November 5, 2007
Greetings on yet another spectacular Autumn day! This balmy, golden Autumn has capped the most extraordinary growing season I've ever seen.
It really was a season right out of Camelot, with the rains falling just when needed, often at night. The early part of the growing season, June and July, were reliably wet and the strawberries, currants and raspberries had all the water they needed.
August brought little water at all, but the blackberries and blueberries held on and developed intense flavor in the summer sun. In September the rains resumed, helping produce more tomatoes and allowing many, many bushels of peppers to ripen to a rich, sweet red. The Autumn-bearing Heritage raspberries, which I had pretty much ignored during their growing season as all my attention was focused on summers' harvest, surprised me by coming on strong beginning in late September and continuing to Halloween with no special protection.
Even in the woods, wild Concord grapes were loaded with fruit, and apple trees in long-abandoned orchards and farmsteads produced fruit this year.
Missing in this lingering summer is the blaze of color for which New England is famous. Carotenes (orange hues) and anthocynanins (purple hues) are masked by brilliant green chlorophyll in the leaves of trees during the growing season. As the season wanes, the sugars produced in the leaves migrate to the trees' roots. A hard frost early in the season breaks the cells in the abscission layer between the leaf and the stem, causing the green to leave rapidly, revealing the brilliant orange (sugar maple) or red (red maple) hues beneath. With no hard frost, the green color dissipates more slowly, resulting in dull brownish foliage.
Even without brilliant color from maple trees, though, Autumn in New England is still brilliant. The lower angle of the sun bathes the land in golden light. Pumpkins and squashes capture that light and magnify the warmth of the scene. The sky widens as the leaves fall and its color deepens.
In the house, we've just begun using the wood cookstove to take off the chill of early morning and evening. I cleaned out the ashes and dusted off the 100-year-old cast iron "Fortress Crawford" this weekend. I rubbed cooking oil all over her surface - from the oven and firebox to the elaborate scrollwork that adorns the top warming shelves and the bottom woodbox and ashbox. She's a beauty all right - built in Boston with patents from the 1880's to her most recent, December 3, 1907, she represents an era where even the most functional items were made with beauty in mind. I bought her in the spring of 1975, in my senior year of college, another time when energy prices were soaring into the stratosphere. She was so covered with rust that we couldn't even see the intricate scrollwork detailed throughout but we cleaned her up and I learned how to cook while warming myself by the oven. It was my only stove for many years and I even canned tomatoes, beans, peas and pickles on the old Crawford, sliding the various kettles to hotter and cooler spots over the fire to regulate their temperatures. (Canning? on a woodstove? in July? in August?.....I had the unbridled energy of youth.....!)
News from the Kitchen
It's here! Barley's Elderberry Preserve!
These beautiful berries of deep purple produce a preserve of magical flavor. Legendary throughout the world, Elderberries belong in the herbal apothecary as well as the kitchen pantry. Loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, they are renowned for their antiviral and healing powers. The plants are beautiful - tall, graceful shrubs with huge white flowers the size of dinner plates - each one turning into hundreds of tiny purple berries.
Several years ago, my friend Elisabeth told me that I "simply must grow elderberries!" When her husband, Roger, asked me what I would do with so many, I replied that I would make preserves, of course. He chuckled and said, "you'll make syrup!" My first experiments with the elderberries proved him right. Cook as I might, they boiled down to syrup, thick syrup, and finally, hard candy. Every recipe I could find called for adding pectin, a step I refuse to take.
The answer came to me while I was sitting on the porch and Autumn's golden light fell onto the two crates of our own Cortland apples we had picked and that I was fretting over how to use. Of course! Add the apples to the elderberries! And that's what we did. Just adding a few apples to the elderberries gave me the body that we needed without discernibly changing the flavor. An old cookbook of my Grandma's called for adding apple cider vinegar to elderberry preserve instead of the freshly-squeezed lemon juice that I add to my other fruit preserves to keep the color bright while the fruit boils down. It strikes me that adding cider vinegar to preserves must have been done routinely by Yankee farmers putting up their own fruits. Certainly lemons would be hard to come by in 19th century New England, but cider mills were plentiful. Even the tiny town of Prescott, Massachusetts where my family farmed for centuries (lost forever to the depths of the Quabbin Reservoir) had a apple cider vinegar making operation. We're lucky to get authentic cider vinegar from our friend Tim Smith of Apex Orchards who grows a block of his orchard in Shelburne organically, and uses those apples to press into cider which he then converts into vinegar.
So, after several experiments, we can finally announce that Barley's Elderberry Preserves are ready! We'll only have a hundred jars or so this year so supply is very limited. We're restricting folks to two jars so that everyone can get a chance to have some. Next year, we'll be picking from a much larger planting and should have plenty!
News from the Woods
That's where I'm headed now.....It's hunting season in New Hampshire so the dogs and I had to stay in all weekend. We're all chomping at the bit to get out now and run. We've been taking an old road up over the top of Gunn Mountain (Burt Hill goes up the east side of the mountain) to the covered bridge over the Ashuelot River about 5 miles away. I had always thought that this was an old logging road until we were given an old map of the area from 1880. It's actually an old stage road, long abandoned, which must explain why there are still some ancient oak trees of huge circumference along its path deep in the woods. Stone walls run alongside it for miles in several places and in one spot, high on the mountain, a spring bubbles to the surface where many stone walls come together to make an old corral. At one time, this whole mountain may have been cleared for sheep to graze.
The dogs are great, as always. Rosie celebrated her 7th birthday on Halloween with her favorite human food - pepperoni. Rosie is always dubious about human food; Barley eats everything. (He even pinched the cooking oil I was using to polish the woodstove yesterday!)
Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!