Copyright © Sheryl Williams - Yardfanatic 2016. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Favorite photos from 2016

It's been quite a year for me. I traveled to Europe for the first time, one of my oldest friends died from pancreatic cancer, my husband's illness has worsened, and my dad died. Oh yeah, and the world has gone to hell thanks to our recent Presidential election.

Just. Breathe.

So I continue to avoid the news, tend my garden, bake bread, volunteer where needed to reverse this political tide, and remember the bright spots.

Here are my points of light represented in photos.
Bernini's David
Michelangelo's David

Never before have I stood in front of stone and watched the subject breathe. These depictions of David were alive. The detail, the look in his eyes, the muscular stance, all mind blowing. The Bernini statue is at the Borghese Gallery in Rome. The Michelangelo statue, which is about 17 feet tall, is in Florence at the Accademia Gallery. These photos aren't particularly artistic, but they take me back there, and for that reason are a favorite.
Ponte Vecchio Bridge, Florence

Florence was a schooling in the Medici family. Their status and wealth funded much of the Renaissance and their legacy is still staggering. The Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River was basically a covered, elevated walkway for them that connected Palazzo Pitti to the Palazzo Vecchio. When I rounded the corner after visiting the Ufitzi it seemed to briefly transport me to the Florence of the 1500's.

The goal in Florence was primarily to visit the Ufitzi and Accademia, beyond that I didn't schedule us for anything in particular. After the Ufitzi we had lunch on the south side of the Ponte Vecchio and then wandered further south past Pitti Palace. I had no interest in touring that facility so we kept walking and crashed right into Boboli Gardens. I've seen photos of it in various books and magazines so am familiar with it. I could not believe I just walked right to it. Some sort of horticultural tractor beam, I believe. I had completely forgotten that it was in Florence and, duh, right behind Pitti Palace. I kick myself for not knowing that ahead of time so that we could have spent most of the day there. As it was, we were both tired and my husband isn't really a garden enthusiast, so I wanted to be sensitive to his health. This meant I went through that garden at 40 miles an hour.
Peonies in formal Boboli garden

Oh, and what a garden. The site is about 11 acres and overlooks the Duomo and the rest of downtown Florence. Florence is a busy place with lots of traffic and noise. But when you enter this garden it is completely muffled and all you can hear is bird song. This is mainly due to the use of "wild" areas. The individual garden rooms are all buffered by expanses of mature trees and unmanicured undergrowth. As a result, you have to really hike around to see everything - as if you could. This is someplace to visit multiple, multiple times, not only for the garden but for the statuary. When the garden was installed the Medici hired local artists to build pieces specifically for the garden. "Local" artists means some of the greatest of all time. Ah, the life of the Medici family.
Neptune's fountain, Boboli Gardens

It's not often that you can visit a garden that is 500 years old (construction started in 1550.) The allee of Cyprus trees features mature specimens and walking amongst them I felt like I was being ushered by benevolent, majestic, thoughtful, protective, Ents (Lord of the Rings reference.) The light was not the best that day but I love the perspective of the photo.
Cyprus Allee, Boboli Gardens

I'm hoping you don't see this as "How I spent my vacation" but most of my favorites are from the trip. We caught up with our booked garden tour in Varenna, Italy. The residents have done a good job of maintaining the neo classical buildings and all of the ones in the town were beautifully painted. Of course, I had to find the orange house with green shutters. I have no idea why I am attracted to Orange (my garage doors are the same color as this photo) but I spied this immediately. I love the color and texture contrast. I took about 20 of these all over town - thankfully you will be spared.
Green Shutters Varenna, Italy

Varenna, Italy
Varenna is on Lake Como so a lot of our activities required a ferry trip. I love this photo of the town nestled into the hillside in all it's colorful splendor. Around every corner and down every street was incredible beauty. I was out of breath a lot because I was continually gasping from delight. All the while though, I could hear my dad in my head. He always maintained that there is no reason to travel because the Pacific Northwest is the most beautiful and jaw-dropping place on the planet. I have to admit that I am biased to almost agree. As I visited these places and wondered at their marvels, I couldn't help but compare it to places where I grew up. Rather than being bored or smug it made the world much smaller. Here the old world looks very much like the new world from a geography point of view. Seeing those Alps crash into the Mediterranean sea had the same effect as when I first saw the Rockies rise up out of the prairie. I felt as if I'd come home - and the people I met seemed like family. Probably WERE family since I am of European descent.

