Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Transition to Summer

For our international readers, the 24th of May (or May Two Four as it is known here) really marks the transition from Winter to Spring. Our Springs and Autumns are short and this date which marks a long weekend celebrating Queen Victoria is often the time when gardeners of all stripes begin to plant. By this time, we're usually assured that we will no longer suffer a frost.

So for us, this was a time to begin transplanting plants from our greenhouse nursery to our raised beds. We're far from done, but at least our Scarlet Runner beans and Peas are now well established.

Some of the Scarlet Runners transplanted in the back of our barn.
Last Fall we also decided to see if some plants could simply self seed in their own raised beds. In particular we did this with our Borage. The results are promising since we're already noticing quite a few plants at an early stage of growth.

The Borage has self-seeded remarkably well
We also attempted to self-seed our Ground Cherries but of course not everything we do goes well. In this case, we actually forgot which bed the plants were in.  Unbeknown to us at the time, we had tilled the soil to plant strawberries. We'll just have to try again next year.

Meanwhile in the Tea Room, we had to resolve a problem with egg whites. Simply put, we had way too much of these. They are the result of making our own mayo and pastry cream from scratch.

For us, the solution was to produce meringue cookies. We decided to make chocolate marble meringues. Easy to make, they've proven to be a hit with kids and parents alike.

A great way to use egg whites: chocolate marble meringue cookies

We'll close this week with a few pictures of some of the plants now flowering in our beds. Not only did our Chervil, Chives and young Asparagus survive this hard Winter, they are now thriving and in full bloom.

Asparagus in bloom

Beautiful Chive flowers

This Chervil will quickly take up half of its raised bed

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

It's Finally Asparagus Season

Nothing evokes Spring better than fresh Asparagus and in Ontario, Asparagus season has begun. For us, this means that the Tea Room menu is slowly being adapted to this wonderful food. Our first effort is a cream of Asparagus of course. We're currently on the second iteration of our recipe and we've come to the conclusion that the simpler the better. In fact, our recipe has only three ingredients: stock, onions and of course, loads of Asparagus.

Getting started on our latest batch of Asparagus soup...
Normally, a good cream of Asparagus would call for the use of chicken stock and the addition of cream. In our case, we use our own vegetable stock since many of our clients tend to be vegetarian. After a couple of tries, we've also opted to not add any cream. The result is a lighter soup just full of Asparagus flavour.

Last week, we also indicated that our Rhubarb is ready to be harvested. As a result, we've been making loads of Rhubarb and custard tartlets. After working on Maple syrup pies for the past few weeks, it is actually a relief to change and move on to the next seasonal pie: Rhubarb.

The first Rhubarb pie of the season.
After working on the first Rhubarb pie of the season, we're now really looking forward with anticipation to the berries that will soon arrive. Based on the flowering going on at the farm, this will not be long. In fact, the Black Currants this year should yield twice what we had from the young bushes last year.

The Black Currant bushes may just be loaded with fruit this year.
For those interested in foraging, we found that elsewhere on the farm, it is now time to collect the Pheasant Back Saddle Mushrooms. These are the one mushroom we can easily identify. They tend to grow on rotting logs and have a beautifuul "feathery" pattern. We pick them at under 3-4 inches in diameter. Any larger and they tend to be a little too tough. In fact, we always maintain some large ones on our logs to keep the mushroom spores spreading for future harvests.

The Pheasant Back Saddle Mushrooms are ready to forage.
This past week was very busy at the farm and the Tea Room. Much of this had to do with Mothers' Day celebrations.  However, we were also pleased to host a very special and private evening with Slow Food Pelham. We held a wine pairing event, hosted and monitored by wine industry executive and conoisseur Daniel Boudin. This was such great fun, we sincerely hope to be doing this on a regular basis.

Slow Food Pelham...learning about wines and pairing under the tutelage of Daniel Boudin.

