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The National Chefs Collaborative Summit took place in Seattle this week, and I’ve enjoyed many thought provoking tidbits posted on Twitter by participants.  On Monday during Ruth Reichl’s keynote address, New York Times writer Kim Severson broadcast a statistic that certainly got my attention, and was re-tweeted by 25 others:

Kim Severson ‏‪@kimseverson

Stunning stat: ‪@ruthreichl says only 2% of Americans have been to a farm. ‪#natlsum12

I did some very quick and unscientific fact-checking which was inconclusive about how many Americans have in fact visited a farm.  The 2% number is frequently sited as the percentage of Americans who live on a farm. But I’m not going to get hung up on the validity of that number; that’s not what motivated me to write today.

My first (and online) reaction to this small percentage of American farm visitors was this: it’s definitely not for lack of interest.  We field farm tour requests on a daily basis.  And when our city customers come to the town of Vashon and visit our butcher shop and restaurant, they frequently remark –usually with a detectable note a disappointment– that they were expecting the enterprise to be located within our actual farm.

The fact is we offer tours on a very limited basis; about four times a year, and this schedule falls woefully short of the demand.  If we could fling open the gates to every request, we’d be doing so every weekend, to dozens of farm-curious folk.  And it’s this very non-existent openness that our customers expect.  Isn’t that what healthy, small-scale farming is supposed to be about: transparency?  But it’s more complicated than that.  As I explain to many, we have electric fencing.  We have a bull.  Neither should be experienced on a self-guided “tour” of the farm.   Which means farm visits require a docent of sorts, and therefore one of our already-stretched-thin employees must stop milking the cows, feeding the pigs, moving the chicken tractors, etc. to serve as farm guide.  We’re not there, yet.

For now, the limited and scheduled “farm events” must suffice.  In fact, we are holding such an event next week and 36 guests will join us for a full tour during the afternoon milking, plus barrel sampling and cheese tasting from the cellar, followed by a harvest feast at the restaurant.  The event sold out quickly, affirming what I already know.  People are hungry for more than the food.

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The Sound of Moosic

 

Calves by Jackie Baisa Donnelly

 

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This morning I couldn’t stop thinking about the sense of smell.  We watched a movie last night, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) that was a mediocre adaptation of an incredible book originally published in 1985 by the German author Peter Suskind.   The book’s descriptions of scents –from 18th Century Paris no less—have stayed with me for over a decade, and despite the lackluster reviews, I just had to see how the story was depicted in the film.

I tend to short-change scent, as a sense, so this morning I tried to rectify that.  While walking up Western Avenue in downtown Seattle, I endeavored to mimic the main character of Perfume and quite literally ‘follow my nose.’  I forced myself to linger on each scent, good and bad, and as if meditating, gently return my consciousness to the project at hand, when I found my thoughts –and other senses—taking over.

The creosote planks of the pier; the fuel-laced, hot Earthy air discharged by a leaf blower; the awakening inhabitants of the Victor Steinbrueck Park in Pike Place Market.  I tried, in the olfactory sense, to acknowledge each; some obviously more pleasant than others.  Which led me to mentally ruminate –and temporarily forget about smelling—on what we think smells “good” and what scents are conversely labeled “bad.”  I definitely have some experience in this regard.

After all, there are many strong smells on the farm.  I suspect most visitors notice them immediately when they arrive.  I confess I have probably become immune to all but the strongest.  But cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, dogs and humans all omit distinct smells, as does the grass, grain, and food scraps they consume, to say nothing of the waste they create.  But there are wonderful smells, too.  Bacon smoking.  Dew-drenched fresh pasture.  Skins and stems of stomped grapes, to say nothing of oak barrels, and fermenting juice.

These smells are absent in the city.  The degree to which this is so thorough surprised me.  This morning during my experiment, I saw a Charlie’s Produce delivery sitting curbside in front of Cutter’s Restaurant.  Approaching the dozens of vegetables crates, I expected the scents of their contents to reach my nose.  The boxes were hardly impermeable; I could see the produce.  I drew in; nothing.  I slowed as I walked past, focusing on what I thought I should smell, my imagination trying to help my nose along.  Didn’t happen.  Nada.  My nose moved on to the Mid-Westerners asking directions to the fish market.

