Un po’ del prosciutto!

Our first prosciutto consists of four ingredients: duck breast, salt, white pepper, and fresh air.

We put on Pachabel’s Canon and sliced our first bit of duck prosciutto tonight. The flesh was a dark rich blood purple, and we had it with a glass of Two Rivers, a robust and fruity red from Cana’s Feast Winery in Carlton.

The meat had a delicate salt flavor to it, while the fat had a slightly peppery finish. It went oh so well with the wine and our fresh sweet plums. I would put it up against anything I have enjoyed in Italy, but instead of being dried and cooled in the winds of the Appenines, ours was cured by breezes carried from the Pacific, over the coast range, and into our barn.

The duck breast rested cloaked in a bed of salt for 24 hours, then was wrapped in cheese cloth and hung to dry for eight days. One day more than the Lord took to make the world, but a far better result, an assertion that is blasphemy only to those who have not indulged in this finest of delicacies.

et varios ponit fetus autumnus . . .

 

“and the fall, too, gives forth its varied fruits . . .”

Thus states Vergil in the first book of his Georgics. This has been true for us here at DFF for about the past ten days. It is a happy thing to lament about abundance. We are suddenly facing the prospect of excess corn, of melons, of rotting fruit. Thankfully we have had a third hand since Friday, since Lori’s sister Nancy is paying us a preliminary visit. Preliminary because she is set to be a welcome fixture of life here come January. We could not use the help more, and have been forced to be creative with our produce.

Excess produce, in my experience, is becoming something like my tenure experience. In August of 1996 I was hired by the University of Maryland, College Park into a tenure track job. I was driven and focused; my mission was to complete a commentary on that very famous work that I’m sure is next to every Bible on every shelf in the country – Tacitus’ Dialogus de oratoribus. It was to be the book that would get me tenure. But, surprise surprise, in the fall of 1996 I discovered that it was so popular a work that someone was about to publish a commentary on it with Cambridge. The world did not need two and life was short.

Now you can’t just pull a book out of a thin air, so I fidgeted for a year and thought long and hard about a book project. Meanwhile the tenure clock loudly ticked. Then on Labor Day weekend 1997 it occurred to me: take the appendix of my dissertation and write a good long book on it, which I did. I worked like a fiend for two years and by December of 1999 had a book contract with Routledge. If I do say so, it was a damned fine, scholarly work. What was the book about? You can look on the “about me” section of this web site to find out, but in a nutshell, it was about informants and prosecutors in the early Roman Empire. Imagine it is AD 4023, and no one had yet written a book about the Gestapo – that’s my contribution to human knowledge and I’m damned proud of it! My point is, tenure forced me to be creative – necessity truly is the mother of invention. And so it is now with our produce.

Since Friday we have been confronted with hundreds of pounds of plums, melons, cucs, squash, corn, tomatoes, and pears. The plums we are drying, the corn we blanch and freeze, the squash we freeze, the cucs we throw to the chickens at this point, but the pears we transformed into an exquisite pear butter and the tomatoes, oh my! We made a cherry tomato jam (4 lbs of tomatoes mixed with 3 cups sugar and ½ a cup lemon juice, cooked to 220, with basil added at the end, then put into pint jars – yum!) Next time we may add onion or pepper of some sort. The pear butter we make by chopping whole pears and mixing them with star anise and 2 T. ginger, 1 c. lemon juice and 2 c. water, cooking them, putting them through a food mill, then cooking the puree with ½  t. each cardammon and nutmeg. We add ½ a c. sugar for every cup of puree.

The pure urgency of preserving food keeps us finding some great recipes, and what is left over is never wasted, going either to the birds or to compost, and our goats absolutely love the cornstalks once stripped of their ears, and the silk and leaves from the corn itself.

Jars of sunsweet gold tomato jam with basil, our first honey dew, mounds of cucumbers, and a basket of corn grace our kitchen counter. Greater wealth even Croesus could not covet.

In addition, ten days ago we planted some “salad boxes” full of greens – spinach, chard, and lettuces, all of which are lovely, and our greens continue to do splendidly in the garden. We put the boxes in about ten days ago with transplanted spinach, chard, and lettuce, and also did some direct seeding of spinach in a box which has already germinated.

Our giant salad boxes contain loads of rainbow chard, blomsdale spinach, and a mix of tender lettuces. The box is in the circle garden on the south side of our house, and no, yu are not seeing things, our house really is orange and purple, and the worst thing is we like it!

A big event here Sunday was the arrival of the cider press my brother-in-law Len built for us; we hope to use it on our pears and apples – we will be making pear nectar and apple cider, the former we will freeze most likely, but the latter we will ferment and make into a hard cider. We should have no shortage with five very productive apple trees on the property, and more on the way this fall when we plant a few more. I’m told that the first president Adams drank an entire tankard of hard cider with dinner every night, and we look forward to seeing if it can propel us, as it likely did him, to octogenarian status. Bottoms up!

Hard cider has become as much of a local specialty as has wine. Both Carlton and Corvallis have outstanding breweries, but we aim to press our own.

