Lard: make it at home. A pictorial guide.

Despite Thomas Jefferson’s efforts 200 years ago, olive trees don’t grow in Virginia. Erratic winter weather with nightly lows in the single digit temperatures followed by days at 70F — as well as hot muggy summers — don’t make happy olive trees. Anything below -10C (14F) will severely damage even a mature olive tree.

Don’t get me wrong, I love olive oil. And I used quite a bit of it along with avocado oil and nut oils. But in the last few years, I have been switching part of my cooking  fats to … lard, specifically home-rendered lard from locally pastured pigs. Here, in the Northern Virginia Piedmont, what other cooking fat is locally available to me? in such abundance? and so easy to make at home? Read more

Honey For Sale!

Rappahannock Arboreal Honey

Rappahannock Arboreal Honey

The 2014 harvest is now available for purchase at R.H. Ballard in Washington, VA,  and through Heritage Hollow Farms Store in Sperryville.  We kept a few jars for direct sale, if you are local and interested.

It’s a very small harvest as we are letting the bees keep most of the honey since we plan to increase the colony numbers, every year for a few years.

Real honey is truly a miracle. That 12-oz jar represents the nectar from 1.5 million flowers. For us, the main sources of nectar are forest trees (hence the name “arboreal Honey”: tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), basswood (aka American Linden, Tilia americana) and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) The bees from one hive traveled 41,000 miles to gather it: ten of thousands of bees forage within 1 or 2 mile radius of the hive. Each trip represents a visit to 50 or 100 flowers of the same kind. It takes 10 or 12 bees their entire life time to make a teaspoon honey. Pretty sobering when you think about it.

We are grateful.

Prior blog posts on beekeeping are here:

On Blackberries (and Creme de Blackberry recipe)

blackberries 011

Before I planted blackberries in the garden, I used to go forage for them. They grow all over the place, tenaciously clinging to their chosen spot and taking over the neighborhood: the clump expands rapidly and any cane that touches the ground roots to produce yet another plant. They are ferocious too with long hard and sharp thorns that will draw blood as you gingerly try to pluck a berry. It takes quite a while to pick a gallon of wild blackberries

But not the plants I have: they are thornless with large and flavorful berries. Labels have -  of course -  been lost, but at least one of them (based on its behavior) is “Triple Crown”, the other might be “Apache” and “Navaho”.  They are beautiful in bloom and mesmerizing in fruit. Last winter, I did not prune them. I mean, I meant to prune them, but it never happened. And that Triple Crown took full advantage of it,  pushing itself over the timid raspberries, flinging its 10-ft long canes in the asparagus bed, and blocking all the paths around it. On the bright side, it’s producing lots of berries. Which for now need to be picked every other days, but soon, it’ll be every day.

blakberry harvest 012

Harvest every other days … and it’s only the beginning of the season.

And so I have to do something with them. Here are some ideas:

- the fastest: eat them. But there is only so many you can eat, right?

- so, next, the easiest: dump them in freezer bags and freeze. If you have room, that’s perfect. You can worry about them later, let’s say in January when there is no local fresh fruit to get excited about.

- Any cobbler recipe works for blackberries. Until recently, based on an unfortunate past experience, I was convinced that blackberries yielded seedy little blobs when baked and therefore would not made good cobblers. What was I thinking? Blackberries are delicious cooked! Cobbler is one of the easiest baking you can do: 10 minutes to assemble, 20-30 minutes in the oven, and the most enticing aroma of cooking blackberries fills the kitchen. I just did not realize that blackberries would taste so much better after they were cooked! I see a lot more baking using blackberries in the future

- Frozen desserts: while  ice-cream and sorbet require some time to make (but not a whole lot of it), a mix of fresh & cooked blackberries in cooked and lightly sweetened blackberry puree  really liven up apple sauce, yogurt – or if you want some luxury – barely whipped cream. Add some toasted oats, drizzle some real honey and you aren’t far from that classic Scot dessert, the cranacan (don’t forget a shot of bourbon).

