivities. I found out they were the members of the ancient order of L’Ail Rose, the high priests of the garlic, the latest generation who have served the harvest and the festival in perpetuity, since the middle ages.

By the next day we had made a lot of friends. One of which was a local farmer who sold me a small amount of seed garlic…

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…And here is the next generation of the precious Ail Rose, en amérique!

The Harvest, 2015

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Here is the garlic for 2015…After 9 months in the ground, the leaves were pale and yellowed; the stalks had not enough strength left in them to overcome the wind, and over they went. It survived one storm after another, under a thick bed of salt marsh hay and snow, in one of the most brutal winters in Massachusetts history.

The way garlic grows well.

Part of the allure in growing this mystical allium is its contrarian life- It takes root when the breath of Orion kills everything in its path, and dies in the summer flourish of green.

While other crops grow fruit and die, death for garlic marks the beginning. We consume the living cloves for the pure culinary splendor they bestow upon us, but the finest cloves go back to the Good Earth in autumn, when the cycle of life begins anew.

So this is where I’d like to start this new blog, at the end, which is the beginning!