Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ohhhh Madonna

I have suddenly plunged into Goat World. I drink goat's milk, eat goat's cheese, and spend a significant portion of my day caring for them. I can no longer remember what my pre-conceived notions of them were; I'll just have to tell you what my notions of them are now.

The first thing I was taught here was how to feed them, which is done in the morning while they are being milked. My naive self thought that this might involve pouring some pellets into a bucket and filling up their water dish. Wrong, obviously. The whole process takes about an hour and involves a lot of hay, to which I now know I'm allergic!

In total there are about fifty adult goats (almost entirely female) and fifteen baby goats, who are actually more like pre-teens and as tall as me when they stand on their hind legs. Each morning they stop, tilt their heads, and stare at me so expectantly that it makes me laugh.

I like this morning work, now that I have a routine down; it's mindless and gives me wickedly strong arms. It's the part that comes after the feeding that can be a bit stressful. Herding.

The person who taught me to herd is a young guy named Yakapo (I'm getting the spelling wrong I'm sure). Yakapo speaks a total of about ten English words, although curiously three of these are 'syringe,' 'frenetic,' and 'electrical-current.' Since I speak even less Italian, our teacher/student relationship is based almost entirely on sign language, although I was mainly educated just by watching. I learned quickly that the herd will eventually move as one into the same area, but one cannot panic (however much you'd like to) when they begin to spread out in multiple directions. I also learned that if you're going to have trouble with any of them, it'll be Biando, the sole adult male and unfaithful husband to 49 wives. He's the size of a small moose and has horns that, pardon my French, could f$#k you UP.

After two short days of un-intensive and non-verbal training, I was apparently ready to take the herd out alone. Didn't eat much for breakfast that morning, let me tell you. I was supposed to take them to the 'easy' field near the stables, but of course they took off in the opposite direction towards a forest that could camouflage Lady Gaga.

And this is where my relationship with Biando began. To prove his point that I was new, and a girl, and that he is old and a big big man, he wouldn't allow me to go ahead of him yet wouldn't keep up with the herd. We faced off, and quite frankly it was boring. I'd take a step, and he'd take a step. I'd take two steps, and he'd take two steps. He'd come towards me, I'd hold out my herding stick, and he'd sniff it. After about ten minutes of this he'd finally head off, I'd curse him, and we'd do it all again in another ten minutes. Eventually, we ended up in an open field and he finally decided I was competent (the fool!) and let me pass him. At that point Gabriele's cousin Tomazzo showed up, and with a new male around we were back to square one. Biando actually head-butted him though, so for this reason I'm glad to possess more estrogen than testosterone.

The next few days went relatively smoothly, until yesterday when they got into someone's garden. Ohhh Madonna, as Yakapo said, this is about the worst thing that could happen, second only to accidentally running them off a cliff or losing them completely.

One minute we were happily eating along the creek, and the next they were all over this leafy green vegetable haven which we hadn't even noticed. It didn't take long until we had a row of men screaming at us in Italian from across the creek. This was less offensive for me, I'm sure, since I didn't know what they were saying. Although I could guess. We got them out relatively quickly, though it felt like a lifetime, and the silence between Yakapo and I became suddenly more noticeable as we led them back to the stables. I spent the rest of the day terrified of being reprimanded, but so far so good. Let's just hope farmer John from down the way doesn't decide to pay a visit in the next few days.

Friday, September 25, 2009


I really don't know where to begin. It feels as though I've been away from home for several months, and it's actually been a week and a half.

I'll start with the farm, because that's freshest in my mind. Once I digest everything I ate at the Cheese Festival, I'll talk about that (but it could be several weeks until you hear anything).

I arrived at Podere Le Fornaci on the 22nd, a beautiful sunny day. The farm is is just a few kilometres from the town Greve in Chianti in the heart of Tuscany. Too many people have written flowery descriptions of this area, so I will keep it simple. The cliches are entirely true; the landscape consists of rolling hills, vineyards thick with dark purple grapes, and ancient nonas hanging out of shuttered stone windows. In other words, if you live in an area with stairmaster-like inclines and drink lots of wine, you'll live to be 101.

Podere Le Fornaci is found at the end of a long driveway with two very old stone houses sitting across from one another at the bottom of a hill. A flat yard to one side is filled with trees, chickens, dogs, and the trailer where the WWOOFers sleep. The other side rises steeply up to the goat stables, and of course the goats! Behind this hill, and on just about every other surrounding ridge, are vineyards full of grapes being harvested this week. My hosts are Gabriele and Elisa, two hard-working people who I've felt comfortable with from the start.

