Sunday, September 23, 2007

Cheese and Cthulhu

Even though I've been in what I call my 'crazy busy' season for the last two weeks, other things besides work still find their way into my time and thoughts, thank god. In the mornings I've been spending maybe a half-hour to an hour before heading off to work reading the book American Farmstead Cheese by Paul Kindstedt. This is not a consumer's guide but rather a general guide to making and selling what these days we call 'artisanal' or 'farmstead' cheeses. I believe that the work 'artisanal' refers to the individually hand-crafted nature of the cheese, whereas 'farmstead' refers more specifically to cheese produced by the goats, cows or sheep of one single farm, rather than made from a blend of milk purchased from several locations.

I consider this book to be a 'general' guide in that it does not have specific recipes, but it does get quite specific into the chemistry of the ingredients and the process. I was initially somewhat surprised to glance at the book and see many molecular diagrams referring the the ionic structure of things like lactose and casein as well as detailed flow charts referring to enzymatic action and development of peptides, and I was, maybe, not as excited as I had been to plow through it, but it has been an enjoyable and enlightening read so far.

One particular insight has been on the variety and diversity of cheese throughout the world. There are literally thousands of named cheeses, but there are only so many basic steps to be found in the cheesemaking process (according to this book, there are eight), and there are certain basic ways each of these steps can be varied, leading to a much smaller number of basic cheese 'types' - maybe twenty or so. Such as soft-ripened cheese, 'mountain' cheese (swiss types, mainly), cheddar types, etc. The rest of the diversity comes from the individual character of place, terroir if you will, from the livestock used, what they graze, climactic considerations during aging, and the like.

Having cheese on the brain, I went over today to the wonderful Cambridge store The Formaggio Kitchen and purchased, more or less at random, some nice American Cheese (not Kraft singles). A mild but earthy and buttery washed-rind cheese from Vermont called, (ahem), 'Timberdoodle' and a nicely sweet and crunchy cheese with a lovely, lingering taste of caramelized onions called 'Roth Private Reserve Gruyere', which is also made in Vermont, I think.

What else is going on? For those of you with an appreciation for the cosmic horrors of H.P. Lovecraft or just an interest in oddball movies, check out The Call of Cthulhu, produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Clearly a work of love, this is also a fascinating movie. They filmed it as a silent movie, as if it had been made and released in the late twenties (when Lovecraft was writing). A stroke of genius, really. I'm not sure there is really any other viable way to capture the feel of a Lovecraft story or of the elusive madness found in his gods and demons. There's really no way, so why try? The moody, dark black-and-white sets, the surprisingly effective stop-motion animation for the monsters, used sparingly, and best of all the excellent soundtrack worked wonders for this almost untellable, unshowable tale of monstrous, alien horror dreaming in cities beneath the sea. You can get it from Netflix.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Squirrels and black walnuts

Sometimes life gives you neat little coincidences, small convergences that brighten your day or give extra heft to the things you're doing or thinking about, sometimes shedding light on the web of connections we're all a part of. My friend Jeff, who lives in El Paso, told me that the very same Vietnamese Restaurant I visited and lauded in my blog three weeks ago happens to be maybe his favorite restaurant in the world (Nha Trang, Chinatown, Manhattan). A simple thing like that somehow seems to accentuate my sense of community and confirm the emotional experience I had eating there with good friends. Kind of silly, maybe? After all, it's just a coincidence, right?

Then this morning as I was finishing a conversation by phone with my mom, I watched a gray squirrel hop across the small row of potted herbs I have on my back porch with the pale-green fruit of a black walnut tree in its paws . It stopped at the side of my struggling dill plant and quickly and efficiently buried the racquetball-sized fruit in the corner of the pot. After a few more moments checking that the coast was clear, the squirrel scampered away down the porch.

