In the pandemic.

During this disastrous global health crisis, we are all inclined to want to ’do something’ to help, or ameliorate others’ suffering, and so it feels perversely counterintuitive to self-sequester in our homes, and yet complying with that demand is the best thing we can all do for ourselves and one another to ‘flatten the curve’. Because I possess some fabric, elastic and sewing skills, my ability to make some masks to distribute to our health care workers in need of essential PPE has felt empowering during this time of fear and helplessness. I know others feel the same and share my tremendous gratitude to those who continue to provide truly essential services that sustain the well- being of our community.

We, my husband Andrew and I, live in a relatively rural town of 6500 people considered to be a community of the Connecticut shoreline. Our property comprises 5 acres of mixed woodland, wetland and cultivated land. We moved here from a one bedroom apartment in upper Manhattan, my home of 25 years, in 2007. For me, a native New Yorker, this was a big change and a significant lifestyle adjustment. For Andrew, a deracinated Englishman native to rural Yorkshire with deep roots in the traditions of farming, agriculture and horticulture, this was a shift that felt closer to home than NYC.

Our ‘country’ lifestyle makes adapting to the current “sheltering in place” restrictions far less onerous than it is for most people. This in itself should provide an element of relative comfort, but it doesn’t really.  We worry about our loved ones, friends and family, many of whom live in the UK or in the greater NY area. This pandemic overwhelms ones’ thoughts, emotions and behaviors in ways that we’ve never before encountered.

We benefit from a measure of self-sufficiency but we are certainly not of the survivalist ilk. We are artists and designers. We design gardens and outdoor environments for a living, but our own ‘terrain’ has evolved as much, if not more than any of our clients.  When we planned our landscape, we included two sizeable “kitchen gardens”, an herb garden, an orchard, and what we call the Fruit Garden in which we cultivate red and black currants, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, gooseberries which are enclosed by a living fence of espaliered apple and Asian pear trees. We preserve much of our produce, either by canning, freezing or fermenting. We do it because we can and we know where our food is coming from.

Grapevines artfully conceal a covered, outdoor ‘chicken run’ providing our feathered friends with cooling shade in the summer and us with the ingredients for jelly and wine. The chickens provide a plentiful supply of eggs, more than enough to share with others, and the bee hives produce more than enough honey for the bees and us. Wood stoves heat our house and we harvest wood from the property, spending many winter and autumn hours cutting, splitting and stacking fuel. It keeps our strength up.

When we do shop, usually once a month, for various dry goods, dairy, wine and beer, we purchase in bulk because we can. A fifty pound bag of bread flour lasts more than a month, and that’s with weekly bread baking; a twenty-five pound bag of all-purpose flour and a ten pound bag of semolina last considerably longer, as they are used for making pasta, and general baking. Not all, but quite a lot of dairy products get frozen in a five foot long chest freezer, along with casseroles, curries and quiches that I’ve gotten into the habit of making, marathon style, to avoid having to cook every day. We grow hedges of basil and I freeze quarts of pesto. It’s all good.  All good; but what about those who can’t, who don’t have these options?

We have barely left the property for ten days or more. I went out once, last week, to drop off face masks I’ve made at a depot set-up at the Town Hall for distribution to health care workers. Andrew went to a client/ neighbor’s to prune the fruit trees in their orchard. We maintain extreme social distancing. We do not face the worry about food security or availability or the risk of being infected with the coronavirus multiple times a day like some of our city and suburban family and friends. My heart breaks for them; for the anxiety they are experiencing, the stress they are under.

Ordinarily, the stone pizza oven that we built several years ago is fired up for entertaining, as wood-fired stone ovens take a few hours to come up to the 900 F temperature needed to make proper pizza, and, although we have, in the past, fired it up, once or twice, for baking multiple loaves of bread at the same time, or smoking peppers for the pantry, now that we’re in sequestration it seems strange and lonely to think of using it without the bustling company of six or eight or ten friends. We’re not especially social, in fact, the reverse argument could be made, however, a similarly strange feeling of isolation and loneliness hangs like a shroud when we set a fire in the fire-pit. Gone is the spontaneous phone call to friends inviting them over for a glass of wine and a bonfire “because it’s a beautiful evening.”  Yes, the two of us still light a blazing fire, and we’re mindful of how fortunate we are to enjoy such a primal pleasure, while our city friends and family isolate in claustrophobic incarceration in apartments too small, in a city shut down and too vast to appease them, where every outing to the grocery store or the laundromat or to walk the dog is fraught with the risk of viral infection.

