Monday, February 1, 2016

A New Hive

In the past, we have let some of our property for commercial bee keeping, hoping to eventually do this ourselves. This year, we decided to start on a very small scale. Of course, not satisfied with doing anything the traditional way, we wanted to try out some new apiary technology.

Our new assembled Flow Hive
Last year, a father and son team from Australia launched a crowd funding campaign for a concept they had developed. This involved a bee hive, called a Flow Hive, which would allow the beekeeper to collect honey from the combs without the removal the combs from the hive or the use of centrifuge to extract the honey from the combs. We were intrigued and after a bit of research we were compelled to be one of their original backers. We were definitely not alone and their crowd funding campaign exceeded all expectations, raising much more than originally anticipated.

This month, as original supporters, we were rather thrilled to get our first Flow Hive. The entire hive came in two neat packages and required quite a bit of construction. It was a bit like an Ikea kit. Based on recent Ikea experience, we would have to admit this was of better quality. The instructions were well detailed and after a morning of construction we were pleased with the results.

From the Flow Hive kit, a brood box takes shape.
The only two issues we did face during assembly was a brood box panel which was not pre-drilled and an access door which was rather tight.

The key to this technology are plastic frames which sit on top of the brood box. These frames are composed of multiple partially finished plastic cells. Bees will eventually complete these cells with wax and fill them with honey.

The critical element to the Flow Hive
Once the hive is assembled, two access panels or doors are used to collect the honey. On the top is a slot in which a long key is inserted. In the bottom is a collection tube. Once turned, the key splits the combs and the honey flows to the collection tube.

Accessing the Flow Hive frames for honey collection
A couple of added niceties for being original supporters of the concept, were a wood burned recognition on the hive's access window panel and a beekeeper's hat which was sent with the kit.

Already feeling like a beekeeper 
Of course we will be augmenting this hive with a couple of more conventional units. However, our first experience with this particular model would suggest that this may be the ideal hive for the hobbyist. We will now need to assess it with a bee colony and their honey to give a final verdict.

For those wishing to know more about this technology here is the Flow Hive web site. Below, you will also find one of their videos which really explains the concept.

It's now time to educate ourselves on beekeeping and get some colonies!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

It's a New Year

2016 finally begins with snow on the ground. The holiday season is over, but we'd like to share a couple of cooking experiences which may be of interest to our readers.

As most blog readers know, our favourite holiday meat is goose. To end 2015, we decided to take a different path to cooking goose. Our Slow Food event for Terra Madre last month was based on deboned quails. We decided to use what we have learned to debone our goose and effectively create what the french call a "ballotine".

The results were amazing. By keeping just four bones (2 leg bones and 2 wing bones) we were able to create a "ballotine" that still resembled a roasted goose and yet had no carcass. Cutting this large bird in half proved impressive and very easy to serve. We'd recommend everyone at least try this once with a roasted bird. There are ample videos on YouTube; in particular, we would recommend those published by Chef Jaques Pepin.

A "re-constructed" bird; "ballotine" of goose

Always impressive to cut a boneless stuffed bird in half.

For New Year's eve, we decided to draw on the Polish side of the family for a different cultural tradition: Bigos.

Since arriving at the farm, we have been practicing and promoting on this blog home made sauerkraut. Yet once made, what is the best way to enjoy this great food during the Winter season? Our answer is Bigos; also known as a Polish hunters' stew.

Bigos is a national Polish dish, yet its roots are in Lithuania. In 1385, newly crowned king Wladyslaw Jagiello, originally from Lithuania, introduced the concept to his court and featured it as part of his hunting parties.

The concept is simple, yet we're certain that for every Polish family in North America, there is a different version of Bigos. In fact, we would not be surprised if something similar can be found in many North Eastern European countries and tradition.

Basically Bigos is a combination of sauerkraut and meats. To this are added onions, mushrooms, and sometimes tomatoes and cabbage. The essential meat to this meal is of course Kielbasa (that wonderful garlicky Polish sausage).

For us, we decided to use local meats to add to our Bigos. This included pork loins (which we braised in white wine), pork belly (bacon can also be used), and smoked pork chops (Kassler) which were added to our Kielbasa. Locals can source great meats for this meal at the Country Corner Market in Welland (this includes Kassler and Kielbasa).

New Year's Eve Bigos

If you have home made sauerkraut at hand, we highly recommend making Bigos. There is nothing heartier as this wonderful Winter stew and every element of it reflects our own local Ontario food culture, since our climate is so similar to northern Europe.

Finally, on the farm, it is now time to tackle our barn project.