We'll close this week with another sign in the progression of Spring. Tulips have bloomed and are almost on their way out. Under our European Copper Beech, it's time for Lily of the Valleys and their amazing scent.

Lily of the Valley are blooming and filling the evening air with an amazing scent.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Time for Rhubarb

A couple of weeks back, we blogged about the first signs of Spring, one of which was the burgeoning Rhubarb. This week, these trusted perennials have spread their leaves and some are now ready for picking.

The Rhubarb has grown fast and some is actually now ready for harvesting.

We have a whole raised bed dedicated to our Rhubarb. We had originally found two of these plants in the back of our house under a dilapidated deck. When taking the deck down we learned how to transplant and split the roots in order to propagate them. We now have some twenty healthy plants ready to produce all Spring.

The variety we have on hand is called Strawberry Rhubarb. It has beautiful red stems and tends to be less tart than its green counterpart.

Red stems of the Strawberry Rhubarb
So how do we know when to pick our Rhubarb? It's easy. We simply harvest any stems that are at least 10 inches long. We'll be harvesting these until the end of June. We probably could pick more, but it is important to give the plant some time to build up energy before the Winter arrives. By end of June, we simply have many more things to harvest and use, so we can certainly give our Rhubarb time.

As a result of the arrival of Rhubarb, it will be time to make a change at the Tea Room. For the past few weeks, we have been featuring Maple Syrup pie with Pecans (made with our own Maple Syrup of course). Over the next few days, this will now be phased out as we begin work on a traditional Rhubarb pie.

To start the week though, we decided to make something a little different: a Rhubarb Custard tart. With a crust and custard based on brown sugar, the result is a beautiful pie which is not as tart nor as sweet as the traditional Rhubarb pie. We like the results so much, we're actually thinking of making tartlettes in this fashion.

Our first Rhubarb Custard pie
Now, we can hardly wait until the Strawberries come out! Which brings us to our next farm report.

As a berry farm, we have just about everything under the sun, from Haskaps to Saskatoons. However, we do not have any Strawberries planted (with the exception of half a dozen plants).

This year we decided to dedicate a small plot to Strawberries. Although there are great Strawberry producers in the region, we wanted access to our own Strawberries for the Tea Room, so we planted some 500 plants this week.

A new Strawberry field...just for the Tea Room!
It is amazing how rapidly things grow in Spring. Already many of our plants are flowering and showing signs of great crops in the next few months. This includes the Haskaps and our Currants.

The Haskaps are in full bloom.

The Currants are loaded with buds awaiting to bloom.
Hopefully these plants will not be affected by a late frost.

In the Growing Dome, things are progressing even more rapidly. Basically, everything is sprouting.

Of course the plants that are most ahead are the Scarlet Runners and the Peas. These plants have no problems getting started in a greenhouse environment.

As usual, this year we also decided to try some oddities. Some of these tend to be non-traditional. This year for example, we've focused on a few Asian varieties. This includes a Chinese Black Tomato and Okra.

In fact, knowing our fascination for new plants, last year one of our Asian visitors dropped off a package of seeds. They were large and segmented as if coming from some sort of pod. However, we never really understood what they were. We've been calling them the "Chinese mystery seeds".

Well now these seeds are sprouting...and the plant is no less mysterious! We were hoping to recognize the variety from the leaves, but now we're just as dumbfounded. If any reader can help us identify this plant it would be highly welcomed.

The forked leaves of our "Chinese Mystery Plant"
We'll close this week with a picture of blooming tulips (under our European Copper Beech)...another clear sign that Spring is well on its way.

Tulips flowering in the shade of our European Copper Beech.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ramp Soup

As indicated in our last post, Ramps (Wild Garlic or Bear Leek) are a sure sign of Spring. They are now ready to be picked and will only be around for a few short weeks. So here at the farm, we had to incorporate them into our Tea Room menu. The result is a Cream of Wild Garlic soup served with fresh herb croutons.