At the Melzi garden this gondola caught my eye as we approached the main house. The whole scene was beautifully framed by the pollarded London Plane trees. Those trees were all over Italy and the south of France. I learned that their horizontal branches provided much needed shade in the summer months.

Giardini di Villa Melzi, Bellagio, Italy

Still on Lake Como, a visit to Lugano Switzerland provided this unexpected sight. The sculpture depicts "Eros Bound". It is quite large and there were little kids climbing through it when we walked by. It's a haunting image to me even though severed heads are a commonplace on tv.
Eros Bendato, Mitoraj, 1999, Lugano, Switzerland

On the way to France we stopped off in Monte Carlo. That sea is such an amazing color of blue. The ubiquitous prickly pear was a little reminder from home. Elsewhere Agave Americana bloom stalks dotted the view. Apparently they are an invasive species in southern Europe. Makes me smile. Payback is a bitch.

Prickly Pear and Agave overhanging Mediterranean Sea, Monte Carlo
In France we were fortunate to visit the garden of Lawrence Johnston. Yes, that's right, HIM. After creating Hidcote he retired to the south of France and began work on his own garden, Serre de la Madone, outside of Menton, France. What I like about this garden is that I could just imagine him futzing around deciding where to put all the plants he collected.
Moorish Garden, Serre de la Madone, Menton, France

There were so many amazing plants and garden rooms, I was very glad we were allowed to just walk around and soak it in. The spent Chasmanthe bicolor danced in the sunlight in the Angels Staircase Garden. It was surrounded by an old and dark olive orchard. Rounding the corner into this spot of sunshine was magical.

Chasmanthe bicolor at Serre de la Madone, Menton, France
Menton, France used to be part of Italy, and has the same lovely neoclassical look. These buildings are made of stone blocks that have been stuccoed and painted. So beautiful you don't know where to look...
Basilique Saint Michel and red tile roofs in Menton, France
...until you see this, which is, by far, the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.  The bloom is about the size of a Peace rose, but the colors and form were like a painting. 

Jean Piat rose, Menton France

Market day in Menton was such a treat. Yes, I ate my way through it. Citrus has always been an important component to the Menton economy. They have a whole garden dedicated to it and a particular variety of lemon that they have developed. The limoncello they make from their lemon is very good. Two bottles (okay, and some jam) came home with me.
Farmer's Market, Menton, France

Pomelo Duncan - Citrus paradisi Macf. Menton, France 

Gratuitous cute cat picture. They have chicken wire over the window and the iron work is actually painted on the building. Menton, France
I really hated to leave Menton because there was so much more to see and I didn't get to any of the gardens along the beachfront. I also didn't fulfill a wish to swim in the Mediterranean Sea. It's definitely a place I'm going back to. And when I do, I know just where to start.

Beachfront, Menton France

It was May and the roses were at their peak, which was ever so evident at the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France.

Pink was Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild's favorite color and roses were at the top of the plant list. The frothy blooms were spilling over edges, ballooning in between other plants, and pooling into soft mounds along the pathways.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild,  Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France
Like the other gardens we visited, new world plants were showcased, but put into the landscape in English Cottage style. The effect was mesmerizing and I'm trying to figure out how to do it properly in my own garden.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild,  Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France
In Provence we encountered numerous Roman ruins, one of which is the Pont du Gard aqueduct. It's gigantic - and so precise. There's no mortar in this and running my hands over the stone in the arches gave me goosebumps. Human beings built this. Wikipedia has a great excerpt written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau when he first visited it in 1738. It describes exactly how I felt when I saw it.

