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Dish of the Week.....In the Fields with Friends.....A Special Baby Shower.....

Dish of the Week

Artichoke Heart Provençal

Chef thought it would be fun for Dish of the Week to follow Pancho around as he made the delicious, vinegary-bright hearts of artichoke filling for the Saffron Ravioli we are currently serving with a lovely seared halibut entrée. Cut it into bigger dice and the same recipe (sans the pasta) is a great accompaniment to any fish or chicken dish. I was game, but then I had an ulterior motive. I love artichokes, but more often than not when it comes to cooking them I seem to take the easy route and just boil or steam them, eating the leaves with copious amounts of melted butter or aioli as a dipping sauce. For all the messy fun you can have, even if artichoke fatigue hasn’t set in by the time you get to the heart you still have to deal with those fiddly, fibrous beards, AKA the Choke.

With artichokes (as with most things) when it's all about the heart Ryan cuts right to the chase: the first thing this recipe calls for is to strip the outer leaves and discard them, paring the stem down to almost nothing.  As Pancho did this he tossed what he’d cleaned into a cool water bath that held cut up lemons and some parsley, the better to keep the artichokes from discoloring, which they do quite rapidly. Here’s a revelation for all you other lazy artichoke lovers: a half hour in this bath and using just the edge of a spoon, the choke slides off the heart like water off a duck’s back.

While they were soaking Pancho set about making a Barigoule, the French term for a traditional artichoke braise technique which takes large cubes of onions, carrots, fennel, garlic cloves and herbs and sweats them in a few tablespoons of VOO before adding wine and vegetable stock.  Roger Vergé, well known for his Barigoule, uses thyme but as Ryan was going a bit further south with this recipe he used rosemary, a stronger herb with heavier green aromatics. The hearts were added once the vegetables were soft, but just long enough to heat them through. The white wine was brought to a boil and allowed to reduce until the fumes began to dissipate. At this point Pancho added vegetable stock to cover and lowered the heat.

But while you want the broth to simmer you still need to take care the hearts don't discolor. To prevent this Chef employed a nifty trick I'd never seen before. He does not use a lid which would would trap the steam and encourage oxidation.  Instead, he tucks a fresh folded linen napkin down into the saucepan where it lightly rests on the simmering artichoke mixture. Voila.

When the artichokes were just cooked through, Pancho lifted them from the broth and diced them finely with the other ingredients: Picholine olives, peeled heirloom tomatoes, red onions, garlic confit, roasted Piquello peppers and fresh chives. Salt, pepper and a little sherry vinegar to taste and Pancho smiled. We were there. He used a tablespoon of filling for each ravioli ~ as a side dish to accompany an entrée allow a cup per person. Deliciously piquant, this is a simple preparation for artichoke hearts that uses no butter or mayo. Good news for the health of my heart.  And yours, if it's a consideration.

In the Field with Friends

Squash Love

Ever since I was a child I’ve had a thing for Winter Squash ~  the gorgeous patterns, the sinuous lines, the vibrant colors.  With their lopsided shapes and expressive stems they are beautiful in a highly idiosyncratic way, the tropical fish of the vegetable world. While the squash you find in the supermarket have all been genetically dumbed down to conform to uniform shapes and flat pumpkin carving sides,  if you look for winter squash and gourds in Farmer's Markets you will find heirloom varieties going back hundreds of years.

Happily, The Fincher's, great friends and farmers from Earlybird’s Place (Earl Loves Myrna Loves Earl) share my fascination for the weird and the wonderful of the genus world known as Cucurbita. I know it’s Fall when I get a call from Myrna to come over and cherry pick through her ‘Fall Collection’ which we display in the restaurant and the gallery. Unlike Summer Squash, which are harvested as immature fruit, Winter Squash will keep ‘til well after Christmas, unless of course you do what we do, and slowly, deliciously, cook through them.

A Very Special Baby Shower Brunch

We don't just throw great wedding and rehearsal dinners in the Studio Gardens ~ any reason to celebrate is enough for us to break out the flowers. Sunday we took a personal day to throw a Baby Shower for K2,  my wonderful assistant, who in addition to keeping me sane is the talented gal who manages to wrestle Eat the View out of my camera and brain and onto the blog each week. K2 and John's new baby is due around Thanksgiving and while no one knows (or cares!) whether it's a boy or a girl, around Barndiva it's no secret we're hoping for another glorious redhead to keep sister Teagan company.

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales(unless otherwise noted) Food Shots of the Brunch by K2's friend, Richert Gordon Salondaka

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Dish of the Week.....In the Gallery.....In the Fields with Friends.....

Dish of the Week

You & Mother Jus

‘You are what you eat’ is food politics 101, impossible to refute, but not far behind when it comes to the emotional vocabulary we use to describe food experiences is the truism ‘you are what your parents fed you.’  For generations like mine, who grew up in houses where someone cooked every day, the inexorable slide into a world where fewer and fewer people can make a meal from scratch is pretty shocking. And sad. Instead of a family's unique food traditions more and more formative food memories now seem to come, fully formed, from the same folks who have a vested interest in selling the corporate food culture.

Beyond the serious issues of how that culture may be compromising our health (if you ever truly get beyond them), there’s a significant qualitative difference between food memories created when people make the time to sit down together and eat a meal made from real ingredients and the default dining that's become a mainstay of the new American diet which is little more than a simulation of a home cooked meal, pseudo-foodstuffs you eat on the run or in front of a screen.

When Chef proposed Au Jus for the blog this week, neither of us was thinking of the Arby’s empire, or even the vast number of diners and truckstops that have sold Beef Au Jus sandwiches since they became popular in the 50’s. We were thinking in French, as we often do when it comes to the kind of food we cook. A direct translation of Au Jus is ‘of the juice,” with the clear reference being ‘the juice’ of the animal ~ usually lamb or beef ~ you are cooking. Once upon a time using every part of an animal meant survival; used correctly it's a term which should infer access to whole animals, which fewer and fewer restaurants have the skill or take the time to accommodate anymore.

 I have no idea where the ‘beef taste’ in the standard Au Jus served with millions of beef sandwiches bought and consumed every day comes from, but I’m willing to bet the farm there is no connection whatsoever between that sauce and the piece of meat you end up eating it with. This isn’t a rant against bouillon cubes, which we all resort to from time to time, but a reminder that even the ones that promise they are made from 'quality' ingredients are primarily salt, color, and a mix of artificial and hydrolyzed natural flavorings. (FYI: the most common way to hydrolyze a protein is to boil it in a strong acid triggering a chemical breakdown that results in the formation of "free glutamate," which, when joined by sodium, makes MSG. When added this way, the FDA does not require the label to list it as such.)

Which is not to say you need a whole side of beef in the kitchen to make a decent Au Jus at home. Sauté a piece of meat with a few diced veg, skim the fat, squirt some wine in the pan, scrape up the delicious bits clinging to the sides, and you’re good to go. (Add flour and you have a decent gravy.)

But Classic Au Ju, the way we make it here, is something else again. Everyone in the kitchen knows the various stages it goes through by heart and everyone pitches in to make it. Ryan's recipe was adapted from his mentor Richard Reddington, similar to one Daniel Boulud is known for  ~ all three men incorporate a bone stock and a trim sauce, with each contributing different aromatics. They also make use of a 'Mother Jus', which is simply the saved composite of past Au Jus, in much the same way a great balsamic comes from a mother starter, as do bread and yogurt. If you love meat Ryan's Au Jus is liquid Nirvana, more vegetal than starchy, semi-transparent with a rich caramel color, dense with flavors that compress the essence of the protein. Woven throughout are fragrant, rooty aromatics. The images below document the stages from trim sauce to finish ~ directions for the bone stock follow.

The Au Jus is ready. At Barndiva we finish it with a knob of butter and a zoosh of sherry vinegar which brightens the meaty flavors and lifts the wine, tomato, fennel and all the aromatics.

The importance of  roasting the bones and making them into a stock that is combined with the trimmings sauce and the Mother Jus can’t be overstated ~ the natural thickness of the final sauce is a direct result of the gelatin released from the collagen in the bones, the tendons, sinew, and connective tissue. Roast the bones for 1-2 hours at 350, then add to a stock pot in which mirepoix has been sautéed and combined with water, tomato paste, bay leaf, garlic, cloves, black pepper, and thyme. The bone stock is simmered for six hours, strained and reserved. The sauce made from the trim, detailed above, takes about 3 hours.

In the Gallery

Ah Coco, une femme douce, a lady we always love to hear from, especially when a new container arrives from France. This one had some gems ~ including cast iron heads that looked like they'd survived a hundred years of trial by fire which, in fact, they did. Cut from fireplace dogs from the 1920's on, most come in pairs which make beautiful bookends. Singly they are wonderful, unique pieces. Coco tells us the vases were part of an elaborate 19th Century garden wall, pitted and burnished a gorgeous old penny bronze. Heads: $75 Vases (only two left): $100

In the Fields with Friends

File this under "We're not the only ones around here still doing things the old fashioned way."

On Sunday we took a ride out to the Preston's to see how they were getting on with their new apple juice press. If you haven't been to Lou and Susan's beautiful farm and winery on West Dry Creek in a while, go soon, before the rains set in. Their new indoor farmstand ~ with select pieces of Susan's indelible art ~  is almost finished, built to go year round with room for drying and storing. Out in the fields there are still lots of tomatoes on the vines and vegetables growing in the various gardens. This is a great place to bring the kids, to walk and talk to them about everything you see. Keep an eye out for the traveling Hen House Gypsy Wagons where you'll find the pigs rototilling the soil, chickens not far behind (the better to picks up any delicious morsels those pig snouts miss).  The way animals co-habit at Preston Family Vineyard could teach our elected officials in Washington a thing or two about getting along. All of us, for that matter. If you haven't signed on to Lou's blog yet, do so, it's great stuff... here's the link.

A hand turned apple press is simple to use.  A lined, wood slate bucket catches the chopped apples, when it's full you slide the bucket under the press.  The handle is connected to an Acme Thread Screw which is attached to a plate that as you turn applies pressure to the apples. All you do is turn the handle until the juice stops running. Fresh Preston Apple juice is available in the new farmstore while it lasts. Their custom Oak press is made by Correl Cider Presses.

A pensive but happy customer.

Another happy customer who, who along with the chickens, will dine on what's left of the apples.

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales(unless otherwise noted)

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Dish of the Week.....Local Harvest Festivals.........