The big house and yard are a charming, organized chaos. For example, the stairs leading to the second floor of the big house are partially blocked by a pile of giant squash, and it's easy to trip over toys, brooms, cats and/or children when stepping out the front door.

When I first arrived we were greeted by a mass of people, speaking Italian of course, and I was ushered upstairs to have lunch and meet even more people. I then sat, overwhelmed, in a hammock for the rest of the day and watched people come and go, not sure of who belonged where and to whom. I have now somewhat made sense of it all, and actually enjoy the steady flow of friendly people. Of course there are still many quiet times, like right now, when I get to listen to 3 1/2 year-old Priscilla rrrroll her R's and talk in a language which I don't yet understand.

I think I will save my goat-herding stories for later, and instead, believe it or not, focus on the food. Every morning I have granola with goat's milk for breakfast; I had never tried goat's milk before and always thought it would be sour, since fresh goat's cheese is so tart. In reality it is light and creamy and wonderful. Lunch is usually the biggest meal of the day, when we sit down and eat in a group of at least four. Today we had a traditional Tuscan stew called Ribollati made with vegetables, white beans, and day old bread (which is crumbled and cooked into it). It was incredibly hearty and filling, and we ate it with zucchini and rice fritters, the usual platter of goat's cheese, and finished off with a sweet to which I am now totally addicted made from chickpea flour, ground nuts and butter. Elisa caters from her home and so is sometimes away serving at parties in the evening, in which case whomever is at home gathers and makes dinner together. Last night we ate a zucchini frittata and salad.

Absolutely everything we eat is organic, the bread and cheese are made here, and the eggs, fruit, and veggies also come from this farm or other local organic ones. The quality of the food, as well as the appetite I have gained from doing physical labour, make the meals the most satisfying ones I have ever eaten. It seems that almost every meal gets a healthy drizzle of olive oil, and while this isn't a new discovery by any means, I assure you that fresh goat's cheese crumbled onto just about anything is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

I have now worked for four days, starting at 8:00 am and finishing around 1:00 pm. I get the afternoon off and usually walk into town to get some more exercise and enjoy the fresh air. I've also had a really nice time getting to know Margaret, the other WWOOFer here with me at the moment. She's from New Zealand, 62 years old, and is an incredibly humble adventurer. She's spent the last year and a half travelling around, working on farms, and teaching in various countries. She plans on staying in Italy well into the new year, then heading to Greece and finding some farms there.

That about does it for now. Time to start reading and scratching the many bug bites I've accumulated. Tomorrow I herd the goats alone for the first time, so keep posted for many hilarious or tragic stories ahead.

Ciao for now friends.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Just as Soon as I Can Get Out of Canada....

I am writing my first post from the exotic city of.....Calgary. I now know the true price of a $345 plane ticket from Calgary to London – they switch the carrier on you (without notice of this fact), then delay the flight by four hours. I'm waiting to get hungry again so I can go spend the $10 food voucher they gave me, and really glad I have my computer. And who am I kidding - for $345 I'd do it all again.

This past week has been very busy so this is a good opportunity for me to sit down and explain where it is I'm headed. My first flight takes me to London for a three day visit with my dear friends Lisa and Georgie. I love them and London and any chance to have lunch at Food For Thought.

After London I head to Turin, Italy, where I'll meet up with my friends Aviv and Michal, two reasons why moving to Calgary last year was so entirely worth it. I met Aviv, and subsequently Michal (his girlfriend), when I started working at Janice Beaton Fine Cheese in Calgary. In fact, Aviv hired me and was my boss for most of my time there! Now he is a full-time artisinal bread-baker, and Michal an indie film-maker, and I help out by eating bread and assisting with catering on the movie set (or should I say 'sets,' Michal, as there will be more....) The three of us are heading south of Turin to Cheese, a festival put on by Slow Food International. For four days we will sample cheeses, wines, and beers from all over the world, and generally love life. We are also attending three “Taste Workshops” and two dinners put on by Italian chefs with menus designed especially for the festival. This was something we'd sort of dreamed about in the cheese shop, and now it's happening. And that feels good.

After the festival I am heading down to Tuscany and working on two different organic farms (through WWOOF Italy). The first, Podere le Fornaci, specializes in making goats' cheese; only after arranging my stay with them did I discover that they will be at the cheese festival, and are even featured in one of the Taste Workshops (street cred!) They're giving me a ride down to their farm after the festival, so that works out well. Two families with five kids between them run the farm, located near Greve in Chianti, a.k.a centre of the Italian wine landscape. I'll be learning to love goats until the end of October, then heading to farm number two, just north of Florence. I'll be there for ten days to help with the olive harvest. While my host's english isn't great, his email did say that “my wife it is specialisty for cook very well and nice!” All I need to know, right there. By then my Italian should be molto bene, anyways. Right? Right.

