Yarn on the farm

Dear knitting friends,
I love watching your fingers deftly move yarn over and under, around and through. I love that you are never “just sitting,” that even your leisure time is productive, and that every piece you turn out, right down to those dishcloths that last forever, is one-of-a-kind. I love the subtle click of the needles and watching the fat ball of yarn grow smaller and smaller, down to a single strand.

Whereas being in the presence of a chronic texter agitates me, in the company of a knitter I am serene. Knitting is cozy and old-fashioned—there’s a ball of comfort in every woolly skein.

My New England cousins knit and crochet, as did our aunties who have since passed. My BFF has been knitting elegant sweaters since we were in high school. My daughter-in-law’s mother knits for those in need.

My Aunt Lea taught me to knit when I was about 12. She tutored me patiently, through a loden green crew neck sweater—knit a row, purl a row, with a knit one-purl one ribbing. I did well enough, but a dropped stitch was my nemesis; I got my adolescent Italian up whenever I had to rip out a row and start over. Over the years, I made a hat or two and a few afghans, but I never tackled a sweater again. Hopefully, my demi-retired life will allow me the time to become a better knitter.

When my New Hampshire cousin visited recently, she was knitting the cutest socks. She told me that turning the heel was the “most exciting part” and with great enthusiasm showed me as the little puff of a heel gradually took shape. She asked if there were any nearby places to buy yarn that was “like the old days, when you could feel and smell the lanolin.” [I should point out that she knew by name the sheep who was responsible for her last sweater, and that when I introduced her to my knitting BFF, it was as if they shared a secret language.]

I wasn’t optimistic about finding a fresh-from-the-sheep yarn store here in Central Pennsylvania, but  I dug in and searched just in case. And guess what? I was wrong. Just half an hour away, we found a yarn shop on a terraced farm nestled in the woods, stocked mostly with yarn from its own fiber mill. There were goats and angora rabbits and other four-legged friends. We each bought enough of the “hodgepodge” yarn—the mill odds and ends from various animals— to make a scarf. I’ll share it with you when mine is done.

Our trip to Blue Mountain Farm and Fiber Mill and its yarn store, A Knitter’s Dream, from which you can order online, was another one of those serendipitous, “right under your nose” discoveries. Gifted, committed artisans are everywhere. these days.  What’s right under your nose?

 

 

Tarragon, rosemary, thyme

Record rainfall in July and a reasonable amount of hot sun have produced crazy growth spurts in our little dooryard.  The herbs, most of which overwintered, are particularly lush and abundant—so much so that I decided last week to begin drying now for winter, instead of waiting till September.

Without a good place to hang drying herbs, as the experts recommend, I’ve decided instead to dry very small batches, on the kitchen counter. On a warm, still, low-humidity day, I sometimes “sun dry” the herbs I’ve cut on the patio table for a few hours to jump-start the process. Once indoors, I spread them on a piece of paper towel, turn them frequently, and make sure that they’re absolutely dry and brittle before storing. It takes a few days, but it’s easy and almost free. The only downside is the temporary loss of a bit of counter space.

Last year, for the first time in ages, I had enough parsley to fill a jar. It retained its fresh, intense aroma until I used the last of it in May. That is definitely NOT the case with most store-bought herbs. I’m using my Bonne Maman jars for storage, bien sûr.

This happy occupation is leading me to rethink the generous array of herbs and spices that I usually keep on hand. They’re expensive, and they lose their potency over time. Perhaps the better choice is to concentrate on growing and drying those we use most frequently and purchasing the more exotic ones as needed. Such an approach, needless to say, requires an organized meal-planning effort and religiously maintained shopping list. This daydreaming Pisces, who often cooks and bakes on a whim, may be setting herself up for failure, or at least for last-minute dashes to the store because there’s no coriander.

My next task: Go through the out-of-control herb/spice shelf and pitch what’s old or unused. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

 

I dream of Italy

When the weekend approaches, I often find myself daydreaming about all the wonderful places we’ve been. I’ve got Italy on my mind today, perhaps because it’s so warm and sunny here, perhaps because there are beautiful fresh tomatoes on the counter and basil thriving in the backyard, perhaps because there’s a field of sunflowers nearby, perhaps because I never really get Italy (or France, for that matter) entirely out of my head…

So today I’m sharing a few photos of our daydream-worthy visit to the remarkable, enchanting Cinque Terre. I’ve shown you photos of some of the food we enjoyed in this magical region in a previous post, but this time it’s all about the views. Do enjoy, and do visit if you’re lucky enough to be in Italy.

 

Cover photo: “Modern” recreational vessels punctuate an ancient seascape in Monterosso al Mare. Each of these photos is my own work.

Simple gifts

I believe it was Helen Keller who said, “”Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow. It’s what sunflowers do.” Helen Keller, of course, couldn’t see at all—at least not with her eyes. Still, it’s pretty good advice, don’t you think?

A field of sunflowers is uncommon in my little corner of the world. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that hundreds of sunflowers had burst into full bloom in a nearby patch of  field,  little more than a stone’s throw from my house.

Everyday I see people of all ages stopping by to take pictures or just have a look as these wonderful flowers turn their faces to the sun. In fact, girasole, the Italian word for sunflower, and tournesol, the French word, mean exactly that: turned to the sun. The local restauranteur who planted the field hadn’t expected such an over-the-top response to something she thought would just be a fun thing to do. Even the local TV cameras showed up. Turns out that, without much expectation or even intent, she gave a fairly priceless gift to the whole community.

