Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ground Cherry and Wild Pear Preserves

One of the things we decided to plant this year was the Ground Cherry (Physalis), sometimes called the Cape Gooseberry. It is neither a cherry nor a gooseberry, but a "nightshade" closely related to the Tomatillo.

The Ground Cherry (Physalis) and fruits

We planted it as a novelty in the same bed we used last year for our Tomatoes. This turned out to be a great spot for these plants. They have been fruiting for well over a month and it seems they will continue for quite a while. Apparently, one plant can generate upwards of 200 fruits a season.

The fruit is adorned with a husk that is shaped like a paper lantern. They are green on the stalk and to harvest you simply wait for these little "lanterns" to yellow and fall to the ground. Once gathered you can let them dry for a while as the small tomato-like fruit ripens to a yellow orange colour.

Ground Cherry "paper lanterns" harvested from the ground
The fruit itself is often seen as a decoration on plates or pastries, and very few people bother to eat it or taste it. That's a shame since the Ground Cherry has a delightful sweet pineapple-like flavour, very low in acidity unless green.

With all of the fruit we had collected so far, it was time to find a use for them and begin some canning work.

We decided to make a Ground Cherry jam.

With about 2 litres of fruit husked, we cooked the Ground Cherries adding 1/2 litre of lemon juice.

Husked Ground Cherries ready for processing

We started to mash the fruit as it cooked. This turned out not to be necessary in the long run.

On the side, we measured 1 litre of granulated sugar. we took about a quarter of this and mixed it into a bowl with 1 Tbsp of pure Apple Pectin.

The rest of the sugar was added to our Ground Cherries, once the mix started to boil.

With the sugar added, we again waited to get the Ground Cherries to a boil. We then ladled the mixture into our sugar/pectin mix. This was whisked and slowly we added more until at least half of the Ground Cherry mixture was used.

Everything went back into our cooking pot and once again brought to a boil while whisking.

Using a spoon and some ice we tested the jam for consistency as it cooked.

Once a firm set was achieved, we simply ladled our jam into  pasteurized jars and set the sealed jars in a large boiling pot for further pasteurization, by boiling for at least another 10 minutes.

The result is a golden-coloured jam. It is sweet and again very reminiscent of pineapple....well worth the work!
A very unique jam...well worth the work
In the end, we have determined that the Ground Cherry is easy to grow and very much worthwhile. We'll certainly be at it again next year.

On the foraging front, Carol found an old wild Pear tree on the road side. It was loaded with small Pears.

This is a site often seen in Niagara. As orchards have given way to vineyards, subdivisions or simply left to be reclaimed by nature, many old trees previously part of these orchards or simply having propagated away from them continue to generate an abundance of fruits.

Since the trees are no longer cared for, pruned or sprayed, the fruit tends to be smaller, oddly shaped and affected by various insect.

In the case of Carol's Pear tree, the Pears were rather small and suffered from all of these things. However, for the most part, the Pears were in good shape and great to eat. With a bushel on hand, we had to do something.

A load of "wild" pears....what to do?

The solution: canned wild Pears with Basil.

Our Basil has done very well this year. We have many plants now going to seed, so it was natural to "marry" the two.

Our process was simple. After sifting through the best pears and cleaning the best, we stemmed them, peeled them and cored the flower end of the fruit (this is the hardest almost "wood"-like part of the flesh).

We prepared a simple syrup with some lemon juice. The ratio is 1 part sugar; 3/4 part water; and 1/4 part lemon juice (by volume).

We poached the pears in this solution. The pears will get very tender and the flesh will become slightly translucent once cooked.

Poaching Pears in a simple syrup with Lemon juice
Once taking the Pears off the stove, we added a pint of Basil leaves (for some 3 litres of fruit and syrup) and we left the whole thing stand in a refrigerator over night. This gives the Pears some time to absorb the herbal flavour of the Basil (which by the way does not taste like Basil once combined with the Pears).

...great use for an overabundance of Basil
The next day, we extracted our Pears from the syrup and we canned our pears in pasteurized jars. On the side, we again brought the syrup to a boil and poured the mixture over the canned pears. With the jars sealed we again pasteurized the canned Pears by placing them in boiling water for a minimum of 10 minutes.

Finishing the canning process
The result is a delightful poached Pear with an herbal bouquet almost reminiscent of mint (very few people would recognize the Basil in this mixture). These can be used atop ice cream or thinly sliced to adorn and complement a cheese plate.

We're looking forward to enjoying these all winter long.
On the farming front, we are done with the Purple and Black Raspberries. However, the Red and Golden Raspberries along with the Blackberries are really coming on strong. Coupled with the vegetables from the raised beds, this is becoming the busiest time of the year for us. Everything we do surrounds harvesting and preserving.

