June 13, 2010

the sweet power of the flower

Standing there in the field in front of a few long rows of strawberries I mention the smell of manure. 'Ah oui' Louise says 'il va pleuvoir ce soir ou demain matin' (As in fact it did rain in the morning.) If it smelt stronger, she adds, it would rain in a few hours. She points across the road where there is a pig farm. All this connected in a way that I saw the pig shit, the wind, the rain as some firm, unshakable fact; as if Italo Calvino's essay Quickness suddenly came alive. I was also confronted with the wild strawberries of my youth, and these carefully cultivated, structured sweet patches. I was confronted with the question of how does a strawberry get to be a strawberry.

Louise and her husband Guy Rivest have owned the farm since 1982. They bought from Guy's father who has owned it since 1946. I randomly ended up at their farm in St-Roch-de l'Achigan coming over the hill from Rawdon after buying a bison heart for dinner tonight.

Grilled bison heart all purpose brine (makes a lot, but needs to be cold before using, so always best to have a stash in your fridge which is great base for pig head, tongue, duck or guinea hen legs (5 hours), cornish hens etc...adjust the herbs, spices as you wish.)

6 liters water

750g salt

100g sugar

10 peppercorns
few sprigs of thyme

few crushed juniper berries
few bayleaves
(or whatever aromatics you want to use) bring all ingredients to a boil. Chill. Clean the heart, removing fat and anything stringy. slice nice 'steaks' about a quarter inch thick. Pour a little brine, just enough to cover for an hour. Remove, rinse under cold running water. Pat dry. Ready to grill. Cover with a little oil and a little freshly ground pepper (I avoid salt because it has already been brined). Grilled best rare. Serve with a fresh parsley root and caper salad.

On one side of their house she tells me is argyle soil, and the other where we are standing more sandy. Both are good, but give a slightly different fruit, and with hundreds of varietals to choose from, she is content with six at the moment work well in this part of Québec. I never thought of strawberries as being as diverse as apples. Nonetheless, here were the first strawberries of the year which are usually a bit more acid. This year though these are sweeter because of the extremely hot weather that we have been having. Hot it is. 30 Celsius, and hungry I was began hearing things all upside down turned over. She mentions Face de chat as a common disease in strawberries. So what causes this Fesse de chat I ask feeling like I was being let in to some arcane dimension of the Fraise. She looks at me patiently, Non, Face, pas Fesses. Cat ass disease sounds better than cat face disease anyway I thought. This is the most common problem that she has, the tarnished plant bug. Another is a paradisaical insect which lays its eggs in the center of the flower which turns it into no more than a white walled nest. No strawberry flower, no fruit. And innocently I was thinking to myself, amazing. I was really in awe. I pointed to a thing that looked like a Chinese green bean. No, she laughs, that is the runner, a part of the plant which slinks between the others and finding a spot will plant itself and will grow into new plants. It is true that staring at the patch the only thing one wants to see is a big fat red strawberry, but the more she talked, happily teaching, the more this jumbled patch became for me a very powerful structured entity. Strange to feel so lost in front of something as simple as the strawberry.

Inside the boutique was the usual alcohols and jams but then there was something even more interesting, a strawberry stem jelly which you can taste along with the other products. How the hell does one think of that I ask. It has the smell of cooked butter, floral, hint of strawberry. To the taste there is a slightly bitter herbal taste with of course the intense presence of strawberries. Interesting. Grandma, Louise tells me. She collected all the handwritten recipe books of her grandparents as well as those of her husband's. And in fact this recipe she found in her husband's grandmother's cookbook. I asked if that was normal, the family cookbook. Absolument. Most family's at one time had their own 'cookbook' which was passed on. Something has happened between then and now, and between those two points there has not been more than 60 years. Something fucked up happened and most of us are left trying to retrieve that elusive `something` even if is in new packaging. She offers a me strawberry. A good dense full taste of strawberry. In the intense sunlight it makes sense. I tried to picture all the manipulating in the kitchen I could do, all the recipes, but somehow, with finger on the stem and eating them fresh it cannot be challenged, nothing I think can replace the simple pleasure and physical feeling of eating a freshly picked strawberry.

How long did her strawberry season last I ask, about a month and a week, and then for them the season is over for strawberries. There are other varieties (info below****) which can go into the autumn but at la Ferme Guy Rivest they choose an intense month with quick freezing a good part. They prefer to begin their production of jams, syrups and alcohols early. One thing is for sure; this artisanal element is stronger than I had otherwise thought. These passionate people are dedicating themselves to something more than selling products. After tasting another strawberry Louise tells me she used to teach people with disabilities. In fact, she is far from the first to tell me that they used to teach, or were a nurse etc...bref, trades in which a large amount of caring should be involved. And this caring at the fundamental stratum of any society is perhaps a pretty good indication of its general health.

****Three general groups of strawberries exist:

As the name suggests, June-bearing varieties bear all of their fruit in June. You can purchase early, mid, or late season varieties, but all that means is that they will produce sometime in early, mid, or late June. These plants grow quite large and develop long runners, so they work well in a dedicated strawberry patch, where their runners can grow into new plants. These produce a large crop all at one time. June-bearing varieties won't produce fruit until their second season of growth.

Ever-Bearing: Ever-bearing strawberries produce fruit from late spring until early fall. They will regularly develop fruit, but never very much at any one time. The plants stay fairly small, and don't produce vigorous runners. With ever-bearing varieties, you'll be able to harvest berries in your first season.

Day-Neutral: Day-neutral varieties regularly produce fairly decent crops of berries from spring until fall, with a fairly large crop in the fall. The plants stay small, but produce vigorously. The only drawback to day-neutral varieties is that they don't do well in areas with very hot summers. As with ever-bearing varieties, day-neutrals will produce berries in their first season of growth.

info taken from Colleen Vanderlinden article on Organic gardening.

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