I had been told to go and see the Pont du Gard; I did not fail to do so. It was the first work of the Romans that I had seen. I expected to see a monument worthy of the hands which had constructed it. This time the object surpassed my expectation, for the only time in my life. Only the Romans could have produced such an effect. The sight of this simple and noble work struck me all the more since it is in the middle of a wilderness where silence and solitude render the object more striking and the admiration more lively; for this so-called bridge was only an aqueduct. One asks oneself what force has transported these enormous stones so far from any quarry, and what brought together the arms of so many thousands of men in a place where none of them live. I wandered about the three storeys of this superb edifice although my respect for it almost kept me from daring to trample it underfoot. The echo of my footsteps under these immense vaults made me imagine that I heard the strong voices of those who had built them. I felt myself lost like an insect in that immensity. While making myself small, I felt an indefinable something that raised up my soul, and I said to myself with a sigh, "Why was I not born a Roman!" 

Pont du Gard aqueduct, Vers-Pont-du-Gard, France
I love impressionist art and two of my favorite painters are Van Gogh and Monet. I've seen several canvases over the years and we were lucky enough to be in Arles when many of Van Gogh's Provence paintings were on loan from Amsterdam. What I like about Van Gogh, and this group of paintings in particular, is that he paints with a passion and fervor that matches my own love of the subject matter. When I saw one of his iris paintings I burst into tears.

One of our stops on the tour was Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy. Every single step was into a painting. To see the gardens, the orchards, the asylum, the surrounding landscape in person, with the vision of a painting inspired by it made me a little dizzy. I tried to channel him as much as possible to take photographs of the same subject matter. When we walked past the olive orchard and it's dancing trees, I felt the now familiar bubble of emotion rise into my throat.
Olive orchard, Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy, France
The last leg of our trip was to Paris and I made the pilgrimage to Giverny to see Monet's garden. It was a complete revelation. Monet's genius was painting the light, not the subject matter. When I stepped into his garden I recognized that same genius in the landscaping. Every element was oriented to capture the best light no matter what time of day. Gone were the formal structures I had been seeing on my trip and instead, it was a riot of plants jammed into spaces so that he could paint them. Long stretches of planting beds dotted with interesting trees and shrubs were framed by green hedges that forced you to concentrate on small elements. Again I tried to channel the artist and took photographs of the light. Every single photo was a masterpiece by this amateur photographer. Next time I will stay all day instead of the three hours we were allowed on the tour.
Water lily pond, Monet's garden, Giverny, France
Paris is one of my bucket list cities and I regret that we only had three days. We tried to cram in the big sites and go to the Louvre, but it simply wasn't enough. The Parisians were all very nice to us as well as helpful - we couldn't have asked for a more welcoming experience.

Notre Dame rises above the Seine in all it's gothic glory, but it's the inside of the building that you must experience. We saw so many churches, all of them holy places, some built with more love than others, some more intimidating and authoritarian. Notre Dame, despite the crush of tourists, was a sanctuary to me. It made me feel like it stretched it's arms and held me close in a loving embrace. I could almost hear the heartbeat of the stained-glass windows, the statuary, the altars, and those magnificent arches. When I rounded a corner to this altar, it was hard not to just fall to my knees. I lit a candle instead.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
We had a memorable meal near the Grand Palais Garnier and the ceiling seemed to fit in with everything else I'd experienced on my trip. Sipping wine, eating decadent food and the good company we were with culminated with the beauty of this ceiling at Le Grand Cafe Capucines.

Paris, France
Back in the real world, one of my oldest friends lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. A tree near the house had to be taken down earlier in the year and since it was close to Easter, he decided to carve a cross with his chainsaw. The wheel reminds me that Darrell was from a pioneer family. A fitting tribute for someone who was taken way too soon. And I mean taken.
Phoenix, Oregon
The underside of this blue palm frond caught my attention when visiting Peckerwood Gardens in Hempstead, Texas. The garden was named after the plantation in Auntie Mame and for the woodpeckers that frequent the property. Despite the blush, it's a showcase of native and adapted plants from Mexico, Texas, Asia, and Florida.
Blue Palm, Peckerwood Gardens, Hempstead, Texas
And finally, back to Paris. We were on the Batobus headed for the Louvre when we passed under this bridge. The whimsical figures silhouetted amongst the passersby captured how I felt at the moment, and I still laugh every time I see this photo.
Paris, France

Thank you for indulging me and making it all the way to the end! I am looking forward to what this year will unveil and the introduction to new delights. I really am a very fortunate person and am grateful for all the moments that add up to a life. Thank you for being part of it.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Yeast of Eden

Whenever I see programs or read books about getting back to nature, going back in time, or giving it all up to run a goat farm, the prevailing image is people kneading bread.