The farm smells of life.  Of beginning, of nurturing, of thriving, of dying, of decomposing.  Plants, animals, people.   And life is not always tidy.

Granted, I know people who are terribly burdened by keenly sensitive noses.  In Perfume, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born without a scent of his own, certainly met –and led others to—a very ugly demise as a result.  But I suspect for the rest of us, we underutilize and fail to recognize this aspect of interaction.  Of life.

What do you smell, right this minute?

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Portland has my attention. To be specific, their food cart culture is all I can think about. While we’ve had our nose to the farmers market grindstone, Portland has enjoyed a street food revolution that has grown to hundreds of food carts in all shapes, sizes and colors, loosely grouped in “pods” around the city; filling otherwise empty parking lots with entrepreneurial micro-venues of gastronomy. Every imaginable culinary style is represented by these mobile food establishments.

Food Carts in downtown Portland

I love everything about these carts. Most are obviously hand-fashioned with a lot of ingenuity and elbow grease. Nothing about these carts make you wonder who is financially backing these entrepreneurs. (After all, I am a huge Maximus Minimus fan, but that food truck of porky goodness clearly required BANK.). And nothing whets my appetite more than the smell of DIY.

I also love the kitsch aesthetic. Decorative Christmas lights, adjoining picnic tables, and hand-painted signs abound. Some are custom fitted with antique appliances. The carts are entirely unique, and speak to the individualism of each ‘cartrepreneur.’

And the quality of the food? I suspect there is the full gamut. My own experience at ‘The People’s Pig’ cart downtown was excellent, after sampling three different pork sandwiches including the daily special that included both fresh watermelon and pickled watermelon rind. www.foodcartsportland.com provides a comprehensive list, which seems to change and grow weekly. (There are 579 food carts currently registered by the Multnomah Health Department.)

But what I love best about this cartopia in Portland, is the fertile environment for both the entrepreneurial spirit and the culinary Renaissance. despite these lethargic economic times, Portland’s cart culture thumbs it’s nose at the necessity of an angel investor, and embodies the American Dream at it’s best. Even when we are at our worst. Viva Cartopia, Portland! And may you inspire other cities to nurture the same.

(P.S. If you are heading to Portland soon, pick up a copy of Portland Monthly Magazine, as their cover story lists the 40 best food carts in the city. There also happens to be a nice little piece in the issue about visiting Vashon Island, with La Boucherie written up on page 41.)

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Our chosen life of inventing, trail blazing, and resurrecting small-scale food production methods may seem foreign to many. But within the Page family, such a path is entirely normal. This week, we spent an evening with George’s brother and family in Centralia, Washington, where Justin and Lucy Page have created Santa Lucia Coffee. Their business encompasses both a roasterie and cafe, and true to form, is entirely unique.

Justin began roasting coffee on a micro-scale, using an electric popcorn popper. For personal consumption, such equipment is perfectly adequate. But as his new hobby blossomed into a cottage industry, he began building custom roasters. Each roaster was slightly larger and more sophisticated than the last. justin’s newest machine roasts ten-pound batches; still very small on a commercial scale, but a quantum leap from where he began. It is a Willy Wonka looking contraption of black stove piping, but after the second crack, perfectly roasted beans pour out onto the cooling tray.

The brothers Page are notorious for this kind of thing. From carpentry to charcuterie, sculpture to software, forging to foraging, they are self-taught and proficient in nearly every craft that catches their interest. Perhaps growing up in Southeast Alaska, surrounded by back-to-the-land ambition and self sufficiency, cultivated such confidence.

The next time you you make the drive to Portland, stop in Centralia (aptly named as the midway point between Seattle and Portland), and visit Justin and Lucy’s Santa Lucia Cafe In historic downtown Centralia. Relax in the sunny courtyard, and savor the smooth, chocolaty brew that is distinctly Santa Lucia. If Justin is there, you can ask him about the last roaster he built. Or, the next roaster he intends to build. Because that is the cycle; constant observation, conclusion, innovation. Who says artisans aren’t scientists.

Justin and George roasting coffee

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I started writing about this a few days ago and found it too depressing to finish, so I put the idea aside.  But the topic keeps creeping into my consciousness, and frankly anything else I could say this week would feel false without first exploring this subject.