Last week, Andrew cut back the berry canes and trained in the ones that will produce fruit this summer, while I sowed seeds for poppies and hollyhocks throughout the gardens. Today he pruned the fruit trees in the orchard and cut back some of the ornamental grasses. I took my daily 5 mile walk, tended to plants in the greenhouse, and then sewed some more face masks until I ran out of elastic for the earpieces. Tomorrow, perhaps, we will cut back the currant bushes, prune some of the roses, work-out the crop rotation plan for this coming season’s vegetable garden. There is no lack of things that need doing, and yet it is the uncertainty of what the near future holds and the awesome, invisible power that the Coronavirus-19 wields that disorients and renders the normal, seasonal activities and routines so, Oh ..I can’t find the words;… unroutine.

The very act of gardening is an expression of optimism, an act of faith. No one would plant a seed if they didn’t believe in the possibility of its reaching fruition. No one would utter a prayer if they didn’t believe it would reach the ears of God.

 

Caponata – Queen of Condiments

Caponata that's been canned and processed in a pressure canner.

Caponata that’s been canned and processed in a pressure canner.

There’s that magical moment during the gardening season when the eggplants, onions, celery, peppers and tomatoes are ready for harvesting all at the same time and that’s the time to make Caponata, the exquisite Sicilian concoction that enlivens the palate with the rich flavors of late summer vegetables and the ‘agrodolce’ sparkle of vinegar, olives, capers and herbs.  Most of the ingredients come from my garden, however, this queen of condiments cannot be prepared without copious amounts of good olive oil, and, of course, the capers and olives. The real skill here is time, lots and lots of time. The dice of the eggplant must be  1/2″ to 3/4″. The eggplant must be salted and left to weep its water content for a few hours, and then wrung tightly in a towel to squeeze out every last drop of moisture. (It’s best to have two people do this), and when it’s fried, it must be evenly brown. Not burnt, not just golden, but BROWN.  The celery and peppers ( not all recipes include peppers) must be fried till they are almost brown. The onions must be brown, not golden, not wilted, BROWN. The tomatoes must be peeled and rid of their seeds. The whole process takes many hours, 6 at the minimum. The olive oil must be top quality, the capers and olives as well. The vinegar, well,  after all this work, why not use a good quality balsamic vinegar? I hedge my bets, using our own apple cider vinegar to ensure adequate acid when preparing the tomato sauce component, and then finish it off with a large dose of rich balsamic vinegar for flavor and color. Salt? A dear friend brought back some wonderful Sel de Guerantes which adds another layer of richness, but any old salt will do (you might not even need it since the eggplant’s been salted).

We preserve our Caponata by processing it in a pressure canner (25 minutes at 5 lbs. pressure), as this is really the only guaranteed safe way to preserve it.  (You could try the boiling water bath method but this is not recommended. If you decide to risk this, I suggest you double the amount of vinegar to ensure a higher acidity level).

Recipe. I follow the late Leslie Land’s recipe, which I’ve linked below. I alter the recipe somewhat by adding a dash of cinnamon, green bell peppers and sometimes raisins.

http://leslieland.com/2008/09/choosing-good-eggplants-and-making-them-into-caponata-the-ultimate-vegetable-preserve/

If you try making this let me know how it turns out. Cheers.

Pizza Pop-Up Dinners at Stonewell Farm – Sept. 16th, 17th & 18th, 2016

Three Pop-Up Dinner Events at Stonewell Farm in Killingworth, Connecticut

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This just might be the highlight of the season as we head into Fall.  Chef Paul Barron and Weekend Kitchen team up with Stonewell Farm to host 3 evenings of farm-to-table dining that make for a memorable event. Gather some friends and enjoy delicious food featuring artisanal pizzas prepared in Stonewell Farm’s wood-fired oven, with wine pairings, and live acoustic guitar in a setting that will take your breath away. Your hosts, Andrew Pighills and Michelle Becker are award-winning garden designers and  will provide tours of the extensive gardens including perennial borders, an espaliered orchard and the organic kitchen and herb gardens from which much of your meal will be sourced.

Dates:

Friday, September 16th 2016,               6:00 pm

Saturday, September 17th, 2016          5:30 pm

Sunday, September 18th, 2016             5:30 pm

Cost:

$75.00 per person

The prix-fixe menu includes appetizers, organic salad from Stonewell Farm, unlimited artisanal wood-fired pizzas highlighting locally sourced ingredients with a glass of wine accompaniment, and a dessert made with local, seasonal fruits. To cap it off, the evening will conclude with a bonfire in the stone firepit (so bring your best ghost stories).

Guests are encouraged to BYOB.