- canning: because I have limited freezer space, and encourage by the blackberry cobbler, I am canning blackberries this year, with a tiny bit of sugar and using the low pasteurization method, i.e. a longer water-bath at 185-190 ° F, instead of a shorter boiling one. The berries keep their shape and color much better that way!

- jamming – I am making both jams (weight sugar is 80% of the weight of berries) & spreads & sauces  (weight of sugar varies between 10 and 30% of the weight of berries)

- liquoring. I have a weakness for steeping fruit & botanicals  in alcohol, but I wanted more than just blackberry liquor, where the fruit is steeped is strong alcohol. I adore creme de cassis, and wanted to see if you could make a creme de mures, with a similar unctuous quality. Yes, I can, and so I share what I did with you.

Creme de Blackberry

Ready to sip. It is voluptuous.

Ready to sip. It is voluptuous.

A sumptuous very sweet drink. Sip lightly.

While some of the alcohol evaporates, there is residual alcohol in the beverage, so serve it accordingly.  Adding brandy further fortifies the drink and makes it less sweet. Use wisely.

Choose a pleasant drinking wine. Nothing fancy is required. In fact, I have been known to use left over wine from a party. A local red would be perfect, wouldn’t it?

  • 2 quart perfectly ripe recently picked blackberries
  • 1 bottle (750 m) red table wine
  • sugar
  • brandy or rum (optional)

Pick through the berries. Wash gently if necessary. Put them in a 1/2 gallon glass jar, crushing them as you go. Then add the wine. It should totally cover the berries. if it does not, crush some more. Cover the jar with a clean towel.

Let rest a room temperature for 2 days. Pass the whole thing through the food mill, set up at the smallest-size mesh.

Measure the juice and pour in a non-reactive thick-bottomed pan. For every quart, add 3 slightly heaping cups of sugar (i.e for every liter, add 625 g of sugar). Gently bring to a low boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Simmer (on bare simmer) for 5 minutes. Do not overcook, as you want a syrup, not a jelly!

Remove from heat and funnel into hot sterilized heat-proof bottles. Cap; let cool and refrigerate. Alternatively, for long term storage, funnel into warm heat-proof bottles, seal and process in a hot-water bath at 180-185 F (82-85 C) for 30 minutes – not hotter as you only want to pasteurize the creme, but not set the pectin in the fruit.  Believe me: jelly in a bottle is no fun!

Canned & ready for the pantry!

Pasteurized & ready for the pantry!


Foraging for Wild Summer Berries (and Shrub recipe)

Wineberries and a few wild blackberries

Wineberries – and a few wild blackberries

Who hasn’t plucked and munched on a handful of wild blackberries or huckleberries while hiking? Didn’t it feel like a tiny treasure hunt, the taste of wild berries sharper, more intense than their tamed counterparts?

Sure, foraging for berries takes time, but you didn’t lift a finger, did not drop a single bead of sweat  to propagate, nurture, plant, weed, fertilize nor water the little suckers! You only have to show up and pick.  Even with decent foraging skills,  a couple of hours of picking yields a harvest that may look slim.  After all, I can pick 5 times faster from tidy rows of ‘Apaho’, ‘Triple Crown’ or ‘Navajo’ – three widely planted thornless cultivars – than from a fiercely tangled thorny thicket of wild blackberries. (yes, I have measured!)… but of course the tidy rows have to be maintained, pruned, trellised, weeded, mowed…

Besides, there is nothing like picking wild berries on a warm scented summer morning: the sweetly clean fragrance of pink bouncing-bet, the sharp minty smell of trampled horsemint, the aroma of over ripe berries, the muskiness of rotting vegetation, the heady pervasive scent of flowering basswood humming with bees… it’s… wild! And some berries simply are not cultivated. So if you want them, you get to pick.

Most common berries fruiting in June or July for us include:
Mulberries, beloved of birds and small children, are small fast-growing trees. While the fruit of the native red mulberry (Morus rubra) are excellent, red mulberries has hybridized with white mulberry (Morus alba) an invasive species from Southeast Asia introduced several hundred years ago as a source of food for the silk worm in an attempt to establish a silk industry. Some of the white or hybrid mulberry fruit are insipid: taste first.