What is it about bread making that seems so ancient, so authentic, so nostalgic? It's just bread and it's not like you can live on bread and water alone. Why don't other forms of food preparation seem as romantic? I mean, no one tears up wistfully watching someone make a pot of soup, even though it's packed with a lot more flavor and nutrients. The closest thing we have is making spaghetti sauce and tasting it from a big wooden spoon. Ah, the good old days, we think, before sauce came from a jar.

I'm just as bad. When I think of living off the grid I imagine all the bread I'll bake in my wood burning oven. After all I'd need the carbs to live that kind of life. But our not so distant ancestors didn't survive on grain alone, in fact it was more about fat than anything else.  Gathering nuts, rendering lard, making soap, cooking in grease, cooking over a sizzling spit, and making thick gravies is way more primeval and true to surviving away from modern civilization (although if you watch presidential politics you have to wonder whether we've evolved at all into a civilization.)

So what is it that drove me, other than Michael Pollan, to think that baking bread would soothe my troubled soul. I think maybe it's the process - the mixing, the kneading, the rising, the baking - that inspires. It's alchemy of the highest form, this metamorphosis of grass seed into fluffy loaf, all controlled by our own actions. There's no curtain to hide behind, no wires, no distracting puffs of smoke (well, hopefully,) just some hard work, a little yeast, and an oven.

True to form I am not satisfied with making bread the "normal" way with those little packets of yeast. purchased at the grocer. I am determined to capture yeast out of thin air and force it to do my bidding inside a mass of dough. How hard could it be?

And, once agin, my arrogance punishes me for thinking I can have any sort of control over the natural process. I should know better. I am, after all, the compost-making queen, and have had more than my share of failures with sauerkraut and that unfortunate incident when I tried to can fish. Thankfully nothing has ever exploded like the beer bomb that erupted in my neighbors house. Microbes are the true secret to the universe and they cannot be willed into order. Like everything else in the natural world, they can only be coaxed.

So these past weeks I have coaxed, pleaded, thought of cheating as I baked brick after brick of bread. My dear friend Carrie took pity on me and shared some of her starter, convinced that her South Austin rascally yeast would do the trick. It didn't. What was I doing wrong? I followed the directions to the letter every time.

And so the lesson begins. It's not about directions. It's not about procedure. My grandma used to keep all her flour in a big drawer in the kitchen cabinet. I still get goosebumps remembering her pulling that drawer open, cracking eggs and pouring buttermilk into the well she made.  She'd mix it right there in the drawer and then remove it to a bowl or the counter where she would finish it up. Talk about alchemy, and mastery, and oh my goodness those cinnamon rolls!

It has to feel right. The sensation of the elastic bands of dough right against our skin. The smoothness, the way it collapses right into your palm and then springs back after every touch. The patience to let things happen without stirring, rushing along, or just throwing it in the oven to just get it over with. It's the same with making compost, preparing a seed bed, or determining if fruit is ripe.

I post the photo of my success to Facebook so everyone I've been complaining to can see that I have finally done it. I sit here now and reflect on the newest loaf that is quietly baking in the oven. There is no such thing as control, no such thing as a standard practice or procedure, there is no order. There is just that precise moment in time where all the ingredients mix in a flour drawer and emerge later as a bit of air between flour particles. It's the beginning and the end and it poises of the edge of forever. So do I stay here? Or do I do something that throws me out of the moment so that I can recreate it time and time again? I'll take my chances.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

I Can Take It

Pont du Gard near Avignon
My Dad passed away recently and it has really knocked the air out of me. He suffered from cancer so his escape from all that pain was a gift - but he fought it hard. Fought, fought, fought and lived almost three years longer than the Doctors told him. He never accepted his fate, and although he was a realist, there was always the little thought that he would beat it. What was my Dad made of to charge into it so bravely? Or was it just fear that kept him going?