It's hard to believe how abundant the Golden Raspberries have become
Since we have found a renewed interest in insects on the farm (both those that are beneficial as well as unwanted intruders), we often take pictures and try to identify what we find.

So we'll close this week with a picture of a rather pretty and helpful butterfly: this is the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Family Wedding at the Farm

This blog post will be really short.

This past week has just been dedicated to a family wedding (Tristan and Skye).

Two years ago, when embarking on this project, we certainly did not expect that a) Tristan would be the first to marry (out of our 3 children) and b) that we would end up wearing kilts on the farm (since he married into a Scottish clans).

With the farm boots put to the side, Tristan was finally all cleaned up and ready to "get hitched"
Having well over 20 acres to work with, we were able to hold the entire event for some 200 people right on the farm.

The farm...ready to host.
Kilt and Scottish jokes aside, this was still a really fun event and until we get the official photos, we'll just leave our readers with a quick peek.

Sky and Tristan...now happily married
The young couple are now on their honeymoon and we wish them all the very best.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Growing Dome Aquaponics release 3.5

Like the rest of the North East, this week was particularly cold at the farm. It felt like October weather. This made it pleasant to work around the farm, but also a lot more pleasant to work in our Growing Dome.

For those following our travails in the Dome, we have now addressed Algae issues and contained the Duckweed. We now faced more "structural" issues.

Our hydroponic tables have been supported by large wooden frames. In some cases, we did not provide lateral support to these large plastic containers. Once filled to capacity (some 70 litres), some of these tables would bulge and begin to deform. The net result has been leaking water and more critically warping of the wooden support structure. This further aggravated the situation.

Our support structures have started to deform.
It was time to rethink our design and begin work on some new structures.

Last year, our first attempt was based on a "homemade" wooden table with plastic liners; our second attempt was using what we call "deck technology". This time (release 3.0), we decided to have steel angles support the hydroponic tables.

Replacing wooden supports with steel angles.
We also took the opportunity to rid ourselves of the flexible tubing linking the hydroponic tables to the main water tank. The original tubing (hoses) flexed much too much and in some cases prevented a clear flow of water back to the tank.

We ended up using conventional plastic plumbing pipes. The result is a neater, cleaner looking system with an unobstructed water flow.

Installing new water pipes
We thought this would solve everything...we were wrong. A little bit of engineering would have shown that once the hydroponic tables were filled with water even our steel angles would bend (a matter of insufficient metal cross-sections).

So it was back to the drawing board and what we now call release 3.5. This time, we decided to bring everything down and use "saw horse" technology.

For what amounts to 140 kg of water, the system really required 3 supports longitudinally. So we built 3  pairs of saw horse legs to support our 2x4 beams. This also gave us the opportunity to lower our hydroponic tables somewhat.

The result looks quite strong and should hopefully address all our problems.

Release 3.5: the new hydroponic support structure
In fact, the Dome is starting to look quite green (although we've not yet started many plants).

So what is working now:

1. Our Rock Bass (Sunfish) are doing quite well. The Duckweed is under control and the fish seem to love feeding on this plant. If they thrive, we will probably switch to a more edible species next Spring.

2. Our hydroponic tables are supporting growth of Kale, Tomatoes, Cucumbers and Peppers (both sweet and hot).

Hot peppers are performing well on our hydroponic tables.
The Tomatoes and Cucumbers will likely have to be brought down into "Dutch buckets", as their vines are becoming rather large.

What has not worked is the Wax Beans. These have done extremely well outside, but on the tables it seems that either they are not getting the right nutrients or somehow we may have damaged their roots (too much moving around?).

The Wax Beans are thus far a failure.
The beans are also proving extremely difficult to pollinate (we use our fingers and a small brush).

3. The "Dutch buckets" using the Kratky method are performing very well. Here we have both Tomatoes and Cucumbers. The Tomatoes are flowering while we're now patiently waiting to pick second Cucumber.

Tomatoes n "Kratky buckets"
Meanwhile the Dome has been a great place to complete our propagation experiments. Our Gojiberry cuttings are fruiting, our Baco Noir Grapes are very healthy and we are starting to see some budding on our old Black Currant cuttings.

Healthy Baco Noir Grape cuttings.
 It will now be time to start planting new things to further test our entire system.

As we have been working inside the Growing Dome, we have also noticed something quite peculiar: we are creating a new ecosystem. Trying to minimize energy use (limiting ourselves to a couple of solar panels), we cannot control tings that are entering the Dome. For example the passively activated louvers that control temperature on top of the Dome expose us to the outside world.

The result: we are finding quite a few mosquito larvae both in our main water tank and our hydroponic tables.

The most surprising "guest" however is a population of small water snails. We find these throughout the main water tank, as well as some of the hydroponic tables. The most problematic aspect of these snails is that they are finding their way into our bilge pumps (hampering the proper functioning of the impellers). An easy fix is the use of filters.