Dish of the Week

Saffron Pasta

I’ve never been fond of flavored pastas. Fresh tomatoes are never bitter when you chop them up and add them to a sauce, and you'd be hard-pressed to use too much fresh basil in an Italian dish. But for some reason when the same ingredients are solidified into flour and water more often than not they taste off to me; resinous herbs like rosemary or thyme end up with a slightly medicinal edge.

Saffron is different. All it adds to the taste of fresh pasta is a slight floral note, but more importantly it brings back the glorious color of the egg yolks ~ always doomed to be lost in the white blur of flour, salt and milk. Saffron brings that yellow back to the front, where it belongs. It's also the color of the sun, which makes me think of wheat in a field.

Everything about Italian food references the simple beauties of nature; it is the earthiest cuisine, the most able to satisfy the base comfort I look for in food. I admire French presentation and technique, I crave Indian and Thai, but it's Italian I return to when I've had a bad day or just need that little bit of mama in my soul. To get that splendid color, saffron threads are added to white wine which has been brought almost to a boil, a process called 'blooming'. As the saffron dissolves you cool it over ice water, leaving some threads intact, then add to the egg yolks. We use a classic old machine Geoff rebuilt for us to cut our dough, but we always start by mixing and kneading our pastas by hand which demands time and patience, a good practice in a kitchen like ours where speed under pressure is constantly required. There's also a sound technical reason for making pasta by hand rather than dumping all the ingredients into a big machine. Pasta is all about texture. You need to feel it as you go; to learn to trust your fingers when they tell you more, or tell you stop. Which, in a round about way, brings me back to my comment about nurture and comfort. To have an abundance of both in life, you need to be hands on.

Paul Bertolli, a friend from the early Barndiva days, wrote what I still consider a benchmark Italian cookbook no kitchen should be without called, appropriately enough, Cooking by Hand. Written in essay form with chapters like Twelve Ways to Look at a Tomato,  it's not a book you pick up when you need a quickie recipe, but one you linger over in bed before you fall asleep.  With any luck you may find yourself in a dream where you have miraculously found the time to work the dough, cut the tomatoes, rip the basil, crush the oregano, taste the wine.  Only a few chef-writers capture the magic of why we cook ~ MFK Fisher comes to mind ~ by managing to tap into our culinary soul. Paul finds the magic.

Chef served Rabbit with the Saffron Fettuccine this week:  kidneys, loin, and rack, beautifully butchered then flash seared in butter and garlic and thyme. Wish I could say  “just like the mama used to make,” but with no disrespect to my mother,  I grew up thinking rabbits were girly pets, pasta only came in boxes, tomato sauce only came in cans.  I’ve since learned that it’s usually the time it takes to do things simply that matters most when it comes to food.   Happily, the joy of Italian food is that when you use great ingredients and put your heart into it,  wherever you started on your food journey  you can end up making your own delicious traditions.

Local Events

As it happened I attended two Harvest Festivals this week. The Mendocino County Fair, held in the Boonville Fairgrounds ten miles from our farm, has been going strong for 87 years (we’ve been attending, on and off, for the past 30).  The National Heirloom Expo, held amidst great fanfare (and high expectations) at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa is brand spanking new.

Besides the fact that both the Fair and the Expo are at heart celebrations of all things grown and living, from inception to delivery they were radically different events. The Mendocino County Fair opens with a rodeo and ends with a parade down Hwy 128 with people and horses in fancy dress; it boasts an impressive collection of award winning animals, rides, cotton candy and hot dogs on a stick. No one cares where the hot dogs come from. It’s simply a fair all about fun, and the folks that put it on, from the 4H and FFA kids who raise the animals to the women who bake the pies from the (fast disappearing) apple orchards of Anderson Valley work hard all year long to make it happen. The fair celebrates their labors and their lives ~ it's not about thinking deeply about farming methods or where the seed they use to grow their food and feed their animals comes from. It's about taking three days off in September to stand back and go, phew, can you believe we made it through another year? Pass the popcorn.

There were no rides at the National Heirloom Expo. There was a mind boggling array of open pollinated fruits and vegetables, food vendors clearly vetted for where they sourced ingredients (not a hot dog on a stick in sight), a giant tower of squash (by the same folks who built the squash tower in Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden) and an entire hall filled with non-profit (read: optimistically struggling) seed people. While there was country music and a convivial air in the crowds milling around the fresh produce stalls outside the halls, it was clear from the moment you pushed through the turnstile that unlike the Mendocino County Fair there was a decidedly political bent to this event.

On Tuesday Ryan gave a cooking demo at the Expo in the Hall of Flowers with Alex Lapham of MIX Garden. The bromance these two extremely talented big guys have going, sustained by the superlative produce one grows and the other cooks, is something to behold. They did a reprise of their heirloom tomato and melon salad, bantering non-stop back and forth while I sat snapping away in the first row with Geoff and Chef’s beautiful wife Rebekah.  Mick Kopetsky and Bryan Hohnstein, the other two parts of MIX Garden’s phenomenal success, stood at the back of the crowd grinning madly.

It’s great when you can walk around a fair and connect with people whose livelihood is integral to your own: old friend Kristee Rosendahl was there with her exciting Smart Gardener website, new friends Belle Starr and Bill McDorman of Native Seed/SEARCH were there with their special varieties of Southwest seeds which they'd also brought to Barndiva for us to cook with. On Thursday night we returned to the fairgrounds to hear Dr. Vandana Shiva speak. Dr. Shiva is one of those rare human beings who can deliver a message that is dire, yet manage to take you to a place where you know you are up to the challenge.   If you don’t know who she is, I urge you to go online and find out.

On Sunday we arrived at the Boonville Fairgrounds a half hour before the sheep dog trials began. Sheep Dog trials are my all time favorite spectator sport ~  if you have children trust me on this one, sheepdog trials hold a paradigm for your life. The trials this year delivered big time with great dogs and wonderful handlers (all but one of whom were women). After the trials we toured the animal tents and spoke to some of the kids who raised them, falling in love with a breed of pig we hope to raise at the farm.

What I didn’t do this year in Boonville ~ that I’ve always done in the past ~ was visit the Apple Hall to see the stands filled with boxes of apples in competition. The Mendocino Apple Fair is a cherished part of my life’s traditions (Knowing More and More, about Less and Less) but it’s increasingly hard for me to reconcile the absence of awareness at this event. The organizers in Boonville ~ and 4H and FFA at the national level ~ could use a good dose of fire in the belly that drove the organizers and participants of the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa. This is one case where if worlds could collide we'd all be the better for it.

87 years ago almost all the apples polished to a shine at the Mendocino Fair were grown from diverse varieties, many brought to the valley with the immigrants that came over to work the forests before they settled down to farming and raising sheep. These days less than 10% of all the apples grown in the US are heirlooms, much less open pollinated, thanks to nefarious inroads made by Monsanto to control and limit seed varieties (for their own profit) which ultimately will imperil the world’s ability to feed itself. Much as I’d like to go to the Fair in Boonville and forget for a day about GM, forget about the 'legal' patenting of seeds, forget the damage chemical dependence is doing to our soil, forget about CAFO’s, I can’t get away from the feeling that mindlessness, even for a day, is no longer an option. For those of us whose lives depend upon the soil and the animals reared on it, hell,  for anyone who eats, we do so at our peril, and at risk of losing everything we hold dear.

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted)

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Dish of the Week.....Local Food & Wine Events...

Dish of the Week

La Garniture

We’ve come a long way since the days when garnishing a dish meant little more than throwing a bit of commercial parsley and a few superfluous vegetables on the plate, that quickly got pushed to one side. These days thoughtful chefs like Ryan have transformed our very notion of garnish, expanding the variety, colors and textures of the things they reach for in those last moments before a dish heads out to the dining room. To my mind, even the word is moribund ~ garnish has the potential to do a hell of a lot more than decorate a dish like a few accent pillows.  They are the subtle but dramatic finishing pieces to a complex flavor puzzle a chef begins to fit together with initial conception of the dish.

Consider the steps: raw ingredients are rubbed, cured, infused, marinated and seasoned before the cooking process bastes, sautés, caramelizes, bakes, flambés, glazes, braises, grills, barbeques or smokes in yet more flavors.  As food is plated the element that arguably demands the most finesse, (and in fine dining restaurants has its very own chef ) the final sauce, is added. Only after all these steps are completed does a chef reach for final finishing flavors which, if he isn't careful, can misrepresent or throw the complexity of the entire dish out the window.  When I asked what flavors and textures he might look for in a garnish Ryan reeled off,  “sharp, sweet, tart, viscous, buttery, floral, creamy, caramel, crunchy, earthy, herbal” adding he includes vinaigrettes as well.

If you’ve dined at the Barn over the past few weeks you will recognize most of the elements photographed here which were used to garnish our plates one day last week; chances are if you come in next week they will have been replaced. For restaurants like ours that tout their farm to table pedigree,  garniture offers a not-to-be-missed opportunity to showcase what’s local, seasonal and freshest. Towards this end we devote three raised beds here at the Barn just for finishing. In addition to these edible flowers and herbs which Chef uses raw or infuses in oil and a range of vinegars,  our farmer partners grow a variety of tiny vegetables and greens he may pickle or lightly dress. And let's not forget root vegetables which can be deep fried for a sprinkling of chips...once you see the potential of garnish, the list just keeps on growing.

Grown or foraged or bought, finishing flavors are an essential, if ephemeral, piece to dining you owe it to yourself to explore. Whatever you call them.

This Week!

Expectations are running high for this week's first National Heirloom Expo ~ with good reason. The time is right for a truly meaningful countywide event with a focus on seeds, farming and superlative products. The Expo starts Tuesday and runs through Thursday at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds. Barndiva will be participating in the chef demonstrations (Ryan will be there today  at 2, as well as Alex from Mix Gardens), and there will be scintillating panel discussions with food savants from around the country, in addition to keynotes speakers including  Alice Waters and Dr. Vandana Shiva. If you've never heard Dr. Shiva  (chances are you've never even heard OF her) don't miss this opportunity to experience this Nobel worthy woman who speaks truth to power about the future of food.

Without a doubt one of the more interesting groups coming to the Expo are the folks from Native Seed/SEARCH, a seed saving educational non-profit that has been going strong in Arizona for over two decades.  Native Seed's Bill McDorman will be speaking on Tuesday at 3, directly after Ryan's demo, and will also participate in an important panel Thursday called Seeds of Sustainability.

