Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Snow Cone-y Island

We left Carroll Gardens on the F, riding the rails that rise above it all. 

Looking down we could see the snowed-in streets.

Thirty minutes later, we were at Coney Island. The boardwalk was under snow.

The Russians were out in full force.

The rides lay quiet and loud.

The loops like monsters in the impeccable winter sky.

The Parachute Jump's last jump was in 1968. It was moved to Coney Island in 1941 from the World's Fair site in Queens.

The beach was chilly.

The Russians were equipped.

Full moon, low tide and snow on the beach.

We turned around and headed back.

This man held out an old camera and asked to have his photo taken by the Frenchman, who did so before beating a hasty retreat. But then I stopped and asked to take his picture. He was happy to pose. What is your animal? I asked. A sea rabbit, he said, wagging its mermaid tail. Oh, I said. And where are you both off to? I asked. We're just going to buy some groceries, he said. Ah, I said. And what do sea rabbits eat? I asked.

Seaweed, he said.

Winter is the best time to see Coney Island. Cold, blue, brief.

None of the hordes of summer, when the sky is a white-out haze.

I meant to get a hot dog at Nathan's but we weren't hungry enough, and passed by.

Plenty of digging was still going on. 

But the world was melting fast.

We rode home.

Above the last open spaces near the Gowanus, where cement trucks lay dreaming of construction jobs to come.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Grow Journey - seeds to plan by

Front door edible permaculture. Photo: Grow Journey

I have discovered that one of the things I enjoy most about receiving monthly seeds from Grow Journey is the reading and learning that accompanies each arrival.

Much of what we do well is a combination of a love of the subject, experience and instinct. But when you add solid information and method, the result is good technique.

Good technique is the backbone of most beautiful things. Good food, music, art. Gardens.

So, OK; I wax lyrical. But it's January, and there are feet of snow on the ground here in Brooklyn, and gardeners must think big thoughts in January because they can't do anything else.

Back to those seeds.

When a Seeds of the Month envelope from Grow Journey arrives in the mail, I go straight to my member sign-in on the website and click on the My Seeds tab - this is a personalized member perk, and where the learning begins.

The Grow Journey team has put a lot of effort into background stories for the plants whose seeds you receive monthly, with practical GrowGuides (screenshot below), as well as information on sustainable growing practises - much of which is teaching me details of organic gardening and permaculture that are new to me (and timely, given my gardening move from containers to in-ground).

They are also developing visually sophisticated but practical GrowPlans: graphics that illustrate how to combine particular edible plants for specific exposures, taking into account sun requirements, time of harvest, and plant heights in relation to one another, for maximum aesthetic impact.

So my seeds are arriving and a small pile is growing. What about winter? Well, I'm thinking: which crop will go where, and when, in our vegetable plot - the area (10' x 10') of our back garden where only edibles will be grown, and in the beds on the edge. These side beds have herbs and fruit (blueberries, black raspberries and strawberries) and will have some vegetables, along with many flowering perennial ornamentals. Those are for my pleasure, but are also effectively plant guilds (a permaculture term, basically companion plants), which will provide habitats for beneficial insects and organisms, for the ongoing adventure that is my organic gardening life.

(Which reminds me about the powdered oyster shells, as well as the egg shells I am collecting to pulverize. But those are another story.)

I am very happy about the garden cress (Lepidium sativum) in this month's package (to be sown 4-6 weeks before the last frost). I love salad leaves, and I love peppery cresses; I forage for Barbarea verna every spring, and this one has a similar bite. It will also handle some of the shade that I have.

Grow Journey's Mission reads:

"We’re realists who think that it’s become quite clear that industrial agriculture (as currently practiced) is a demonstrably bad answer to a good question: “How can we feed everyone in the world without destroying it?“ We’re optimists who believe we can help design a better food system: one seed, one person, one yard, and one farm at a time."

Realistic, gardening optimists are hard not to like. I learned at Abalimi bezekhaya that microfarming is probably the answer to world hunger, and to the environmental and ethical ills attendant to massive monoculture (plants or animals). In my foraging and horticultural life, I grow and collect for the kitchen because it gives me pleasure, but also because both practises teach me about how food grows and how it can be grown, as well as the beauty of seasonal eating. I never really understood what we eat until I began to grow it myself.

We need change, and each of us can contribute to that change by amending everyday habits - such as the way we eat and garden. Belonging to a wider community of like-minded growers is one way to achieve this, and that is what Grow Journey offers.

