Sunday, July 27, 2014

Borage on Film

One of the more interesting vegetables we planted this year is Borage. Borage is a beautiful plant with strikingly blue star-shaped flowers.

Our Borage patch
The Borage flower
The plant is native to the Mediterranean region and its taste is often described as resembling Cucumber. Our experience has been that it s a bit more complex than this. There are notes of oyster or fish in the taste of both its leaves and flowers.

 From a health point of view, Borage oil is extracted from its seeds as a great source of Linoleic acid for vitamin supplements.

Of course our key interest is in serving this in our Tea Room and to do so, Chef has created a Raviolini with Borage and Nettles in a Beurre Blanc sauce. The dish is delicious and actually very pretty when plated.

Borage and Nettle Raviolini in a Beurre Blanc sauce
We're discussing Borage this week because we decided to make it one of our signature dishes for a special visit to the farm: the FeastON team of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (OCTA).

As one of the first restaurants in Niagara to qualify for the FeastON program (a program promoting local foods and restaurants using a minimum percentage of local produce), we were chosen as a site for filming and recording some of our practices. These images will be used to promote the program.

So this week we welcomed the FeastON film crew to the farm.

The FeastON film crew ready for a three hour stint at the farm
The film crews objective was to record as much of our process as possible. This started with our produce from our berries to our vegetable plots.

Chef introduces the crew to Borage
This also encompassed every step of our process for Chef's chosen signature dish.

Chef preparing the Raviolini
We hope this will not only help promote the FeastON program but as well promote the farm and our unique approach to the farm to table Tea Room concept. Certainly we will now have access to some professionally created photos and videos for our own marketing efforts.

Aside from Borage, our vegetable garden has generated some other successes but as well some serious disappointments (the Tomatoes in particular).

On the positive side, our Citron melons, Fennel and all of our herbs are doing extremely well (many of the latter are flowering and seeding already).

Among the weeds, the Fennel still thrives

Our Three Sisters bed is also lush with ears of heirloom corn already clearly visible.

Heirloom corn in the Three Sisters bed
The Squash and Beans are also well developed.

Squash acting as ground cover in the Three Sisters bed.
Even our Carrots and Beets are showing promise. Unlike the previous year, the beets have not (yet) been munched on by deer.

This year, our two varieties of heirloom Beet are evolving without being harmed by wildlife
Finally this week, we have a short update on the Growing Dome. Although we have not yet re-introduced fish to our Aquaponics set-up, we are really pleased with the progress of some of our experiments.

The monster Cucumber generated using the Kratky hydroponic method is quickly taking over the center of the dome.

The Growing Dome's monster Cucumber vine
Although early on we had written them off for dead, our Aquaponic tomatoes are now well ahead of those planted in our raised beds.

Our Growing Dome Tomatoes are almost ready to flower.
We'll close this week with our Concord grapes. This year was our first attempt to prune the vines we discovered last year. The results are literally bearing fruit.

Even among weeds, the Concord Grapes are thriving

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Our Second Anniversary

We can now officially say that we have lived at the farm for over two years. We feel we have accomplished quite a lot, but there always seems to be another project in our sights.

The past two weeks have been hectic. Everything seems to be ripening at the same time. This means that outside of weeding, all of our focus is on harvesting.

For a while we had harvested Mulberries, but now we needed to harvest our Red Gooseberries, our Black and Red Currants while all varieties of Raspberries were coming on line simultaneously.

Red Gooseberries...most of which have already been transformed into jam.

The Black Currants were bountiful and a lot of it has already been transformed into jams and cordials

We did not have too many Red Currants but enough to process them into a bright red jelly
The Purple Raspberries are huge this year
When it comes to our vegetables, one plant has done surprisingly well after some questionable transplant from the Growing Dome to our beds. This is the Scarlet Runner.

Our Scarlet Runners
This plant is originally from Latin America and although it is a perennial there, we can only grow it as an annual.

The bright red flowers attract pollinators and humming birds. They are also edible and taste like a sweet pea. Once pollinated, the flower will generate a bean which can be eaten like a snow pea early in its development. Later, the bean must be shelled and the pods generate a large bean akin to the Fava Bean. These beans can be also used dried.

Interestingly, in Latin America where this plant is a perennial, the roots are also eaten.

