Carolee’s November E-Newsletter
The winds in late October blew the leaves away and shook the branches of the trees in our front yard so hard that all the black walnuts fell nearly at once, forming a circular mound under the trees that is quite impressive! I didn’t have time to pick them up before we left for Europe, and needless to say, they were still waiting for me when I returned this week, minus a few the squirrels buried in my flower beds. I grew up in a thrifty farm family that was taught not to waste, and in these tough economic times more of us need to make do with what abounds around us. So, knowing the staining power of the walnut husks, I donned a pair of sturdy gloves and began filling baskets. The good thing is that all the bending and lifting had to be good for my strudel-expanded waistline. The bad thing is the weeks/months that it will take to actually crack them and carefully removed the tasty nuts locked inside, but I have a triple layer black walnut cake that is worth all that effort. See more about black walnuts in the article below.
Since our return, I’ve planted all the spring bulbs and seeded the pansies & violas, as well as many other perennials. There are also new flats of rosemary and thyme cuttings on the propagation line. We had to replace a furnace in the greenhouse, and dig out a leaking waterline, so everything is ship-shape for winter. I spent a fragrant afternoon cutting evergreen branches to make the swags and greenery to decorate the Blackford Co. Historical Museum. The simple combination of fresh greenery and bright red bows is always stunning.
A pile of bright, informative seed catalogs awaited my return, and I’ve spent some happy time perusing the offerings and making my lists. I mailed off several orders this morning. The foods in Puglia, Italy influenced many of my selections. Learn more about this flavorful region in an article below.
Now, I’m ready to concentrate on some writing before we start traveling again!
Our recent visit to Germany
Our favorite time to visit our family in Germany is in late October/early November, when our grandchildren have a fall break and the traditional St. Martin’s Day festivities occur. We’ve been there so many times that some of the neighbors greet us by name and the kids’ teachers are not surprised when we walk them to school and pick them up afterwards.
We know where to buy the tastiest breads and meats, where the selection of teas is widest, and when the local farmers’ market is open. I can walk to a wonderful garden center to photograph their new designs in planters and the latest in new plants, or enjoy a delicious cup at chai at a neighborhood café.
We joke that Germany got its name for the abundance of germs, because it never fails that I pick up some bug or other while I’m there. This visit was no different, since three days in I began to feel a cold coming on. Fortunately, there is an abundance of herbal remedies, including a host of cold-curing teas. The one I selected was a tasty and effective mixture of elderblow, willow bark and thyme that really reduced the symptoms. Now that I know how well it works, I’ll be making my own!
In this Catholic region of Germany, St. Martin’s Day is an important celebration. All of the children make beautiful lanterns, which they carry in a parade that is led by St. Martin in the garb of a Roman soldier mounted on a white horse. Thousands of children and parents march through the streets, singing the traditional St. Martin’s Day songs to the accompaniment of local brass bands. The parade ends at a local park, where a bonfire blazes and a beggar shivers in the cold. St. Martin arrives and splits his red cloak with his sword to give half to the beggar. Everyone claps and sings and the beggar is happy and warm. After the parade, the children go from house to house, much as their American counterparts do on Halloween, with the charming exception that instead of threatening a trick, children sing St. Martin songs in order to obtain a sweet reward. Our grandkids came home with a pile of candy, apples, sweet breads shaped like a man, and rolls of sausages stamped with a St. Martin design on the wrappers. Obviously, they are good singers!
Once the parade and singing are over, everyone enjoys a hearty meal that features goose, because it betrayed St. Martin. The Germans have perfected the preparation of a crispy roast goose, accompanied by delicious bread dumplings, sweet/sour red cabbage, baked apples, and roasted chestnuts. If you’re still hungry, a plum tart or cake ends the meal.
As soon as St. Martin’s Day is over, towns large and small begin to construct their Christmas market booths and an ice rink. Where we visit, the first booth that is completed is always a Gluwein stand, which does a brisk business all day long selling the warm, fragrant, spiced red wine. Surprisingly, the gelato stand also does a good business, and I contributed to its success by enjoying luscious cones of elderberry, hazelnut, or cherry amaretto.
This year, we also went to a holiday craft fair at a former abbey. Dozens of booths containing handknit items, jewelry, wood carvings, pottery, Christmas décor, candles, and much, much more filled two large buildings. A flea market filled another building, and I really wished I had more room in my suitcase, because several items caught my eye, including a set of dishes with an herbal motif and some darling hedgehogs, but I knew my bags were already overweight!
I’ve mentioned often my admiration for the German use of herbs, which is much more prevalent than here. A short walk into the countryside yields a myriad of herbs, such as mugwort, St. Johnswort, lemon balm, catnip, stinging nettles (known as burning nettles there), comfrey, elecampane, and many more that grow freely in any wayside area. I also appreciate the various fields of crops that people can actually eat!
This field of gruenkohl (kale) is on the edge of town. Fields of sugar beets, red and green cabbages, turnips, and asparagus are nearby. Somehow, it is comforting to see that variety of readily edible food, rather than endless acres of corn and soybeans on the vista.
