Grape Harvesting in Tuscany

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Next to Borgo Pignano, the estate where we are staying, is a limited production “boutique” winery owned by relatives of our yoga teacher. We had a once in a lifetime experience yesterday, harvesting grapes and learning about the production process at MonteRosola Winery.

The weather was beautiful, with a crisp Volterra sky, just enough heat and sun to warm the bones. I could not just understand but feel how important the quality of this sunlight is to the vines and the grapes they bear. Row upon row of specific clones graced a hillside, dripping with clusters of deep purple fruit ready to be harvested.

A family operation, two tow-headed preschoolers skedaddled about, clippers in hand, at one with the Tuscan earth and ready to participate in the harvest. Two enormous labradors padded about, pausing to nuzzle each other or sniff out ripe olives to lap up from the chalky soil. A robotic lawn mower meandered about the lawn in front of the residence while our host explained to us our task and the process of turning grapes into award winning red wines.

I am no oenophile. In fact, I cannot drink red wine due to its tannins and oak barrel aging. But picking and then eating three varieties of organic grapes — cabernet, shiraz, and the local Italian specialty, sangiovese — even I could discern a clear difference in taste and even feel in the mouth depending upon the variety.

We were tasked with cutting and then perusing sangiovese grapes, looking especially for mold, but also being attentive to overripe, already fermenting grapes. These were to be selected out, tossed on the ground and allowed to return to the soil from whence they came. Several hours later the baskets of grapes we had selected would be put through a destemmer, sorted on a small conveyor belt to select out any remaining imperfect specimens, and then crushed, flowing into gigantic oak barrels where they would be tended like delicate hothouse flowers, with minute temperature adjustments and coddling, but with no additives or artificial acceleration of fermentation permitted.

Because the winery operates completely organically, rose bushes at the end of each row signal the presence of insect pests, which are treated with concentrated chamomile. Grape clusters often had spiders within, and the occasional yellow jacket buzzed drunkenly about, feasting on the fallen overripe  grapes.

It will be several years before the grapes we picked will end up in bottles in some lucky person’s wine cellar, but many more years than that before this unforgettable experience fades from my memory.

You can read more about MonteRosola here. 

Summer Bounty : Saucetravaganza

Preparing gallons of tomato sauce may not save the world, but it is certainly helping to calm my unease at a world seemingly gone awry. Watching the news this past week has been disheartening.  I suppose famine, disease or sectarian/ethnic/religious or just plain political conflict is always with us, but this summer the world seems to be particularly chaotic. Sometimes, doing things the old school way is a means of creating a tiny island of security and stability in an otherwise challenging sea. Freezing tomato sauce was one of my summer goals, and I’m happy to say that the carriage house freezer is now housing the results of yesterday’s marathon. Here are the steps I followed, improvising after doing a bit of online research: First, I acquired the following :

25 pounds ripe organic paste tomatoes, washed, chopped into one inch dice with hard membrane but not skin or seeds removed (I like chunky sauce so I don’t bother to skin or seed)

chopped tomatoes

4 large organic white onions and as many cloves of fresh garlic as you wish, chopped

chopped organic onions and garlicFresh Italian parsley, fresh basil, fresh rosemary, fresh oregano (washed, dried and chopped)

organic Italian parsley and  basil

Any good red wine, salt and pepper

Freezer containers with no toxic chemicals

Next, I sauteed the onions and garlic in olive oil until just translucent. I then worked in four batches with one batch just tomatoes cooked until tender with no seasoning to serve as diced tomatoes in future recipes:

voila!!The other three batches cooked for a much longer time. After a strong covered boil on medium heat for about ten minutes or so, the tomatoes had cooked down to about 2/3 of their original volume, but the sauce was very watery.

I took the lid off the pot, turned down the heat to a simmer, added all of the chopped herbs (except the parsley, which went in at the very end to preserve its greenness) a bay leaf, salt and pepper to taste, and about a cup of a good red wine per batch. Stirring every ten minutes or so, I let the sauce cook down until it was less than half the volume of the original diced tomatoes. On a very slow simmer, this took about two hours.