On Friday morning Studio Barndiva will host a benefit for the Native Seed/SEARCH organization with an incredible brunch starting at 11 using Native Seed products. Our pastry chef Octavio will be making muffins with their Senoran White Wheat, while Ryan and the gang will serve up our infamous Huevos Rancheros with Early Bird Eggs, heirloom salsa and Native Seed Tepary Beans. Bloody Marys, made with our tomatoes and their rare Native Seed spices will (quite literally) kick off the meal, after which there will be a chance to talk with Bill and his dynamic wife Belle Starr and many other seedsmen and women who were at the Expo and are coming for a last chance to compare notes.   This is a not-to-be-missed event folks, with a great meal, in support of a wonderful organization. It just doesn't get any better.

To book a place at the table, call Barndiva at 707 431 0100.

See you there!  See you here! Details below.

Sonoma Wine Country Weekend

We sent two of our biggest diva's ~ Isabel and Eric ~ to Taste of Sonoma a week ago to sing our song to a sold out crowd of  3,000. Good thing that in addition to our compressed watermelon + lemon verbena we also served up Barndiva Farm's Heirloom green figs and Gravenstein Apples ~ these terrior hunters were hungry, and not just for information.   Taste is a great event ~ at the gorgeous MacMurray Ranch ~ in which to get a comprehensive overview of the wines produced across the county. We were in the Dry Creek Valley tent, but we couldn't help noticing while visiting friends in the other tents that there was decidedly less food this year. What's up, Chefs? We are busy as all get out this time of year but we made the time and are really glad we did.  Not counting Pigs n' Pinot ~ which is one varietal and Healdsburg centric ~ Honor Comfort and the gang throw the most convivial wine event of the summer.

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted)

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Dish of the Week.....In the Field with Friends

 

Dish of the Week:

Chesapeake Bay Soft Shell Blue Crab BLT

Summer is Blue Crab season all along the Eastern Seaboard, especially in the fishing villages off the coast of Maryland where the fresh waters of the Chesapeake Bay empty into the Atlantic. These soft-shelled delicacies ~ still listed as a “good alternative” on Seafood Watch ~ are a decided luxury for those of us living on the West Coast where they usually arrive frozen, if at all. Happily, ours arrived alive, freshly (and properly) packed in straw. Following a recipe that was as traditional in its judicious use of Yankee spices as it was Fancheresque in style (California Modern Country from first bite to last) our blue crabs reached the plate by dinnertime. A "soft" shell crab may sound like a crustacean oxymoron until you consider that technically they are without any shell when they are harvested, just after molting, only a few hours before their new shell begins to harden. Blue crabs shed their hard carapace in order to grow, burrowing deep in the muck to protect themselves from predators ~ but while an experienced fisherman (and most along the Atlantic are third generation or more) are canny at finding them, and can tell with a glance when to harvest, nowadays it is considered less harmful to the seabed for migrating crabs to be trapped and held in large shedding tanks until the witching hour.  Males have blue claws and a narrow abdominal apron, referred to in local parlance as the 'Washington Monument', while females have red tipped "painted fingernails," and a broader apron ~ ergo 'the Capitol Dome'. (There's a joke in here somewhere, but I'm not finding anything to do with Washington particularly funny at the moment)

Ryan prefers not to deep fry them, believing a lighter batter stands less chance of interfering with the blue crab's fragrantly delicate meat, which tastes more of the estuary than the sea.  The crabs were broken down, cleaned, and lightly tossed in seasoned flour and Old Bay (Celery Seed, Salt, Paprika and goodness knows what else), his play on a Southern Fricassée sauté.

To cook he placed them directly into an extremely hot pan, shook it a few times, then added a generous knob of butter and a few cloves of garlic. This instantly turned the pan into a furiously bubbling, fragrant morass.  All very dramatic, and over in a few minutes, precisely the time it took for their cool blue to turn a gorgeous russet around the edges. The finished dish was the perfect cross between the best parts of a BLT ~ think heirloom tomatoes and crunchy prosciutto ~ and the briny mayo you find in a lobster roll, though Chef upped the ante by dropping the roll and substituting the mayo with a rich housemade aioli that took its color from letting the saffron 'bloom' in white wine.

As dramatic as the cooking process was, at this point the slices of heirlooms stole the show visually, bringing, along with brilliant color, a subtle taste comparison. While the red tom's were sweet, the green, with less residual sugar in the flesh, tasted tart on the tongue with a more pronounced, firmer texture. (full disclosure: I never get much from yellow tomatoes.)

My God, this was a good dish, with mouthfuls of soft crunchy crab giving way to the vinegar from the tomatoes and an ethereal, buttery sweet seawater juice flooding the palate as it mingled with aioli.  Eating it brought me back to a night I spent on a beach somewhere on the Eastern Chesapeake years ago when, after an epic meal, one of locals stood drunkenly to his feet and began to recite the names of  tidal creeks and small harbors surrounding us in the dark. They rolled off his tongue like poetry ~ Pocomoke Sound,  Ape's Hold Creek, South Marsh, Devil's Island to the Head of Tangier Sound.  It all came back to me in a rush ~  stomach full to aching, the heat of the bonfire, the smell of the sea. Then again, food this good makes it easy to speak in tongues.

If you'd like to read more about what threatens the Chesapeake Bay's historic Blue Crab population, click on the link below for an article that succinctly summarizes most of the data I read on the current health and methods of harvest for this remarkable crustacean, which once drove the local fishing economies of both Maryland and Virginia.  We're so used to reading about overfishing, you may be surprised at the main culprit. Or not.

Click here.

In the Field with Friends

Mix Garden Garlic

So many reasons we feel blessed to have Mick Kopetsky and Alex Lapham in our lives, not least the joy of having access to this lovely collection of garlic they grew which recently showed up on the Mix wholesale list.  I baked and tasted through them all and the descriptors below, from Mix, were right on the money. What was most surprising beyond the different levels of heat and bite each brought to the mouth was how much their texture varied, from the Chesnok Red, which held its shape (one reason we use it for confit) to the Northern Italian Red, which went a bit too mushy for me. My favorite: Rose of Lautrec, which Drewski uses for our garlic chips (though to be fair, it had me at hello with the name).

Chesnok Red: One of the best cooking garlics with large easy to peel cloves Late Italian: This softneck variety is very pungent

Silver Rose: Rose-colored cloves are ideal for storing Northern Italian Red: Large bulbs are sweet and spicy

Rose de Lautrec: French variety that has a complex sweet flavor Drew with fresh garlic chips

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales  (unless otherwise noted)

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Dish of the Week........ In the Gallery

 

Dish of the Week:

Lunch at Copain Winery

I hadn’t planned on attending the lunch party we were set to cater at Copain Winery last Monday, until I happened upon the list of ingredients Chef left in the kitchen for staff to start packing up early Monday morning.  Charmed by the confluence of ingredients, it being a gorgeous day, and Copain being a beautiful winery, I decided to crash the party.

We are partnering with Copain on a number of weddings this summer and I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about it and about Wells Guthrie, the inordinately talented winemaker and driving force behind this state of the art facility ~ one of the most ergonomic around. Set on a hillside with a magnificent view running almost the length of the Russian River Valley, the facility is pleasing to the eye with a pared down, elegantly understated style.  Farmhouse meets Koolhaas.

Still, I was curious to take a closer look for myself.  Crucial to us with any off-site venue is whether or not the right pieces are in place which will enable us to pull off an authentic Barndiva experience when we aren’t on home ground.

According to Tommy, the critical trademark of the Copain wine list is lower alcohol wines that preserves the brightness and acidity of the fruit. It was to taste through this remarkable line up of vintages ~ which would precede Barndiva’s four course lunch ~ that key servers and chefs from The French Laundry were coming to Copain that day.

Scheduling off-site events on our days off happens very rarely around here, but such is the affection Thomas Keller and TFL inspire in many of our staff that Ryan, Pancho, Katherine, Bennett and Tommy were more than happy to work on their day off to provide a meal that would honor the ingredient driven, classical technique focus  TFL  is know for. That they are standards we too aim for with every plate that leaves our kitchen didn't lessen the tension on our end:  this would be a most discerning crowd to please. Restaurant folks ~ especially those who work at places like The French Laundry and Barndiva ~ eat out a lot. They are usually generous to a fault to your face (knowing how hard it is to pull off that level of excellence on a day to day, meal to meal basis) but intensely critical as a matter of course.  While Ryan planned four courses that would elevate the wine experience ~ the entire menu was designed to highlight the wine friendly (especially for Pinot) flavor profiles of truffles, beets, salmon, bacon, mushrooms ~ he was also intent on balancing proteins to vegetables to fruits, so the meal as a whole would flow seamlessly from one paired course to another.

The three passed appetizers, all served with sparkling wine, exemplified this approach. First up was fresh Dungeness crab on sliced cucumber topped with a thin disc of kumquat ~ tart orange fruit which opened the palate with a citrus slap, followed by the fresh smell and taste of the sea and a green crunch. Next came a smiling nod to TK with a quail egg BLT ~ a rich mound of yolk, bacon, tomato jam and brioche with a delicate trailing stem of chervil, an herbal grace note to civilize all that umami.

The last of the passed appetizers, a single ripe strawberry from Quivira, went out unadorned, but was no less complex for the role it played in the flow of the afternoon. A tart and fruity palate cleanser which also signaled the seated lunch was about to begin, for the wise (or the lucky) it provided an opportunity for one last look down into the vineyards below, where the valley spread out in all its summer glory, caught in the throes of the first real heat of the season. Cicadas buzzed the air, and the connection to lush vines and the wines that had come from them and just been drunk, was palpable. Whether Ryan intended it or not, the moment made sense in the way poetry makes sense when you stop worrying about what the words mean and just lean in and let yourself relax.

The next two courses have both been featured as Dish of the Week before.  Chef wanted a flawless summer salad, Healdsburg style, which meant every component at the peak of ripe perfection. Another single strawberry was joined by heirloom golden and red beets, two varieties of radish, whole peeled truffled almonds, chives, chervil and a perfectly ripe wedge of Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor.  Beet vinaigrette (beet juice, Preston VOO, champagne vinegar) was drizzled alongside the salad. The summer salad was paired with a 2004 and 2006 Roussanne, both from Copain's James Berry Vineyard.

Using Wild King Salmon from Oregon on a Lucian Freud sized brush stroke of fresh pea purée with a generous trail of caviar crème fraîche, the main course was finished with fresh porcini from Mt Shasta, tiny house made chips, and chive flowers. The salmon was paired with two Pinots: a 2006 Hacienda from the Sequoia Vineyard,  and a 2006 from Cerise.

