31 October 2008

Frosty Blooms

We woke up to a gorgeous frost late last week, the ice crystals were so thick it almost looked like snow. It was also my cue to bring in the last of the carrot and onion harvest. And I'm glad I did because Tuesday this week brought 5 1/2 inches of rain! Probably the last big rainfall for the year, we are expecting snow anytime, and judging from the amount of rain we have had this summer, we will likely have plenty of snow this winter. Climate change scientists have predicted that Atlantic Canada and Northeastern US will recieve heavy precipitation as a consequence of the melting Arctic.

We are prepared for heavy snowfall. Without a car, we do not need to keep the driveway clear, which is one complaint our neighbors have, waking up to three feet of snow. We pack trails out to the road and the barn with snowshoes, and hit the road with our bikes. Our food supply for the winter is stored in the cold room and pantry, so we have little need to get to town. And the thick blanket of snow is actually beneficial to us in the growing season. Last winter's 14 feet of snow replenished the reserve of groundwater to a level that we did not have to water the garden, except directly after transplanting. Also the snow insulated the ground from freezing, which is beneficial to overwintering crops like garlic, winter rye, or crops like chard, parsley and fennel I hope to overwinter for the sake of seed saving. A thick blanket of snow is also beneficial to my garden ecology. Insect eaters like voles and toads fare well, and they are the main predators of my most problematic pests: cucumber beetles, flea beetles, cabbage worms, and potato beetles. So I really do hope the snow comes early and thick, before the ground freezes hard, and stays all winter long.

The brussels sprouts don't mind the heavy frost, even though I got them started a bit late, we will still get a late fall treat. Some of the last fresh greens for a few months.It looks like my crop of broccoli seed is too late this year. The seed pods have formed on many of the plants, but the seeds are not filled out, and will most likely be killed by a freeze. I was hoping to harvest some extra broccoli seed for sprouts in November and December, but at least I know how early to start them next spring. But letting these broccoli heads go to seed was well worth it to see the bees collecting heavy baskets of yellow pollen so late in the year. There is no other souce of pollen for them, not in my garden, and not in the fields around, so perhaps this late bloom will help these wild honey bees survive the winter.
Our onion crop was not the best, but they did well for the poor ground and just adequate manure coverage they were planted into. They were planted from my first crop of saved onion seed, and I was pleased with the germination and vitality of the seed. The best bulbs have been set aside for next year's seed crop.
Our carrots have astonished me this year. Some of them are almost two pounds of crispy sweet carrot flesh! These, and green beans, have been our bumper crops for 2008. I was expecting at most 200 lbs of carrots from the 150 row feet planted, and we tipped the scales, so to speak, with 400 lbs! But it is not just the weight of the harvest that pleases me, the carrots are of a very high quality and flavor, and will store well.

23 October 2008

New batch of Apple Cider Vinegar

It is time to start this year's batch of apple cider vinegar. We used up the first harvest of early, unbruised apples for drying and preserving. By the second week of October, most of the apples had fallen to the ground, making for easy collecting in these unpruned wild trees. We went back to the abandoned apple orchard in the neighboring forest and collected the last of this year's apples. One of the trees produces small red apples with good flavor, these will be my cider apples. Late apples make good cider because of the high sugar content.

Last year was my first try at making vinegar. Not only was it easy, but the vinegar beat anything I had ever tasted, including the organic raw apple cider vinegar from the health food store. So I am doubling my batch this year, 12 quarts.

What do I use all of this apple cider vinegar for? It does make a great gift, and of course it makes delicious salad dressing. I also use it to make a hot cider tea in the winter: 1 Tbsp cider vinegar, 1 Tbsp honey, dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom (use your tastebuds), fill the mug with steaming water. But I also have a few recipes that have become favorites. I call it Faux Kraut, but if anyone comes up with a better name, let me know...

4 lbs root vegetables grated (turnip, carrot, parsnip in any combination, or singly)
1 lb onion chopped
1 lb sweet potato diced (if available)
Heat in heavy bottomed pot with about 1/4 cup oil or butter
Sautee onions, then add vegetables, stir to dress evenly with oil or butter
Add 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp honey
1 cup Applesauce or diced apples or 1/4 cup dried apples chopped fine
1 tsp carraway seed, 1 tsp dill seed, 1 1/2 tsp mustard seed, salt and pepper to taste
optional: 2 Tbsp pumpkin seed (or other seed or nut)
Remove to low heat until cooked through
Serve with meatballs, dumplings or sausage.

For a simpler variation, I love julianned carrots (or other root veg), steamed in equal parts cider vinegar and water (enough to prevent burning), and honey to taste.

This is the last of 2007's apple cider vinegar, with the mother at the bottom. It may come in handy later in the vinegar making process.
For making cider, I don't bother to core or peel the apples. I cut out large bruises, and remove the stems because they clog my juicer. I simply cut the apples into a size that easily fits in my juicer. It is a great way to use up all of the small apples that would be tedious to core and peel. This is a second hand juicer I piced up for $2. So you don't need any kind of professional equipment to get the job done. A cider press would definately sqeeze more juice out of the pulp, but for small batch vinegar making it wouldn't make much sense to invest in a large press that would be used once a year. One pound of apples makes about one cup of juice. Half of the juice evaporates in the vinegar process, so 2 quarts of apple juice makes 1 quart cider vinegar. You can also make vinegar from purchased unpasturized apple juice (or any unpasturized juice for that matter).
These ceramic crocks work great, but any glass jar will do. The juice is covered with a clean towel and placed in a warm spot, a sunny window or near my wood stove, about 80F is ideal. 60-70F will do, just slows the process down. (The same principles apply for rising yeast breads).

