"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Fermentation Files (High Summer Edition)

My High Summer Altar

It is the highest point of high summer. The sun is strong and steady and the pastures are pure gold, without any hint of green from a distance. If you get right up close and part the tall golden stems, you will see the green clover underneath. My goats burrow in and eat the clover, along with those sturdy, wiry weeds that are still green at summer's height: plantain, burdock, false dandelion, thistle. 

The leaves have started to turn, so some people might call this short, beautiful season "earliest fall" but I'm sticking to Summer. As long as the weather makes you want to go jump in the nearest lake, it's summer. Lucky for me, I have my choice of lovely lakes nearby. Last week I took the children for a dip, and gave thanks for the blessed cool water. 

The harvest goes on unabated. Principally, pears. So many pears. A hail of pears. Almost a plague of pears, but I would never be so ungrateful. We have FOUR pear trees, which, I can assure you, is more pear trees than any one family needs. Alas, pears cannot, like apples, be made into cider, so either we have to eat them fresh or find other people who want pears and trade with them. I cannot possibly process so many pears myself. So far this year I have made eight quarts of pear sauce, a whole bunch of pies, and now dehydrated a dozen or so. That has not made a discernible dent in the number of pears covering my kitchen table. 

But canning is not the main way I am preserving food right now. I have a number of exciting fermentation projects going on. I have so many varied fermentation projects going on, in fact, that it sometimes feels like I have a collection of small pets in the kitchen. Each living cultivar needs its own special care. None of them are particularly demanding on their own, but caring for all of them does begin to add up. 

There is always sourdough, of course. I've had a good sourdough going for about a year now, since a neighbor gave me some of her family's dough that - so the story goes - dates back to Alaskan pioneer days. Its a good dough and makes nice bread and great pancakes, but I don't bake as much as I used to and I often find myself pouring sourdough in the trash just to make room in the jar. The sourdough is not very hard to maintain though - every three to five days I have to refresh it with a cup or so of flour and more water. If I forget and leave it in the fridge for two weeks, it's fine - just pour off the accumulated alcohol on top and refresh as usual. 

I brought back some new kefir grains from Oaxaca. My last kefir cultivar died ( Well, That Was Fast) before I could really even use it. These ones are a different kind of creature - small, separate grains each only a millimeter or so in diameter. My mother in law acquired them a few years ago locally and makes what she calls "yogurt" out them. She knows them as "bulgaros." The "yogurt" they make is extremely sour but has a very good flavor. I smuggled a tablespoon or so home in a spice jar. The kefir grains need a little more care than sourdough - every other day or so I have to strain off the kefir into a clean jar, wash the grains with water (my book says to use milk but mama has kept these puppies alive a long time so I'm doing what she tells me) and put them into fresh milk. 

I've made two batches of kosher dill pickles - each batch is about two gallons, because that's how big my crock is. I was lucky this year and both batches came out fabulous. Sometimes pickles just don't work - don't ask me why.  I make them the same every time but sometimes they get soft and slimy. That happened last year and I was sad. This year though, both batches turned out crisp and delicious. So good, I even drank some of the brine straight, in little sips out of a shot glass. So good, I saved back a little of the brine to use to get my sauerkraut started. 

As you can see, I used purple cabbage this year. My neighbor of the HSH  (hotel-sized-house) gave me three beautiful purple cabbages. I chopped them finely, and packed them into the same crock I'd used for the pickles, saving the dill and the grape leaves. I left about an inch of pickle brine in the bottom, then covered the cabbage with a new salt brine. 

Today, after approximately ten days in brine, I emptied the crock and rinsed the cabbage and repacked it into quart sized jars in the fridge. I could, if I chose, water-bath can it at this point. But I don't think I will. I am really enjoying the live, complex flavors of all different ferments. Canning the kraut would preserve it, yes, but it would also kill it. Since there isn't a ton of it, just three cabbages worth, I'm sure we can get through it before it goes bad in the fridge. 

And I'm trying something new this year. My Italian Plum tree has decided to produce enough plums to sink a battleship. So many plums that branches are literally breaking from the weight. So many plums that I thought - well, I can experiment. It doesn't really matter if I devote a bucket of plums to an experiment that doesn't pan out - it's not like we are going to miss them. We are all, in fact, mortally sick of plums, so if my experiment ends up in the compost, I'm kind of sort of doing everybody a favor, right? 

Plum wine. Yesterday evening, I sat out on the lawn with a knife and a clean plastic bucket and a pile of plums, and pitted plums as I watched my daughters doing cartwheels in the setting sun. The bucket slowly filled up and their long legs flashed, upside-down in the slanting afternoon light. The scent of ripe plums - their purple sweetness - rose up into my nostrils. Haku lay panting at my feet and my husband sat a few feet away, reading quietly. When I had a bucketful, I carried them into the house and covered them with sugar water. 

Most likely, my plum wine will not be objectively delicious. But if, when I drink it, it reminds me of that hot August afternoon with my family; if it brings me back to my hands, working, and my back, aching gently, and my daughters calling "watch this, mom!" and my husband glancing over at me with a smile on his face, then it will be a success. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Plum Conundrum and Pear Perplexity

In recent days, as I took Haku outside in the evenings to run around in the orchard,  I've noticed that a couple of trees in the orchard are so heavily laden with fruit that the branches are actually sitting on the ground.  Specifically, the Italian plum and one of the pear trees - the Comice - were so bowed down that I made a mental note to get out and pick some fruit as soon as possible.