The coincidence here is a little more nebulous, but interesting to me nonethless. I've been reading about permaculture and ecological design lately, which really emphasizes using nature as a guide and resource for creating productive and sustainable agriculture that also encourages (and is itself enhanced by) healthy wildlife populations, and watching this small mammal squirrel away his stash really put a succinct exclamation point on a lot of the ideas and concepts I've been thinking about. Of course, my little herb garden (5 small pots, and unfortunately my tarragon seems to be on the way out) hardly equates with any kind of permaculture system, or even any sort of real garden at all. Plus, squirrels are hardly indicators of good wildlife habitat, as they are everywhere (they do need trees, however, at least the gray squirrels we have here in the East). But it still reminds me of the complex world of life we live in, which is sometimes all I really need to make it through another day without a frown on my face.

I'm glad I was able to create a place that the squirrel was able use; and I hope it comes back to reclaim its tasty nut and fill its belly at a time when food is not so easy to come by (black walnuts, while a royal pain to dehusk, crack and extract, are utterly delicious and very distinct in flavor from the more familiar English walnuts). The chances of a black walnut tree sprouting and thriving in my dill container is nil.

Now to see if I can find the tree that the nut came from...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Permaculture and life-changing epiphanies

I've just started myself on a self-directed course of study into sustainable agriculture. My interests in the subject go all the way back to the beginnings of college, where I participated in the (somewhat chaotically managed) Earlham Farm Program and lived on the associated 'Ag' Hall for a few semesters. During my senior year some friends and I formed a student-run seminar called (something like) 'Topics in Sustainable Agriculture' where we looked at the field from a number of different angles. Some of the things we encountered during this really exploded in my consciousness, particularly the astounding book by Wendell Berry The Unsettling of America.

Over the years, this topic always remained an interest for me, but as is my wont, I drifted into and through many other interests over the years. Over the last few years, however, it has come back to the forefront of my mind, spurred on by my always growing interest in cooking and good foods and various ever-present environmental concerns on the national and world stages, from global warming, 'peak oil' and agri-business consolidation to more prosaic things like soil erosion, pollution and loss of urban and rural biological diversity.

I feel like a few insights and encounters over the last couple years have combined with some lengthy, and not always pleasant, soul-searching to produce a very recent epiphany of sorts. This is that I can't really think of any other field, or subject, that has the potential to combine so many interests and concerns of mine into one field of study or effort. Especially for someone so scattered and easily bored as I am.

One of the deepest revelations came from an article on a bio-dynamic vineyard in France that I read in the New York Times a while ago. I remember being particularly struck where one of the winemakers contrasted their approach with more common forms of contemporary agriculture, even other 'organic' approaches, by revealing that (I'm paraphrasing here) 'if you have a problem with an insect infestation, instead of purchasing insect predators such as lady beetles to take care of it, create an environment where the beetles want to be there in the first place'.

This idea connects deeply with the basic principles of Permaculture and Ecological Design, which I've been reading about lately. I've seen many different definitions of permaculture, but if I was to do a concise summary of its philosophy and intent, I would say the following: Permaculture is the practical application of ecological knowledge to the creation of healthy, sustainable habitats and cultures.

When this crystallized in my head, it really lit a spark in the once-a-scientist-always-a-scientist part of me, that I've often missed over the years. But also the creative side of me. I'm not ready yet (and may never be ready) to say that I'm going to up and become a farmer, but I can't think of a more creatively and intellectually challenging project than to take a piece of land, of this earth, and try to study it and figure out what you can do with it, how you can make it a place that sustains you and others with its bounty while remaining a healthy part of the greater ecosystem, flush with natural diversity and wildlife, a place connected, a place for people yet tied to the greater wilds.

Some revelations come from more modest, unexpected sources. I recently read a book for middle-grade readers by Kate Thompson called The New Policeman which was a very enjoyable book, a quick read, that depicted an Irish family of musicians and cheesmakers (as well as a few gods, demons and fairies). There were a couple of scenes, throwaways really, where the mother would be discussing the upcoming ceili dance that they would be soon holding in their barn while packaging up a round of fresh cheeses made on their land. As I'm a musician myself (and currently somewhat infatuated with Irish fiddle music), these scenes really clicked with me. That somewhat utopian, romantic, yet reachable idea of integrating your life on many levels.