Reservations:

To book a reservation, contact:

9/16, 17 &18 Wood fired Pizza Pop-Up Dinner with Chef Paul Barron

 

 

How to Build a Stone Wall

The end of the final day of the workshop. Phew!

The end of the final day of the workshop. Phew!

If you live in a place where there are a lot of stone walls you’ve probably admired them. Dry stone walls are timeless, classic, and stand as testimonies to historic and cultural traditions that have been usurped by strip malls and housing developments that hollow us of a sense of place and belonging.   Perhaps you’ve thought about having some built on your property, or, if you have stone at your place, you’ve thought of building some yourself. If you’d like to know more about the history ,the dynamics and details of constructing dry stone walls, that is, walls without mortar, you couldn’t do better than to sign on for a workshop with Andrew Pighills.

Andrew will be teaching a week-end long, dry stone wall building workshop on Saturday and Sunday, April 28th and 29th at Stonewell Farm in Killingworth, Connecticut. For more information please contact me at: mb@mbeckerco.com and I will send you registration materials.

Intelligence should trump Trump

Back in the day, many years ago, when I was working for a company that did decorative painting, I was called to a Trump property job. The project was to ‘marbelize’ a red fire indicator; a red-painted device in a public space intended to visually stand out so that, in the event of a fire, someone could pull the switch and alert the Fire Department to a fire emergency. The job descriptive was to camouflage the device so that it would be indistinguishable from its marble surroundings. Donald Trump wanted this to be made invisible. He wanted the space to shout elegance and affluence and he thought that NYC’s building codes infringed on his right to create an environment of luxury. As a poor artist, I balked, philosophically, but performed the service of camouflaging the said fire alert device. In the event of a fire in this public place, no-one would be able to find the very well camouflaged fire alert device. Do I feel bad about this? Yes. Does Donald Trump? Absolutely not. Why not? Because he is a creature without a conscience.  This is what I know about Donald Trump. He is a creature without a conscience. Buyer beware.

Goodbye Benazir.

Benazir_01

This is the story of a hen. Not any hen, and not any hen that you could imagine or hope to meet. Benazir was an intelligent hen.  A powerful hen. A beautiful hen. A human friend kind of hen.  My hen.  My frhend, Benazir.  My pet hen Benazir. She lived the same lifespan of a dog and I loved her in the same way that dog-owners love their pets. Benny was an Australorp, black feathers that shone an iridescent teal green in the light, black legs, that faded to scaley grey with age. She was a good Mama. She was a great ‘grubber’. When we dug the gardens in the early spring, and encountered innumerable quantities of squirming grubs in the soil Andrew and I would look at one another and say, “get Benny”, whereupon one of us would head  to the henhouse calling “Benazir, Benazir”, and, she, immediately recognizing her tri-syllabic name, would come running to the door, glossy, fluffy, beautiful, eager, priveliaged. We’d scoop her and all her voluptuous featherdeness up in our arms and head  to the garden, she, comfortable and confidant, thrusting her head forward and back, to our amusement, as if she were walking. Then, once placed on the ground, she would scratch and dig and gobble up the grubs in each planting hole, and then jump on my arm or next to it, cocking her head to look into my eyes for direction, ready for the next planting hole task, she’d jump back down and do it all over again.

When grub season was over, she’d come to the front door and knock on it with her beak. Once opened, she’d look up into our eyes with expectation, and we’d respond with bits of cheese (her favorite) or oatmeal or bread or, even, hard boiled eggs ( I know…weirdly cannibilistic). She’d crossed the threshold once or twice but knew this was not her place, and so remained on the entryway carpet waiting for a treat, even when she could clearly see me cooking in the kitchen, twenty paces away.

Benazir had a favorite place in a nook beneath our bedroom door to the outside. Full sun, dry, (perfect for dust baths), shaded, quiet; far from the madding crowd of the others chickens. When we would encounter Benazir there, we would say, “Hey Benazir, that’s a good Mama”….., which would elicit a soft cluck, in kind acknowledgement and acceptance of us; our human presence. Benny was a matriarch, a mother of a couple of broods, an overseer of others, and a friend of us.

Benazir, dear, sweet, creature. We loved you, we still do. Forgive us.

Goodbye, sweet thing, goodbye.

Wall Building Workshop; more Rock Stars

 

A new wave of rock stars
A new wave of rock stars

This past weekend we hosted another successful dry stone wall building workshop here at Stonewell Farm. The weather was perfect and the attendees were an amazing bunch. I’ve posted a photo album on the progress of the wall on Flickr. Here’s the link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stonewell_farm/sets/72157652366188335/

Below is the final shot of the tired Rock Stars at the end of the day, before we cracked open a few well-deserved beers. Well done!