Last week I read and posted on Facebook an article published by GRIST about the increase of raids on farms and private food clubs.  Here is a link to the complete article.   Essentially there are farms in several states experiencing severe crack-downs regarding the sale and distribution of raw food through informal, communal channels.  Several friends and customers commented on the piece.  They echoed most of my own feelings:  shock, outrage, incredulous.  However I don’t believe any of these lovely folks are farmers themselves, so I was perhaps alone in imagining my own doorstep graced with armed visitors, attempting to confiscate our computers, products, etc.  Don’t even get me started on the description of the mother with young children being held at gunpoint for several hours.   (KOMO, KIRO, KING; are you listening???)

In the last ten years, we have jumped through literally hundreds of hoops to avoid such a fate.  We are a Washington State Department of Agriculture licenced facility for chicken slaughter.  We are a Washington State Department of Agriculture licensed facility for egg washing. (Yes, there is a license for this.)  We are a Washington State certified Raw Milk Dairy.  We are licensed to sell our products at three Seattle farmers markets, for each of which the King County Department of Health requires a separate permit and fee.  We are a licensed and certified winery (in accordance with the TTB/Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms),  food establishment with beer & wine license (licensed and inspected by the King County Health Department) and butcher shop (inspected by the Washington State Department of Agriculture).  We employ ten of the hardest working, most incredibly talented and persevering  individuals in Washington State, for which we must tango with Washington Labor & Industries Department, not to mention the good old federal government.

All of the above is a lot of headache for a very small yet complex operation.  And there isn’t a week that goes by when we don’t wonder if it’s really worth it.   Do you know why we do it?  It’s certainly not because we see legitimacy as a road to riches.   Because we believe in it.  We believe it is all possible.  That raising healthy animals humanely, in a manner that is in true stewardship to the land, maintaining the integrity of what we produce, and delivering those products to customers that understand and value and appreciate the difference, is a viable business model. That what is good and right can be held up to the light of day.  That this type of farming can be done legitimately, without being a Rockefeller.  That there is an alternative to the corporate monster that has become our food chain.  That our health and the Earth are more important than corporate interests.  That our lives depend on it.

So we’ve jumped through the hoops.  And we continue to do so.  And we believe in the power of collaboration.  We believe in the individuals we have come to know within the regulatory entities, whom through their own experiences of health and food and agriculture see a better future together.  In fact, I wish we could discuss all of these challenges in our kitchen, over a delicious meal of farm raised chicken; pork loin braised in milk and herbs; heavenly smoked bacon.  Let’s figure out a solution to the cut & wrap ban.  But please; leave the police escorts behind.

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You have probably been invited to a wedding this summer.  Or maybe you’ll participate in one.  This coming Sunday will be such an event for us at La Boucherie, which is why I have weddings on the brain.  In fact, it will be the third wedding in ten years of profound significance for Sea Breeze Farm, since, after all, it’s not every day someone gets married.  Hence, the next three posts are dedicated to the subject.  (And if you have something against weddings, feel free to check back in next week when we’ve got something else on the brain.)

Wedding #1 took place in 2001.  George and I had moved to Vashon Island just nine months prior and had started Sea Breeze Farm, which consisted of a flock of chickens, two goats, and some rabbits.  We didn’t know what we were doing (not sure we do now), but getting married was on the list.  So we applied our obsession for food to the event.

The nuptials would be consummated by an eleven-course dinner for 50 close friends and family members.  And yes, we were crazy enough to cook our own wedding dinner.  Two fresh pasta courses.  Stuffed rabbit (oh yes we did), numerous dishes featuring our own cheeses, a sorbet intermezzo, and our first vintage of pinot noir.

Almost all of the produce and flowers came from other farms on Vashon.  I distinctly remember visiting Hogs Back Farm, in a panic that we wouldn’t have enough tomatoes, and talking with a very pregnant Amy Bogaard out in the field about the intended menu.  She looked at me like we were nuts.  She was right.

Somehow, we pulled it off.  And promptly fled to Emilia-Romagna for a gastronomic honeymoon.  I would never recommend cooking your own wedding dinner.  But we couldn’t really conceive of approaching the event in any other way.  The dinner was us; our collaboration; our passion.  As it continues to be.

25 August, 2001

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