Finally, on Tuesday we had a big chore that we had to start to undertake, trimming our goats’ hooves. It was one of those big daunting and mysterious tasks we had never done starring us in the face, and, as is the case with most of these, was not nearly as bad as we thought it would be. We distracted our girls with a bucket full of oats, and we washed and trimmed away; it’s a big, long task though, so we will still need to do some trimming tomorrow. It didn’t hurt that Nancy has had ample experience as a manicurist. We also weighed the girls and received some happy news: having gotten over their coccidiosis and not having gained much weight from July to August, in the past month they have taken off, and weigh in between 63 and 84 pounds, all having gained between 7-18 pounds (hooray!) It took three of us to trim, but if I do say so we managed to pull it off with aplomb.

Lori’s sister Nancy stabilizes our doeling Miss Anna, while Lori trims her hoof in our maiden voyage of caprine manicuring.

Lori an Nancy gently nudge Miss Anna back to her stable after her first trim.

et varios ponit fetus autumnus, and, we might add (somewhat more prosaically because it would never scan!), et varios ponit labores autumnus (“and the fall sets forth its various tasks”).

Dust, Drought, and Dread Surfeit

A hazy sunrise casts its rays through plow-raised dust onto Dancing Faun Farm.

This is the first September I’ve spent in the Willamette Valley since 1984. Okay, we’re really in the coastal foothills, but it is close. Since 2007 I have had some August, September, and October nights in the foothills – during summer stays and sabbaticals I’d spend a night here and there at my sister’s in Carlton, and even in August we have had mornings where one’s breath was visible and it was always cold.

Not this year. Last night, September 13, we slept with no covers. The low was 58. There was no breeze. The days are not like the coast right now – no clear blue sky, no grey and mist, no rain. Nor are they like the ones I recall growing up here as a boy. There is just heat, dust, haze, and plants stressed from three or four months with no substantial rain. The big machines plow the dry fields for the winter and spring crops – clover, grass seed, rye, timothy, and cast vast clouds of top soil to the heavens. This, not the savory smoke of sacrifice, is sent to the gods, a desiccated offering burned under the massive tires and disks of so many monstrous machines.

Dust clouds hang in the local dells and glens on a late summer morning.

It turns our blue sky brown; it coats our arms in a jaundiced hue; and there is no wind now, save hot blast in the morning from the east deploying columns of topsoil and legions of dust devils, outflanking our oaks and invading our fields. Brown fog hangs over our pasture and over the small hills and valleys that surround us; it is as though someone had decided to play a grotesque prank, moving Tuscany to Oklahoma in 1935.

Another invader has arrived with the dust: noise. While not as acute, constant, or intrusive as the din of traffic in the urban areas where we lived back east, with its dense population, its trucks, it helicopters and occasional fly-overs of C-130s (we lived in the flight pattern of Andrews Air Force Base), it is noticeable in no small part due to the profound silence that we enjoy up here most of the time, where human noise is rare.

But we have had little time to be distracted by the dust and noise, since we’ve been harvesting mightily for some time now. Pears and plums have been coming in; these we dry, process into jam or butter, and feed to animals if we can’t get them processed in time. The corn has started to come in too, as have our tomatoes, our beans, and we continue to be flooded with squash, onions, and greens.

The greens coming in – collards, beets, bok choy, are among the best I’ve ever had or seen. The greens earlier this summer were meager and dark green, because I was using organic fertilizer that was nitrogen poor; but I added blood meal and now the greens look as though they were growing in a rain forest. A bit of onion, a bit of diced ham, some olive oil, and then some lush greens and you have a fabulous meal.

Our plums are also killer. They’re a variety that we have not yet identified, too golden for green gage, but too green to be golden. They are sweeter than any fruit I’ve had in some time, and even better than the figs we used to grow back east, at least in terms of sweetness. They burn the back of the throat with the intensity of their sugar and are full of juice. I’ll make pflamenmus with them, a German recipe for spiced plum jam that’s slowly cooked in the oven, and is great as a sauce for pork roast.

Then there are the cucumbers, an animal unto itself: we have around eight pickle type plants and so far have made four gallons worth of fermented sour pickles, which are so simple and delicious they should be outlawed: the cucs sit in ½ gallon of water, 6 T. salt, and a handful of dill heads, peppercorns, grape leaves, and two heads of garlic for 1-4 weeks, and you have magic.

The pears have been particularly daunting – and thank goodness we have only one tree. These we dry, but this weekend I’ll make a pear tart tatin, since we have a crew coming over for Sunday dinner and will have some work to do, including putting in an electric fence for our wanderlusting pup and starting to assemble the greenhouse. The new arrival of some Kakhi Campbell ducklings (layers, each of which will produce up to 300 eggs a year), has also provided us with some distraction.

Pears bake in the late summer sun on our front deck, slowly drying and concentrating their sugars; they are protected from birds and larger bugs by a wire mesh screen.

For now, our harvest is our version of the fall colors; the great thing about our region is how green it grows in the winter. There is none of that monotonous grey drab that one gets back east; the grass fields come in and the evergreens keep the region vibrant. What one gives up are the hardwoods, and with that, the intense fall colors one finds in the northeast. So we must settle for the dinner table as our palimpsest of color, which has the distinct advantage over New England that these are colors one can sense with the palate as well as the eye.

