the-garden-1024x682The first piece of swag to come out of writing this blog hit my mailbox this spring, when I was asked to review Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener. Sadly, they did not also send me a broadfork.

Carmen and I were also able to enjoy a one-day workshop with Jean-Martin, put on by the Young Agrarians as part of the Rockstar Farmer Tour—and we even drank a beer with him afterwards. So, I got the inside scoop for you.

In short, if you have dreams of serious gardening or small farming, buy this book. Beyond that, the big question for me was why would I buy this over the Coleman classic, The New Organic Grower? I think you should buy both, but I think you should read Jean-Martin first.

I will go into more detail, but Jean-Martin makes starting a profitable small farm (grossing over $100,000 from 1.5 acres) seem possible. I could identify with him in a way I can’t with the Grand Old Silverback Coleman; Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène are young; they didn’t start with a lot of money; they live in Quebec, which is noted for winter; they have chosen a farming system based on hand tools to avoid the expense of tractors.

To explain why I think you should have The Market Gardener near to hand, I need to talk about Eliot Coleman, the Guru of modern smallholdings. Fortier is an admirer and student of Coleman, the two of them have gone on speaking tours together—their philosophies are very complementary. Coleman is a researcher, an inventor and a philosopher. He tells you what he knows, what he thinks and what he doesn’t know. He does not skimp on detail—his books are thick and packed with information.

And for me, trying to garden a few urban plots and imagine a more agrarian future, Coleman is overwhelming. There is so much detail I drown. Coleman also uses a folksy illustration style I find obscures the information—this really stands out, for example, in his discussion of crop rotation.

IMG_0872-1024x768Jean-Martin has cut to the chase and tried to produce a handbook, a plan for the new small farmer to follow. He is more detailed about budgets and costs, and yet presents topics like crop rotation in a more simple way—a way I was able to apply in my own garden this year.

Fortier, like Coleman, is very aggressive about weeding out inefficiency—even if a little Coleman goes with it. The New Organic Gardener strongly promotes soil blocks. Fortier says, in his charming French way, that soil blocks are too much work, and they get perfectly good results with standard seedling cell trays.

Coleman is great—he is much more detailed on soil amendments. He also includes more history and philosophy. Coleman is a popularizer of winter gardening—whereas the Fortier family simply plans to take time off in the winter and go to sunny places.

It is comforting to me to have Jean-Martin demonstrate successful and profitable farming with different methods than Coleman. It makes me feel like any small variance on my path might not necessarily result in a disastrous garden failure. Fortier proves what Coleman advocates—observe, experiment, and do what works for you.

So I think you should buy both books, but I would buy Fortier’s first. Coleman’s The New Organic Gardener is excellent to read by your winter fire, when you have time for reflection, or feel you have incorporated enough you want to raise your game.

Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener is the book to have at your hand, on the table while you eat lunch, on your bedside table for the few minutes before sleep. This is a direct, clear, guide for day-to-day operations of your small farm.

 

 

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Photo by mia!

Photo by mia!

One of my comfort foods is whole-wheat macaroni with vegetables. Since I am a lazy cook and reluctant dishwasher I have always just grated cheese and sprinkled it on top of the noodles then stirred it into a clumpy and unevenly distributed mess.

I have only made a cheese sauce twice before, and both times were after being roundly mocked by loved ones for my brutish standard of living.

But if there is one thing the Small and Delicious Life is about, it is enjoying the making of life as much as the consumption. So last night I made a cheese sauce. It was delightful and fun to make—truly 400% better than my bestial and unevenly melted grated cheese. Furthermore, there seem to be alchemical reactions between butter and milk and a shake of flour—this has all the makings of a lovely internet wormhole.

As is my modus operandi, I googled and opened a bunch of browser tabs on how to make a cheese sauce, and one of those posts caused me to lose my mind.

When will it stop? When will this whole bloated shit-show just implode from the weight of our idiocy? You see, when you buy pre-grated cheese, it is covered with anti-clumping and anti-fungal agents.