For more information, and how to become a member (there is a 30-day free trial), visit the Grow Journey website. 66 Square Feet is a Grow Journey partner -  see my previous post.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Blizzard in the hood

Against doctor's orders I waded out this afternoon into the snow with the doctor Frenchman. For once, I caved and allowed my person to be encased in his hi-tech snowgear, which is lightweight, wind- and waterproof, instead of my usual cashmere layers and coat, in which it is hard to move. Glad I did. We walked into a blizzard!

The world was beautiful, and quite empty. Court Street, below, is a main thoroughfare and had been recently ploughed.

Heading down to the Gowanus Canal on 3rd Street the only vehicle moving belonged to the local FDNY's fire chief. A travel ban has been issued.

The movie magic of walking in the middle of the street.

Why I wanted to see the Gowanus, I am not sure. I just did. By now our faces were wet and the snow was flying straight at us.

We turned around and headed home, cameras tucked under our jackets in a vain effort to protect the lenses.

Up on 2nd Street the snow lay thick. By now about 16" had fallen.

Kanzan cherries bending low, below.

Smith Street, below, is typically jammed with traffic on a Saturday.

In the snow, everyone looks at everyone else, and smiles. That is not the way New Yorkers usually interact.

Final stretch, back on our block, below.

...and the reason the travel ban was issued. Whiteout:

30 minutes later we were home, and I was hustled into a hot shower, before downing a cup of thyme tea.

While we've had some snowy winters in the previous two seasons, this is the most accumulation I have seen since 2006 (26"), the year I started to take pictures, and pre-blog.

Tomorrow the sky will be blue, they say, and the world will be lovely. We are city dwellers, at home, with no need to be on the road, or at work,  or to bring the sheep in. So we stay indoors in comfort and look out at the changed world, and plan dinner (tartiflette, with truffle), and hope only that the Internet does not go down.

Because that would be a real catasrrophe.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A truffle, to tide us over

The only time I have really eaten fresh truffles was at A Voce, a restaurant near Madison Park, where we celebrated a birthday of mine one October. Me, the Frenchman and my mom. We ordered pasta  - I think it was tagliatelle, and slices of white truffle were shaved over the bowls as we watched, after the whole truffle had been presented to each one of us, first, for a good sniff.

It was wonderful.

I didn't ever think we'd have our own truffle, all to ourselves, but then came Instagram and forager-farmers I follow (@primordiafarm), and a picture of a handful of black truffles, and a casual question, from me. Fast forward. Today the four-ounce truffle above was delivered to Brooklyn, packed in an insulated bag, with dry ice (also some extra nubbins, which I grated into some butter and stirred into silky mashed potatoes for dinner).

The truffle is an anniversary gift for the Frenchman, and it turns out he really is the one appreciating it this snowy weekend, as I have such a horrible cold that I. Can. Smell. Nothing. Cruel timing. But while I was making the compound butter below he said the whole house smelled of truffles.

I am hoping for a miracle before Sunday and before we run out of truffle. Their aroma does not last long at all, and they must be used quickly. Also, no heat, please. Grate, microplane, or add at the last minute to hot or warm dishes. This coaxes out the aroma, and that is what truffles are...

Oh, the eggs. I've always read that the eggs will absorb truffle-perfume if kept with it in a sealed jar (which I used, post picture) - though I think that the heat in cooking the omelette or souffle or scrambled eggs will probably do the truffle-smell in,

We shall see.

The snow has started to fall, and tomorrow the world will look and sound and seem very different.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Matjiesfontein - may we go back?

There are several South African Matjiesfonteins, if you start Googling. This is the one that belongs to Papkuilsfontein guesthouse and farm, near Nieuwoudtville.

We slept here for two nights in September, which is South Africa's spring. 

 Photo: the Frenchman

Matjiesfontein's wide white walls enclosed the sort of space I could live in, forever. Or, you know, till I die. Whichever comes first. But this was borrowed time - for most of the year, Mariette and Willem van Wyk, the owners of Papkuilsfontein, live here. Willem restored the homestead's structure and moving parts, and Mariette brought it to life, inside.

Thick walls, deep windowsills, cold, solid floors (with heating pads under the rugs - a brilliant invention), books - good ones, a rosemary hedge humming with bees, and birds: brilliant bishop birds visiting the nearby spring, a resident coot, paddling in the deep puddle we had to cross in the car to get to the house, a malachite sunbird, a pair of swallows rebuilding their mud nest in the eaves of the nearby rondawel.