Dessert had been made that morning in the Barndiva kitchen by yet another French Laundry and Bouchon alum, Octavio, our wonderful new pastry chef who has been wowing diners and wedding guests all summer. Big O’s Blueberry Clafoutis was presented with vanilla bean crème fraîche and a not overly sweet but wonderfully indulgent crème fraîche ice cream.

I left Copain just as the desserts were being plated, luckily not before I heard a short but pithy exchange that summed up the meal for me precisely. Shale, a young garde manger whom Chef has taken under his wing this summer quietly reminded Ryan that he hadn’t plated the Clafoutis with the raspberries he'd been told to bring expressly for this dish.  Ryan looked at him, deadpan, “Knowing what not to put on a plate is as important as knowing what is, ” he said, waiting a beat for it to sink in before he broke into his first real smile of the day.  Standing in Copain’s beautiful space, after the meal he’d pulled off, it was an almost perfect moment. The only thing that could have made it better was if TK had been there to enjoy it.

In the Gallery

Seth Minor, our favorite single-wire artist and all around guy (Camp Meeker politician, MFA student, killer accordion player, seminal member of Barndiva's Tractor Bar Trio) has just brought in six wonderful new pieces to bolster up his coveted collection in the Gallery.

To my mind Seth is the closest thing this medium has to John Updike, managing to capture in a few spare but elegant lines universal character traits that ~ like it or not ~ make us vulnerable, if not lovable, humans.  Mordant in tone, yet oddly hopeful in a insouciant way that can't help but make you smile (a lot like the artist) believe us when we say this shadow driven rogues gallery needs to be viewed in person.  Photographs ~ even ones as good as these by Studio Barndiva's Dawid Jaworski~ don't do them justice.

Until he lets us increase them, prices for Seth Minor's work will start at $110 this summer,  for any in the ‘Faces Collection,’ with larger pieces from $800 - $3,400.  Mr. Minor will work on commission, from photographs, as his schedule allows.

To meet Seth in person, come for dinner any Wednesday night through August when his Tractor Bar Trio will hold court in the Barndiva gardens where, weather permitting, they will serenade diners with two full sets of beer fueled excellent gypsy jazz.

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In the Press:

If you've missed the incredible edible issue on soil, it's not to late to check it out online:

Edible Marin - All Hail Soil   (fyi, we're on page 15).

All text Jil Hales. All photos, Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski (unless otherwise noted)

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Dish of the Week........ In the Field with Friends

 

Dish of the Week:

Sautéed Fresh Cèpes with Early Summer Vegetables

Thursday afternoon on my way to water the thyme and basil I found Tommy and Chef Ryan sitting quietly on the back patio looking into a plain brown box, smiling like kids in a candy shop. The box was filled with cèpes.

Fresh cèpes will do that to you, whether or not they bring to mind the dancing mushrooms in Fantasia. The thing is, while there is something undeniably funny about their shape they are also one of the most sensual taste experiences around, one of the few that offers an Umami satisfaction that truly rivals beef.   Funny, sexy, can't be domesticated  ~ fresh cèpes are the Gerard Depardieu of the mushroom world. Who needs Brad Pitt ~ sorry, I mean steak ~ when you get wild cèpes in season?

Cèpes, also known as Porcini, belong to the fungi genus Boletus. Instead of gills they have stems (technically known as stipes) that start by enveloping a sympathetic tree's underground root system, encouraging the production of “fruit” that eventually pops up above ground a short distance away from the host trees in summer and fall.  In  years when a lot of rain is followed by intense heat, cèpes proliferate in the needle dense deciduous forests that run along the western seaboard. Because they are easily recognizable they are perfect mushrooms for beginning foragers.

The spore print ~ which is how mycologists and budding mushroom hunters refer to the color and pattern of the cap ~ is fawn brown, growing darker the older the mushroom is. Don’t be dissuaded from eating them if you see a bit of green under the surface of the cap as this too is just a sign of maturity.

While dried cèpes are wonderful, deepening in flavor when reconstituted in a little warm water, if you are lucky enough to get them fresh ~ our cèpes this week hailed from Oregon ~ you really don’t want to mess with them too much. Chef choose to make an elegant, simple starter studded with root vegetables because, in his words, "These guys are all about the earth." He sautèed them first in VOO,  adding butter with finely minced shallots and garlic confit.  Tokyo white turnips from Earlybirds Place, favas from Big Dream Ranch, and freshly shucked English peas came next, followed by chive flowers from the Studio garden. He finished the dish with a drizzle of VOO, a splash of Balsamic, and a generous (and crucial) sprinkling of Maldon Salt.

If the cèpes you are using are particularly large, they can be finished in the oven which will ensure the white flesh, thick and firm when young, does not become tough. For Chef, the addition of a few pickled baby red onions provided an essential contrapuntal vinegar note he felt was needed to balance the intense richness of the cèpes.

A quintessential Ryan moment occurred as we stood over the stove just before he began to plate. “Take a look in here,” he said, staring into the blackened skillet, “if you don’t love everything you see right now, we can’t be friends.”

It didn’t take eating the dish (though I did, sighing happily throughout) to think “Well, thankfully we are.” But it didn’t hurt either.

Love was in the air on Father's Day

I'm an unrepentant romantic when it comes to falling in love, but I've always been pretty pragmatic when it comes to what it takes to keep love going, beginning with the supposition that most human beings don’t start out with an innate instinct to nurture and protect any life other than their own. Love is something we choose to experience, but that’s just the first step. To become good at it, we need to practice. A lot. Which to my mind takes time, effort, and no small degree of sacrifice.

Walking through the dining room on Sunday to the gardens, where two of our three kids waited to celebrate Father's Day with Geoffrey, I couldn't help but be reminded that while love is a test everyday (and to this extent a self-fulfilling prophecy) if anything that's all the more reason to celebrate the fruits of our labor whenever we get the chance. Happily, some of our favorite fathers came to Barndiva to do just that.

David and Rhys (Brush Salon)

Ari and Serafina (Scopa Restaurant)       Dawid and Miko (Studio Barndiva)

Albert and Mario Lukka Jovel                 Emily and Ruby with dad Aaron

Lukka, Geoff, Isabel and I want to thank the families who chose to share their Father’s Day celebrations with us…with a very special shout out to Debbi and Albert Jovel, married by Lukka in the Barndiva gardens three years ago, who surprised us on Sunday with their beautiful new baby son  ~ Mario Lukka Jovel (no kidding).

Talk about food memories that make you smile. It's days like Sunday that make everything we do here at Barndiva oh so very worthwhile.

In the Fields with Friends

These are the favas used in this week’s Dish, and the beautiful lady holding them is our great friend Kristee Rosendahl, who along with her partner Matt owns Big Dream Ranch, 300 fertile acres beyond Lake Sonoma. As some of you may remember, Kristee was instrumental in helping create the complicated tech aspects of Fork & Shovel…using a breadth of skills she’s now applied to what we think is the most beautiful gardening site on the web. Smart Gardener comprehensively enables you to personalize a garden plan with multiple applications that lets you choose what to plant, and how to manage, harvest, and even shop for and share your organic vegetable garden.  Partnering with seed companies like Peaceful Valley Farm Supply and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds ~ the site already has over 700 organic, GMO free heirloom and exotic seeds ~  it will be expanded soon to include a number of wonderful community networking uses, Signature Gardens (Barndiva’s will be one), books, articles, recipes ~ really there is nothing around farm to table Kristee promises this site won’t eventually do.

We hope you’ll take this opportunity to become one of its first members (free to join!) and grow with it as your (possibly first) garden grows around you. We are so proud of Kristee and what she’s accomplished. Check out Smart Gardener and pass this link on to anyone you know who cares about what they eat and wants to expand their definition of local to include... their own backyard.

Read what Peaceful Valley Farm Supply had to say about Kristee and Smart Gardener.

All text Jil Hales. All photos, Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted)

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Dish of the Week........ In the Garden....... In the Gallery

Wednesday at the Barn

Dish of the Week

Mix Garden Organic Carrot Soup with Chervil Crème Fraîche and Wild Asparagus Tempura

While this extraordinary carrot soup celebrates a single flavor profile ~ sweet organic carrots ~ Chef did not want a one dimensional vegetable “dessert,” hence the additions of a quenelle of puckery crème fraîche and batons of salty, crunchy, wild asparagus tempura.

To make the soup we first sweated chopped Mix Garden carrots with shaved fennel and spring onion in a little virgin OO with just a hint of turmeric and 5 spice. A crisp white wine (we used Sauvignon Blanc) was then added to the glistening vegetables along with organic carrot juice ~ the addition of the freshly pressed juice serving to intensify the flavor.  Once the vegetables were soft, there were two steps to achieving a velvety final texture: the first was to spin (or purée) the mixture; the second, to pass it through a chinoise (or fine mesh screen).

A quenelle of crème fraîche flecked with chopped chervil, garnished with a sprig of carrot top and a chive flower finished the soup, but for Chef did not complete the dish.  He wanted a stand-alone accompaniment, something that would play against the sweetness of the carrots.

When wild asparagus arrived unexpectedly at the kitchen door, he saw the perfect pairing ~ the chlorophyll would add a wonderful woodland element, and with the addition of batter, a nice crunch. The secret of a good batter, whether or not you use rice flour for “tempura," is soda water. We use the gun, but Badoit is a good choice as it will bring a subtle taste of minerality.  All in, this week's dish sang with the colors of early summer.

From the Garden:

Few things make Chef Ryan smile like the arrival of the guy in black standing next to him in this picture. His name is Alex Lapham,  and he's Mick Kopetsky’s main man, along with Bryan Hohnstein, at Mix Garden, the burgeoning wholesale vegetable business Mick started some years ago at Bieke and Bryan Burwell’s beautiful estate in West Dry Creek. From the beginning Mix has supplied Barndiva with superlative produce, and we’ve watched with growing admiration as Mick expanded to include more fertile, unused fields across the county.  That Mick’s organic produce is priced so as to be affordable to restaurants like ours ~ who want the basis for their success to go hand in hand with support of the food shed ~ makes us natural partners.  He’s a perfectionist, but no dilettante (which we love about him) with a clear-eyed pragmatic approach to farming. This year he even expanded into selling vegetable starts ~ we now have 30 different heirloom tomato varieties growing at our farm in Philo, all from his incredible first year list. The arrival of Alex to our door each week is one of the many joys of working ~ and dining ~ at Barndiva.

FYI: Mick is also the proprietor of the former Healdsburg Landscape Material ~ now Mix Garden Material ~ a great place to start if you are considering a vegetable garden!  Check it out.