Of course it is. As anybody who has grated a nice cheddar knows, it will clump like crazy. And so, in order to have the convenience of not having to bend your arm at the elbow, Industrial Products Inc. must lacquer each shred of cheese with cellulose—wood flour—and various other Better Living Through Chemistry Gross Domestic Product Enhancers. Hey, here is an idea—want to prevent your cheese from clumping? Simply grate it fresh from the Mother Clump—the bloody block it was made in.

I am sputtering with anger as I try to write this, and struggling to keep the profanity to a minimum in case my lovely old grandmother wanders onto this webpage. But what the hell?

I just want some cheese. I like it on my toast, I like it on pizza, I like it in sandwiches, I like it on pasta, and I like it on crackers. I am a man that is very happy with bread and cheese—I love both bread and cheese. I really like cheese.

What I do not want is anti-fungal chemicals that are used to manage the stupidity of pre-grated cheese.

This is really about surface area. A block of cheese does not have very much surface area. If a little mould gets started, you just cut it off and eat the rest. But when you increase the surface area an order of magnitude by grating it in a giant factory, then you put it in sealed plastic bags, drop them in a box and ship them around the continent—well, you can see how mould will grow.

Of course, since you have just carefully powdered each and every shred of your stupid pre-grated cheese, the last thing you want to do it mash it down again. And so each bag has lots of air in it, and each box has to be big enough to hold all those bags of air around all that fluffed up cheese. And so now we are wasting fuel, cardboard and plastic, all so we can eat some anti-fungals and wood flour on our fucking nachos.

 

Man. I am sorry Grandma. I lost it there. Still, it is not like you don’t know I am from the sweary side of the family—I do keep a lid on it when we visit. Love you!

 

How did I come across all this? Because there were several warnings that pre-grated cheese does not make good cheese sauce—you can’t cook with it properly. Small surprise really since it is no longer cheese, it is some sort of monstrous cheesewood. Perhaps you can panel your rec room.

Hey, just for kicks, why don’t you google ‘listeria grated cheese’? That’s right—if you want to get sick there is no better way than industrial ‘food’. Factory widgets for dinner—what could go wrong?

So. This is the world we have built—a world in which it makes sense to industrially grate cheese at a greatly increased risk of sickness, coat it with poisons and wood dust, bag it and box it and ship at great fuel cost, in order to use it only in a smaller range of ‘foods’.

And that is all I have to say about that.

 

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In the calmness of bees.

Bee bombWe have honeybees flying in our backyard again, and they have brought our family a noticeable sense of comfort.

Our bees died last fall. Likely it was the varroa destructor mite, archvillain of many news stories. Carmen has noticed our bees die before we move, and she thinks this is no coincidence. I hate moving too.

So yesterday I picked up a new package of bees from an apiary just a few miles up-island from us. A ‘package’ is the most common way to buy bees. It is a mesh-walled box full of adult bees and a mated queen in her own little mesh cage. Packages are often sold by the pound–this one ended up being over three pounds of bees, so probably over 10,000 bees. The queen is in her own little cage because she is not necessarily these bees’ queen, so they might kill her as an usurper. Keeping her in the cage for a few days allows her Queen Pheromone to spread through the colony and bend them all to her service.

Actually, they bend more to the service of the continued spread of the colony. You can easily introduce a new queen, so obviously they are not loyal to genes. The reproductive strategy of bees is to grow large hives and then send off swarms to colonize distant hollow trees or other nooks, and as long as they are doing that, they are happy.

I realized as I was driving back with this package that it was almost exactly four years ago that I picked up my first package of bees. In fact, as I drove away from my weekend bee workshop I was listening to the 2010 olympic gold medal hockey game as the winning goal was scored.

Four years with the bees. My first package came out of Chile, shortly after their devastating earthquake. Apparently only three packages from that entire shipment made it to Vancouver alive. Who knows how long they sat, under what conditions, as Chile struggled to rescue people. Needless to say, that colony did not last long. The next succumbed to a wasp invasion. Then we were beeless, as we knew we were moving to Victoria, which until recently has had a moratorium against off-island bees.