In the Growing Dome, we keep being astonished at the progress of our Cucumbers grown using the Kratky method. The vines are over 6 feet long and are blooming; some blooms already show signs of fruiting. The success of this method is having us completely rethink our Aquaponics setup.

Our monster cucumbers continue to climb while some blooms show signs of fruiting.
We are also using this time in the Dome to begin propagation of certain plants. We've succeeded with our Baco Noir Grape cuttings. After a bit of effort, we've also managed to do the same with Goji berry cuttings.

Successful Goji berry cuttings.
We are now trying to propagate old Black Currants that we found on the property, as well as some of the heirloom Pippin apple trees.

On the foraging front, it was time to harvest some of the wild Black Raspberries. They are not out for long so we did the best we can. We also harvested something new from the wild: the Linden flower.

The Linden flower
Last year we discovered two mature American Linden trees on the property. This year we were careful to note their flowering. The scent of these blooms is amazing. Better yet, it is a great edible. Once dried they make a wonderful soothing tea usually enjoyed in the evenings.

Dried Linden flowers ready to be used as tea
Another use for these blooms is with honey. Honey can be added to a jar of flowers and the result will be a very floral honey infused with the aroma of the Linden.

Finally, our hectic atmosphere can also be attributed to the busy Tea Room. We are  now on the regular stop of an Asian tour group and we are having a great time entertaining them. They are avid to learn about the history of our property as well as all the plants and berries we grow.

We've been giving lessons on making scones, jams, jellies and cordials while a good friend dressed up in period costume provides for a great photo opportunity.

Chef providing lessons on the making of scones
Amber providing for some great photo opps
It turns out we are now getting a great following with the GTA's Chinese community. One couple showed us an article on Ridge Berry Farm completely in Chinese! We had no idea this was being written. Our concept of a site for Agricultural Tourism may actually turn out quite well.

To conclude, we'll share a couple of recent wildlife photos.

A large snapping turtle strolling down the farm lane
A Hairy Woodpecker in the Staghorn Sumac

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lavender and Mulberries

This week we have begun the harvesting of Lavender and Mulberries.

We planted the Lavender last year just to the side of the barn. This summer it has bloomed beautifully. In order to keep our bushes growing, it is now necessary to cut the blooms and effectively prune the bushes.

Harvesting Lavender
In the market, these blooms are transformed into little bouquets which are now up for sale.

Our Lavender is now on sale at the Market and Tea Room
We love Lavender so much we are now considering using this plant as much as possible on the new terraces built behind the old Victorian manor.

This week, we also started picking our Mulberries.

Last year, we blindly decided to prune two Mulberry trees, one white the other black. The results have been great. Both trees are producing more and larger berries and many are much more accessible than before.

At first we decided to use a trick we implemented last year. Using a large tarp placed on the ground, we shook the branches and let the berries fall. This makes it easy to gather the berries.

Gathering Mulberries
The problem with this approach is that all sorts of things fall from the tree. The berries are not uniformly ripe and we spend more time washing the berries as well as sorting them. In the end we resorted to just picking them by hand.

In the process we discovered many more trees on the edge of our creek and in our Kiwi rows. Since we have many trees, we decided it was impossible to harvest everything (besides many birds enjoy these fruits and it seems to keep them away from our other berries). So picking berries by hand from the lower branches seems more than adequate.

Black and White Mulberries
The trees on the property are not native to here. They are both Asian varieties. The local variety is the Red Mulberry and we have yet to find a native tree. We're not sure if these were planted on the farm at one time, but the trees do seem invasive as they can be found just about everywhere on our land.

In any case, this is not a berry to ignore. It really saddened us this week when we found out that some local kids consider this berry poisonous. It definitely is not and in fact the health benefits of the Mulberry are quite abundant.

They are low in calories and contain antioxidants such as Resveratrol; they are also a good source of vitamins (C, A, and B) and minerals (Potassium, Manganese and Magnesium).

The Mulberry is not a very tart fruit. The White Mulberry in particular is rather bland and simply mildly sweet. However, they can be readily used in preserves, cordials, wines and baking.

For our purpose, we chose to first preserve the Black Mulberries transforming them into jams and jellies.

For those with access to this fruit, we thought we would share our preserve recipes:

1. For the jelly, we washed and then cooked our berries in a bit of water (we add a quarter litre of water for every litre of berries).