In a world that seems reliably crazier every day, the simplest gifts count the most.

 

Mystic-ism

I’d wanted to visit Mystic Seaport in Connecticut for years by the time we finally got there on a misty (sorry—I couldn’t resist) day a few summers ago. Mystic is a delightful trip back in time if you appreciate the American Colonial period, and a great history lesson for kids. It’s easier to enjoy in spring or fall, when the tourist volume is lower. Earlier today, I was going through my photos and thought you might enjoy these.

Mystic schooner

 

 

Garden bounty

I haven’t had a full-blown vegetable garden since the early 80s; but up until that point, the gardens I planted and tended were fairly successful—healthy and productive and free of all the bad stuff. I’ve missed gardening over the years, but I gradually learned to accept the fact that I couldn’t do everything, all of the time. Today, I confine my efforts to a patch of fairly happy herbs nestled against our garage wall. My daughter and my son, however, love to grow things. My son, as we speak, has a tree positively overladen with figs in his city garden patch. My daughter and a friend plant and tend a very bountiful garden. Thankfully, Hubby and I are blessed with many local farm stands that offer a steadily increasing variety of fruits and vegetables, many of which are grown organically.

As lovely as this bounty is, however, it doesn’t begin to approximate the quality and beauty of the fruits and vegetables that we found at markets in France. Each of our trips to France has been in growing season. It would be impossible to forget the gorgeous array of freshly harvested produce in the market towns we visited in Provence—no doubt the reason why Provence continues to be so celebrated by many of the world’s greatest chefs. And why I have at least five Provençal cookbooks on my kitchen shelf.

But other parts of France are equally fertile. I’ve mentioned before that one of the great joys of blogging is that it puts you in touch with other bloggers across the globe. One of my favorite discoveries is Our French Oasis, tales of country life in the Charente Maritime in southwest France that are rich with gorgeous photos. Susan’s most recent post tells the story of her potager, or kitchen garden.

Appropriately, potage means soup or stew; and one of the great delights of the growing season is a soup made with vegetables fresh from the garden. There is the legendary soupe au pistou,* of course, but with fresh peas in season, you may want to try this simple but lovely potage. My daughter often serves a small portion as a starter. A parfait or even a shot glass—for juste un petit gout**—makes an elegant presentation. The recipe below is from Ginette Mathiot’s I Know How to Cook (Je Sais Cuisinier), which is roughly the French equivalent of our Joy of Cooking. The massive cookbook was a Christmas gift from my dear friend Stephanie a few years ago, and it’s really one-of-a-kind. Still,  I owe my daughter thanks for introducing us to this lovely early summer soup.

*The link is to David Lebovitz’s recipe, but you will find many others online.
**”Just a little taste”

Cover photo: Glorious beets at Four Corners Farm in Newbury, VT.

Pea Soup

1 pound, 10 ounces shelled peas [My note: You can approximate the quantity; European cooks often cook by weight. Just don’t be stingy.]
6-½ cups any stock [My note: Summer is a great time to make vegetable stock from all your peels and other odds and ends]
salt and pepper
½ cup crème fraîche (sour cream will do)
croutons

Put the peas in a large pan, pour in the stock and bring to a boil. [My note: To maintain the vibrant color of the fresh peas, I would bring the stock to a boil first, then add the peas.] Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Pass the soup through a strainer into a tureen, season with salt and pepper, and serve with the crème fraîche and croutons.

peas

Sitting on the porch shelling peas or snapping the ends off beans is one of those meditative kitchen chores I truly enjoy.

i know how to cook

Here’s the book. You will find it comprehensive but short on specificity. Every time I open it, I think of Julia Child’s insistence on detail when she was working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking. You can read about that in My Life in France. You can find both at your favorite independent bookstore, or on Julia’s Amazon page.

 

Dutch country ‘Roots’

Even when you’re not completely #retired, there’s more time for spur-of-the-moment adventures.

Finding ourselves with an obligation-less day, on Tuesday we set out for the legendary Root’s Market in Pennsylvania Dutch country. There were other possibilities, of course, but Root’s is open ONLY on Tuesdays, and we knew it would be an easy ride that wouldn’t consumer the entire day.

Farmers’ markets are ubiquitous in this part of the world. Central Pennsylvania, once you get out of its small cities, is still replete with farmland even though much of it, sadly, has been sold off for development. In the summer months, we never buy fruit or vegetables in the supermarket—we go right to the source. There’s a farm market not too far away that has been in the same family for more than a century. More about that one on another day as it deserves its own post!

People have been telling us about the wonders of Root’s for years. Even though the best of the summer bounty is still a few weeks away, we thought that it might have something unique to offer.

And, in a way, it did: a cast of thousands. Shoppers, that is, purchasing everything from $1 boxes of assorted school supplies to fruits and vegetables to locally smoked meats  to flowering plants… and then some. Although disbursed through several buildings and the outdoor areas between them, the crowd was thick and slow-moving. And it was hot.

I made a few discoveries:

One is that even the Amish have discovered the selling power of designer coffee.

Another is that if you have a grandchild who likes matchbox vehicles, you can find them there, “at a good price.”

The third is that the larger the market, the larger the crowd, the more overwhelming the display, the less inclined we are to buy anything. Hubby and I are very much alike in that respect.

And so, we’ve done Root’s. Our next fruit-and-veggie buy will be at one of our local farm stands. And our next spontaneous day trip will probably be to a rose garden.