Cream of Wild Garlic...you can't get much more "farm to table" or "forest to table" than this
The soup recipe was inspired by a cream of Potato and Leek recipe. The croutons are home made with herbs now readily available at the farm: Thyme, Savoury, Sage and Chervil. For those who have never tried Ramps before, this is a great opportunity to try a rather rare culinary delight.

Ramps grow primarily in the Appalachian regions of North America; the reason Ramps are not as broadly consumed as they might be in Canada is that they are being picked to extinction.  In fact, they are treated as a "protected species" in Quebec. As such, in this area, should you ever find them at a farmers' market, it is extremely important to know your source and trust that these plants have been sustainably harvested. Here at the farm we pick 3% of our patch (basically one out of every 30 plants).

Ramps ready for picking
When picking Ramps, it is a matter of simply digging for the bulbs. It is important to know however that Ramps are really two vegetables in one: the bulb (akin to an onion) and the leaves (a mildly sweet and garlicky green). Technically, you could just pick the greens and the plant should survive. However, most of us do enjoy the bub as well.

Once picked, the Ramp is easy to process. We wash these to get the dirt off of the roots. We then separate the bulb from the leaves. Each can be used differently.

Washing our first pick of Ramps

The plant is rather beautiful. The leaves are broad and bright green, almost resembling a Lily of the Valley (note: the latter is poisonous). They are easy to identify because of their distinctive garlic smell and their purplish stems extending to the plant bulb.

The Ramp: a rather beautiful plant.

The bulbs can be used very much like a Spring Onion. However, our use is in pickling. We've now heard of Ramp Martinis and in the American parts of the Appalachians we've heard of drink mixes incorporating pickled ramp juice.

Most Chefs love to get their hands Ramps. In fact, Chef David Chang of Momofuku fame has published his own pickled Ramp recipe.

In our case, we use our own pickling method based on what we've learned over the past couple of years. First, we cut the bulbs off our plants leaving as much of the purplish stem as possible (they add a certain beauty to the pickle).

Ramp bulbs ready for pickling
Our pickling is based on a sweet brine, using cider vinegar. There are two points to make a note of when pickling these: 1. use Kosher salt (Kosher salt is not iodized so it will not cloud your pickling juice) and, 2. we very briefly blanch our Ramps (this prevents the pickling solution from turning bluish). For spicing, we tend to use warm flavours like Allspice.

The result is a real treat. We are now serving them with our Ploughman's Platter at the Tea Room (while they last) and we are making some available at our Tea Room Market.

Pickled Ramps: canned and ready for sale at the Market
The greens should definitely not be overlooked. We process them by quickly blanching them and then cover them with ice to maintain their bright green colour. They are then frozen for future use.

The greens can be used in many ways: in salads or to make a pesto. However, our favourite application is soups, hence the Cream of Wild Garlic created for the Tea Room.

It is at this time of year that we are also finishing our Birch syrup. It is now completed and packed ready for sale. Like the Maple Syrup, this year's batch is intense in flavour. We must admit however that our overall production of Birch syrup is always a disappointment. We start with so much more sap and generate so few bottles of syrup when compared to Maple.

The Birch syrup is now ready.
Completing our batch of Birch syrup is very important to us since the Tea Room menu also includes what has become a favourite: a warm mushroom salad. The key element to this salad is a mixture of grilled mushrooms finished in a Balsamic/Birch Syrup reduction.

We promised we would also report on the Black Walnut syrup. In this case, it is a total disappointment. We have so little sap from our trees (less than last year's experiment), we will not be able to process enough syrup to have on our market shelves :( We are starting to think that sap flow from certain trees is cyclical (perhaps in the same way these nut trees have peak cycles of production every three years...or perhaps it's based on weather conditions).

We'll end this post with the next indicator of Spring: Asparagus. Last year, we planted some seeds we had collected from a wild Asparagus. This year, the recognizable plants are already showing. Still too small for picking, we're looking forward to a full harvest in the next 2 years.