Then I'll do some more visiting and eventually return home to Canada, fit and fresh from my work on the farm and knowledgeable in all things cheese and organic growing. Oh and fluent in Italian, forgot that one.

Piece of cake (torta).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Some More Goods

Here's the infamous Nata Banana Bread (original recipe is for 10 loaves, but thanks to former camp-baker Rachel, it's been scaled back to a manageable size - one big loaf or two small and is also great for muffins). I sound so intensely domestic.

1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup margarine (or butter)
1 1/4 cups mashed bananas (the riper the better)
1 egg
1/3 cup buttermilk or sour milk (add 1 tsp vinegar to milk, stir and let sit 10 min)
2 cups flour
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup chocolate chips (or more, go crazy)
*walnuts mixed with chopped candied ginger is also great, keep out the chocolate in this case though*

Preheat oven to 350.
Combine brown sugar, margarine, bananas, and egg. Mix in milk. Mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, walnuts, and chocolate chips in separate bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix til combined. Grease a loaf pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Invite friends over and bond over banana bread. Or eat it all yourself!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Some Goods.

I have multiple recipes promised to multiple people so here are a few of them, for the multitudes.

Number One! Pumpkin Millet Muffins, care of the fantastic Rebar cookbook. This collection of colourful recipes come from the vegetarian/fusion institution known as Rebar, set in Victoria BC's Bastion Square. I've found it for sale in a cookbook store in London, so clearly it's got a rep.

2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup veggie oil (can substitute apple sauce)
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 tsp of vinegar or lemon juice stirred into 1 cup milk. let sit 10 min)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup millet
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1 cup unbleached flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg

1. Preheat oven to 350. Grease large muffin pan and line with muffin cups if you like. Set aside. Combine eggs, oil, buttermilk, sugar, vanilla and pumpkin in large bowl and mix together, making sure there are no lumps of brown sugar. Stir in the oats. Toast millet in a hot dry skillet (over medium heat) until lightly browned and fragrant. Toast the pumpkin seeds skillet and add millet and seeds to the bowl. Set aside.

2. In a separate bowl, sift the dry ingredients together. Add the dry mix to the wet mix and gently stir to combine. Do not overmix, or the muffins will be dry and tough.

3. Fill muffin cups generously with batter. Sprinkle tops with pumpkin seeds and bake for 25 min, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Number Two! Granola Bars. I made these for a film crew and they were pop-u-lar. They're good on their own, with yogurt, with ice cream.........and great because you can make them a little different each time by switching up ingredients. Also, they don't require baking, so you don't have to worry about under or over-doing them. I got this recipe from a blog called Joyful Abode.

2 cups oats
3/4 cup wheat germ (I used unsweetened, shredded coconut)
3/4 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup peanuts, crushed (I used sliced almonds)
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
4 Tablespoons (Tb) butter
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
approximately 1 cup dried, chopped fruit (I used raisins, dried cranberries, and dried apricots)

Prepare a glass baking dish or small cookie sheet by lining it with wax paper (this is what you'll press the bars in and you'll want it ready ahead of time).

Mix first 4 ingredients and spread on another cookie sheet. Broil them in the oven for 10-12 minutes, tossing every few minutes, until they are lightly toasted and fragrant (don't let it burn!) Remove and let cool.

In saucepan on stove, combine the rest of the ingredients and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring constantly. Let it simmer for about 5 minutes.

In a big bowl combine the toasted mixture, syrup mixture, and dried fruit (or chocolate chips if you're adding them, why not) and make sure everything gets coated evenly in the syrup. Pour it all into the prepared, lined baking dish/cookie sheet and spread it out evenly with a wooden spoon. Then line the top with wax paper and use something hard and flat to press the mix firmly into the pan. The harder you press, the better the bars will hold together. Let cool for several hours then remove from pan and cut into bars.

That's it for now. Ryan, happy baking.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Gonna Party Like It's 1968

Soooo, a bit of time has passed since I last wrote anything (cooking for the tree-planters really tuckered me out this year, and I found it tiring to think, let alone write, for most of the summer). But I'm back at it. Hugely because (besides sleep) I now have a number of non-planting related things to write about. As anyone who received emails from me can vouch for, my letters between May and July consisted of little else than “guess how many eggs they ate this week.....1000. I know, gross.” But here I am, fresh out of a 3 week road-trip all over BC and Alberta during which I watched multiple friends get married, picnic-ed my heart out, swam in lakes, sat for hours in pubs, and enjoyed the bounty of food summer has to offer. This is THE LIFE. And now I am fortunate enough to get to continue the fun by heading to Italy this September, where I'm first attending the Slow Food Cheese festival with two dear friends, then rolling my cheese-laden self down to Tuscany to WWOOF on several organic farms. WWOOF, by the way, stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, and I'm lined up to spend a month learning to make goat cheese at one, then help out with the olive harvest at another. All in exchange for some home-cooked Italian food, a roof over my head, and some help with my currently non-existent Italian language skills.