Snails hampering the proper functioning of our bilge pump
We're really not certain how bad this problem will be in the long run. Certainly, we currently have no long term solution for this right now.

Based on our past failures (the asphyxiation of our Large Mouth Bass), we've learned how catastrophic things can get when the fish have an inadequate supply of oxygen.

To protect us from this, we decided to upgrade our electrical supply to the aeration pump. We actually changed our 40W panel to a 100W panel in order to recharge a battery as well as operate a pump. The battery provides us with additional power during long overcast days.

Our new 100W solar panel
  
Battery back-up for the aeration pump
The whole thing is controlled with a manual switch. Eventually, we will probably implement a timer or some sort of automation to the process.

Finally, elsewhere around the farm, the Purple Raspberries are done for the year, but red, yellow and black Raspberries are rapidly coming on line, so are the Blackberries.

One surprise has been the Chestnut trees. Most of them have been harmed by Deer so we have not been expecting much. It turns out however that nor only have they flowered, but one was certainly properly pollinated and we have Chestnuts!

Edible Chestnuts!
 From a foraging standpoint, we need to let everyone know it is time to harvest the Elderberries. 

The Elderberries are ready for picking.
We'll conclude this week with a new finding at the old Victorian Manor. 

We are currently landscaping and clearing the back of the house for a new courtyard. In the process, we noticed the mark of an old arch in one of our exterior brick walls. This arch did not make any sense. It was at ground level and not aligned with our cellars (so not the top of a cellar exit).

We decided to dig....and we found the remnants of what looks like a cistern/well.

A new find in the back of the house.
While we ponder how and in which period this may have been used, we're now trying to determine how we can use this as an exposed architectural detail within the courtyard.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Duckweed and the Growing Dome

This week, we've been spending more time in our dome assessing the state of our Aquaponic efforts.

As most blog followers will know so far we have effectively killed two schools of fish and have been somewhat reluctant to take the next step.

Our biggest and latest issue was the amount of algae generated by the large water tank which serves as a thermal mass in the system. This algae "gummed up" our pipes and effectively absorbed all of the nutrients generated by the fish waste. The result was largely stunted growth of all plants in our hydroponic beds.

We solved this using Humic Acid.

Having done this, we decided to restock our tank with a much cheaper fish: Rock Bass (more commonly known as Sunfish). This fish is really abundant in one of our ponds so the idea was to transfer some to a new home in the Growing Dome.

Rock Bass (Sunfish) from our back pond
Then we hit another problem: Duckweed.

When we started this experiment last year, we threw into the tank a couple of handfuls of Duckweed from one of our ponds. Being 25-45% protein, Duckweed apparently makes good fish feed.

Up until the past few weeks, this plant was well under control. However, once we killed the Algae, the Duckweed has rapidly gone out of control. This week our tank had a rather thick matte of Duckweed on its surface and once again we started to lose some of our fish.

Our tank now overwhelmed with Duckweed
We suspect that the large amount of Duckweed on the surface of the water started to hamper oxygen transfer to the water. It was time to clean things up. We did this using a fish net as best we could to get as clean a surface as possible.

Using a fish net to clear the surface of the tank did wonders 
We ended up with buckets of Duckweed. At first, we thought this would just do well for our compost, until we researched Duckweed a little bit more.

What do you do with buckets of Duckweed?
It turns out that Duckweed has multiple uses. Not only is it used as fish food, but it is used for poultry as well as pig feed. It is also used in a variety of industrial products.

In fact, this is an edible weed used in Asian cuisine!

Our variety is Lemna. It can contain large amounts of Calcium Oxalate depending on the Calcium content of the water. This can be toxic in large quantities so should be eaten in moderation (note: other common vegetables also produce Calcium Oxalate). There are however also lots of references to this food for a variety of medicinal values, particularly in Chinese medicine.

So all in all, this may still be a fine edible and a great source of protein. The main question for us was: what does this stuff taste like?

Lemna: would you eat this?
We had to try it and the best way to get a sense of the taste is to eat it fresh and on its own. We washed a handful and gave it a try. The result is a rather mild plant with a slightly peppery taste. We've seen it compared to Watercress however we find the taste of this water plant much milder.

Now we'll be working on some recipes of course; Duckweed soup anyone?

Finally, elsewhere on the farm, it is time to harvest vegetables from our raised bed. We are getting a lot more than what we can use (time to preserve). This week we managed to harvest potatoes, carrots, beets, peas, wax beans, zucchini, cabbage and cauliflower. This along with our onions, garlic and herbs ensures that we do not need to go to the grocery store for a while.

A good morning of picking our own vegetables
With regards to our crops, the Purple Raspberry is almost done. We are now shifting to red and golden Raspberries while soon our Blackberries will come on line.

What has surprised us though is the newly planted Black Raspberries. We may just be able to harvest enough to produce some great jams.