Our time in Italy
We’d decided to spend some time in the very eastern section of Italy, where it would be sunnier and warmer. The region of Puglia is in the heel of the boot, surrounded by water on three sides, and conquered over the centuries by many cultures. The soil is thin and rocky along the coast, so the people of Puglia have developed a “cuisine of poverty” based on grains, greens, and bounty from the sea. The photo above is of the famous trulli, small round stone house with pointed roofs. Often, as shown here, symbols were painted on the roof for good luck. In the olden days, it is said that when word of the imminent arrival of the tax man came, the houses were quickly deconstructed to a pile of stone so no tax would be due. Once the tax man left the region, the houses were quickly rebuilt! Those shown in this photo were built close together and connected with plastered walls. Often, they were just single "silos" standing next to a field.
We flew into Bari, on the coast, and the most notable sight is the thousands of acres of olive trees in tidy rows. In fact, there are more olive trees in Puglia than people in Italy! Puglia produces 2/3 of all Italy’s olive oil, the best quality in the entire Mediterranean region. As we traveled by train to Lecce, we passed fields of artichokes and other crops surrounded by low stone walls, reminding us greatly of the rocky fields in Ireland.
Our villa was in the center of the old town, with delightful rooms surrounding a courtyard. We spent days visiting the Roman amphitheater, the Roman theater, the beautiful churches, and just meandering the streets enjoying the unusual Baroque style architecture. Lecce is called the “Florence of the south,” but it is much less hectic and much less expensive than its northern counterpart. The photo at the beginning of this newsletter shows the famous Baroque-style architecture that brings people from all over the world to Lecce. The stone there is a special stone that is soft enough to allow very intricate carving. There are many beautiful buildings along the narrow streets or lining the plazas.
As always, I seek out gardens and parks. This picturesque park was filled with waist-high rosemarys, lantanas, four o’clocks, lavenders, and other plantings. The photo shows a small section of a very large park in Lecce that also contained a pretty coffee cafe and two playgrounds as well as dozens of statues. In the historic old town region, shops lined the narrow streets, filled with the traditional paper mache crafts that have made the region famous, elegant pastas, pottery, beautiful leather items, and much more. Restaurants featuring the local cuisine abound, and we enjoyed each one with dinners that lasted well into the evening. The region is known for a diet based on a dazzling array of vegetables. The locals love vegetables so much they eat them for dessert! Verdura cruda (raw vegetables) ends the meal, tradition that traces back to the earliest times under the Greeks and enforced by the Roman tradition of ending a meal with raw lettuce, which was thought to counteract the effects of too much wine. The people of Puglia have perfected a myriad of dishes made with vegetables of all kinds. Some of the most popular are artichokes, fava beans, chick peas, fennel, carrots, peas, celery, cucumbers, chicory, radishes, broccoli rab, cauliflower, onions, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, asparagus, tomatoes & zucchini, but there were others I didn’t recognize. A meal generally begins with apristomaco, small dishes that are the “stomach openers.” At home, a meal would begin with three or four small dishes or saucers filled with artfully concocted bites. These are chosen to be complimentary in flavor/texture, simple/complex, and raw/cooked. At a well-known restaurant, we were served twenty different delicacies before our abundant meal!
The locals also commonly use wild foraged foods (I LOVE this aspect!) such as greens, mushrooms, and herbs. A specialty is lampascione, the foraged bulb of a wild hyacinth. A common dish is fried baby zucchini served simply tossed with a bit of the best olive oil and torn wild mint.
Grains are made into an egg-less pasta called orecchiette, or "little ears" which are shown above (We made these in our cooking class, see more below) or into a twisted pasts that is cooked with chick peas. Grains are also made into crusty breads with an almost black crust. The people of Puglia have always been local-vores, eating foods in season that are grown or gathered nearby. Nothing is wasted. Stale bread is toasted into cubes to garnish soups or salads, or crumbled into pasta, soups or vegetable dishes. Vegetables that cannot be eaten fresh are pickled, dried, or preserved in oil. Fruits such as figs, apricots, pears and dates are dried or boiled to make a paste or syrup. The first pressing of grapes goes for wine, a major export of the region. The second pressing is boiled into a thick molasses-type syrup called mosto cotto, which is poured over fried sweets for Christmas. When the grape vines are pruned in spring, even the green shoots that are cut off are not wasted, but are soaked in vinegar, heated in oil and garlic, and mixed with fava beans for a hearty main dish.
The land cannot support herds of cattle, so beef and butter are rare. Meat is only eaten on feast days, weddings, and baptisms, or for honored guests. Small flocks of sheep provide a mouth-watering variety of local cheeses, and some meat, although chicken and rabbit are more commonly offered than lamb, on the special occasions when meat is actually included in a meal. Horse meat and “innards” are common on restaurant menus, but I was not willing to try either! However, dishes that contain fish, squid, octopus and mussels abound, and we enjoyed them greatly.
Sweets are rare, generally only offered on feast days, weddings and baptisms. Even desserts are made with olive oil rather than butter. The most famous sweet in Lecce is Bocconotti or “the big mouthful”, which is a shortbread crust baked in an oval mold, filled with a custard-like pudding, often flavored with lemon.