The end of the final day of the workshop. Phew!

The end of the final day of the workshop. Phew!

 

Another Linnet #99 Tunic

A sleeveless, tunic length version of the Linnet #99 pattern.

A sleeveless, tunic length version of the Linnet #99 pattern.

I’ve made another version of the Linnet Dress #99. Since I’m not much of a dress person, I crafted another tunic version, this one somewhat shorter than the last one, and without sleeves, so it can be worn as a layering garment with shirts, turtlenecks and leggings. I had some remnants of heavy weight linen that I’d dyed for another project knocking around and so that’s what I used, and decided that the contrasting shade of the selvage was something that I liked so I chose to incorporate it into the design. I’m pleased with this project. This is exactly the sort of basic wardrobe garment that I needed and that prompted my wardrobe sewing adventure in the first place. The simplicity of the pattern lends itself to seemingly endless variations. This is a four pleat version, two in front and two in back, but I’m working on a 10 pleat version with long sleeves in an indigo dyed linen. My linen supply has run dry but I intend to make more of these, one in silk and a couple in some  cotton Provencale prints that I have in my fabric stash. With Spring nowhere in sight, I think I might still have enough time to crank out a few more before gardening season is upon us.

Tunic #1: Linnet Dress Pattern #99

The pattern was altered to tunic length.

The pattern was altered to tunic length.

picture of linen tunic sewn with a Linnet Sewing pattern

Detail of inverted front pleats at waistline.

Here is the completed garment, using Linnet Dress pattern No. 99, adapted to a tunic length. For such a seemingly simple garment, there’s been quite a learning curve, taking three times longer than I’d expected it to. (And I thought I’d be whipping these things out at a rate of one a day, passing the snowy, winter days, populating my wardrobe with a dozen lovely, well-made, linen tunics in gorgeous colors all hand-dyed by me, and in time to host garden parties this summer). Uhhhh. Time to re-think that one and set more modest goals, I suppose.

I’ve learned a lot from making this garment, and have a much greater respect for even poorly made garments, like this one, for instance.

I altered the pattern somewhat, eliminating the original shawl collar, which ended up looking rather matronly, and shortened the whole thing to tunic length. The next one I make will be for fall and winter, and the plan is to line it for extra warmth and opacity.

We’ll see how that goes. YouTube tutors seem to make entire garments come together, perfectly and professionally in 7.28 minutes, so…….anything is possible..

Japanese Sewing Patterns-Part II

Linnet sewing pattern fresh out of the airmail envelope.

Linnet sewing pattern fresh out of the airmail envelope.

Hmmm. Operation Japanese Sewing patterns isn’t going as swimmingly as I’d expected. Out of the envelope, what I loved about the uncluttered, clean, minimalist patterns has become a baneful sewing adventure. All that previously admired open space means there’s very little information to guide one in the construction/assembly process; no notches for matching seams, no markings for tailor tacks, no seam allowances.  Very minimal, indeed. I guess the Linnet people expect a more practiced sewist to be using their patterns. The written instructions that accompany the patterns are, at first glance, thorough enough, until you actually try following them. They’ve made a good effort but there’s just not enough direction for a beginning sewist, despite the simplicity of the garment silhouettes themselves.

Sigh. Well, on the bright side of things, I’m glad I’m not using wildly expensive or irreplaceable fabric, and, although I hadn’t really planned on any hand sewing, there is some of that involved, and thanks to YouTube and some generous and skillful tailors-sharers, I’m learning some great hand sewing techniques that I’d never known about.  I’m also keeping careful notes on the difficulties I encounter and how I’m resolving them so that I don’t have to tread this thorny path again. Lesson #1: Don’t try to adapt our measurement system of inches to metric. Just use the metric system. ( Weren’t we Americans supposed to have converted to the metric system sometime in the seventies of the last century? What happened with that perfectly reasonable idea?)

I’ve started this project with an off-white linen, and sewing linen is somewhat more challenging than the more tightly woven cotton fabrics. The next garment will be a cotton print. But while I’m on the subject, let me say something more about the garment I’m working on; Linnet Dress/Tunic #99. The good news is that there’s very little discernible difference between the ‘right-side’ and the ‘wrong-side’ of the off-white linen fabric that I’m using. That also happens to be the bad news as well. Lacking tailor’s marks or notches, it’s hard to tell what goes where and how in the construction. I’ve taken to sticking blue tape onto the fabric patterns pieces and writing RS (Right Side) and WS (Wrong Side) to keep myself sane-ish.

The first garment ought to be completed by tomorrow, and I’ll post the results here.