The next bees to join us were a huge swarm. My phone rang as Carmen and I were raising cocktails before our third-anniversary dinner, and I was off, with my red jumpsuit (bad) and my straw cowboy hat with a cheap veil (bad). But when I got to the swarm, burled on a suburban branch, I stood underneath it and felt the soothing hum of the bees wash over me. This is a strange thing. Bees buzz, and buzzing is often scary. Bees are also insects, and so are incomprehensible to humans. But I find the sound of the bees to be very soothing, very calming, and my family has grown the feel the same way.

That colony was strong, and gave a couple of good splits. I thought we had a good thing going as they drew white wax and raised their own queens. But then they died last fall, a blessing only in that I didn’t have to move a large colony of bees, which is always stressful. So, this year I went looking for bees again. I prefer local, in the hopes of finding bees acclimated to our region, as opposed to the packages from Chile or New Zealand. There is a queen breeder who has been part of government study in breeding hygienic behaviour in response to the varroa mite, so maybe I will buy one of his queens later.

But I brought home the package last night—absolutely stuffed with bees—and shook them onto frames of good, drawn wax, even a little honey from last year. I tucked them in and wished them a good night. And this morning, as we unlocked our bikes for the ride to school, we all commented on how good it felt to live with bees again.

We joke about our 50,000 head of livestock, the language is all about “keeping” bees. But, as J.B. McKinnon might have lyrically said in The Once and Future World, the bees have rewilded us, even if only in the smallest of ways. We feel better for sharing our lives with these tiny, incomprehensible creatures, and it is wonderful to have them back.

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Pickled eggsWell over a decade ago, I owned a restaurant, and in the restaurant I sold pickled eggs. I also had a fully waxed handlebar moustache—so there are at least two reasons why I find hipsters to be Johnny-come-lately poseurs.

Anyhow, I sold pickled eggs but I never ate one—they seemed disgusting to me. I am a giant fan of dill pickles, to the extent of getting a jar of Polskie Ogorki in the toe of my Christmas stocking every year, but I didn’t like the idea of pickled eggs. But a couple of years ago, on a road-trip deli break, I cautiously nibbled a pickled egg and found they are in fact a perfect marriage of hard-boiled convenience and dill pickle. Add to this chicken’s winter moult that slows egg production and it seemed pickling would be a good way to extend egg season.

So last year I busted out the National Centre for Home Food Preservation’s recipe for pickled eggs and made cidered eggs, dilled eggs and also a recipe for Amish Beet Eggs. All were enjoyable; the cidered eggs were earthy and spicy, the beet eggs a lovely pink colour, but I preferred the simple dilled eggs.

Now pickling eggs by following the NCHFP recipe is not exactly innovative, but stay with me.

Rather than boiling the eggs, I steam them. Not only does this save energy because you are heating a smaller amount of water and you can cook a whole steamer pot full, steaming seems to make the eggs peel more easily. Last year I steamed 36 eggs at once, and found they were slightly underdone, so this year I did a dozen at a time, steamed for fifteen minutes. You could do larger batches, but you will need to test the cooking time. As a starting point, I would add a couple of minutes steaming time for each dozen eggs I added to the basket, so 36 eggs should steam for around 20 minutes.

When the eggs are done, pull the steamer pot off, and, as you walk them to your bowl of cool or ice water, give the steamer a good shake. This cracks the shells and lets the cold water in through the cracks. This year my eggs almost peeled themselves, despite being farm-fresh.

Place your peeled eggs in a jar, giving a quart of space per dozen eggs, and add a peeled garlic clove per dozen eggs. Pour boiling brine over the eggs as per your selected NCHFP recipe, let the jar cool slightly and refrigerate. Let the eggs pickle for at least two weeks, but a month is better. And then enjoy.

 

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My best loaf yet.

P1060028The slices of bread on my sandwich were not loaf-shaped, they were round—perfectly round—and it was bursting with alfalfa sprouts. Eaten by a young boy with long, wavy hair and often-repaired glasses, this circular sandwich was part of a pretty alien picture in my small-town elementary school.

Mom was baking whole wheat bread in large apple juice tins at that time, which made cylindrical loaves. I think my mother still worries about the many forms of trauma I suffered, but I feel reasonably well adjusted. It didn’t kill me, therefore…

I used a bread machine for a while. I made no-knead bread for a while. I never really got serious about regular bread, because all the kneading seemed like too much work.