For more on local produce you may want to read Ann Carranza in last week's The Patch.

In the Gallery

Ishmael Sanchez is back, and not a moment too soon! While we sorely missed him the past year as he wound up his life in Anderson Valley for a move down south, we are thrilled to announce we once again have a collection of his incredible wire animal sculptures in the gallery, in addition to being able to offer his work on commission.

Just in: a crow worthy of Poe, a chicken, a rooster, and two of his Picasso-like “simple” horses. Ishmael also delivered a magnificent full-sized horse that presided over a lovely ‘New York’ wedding this weekend in the Studio Garden.  Ask to see it when you come in, and while you are enjoying the garden, don’t miss Jordy Morgan’s new stone filled wire wall.

All text Jil Hales. All photos, Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski (unless otherwise noted).

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Wednesday at the Barn Prix Fixe Menu........ Dish of the Week........ At the Farm

Wednesday at the Barn

Dish of the Week

Early Summer Vegetable Plate

When Chef Ryan went to pick strawberries and a load of other beautiful vegetables at Quivira early Thursday morning, he took Justin along, younger brother of his entremetier Andrew Wycoff. “Jr”   is the youngest and newest member of the kitchen brigade, currently working the garde manger station. The trip made such an impression he couldn’t stop talking about it. He was especially blown away by "how much food" could be grown in such a (relatively) small area.  You have to know what you are doing, of course, but when you do ~ as Andrew Breedy, Quivira’s lead gardener certainly does ~ it’s hard not to be impressed with the variety and abundance of what we can grow here in Sonoma County. For a young chef it’s particularly important to understand at the beginning of a career how essential it is to get to know a few great farmers and endear yourself to them, the better to get up close and personal with what they grow.  Back in the kitchen, Ryan decided to create a vegan vegetable starter for guests dining with us that night, which is not as easy as it sounds. Put a few delicious veg on a plate and call it a day, right? Not around here.

Look up the definition of Haiku in the dictionary and you will find it is a classic Japanese poetic form which traditionally has 17 distinct phonetic units, concluding with a lingering message. Historically, it adheres to a strict format that relies on the juxtaposition of  key words to describe images, separating them by what the Japanese call "Kireji"or ‘cutting words’.  I was reminded of Haiku as I watched Ryan ~ with Jr. eagerly assisting ~ begin to plate an edited version of the bounty they’d collected at Quivira. One of the hallmarks of a good Haiku is that it leaves you with a single resonating thought. With his Early Summer Vegetable Plate from Quivira Gardens, the message of this visually arresting Vegetable Haiku was clear: when it comes to great produce, less really is more.

While Ryan's creation was only comprised of 13 "elements" for me it captured  the spirit of the Haiku form, and what I love most about Japanese culture in general.

Theirs is a pared down sensibility that goes hand in hand with a reverence for spare lineal form, with a profound, if understated, message that often takes a reverence for the natural world into account. While Chef seemed to place the ingredients on the plates swiftly, he did so in a way that allowed each to “speak” to one another ~ in color, shape, and most certainly in taste. As you ate across the plate each element played against the next, yet each, in its own way, remained completely distinct.

The rhubarb was peeled before being steeped in boiled water with a bit of grenadine, the ‘secret’ prep I mentioned last week that Octavio, our talented pastry chef, also employs for the rhubarb batons we serve with the Layered Rhubarb Financier we currently have on the dessert menu. To get the most out of its unusual flavor profile, rhubarb needs to be peeled (the skin is stringy, and can be bitter) then treated with care. Never boil it. Don’t let it get too friendly with sugar. Slipping it into water that has boiled and been infused with grenadine allows this faux fruit to cook just enough as the water cools. The grenadine helps hold and even enhance its extraordinary color. The strawberries were cored and slivered; the fennel was shaved, thinly, then lightly dressed in a few drops of Preston OO and champagne vinegar.

Ryan’s generosity as a chef is always present in the way he encourages those on the brigade that show an interest (and a propensity) for visual artistry to try their hand. It’s NOT as easy as it looks. I have seen him change one thing on a plate that shifts the entire visual balance of the dish. I can’t say how much this ultimately affects the diner but if you believe, as we do, that you eat with your eyes first,  his talent provides an vital conduit to our guests that truly expresses what we feel about the primacy of our exquisite ingredients.

No matter how complex or how many steps Chef takes to complete a dish  ~ initially it's the integrity of those ingredients which inspire each plate of food.

At the Farm: Quivira

The interest our young chef showed for his experience at Quivira is a good lead-in to a subject I’ve wanted to talk about for a while now, as the dialogue over whether or not it’s a good thing for wineries to grow food heats up.  Not simply because I have strong feelings about the subject  ~ whatever your viewpoint, I hope you’ll agree it’s an important discussion that should not be dominated by fear.

When Quivira was denied a space at the Healdsburg Farmer’s Market last year we understood why ~ growing food is not the main thing they do and we could see the argument that coveted space at Farmer's Markets should be allotted to farmers whose main source of income is food. The revenue generated from market sales is often crucial to their thriving, if not surviving. But. It’s a far step from that thought to not supporting wineries with a genuine interest in expanding their business model from the mono-culture of grapes into a diverse ecology that includes vegetables, fruits, and even animals. Quivira has done an exemplary job in this regard. Their single acre garden is open to the public, laid out and 'explained' in such a way as to make a trip to the winery, whether or not you are imbibing, worthwhile.  In addition to the educational piece of having the veggie beds, the chickens, the bees, and the fruit trees all up front and accessible to the crowds that visit the winery all year, they sell fairly priced produce to a select number of farm to table restaurants, as well as hosting events throughout the year that make a direct connection between their wine and food grown sustainably right alongside their grapes.

And that’s not all.  A few years ago when Quivira first started their food growing program in earnest, they invited restaurants that shared a commitment to superior local sourcing to each subsidize a raised bed that could be grown exclusively for that restaurant. The worthy sub-text to this plan was that in addition to the publicity it afforded both ends of the collaboration, all the money raised from the restaurants was donated to the Northern Sonoma Healthcare Foundation.

That Quivira could afford such largess because the owners are not struggling farmers doesn’t take away from the merit of this ongoing program, nor does the grape component dilute an authentic ‘how food is grown’ experience their garden offers to thousands of visitors who thought they were only heading out to West Dry Creek to sniff and sip.

To our mind, it’s always a good thing to see more land turned over to growing food  ~ especially when it’s done properly, which Andrew and his crew are certainly doing at Quivira. We fail to see a down side to it.  Can every winery go the distance to the extent Lou and Susan Preston have as they literally 'grew' what was once Preston Vineyards into the bio-dynamic farm+vineyards that is now Preston of Dry Creek?   Of course not. But does that mean we shouldn’t encourage more wineries to have a go?

On the one side you have farmers who do not have the benefit of a potentially lucrative cash crop like grapes feeling threatened that they are up against deep pocket dilettantes who are using produce gardens and a few farm animals to romanticize their core business to the public.

On the other you have the oft-criticized mono-cultural business model of the vineyard/winery diversifying into food ~ allowing the wine obsessed public to be exposed and educated a bit about how food is grown, as well as making more sustainably farmed crops available to restaurants who want to source locally. Least we forget ~ restaurants, especially those committed to buy from the food shed, also struggle with small profit margins.

Barndiva welcomes relationships with wineries that grow food, especially when they also extend ethical farming practices to their vineyards. At the end of the day, we will always try and support those who have a vested interest in seeing local farm to local table sourcing thrive.

But dinner on the house to anyone out there who feels a Haiku coming on that might further clarify this complicated and often vexing issue .

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski (unless otherwise noted).

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In the Fields with Friends

Barrel tasting weekends are a mixed blessing for those of us that depend upon the food and wine that has made Sonoma County a gold standard in destination travel. On the one hand we are thankful for the tribes of wine lovers that infiltrate the area for these events, as they fill our waning winter coffers. On the other, it’s hard to ignore the fact that by mid-day many of them begin to weave and talk in extremely loud voices. How and when those not staying in town will find their way home becomes a real concern.

But my mixed feelings about Passport and Barrel Tasting weekends don’t only come down to a dichotomy that pits revenue against safety. I’ve heard it said with increasing frequency that’s it a good thing more and more people are staying in town to focus on tasting rooms they can walk to. But while that thought ~ especially for those groups that do not have designated drivers ~ makes sense, it runs counter to the initial spirit of these events which was to bring wine lovers into the countryside where they could connect a product they love with the place it is grown and the people who make it.

If you ventured to the last stretch of West Dry Creek in search of wine to taste this past weekend, just before the bridge and  bend in the road that leads to Preston of Dry Creek,  you would  have come upon a vineyard that made your journey not a detour but a main event. Adjacent to fields where pigs and chickens roam and fertilize  some of the oldest vines in the valley, guarded over by Guisippe, the Preston's magnificent sheep dog, a flock of new lambs took their first baby steps.

I’ve written about this family farm and vineyard often in the past, not simply because they are dear friends, but because they are working toward a bio-dynamic definition of farming that any fool can see should go hand in hand with the growing of premium grapes. When Lou and Susan pulled a great many of their vines out years ago to make more room for hedgerows and crops, revenue focused vintner’s shook their heads. The value of the land was in yield of a crop that made the most money, right? Depends on how you define that ephemeral word value.

Preston, Quivira, and forward thinking wineries like them have built large and loyal followings. They have started and continue to happily stir conversations about how food is grown and distributed, and what diversity can bring, on so many levels, to the monoculture of just growing grapes.

On Saturday I was struck by the various stages the baby lambs were going through in order to survive their first perilous days. Some were still sunk into the grass, huddled right where they had been birthed, weakly taking stock of their new surroundings. Others gamely tried to follow mum and the source of food, on legs that kept failing to hold them upright, while still others, only a few hours older, gamboled around with a joy of movement that was a blessing to behold. With the exception of the ones that did not have the strength to walk from birth, the lambs followed an age old journey all of us make ~ taking baby steps before they ran. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere I kept thinking, for all the vineyard owners who look at the rich magnificent balance the Preston’s have managed to achieve through the dint of mindful hard work, and think “sure, I’d like for my vineyards to look like that, but I don’t know where to start.” Unlike sheep, we should be able to figure out what happens next if we don't take those first wobbly steps, no matter how unprepared we think we are.

To read more about the Preston's and all their multifaceted endeavors, check out their beautiful new website and visit their blog.