Earlier this year I traveled to Europe and spent quite a bit of time in Italy and the south of France. We began our trip in Rome, made our way up Italy and then back down to cross into France at Menton, staying for a few days in Avignon and Arles (among other places.) As an avid history buff, it became apparent to me that we were following the Romans and their conquest of Gaul.

And not just the Romans, all kinds of castles and battlements dotted the landscape during our entire journey. It was breathtaking.

And then something slammed into me in Arles.

Arles was a Roman fortified city. What is very interesting is that the Romans just lifted and copied a basic blueprint to every place they settled. Always a forum, a colosseum, a theater, and a huge wall. Unlike the city of Rome, Arles' colosseum is completely intact and still functions as an entertainment venue.

The architecture is impressive, and, as our guide pointed out, the technology behind it no longer exists. Modern engineers, concerned with public safety, have tried to "fix" areas that are sagging. Others are busy restoring ruins back to their broken, but original, state. Attempts to replicate the Roman engineering have failed and they have had to fall back on modern iron clamping systems.

The locals didn't love the Romans, but when Rome fell and they started to pull out of the provenances in the 5th century, what came after was much worse. The populace of Arles moved their homes into the colosseum, fortified the walls and built four towers to fire on the marauders. The village remained there until the late 18th century. By that time the buildings built on top of buildings completely obscured everything but the outer wall. It was this pile of humans that ultimately preserved the site by building on top of, instead of dismantling, this structure with the lovely square blocks.

I stood outside of that wall with my heart pounding. Can you imagine what it was like for those people who grouped inside for protection? What kind of world was it where everything completely fell apart and evil rampaged through the countryside? The Romans were the height of civilization yet what came after was worse than what the Romans were at the beginning of their empire building. Why would people do that? Why wouldn't they be glad to be rid of the soldiers, band together, and keep going? Arles was a very important cultural center, why did the people destroy that?

I only have to look at our recent Presidential election to know the answer. Humans destroy what they can't have and go on the rampage against anyone they think has a better life. It's much easier to vent and rage instead of discuss and build. The villagers of Arles knew this and protected themselves for almost two thousand years.

Two thousand years! What does that do to a community? To each descendent? To live in that kind of fear all that time. How do you move forward, hope for your children, build any kind of life when all around you the world has gone to hell?

I became so overwhelmed and completely humbled by their struggle.

All my life I have had a sense of place, an anchor, that defines who I am. I grew up on the family homestead - people who came across a sea of grass, over a mountain, and through a desert to start from nothing except their own ingenuity. My grandmother was a second generation French immigrant whose grandfather boarded a ship to travel into the unknown, hoping for a better life. She and my grandfather's family lived just like the characters in "The Grapes of Wrath" when they had to abandon their farm in Arkansas and head to California to be migrant workers during the depression. I am so proud of all of them.

In Arles, the realization crept over my skin like thousands of prickling needles and the breath left my body. Yes, my immediate family were tough, but they were descended from people like the citizens from Arles.


They are the reason the subsequent generations fought, and scrabbled, and refused to give up.

They kept their homes, their families, their culture alive believing that things would get better and took whatever baby steps were needed in that direction. They kept at it, no matter how long, or how many wars, or how many other evil empires were to be endured.

My dad. My grandfather. Both fought against the ultimate enemy - cancer. Never, ever, giving up. Always thinking about their family and even at the very end, trying to protect us from ugliness.

He-who-can-not-be-named Trump, your buddy Putin, middle eastern radicals, American-born gun-toting terrorists, KKK, neo-nazi's, Kim Jong despots, Texas Patrick-loving-Republicans and anyone else who tries to stamp out others for their own gain.