Another sign of Spring: young Asparagus.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Adding Colour to the Pastry Stand

The Tea Room market now has a well attended pastry stand where we sell our pies, cakes, scones and various sweets that typically make up our High Teas. This week we've decided to start showcasing the talent of one of our team and we made from scratch some scrumptious and beautiful cupcakes. We've decided that there will always be something to interest our guests, so our cupcakes will now be decorated with seasonal themes.

The pastry stand is now not only scrumptious but also colourful,
In fact, we can now take special orders for cupcakes (they make a  great gift idea) or for larger cakes destined for special events and functions.

In the Tea Room market, we've also added a new chutney to our line: Blueberry. This Blueberry chutney is unlike most chutneys in that it consists primarily of Blueberries, a touch of ornage zest and spices (no onions or other fruits are involved). This makes for a spicy Blueberry flavour, great with ham, salmon or chicken.
The latest addition to the chutney line: Blueberry.

Elsewhere on the farm, it was now time for us to start planting. It is early for this since last frost in these parts tends to occur in mid-May. However, we wanted to get an early start on the edible flowers that typically accompany our Tea Room dishes (primarily Scarlet Runner and Borage) and on our herbs which are essential to our kitchen. As a result, the Growing Dome "nursery" is now in full production as we wait for our seeds to sprout.

The Growing Dome nursery is now in full production.

Fresh herbs are an important part of our cooking. To date, most of these have come from local greenhouses. We anxiously anticipate picking our own from our raised beds. So far, some of these have wintered well and are already showing signs of production. Standard herbs such as Sage, Thyme, Savoury and Chives can already be picked as we need them.

There are however two special perennial herbs we have really taken a liking to: Chervil and Lovage. We planted the Chervil from seed last Spring. With a bit of protection from some straw, the Chervil survived this hard Winter and is showing signs of thriving as the Spring progresses.

Our Chervil  is already looking great.
Lovage is another perennial we were lucky to obtain from a kind lady who is a member of the local horticultural society. We left the Lovage in a pot and it Wintered in the Dome. There it pretty much remained green all year long.

The Lovage will soon be ready to transplant outside the Dome.
We mention these two herbs because they are not readily available and have become quite important to our vegetable stock. We make our soups from scratch using a vegetable stock. Often it is very difficult to give a vegetable stock the kind of "body" or depth of flavours you would normally get from a meat stock. Our trick consists of three rules:  1. always include leeks, 2. oven roast all your vegetables before combining them in the stock pot, and 3. use an abundance of fresh herbs (Lovage and Chervil adding that distinctive taste).

To close this week, we're also quite excited with what will be our first crop....a foraged one.

The Ramps are almost ready to pick. We really lucked out with our few acres of swampy Carolinian forest. This time of year, the grounds are covered with Ramps (also called Wild Garlic or Bear Leek). Almost picked to extinction in Quebec, these plants have to be harvested sustainably. So we minimize the amount picked to 3% of the total field (the plants flower every seven years).

A field of beautiful Ramps...just about ready to pick.
For those not familiar with ramps, it is truly a culinary delicacy. We will be pickling some and making them available in the market. But better yet, we'll be serving these with our Ploughman's platter as long as quantities last. We hope to have these on our menu within the next two weeks ...and we can hardly wait (the whole family loves these).

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Our Own Blend

This year, we've decided to re-organize the Tea Room market. The focus is now primarily on our own farm products (jams, jellies, syrups and chutneys) and Tea Room pastries. Based on popular requests, we've also added a complete line of loose leaf teas and this now includes our very own Ridge Berry Blend.

The Ridge Berry Tea Blend...a taste of the farm!

The Ridge Berry Blend is actually based on the key berry crops of the farm: Kiwis, Raspberries and Currants. The result is a soothing, delightfully fruity tea, as good for morning breakfast as it is for an evening respite.