A pallet of colors from our farm includes about ten pounds of green plums, two half gallon jars of sour pickle, five pounds of sungold sweet tomatoes, a golden jar of pflamenmus (spiced, roasted plum preserves), some apples about to be tossed to the turkeys, and some zucchini and cucumbers (as if we have not had enough!)

Thanatos

Lori stands near a cooler full of seven ducks, each of which weighed in at between 4.5 and 6.75 pounds dressed weight; their livers in sum weighed a handsome half pound and will make a delicious pate to be served with cognac jelly and onion jam. We honor their deaths through the excellence of our cuisine.

As a Classicist, I always preferred the word thanatos to mors; the first is the Greek, the second the Latin word for death. Mors always seemed to me to weigh heavily on the tongue, like some sort of lingering decay, reflected in its cognates such as mortification, or mortify. The word falls slowly off of one’s tongue like a wasting illness. Thanatos on the other hand, despite its three syllables, always seemed to me to have a swift, sharp, short sound. I have always found the word clean and final.

Thursday we took in our ducks to meet with thanatos. Their end was swift and clean, like their white feathers, with their long necks extended, a quick sting, and a rapid bleeding out. That is thanatos. It was the first time Lori and I had reared an animal virtually from its birth (they were a day old when we received them as ducklings) to death, and in fact, they had a longer life than they should have: Pekins should be slaughtered at ten weeks, but we were undecided whether to try to grow the flock or to slaughter it, lost the ten week molt window and had to wait for the molt of the 14th week (when they are easier to pluck).

When you kill on a farm (or off, if you go to a processor), you are killing young animals (and more often than not, males) – babies. You want to kill the animal not when it is mature, but when it has reached its maximum growth and when it will no longer make economic sense to continue to feed it. For meat chickens that’s a life of six weeks; for a pig three to five months. By that time you learn that each animal already has a personality, its personal preferences and habits, its likes and dislikes. This is true for our chickens, our turkeys, our goats. Ducks, we learned this summer, are messy, noisy, and demanding. Their quack often sounds like mocking laughter (“Bah-hah-hah-hah-hah”); they are hardy and resilient creatures, who love greens, cherries, and the water. Even the plainest ones, such as these were, with their sleek white feathers which bead up the water and their orange beaks, are absolutely lovely birds. They are the nation of ducks.

Diners in restaurants, drivers scarfing down burgers in cars, children gorging on chicken nuggets, the average family sitting down to dinner – most of us are removed utterly from our relationship of the animals we consume at the table and from the harsh reality that stares at us from our dinner plate.

This reality is, arguably, what religion is all about – at least in the western tradition. Classical religious practice was all about the sacredness of killing and eating; the most sacred ritual was the sacrifice of an animal, a moment of extreme piety and terror, followed by a feast. The New Testament is about much the same thing – indeed, its most sacred ritual, the taking of the Eucharist, is all about food and wine as the consumption of the life force, of God’s blood and body. A friend once posited to me over a large plate of antipasto, as he gestured to it and to everyone at the table, that when Jesus spoke of being the resurrection and the life that he meant nothing more than that he was life in the form of us at table, and death in the form of the peppers, olives, fish, mushrooms, and artichokes that were on the plate, the eternal cycle of eating, drinking, and dying, and the dependence of one upon the other. Death depends on life, and life on death, he observed: the question philosophers and theologians grapple with is whether God required life because of death or death because of life. The two are, of course, inseparable. Today at funerals the dinner still abides as a life affirming ritual in the face of death, the taking in of the life force. It is an ancient ancient notion: In Homer’s Iliad, upon the death of his friend Patroklus, Achilles befouls himself and his long hair with dirt, identifying with the dead and refusing food and wine until Patroklus is avenged. Passover is, of course, all about the taking of nourishment in the shadow of death.

The sacred nature of killing is reflected in how the animal in many society’s is used after its death. Native Americans famously wasted no part of the buffalo they killed. It was true for the Greeks and Romans as well – no part of the animal was wasted. The offal was consumed after being examined for omens (the heart and liver were particularly important), then the flesh. The bones and fat were burned on the altar, but everything else was used in some way. The tradition of not wasting the animal that has given its life still abides today. I recall being in the souk in Aleppo, Syria, and seeing a pile of cured sheep heads. Sheep’s brain is a Turkish specialty. A visitor to the Mercato Centrale in Florence can today see all manner of offal on sale: hearts, kidneys, intestines, testicles.

I recall pointing this out to a family member once who snidely and dismissively sniffed that people still only ate such fare because they lived in countries that were poor. It never occurred to him that there may also be a reverential aspect to the consumption of the animal. The life force of the animal lives through us, and like raving Bacchants on Parnassus, we consume that divine force and it perpetuates us. Even though we can explain those processes through chemical equations and breakdowns, it still makes the inextricable reality of life and death no less miraculous, and consequently all the more worthy of our reflection.