2. We cook the fruit for about 10 minutes at a sustainable boil. Many of the berries will release their juices (and seeds) in the process.

Cooking Black Mulberries
3. We strain the juices from the berries. To do this we use a fine cheesecloth so that no seeds filter through (the Mulberry seed resembles a small strawberry seed).

4. We measure the juices obtained and for every litre of juice we add the juice of a freshly squeezed Lemon (removing all Lemon seeds in the process). The acidity of the Lemon is necessary in order to improve shelf stability and also to ensure the pectin will bind.

5. We bring this mixture back to a boil and prepare to add sugar. For every litre of juice, we use 1/2 litre of sugar.

6. In a separate bowl, we blend sugar and pure Apple pectin (a heaping tablespoon per litre of juice). Ripe Mulberries are pretty much devoid of Pectin so it is necessary to add some to set the preserve.

7. We slowly ladle the hot and sweetened juice to the Pectin and sugar mix. This is whisked throughout the process.

8. Once all of the juice is introduced to the Pectin, we bring back our solution into the pot and bring it once again to a boil.

9. We use a cooled spoon to detect once the jelly has set.

The result is a light jell which is somewhat sensitive to temperature. Once refrigerated however, it will rapidly firm up.

Our Mulberry jelly at room temperature.
We complete the canning process using standard methods. The jars and lids are pasteurized by boiling in water for at least 10 minutes and the process is repeated once the jars are filled and sealed.

To make the jam, we use a very similar recipe. The main difference is that we de-stem the berries first (a very messy process). The Mulberry will stain just about anything and it is highly recommend that when working with these fruits you use a T-shirt you just hate.

Staining of the hands from just picking Mulberries
Once the fruit is de-stemmed, we use the same process as for the jelly. The only difference is that we do not filter the juice. This means that the final product will contain complete berries and a lot of very small seeds. 

Making jam, you can actually use some of the less ripened berries they will stay whole and cook well in the process. They will absorb the flavour of the brew while also providing some much needed additional Pectin.

The White Mulberries are a bit more of a challenge to use. Traditionally, this tree has been used for raising Silk worms in China and the fruit does not have a very exciting taste. It is however just as nutritious as its cousins and in Chinese medicine considered a potent plant to fight anemia.

Based on last year's experiments, we decided that one of the best ways to use this fruit is to dehydrate them. This process concentrates the sugars and flavour of the fruit making it much more interesting.

Dehydrated White Mulberries
These dried fruits can be used as a snack, with granola or in baked goods (Chef makes a great Biscotti with these dehydrated Mulberries). In order to make things more interesting, we will now be blending both White and Black dehydrated Mulberries.

Elsewhere on the farm, things are progressing well. We have started piking our Red Gooseberries and it will soon be time to pay attention to our Black Currants.

Even some of our Melons are taking shape.

Our Citron Melons are just about ready to be picked.
Our only setback is with regards to our tomatoes. They are definitely not as far along as those we planted last year. We attribute much of this to two factors: very cold weather in late Spring, and a new soil which turns out to be devoid of the necessary nutrients. We really hope to get these plants back into shape.

Meanwhile, our Growing Dome experiment is taking us by surprise. A couple of weeks ago we reported on the Kratky method of hydroponic growth and we started with just Kale and Cucumbers. This week, the cucumbers have turned into "monster" plants. We've never seen cucumber leaves of this size before. Hopefully this will reflect well on their flowering and fruiting.

A very healthy "monster" Cucumber plant.
Of course, the wildlife around here continues to fascinate us and just prior to taking the Cucumber picture, we were really startled to find another Snapping Turtle...this time inside the dome. We had inadvertently left the door open on a very hot day.

When you find something like this in your growing space, you just have to wait for it to leave.
One little critter that is very abundant on the farm (particularly around the barn and the manor) is the Chipmunk. There are so many of them (munching away on our Strawberries) that we probably should have named the farm: Chipmunk Ridge.

These cute little fellows are just about everywhere.
Sadly, we never get around the farm with a good SLR and telephoto lense, so taking wildlife shots is extremely difficult. One animal we would love to capture properly in pictures is the Wild Turkey. They are elusive, but the Niagara Peninsula is apparently home to a population of some 70,000 birds.