Meanwhile on the farm, we finished the week with what seemed to be abnormally warm weather. So with Spring finally here, it was time to think about planting once again. While our Birch syrup is slowly being processed, we set to work on cleaning our raised beds and started work on the dome in anticipation of getting some of our plants to germinate early.

What happens to Kale when left to over-winter in a passively heated greenhouse?
They grow 4 feet and are now flowering. 

This year the Birch trees are producing well, so we should have a good batch of syrup to bottle in a couple of weeks. We've noticed that the flow of sap on a specific tree may be alternating from year to year. Those producing well last year are producing poorly and vice versa, those producing well were not so great last year. Perhaps, Birch sap production is like nut production; it peaks on a 2 or 3 year cycle.

Collecting Birch sap; trees that performed poorly last year are doing well this year ( and vice versa)

We've also decided to progress on an experiment we carried out last year: Black Walnut syrup. This syrup is actually difficult to make; it takes 80 litres of sap to get 1 litre of syrup (like Birch) and the trees do not "bleed" as much as Birch or Maple. As such it is difficult to get a large quantity of this syrup, even though we have more than enough Black Walnuts. The process however is very much worthwhile; the taste of this syrup is so distinctive when compared to Maple or Birch. We actually hope to make enough syrup to bottle for the market.

Since Black Walnut is likely the last batch of sap syrup we will be making this year, we'll be reporting on this later. We're probably the only ones in Niagara crazy enough to attempt this, so it's probably worth sharing our experiences on this one.

Finally, we'll leave you this week with more signs of Spring.

Our raised beds are already occupied by new hatchlings. A young Garter Snake.  

...and the Crocuses are blooming!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Chutney Flight

All Winter we've been toying with new recipes. This year we decided to spend some time to develop and offer a line of chutneys. The result is a Kiwi and a Raspberry chutney (using our own organic fruits) and of course, since we are in Peach country, a Peach chutney using some Niagara grown Peaches.

For the chutney lovers!

Since we serve some great Ontario artisan cheeses at the Tea Room, this gave us an idea for this week's special. Most people have heard of a beer or wine "flight", a tasting or selection of beer or wines. We decided to create a chutney flight. This is a selection of our new chutneys (including our tomato relish which has become quite popular), each served with an Ontario artisan cheese and a basket of bread....perfect for the cheese lover!

Meanwhile on the farm, our work is increasing. With the soil soft, we are now able to return to our Kiwis and begin the transplanting of some rather mature plants. We're not sure they will take, but we did need to clean up our rows and maximize fruit production. All of the large vines we were able to transplant had already grown some formidable roots.

Example of one transplanted and trellised Kiwi.

Our major project this Spring, the accessory building, is also coming along very fast. Everything is up and we're just now waiting for the main door. The building was finished to match the colours of our barn.

Just waiting for the door!
Finally, we finished and bottled our first batch of Maple syrup. As reported on in last week's blog entry, this year's syrup is very dark (copper like) and seems sweeter. 

We also  had some major problems with "Maple sand" (the crystallization of minerals in the sap). This year's batch had to be filtered 3 times to remove these crystals. Nevertheless, we're quite proud of our syrup this year. The flavour certainly seems more intense than last year.

We're quite proud of this year's batch of Maple syrup.

Now that we are finishing our last batch of Maple syrup, it has also proven time to start work on the next set of trees: the Birch. Birch tapping can be done a little after Maple and so we have now started to tap the few trees on the property. After all, one of our Tea Room menu items includes a warm mushroom salad prepared with Birch syrup!

Tapping Birch: the process is identical to Maple.

We'll end this week with a few photos that indicate that Spring is definitely on it's way (even though we still had some snow this week).

The bees are waking up!
The Skunk Cabbage will soon be the first to attract insects in the creek.
The Strawberry Rhubarb is "peeking" through.