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Earl Loves Myrna Loves Earl

(originally posted October 6, 2010)

I don’t know how many times I re-read Raymond Carver’s short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” over the years, but the spine of the book eventually fell apart if that tells you anything. Carver had that particular kind of talent that could surgically slice through the emotional muscle we build up over our hearts, all the better to prod at what lies below. But while I still crave stories that seek to answer what for me has been one of life’s most mystifying question ~ what DO we talk about when we talk about love ~ with respects to Carver, I’m tired of quiet denouements that artfully foretell a future in which lasting true love is pretty much a hopeless proposition. I’ve spent a lifetime mucking about in the name of love, licking my wounds, acknowledging my mistakes. If all that doesn’t confer wisdom, at least let me celebrate the fact that it speaks to a enduring optimism of the heart.

When I was younger I was epically naïve on this (and sadly many other) subjects. I had the requisite young person’s immediate apathy towards any marriage that smacked to me of convention, rejecting the kind of relationship where after you stripped away the holidays, martini hour and whose responsibility it was to pick Jimmy up from Judo there was no deeper intellectual connection to carry the day once the children had grown. I was sticking too closely to the Ibsen script by only defining ‘convention’ as some narrow set of rules for conduct dictated solely by the mores of the day. Convention ~ old fashioned values ~ also means following a code of honor that often puts character above passion, especially bad news for my horny generation. This didn’t occur to me then, not even when friends of my parents started to get divorced in blockbuster numbers. It was easier to blame the institution.

My generation held out the hope that through equality of the sexes we might remedy what had been wrong with marriages that came before us, but we swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Trying to create an agenda of shared interests, even going so far as to swap roles like wage earning and child rearing, we too often fell into over analyzing every interaction, awarding stars for good behavior, taking away privileges when we fell short. Feelings, instead of providing a way into the loved one's psyche, all too often became the shield we used to protect ourselves. As often follows when one gets ready for battle, after the shield came the sword.

So here is a marital parable for our times. When Earl Fincher met Myrna Hall 52 years ago, he wasn't looking for a meaningful relationship. He was a 20- year old boy intent on sowing his wild oats. She was a beautiful 15-year old with a wide open heart. They met a dance. He had no money and few prospects. There was no conscious meeting of the minds, no existential conversations or résumé sharing, just an honest physical attraction they could not ignore. Marriage was the last thing on either of their minds. Earl worked long hours, just as he had done since he was 8 years old, the year his parents left Missouri for a protracted hardscrabble journey west that eventually landed them in California, in the small farming town of Healdsburg, doing migrant work picking in the fields.

Possessed of a relentlessly curious mind, Earl has an uncanny ability to think endlessly on all manner of things that fall into the ‘how to build a better birdhouse’ category. But then, as now, when it comes to what the rest of us consider the ‘big’ issues, like wrong from right, he does not have to think much at all. The way he sees it, there are the things in life you have to wrestle to the ground to figure out, and then there is the stuff you should just know. He knew what to do when he took measure of Myrna. He married her.

If Myrna was scared starting out so young in life with a man that had but $11 in his pocket ($10 after they paid the preacher) she is not saying so now. They met in Spring, by Christmas she had given birth to their first child. Life was good but hard. Only once did they have to break Earl’s cardinal rule ~ never rely upon anyone else ~ and then only to stay with Myrna’s family for a few weeks during a particularly rough time. They saved every dollar, working and living up at Michel-Schlumberger, followed by a stint at Gallo. A lucky conversation Earl overheard one day looking for work brought him to the gates of the mill in Healdsburg just as construction in the area was taking off. With Earl’s work ethic, it’s not surprising a one-day job turned into a 26 year career.

By 1970 they had finally saved enough to put a down payment on some land. It was 3 ½ acres on Chalk Hill Road for $7,000, a price that was not as cheap as it sounds today ~ certainly not for them. But they managed to pay it off and finance a loan to build a house. It is the house they still live in, raising their family of five, year by year expanding the verdant patchwork of raised beds and fields from which they now feed their many loyal customers and restaurants like Barndiva. It is a source of great pride to them that they paid off that 30 year mortgage ~ though it took them every one of those 30 years ~ just like they said they would.

Early Bird's Place is laid out in a jumble of outbuildings, all with a different purpose, all filled with inventions Earl has designed over the years. Myrna calls the stuff that fills the ranch house, garage, potting and gourd drying sheds and chicken coops ‘creative clutter’. She closes her eyes, sighs and smiles when she says the word creative, adding that Earl is a man incapable of throwing anything away. It is something she both hates and loves about him, in unequal measure. Unequal is the operative word because, according to Myrna, love is never equal at any given moment in time. After more than fifty years together they have seen all the fault lines in each other; it no longer matters who is right or who is wrong. So long as I always put Earl first in my thoughts, she will tell you, and he does the same for me.

A few weeks back I visited them at the farm with Drew Kelly, a talented young photographer who is working to help me document Barndiva’s ties to a cadre of local farmers. It was a joy to see them together as I usually only ever see Myrna alone when she drops off produce and eggs at Barndiva's kitchen door. It struck me ~ as it must folks that see them together every week at Healdsburg’s Farmer's Market ~ how completely they compliment each other without either losing a beat on what makes them so interesting as individuals.

There is true adoration in their banter, which is played out in the physical dance they do as they move through their many rooms and linked gardens. Earl is short and wiry, these days he walks with most of his weight held high up in his shoulders, steering in a specific direction until something interesting catches his eye and he changes course. Myrna is rounder, more kinetic as she moves, with an almost tendril quality in the way she constantly reaches out with the part of her that is most vulnerable, fragile wrists encased in protective bands where repetitive strain injury has taken its toll. When the distance between them grows too great she weaves back to him in looping circles. In this way they trade off who leads and who follows.

This then is the secret of their marriage: it doesn’t matter who leads or who follows. By not constantly reassessing how the other might be falling short, or what might be missing from their marriage, they never made the fatal mistake of taking what they did find in each other for granted. If it always wasn’t this way, it hardly matters now. I learned to button my lip early on, Myrna will tell you, the important thing is to be patient, to know that marriage has a way of balancing out. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her, Earl will tell you. She’s is my life’s helpmate. For a man who understands the nature of life as hard work, there is no greater compliment he could give.

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Know Your Lamb

(originally posted July 28, 2010) Squeamish, are we? Then you may want to forgo this week’s journal entry in which we butcher the fine animal to your right. Before you stop reading however, consider this: if you enjoyed perusing the Dish of the Week just seconds ago, what makes you think you won’t also find it interesting to make a real connection between that delectable plate of food and the honest labor it took on the part of a farmer and a chef to get it to table? Dish of the Week was all about this animal’s liver, which came out of its body. In the run up to the Taste of Place Dinner we’re going to cook our way through the animal from nose to tail, a delicious endeavor, but ~ as with most everything we serve at Barndiva ~ it’s germane to remember the delicious part didn’t start at the plate.

Of course I want you to continue reading. For most people knowing where their food comes from blithely stops with an image of an animal grazing in a bucolic pasture. What happens after that is often thought to be unpleasant or disgusting or mysterious, sometimes all three. Yet it’s possible to embrace the icky bits of life when they are integral to the process. I always smile when new parents describe natural childbirth as ‘so incredibly beautiful,’ because it is, icky bits and all. I know, I know, that’s about life, where slaughter and butchery is about death, and yet, unless you forgo eating animals on ethical grounds, isn’t your appreciation of meat a celebration of life? The animals… and yours?

There can be no true locavore economy without making it possible for farmers and ranchers who raise the animals we eat to get those animals processed locally. While clean and humane mobile slaughterhouses have made it possible for a few dogged consumers (with big freezers) to purchase animals that are slaughtered humanely where they lived their lives, it’s going to take more than a few diehard foodies before the word local can be applied to animal proteins as easily as we now apply it to fruits and vegetables. There were understandable reasons over the past thirty years that resulted in America consolidating localized slaughter into larger and less humane facilities farther and farther away from where we live and eat our food, but those reasons are no longer viable. It is an incontestable fact that their size has given rise to unsafe, inhumane feedlots ~ massive holding pens ~ which do not and should not be part of the abattoir. Four large corporations now process 85 percent of the nation's cattle, which they can only control (barely) with dangerous cocktails of antibiotics and chemicals. Make no mistake: it isn’t only the animals who suffer as a result of corporate agriculture’s take over of this essential part of our food chain.

But while I’ve yet to meet a person who disagrees with me when I launch into a rant about the dangers of corporate control of the food chain, or bemoan the energy squandered shipping animals that are raised and will be consumed in one area away to be slaughtered, or even how inhumane it is to make an animal take such an unnecessary journey, something always happens when the conversation drifts toward the slaughterhouse door. A strange NIMBY response occurs when the words local (which we revere) and slaughterhouse (which is frightening) are put together. When a town like Ukiah, whose roots in ranching go all the way back and is now struggling economically, can reject a proposal for a small, progressive slaughterhouse that could serve the entire county of Mendocino, as they did last year, you know something is wrong. Change is possible ~ in two decades New Zealand has gone from American-sized centralized slaughter and meatpacking to smaller locally owned slaughterhouses dispersed across the country ~ but it’s not going to happen until we get over a modern repugnance against all things connected with death and begin to see it again for what it truly is: the final part of the life cycle.

So here’s what I propose. We do it lamb by lamb. All the talk in the world about the bigger issues of sustainability and safety won’t get us to change the way things are now if we aren’t able to bridge the disconnect between the meat on your plate and the whys and wherefores of how it got there. A good place to start is one single step back from the sexy part of cooking and consuming. Butchery is a lost art in American kitchens thanks to the role supermarkets played in making it easy to look away from slaughter. But something is lost every time you break the seal on the plastic and lift an animal part out of its Styrofoam package. Even the way you handle it communicates an “ugh, let’s get this part over with.” The smell, more a result of flesh being trapped beneath plastic, is not appealing, while the touch, instead of firm and resilient, is usually slimy. Dozens of hands, often in different states, handle one mass produced lamb as it makes its way to your table. Compare that to the short journey our animal took. John Fritschen, who raised the animal in his beautiful vineyard overlooking the Russian River Valley, guided it into a cage and took it over the hill on Monday where a USDA agent inspected it for 24 hours before the proprietor of the facility quickly dispatched the animal on Tuesday. John delivered the carcass, its organs in a separate bag, to Barndiva on Wednesday. Ryan was the fourth person to handle the meat before Pancho and Andrew began to see cuts of it coming down the hot line in the restaurant Thursday night.

