Thursday, May 29, 2008

aeolian bounty

I've just returned from vacation in Panarea, the tiniest of the Aeolian Islands, just off the North coast of Sicily. The 1 million year old island feels pretty primordial, save for the small village stretched across three small hamlets, which is Greek in aspect (bright white stucco buildings, blue shutters, grapevines and bougainvillea cascading everywhere). Stunningly remote, situated between Lipari and Salina, the most developed of the islands (which are still relatively wild), and Stromboli, a still-active volcano which smokes moodily and sends sparks shooting into the clear night sky, the "traffic" is limited to just one or two boats a day -- especially in the low season. Most of the island is a designated nature reserve: cliffs jutting out of the almost navy blue sea; cacti and caper bushes abound. The island is impressively green in other senses as well: only electric "cars" (really golf carts) and scooters are able to squeeze through the fruit-tree shaded narrow lanes, and most of the inhabitants grow their own vegetable gardens, which sprout up in front and back yards, on terraces, and in between buildings like weeds.  (Pictured above, a néspole tree, bearing fruits that I've never before come across that look a bit like apricots and taste more like papaya and are called "medlars" in english. Also, leaves of a burgeoning fig tree, the fruits plentiful, but sadly, still hard and green.) 
Witness flourishing - and flowering! - zucchini plants.
A clever - and I think chic - way to stake tomatoes. 

A little bit of this and that -- fennel, lettuce, red onions....The soil is dry but rich and the sun is so strong! Sicily is the Southern-most point in Europe -- in fact, much of it is further South than Tunis, Tunisia.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

i scream, you scream

Word on the street is that Blue Marble Ice Cream of Boerum Hill is due to start making appearances at Brooklyn Flea next week. Plus, they are opening a new branch at 186 Underhill Ave. in Prospect Heights. This is great news all around as the ice cream shop's hip young owners, Jennie Dundas and Alexis Meisin, are committed to using sustainable ingredients, including grass-fed Ronnybrook milk, and materials in their shops. I also appreciate their discipline in keeping their flavor options short and sweet. 
(illustration credit: Kate Wilson)

spring sprung

The first spring vegetables at the market these past few weeks have been a revelation. It seems like they sprung up literally out of nowhere. T.S. Eliot wrote, "April is the cruelest month," but frankly, I disagree. April -- and May -- are awesome. The slender asparagus and pink-stemmed clusters of dark crinkly spinach make me swoon while walking through the greenmarket after work. The most exciting produce I have gotten my hands on so far, I found at my local food co-op, interestingly enough. Ramps, fiddlehead ferns, and daylily shoots, oh my! As for the ramps, I nibbled them a bit but have yet to properly cook with them. The leaves -- which I'm not sure are technically edible, but never mind -- are very tasty. Mildly garlicky, with a similar texture to the daylily shoots, in fact, that I threw into a salad. I'm thinking ramp risotto. I guess I'm a little nervous about somehow wasting their glorious local springiness on an unworthy or muddled dish. But I'd better hop to it as they won't stay spry for long. Ramps on toast, anyone?

Friday, May 2, 2008

flying fish

I hate to keep citing the Times but the fact is that they are so on the ball when it comes to sustainable agriculture. A really solid story ran last week about the actual cost of shipping our food to and fro. The piece explores the implications of catching fish in Norway, sending them to China to be filetted, and then flying them back to Norway to be sold, for example. A more in depth piece examining how exactly food miles are racked up and what implications they might have (or not) ran in the New Yorker last month. 

Apparently, they are using mushrooms to soak up dioxin leached from a lumber mill in Fort Bragg, CA. This story bears an uncanny resemblance to the plot of one of Hayao Miyazaki's first films, Kaze no tani no Naushi


Some people think "heirloom" is just another word for "fancy," not realizing the great importance of preserving our heritage crops, admittedly a tiny sliver of the biodiversity of the earth that is rapidly decreasing, but one that is easy to relate to: you can taste the sweetness of saving and reintroducing these seeds and breeds. In this context, a heirloom is not necessarily a plant passed down through generations like a locket or a set of candle sticks, but rather an open-pollinated cultivar. Open pollination is pollination by natural means: via insects, birds or the wind. Because breeding is uncontrolled and the pollen (male) plant unknown, open pollination results in increased variety in genetic traits and, indeed, increased biodiversity. This method was commonplace before industrial agriculture took hold. Before industrial ag's vast monoculture farms cloaked the countryside, a much wider variety of crops were raised, crops which were often deeply rooted in their particular terroir, having adapted over time to their particular soil and climate conditions. 

(photo credit: NY Times)

Kim Severson's recent story in the Times spoke to the idea of raising -- and eating -- heirloom and heritage species to keep them from going extinct. She references Gary Paul Nabhan's new book, Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods (Chelsea Green), which explores the stories behind 93 endangered ingredients central to American culture and recipes that use them. The idea is that you've got to eat something to save it -- unless of course that something, like the flying squirrel, is so endangered that it needs to be left alone for a bit. This article made me think back to the biodiversity class I took last year, in which we learned about conservation efforts that people were making to artificially bring scattered populations of orangutans, say, together in an effort to enlarge the gene pool in which they were cross-pollinating. It strikes me as strange -- if hugely important -- that we are taking strides to reconnect these small, isolated animal communities, mostly because it is of course due to humanity's own actions, in the form of rain forest deforestation or what might simply be called suburbia, that they became displaced. My biodiversity professor seemed certain that humans' time on earth was extremely limited, especially at the rate we are now polluting the planet. It is awfully sad how we as a species are the most destructive force on the planet, and how without humans, all of the other animal and plant kingdoms would seemingly flourish, keeping each other in check.

sustainable attainable

I so enjoyed Michael Pollan's recent New York Times article, Why Bother. In fact, I had been kicking around the idea of growing herbs and maybe a veg or two on the roof. While not exactly the perfect roof for a garden -- note the slight slope and lack of formalities like a ledge or amenable surface not to mention patio furniture -- I am optimistic nonetheless. All the more so now that Pollan has made such a persuasive point about the importance of taking part in growing your own food, and the great sense of satisfaction and well-being it offers. I am ready for that. As I'm not sure how strong my roof is -- or if I'm even really 'allowed' up there -- I am thinking of planting in containers. Either low plastic trays. Or, because plastic is not my favorite material, old baskets. If I can find some old baskets that have low enough sides that they won't topple in the breeze, that is. As Pollan suggests, perhaps this might even inspire me to compost! 
On a related note, I am itching to acquire a copy of the recently published  Edible Estates by architect-activist Fritz Haeg (Metropolis Books). A beautiful book featuring front lawns laden with havestable gardens in lieu of vanity lawns. The project, which has been underway since July 2005, has transformed several lawns from Haeg's native Los Angeles to as far away as London. The book chronicles the metamorphoses of the first four front lawns. Oh, and Michael Pollan is one of its contributors.