But more about that later. Right now, I would like to pay tribute to one of the most glorious things I have ever received: “Christina Foyle's Party Book,” the quintessential 'how to' book for women looking to throw swanky parties but not knowing where on this gosh darn earth to start. This complete and utter gem was bestowed upon me by my friend MTH, who knew I would swallow it up like a piece of Rebar chocolate cake. And I did.

Published in 1968 in England (can you say gherkin on a toothpick?), Party Book explains in nine memorable chapters the ins and outs of stylish entertaining. Not only does it provide recipes for every occasion, but also gives tips on etiquette; follow these rules, promises Christina, and your guests too can have a killer time eating processed foods moulded into ungodly shapes and garnished with every kind of vegetable flower possible.

We as readers are welcomed to the book with an introduction so full of golden lines I have read it over and over again. Here are some of my favourites:

“Every woman loves to entertain to show off her husband, children, and the home they have built together.” (I'm 0 for 3 and should probably just stop throwing parties. Maybe even going to them.)

“Give each arrival a really warm welcome, and use their christian names if you know them well enough. People who you do not know should be welcomed just as warmly.”

“Sometimes a party goes over the time set and some guests look as though they are never going to leave. The important thing is to stay happy and smiling no matter how tired you feel.” (AMAZING!!)

“When your last guests have left you can relax a little and survey the scene of your successful party. Empty glasses, dirty cups, plates, full ashtrays, and leftover food litter every available table.” (If this doesn't make someone want to throw a party, I'm not sure what will.)

Now that you've got the etiquette basics down, here are a few recipes offered by Christina which I'm sure you'll be itching to try for yourself. You may, however, have to call up your grandmother to borrow her salad mould....

Tuna Fish Mousse:

2 cans solid pack tuna fish

½ bottle salad cream

1 Tb double cream

1 Tb tomato ketchup

salt and pepper

1 level tsp gelatine

4 Tb water

2 dilled cucumbers

lettuce leaves, shredded for garnish

prawns for garnish


Mix the tuna, salad cream, cream, ketchup, cream, salt and pepper together. Dissolve gelatine in water, meanwhile dice the cucumbers. Keep a few slices for garnish. Stir the cucumbers and gelatine into the tuna mixture, pour into suitable mould, place in refrigerator to set. When firm turn out onto a serving dish and garnish with lettuce, prawns, and slices of cucumber.”

If this isn't the height of sophistication, I don't know what is. Never before has so splendid a menagerie of ingredients ever graced a recipe book. I can only imagine that the greyish colour it takes on, when moulded, must be equally as appealing as its taste. I dare someone to make this.

Eggs in Aspic:

Try these at a teen-age party. They look very sophisticated indeed but are surprisingly, easy to make. Prepare aspic jelly, let it cool, but not set. Wet a jelly mould and pour a thin layer of the jelly over the bottom. Allow this to set in the coolest place you have. Arrange diced tomatoes on this and cover again with jelly. Repeat the process with a layer of sliced, cold hard-boiled eggs, and a layer of cooked ham cut into shapes. Let the jelly set between each layer. Finally cover completely with aspic jelly and leave to set firmly. Turn out when you want it – as you would any ordinary jelly; serve garnished with tomato and watercress.”

All this years I've been missing out on the glory of sandwich fillings suspended in jello. Darn my 1980's birth.

The absolute favourite recipe of both MTH and I is Party Layer Loaf. At first the picture appears to be a delicious, creamy, loaf-shaped ice cream cake and then HORROR!! you realize that's not ice cream, it's wonder-bread, and those layers in between aren't fruity deliciousness, but 'assorted sandwich fillings.' Worse yet, all that creamy-looking icing on the outside is actually cottage cheese blended with whipped cream and mayo. Oh, and it's all meant to be eaten.

I could go on and on I love this book so much. Yes, I make fun of it, but it is so amusing to read from an era that prided itself on its food preservation 'progress' (welcome canned mushroom soup). And besides, Christina Foyle's overall intention with her book is to give all women a chance to entertain, whether they be “busy business women or have small children to care for.” Not bad for 1968. Mostly, it's just hilarious to witness the western world's rising and falling ideas of what's 'classy.' I think we can count aspic as one of the fallen, thank goodness, but I'm really hoping for devilled eggs to make a comeback.