Black raspberries, also called blackcaps, are much smaller and sweeter than blackberries. Their fruit is hollow (a sign of a raspberry) and their thorns gentle. It’s a timid plant in the wild, that has a tough time competing with wineberry and blackberry brambles.

Wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are a species of raspberries native to Northern China, Japan and Korea and naturalized in moist areas at the edge of woods, along streams, dicthes and old stone walls – plentiful along semi-shady country roads. The immature berry is enclosed in a hairy calyx that opens up once the fruit ripens. They are slightly tart and not as deeply perfumed as raspberries, but they hold on the vine extremely well, and don’t spoil as fast. You can start picking when they first turn vermilion red until they are very dark red.  This year was a particularly good year for them, I have been able to pick several gallons, which I canned or froze. They also started to ripen later than in the last few years, and in late July, here in Rappahannock County, they are are still some out at higher altitudes.

Blackberries (various Rubus species) showy blossoms are conspicuously beautiful in May – an easy way to note them and return for harvest later. They produce fruit of various sweetness and are renowned for vicious thorns that can tear a shirt or rip the back of a hand in the blink of an eye. They are the latest of the berries mentioned here, and overlap with the wineberries.

Wild blueberries are said to be all around the Shenandoah National Park, but I have never gone to pick them there.

Berry-picking equipment is minimal: a basket hanging from the belt or the neck to free both hands for picking; sturdy boots, long pants and long sleeves against poison ivy,  thorns and biting insects; a walking stick or hook to pull in or away a particularly thorny branch is nicely helpful

Don’t pile too many berries in your basket least the bottom layer be crushed. In hot weather they can spoil in a few hours – especially when wet or smashed. So, eat, cook or freeze those soft berries fast. At this time of the year, I always have in the car a low card box and a stack of pint-size berry baskets… because you never know when opportunity arise. I am an inveterate berry pickers, and I met lots of opportunities head-on this year!

Just like their garden siblings, wild berries can be used raw or cooked (strain out the numerous seeds of wild blackberries though); juiced; turned into jam, jelly, syrup; or frozen whole. They are delicious in smoothies, ice-creams or fruit sauces. Freezing is my favorite way to preserve them:  I put whole berries in freezer bags and layer the bags flat in the freezer. Once the berries are frozen hard, the bags can be stacked. I avoid washing the berries before freezing, but if that is really necessary, I let them dry thoroughly first so they don’t clump together.

Jam and fruit spread are also time-honored ways to preserves them. This year, I have been canning them with low-pasteurization water-bath so they retain their color ad shape (which they loose in a rolling-boil water-bath).

They can be pickled (I intend to try some later) as well as turn into any number of beverages: juice, syrup, shrub & wine.

Shrub is particularly fool-proof and I have yet met someone who has not enjoyed a berry shrub.

Berry Shrub
Any berry, wild or of garden-origin-  can be used to make shrub, and you may also use frozen berries. I  I particularly like blackberry shrub and strawberry shrub. Raspberry shrub is exquisite, but I rarely feel I have enough raspberries to spare some for a shrub. Blackberries &  strawberries, we’ve got!

How to use shrub? Stir a spoonful or two of shrub in plain water, ice-tea or hot tea. It’s also perfect for homemade soda (mix with sparkling or seltzer water) or for a wine spritzer (use sparkling wine), I prefer 1 part shrub to 4 or 5 parts sparkling water. Adjust to your taste…. and feel to experiment in cocktail.


1 quart of wild berries (one kind only)
1 cup red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar (at least 5% acidity)
2 cups water
1 to 1 1/4  cup mild real honey (the kind you get from a small beekeeper so it is minimally processed) or 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cup sugar (to taste)

Bring berries, vinegar & 1 cup water to boil. Simmer 10 minutes until berries are soft. Process through a food-mill to remove seeds. Strain through a fine mesh strainer or let drain through a jelly bag if desired to remove additional pulp.

Heat remaining water with honey (or sugar), stirring until honey (or sugar) dissolves. Brig t o boil. Remove from heat and stir into the still-warm fruit/vinegar mix. For long-term storage can using boiling water bath method or refrigerate for up to 2 months.