Before much can be done structurally, we actually have to clean up a horrendous mess. This is an accumulation of "stuff" which existed in the barn when we moved in, plus a large amount of our own things. "Stuff", lots of stuff,  we've not even yet bothered to sort through from our various moves over the past 10 years.

The barn: a mess that needs to be sorted through
Progress has been slow, but things are starting to look good. In the process, we've even found a few historical artifacts from the farm. These we hope to display in our Tea Room and Market this year.

Progress is slow, but things are looking up.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Although this has been an exceptionally warm December (and we have no snow on the ground), it's already time for the Holidays. We would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy holiday season and a prosperous New Year.

Happy Holidays from all of us at Ridge Berry Farm
For us at the farm and tea room, this means we are now closed for the season. As such, we would like to also thank our guests and patrons who have made this year our best so far. The Tea Room will be open once again in the Spring, with a planned re-opening date of March 22, 2016.

The seasonal closing of the tea room actually gives us time to catch up on our farm work, clean up the Tea Room kitchen (from top to bottom), and experiment with our anticipated new additions to the menu. For example, one item we have been working on is a beautiful apple tart with almond paste.

Made with local apples, these tarts are not only pretty...but delicious!

It is also the time to begin the second phase of our barn renovation. This entails fixing the foundations, demolishing an old crumbling addition, re-finishing the exterior and insulating the lower back half of the building. In the past few weeks, work on the foundation was already started.

The beautiful stone foundations in the back of the barn are now undergoing restoration
Ultimately, we hope to have more insulated storage space for the market, an extended kitchen (we really need more space)....and a new oven! Our old oven failed us this summer and for the past few months, we have been working from a small (but very capable) cafeteria oven. It's time to increase our capacity and our capability.

We'll close this entry by announcing that the old Victorian manor is finally back in the news and reclaiming its conservative splendor. In 1880, the Victorian Tribune called it a "testament to the fellow's good taste", referring to Josiah Ward. This month and 135 years later, it is back in the news and showcased in the Niagara winter edition of Our Homes magazine.

Want to know more abut the house? Check out the latest edition of Niagara's Our Homes magazine 
Next year, plans are in the works to have at least a couple of Tea Room events centered around the Victorian manor and the property's rich history.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The First Snow

First, we'd like to take this opportunity to wish all of our American friends a very happy Thanksgiving.

For us in Niagara, this was the week of our first real snowfall of the season. It did not last long on the ground as we've been enjoying an amazingly warm November. It did however usher in the Christmas spirit.

Our first snowfall of the season....
The warm November was a bit of a godsend for us. Being busy with the Tea Room, our farm duties have been neglected. The nice weather allowed us to clean up our raised beds, while collecting seeds for next Spring (beans, okra, some annual herbs, pumpkins, etc. are so much fun to gather).

This was also the time to "hunt" for the Asparagus that grows wild on the property. This time of year they stand out like delicate yellow-green ferns. We look for these to simply transplant in our Asparagus bed. Slowly, this bed is getting full and should produce a sufficient amount of Asparagus next Spring (perhaps not enough for the restaurant, but certainly for the family),

A beautiful, delicate fern; Asparagus growing wild on the property.
The Growing Dome project has not progressed this year, however the dome is still producing some great Zucchinis from a very large plant that is still to this day flowering. One way or another, this set up is really showing signs of possibilities....if we could only get our Aquaponics system set up!

Another surprise has been the Water Spinach, a new plant we have been working with this year. Being semi-aquatic, we transferred some cuttings from our raised beds directly into the Growing Dome water tank. Not only are the plants surviving, but they have generated a significant root system and have started to grow. This plant may be ideal for the Aquaponics set-up and may prove hardy enough to withstand Winter in the Dome.

Zucchini flowers in November...thanks to our Growing Dome.
The Water Spinach cuttings are also doing rather well

At the Tea Room we're now preparing for our next event: the Slow Food Terra Madre celebration on December 16th. If you are not familiar with Slow Food please check out the website. The local group based in Pelham and now known as Slow Food Niagara is a small but thriving community of like minded people (ie. foodies that are concerned about the impact of "industrial food" and wishing to promote local, sustainable products).

For the Terra Madre celebration, we will be doing a main course of Quails. So for the team, it was time to practice our de-boning skills (real Chefs make it look so easy!). We certainly had a fun time getting a lot more acquainted with the anatomy of a bird.

Time to work on our de-boning skills

We'll close this week with a quick photo of the Carolinian forest in the Fall (our favourite part of the property).

Not a conifer in sight....the Carolinian forest in the Fall.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


It is Sunchoke season!