This week, we managed to capture some on film using our pocket camera, but we'll definitely have to do better.

Wild Turkeys on the back field.
Last week, we covered our issues with the Potato Beetle. This week, we'll end this blog with another creature we found feeding on our plants and in particular our Fennel.

Another culprit in our Fennel
It turns out that this beautiful caterpillar is that of the Black Swallowtail butterfly, a good pollinator. So unlike the Potato Beetle, which we want to eradicate, we simply moved these caterpillars to better feeding grounds (they also love the Wild Carrot).

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pelham Heritage

This week we had a great time hosting the annual Pelham Heritage Tea Party. This year the town was celebrating Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald (1857-1940). Born in Rockwood, Agnes was one of Canada's early female writers. She lived the majority of her life in Pelham. Her house still stands to this day perhaps just one "country block" from our farm.

Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald
Agnes Wetherald was known for her journalism and poetry. Her jounalistic carreer began in 1886 for her essays and sketches in the Toronto Globe using the pseudonym "Bel Thistlewaite". She also became a regular contrubutor to the "Week" where she published her poetry and a series of articles on Canadian literary women.  She collaborated with Grame Mercer Adam on her only extensive work of fiction entitled "An Algonquin Maiden" in 1886. At her Pelham family farm she found her inspiration to produce three books of poetry in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Agnes died in 1940 just short of her 83rd birthday and was buried in Pelham.

With this setting in mind the town's Heritage Tea Committee arranged a great party at the farm. Here we hosted well over 100 guests all with a keen sense of history and some with remarkable costumes.

Great costumes at the 2014 Heritage Tea Party

Tea was complemented by informative sessions and a tour of our old manor. We had such great fun doing this, we really hope to be able to host this event again next year.

We were in such a mood that we also went to the trouble of creating a special photo board for the manor's veranda. It's proven a great hit with the tourist.

Not your typical tourists :)
The board was created by Art in the Orchard, a local charity providing services to disadvantaged children. They did a great job and we hope to be able to continue to work with this charity during the course of the year.

Meanwhile on the farm, things are progressing rather well. Most of our time is spent weeding and clearing. While clearing around the creek, it was clear that the Beavers that were on the property were in fact creating their own ecosystem, one which was tending to flood the area.

Old evidence of Beaver cuttings.
When we first arrived at the farm, there were two Beavers in our first pond. We actually enjoyed seeing them frolicking on warm Summer evenings. We never realized however how much damage they can cause.

By the second year, we believe they were shot since they were also causing a lot of damage to neighboring properties. So we have not seen Beavers since then....until this week that is.

We were astounded to find a very large and healthy Poplar cut down next to our creek. This tree is a favourite of the Beaver. A couple of days later, while fishing in our pond, we finally saw the culprit. A large Beaver is back in our  "Beaver Pond". Now we face a dilemma. We really do not want to kill this animal, but we are going to be challenged to control his activities.

When it comes to the varieties of fruits and vegetables we have planted this year, things are going rather well.

The Cauliflower is starting to bloom, as well as some new plants we had never tried before such as the Scarlet Runner. Meanwhile many plants have fruited and we are anxiously anticipating the ripening of these new fruits such as our Ground Cherries.

Scarlet Runners are blooming....

...while Ground Cherries are ripening.
One ugly discovery revolved around our potatoes. The bed in which we planted them looked quite healthy from afar. While getting much closer this week we discovered things were not as they seemed. The entire bed was infested by the dreaded Potato Beetle, the great majority in the larval stage.

Potato Beetles int the larval stage.
Since we do not want to use pesticides (including the organically approved BT Toxin), we decided to tackle them in three ways. First we hand picked and killed all the larva we could find; we sprayed the plants with a Neem oil solution; and then we covered the soil with straw. Straw is expected to attract ground Beetles which would normally feed on this pest.

Next year, we intend to look at companion plants which may reduce Potato Beetle infestation.

We'll close this week with pictures of a couple of new finds around the manor: an old horseshoe and an early British wine bottle from the second half of the 19th century (marked "THIS BOTTLE ALWAYS REMAINS THE PROPERTY OF W & A GILBEY LTD) we have to return it? :)

A very old horseshoe discovered in our backyard.
A well preserved 19th century wine bottle.