Italian Cooking School
One of the highlights of our time in Italy was The Lezioni di Cucina Salentina Cooking School in Lecce. The owner, Gianna Ciraci taught us to make traditional handmade pastas, main dishes, salads, side dishes and dessert recipes. Notice the clusters of tomatoes drying on the ceiling. I've already ordered seed for this special Italian variety to grow next year. There are also garlic braids and bunches of the local foraged wild oregano hanging. We made recipes using foraged wild arugula and chicory, as well as wild mint. If you plan to visit the area and enjoy cooking, you’ll have a great time and learn a lot. Visit Gianna’s website at www.cookingexperience.it. I’m including one of her recipes below:
Gianna’s Pitta di patate
1.5 kg potatoes 500g peeled tomatoes
2 tsp. capers 2 cans (80g) tuna in oil, drained
1 egg 50 g grated Pecorino cheese
salt & pepper handful of chopped parsley
fine breadcrumbs extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
Wash and boil the potatoes with their skins in salted water until tender. At the same time, in a pan, pour a drizzle of olive oil to cook the garlic clove just until golden, adding the tomatoes and smashing them with a fork. Adjust the salt and when the tomatoes are cooked, add the capers and let the mixture cool.
Drain the potatoes and peel them immediately. Mash them and place in a large bowl to cool. When they are cool, add the egg, chopped parsley, cheese, salt and pepper.
Drizzle a baking pan (about 9 x 11) with olive oil and dust with breadcrumbs. Rub your hands with a bit of olive oil and press about half the potato mixture evenly into the prepared pan. Spread on the tomato sauce evenly over the potatoes and then sprinkle the drained tuna over the sauce. Cover with the remaining potatoes. Dust with breadcrumbs. Punch the surface with a fork.
Place in a preheated 200 degree C for about 40 min, until golden brown. Serve hot, warm, or cold.
If you plan to order books or fairy items for Christmas gifts, do so quickly. I’ll be doing a lot of traveling in December, and won’t be able to fill and ship orders. Order before December 6 to ensure delivery.
Many old-timers say that a big walnut crop means a hard winter is coming. If that is the case, we’re in for a doozy! I’ve never seen so many walnuts drop from our trees, especially considering the very dry summer we experienced! I picked up over two bushels just from an area slightly larger than a card table, which happened to be a flower garden around our front light post. I didn’t want the squirrels brunching there all winter, and possibly finding the tulips, crocuses, and other bulbs I just planted in that bed.
Black walnuts have been a valued crop, not only for their nuts, which are certainly tasty and nutritious, but also as a dye plant. Early pioneers learned quickly not to waste any effort, so the work needed to remove the husks in order to harvest the nuts for food was made less annoying by the knowledge that those same husks would soon provide a durable brown dye for plant or animal fibers. Two crops from one chore! The husks could be used fresh, or dried to be made into a dye later. The husks are soaked in water, with a longer soaking time producing a darker brown. Then the husks are boiled, and again, a longer cooking time produces a darker brown. A rich, dark brown can be obtained with just the husks, but the addition of an iron mordant to the process can produce a color that is nearly black. The leaves can also be used as a dye, but the resulting color will be a much lighter shade of brown.
Black walnut trees owe their ability to make a dye to a chemical called juglone which is not only in the husks, but is excreted by the roots and also is carried from the leaves of the trees by rain. There is some evidence that some garden plants do not grow well in the presence of walnut trees, especially tomatoes. Many websites give lists of plants that seem susceptible to the effects of juglone.
HERBS & PLANTS
1. Keep collecting leaves and mulch to apply to beds once the ground has frozen.
2. Several varieties of rosemary are currently in bloom. I love to tuck rosemary sprigs into napkin rings to make the dining area smell delicious. And, I always make cranberry-rosemary muffins for the holidays.
3. Harvest a lot of parsley to dry for winter use before the snows come. I use the microwave to dry parsley, because it stays so nice and green. If you need instructions, visit the website and click on the article “Harvesting & Storing Herbs for Winter.”
4. There are sorrel, arugula, salad burnet, chard, chives, radicchio and young chicory leaves still in the garden that I can combine to make a great green. If I give them a cover to protect them, (floating row cover or old windows on a layer of cement blocks) I’ll be able to harvest them until the temperatures fall into single digits.
5. Many stores have amaryllis bulbs for sale for the holidays. I like to pick up a few and start them now to enjoy once the Christmas decorations are put away.
6. Clip sprigs of horehound, thyme, rosemary, lavender, and bedstraw for embellishing the crèche scene. Simply place them in flattened balls of clay to form small bushes and put sprigs in the manger.
7. Mix sprigs of rosemary with holiday greens around candle bases or in wreaths to add an extra heavenly scent.
Hope your Thanksgiving was filled with blessings and family fun. This is an extra busy time of year for most, so be careful as you are traveling and shopping. Watch for the December E-newsletter mid-month for some special holiday herbal ideas. Till next time,