It's amazing, but very few locals would know what we're talking about. Also commonly known as Jerusalem Artichokes, they are sold as very expensive "exotic" food in the "big city".

Our first harvest of the year.

The reason we are amazed is that this wonderful food is actually indigenous to Niagara. You can often see these beautiful tall yellow flowers growing in the ditches between here and Simcoe county. They were at one time a great source of food for the native Canadians (Samuel de Champlain discovered native crops in 1605)....and yet now, few locals even know they exist.

Sunchokes in bloom
A distant cousin to the Sunflower, the Sunchoke grows tall and generates a daisy-like yellow bloom. The edible portion of the plant is the tuber.

In this area, once planted, these flowers can quickly overtake a patch of land (this is why we've tried to contain them in raised beds). They literally grow like weeds....and this is why we like them so much. They require little care and year after year will produce much more than you can consume. One tuber can generate from 70 to 200 tubers by harvesting time (mid to late Fall).

Growing your own Sunchokes is a "breeze", but there are quite a few other reasons anyone local may want these in their backyard. First they are rich in potassium, iron, niacin, thiamine, phosphorous and copper; they are also a good source of dietary fibre. And yet, they are low in starch or carbohydrates (1 cup amounts to just over 110 calories!) and can replace potatoes in just about every recipe. You simply need to avoid overcooking them as then tend to go "mushy".

The taste is similar to potato although the texture is not starchy. It does have a resemblance to Artichoke although perhaps less sweet or nutty.

Here at the farm, we will definitely be making some Sunchoke soup for the Tea Room, but we also enjoy them pickled and these we will also be serving with some of our menu items. There are many recipes for this vegetable and we thought we would embed a video giving everyone a feel for how these might be used: Tapas by the Perennial Plate.

So what are the drawbacks?

First the roots are ginger-like, meaning they are difficult to wash or peel. Luckily most recipes work well without the need for peeling.

Second and perhaps most importantly is their high content of "Inulin". Inulin is not digestible and everyone will be familiar with its effect when we'll just say the other vegetables high in Inulin  are beans :).....As a warning, Sunchokes can have as much as 5 times more Inulin than beans!

There are ways to overcome the issues of Inulin in Sunchokes; this involves marinating or storing the roots for a period of time. The best way is to simply gather the tubers after a few frosts. The more frosts these tubers are subjected to, the more Inulin is transformed into sugars.

Finally, the roots do not keep well for a long time (unlike potatoes). The ideal storage method is to simply keep them in the ground until you are ready to use them.

Having said this, we do hope more locals will plant Sunchokes. They will generate good, healthy food, year after year....and if you grow them yourself, it's free!

Elsewhere on the farm, it was time for a photo shoot. The old manor is going to be featured in the next Niagara edition of Our Homes magazine. For those wishing to get a glimpse of our home, now that it has been fully restored, this article should give everyone a good feel for what was accomplished.

The old manor under the spotlight

Meanwhile in the Tea Room, Christmas decorations are already going up! We're preparing for our Open House on the 6th and 7th of November. Everyone is invited and there will be some free tastings!

"Decking the halls" for the Tea Room Open House (Nov 6 &7)

We'll finally close this blog entry with a view of the amazing Fall colours which now form the backdrop for our Growing Dome.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's already that time of year in Canada when we celebrate the harvest and our Thanksgiving weekend.

It also means it's Pumpkin season. Beautiful Pumpkins of all sizes and shapes can be bought at markets everywhere in the area and it's a real shame that most simply use them for decoration. They are so inexpensive (and will be even cheaper after Halloween) that they should definitely be used as food instead of their canned counterpart (which for the most part are made with Squash....NOT Pumpkin).

Local Pumpkins ...wonderful food!
Preparing pumpkins for pie or soup or even as a side is relatively easy. All you need to do is quarter them and clean them of their seeds (save them for roasting or even to plant your own Pumpkins next Spring....they're so easy to grow). We bake them until tender; at this point, the skin is then very easy to peel. Two medium sized pumpkins will yield almost the equivalent of a dozen cans of prepared Pumpkin/Squash and that's only for the price of $3 at most.

So for us, this means it's Pumpkin pie season in the Tea Room. We have however decided to put a twist on our pie by using some of the remaining Maple Syrup we processed earlier this Spring. So for a while, we'll be serving Maple Pumpkin pie.

Maple Pumpkin pie
When using real Pumpkins, you'll find your pies will be less sweet and lighter in texture....but of course no less decadent (particularly with a dollop of fresh cream).