The sugars are turning into alcohol with the help of yeast. I have plenty of wild yeast in my kitchen from bread baking, and the juice begins to ferment and bubble within 24 hours. Once a day for a few weeks I skim the surface. Mold will form on the scum if not removed and spoil the batch. The cider has a pleasant, slightly alcoholic aroma, and I usually sneak a taste of the hard cider before it becomes vinegar.

Within a few weeks there is no scum to remove, and no bubbles rise when stirred. At this point, the alcohol is turning to acetic acid (vinegar), with the help of another microscopic beastie. Some recipes recommend adding "mother of vinegar" to aid the fermentation. Mother is the cloudy precipitation at the bottom of raw vinegars, Braggs or Eden brands contain mother. But it may be that the store bought vinegar affects the flavor of my homemade vinegar. So last year, I waited to see if it would form it's own mother when left undisturbed. And slowly, a thin grey film formed on the surface, almost like an oil slick. I left it be for a few weeks, then began to taste it for strength. When it tasted right to me, I filtered it and stored it in bottles in my cool, dark pantry. I began to use it right away, but after a few months, the flavor mellowed and became more complex. Like a good wine it improved with age.

Can't wait to find out how this year's batch tastes. For more detailed instructions on vinegar making, and using vinegar, The Vinegar Man is my favorite site.

20 October 2008

A bit slow on the Slow Food scene

We just watched the closing discussion from the 2008 panel at the Slow Food Nation Conference in August. The panel consists of some of the greatest activists and writers in the good local food and social justice movement: Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Eric Schlosser and Carlo Petrini.

We are a bit slow on the uptake, six weeks after the conference, but our own slow food season has come first.

If you haven't seen this yet, it is well worth watching.


15 October 2008

Bringing home the goats

We are in love with goats. These gentle creatures fit perfectly into our homestead. Even with the smallest breed of dairy cow, a Jersey and her calf, we were running out of cleared land for pasture, hay, grain and gardens. Her and her calf alone required at least 8 acres, since we need to put up hay for six months of the year. And we ended up feeding a lot of excess milk to the chickens.

So we have made the transition to goats to provide our milk and meat. After watching our Jersey cow mow down the pasture with anxious worries of running out of pasture too early in the fall, which would run us short on our hay supply come spring, we both breathed a sigh of relief watching these two goats graze. It is almost absurd how little they eat, and between the two of them we will have enough milk and butter on the table.
Goats are much easier to handle, and as a woman who did not grow up on a farm, I appreciate that difference. But they are notoriously difficult to keep in a fence. For this time of year, we are tethering them in the pasture during the day, and feeding them in the barn at night. With the moose moving through the pastures, we cannot reliably keep a fence up, and tethered, they would be vulnerable to hungry bears or coyotes at night.
Pilgrim is not too sure about the goats. Nostrils flared.
But he is pretty quick to make friends with them. After this picture, he actually spent the entire afternoon with the goats. I think he was a bit infatuated.
This is Penelope. She is a year and ten months old. Half Alpine (dairy breed) and half Boer (meat breed). She throws more to the Alpine in her features, and looks to be a good little milker. She is still giving a liter of milk a day from her spring lactation, but I will dry her off this week. Both of the goats are bred and due to kid in mid-January. Penelope was handled by her previous owner and had been milked a few times. She has settled in well with treats of apples and mangles (fodder beets) and plenty of attention.
This is Juniper, Penelope's daughter from a Boer buck, making her one-quarter Alpine and three-quarters Boer. She is ten months old, and the reason why Penelope is still milking... Juniper was never weaned. This little Juniper berry is a little wild though. She was never really handled or caught, so she runs off when we approach, and is skiddish. We are training her to be caught and to approach us, with offered beet tops as her favorite lure. With each day she is less skiddish. It is critical to settle them both in, if they were to get loose, we would need to be able to catch them. Penelope would be easy, and most likely, Juniper would stay close to her, but she could just as easily run off in the first week of being moved to a new place.

All in all we are happy goat herders. And by the way, the milk is delicious. It does taste different than the rich Jersey milk we have been drinking. But to be honest, the cream was so rich it sometimes gave me a stomach ache. Not so with the goat milk, and it does not taste "goaty". I have yet to try separating the cream. With only a pint at a milking, I don't think I would get much but a dirty cream separator. So we will have to wait until January to try making goat butter.

06 October 2008

A final bloom of color

I love this time of year, but it goes so quickly. These are some images from our bicycle "commute" to the internet access center. There are few maples on the land we are renting so the changing leaves are not so dramatic outside our own windows.

This year the leaves seamed to change quite rapidly, they peaked and faded before I expected. Just one clear windy day can do much to send leaves flying, and swirling to the ground.

Garlic: the last crop of the year

With our garlic bedded down, this year's growing season is officially complete. We planted 120 row feet of garlic, which could produce 30 lbs next year. We mulched with our wheat straw, scythed and carried just a few feet, from the 300 square foot plot of bread wheat grown in the background of the image.

Although we are still grazing on chard and kale, and expect Brussels Sprouts and Cabbage any day now, there are more bare spots than growing things when I look at the garden through the kitchen window. We are cleaning up the garden now, collecting decaying plant matter for the compost pile, and gathering seed crops we managed to squeeze in to our growing season.

We let the hens loose durring the day to scratch around for grubs in the newly turned ground. Our garden, including grains, will double next year to just over a half acre. Of course, the hens also help Pilgrim clean up any oats he leaves behind.