You have no idea who you are dealing with.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

In a bit of a squeeze

I can't believe that it's been seven years since I moved from Oregon to Austin, Texas. The time has vanished, and as I look out over my yard it feels like I just got started. Of course I haven't. The front and back lawn with just a few yuccas are gone. In their place is native plants, fruit and vegetables.

What an adventure that was to make the decision to move, pack everything up, then start over fresh in a state and climate that was totally foreign. I immediately dove into the nurseries, web sites, and local blogs that could teach me what to do. I was so excited that I could grow citrus in the ground, maybe avocados, miles of sweet potatoes, okra, black eyed peas, and a favorite flower - winecup, that hated the cool Oregon summers.

In this yard, I was determined more than ever to dedicate a larger percent of space to food production. Austin, I discovered, does not have much agriculture surrounding it. Most things at the grocer are trucked from California, Florida, or the Rio Grande valley. And the farmers market?  Tiny! The first time I went I thought I went to the wrong place.  Where was the two-block market that I was used to? Back in Oregon apparently.

But I have survived, thrived even, in this bit of earth being scorched by the death star. My friends here are some of the closest I've ever had, and I've had jobs and bosses that I absolutely love - all which have let me run full tilt into any challenge I wish.

However. I've had to give up some things (besides being able to sleep with the window open in the summer.) The hardest has been apples.

The combination of low chill hours and my stinginess with water has rendered the apples and pear completely barren. They won't even flower. I've cut two of them down and will probably take out the remaining two this winter. It's a shame because I've spent a lot of time training and pruning them, but I don't need ornamental trees, I want fruit! Most disappointing of all is that I don't have a crop of apples to make cider from.

A month before I lost my job in Oregon, I purchased a Correll cider press. They are absolutely top of the line and beautifully made by a gentlemen very near where I lived. My trees were poised to produce enough apples for me to press, plus there were a few abandoned trees in the fields near my home where I could glean even more. Undaunted, I packed that press and put it on the truck for Texas.  I knew it would take 5 to 7 years before I produced my own apples again, but I could wait.

And then my apples didn't grow.

The press has been living on the deck and then later in the house ever since. It really is gorgeous and a conversation starter for people who've never seen one.  However, it was never going to see an apple here in Austin. Reluctantly I put it on Craig's list.

Funny enough, no one here in the south is looking for a cider press. The apples are at least a thousand miles away and they'd be withered and juiceless by the time they arrived in Austin. I got only one inquiry and that was someone from Washington state.

Okay. Now what? Due to the mild winter, I've had a huge crop of fruit this year. Apples? Nope. Oranges and pomegranates. Wait for it - I can use my cider press!

So that's what I did. I hauled the press back onto the deck and on a warm afternoon I made orange juice. It was perfect. Unlike apples I had to peel the oranges. They are so fresh that the orange oil drips off them. I didn't want all that oil in the juice so took the time to relieve them of their rinds. For good measure I also threw in the pomegranates that were also ready.

And it worked!  I got almost a gallon of juice and was able to marvel at how well the press worked. It's slanted perfectly, the press fits into the basket easily, and with not much effort the crank lowers the press onto the fruit. Beautiful juice streamed out of the basket and into the waiting receptacle. The remaining pulp was devoid of juice and went into the compost. Finally!

What's that saying? When life gives you lemons...??

I am happy to report that the press is back in the living room in it's place of honor, cleaned up and smelling slightly of oranges. The listing on craigslist has expired and I don't intend to repost. Now I'm scheming about juicing loquats and figs - with the resulting pulp being used in some sort of chutney or quick bread.

Hey!  Keep your hands off my press! Get your own!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Counter Culture

The problem with me is that I have too many hobbies. I like to tell myself that I am a "Renaissance" woman, meaning that I am pretty good at a lot of things, but the truth is that I have the attention span of a gnat.

Being able to jump around and multi-task has served me well, but I'm not widely known for my patience. I'm okay with long term goals as long as there is some action along the way that keeps me interested.