Finished Sauce

(If I had been making just one batch I might have used my slow cooker, but doing so many batches required using the stove.) Finally, I tasted and corrected the seasonings, added the parsley and allowed the sauce to cool, giving an occasional stir. Once everything was cool, I ladled the sauce into washed and dried ziploc plastic containers, leaving space at the top of about a half an inch.  I did the research, and these containers (and the bags) contain no evil chemicals or contaminants so they won’t leach bad stuff into my luscious sauce. I refrigerated the containers until chilled and then transferred them to the freezer. All in all, the process (including picking up the tomatoes at my CSA drop off point) was pretty much an all day affair. Judging from the way Mr. D and I gobbled our spaghetti dinner last night, it was worth it! Up next …. freezing a giant batch of corn. I may not be able to fix the world, but I can darn well fix some delicious meals in a sustainable and rewarding way!!

I’m a Pacifist Waging War

No negotiating. No ceasefire. No UN observers thank you very much.  For nearly twenty years I have been locked in a struggle over territory. A variety of invaders have questioned my border’s right to exist. I’m talking mugwort, Canadian goldenrod, switch grass, pineapple mint.

Do you know these terrorists? They should be on the FBI most wanted list for destruction of perfectly lovely perennial beds, meadows and prairies. The CIA should be listening for their underground activity instead of spying on the Senate. Where are the embedded journalists wearing combat gear? Where is the Tea Party outrage over the breach of this border by juvenile invasives? Where is the open carry crowd when I need them? (Shopping at Target no doubt).

I have, at various times, double dug this inherited perennial bed to a depth of two feet, sprayed with RoundUp, covered the bed with layers of cardboard and mulch, used fabric weed blocker and tried to drown the invaders with my tears. (OK, I had other people do the horrible task of double digging up rhizomes as thick as your thumbs and I couldn’t generate enough salty tears to kill one dandelion). Nothing has worked.

Oh, I’ll get a year or two of optimism during which I invest in many new plants and delude myself into thinking that this time, for sure, I will have a manageable plot. And then, a vacation at the wrong time, or an unusual weather spell in the winter (or the spring or the summer or the fall) and BOOM. The next dastardly marauder takes hold.

Some have just been dormant — like naughty two year olds waiting for my inattention — ready to stage a full-scale tantrum in the midst of my shocked and awed blooming plants of choice. Some have been seeded by pooping birds dropping them, like cluster bombs, between the lilies. Some have been smuggled in by perfectly innocent looking topsoil, mulch or expensive nursery plants in pots. And, fool that I was, I planted ONE tiny pineapple mint plant two decades ago.

I’m going to tackle this thing full on (again). I’ve cut the offensive plants down to two or three inch stalks. If it ever rains again I will dig up as many rhizomes as I can. I will use glysophate on whatever has the temerity to sprout between now and the end of September. Then, before I go away on vacation and thus giving the little bastards time to regroup, I will once again put down three layers of cardboard covered by three inches of mulch.

Next spring I will not make the mistake of thinking the war won. I will rinse and repeat the steps mentioned above and NOT PLANT ANYTHING VALUABLE ALL SUMMER IN THAT BED.

And if, by the end of 2015 the problem isn’t solved, I will take out the entire $#%*ing bed and put down sod. Which, by the way, might be the only patch of actual grass that I have in my “lawn” since I refuse to use weed and feed, or preen, or any other chemicals on my turf, vegetable beds, woodland garden or the perennial beds near my front gate. I garden organically, pull endless weeds with my own two hands, and try to be a good person. Now you can see why I’m a little bit alarmed by the aggression that this situation brings out in me. But my garden is my baby, and no unwanted, allergy inducing, greedy territorial usurper puts baby in a corner!