I feel like I'm beginning to drift off topic, maybe. The book I'm studying right now was originally recommended to me by my sister Franny. It's called Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture. I haven't finished it yet, and maybe I'll write a more formal review of the book for this blog soon, but right now I'll just have to briefly recommend it whole-heartedly for anybody interested in these issues I've been discussing or even just anybody who likes to garden. I think the book is worth it just for its chapter on soil, really. Not textbook level, certainly, just one of the most lucid, concise explanations of what soil really is, how soil develops, different properties of soil, and of course how to develop good soil in your own yards and gardens. But the book has much more, and over and over eloquently and accurately bridges the gap between the study of natural ecosystems and how they apply to healthy gardens and landscapes. Certain things are stressed repeatedly, important principles of permaculture (and healthy ecosystems in general) such as encouraging over-all diversity, mixed-species cultures, complementary plantings, using micro-climates, using plants with multiple functions and uses, attracting wildlife (including rich populations of insects), healthy soil, using perennials when possible...

The picture I posted is an illustration from this book, looking at the layout of a small 1/4 acre homestead designed from an approach using ecological design and permaculture.

The next book I plan to study is another book from Chelsea Green Publishers entitled American Farmstead Cheese.

I really like cheese.

Monday, September 03, 2007

My friend, the wren

I think that the carolina wren has become one of the most beloved birds of eastern north america, especially in the small towns and suburbs where you can find them hopping and perching busily about, singing and scolding. They are attractive birds ( like all wrens) and very small, of a lovely dusty rufous brown back with beautifully barred edges, a cream and buff breast, a bold white stripe above their eyes and a delicate, curved beak that they use to snare all manner of insects as they bounce about. Even better, they have miles of character and personality, are endlessly curious and non-stop vocalizers, whether it be their jarringly loud but musical song (tea-ket-tle tea-ket-tle tea-ket-le was how I learned it) or their numerous and diverse warning and scolding calls. They like backyards and open woods, cobwebby garages, sheds and woodpiles.
I've been very pleased to find them a common presence in my new neighborhood, and I never tire of their simple, forthright song, frequently reminding me of the smaller, delicate communities that persevere all around me. They live in conspicous pairs all year and interact with each other and with their human neighbors so consistently and enjoyably that many households virtually adopt them as a second family, watching out for them and busying themselves in the wrens business just as much as they do in ours. I spent the weekend up on the north shore (of Massachusetts) with my good friends the Monnellys and enjoyed not only the presence of the wrens but also Dorothy Monnelly's constant and caring, inquisitive attention that she lavished on the diminutive birds. "I just think she doesn't like that chipmunk nosing around," she'll say as we listen to one of the wrens in an endless series of its musical rasberries.
In my more heavily settled neighborhood, I haven't quite made such close acquaintance with my local wrens, but I hear them daily and have observed them hopping about my tiny little containers of herbs searching for a morsel here or there. I hope they found something, and that they return often! Though I can't really claim such a feat with my tiny garden, planting your yard and garden in such a way that attracts and entertains local wildlife seems like it would be one of the great joys of such an enterprise (and then the deer eat all your tomatoes...).
My Labor Day weekend was overall a very nice one. Apart from the wren, the other pictures were taken at the Appleton Farms Grass Rides, a nice (but confusing) network of trails through the woods and meadows of a small part of Ipswich. We saw peeper frogs, friendly dogs and two dangerous-looking amanita mushrooms that were really quite beautiful, in pristine condition, with wide, snowy white caps and tall, straight stems. I didn't think to get a picture of them. The people on the bench are my friends Michelle and Anne, and I don't know what the flowers are - my botany is rusty.
Anyway, I hope that everybody enjoyed the holiday and that they enjoy their end of summer and entrance to fall. Tomorrow I start on four very, very busy weeks of work delivering violins, violas and cellos to countless hopeful schoolkids all over New England. After a difficult couple of weeks, I really feel I could use a little more time (just a little bit, please), to sort some personal things out and ready myself as best I can, but I am just going to have to muster on. Time waits for no one, as they say. Who they are, I have no idea.