But, recently Carmen has been feeling bloated after eating bread. Bread activist Andrew Whitely fingers modern additives that allow very fast rising times for the recent increase in gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

Bread made with all these enzymes and additives can go from a bag of flour to the back of a delivery truck in less than four hours, whereas bread that is traditionally leavened with sourdough can take a day or more. In that time, bacteria can make wheat proteins more digestible for many people.

This article about Whitely blew my mind, so I decided to try making sourdough bread. I have now made a loaf I consider good enough to post here. Like no-knead bread, this loaf requires a cast-iron dutch oven or combo cooker for baking. Or, as I use, a pyrex bowl with a glass lid.

We had eaten some very, very delicious bread, baked by Andrew Plotsky who made the very beautiful Anatomy of Thrift videos. Andrew said the book Tartine Bread was the oracle of wisdom, so I requested it from library. Since it was a bit of a wait I got busy on my sourdough starter.

Sourdough starter is another one of those things that has the ring of the impossible. It feels like only people who are much tougher and smarter—sharpshooters who know esoteric knots—could possibly make sourdough. My parents have a sourdough and it requires feeding with all-purpose flour, sugar and milk—which seems terribly fussy and not conducive to the Small and Delicious Life. But, it turns out wheat is covered with bacteria, and sourdough grows itself. The process is easy, though, like most of my projects, it takes a little time at the right time. I followed these instructions.

So, I have a nice starter, which I stabilized and now keep in the fridge. I feed it only whole wheat flour and water, and everything seems fine; if it dies, I will just make another one.

I did a bunch of research and really enjoyed Exorphin Junkie and the Northwest Sourdough Bakers Forum. Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Bread Every Day is also a lovely book with lots of ideas for shaping loaves, and slightly different information about what is going on in sourdough.

Finally, Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread came from the library. It is indeed a fantastic book, full of romantic stories of bakeries in France and odes to sourdough. The many recipes for things to do with bread made me salivate. But it does not have a 100% whole wheat recipe. Exorphin Junkie suggests following the standard recipe but substituting whole wheat flour, so that is what I did—and then I spent a few weeks futzing around with how much water to add.

If you are serious about sourdough, I would suggest you read the book. But, Martha Stewart has a reasonable synopsis of the technique you can compare to my mongrelized methods. Make the sourdough as above, and start paying attention to Martha at Step 6.

As a side note, when I was a kid we had a flour mill, and to this day, I love the nutty flavour of pancakes made with freshly-ground wheat. Several years ago I found a used Mill-Rite to grind the British Columbia Hard Red Wheat I get from our local bulk food store. The Mill-Rites are true grist mills famous for their slow grind—I think my millstones turn at 45 rpm. This keeps the flour cool during grinding, which, according to the internet wisdom, means nutrients are not destroyed by the heat of grinding.

Before I get to the recipe, I want to mention one more thing I learned—Baker’s Percentages, which make scaling recipes up or down quite easy. In this recipe method, the weight of the flour is always called 100% and everything else is relative to that; your recipe will total 190% or 220% or whatever. I will give both absolute weight and baker’s percentages here.

First, feed up your starter. I like to add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of flour and half that amount of water to my starter the night before, then leave it out on the counter overnight. I may change that slightly, because this beautiful loaf was made with starter that I fed in the morning and waited until it had risen—around noon—before I started the steps below.

100 grams starter
450 grams room temperature water
500 grams freshly ground hard red whole wheat flour
10 grams salt (2 tsp)
50 grams water (2 oz.)

or:
20% starter
90% water
100% WW flour
2% salt
10% water

Mix 100 grams of starter into 450 grams of water, then add 500 grams of flour. Combine until the flour is wetted, then cover and leave for 45 minutes to one hour.
Feed the started by adding 1/4 cup flour and 1/8 cup water, then put it back in the fridge.

After an hour, add 10 grams salt to 50 grams water and stir until dissolved. Add to the dough and squinch everything through your fingers until it is combined. Cover and let sit for 45 minutes to one hour.

Begin gently developing the dough by folding it every half hour. Wet your fingers and slide your hand under the dough, then lift it up, and let it stretch back down to the bowl. Turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat twice more. Cover and let sit.

