Saturday, August 8, 2009

Cool weather arrives, and with it, time to put up food

I'm glad for the 50 F temperature out there this morning. Feels like fall, by far the best of the seasons in New England. As a somewhat stout Old Englishman, I always get a burst of energy from the first cool weather of the fall. When you've been fighting heat and humidity to get farm and house repair jobs done, a nice cool day is like a shot of glucose. It never hurts that it comes a few days before college starts up again, and so you realize you have only a short while to get the last of those jobs done you wanted to do before your time is no longer your own.

Our tomato crop won't like it much, though. If so, I will miss them this fall.

Tomatoes don't grow much unless the nighttime temperatures are higher than this. We have very few tomato berries on the vines so far, and those that we have are small and hard and green. We had such a wet start to the summer that the plants were behind, and when the heat and humidity, and with it those warm nights, finally arrived, the plants put on green growth, not berries.

Some that had succumbed to the blight never recovered at all. They're down in the weeds somewhere. No doubt at the end of the cropping season we'll put the garden to be, and while pulling the others, we'll find these tiny plants with a few berries on them, but for all serious economic purposes, they're gone.

We don't pinch suckers, although we probably should, but it's too late now anyway, so that green growth instead of berries may hamper our final harvest. A pity, because we love our fresh tomatoes, and also use them as a storage crop and staple, by canning and freezing them seven different ways from Sunday.

Brits usually say "bottle" for the work Americans call "canning" although neither bottles nor cans are generally involved, but instead glass jars are used.

"Jarring" is its own word already, I guess.

Other storage crops are doing fine, so even if the grocery store were not just down the road, and even if the paychecks didn't arrive regularly, we would never starve down on this old farm. We have a large number of very large round cabbages, lots of carrots and beets, plenty of spuds, and storage onions, and the dry beans are coming on and should do fine. Obviously we will have pork, ham, and lamb in spades and more eggs than we can eat.

We do all right, Jack.

Canning, or jarring, season approacheth, tomatoes or not, and Aimee has ordered New Jersey peaches, so there will be some canning to do. Peter, our neighbor, provider of farm-lumber, and local apple-ladder mill owner, makes deliveries to the New York and New Jersey truck farm and orchard regions, taking truck-loads of apple ladders, and brings back truckloads of produce that we can't grow here in Maine.

I like to can peaches and tomatoes, which we always manage to eat, no problem, so the work is well worthwhile. I pretty much gave up canning cucumbers and other pickles when I realized we never eat them. Aimee like only crisp pickles, and mine are always soggy. Aimee, for her part, is experimenting with lacto-based canning, not for the faint of heart since it doesn't come with USDA-approved bomb-proof instructions like there are for peaches and tomatoes.

The picture above is of her projects: last year's cabbage, this year's broccoli.

Terrifying, aren't they? Especially to anyone who has ever read an account of the life history and effects of our ubiquitous friend and co-evolutionist, Clostridium botulinum.

I did say I would try the cabbage when she opens it. We'll see.

For my part, I'll can the peaches in halves, do up whatever tomatoes we might get if we're lucky, dry out and put the potatoes, beets and carrots in boxes in the root cellar, dry the onions and hang them, and wrap the cabbage in cling film and refrigerate it. The total of all this will be around 500-600 pounds of fruit and vegetables, and should see us healthily through the winter and well into spring.

No scurvy for this limey.

The only trick I want to add to this annual round is soft fruit: raspberries and strawberries, some of our own rhubarb, and something to do with all our apples.

We inherited a few dozen of Israel Thorndike's Great Farm heirloom apple trees in the overgrown pastures that we took over when we purchased this farm. Some are recognizable varieties: Golden Delicious, Macintosh, Spy. Others seem unknown to science. It's quite the legacy.

But how to get them back into production?

The first part of this proved easy: the first full year we were here, the sheep scoffed them up without any work whatsoever, and in this way they entered the food chain right away.

But it would be nice to have some for humans too.

Right now they are too small, hard, wormy, and scabby, and they don't keep or eat well as a result. I can usually get a bushel or two of the Golden Delicious, but that's about it. Most of these trees are 20-25 feet tall at this point, way beyond reach. I already have cut most of their neighboring, competing trees for firewood, so we have several apple trees now out in full sun for the first time, and they are responding well to that. I then experimented with "dehorning" one of the trees to see if they can be brought down to apple-ladder height without killing them. If all goes well, we will eventually have a pretty good orchard with lots of interesting varieties.

The only other thing we'll need is a cider press.

I love cold dry hard cider, scrumpy, as we say back home. I like it to have a nice bite. If I can get these apples producing, I may go into the scrumpy business in a big way.

What might be nice is to have students over to pick and press and split the harvest with them. You can make hard cider quite well in one-gallon plastic milk bottles, but I think what I'd really like are a collection of small barrels, 20-25 gallon ones, in the basement, with enough cider that I could stop buying beer and wine.

Then, I think, I would be a fairly "jolly" stout Old Englishman.

I am pretty sure both Aimee and I have a genetic predisposition for growing and putting up food. We both come from fairly hardy British and German peasant stock, and in both of our families the farming history is within living memory. My granny was born on a farm in Pennal, west Wales, in 1908. My grandad was a third-generation English master gardener, a real professional from the old school, and taught me not a little of what he knew, so I suppose that makes me a fourth generation English gardener. That one skipped a generation, because my parents were never great gardeners or putters-up of food. Aimee's parents were both raised on western Pennsylvanian farms, and her dad especially loves to put up food.

I can think of far worse ways to spend a life:

May the wealthy and Great, live in Splendour and State
I envy them not I declare it!
I eat my own Ham, my Chickens and Lamb,
I shear my own fleece and I wear it,
I have lawns, I have bow'rs
I have trees, I have flow'rs
The lark is my morning Alarmer,
So Jolly Boys now, here's God Speed the Plough,
Long Life and Good Health to the Farmer.

Amen to that.

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