Elsewhere on the farm we're actually still harvesting tomatoes. This should be the last of this year's crop. As such, it's also time to save our seeds.

Ready for picking....for the last time this year.
We recover our seeds by scooping them out of some of the best specimens. For each variety, we place the seeds in mason jars with a bit of water. We cover our mason jar with a cloth or paper towel. We leave these in a warm spot to allow the gelatinous part of the seed to decay (it takes a couple of days). We then wash the seeds and dry them in paper towel.

Collecting Tomato seeds for next Spring.
We were really pleased with our tomatoes this year. We certainly had a great return and all of our varieties performed rather well.

Meanwhile, with all the time spent on the Tea Room, our Growing Dome work has not progressed much. However, with the anticipation of the first frost this year, we decided to quickly salvage some of our Water Spinach. This Asian semi-aquatic plant has done extremely well in our raised beds; it was now time to get some cuttings and attempt to propagate them in the dome. The idea is to use this plant in our Aquaponic set-up in the long run. We're just not sure how it will winter in this passively heated greenhouse.

Water Spinach cuttings in the dome.
Aside from these cuttings, we only have one plant left in the dome. A Zucchini seed must have gotten away from us and fallen into an unused pot! In any case, the plant is doing extremely well. In fact, it is now flowering and showing signs of fruiting. It will be interesting to see how long this will last into the Fall.
A "run away" Zucchini plant is thriving in the dome.
We'll close this week with a quick pic of the latest find for the farm. We got our hands on a beautiful old barn door. Our idea is not to use it as a "door", but rather as a canvas for a large painting we want to display in the back of the barn once the renovations are complete.

A perfect "canvas"

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Prepping for Oktoberfest

With the Downton Abbey High Tea event under our belts, it's now time to prepare for Oktoberfest. We expect to hold a quaint celebration on October 3rd, featuring a traditional German feast ....and beer of course!

Preparing for this is almost like preparing for the Fall. With the kids back at school, it may still be Summer technically, but already the land is telling us otherwise. As such, we're now decorating accordingly both inside and out of the barn.

We had to take a picture of our old trolley fast....before the Chipmunks get to the corn stalks (as they did last year).

Our old train station trolley....before the expected Chipmunk assault.
With the onset of Fall, both Tomatoes and Apples are rapidly coming in from our raised beds and the field. We've had to be imaginative to put all this good food to use.

As indicated last week, we are making very good use of our tomatoes in soups and relish, but we've also decided to make some Tomato chips (something we discovered a few years back using our Italian canning tomatoes). To accomplish this, we simply use a dehydrator (what has become an essential tool for us when preserving various foodstuff).

When it comes to the Apples, we were thrilled to have enough to finally make our own "stuff". Of course this meant the first obligatory Apple pie for the Tea Room. But it also has involved making our own (hard) cider. This is so simple it's a shame not more people do this.

From tree to table.....our first Apple pie of the Season

The process we use can be found on last year's blog entries when we used another farm's Apple juice. Since that time, we have been able to consistently make a rather good sparkling cider. Of course the taste is defined by the juice you start with.

Since our current Apples are primarily McIntosh (with some Empire variety), our home made (and home grown Cider) does not have the complex structure we hope to achieve with our new Apple trees. We have to admit though, it is as good if not better (and much cheaper) than anything we get at the Liquor store.

Naturally sparkling, home made cider...refreshingly good!

Speaking of fermentation, we have not reported on some of our wine experiments. However, as we were getting a bumper crop of Black Currants this Summer, we decided to focus on Black Currant wine (technically a Melomel or fruit flavoured mead). It is now in secondary fermentation and we hope to report on the results later this Fall.

Fermentation is not limited to preservation using alcohol but also concerns preservation via lactic acid or lacto-fermentation. this time of year, for us, it means the production of Sauerkraut. Beautiful cabbages are coming from the fields and a home made Sauerkraut beats anything store bought.

To produce our Sauerkraut we shred the cabbage and toss it with Kosher salt. We use 3 tablespoons of salt for every 5 pounds of shredded cabbage.

The real trick is to press the cabbage as it will ferment. We've jerry-rigged a food safe plastic container and use a pie pan to press on the cabbage. The pie pan supports a large stock pot filled with water. We use plastic wrap to keep the whole thing protected from the elements.

Sauerkraut in process...simple set up leads to amazing Sauerkraut.
Finally, we'll close this week with a another picture taken of our new friends/pest, the wild Turkeys. Like clockwork, they are the first thing we see every morning as we head to the Tea Room.

Every time we see this flock we can't help but think "Thanksgiving"