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

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!!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

When getting hung out to dry is a good thing

I am still struggling with the calendar here in Austin. It's just now the first of August and I am exhausted from summer. I hide in the house away from the heat and try to find ways to console myself during this dormant season.

Lucky for me the winter seed catalogs have arrived and once again I am in search of garlic.

Every year I plant three varieties to discover which will grow here during our droughty winters and hot springs. The only one that has been a reliable producer is Chinese Pink. It is ready to harvest in early to mid May as soon as it starts to get warm outside.

The other varieties just can't take it. I've consulted with my Austin gardening communities and have even ordered from specialty nurseries that service gardeners in the south. No matter what I do they won't survive through June and I end up with very small harvests.

I thought his year would be different. I purposely, and uncharacteristically, fertilized all three varieties every couple of weeks since last October and gave them more water than usual during the winter. It seemed to be working. I got really nice, vigorous tops and when I poked around the base the heads seemed to be forming like they should.

I was planning on an extended vacation in May so was glad that the Chinese Pink were ready to harvest before I left. They did have slightly larger heads than usual from all the extra care, so I was sure I'd cracked it. While away for the next three weeks, it rained almost five inches spread over several days, so when I returned I was hoping to see some progress.

The tops were all dead, which is okay because that usually signals that it's harvest time. I pulled them up and sighed. Skunked again.

I really like to grow garlic because it is easy to store and I cook with it a lot. You can pull them up and throw them in a paper sack, bin, or even a burlap bag and they will keep for at least a few months. I try to grow three varieties so that I get a staggered harvest, thus extending the time I can use my own bulbs instead of buying more milder flavored varieties from the grocer. I started braiding mine after seeing some for sale at a home and garden show. I'm not the craftiest person in the world, but even I can pull off a semblance of a braid. Here is a website I found that takes you through the steps:

Garlic tastes better after it's dried for a while. Sometimes when you just pull it out of the ground it can be a little green and bitter tasting. Drying evens out the flavor and intensifies the heat. I pull the garlic, trim the roots, then use a soft brush to get rid of the dirt. Sometimes I peel the outermost layer of skin just to clean them up a bit. I then braid them together and hang them someplace. I try to do the harvesting and braiding the same day while the stems are still pliable. A couple of times I have waited and it's hard to soak the stems enough so they don't break off while you are working with them.

The thing I like about these braids is that you can hang them just about anywhere. I have a great covered deck at my house so I've hung the harvest just outside of the door. I snip the lower heads off when I need them.

I am too greedy to use my stash for replanting knowing that I'll run out in January, so I've got to solve this production problem. With the amount of moisture and mild temperatures this spring, I think my theory about the heat has proven to be untrue. Perhaps it's the heavy clay soil? Or maybe the issue is that the soil itself heats up too much? My raised beds do get quite toasty.

I look through the catalogs and plot a new strategy. Maybe if if used a higher compost-to-soil ratio the ground would be more friable, airy, and not prone to heating up. I'm not ready to admit defeat and just plant Chinese Pink - especially when these other varieties promise to produce in the South.

Meanwhile, I've brought in a batch that I couldn't braid and am storing it in the kitchen inside a pair of pantyhose. Since I no longer wear nylon stockings due to a career and climate change (out of banking and into the heat), I've found them immensely useful in the garden. Great for tying things up or for stuffing with herbs and garlic to dry.

The house has taken on a bit more of an aroma on top of the usual garlicky cooking smell. Should keep the vampires and mosquitos away while being just below noxious for people less enthusiastic about the "stinking rose."  I only hope people who look at my garlic stuffed hose and then back to me aren't eyeing my legs for cellulite.  Ha!