I’m Seeing Red

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It all started a week ago when Mr. D and I went to Capitol Hill to visit an awesome private gallery of Americana political memorabilia with his West Coast cousins. I fell in love with the brilliant red door, the lipstick colored apartment building framed by flaming red flowering shrubs, the Tasha Tudor like urban garden complete with Corgi and little old woman weeding.  Then, on Saturday we went to Hains Point and walked most of the length of the East Potomac Park.  The most spectacular day of the summer yielded wonderful views of planes landing and departing over the Potomac as we lay on our backs in the grass.  Families fished, picnicked and frolicked along the waterfront, but not in numbers or decibels sufficient to dispel the sense that we were vacationing in some far off coastal area. Glimpses of red caught my eye there, too.

Then, this morning, my CSA notified me that I could preorder 25 pounds of Roma tomatoes for canning or freezing next week. While Mr. D and I are happily tending our own tomato plants, most of which are cherries and slicers, we welcome the volume that we can get of these organic, beautiful Romas.

Those of you who follow my blog may remember that putting up tomatoes and tomato sauce is on the to do list for this summer.  So, onto the interwebs I went to find the perfect recipes.  I’m a little bit afraid of poisoning Mr. D by canning incorrectly, and I have a freezer in the carriage house that has plenty of room, so freezing it will be.  With some due diligence I’ve discovered that Ziploc bags do not contain BPA or other evil things so that will be the preferred containment system.

I’m going to use this recipe or a close variant depending upon my whim, possibly slow cooked in my slow cooker. I’ll do a post documenting my efforts next week!


It’s time to order the new raised beds to reinstate the vegetable patch that was leveled to make room for my daughter’s garden wedding dance floor. Here is what I have in mind, white cedar raised, stacked mortise and tenon  beds from The Farmstead:

You can watch a YouTube video here showing how easy it will be to put together (in under five minutes per layer no less).

I bought packets of organic seeds at Home Depot yesterday, but will have to supplement with market packs when the time comes as I haven’t started early enough for some things which should already be seedlings in the greenhouse out back (currently a bit sad and in need of a good cleaning and some caulk).

I’ve been thinking a lot about cultivation lately.  The word itself has so many connotations — of civility and refinement, of nurture, of down in the dirt effort, of looking for approval and/or goodwill.  In my yoga practice, cultivation means finding strength in patience, a letting go of ego balanced by a will to push onward toward what yogis refer to as “the edge.”  In the garden, cultivation means a loosening of the soil to enhance the growing process and allow plants to stretch out their roots to obtain stability and moisture. In my teaching, cultivation means carefully stretching the budding intellects in my classroom toward making connections that transcend the literal, that express individuality of thought and argumentation.  In my writing, cultivation means tending language, weeding out the unnecessary and cross-pollinating my real and imaginative experiences.

I’ve been reading and thinking about creativity and where it comes from. There too, there is a balance between connecting disparate ideas in novel ways while yet remaining grounded in a utilitarian universe so as not just to be merely quirky or so much an inhabitant of a private mental universe as to be beyond comprehension.   Recent studies of creativity have found that the left brain and the right brain must cooperate, with neither becoming too dominant, for true innovation to occur.  Grey matter must not be overdeveloped; white matter must be plentiful enough to fend off the bossy grey.

In a wonderful post about the creative process, writes “Genuine creativity needs a collision of ideas, something that will never happen if all your thoughts travel in the same direction.” The enemy of this collision, of this cross-pollination, is oddly enough, effort. A piece by Tony Schwatrz in the opinion section of the New York Times this morning rightly suggested that our modern, workaholic culture actually makes us less productive than does 90 minute bouts of effort interspersed with periods of restoration and rejuvenation.

Workplaces that encourage people to work at their own pace, to take chances, to think rather than to do, not only have higher retention rates but higher productivity and greater innovation.  It is the mindless busy work engendered by being tethered to our electronics — the hard work of not just being but looking constantly “busy” — that saps the creative juices and produces nothing more than conformity and burnout. 

Some of my best ideas have come in the garden.  The hours pass with little notice.  My left brain is satisfied by the methodical work of weeding, planting, accomplishing a tangible result.  My right brain is free to wander, literally to smell the flowers and to roam through the pathways of my experience, cultivating the garden of my imagination.