Then a couple of days went by. This morning Homero told me that the plum tree had broken nearly in half.

I said "No, the big branch is just sitting on the ground, that's all."

He said "Go take a look."

The biggest branch was indeed broken. It must have happened just that day, because the leaves were still bright green and crisp. I ran for a bucket and with Homero's help, stripped off five gallons of plums from just that one broken branch in five minutes flat. We didn't even get all the plums from that branch - many of them fell on the ground and we didn't even bother to pick them up.

The plums are not quite ripe, but it doesn't matter, because I looked it up and plums ripen beautifully off the tree. In two or three days I will have a bushel (more or less) of ripe plums, not even counting those still on the tree. The still-on-the-tree plums account for at least four fifths of the total. I tried to think of something to do with five gallons of plums. Drying comes to mind, of course, but really - who likes prunes that much? And I am not much of a jam-master. If I'm going to attempt to make jam I will make blackberry jam, which we all like, rather than risking going to all the work of canning jam only to find out that nobody enjoys the end product.

That left wine.

I don't have much experience with making alcohol. Sure; a side effect of fresh cider is tepache (naturally fermented fresh juice) - and I have occasionally expanded upon wild fermentation and ventured into the alchemy of hard cider - with mixed results. But I have never set out deliberately to create "wine" which seems for some reason very serious and highbrow, even when made from an accidental glut of plums instead of fancy pedigreed grapes.

Today I went to our local home-brew store and told them what I was up to and ended up spending something over $50 in tubing, plastic airlocks, yeast, and specialized equipment. Chances are better than even that I will not produce anything drinkable by any but a late-stage alcoholic, but I'm going to try.

The pears are a whole 'nother story.

For one thing, they mostly will not ripen on the tree and demand careful and specific post-harvest handling in order to reach peak perfection. For another thing, the time period between "peak perfection" and "post-perfection" is about fifteen minutes.

Also - The pears arrive in tsunami-sized waves. So when I try to think of something to do with the pears, I am thinking about seventy-five or eighty pears at a time, not six or eight, which would be the perfect number to make into a pie.

With that in mind, I went and bought a dozen wide-mouth quart sized canning jars. I figure I can make a few gallons of pear-sauce; hopefully mixed with blackberry if I can coerce my children into picking a few pints.

I may also try Car-dehydrating. The weather has been unrelentingly hot. It's supposed to hit 90 degrees tomorrow and stay there through the weekend. I have read that in this kind of heat, you can lay our thin slices of fruit on foil-covered trays and put them in your car. The temperature inside will reach 150-175 quite quickly. Basically, if it would kill your dog, it will dehydrate your pears.

But by far the best option is to trade some of my fruit for something else that I want more. I put out the word today over social media and within minutes had received offers to trade plums for locally caught trout; for freshly harvested green beans;  and for assorted canning jars. That's neighborliness at its best.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Homecoming Harvest

We had a bit of difficulty getting home
from Oaxaca. Without going into details, we got home 48 hours later than we thought we would; paid more than a thousand dollars more than we thought we would have to; and had to take a seven hour bus ride to Mexico City instead of flying from Oaxaca, as we had planned. 

None of that matters, in the grand scheme of things. We are home - whole, hale, and hearty. We had a wonderful trip (recap to follow, with pictures). The farm, under Rowan's care, has flourished in our absence. 

I was sorry to have missed so much of harvest season. All the berries were early this year and the strawberries and raspberries came and went while we were gone. I got anxious as I saw my friends' Facebook posts of blueberries and even blackberries while I was still
thousands of miles away. 

Today I found out that there is plenty of harvest season left. As you can see above, the blackberries are in full swing but there are plenty of green ones left and there will be blackberries for weeks yet. 

The blueberry harvest is not over yet, either. My favorite local no-spray blueberry farm had many plants loaded with berries still, although some had begun to dry on the bush. It only took me twenty minutes to pick about 4 pounds. Sometime this weekend I'll be bringing the kids out to pick more.

Walking the orchard brought some delightful surprises. Some trees that had never yet borne fruit are bearing. Chiefly - the hazelnut. I don't know if this is due to the two new tiny hazels I planted this spring for improved fertilization or if the bush simply needed more time. In years past, it flowered but never developed nuts. This year there are hundreds of nuts all of a sudden. I need to read up on when to harvest them and how to cure them. 

Another tree, which I had pretty much given up on, surprised me: the greengage plum. We have two plum trees - an Italian plum and a greengage plum. The Italian plum has been providing us with a good harvest for several years, but the greengage plum had not set a single fruit, despite growing tall and flowering. For whatever unknown reason, it decided that this was the year it was going to fruit. The plums are just ripe - and delicious. The greengage plum is a heritage fruit that many of us remember, but which you almost never find in the grocery store. I'm so happy ours has decided to bloom.

All the pear trees look pretty loaded (we have four - too many), but one in particular is so weighed down with hundreds of enormous pears that the tips of the branches are actually resting on the ground. I think it is the Comice pear - my favorite. They haven't started to fall yet, so I'll leave them be until they do. 

Our first day back happened to be a Friday, which is farmer's market day in Ferndale. Overly ambitious, perhaps, I bought enough green beans for canning and several pounds of pickling cucumbers and dill to start a crock of lacto-fermented pickles. 

I've already got the pickles going in a big glass container on the kitchen counter but the green beans will have to wait until I buy some new canning jars - tomorrow. I swear.