Monday, July 28, 2008

High Summer

There is a certain kind of summer morning when the air is sweet – digestible. Neri lifts her head and sniffs, squeezing her eyes with delight, breathing in the flavour. If cats could smile, that look would be it.

It’s high summer. Most of the grains, rye, wheat and barley are in; the hay is cut; spring lamb is coming into sale and the market teems with gorgeous vegetables.

The days are slowly growing shorter. Coming back from a party last night at midnight, the sky was milky blue and indigo – no longer flaunting the lilacs and roses of a few weeks ago. Like all humans, I don’t relish the coming of winter with its biting winds and treacherous ice under innocent looking snow, but as a member of a working agrarian community, I know that like all living things, the land must sleep.

So, like any frugal farmer-hunter-gatherer, I revel in these last months of golden light, storing the sun’s gift of Vitamin D in my cells, slowly filling my freezer with chanterelles and berries, and my larder with tomato sauce, chutneys, apple sauce and dried herbs.

In the meantime, we still have to eat. Last week I got my hands on some fresh-from-the-field organic* Swiss chard and new potatoes.

The baby potatoes, smaller than an egg, with such delicate purple skins, wanted only to be steamed with some mint and served with a drizzle of olive oil, fleur du sel and fresh cracked black pepper. The Swiss chard I stir-fried.

Stir-fried Swiss chard

Recipe for 2-3 servings **

** all amounts are approximate. When cooking for myself I never measure.

200 grams washed Swiss chard
1 white onion sliced into julienne strips
1 fat clove garlic, salt & pepper –chopped together to a paste.
4 – 5 cherry tomatoes cut in half
1 tbls. Aceto Balsamico
A nice splash of rosé wine
Olive oil, salt & pepper to taste

Wash the Swiss chard and separate the stems from the leaves.
Cut the stems into pieces about 3 cm long and shred the leaves into ribbons. Keep separate.
Heat the olive oil in a good sized skillet with a cover and add the garlic, salt &
pepper paste.
After a minute or two add the onion and stir fry for another minute
Add the chard stems and fry another minute of two, stirring regularly.
Repeat with the cherry tomatoes, squishing them down to release the pulp.
Add the shredded leaves, the Balsamico, and white wine. Cover and cook for 4-5 minutes until the leaves are wilted.
Remove cover and turn up the heat to let the juices reduce slightly.
Taste for seasoning
Serve immediately.

I reheated the leftovers with some chicken stock and a handle of tubetti the next day to make soup.

* As I am a member of the local Saare Mahe Organic Farmers Union, all vegetables and most meats that I cook with are local and organic.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Singing Sands of Saaremaa

We were supposed to be on the 08:45 boat for Abruka, an island off the coast of Saaremaa, a 45-minute trip from Roomasaare Port. Only we were a little late and the boat was already over full when we got there. It didn’t help that there were eight of us. A second crossing at 10.30 was also full so we had to make a quick adjustment in out plans for a days outing with our WWOOFERS.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms had supplied the Kuressaare Mahe Köök (Organic Kitchen Restaurant) with three brave and able young people to help out over the summer. Laura, originally from Iowa, had lived all over the states. This is her first time in Estonia; while Jean Baptiste and Deni were engineering students from France. J-B had worked in the Baltics the previous summer and liked it so much he came back and brought a friend.

BUT Abruka was out – at least for this week, so what now? My favourite part of Saaremaa is the peninsula known as Harilaid. It is officially part of Vilsandi National Park and a European Biosphere. So far this has kept the area safe from the depredations of property wolves that want to develop it for tourism and to line their pockets.

It is also bloody hard to find. We got lost – not lost, exactly, but onto a road that while leading in the direction of the sea was so rutted and overgrown that to call it a road bordered on perjury. Then J-B in the lead car went into a deep mud hole and stopped – less than 100 meters from the beach – in case you were wondering.

We did finally manage to get the car out backward - so off to the beach we went.

BUT this beach was not really part of Harilaid. We could see the Promised Land with its eternally tipsy lighthouse but we weren’t there. After lunch and a swim we set off determined to get where we had intended to be.

After 45 minutes of driving around in circles we reached the park entry gate, decided to postpone walking to the lighthouse for another time and headed – again – for the beach. It WAS worth it.

There were no clouds. The colours were… pastel doesn’t do them justice. Our entire world seemed to be made of melting ice cream; the sky was blueberry sorbet, the dune grasses pistachio and honey while the sand – luscious vanilla studded with seeds from the pod.

AND the sand really does sing. When you walk along it crinkles, squeaks and chirps under your feet.

Photos: 2, 3 & 4 by Alar Alas, #1 by M. Hubbard

Thursday, July 24, 2008

True Wealth

I've been to the library today. This is an event of singular importance in my life. For three weeks, I have had almost nothing to read except the daily newspaper. The last time I went into our town library I made the unhappy discovery that I had long since read all of the books in English there that interested me - some of them twice.

I suspect that there are other English speaking peripatetics out there who will agree that one of the most challenging aspects of adjusting to life in - still another bloody new country - is finding a source of books in English and conversation in English.

We instinctively adopt a whole range of strategies to deal with these issues: informal lending libraries, weekly dinners, an obsession with Amazon and begging letters to friends and family back in the old country.

I was absolutely delighted then when a few years ago the ambassadress herself came down to open a new American Corner in our local ramatukogu. Indeed this has provided immense amounts of ease during the long dark winter nights. BUT & ARGH by May of this year - there was nothing left - new - to read. I was desolate, to say the least.

However today, Hurrah and all hail - there is new stock. I have a new-ish Harlan Coben 'The Woods', a collection of short stories by Julian Barnes, 'The Lemon Table, and the biography of Willem de Kooning which won the Pulitzer. I feel like Croesus - and on that note I'm going to bed with my treasures. .

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Begin at the beginning

Since I have promised that this blog is to be about writing and food, and, since I have been persuaded that any serious aspiring writer MUST have a blog, I am starting off with a poem about the island that has given me shelter.

The Islander

Patches of fog, lifting heavily from the water into the warmer air; the planes didn’t fly last night because of it. Most of the stranded Tallinners took the earliest busses – homesick I guess for solid ground. The air is full of water; white dolomite churches rising steeply, snow-still

So many shades of grey: the sky, some trees, water in a drainage ditch, ice along the edges of a pond is silver pools of snow-melt reflected in a leaden sky, framed by dead grasses

Stonewalls are blue, lavender, yellow & green; however, moss is emerald – always, unless it’s velvet brown – the colour of a collar on a child’s Chesterfield coat.

Pines are a different green: murky and dusty – hidden

Scents of burnt brush and rotting leaves, mould turned over: ochre, damp, brown, muted steel, soggy mist, whispering around the roof tops hunkering down, a shaggy rumbling bear turning round and around, flattening the lair before sleep; twigs of pine, birch, ash and oak;

the oaks are making a come back I hear.

There is no point in describing the rest; the details are too well known by those who know, and those who don't know by now would never understand. It is enough to say that I did not return from the cold land. But sometimes, in that few moments between day and night, in that blue instant between death and life, I can see her and I remember home.

Its cold here always, very cold; bodies in the permafrost take a long time to decay. Perhaps that's why, even after all this time I can still hear their voices: my friends, neighbours, family, desk-mates, shop clerks, teachers, the gulls, fish, pines singing in the wind, the dead, the unborn and the living.

Published in an anthology on house / home / shelter / homelessness by University of Central Lancashire, August 2007