Beautiful Beets

The Spring beets laying out on the farmer’s market stalls look lush and inviting. Beetroot has now been elevated to a super good-for-you vegetable. The baby greens are pretty under the bite sized sections of dark crimson roots tossed in with paint-white feta cheese in a salad.
But what happened to Borscht, good old beetroot soup? It appears lost from all but Hungarian restaurant menus. Classic borscht recipes came from Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, with various additions of potatoes and cabbages.
But for today’s cookbooks we are urged towards green watercress and sorrel soups to brighten our spring lunches with creamy yellow hubbard and butternut squash soups to warm us in the autumn evenings.

My borscht recipe was probably birthed from Gourmet Cook Book Volume Two an early, possibly desperate, Christmas gift from my husband. But it has been long since tweaked and fiddled with and now I claim this one as my own.

While here in London, as I edit another ‘final’ version of Farming the Flats, I have come to a page that says, insert Beet recipe here. Oh. OK. Back down to the Turkish greengrocer with Monty I go. But as summer gives way to autumn, the dark beets sit cowering beside the bold orange winter squash who are bursting with fresh grown pride. The beets, like the carrots beside them, have had their greens chopped away. The spring greens that were so bright and brave are fading in this late summer harvest.

Harvest on the kitchen counter

I pluck:
4 beets
2 carrots
1 onion
from the boxes and bring them home where I already have
Bay leaves, sage, thyme and chives from the garden.
Olive oil, salt, pepper, caraway and cumin from the cupboard
Chicken or vegetable stock from the freezer.

Now it is simple soup making.
Parboil the beets in their skins then lift the beets into a bowl to cool.
Strain and save the beet water. Some recipes call for throwing out the beets or the water which is ridiculous. The water only needs straining to remove any left over farm soil and grit.
While the beets are cooling heat the olive oil in a big saucepan,
Add the chopped onion to sweat slowly as you peel and slice the carrots.
(You will notice this recipe is 2 beets to 1 carrot).
When the onion is a sweet yellow add the chopped carrots and then
the caraway and cumin to taste. I’m heavy on both of these.
Stir for a while until the carrots are glistening.
Any wine in the fridge? A glug glug can go in now.
Stir some more and then add the thyme, bay leaves (At least 2) and sprig of sage.
Salt and pepper now as you like it.
When you feel the flavors have been properly introduced then pour in the stock.
Bring to a simmer and cook until the carrots are soft.
Time to slip the skins off of the beetroots, give them a rough chop and add to the mix.
Do you need to add more liquid? If so you have the beet water on hand.
When this is all cooked up nicely, twenty minutes or so, turn off the heat.
Put on the saucepan lid and go and do something else for at least an hour.
Only then come back and fish out the bay leaves, thyme stalk and sprig of sage.
Put the saucepan somewhere low, in the sink maybe, and blend the soup until there are no lumps.
How does it feel? How does it taste?
I like a firmish consistency and to be able to taste the caraway with a hint of cumin
Adjust the liquid with more beet water and flavor with seasoning.
The soup is ready now but will be better still after sitting a little longer.
Because borscht is Russian and Eastern European most recipes call for potatoes rather than carrots and a topping of thick Greek Yogurt.
But since I cooked this in London I used a dollop of fresh Devonshire cream before sprinkling on the chopped chives from the garden.
And the little glass of wine? Well I didn’t put all of it in the soup, just a glug, not two.