The 90 lb, eight-month old lamb Ryan butchered had virtually no odor. Watching Chef break it down ~ hack sawing the neck from the body, deftly detaching the shoulders, precisely separating the belly, rack and saddle, breaking the vertebrae to make cutting the legs away from the trunk easier ~ it struck me that the techniques inherent in really great cooking, as well as the vegetables, herbs, spices and condiments, everything we use that constitutes a recipe, don’t start in a cookbook they really start here, ruled by which part of the animal the cut came from. Chef worked swiftly and cleanly ~ there was no hanging about ~ but it was the animal that provided the road map. Every now and then he closed his eyes and felt along a contour of a joint, trusting his fingers more than his eyes to tell him where to direct his knife. It was beautiful to watch ~ and it went a long way in explaining why he always cooks his proteins to perfection. This kind of understanding starts long before the meat hits the pan.

Years ago I knew a great Irish butcher in London, name of Mack, who used to make up stories about the animals as he carved them up. Nice and lean he’d say about a shapely lamb’s leg, this lassie must ‘a been a runner, or, oh look at the beautiful fat on this boy, as he sliced through the perfectly marbled ribeye, he liked the shade by the tree, he did. At the time I assumed he only nattered on to keep himself from being bored or having to talk to the endless stream of Hampstead housewives, but now I’m not so sure. I thought of Mack as Ryan ran his hand down the entire length of our lamb’s body. Beautiful animal Chef said before he made the first cut. Mack used to say the same thing as he wrapped a cut of meat in paper and tied the bundle with string, nodding as he handed it across the counter and I headed out into the night to feed it to my family. For both men, whose livelihoods are intrinsically reliant upon the animals we raise to eat, the words offered a kind of benediction. We often forget that a benediction is both blessing and guidance. We need both now.

LINKS:

Heather Smith wrote a good article in in San Francisco Magazine worth reading.

Michael Pollan's PBS interview Modern Meat.

There are usually no butchery classes offered this time of year, but you can go to an incredible fair this weekend where butchery will be only one of the food related skills you can learn about ~ with lots of opportunity for hands on experience. As Sophia Bates is one the organizers, we highly recommend a drive up to Anderson Valley this weekend. Where Sophia goes great food, music, and life changing good times are not far behind.

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At the End of the Day

(originally posted May 26, 2010)

Heavy coastal fog spilled over the ridges last night blanketing the orchards and burning off just after dawn in great drifts, like magic smoke. Sunlight reflected in puddles on the stony paths and dew dripped like small fat diamonds from the rosebushes. By 9:37 on Tuesday May 18, 2010, it is fair to say the world was sparkling where I stood on Greenwood Ridge.

On mornings like these I think of Victoria. At any time of the year I know I can walk outside and see her hand in something that is blooming or growing, but it is in late spring that her passion for color unfurls as if to shout, Here I am. Look at me.

The little history I know of her does not indicate she was a woman who had time on her hands for passionate pursuits, or, for that matter, leisure of any kind. She lived remotely on the top of a mountain in an age when everything you did to survive pretty much had to be done right where you stood. From morning to night she washed and wrung and hung and ironed and sewed and weeded and picked and stirred and baked and cleaned and tended the animals first thing upon waking, last thing at night. Hers was a small family for an Italian woman, just the two boys and John Cassinelli, her husband. But during the seasons when itinerate workers arrived in the valley for logging, sheep shearing, or (before prohibition) grape picking, she also fed dozens of single men who made their way up the back paths to the door of her kitchen, where she gave them a meal hearty enough to stick to their ribs for a nickel.

She never had a daughter, no one to help with the house or jamming or cooking except on those days when all the families who lived on what was then called Vinegar Ridge gathered. The Fashowers, The Pronsolinos, The Pardinis, The Fratis, The Giovanettis. At those times I imagine a house filled with laughter, pots and pans clanging, bottle after bottle of unlabeled zinfandel passing hands. Had there been womanly touches in the house once, they were long gone by the time I took possession of it. But even if one imagined frilly curtains in the kitchen or a hand loomed rug by the hearth, it would not have brightened what was a resolutely masculine house. Big and dark, with very few windows, a house built in defiance of the cold nights and the long rainy Mendocino winters. Houses with walls of glass to “open” the view are very much a modern construct, not something people who worked their land, and lived the view all day long, thought much about.

When I bought the house and the land on which Victoria had planted her gardens, thirty years had already passed since her death. I was coming from a great metropolis bringing all the mod-coms I thought I needed to survive with me ~ computers, washers and dryers, gourmet restaurant kitchen appliances. I painted the dark paneling white and hauled old iron beds out of the barn for the boys, and painted them white as well. I hired a brilliant couple who had worked in the Queen’s gardens in England, before Alan Chadwick had lured them to northern California, and had them plant formal flower borders like I was channeling Vita, (which I was) with yew hedges that they warned would take decades to reach any ‘significant height.’ I didn’t mind. ‘Significant height’ was exactly what I had come in search of.

Over that first year of innumerable mistakes, slowly but surely Victoria began to make her presence felt.

At first the connection was one of simple appreciation: for the double and single daffodils that sprung up along the road to the house, signaling the end of the rains; for the riot of Matisse colors ~ deep purples and hot pinks ~ that bloomed in what I came to call the shade garden; for the varieties of Azaleas and Camellias she had planted, some as big as small trees. Black bearded Iris, and whole fields of naturalized Ixia would come and go, sometimes making it into a vase and I would wonder when they had been planted, where the tubers or starts had come from.

I also never ceased to marvel at her practicality: like most Italian kitchens there were fruit and nut trees that spiraled out from the back door so at any moment you are only a few steps from that extra Rome needed for a pie, or fat green figs for the cheese, which Victoria had made in the cheese room down in the barn, which I brought up from the city, or from Bert at Boontberry Farms.

It's possible she saved my life once: One summer evening I was loading a heavy pump on the dolly, late to start dinner, when it slipped and the handles sprang forward, cutting a deep gash above my eye. There was not enough time to call for help but before I could grow afraid I remembered the patch of Comfrey growing on the damp side of the house. My gardener friend had thought Victoria had grown it to staunch wounds, 'an old Indian trick.' The boys rushed outside, grabbing handfuls, which we crushed and stuffed deep into the flap above my eye. The last thing I remember before passing out was Victoria's voice in my ear whispering, tell your boys they did good.

It was after that accident that I began in earnest to look for connections between us: the chicken coop had been built beneath a copse of firs where it was hidden from view. Had Victoria planned the path running to it along the ridge so she could follow her boys as they made the journey to collect eggs every morning ~ as I did mine? There was a straighter route, but one that did not afford the same view. I knew that even if we had lived at the same time in history, Victoria and I couldn’t have been more different, culturally or temperamentally, and probably would not have been friends. But that never stopped me wondering how she might resolve situations that I knew she had faced in that very same spot. A sick child in the night and no doctor within easy reach drives the same wedge of fear in a young mother’s heart, no matter what century she lives in, or to which god she prays.

The irony is that with all my education and relative wealth I was adrift in a terrain that she had mastered with no such ‘resources’. Significant height, remember? A Jeep took me to town, not a horse and buggy; when the crops failed I went to the supermarket. But what if there was suddenly no supermarket? I had circumnavigated the world, speaking in tongues, but when it came to understanding the rhythms of a simple existence on the ridge, nothing life had taught me thus far gave me the upper hand. More and more I found myself taking the measure of my day against the faint pattern of hers, as, and when, I could discern it.

For the most part, our farm was a series of outbuildings that served masculine endeavors ~ building, chopping, fixing things. You could go from one shed to another all day long and come upon old and rusted things men had touched: from the lower barn which was dark and dank, its hand hewn redwood beams soaked black by a century of tractor oil, to the wood shed with its wall full of saw blades, some as big as 8’ across, to the tool shed with its cabinets of screw boxes, chains, and hand hewn tools. I never found many things that were hers though: a potato masher with a chipped red handle, a set of framed flower prints, pillow cases from Sears Roebuck catalogue printed with tiny cowboy guns, hats and boots (which Tex loved and claimed), and a prized treasure: a framed picture of Jesus as a handsome young man who looked like he didn’t have a care in the world. I showed it to my mother when she came to visit she said oh look, a picture of Jesus with bedroom eyes.

My mother would have made friends with Victoria, of this I have no doubt. But then she had a talent for looking beyond differences in language, culture, ethnicity and religion. Differences we make into obstacles between ourselves and other people, in spite of what we know of the importance of human kinship. I do not have that talent down yet, but I'm trying. Survival is a collaborative enterprise. At the end of the day we all have another night of total darkness to consider. It comforts me knowing Victoria was up here once, thinking it all through, before me.

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Barndiva Gardens

(Originally posted February 17, 2010)

I was 16 when I read Andrew Marvel’s poem ‘The Garden’ and the line “to a green thought in a green shade” jumped out at me. It was the first inkling I ever had that gardens were somehow different from other spaces. Living in big cities all my life, it had honestly never occurred to me. And while I did not seriously start tilling the soil until I bought a fruit & nut farm on a ridge in Philo 15 years later, even that huge commitment (I was at the time living 500 miles away) came more from a desire to have my boys run wild and free than to grow my own food, or fill my rooms with flowers. Well into my 20’s the only edible thing I had ever tried to grow was a $1.29 pot of basil and I watered that sucker to death. Oh, grasshopper, you have so much to learn.

But as is so often the case in life, sometimes the things we think we choose to sustain us are really things that choose us, like a mutt looking for a master so it can find somewhere to call home. Even well into my 30’s, living in Britain & only returning to the farm in Philo every summer, owning a garden ~ or rather having it own me ~ was more a literary pursuit than a life’s commitment. It was a casual interest in the affaire between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West that lead me to read Vita’s old gardening columns she had written for the Observer the last fifteen years of her life. I was charmed with the confessional, confidence building voice she used to describe this world that held such unparalleled delights. Vita moved plants around like they were so much furniture in a drawing room. She made mistakes each season but took them in stride, and did not find any contradiction in a natural world that was both ruthless yet forgiving. The first time I visited her estate at Sissinghurst I knew I had found a road map of what it might be like to create art out of nature. That it would take the rest of my life to become good at it was not beside the point. It was the point.

If you have yet to fall into a garden’s spell, there is no time like the present. Do not be dissuaded by how little you know or how small your plot…Get your hands dirty. Fill your lungs with the loamy smell of soil. Order seed catalogues and leave them by your bed. Talk to strangers in the nursery that you find hanging around plants you think you might like to grow. Read gardening journals by great writers. Never become competitive ~ gardening is not a sport. The only thing you are competing against is the voice inside your head that wants to know what’s taking so long. Tell it to shut up. Unlike everything else in life where time really is stacked against you, in your garden the return of a season brings with it an abiding optimism that instant gratification can never give. Gardens are Valium in landscape form, bringing with them Marvell’s “delicious solitude,” where the mind, “withdraws into it’s happiness,” and the world, and your role in it, will fall into place.

