Friday, March 03, 2017

Farm Bulletin: A Crack in the Wall of Winter

Whenever there is a lag in the reports from the fair fields of Gaston and my mailbox is barren of the cadences of contributor Anthony Boutard's missives from Ayers Creek Farm, the colors of my world are a little less vibrant, the sounds a little muffled and slow. So when I saw his report in my inbox, suddenly I was seeing the intense dark reds of his beloved Arch Cape chicories and the deep, dark richness of the soil of the Wapato Valley.

Tuesday afternoon, there appeared a crack in the wall of winter and our chance to fill orders. We grabbed the harvest knives and buckets, and set to work collecting the Arch Cape chicories. The meadowlarks were singing as they foraged in the cornstalks nearby and a pair of hawks were circling the cold field seeking a thermal, wistfully early but no harm in trying. A reminder that, yes, the sun will return. 

Arch Cape chicories are descended from the late chicories of Treviso, Italy. During their late winter season, piles of these red and white late chicories are stacked in the markets of Venice and elsewhere in the region. Grown by a collective of growers in the vicinity of Treviso, it is a regionally protected variety, similar to Walla Walla or Vidalia onions. The growers of Treviso maintain their own seed stocks to assure quality and uniformity and, because just the top is harvested before setting seed, the variety remains effectively proprietary. As we have noted previously, the commercially available seed for the variety is poorly maintained and has been contaminated by other chicory varieties. Frustrated by the low quality of commercial seed, several years ago we embarked on a project to draw out from the problematic seed the qualities we desired. It is going well.

We could probably call these chicories Late Treviso and no one would bust us. However, leaving aside the question of the ground they are grown in, for better or worse Gaston is very definitely not Treviso. More importantly the population we have is very different from those grown in the Veneto. The appropriate long name for Arch Cape would be "Variations on the Theme of the Late Treviso." Like a musical variation, such as Beethoven's 12 Variations on Handel's "See the Conqu'ring Hero Come" for piano and cello, we have approached the well-recognized and uniform Late Treviso in a relaxed and fun fashion. Look no further than the blades and you will see a chorus of reds including crimson, ruby, carmine, cerise, claret, burgundy, rose, fuchsia and ox-blood. Some of our heads have very narrow, strap-like blades and others expand into a spoon shape. Such playfulness is an anathema to the Treviso growers. We would be drummed out of the consortium and forbidden to use the name. Nonetheless, we carefully maintain the Late Treviso theme so that they are recognizable as kin, just as Handel's theme runs through Beethoven's variations.

Another important variation displayed in Arch Cape is that it is fully adapted to digital salad eaters like the Boutard family. When our Italian visitors were presented with the Arch Cape salad, they immediately went for their knives and forks and started whacking away at the long slender leaves. Reeling from the foliar carnage, we stopped them and explained that the only way to fully appreciate this beautiful salad green is to grasp the end with your thumb and forefinger and delicately work your way up the blade. It should be a contemplative exercise, relaxation after the main course, savoring the sheen of fine olive oil and vinegar. After all, no one in their right mind would eat an olive with a knife and fork. After a moment of confusion and resistance, all enjoyed the digital approach to salad eating.

Fortunately, when we started growing these chicories we were ignorant about the mystique and hype surrounding them. After a few years of growing them, a chef asked us how we produced such fine looking traditional late chicory. We told him we planted seed and then harvested from the field in February. He then recounted how the chicory farmers of Treviso dig the plants and put them in caves where warm, clear spring water flows at precisely 60°F (15°C), and stressed that this is the proper way to force them. We explained to him that we were impressed by our fellow farmers' efforts, but it seemed like a lot of work, guaranteed to double the price or more, and it wasn't really necessary and we didn't have caves like that in Gaston anyhow. We have now heard the romantic story about the limestone caves and the pure spring water many dozens of times and with various extravagant embellishments, always told as though it is essential to the enterprise, an exquisite purification rite. We were amused to see photos of the process provided by the Venetian tourism people. The process looks messier and muddier than we would like to tolerate, and hardly a beautiful cave with running spring water we will add. 

The soils of the Pacific Northwest are so wet in February that creating a muddy lagoon would hardly seem necessary, and we are sufficiently dark and gloomy so as to relieve us of the need for a covering shade cloth. Anyway, our selection efforts are devoted to regionalizing Arch Cape by freeing it of the need for a limestone cave, or a dingy hoop house and a muddy lagoon for that matter, amenities we clearly lack. Oh yes, and the knife and fork. Though we dearly wish we had a limestone cave with a spring running through it as a general matter. How fun it would be to eat dinner on a hot summers eve with our toes dangling in the cool waters from the depths.

You can find Anthony and his wife Carol's chicories at their farm store, 5219 SW Spring Hill Rd. in Gaston, OR, this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Mar. 4th and 5th, from 3-5 pm. If you can't make it out to the farm, you can find these remarkable chicories at Rubinette Produce, 2340 NE Sandy Blvd.

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