A Black Currant Streusel Cake With Black Currant Compote

black currant coffee cake 012

So far, it’s been a good year for berries! A cold winter and abundant spring rains have given the plants what they want.  You will not hear me complain about the past winter nor about the rains (yet, at least…)

I am actually harvesting red raspberries… thanks to a bout of happy garden laziness. The raspberry canes that fruited last year should have been cut down at the end of the winter. For a number of reasons – none of them very good – I never cleaned the patch. And what’s the result? Raspberries  in June! Not something to do every year as the patch would rapidly becoming an awful mess, but every  2  years, or every year on half the patch alternating which half is cut in March. Remains to be seen, however, if the fall harvest is as abundant as before. Still raspberries in June is pretty nice.

berries, mixed 001

I have written before before about my fondness for red currants. I simply adore their brilliant tartness, when mixed with other berries, or by themselves with a light sprinkle of sugar, or in the easiest jelly in the world, one I make every year.

This year, I am also harvesting black currants. When I planted them, I had cassis on my mind, the syrupy dark purple liquor from Burgundy that’s also made in the Ile d’Orlean, in Quebec. I somehow imagines that the berries have the same flavors. Not so. Certainly not raw.

Black currants needs to be cooked for that haunting flavor. Otherwise it’s just another tart berry, and one not particularly remarkable at that. Pleasant but nothing special. Cook it however, and you’ve got something really special. Read more

Signs of Spring

 installing bees 009 comp

March 30:  black currant leaves just visible.

April 2: 14F (14F!!!!!!) at night. Forecast called for 24. I did not cover my newly planted brassicas. A week later they show damage – the outer leaves show large whitish spots.

April 3: spotted the first green deciduous tree on the way to a client – a weeping willow with its acid yellow-green new leaves.

April 5: Keith installs 2 new bee colonies.

April 7: peas pushing through. No sign of the fava beans. Afraid the mice got them.

April 8: we are harvesting large bowls of salad “greens” from the garden. My favorite fast food available again!

fast food lunch 005 comp

April 9:  first bear visit of the year. Yikes! A big fellow (or madam?) too, on the porch, at 2 AM sniffing around empty grain bags. He carried out the box where I neatly fold the bags and proceeded to go through them. No damage done. Noise maker in action…

April 10: First dandelions blooming here. Time to start watching for bee swarms.

April 11: Spice berries clouded in yellow. Can the redbuds be far behind? And we all know what that means



Restarting The Kitchen Garden

I wish I could say that year-round gardening is the way of life here. But it has not been true for the last couple of years when several things have – ahem! – come in the way of winter gardening. So it’s spring, and I am planting!

lower garden 3.23 039

Lower Garden on March 23, 2014

Read more

Postcard from the Winter Kitchen

grits & manchego souffle

Simple comforting lunch on this gray day: tomato soup (with canned tomato from last summer), buttermilk biscuits, grits & manchego souffle, roasted Hatch pepper & tomatillo salsa (peppers & tomatillo from last summer)

The Bees in Winter

bees in winter acomite 004

It’s been a hard winter for the bees. Harder than usual. We have lost 1 of our 3 colonies and it’ll be a few more weeks at best till we see reliably clement temperatures and blossoms for them. How can we help them?

Read more

Winter Tomato Soup

winter tomato soupAs far as I am concerned, I grow tomatoes for winter eating. In fact, this year, I am mostly growing paste tomatoes: Roma, Amish Paste, San Marzano, and Grandma Mary’s Paste

Tomatoes in summer? oh, sure, I like a good tomato sandwich as much as anyone (they are a summer staple lunch in fact). And roasted tomatoes, fast or slow, as well as tomato salad or gazpacho or the occasional tomato sorbet.

But in February nothing beats a lasagna redolent with garlicky and rosemary tomato sauce (unless it’s one with mushroom & bechamel) nor homemade pizza with thick red sauce. Or a piping hot tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwich. All perfect comfort food that’s warming and delicious. A pleasure to eat when it’s gray and cold. And that is why I bother and can tomatoes.

The soup is easy, comforting and delicious. Read more