Happy Digging.

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Love Thy Neighbor

(originally posted April 14, 2010)

Our first show in the new Studio will be photographer Wil Edwards’ Art of the Rind, a series of seemingly abstract, deeply saturated color images that if you didn’t know what they were, would put you more in mind of Salvador Dalí than smoky Gouda.

Going through Wil’s portfolio this week for a B&W series that will run concurrently in the restaurant, I happened upon some strong shots of animal carcasses he had not shown me before. Their formal elegance was reminiscent of the great photographer Atget. Wil captured the sinuous and quite beautiful line of the hollowed out bodies in a truthful way, one that did not objectify the animal so much as respectfully document its life. There is, after all, a long history of artists using the dead as models and inspiration: Michelangelo, da Vinci, Delacroix.

Only his mother liked them, Wil told me. Probably not a good idea to put them in the show. Did he like them? Yes, he did. A great deal. Still, he worried about offending people, turning them off.

I’m usually not drawn to art that takes its impetus in empty provocation, but showing these elegiac images isn't touting abattoir chic. Maybe its time we asked what's up with passionate omnivores who can romanticize the animals they eat while they are frolicking in the field, but still find methods of killing and butchering a squeamish subject. A reality check is important now and again, if you eat meat.

The majority of the Big Mac eating world is only dimly aware of the current national conversation about the dangers of factory farming which books like Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and films like Food First have rightly raised. Thats cool. It will come. After that, unless you refrain from eating animal proteins on moral grounds, knowing the animals you eat lived healthy lives and were killed humanely can make a consequential difference to your appetite and the way you choose to satisfy it. One of the most important goals of Fork & Shovel ~ the sustainable farmers and chefs collaborative we worked to get started two years ago~ was to make it easier for diners in our restaurants to get honest answers when they ask the question ~ “where does this food come from?”

The fact that ethical ranching represents less than 2% of the animal proteins served to the American public does not negate the paradigm we are supporting here in our food shed with groups like Fork & Shovel and our thriving Farmers Markets. Quite the opposite.

If you haven't read Temple Grandin, or seen the TV film with Claire Danes about her, do one or the other, this is fascinating stuff.  I'm of the opinion it helps to look death in the face and honor it, and animals give us that chance, in addition to feeding us.  Most Americans can't stop gorging themselves on endless images that celebrate gratuitous violence but don't want to know how the animals they eat are being slaughtered.  Major disconnect, no?

I take heart that the recent butchery class at Relish was such a huge success.  More and more eaters (and it usually follows, good cooks) are beginning to accept the fact that you can't talk about following the food chain all the way back to the animal in a field without also accommodating the icky bits that happen in the abattoir.

On Friday when we arrived at the farm for the weekend we found we had no water in the house ~ our entire 200 gallon storage tank was empty.  We did what we could to figure out the problem but had to switch locations for dinner we had planned with our friends, Tim and Karen, of Apple Farm fame, who live just down the road.  We got to their place just as the sun was setting.  As we pulled in I saw Sophia, their daughter, at the end of a row of blooming apple trees, setting off on her evening rounds to check on and feed the animals.

The Philo Apple Farm raises only enough animals to eat and serve to their guests.  What Karen learned at the knee of her Mum, Sally, owner/chef of the original French Laundry, about food and where it comes from can't be put in a book (unless they choose to write one.  Which I wish they would).  When Charlie Palmer gifted us a whole 'leftover' pig from his Pigs n' Pinot a few years back,it was Karen I called to walk me through butchering it. I have never been squeamish, but even I was surprised by how much satisfaction I got from holding the animal and guiding the knife as it cut clean deep channels in the layers of flesh.  That same feeling of connection came back when I viewed Wil's photographs this week.

The light was fading as we tended to Sophia’s horses and moved onto the pigs, who are kept in pens that are moved around the orchards for grazing and fertilizing ~ the heart of bio dynamic farming. Animals have a crucial role to play in this family’s life that goes beyond feeding them. In the case of the magnificent Nordic draft horses Sophia is training ~ they are partners in her life’s journey. What occurred to me traipsing through the gloaming was how all of us ~ Geoff, Sophia and I, the pigs, goats, horses, dogs, & chickens ~ were all sharing the same evening. Hunger and the approaching dark had triggered in us similar concerns. Whether we were able to acknowledge it or not, we were in it together, dependent on each other, on what felt like a pretty profound level.

Before I ambled off to one of Tim’s perfect gin and tonics, I’m not sure, but I think I had a moment with the goat.

www.forkandshovel.com www.philoapplefarm.com www.templegrandin.com www.relishculinary.com

All text and photos, Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted)

 

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Speed Dating with Fork & Shovel in Healdsburg

(originally posted March 3, 2010)

Writing about gardens last week all my reference points seemed to be pulling from old friends and dead writers? A bit maudlin, no? Luckily, on Tuesday night Barndiva hosted Fork & Shovel’s annual get-together ~ a speed dating evening between the county’s best sustainable farmers and the chefs who rely on them. It was (excuse me for tempting fate) a hopeful evening in the extreme. Screw maudlin.

Fork & Shovel is primarily an Internet grange, but once a year we face off, flirting shamelessly about our varieties, heirlooms and breeds. A barn dance, without the music. A chance to build a definition of sustainable that can’t be co-opted. This is a crowd that doesn’t just know its food, it grows its food. Then cooks it.

But we really do live in different time zones. Think the Early Bird & the Owl on bio-dynamic crack.

The evening started a bit awkwardly ~ with everyone soaked from the rain and fumbling with name tags with either a fork or a shovel stamped on them. There were loads of new (young) faces. Luckily, Spencer had filled a huge punchbowl with one of his vodka and blood orange concoctions (this one held about 80 portions) and before long the drink wasn’t the only thing flowing. The evening officially began with a hilarious improv between Deborah Walton (Canvas Ranch) and Sondra Bernstein (Girl an the Fig) ~ issues of pricing, and delivery and how much mud a commercial kitchen can handle were deftly raised, then put to one side as farmers took to the podium, one by one. They had 30 seconds to charm chefs, tiny pencils hovering above Fork & Shovel pads.

John had brought the wood burning Rosso oven and before long crispy-edged pizzas laden with examples of the produce we’d just heard farmers singing the praises of started arriving on the bar. Even Mr. Hales, who is not known to enjoy anything he can’t eat with a knife and fork, seemed to be tasting one of each. (One of the nicer moments of the evening for me was sharing the Rosso energy under the makeshift tent during a sudden deluge ~ the smell of warm crust, wild mushrooms, arugula, chorizo, fontina was transporting).

We drank many bottles of wine ~ this is a great BYOB crowd ~ they bring it and they drink it. Bellwether contributed three gorgeous mounds of their new ricotta to taste, there was Big Dream Ranch Honey, Apple Farm Cider and Syrup and toward the end of the evening Doug Lipton opened bottles of his exquisite Home Ranch ’07 Muscat Blanc. If all that weren’t enough, everyone brought an old fashioned dessert ~ double stacked platters of cookies and fruit bars, spice cakes, cheese cakes, Hungarian “these are the walnuts I grow” layer cakes. Somewhere in heaven, Fanny Farmer was smiling down.

We are a Gossipy crowd: doll sheep, who already has tomato starts in the ground (lots of dubious eyebrow raising), how long before Sofia’s plow horses would be fully trained, and whoa, what to make of the sudden interest in classes on how to butcher whole animals? By the end of the evening Barndiva’s contract planting list had doubled, we had finally made it onto Liam Gallagher’s baby lamb allocation list, Karen agreed (though I doubt she will remember) to sell us a pig and do a cooking class with it in the new studio space, and I had collected the names of several goat farmers that swore they would serial call Chef Ryan. (My repeated efforts to bring this lean, light on the land source of protein to Barndiva’s menus have not, up to now, been successful.)

Fork & Shovel is about farmers and chefs working together to create an honorable business model that brings our enthusiasm to the public through increased sales. But we also share a landscape, a view. We are all trying to survive, to thrive even, in this difficult recession, growing beautiful food and cooking it with commitment and passion. We ended the evening with a promise to launch a series of First Sunday Fork & Shovel Dinners across the county.

I suppose maudlin serves a purpose, but what keeps me going in this business does not reside in looking backward. It is knowing that everything these farmers plant tomorrow, any animal they raise, might eventually land on a plate somewhere in my kitchen, eye to eye with Chef Ryan, to be blessed by his talent before being sent out for you to devour in the dining room. “Eat the view” is the most heartening three words in my vocabulary.

Here is the list of Barndiva’s fellow speed daters on Feb. 23, 2010.

Reminder: even if you were born to it and have your parent's experience to pull on, farming is crazy hard work with very few pots of gold at the end of the day. (Pots of poop is more like it. Which is gold to them). Support these sustainable farmers by frequenting the talented chefs who feature their food.

(The list below represents about half our membership. For a full list, visit www.forkandshovel.com and become a supporting member!)

Fork & Shovel Farmers who speed dated Tuesday Feb. 23 @ Barndiva

Bellwether Farms, Big Dream Ranch, Blankety Blank Farms, Canvas Ranch, Cultivating Impact, De Vero, Dragonfly, Early Girl Farms, Eastside Farm, Foggy River Farm, Gleason Ranch, Gretchen Giles (editor of The Bohemian), Healdsburg Eggs, Home Farm, Jim Leonardis Organics, Linda Peterson (representing Farm-Link), Mendocino Organics, Mix, Nana Mae Organics, Owen Family Farm, Oliver’s Market, Paula Downing (F&S Steering Committee, SR and Sebastapol Farmers Market Director), Quetzal, Sky Saddle, Sonoma Meat Buying Club, The Philo Apple Farm,Weed Farm

List of Restaurants Chefs they flirted unabashedly with:

Barndiva, Boon Eat & Drink, Cyrus, Dry Creek Kitchen, Inn at the Tides, Jimtown, Mateo Granados Catering, Mayacamas, Nick’s Cove, Park Ave Catering, Ralph’s Bistro, Relish Culinary School, Rosso Pizzeria and Wine Bar, Santi, The Girl & the Fig/ ESTATE/ The Girl & The Fig Cafe, Vintage Valley Catering, Zazu, Zin

All text and photography, Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted)

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