I have friends who make their own wine and I've flirted with the idea of giving it a try. But winemaking is really boring. All that aging. Beer is a lot more fun and I actually had a kit at one time. But a neighbor's experience of having his batch blow up in the house always gave me pause. The chief reason being that I know I would get bored, walk away, and not monitor things as warranted.

But hope springs eternal and lately I've been hankering to get back into bread baking. It was brought on by watching Michael Pollan's "Cooked" series on Netflix. I love to cook and the "air" episode was all about making bread. One of the people profiled was Richard Bourdon, a baker from Massachusettes and a proponent of making bread via fermentation versus regular yeast+flour methods. He made a good argument about digestibility and the current gluten intolerance wave everyone is talking about.  He believes there wouldn't be any intolerance if we ate some form of fermented bread like sourdough.

This argument has of course generated controversy amongst the celiac crowd and other people who believe they are experts in nutrition. I have no way to refute or endorse any of it because I am completely uneducated on the subject. However, I do have my own gut. In my twenties I was besieged with digestive issues, ranging from a pre-ulcer to what was finally coined "irritable bowel syndrome" by one of the many doctors I went through for help. Unfortunately, I learned that IBS is a catch-all for undiagnosed intestinal issues. But, once I had the term I researched possible causes and ran across gluten intolerance. I stopped eating bread and voila! Issue gone. Since then I've begun taking probiotics and I can eat small portions of bread without incident.

Am I gluten intolerant?  I have no idea. I don't seem impacted by gluten as an additive in many of the foods I eat (including commercially produced ice cream) so it could very well be another ingredient that sets me off. Give me a piece of toast and within 15 minutes I have a painful acid stomach, give me cake for dessert and I get an IBS attack unless I pop a probiotic at the same time. I'm always suspicious of claims about carbs, gluten, vitamins, etc. because like most things they seem like fads and the "experts" are just in it to promote a book (or get a series on Netflix.) I'm a Michael Pollan fan because the boy can write beautifully, and he, like me, approaches things based upon curiosity and discovery. I forgive him from profiting from it.

So I'm doing my own sourdough starter. Is sourdough a cure for me? Absolutely not and certainly not more than the organic apple cider vinegar with the Mother, greek yogurt, and sauerkraut that I eat. Any sourdough loaves I've eaten in the past gave me the same reaction as any other bread, which makes me sad because I love a good sourdough cannon ball filled with hot soup.  But the program got me curious. What if I grew my OWN sourdough starter from the environment that I live and grow food in. Will I be able to tolerate it? And really, sourdough is the same process as composting and sauerkraut, two other things I like to do. Plus I like the idea of it. Being able to bring food to the table that I grew and prepared gives me a huge dose of satisfaction. If you've eaten at my house, it's because I hold you in high esteem and serve you with an ardor that not even Shakespeare could not describe. Ok, that's a little over the top, but you get the idea.

I googled some recipes and read about sourdough baking. (What did we do before the internet? Oh, yeah, I'd ask my grandma - the source of all home cooking knowledge and whose culinary magic I still aspire to.) The real pinnacle of using sourdough is to not use yeast at all when you prepare loaves for baking. If you do a good job with your starter, those loaves should rise, and while it may not be as fluffy, it's not the equivalent of a manhole cover either.

The premise behind sourdough is that you are harvesting "wild" yeast in the flour and from the air. Lord knows the heavy air here in Austin carries all sorts of things, but I've never heard of an artisan sourdough baker coming out of Texas. And as a resident of the west coast you are raised with the mantra that San Francisco is the capital of sourdough because of their wild yeast. (I know a good marketing campaign when I hear it.) Still, it's so totally Texan to harvest something wild, domesticate it, then exploit the heck out of it. Yee haw!

The basis of my starter is the one from King Arthur Flour. They have a really nice step by step guide with some photos of what the starter should look like throughout the process.  In general, you should be able to grow a batch of starter in about a week.  I went through the FAQ's and questions from bakers and then stumbled upon my achilles heel. "You must be patient."