Repeat this stretching and folding every half hour for three or four hours.

Turn the dough out onto a cutting board and flour the top. Begin forming it into a ball, kind of rolling it on the board between your cupped hands while tucking the bottom under with your little fingers. You want the top of the ball to be smooth and tight, but not so tight it rips. Flour, cover with a teatowel, and let rest for 30 minutes.

Repeat. After the ball has rested again, line a bowl with the tea towel and flour the towel heavily. Use a dough scraper to make sure the ball is not stuck to the cutting board, then, using the scraper, lift the ball and place it upside down in the bowl. Flour the dough a bit more, then fold the towel over the top and put in the fridge overnight.

The next morning, pull the bowl out of the fridge and let it warm up for a couple of hours. Preheat the oven and your dutch oven to 450°. When it is hot, flour the dutch oven and dump the dough into it, as gently as possible under the circumstances.

Using a razor blade, slash the top of the dough in a square. It is ideal if the blade is flat, so the cuts go in sideways, not down, but don’t burn yourself on your dutch oven.

Put the lid back on, and bake everything for 20 minutes. Then take the lid off and bake for 25 more minutes.

Cool on a rack and give it a bit of time before slicing.

So, this is not hard, and does not take a lot of time in total, but it does take a little time at the right time. This works for us right now, but may not always; Tartine Bread goes into some detail about how to shift the schedule of the bread to suit your timeline.

This bread—100% whole wheat leavened with sourdough—is what I call Next Level Shit. Just as with making fermented and dried Salami Milano, and Parmesan cheese, this bread feels like a major accomplishment. It is delicious and moist, not at all dense, and just as Chad Robertson promises, it keeps very well. It will sit for a week on the countertop without going mouldy. And, Carmen feels good after eating it.

UPDATE:

IMG_0001Every loaf I have made since gets better, and this loaf is the best, with delightful ears and a nice holiness. It was made with BC Red Fife wheat, and took almost two days from feeding the starter to baking—again, just a little time, at the right time. I fed the starter at night and kept it in the fridge, then mixed the dough about noon the next day. I developed the dough all day, then let it rise in the fridge overnight. I took it out about noon the next day and let it rise until dinner, when I baked it off to accompany a delightful chicken-rice soup.

Changing to Red Fife left me with a very wet dough, so I added a little more flour in the development folds, but fortunately I had recently watched this video on high-hydration doughs.

I also enjoyed this video on developing the gluten sheath outside dough balls. There is so much to learn for the Small and Delicious Life, so much knowledge we have lost—knowledge that used to be as water to fish.

Miscellaneous trivia about the Ten Percent World:

My dear friend J.B. MacKinnon is officially on his book tour for The Once and Future World.

I encourage you—I insist—to buy many copies for holiday gifts. Write the Colbert Report and ask to have him on as a guest. But mostly you should read it and love it.

I will link to some reviews to do greater justice, but I want to talk about the 10% world and wheat. James coined the phrase to describe how much of nature we have left—even in the most wild and abundant places there is only about 10% of the historic abundance. He prescribes we remember, reconnect and rewild.

As always, James sees things more from nature, and I see things more from craft; we are always trying to peer into the mysterious and wonderful world the other inhabits. And here, I am gleefully appropriating his phrase for craft.

While traveling this summer, we spent a very lovely few days outside Amsterdam in a town called Laren. Laren has many, many houses with thatched roofs. They are more expensive upfront, but also the most durable, and are very insulating. And insanely beautiful.

Laren, the NetherlandsBut, I learned the modern wheat varieties, which are bred to have short stalks so as to devote more energy to the grain rather than the stem, are no good for thatching—the Dutch must now import wheat straw for their thatching.

So, a beautiful ecosystem of food and shelter, recycling, manual skills of field and home has been disrupted by the drive for better yield and higher profits by agribusiness. A 10% world indeed.

 

Review of The Once and Future World in the Chicago Tribune

Review of The Once and Future World in Harper’s Online

Review of The Once and Future World in the Globe and Mail

Review of The Once and Future World in the National Post

Great quote from the National Post interview: “Nature may not be what it was,” he writes, “but it isn’t simply gone. It’s waiting.”

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