Soup supper for one

A Parcel at the Post Office

Farmer Pete

Peter Martinelli’s helping hands

Arrived in NW1

The Bell Lap arrives in NW1

Shelved in NW1

And is shelved, over photographs of Bobby

The yellow slip, almost used up with names and numbers, is stuffed into our roadside mailbox. I put it in my jacket pocket, now ready to walk into town before the next rain storm moves in and lingers over the village.
Shannon passes the parcel across the post office counter. It is very light.
“Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Stay dry.” As I turn to leave, Peter Martinelli, who is leafing through his mail box gleanings, smiles a hello. We stop and great each other. Peter is a farmer, a DJ on KWMR, and a good chum. It was time to confess to him that I have written a piece about him for a new book; ‘Peter brings the best presents.’ We chat and I show him the parcel and ask, “Who is it from?” He digs into a pocket fumbling for his glasses, “ This is new” he smiles as he finds and then puts them on.
“ Francis and Taylor” he replies. And I realize this contains the culmination of the last few years of work.
“ Oh you have to help me. I can’t do this alone.” Peter smiles and in his farming way understands that I need a witness and help with something that is too big for me.
“You have a knife?” Of course he does and it is much easier to reach and use than the glasses. Smoothly he pulls out and opens his knife, sliding it effortlessly along the packing seams and slitting them open. Together we pull back the cardboard flaps and there they lie, five copies of The Bell Lap. Alex Hillkurtz’s art work is smiling at me and I smile back. But I don’t dare to take a copy out. Peter has to encourage me to do so.
There it is, as thin and delicate as a journal. We laugh together as I bundle the box back up and walk to his pick-up truck outside the post-office.
We linger while Peter shares his good news. He has a new restaurant buyer for all of his organic farm produce. I run my hands through the light compost he has in the back of his truck. He is preparing his soil for planting while I have just harvested my ripe fruit. The sun began to shine as I walked home holding the box of books close to me.

Filling out Farm Forms

Boot bench

Boot bench

It must have been around 1976, a few years after we had settled into The Old Dairy. We had been checked out, evaluated and in town long enough and been seen to be trying to do right by the land and thus we were assigned our place in the community.

The pantry shelves had not yet become cupboards but the old kitchen sink was installed in the tack room. A bench and a picnic table were nestled into that kitchen space now turned into a ‘nook’.

The bench and table wood was new and shiny and must have been purchased in a rebellious extravagant moment. The benches are long removed, one has disappeared all together while the other has become the ‘back-door-boot-bench’.

The table remains, now taking center stage in a proper sized farm kitchen. Here we break bread and ponder the woes and joys of our family and community lives. But then, in the second half of the 1970’s, these ruminations all took place in the nook.

Jess must have waited and thought about it for awhile. Maybe it was while mulling over his predicament with a cup of coffee and his know-everybody-and-their-business sister-in-law Lydia that she suggested, ‘Try Aggie, down at the Peter’s place.’ For it was still too early to be known as Blackberry Farm, the name we had given The Old Dairy when we arrived. Jess, like many old ranchers of Sonoma and Marin had a little side line in horses. Working ranch quarter horses were mostly home bred but sometimes one could get lucky and dabble in a little thoroughbred breeding for the track. Heck, it didn’t cost much and was a little more fun than raising the steers for market. But the young colts and fillies had to be registered before they were yearling.

This could pose a problem for the old cowboys of Santa Rosa and ranchers of Marin and Sonoma. Most of them had dipped into grade school but many had slipped out when fathers with ranch chores needed help. It may have been thus for Jess. Then, as now, the extent of one’s book learning ever needs to be kept a secret from ones increasingly educated children. Parents then were frustrated and resented, as much as we do now, having to admit our failings with the written word and computer technology.

It was mid-afternoon when the old green chevy truck pulled up in the driveway. At first I didn’t recognize Jess, mostly because he was rarely seen off the ranch or out of his truck. He knocked, as we all do, on the back door.

What did he say in greeting? I don’t remember, the usual, ‘Howdy,’ I expect before we sat down at the table in the nook. Jess reached into the inside pocket of his worn, thick Levi jacket and produced the crumbled forms he needed to fill out in order to register the yearlings. The forms were easy for me, simple and straightforward like a birth certificate should be. Jess had chosen names for the yearlings that we wrote down. The job was soon done and I handed the forms back to Jess. He nodded his thanks and we took a little longer, lingering over a cup of coffee, to talk of breeding, the weather and crops before he rose to leave. I didn’t see him again until 1995 at Mary Magdalene Church when he tolled the tower bell calling Lydia home to rest.

Since that time forms have become a growing crop for farmers.As organic farming becomes a business there are organizations to monitor and check up on us, our fields and our crops.

Must be here somewhere

Like most busy country people my forms get shuffled about and sometimes misplaced so that due dates come rushing towards me.

Now I’ve opened the envelope to another one. The due date, May 7th is past. But I still don’t know or understand what the form is for, why it is necessary or what they want from me. Where to, and where not to, fill it out?

I’ve been thinking about it for too many days now. Maybe it is time for me to get on my bike, ride down the road, and check in with the young farmer by the creek. He seems to know what he is doing.

Farm deliveries

Time to get on my bike to the young farmer down the road.