(Read more story about the house itself - which dates back to the seventeenth century - in my story for Gardenista).

We were happy. Very happy.

During the day, we drove through fields of flowers on the farm Papkuilsfontein, some kilometers further up a dirt road. After good rains, the flowers appear in this region - known as the Hantam - like snow in technicolour. The window is narrow - the weeks from mid August to early September are prime flower time.

It was towards the middle of the second week of September and already the show was past its best - so said people of the region.

I had no complaints. Would you?

One woman did. I was buying some home-baked and -bottled goodies at Lekkerbek, a wooden shack on the the main drag through town one day, when an Englishwoman's voice  complained to the owner, "I am just so TIRED of yellow flowers! It's all you have! Where are the blue flowers?"

I cringed. Flower tourists.

I mean, yes, there was a lot of yellow.

Is that a bad thing? Above Bulbinella latifolia, en masse.

Nemesia cheiranthus


The air here smelled like honey.

A shrubby species of Hermannia, near our house.

A very aromatic false buchu - Diosma acmaephylla. Yes, I cooked with it, two nights later (in a completely different landscape). Needles so sharp they drew blood.

In the land of geophytes, a glorious gladiolus, above. In our trip, we had driven as far north as Kamieskroon, 500km from Cape Town, and then towards the coast, where succulents and daisies rule. Now, south of there, 350km from Cape Town, but suddenly high on this escarpment, we were in the most bulb-rich spot on earth.

On. Earth. 

I'm telling you: put this on your To Do list.

Because for anyone paying attention, there is plenty of blue, too!

Felicia australis, above.

But somehow color is immaterial, yielding to form, diversity, and mindblowing variety.

The blue above is flax.


A field of Ixia rapunculoides, right in town, outside the church. "Tired of yellow." Pfff. Her eyes were closed.

A ghostly Moraea, above.

Above - a thorny shrub I have not identified.

Garden-friendly internationally - Anchusa capensis in its homeland.

And Lachenalias growing lushly in a damp patch on the road out of town.

Another Lachenalia, growing on the very dry edge of the Oorlogskloof ('war canyon'), below:

We found many solitary flowers while we hiked in the dry Renosterveld on the edge of this canyon, a sudden and stunning feature in the landscape, and one that had drawn me to Papkuilsfontein in the first place. 

Another Moraea, above. While I have piles of excellent regional books, time has been short and so not all ID's are offered, yet. 

An orchid above, Holothrix aspera - growing from crumbling rock. Each flower smaller than a pinkie-nail.

A species of Crassula in its own lichen garden. Lichen is an indicator of clean air.


The pools below are what you see just above the slim waterfall, above.

Here, Mariette told me, the water never dries up completely, not even in the very hot summers. These pools are the kuils of Papkuilsfontein.

Waterblommeties were in bloom, and looking at them made me hungry for the Cape bredie that they flavor.

Change of subject: 

Is this leopard poo, about 12" long? Because I suddenly grew eyes in the back of head and began staring at the rocks very carefully.

Ok, fine; back to flowers.

Towards town, we drove on the deeply rutted back roads (each telling silent stories about stuck cars in the rainy season). And beside standing rainwater, we found these beautiful Wurmbea stricta, above.

And in the nearby Hantam National Botanical Garden - once Neil MacGregor's beloved farm, Glen Lyon, which I visited in 2006 with my mom - once-seen, never forgotten Sparaxis elegans, above - like an Art Deco hallucination.

Along with Moraeas like flocks of butterflies.

And evidence of porcupine activity. Their digging is considered an important part of the local geophyte cycle of life. We saw one, one night, sailing ahead of us in the carlights,  his black and white needles erect and swaying, pausing often to dig and eat and grunt, turning his back and bristling when Vincent got out of the car to take his picture.

There are other seasons, of course. Green winter, while it is raining (and hopefully it is raining). April, when, a few weeks after the first autumn rain, the Brunsvigia bloom: giant pink candelabras. Very hard to pin down, but if you hit it, you are very lucky. Summer, when it will be very peaceful, and the nights will glitter beneath the Milky Way.

Matjiesfontein itself is only available in spring, but there are three beautiful, aloof stone cottages on Papkuilsfontein (they were fully booked while we were there) where you can self cater, or order dinner to be delivered to your stoop. They looked wonderful.

It is a special part of the world.