Yeah, right. And true to form I've been goosing my starter. It started out okay and got to bubbling - I even got a full rise on day 4, but since then it has not progressed fast enough. So I got to thinking about the environment and what I could do to hurry things along. I do the same thing to my compost - and is why I collect and add coffee grounds and grass clippings. Cook damn you, cook! For my sourdough I've been adding more whole wheat flour in order to get the yeast population up. It seems to be working because I'm getting a little more action. With the recent rains we've had came another idea - I'll use rainwater! It's stormed enough to wash out most of the pollution and the resulting water should be teaming with yeasty Texas microbes. Another ultimate compliment - if you get rainwater at my house, that means you're important. Otherwise you have to suffer with the alkaline, chloramined municipal water. I filter the water in the house, but it's only my vegetable garden that gets rainwater in the yard. That's right, not even the roses and they complain constantly with their yellowish foliage. Oh, go eat some seaweed and here's a little chelated iron.

Interestingly enough, fermentation does not occur faster if you watch it. I caught myself checking on it throughout the day on Saturday with more attention than I was paying to the homemade spaghetti sauce that I was making at the same time. The sauce got a little scorched but what a joy to see the gas bubbles pop in the starter. I think I'm on to something and I am hoping that I will have mature starter in the next week or so.

Stay tuned to see if I can discover some hidden vault of patience, make bread without yeast, and consume it without bloating up like a dead whale.

But my attention wanders and now I'm off to do something else.  Squirrel!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Dreaming of Hidcote in the South of France

While on my recent trip to France we had the opportunity to visit Jardin Serre de la Madone in Menton.

The garden was created in 1924-1939 by Lawrence Johnston, the same gentlemen who created Hidcote Manor Garden in 1907. Mr. Johnston "retired" and created the Jardin Serre de la Madone on his own property in the Gorbio Valley.

The garden occupies a former terraced hillside Olive grove and farmhouse that Johnston remodeled. One of the reasons he selected the site is that it offered a subtropical microclimate for his plant collection. Over the years he expanded the garden all the way down the hillside.  After his death the garden fell into disrepair. In 1999 the property was purchased by the non-profit Conservatoire du Littoral, who began restoring it to Johnson's design.
I've never been to Hidcote but have seen it in photos. What was cool about Serre de la Madone is that this is the garden he puttered around in after his retirement. You can see elements of Hidcote, like the hedges and water features, but it has its own personality.
What was of particular interest to me (and the Conservatoire) is the way the garden is designed to retain rainwater. French and Italian farmers have mastered the art of terracing and storing water in the soil. Here it is taken literally to the next level. He created rainwater capture systems that store the water in the ponds and fountains all the way down the hillside. As a result, it requires zero supplemental irrigation.
The property has several structures on it, my favorite being the "cool" greenhouse. It's a stone structure perched on the terrace and served as a sort of lath house for some of the tropicals.

It was fun to see Sotol in big pots flanking one of the many staircases. Big clumps of Bird of Paradise beckoned you to explore a fountain hidden in a leafy bower.

The moorish garden once had an aviary in the courtyard. Now it's main feature is the mirror pond.

Another happy discovery was the Angel's Staircase and garden.

This variegated Alstroemeria lit up one shady spot while tree leaves caught the sun in another.
 We were shown around the garden by the head of horticulture (so sorry that I didn't write down his name!) He gave us a history and pointed out some of the water conservation features. Of course being a group of gardeners he was peppered with "what's this plant?"  Finally, clearly exacerbated, he proclaimed "Mon ami, we have over 6,000 plants, I can't possibly know them all!"

Fair enough. Left to wander on our own I captured photos of plants I found interesting. Every terrace revealed new structures, water features, both tiny and large discoveries.
The Belvedere
Potato vine
This garden was meant to be explored and I could have spent days there. I imagined Mr. Johnston tucking a plant here and a seating area there as he expanded the garden down the hillside. It was highly designed yet still rough and tumble enough to get lost on a wandering path. When I think of it now it's hard for me to call it a single garden since there were so many individual features - a theme common among plant collectors (and my own jungle.)  This would be a place I'd love to work or volunteer at. Perhaps something for my retirement? Need to start learning French!!