Our new Black Raspberries

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Citron Watermelon

Last year, we were lucky to grow both a Russian heirloom Watermelon and a French heirloom Cantaloupe. We had to fight with local rodents for the fresh Canteloupe. Meanwhile, the Watermelons were proven to be very seedy.

This year, we decided to plant Citron Watermelons. These things grow wild in the Southern US and although often described as not edible, we felt this might be a great melon to work with.

The Citron Watermelon is technically the ancestor of all currently marketed Watermelons. It traces its roots to Africa. Unlike what its name would imply, the Citron Watermelon is in no way related to the Citron, nor does it have a strong acidic taste. In the wild, two varieties are normally found; one which is bland, the other bitter.

This week it was time to pick a few.

Our first Citron Watermelon harvest
The Watermelons will grow to some 7 inches in diameter and they actually look very similar to a lot of heirloom Watermelons, including the Russian variety we planted last year. Given their taste, rodents were not an issue this year; for us, it was now time to transform these into an appetizing edible.

When sliced open, the flesh of the melon is a pale green. The taste of the flesh is very similar to Watermelon rind. In fact, we've determined that the Citron could find its place in any recipes calling for Watermelon rind (and vice versa).

Dissecting the Citron Watermelon
Our first effort was a preserve and the first step entailed seeding, peeling and dicing the melons. This turns out to be the most tedious part of the process. As for the Russian heirloom melons, these things were loaded with seeds. The best way to address this is to thinly slide the melon prior to seeding.

Seeded and cubed Citron Watermelon
For roughly 3 lbs of diced melon (2 melons), we added the juice of 4 Clementines, 6 Tbsp. of Lemon juice and 3 Tbsp. of Vanilla extract. We then thinly sliced the rinds of two Clementines and added this to the mixture. Finally, we added 1 1/2 lbs of white sugar.

Letting this mixture sit overnight will extract all of the juices from the melon and prepare the mixture for the following step.

The Watermelon-Clementine-sugar mixture will turn "soupy" if left to stand for a sufficient amount of time
The final step is to simply let this mixture simmer and eventually bring it to a boil. This will reduce significantly.  It turns out that the Citron holds a lot of Pectin, so after a good amount of simmering, the preserve will easily set.

As a final stage, we simply load our preserve in sterilized jars and once sealed boil the jars for another 10 minutes. The result is actually quite nice and a delicious new taste experience for those coming to our market.

A new taste at the market: Citron Watermelon preserve
 We didn't exactly stop there. We challenged both Chef and Sous-chef to come up with their own concepts.

Sous-chef has made some candied Citron (simply dipped a few times in simple syrup), while Chef decided to apply the Citron to a Glyko Karpouzi recipe. Glyko Karpouzi is a sweet pickling of Watermelon rind usually served with tea or as an appetizer when guests are welcomed into your home

Chef's Citron-based Glyko Karpouzi
The result is a very sweet, thinly sliced Watermelon rind which (with the right spices) has a taste very similar to poached pear. It would make a great side to certain heavy meats like pork.

Elsewhere on the farm, we are rapidly harvesting many of our vegetables and fruits. The most interesting of these is our new Scarlet Runners. The plants are flowering beautifully and as predicted are attracting humming birds.

The Scarlet Runners have done surprisingly well
The most interesting aspect to the Scarlet Runner however are the very long beans now being generated by the plant (well over 8 inches). We had to try them and surprisingly discovered perhaps the most beautiful beans we've ever seen.

Inside the Scarlet Runner bean pod
The Scarlet Runner bean needs to be cooked. Regrettably the bean looses its colour in the process, but the bean is delicious (very reminiscent of sweet peas).

We'll conclude this week with an update on the Growing Dome. Having adopted the Kratky method of hydroponics, we cannot believe how effective our hydroponic beds have become.

Our "monster Cucumber" is now fruiting just about everywhere on its rather long vine. It is taking a large amount of space in the center of the dome and is very much ahead of its counterparts planted in our raised beds.

The "monster Cucumber" plant is now fruiting in the Dome
Even our tomatoes (originally starved of nutrients because of the Algae) are now also ahead of their counterparts outside the dome. We did not expect this and had kept them in the tall hydroponic tables of the Aquaponic set-up.

Our Growing Dome Tomatoes
The Tomatoes' roots proved to be superbly healthy and well developed.

Healthy roots make for a very healthy Tomato plant
The Dome's Tomatoes are now flowering and tall enough that we had to transfer them into our version of "Dutch buckets".

Our Kratky "Dutch buckets": no oxygen or fluid pumps!
We'll now have to see if they continue on this path.

For our final picture, we have decided to focus on our Dome's propagation experiments. One of the more successful propagations has been the Goji berry. These little cuttings are now flowering and look like they will actually provide us a few berries!

Flowering Goji berry cuttings.

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