Sunday, April 05, 2009

New Hampshire Gold

The smell of wood smoke always reminds me of two seasons in New Hampshire, Spring or Autumn. There was something comforting to me when the temperature dropped and people lit their wood stoves or fire places that night. Standing on your front porch; gazing at the stars, and getting that first whiff of smoke, awoke in you that the season had truly arrived.

When I think back to Spring, I remember the anticipation of a yearly ritual...sugaring off. My Dad and I did this every single year. Mind you, we only had three sugar maple trees to tend, which was enough for our needs. Dad made an evaporator from an enameled, deep refrigerator drawer which would hold about three gallons of sap. He always amazed me with how he could do so much with so little. We'd sit there by the fire and watch that clear sap reduce into syrup. It's sweet scent perfumed with wood smoke is still fresh in my mind. This maple syrup was not the Grade A Light Amber we sell to "flatlanders", with its light, delicate maple flavor. Nosah! This was fit for farmers or lumberjacks; its flavor didn't whisper "maple" , it bellowed it like a Holstein bull!

Sunday mornings were particulary great during the season. Mom would make buckwheat pancakes with flour from our friends farm in Vermont or French toast from her homemade bread, and sausage patties or bacon from our pig. We didn't have much money, but, were millionaires in the food department. The fruit of your labor always tastes better. Funny how times change. Today, this humble breakfast would be called "artisinal" and only the rich could afford to eat it. Back then, it was simply good and everyone ate it.

Our beloved sugar maples are still on my Mom's property and have not been tapped for years. They produced gallons of New Hampshire " gold" which sweetened our daily lives, and I am grateful for these memories.

But, do you really want to know where the richest deposit of gold is here? Simply, it is found within the people who were raised in the great state of New Hampshire.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Memories of France

Waaaay back in April of 1976, I had an event that would change my life forever. I visited France with ten other students and our French teacher. We spent a total of three days in Paris and I fell deeply in love with this city and the entire country, as a matter of fact. Our journey took us to the Loire Valley, Brittany, and Normandy, the real France.

I was not your typical teenager at this time, looking for a McDonald's and a Coke in one of the gastronomical capitals of the world...bleah! No, the year before I went, my Uncle Gene, a serious wine and food connaisseur, taught me everything I should know about French cuisine and, more importantly, wines. The lessons he taught me were woven into the fabric of my soul. When I refer to his wines, I speak of "grandes chateaux",Lafite, Pétrus, Margaux, Latour, with vintages to match, '47, '53, '61 and '70. Yes, we could go on, but, he had a collection from every region of France.

In France, I felt at home since I spoke the language, knew the culture and the cuisine. A lot of people in the other group on the other hand, did nothing but complain about everything; drank coke with every meal (at twice the price of a half carafe of wine), would not hardly even speak French, and uttered the famous phrase "...well, in America...". Well, we are in France, << connard>>, relax and enjoy the difference.

The most memorable meal I had there was at Le Mont St. Michel in Normandy. Imagine if you will, a perfect Spring day.Weather in the low seventies, a slight ocean breeze, the sun warming your face. You're sitting out side at a small restaurant overlooking the salt plains towards the Atlantic Ocean, a spanking fresh seafood platter of local oysters, periwinkles, shrimp, half a Brittany lobster, and other things for which there is not an English name; bijourneaux,amandes and coques. Almost forgot-wine, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, a half bottle. Before you sets a crock of Normandy butter and dark, slightly sweet bread. I eat is if it is my last meal on Earth, admiring the jewel-like quality of the feast set before me. There is an oyster amidst this platter I do not recognize; round, flat and light green.I hesitate to eat it, yet, I am compelled to. I taste, it is shockingly cold, as I bite down, my world explodes. Layers of flavor comes in waves across my pallet, minerals, salt and an indescribably rich, fatty essence that is typical of the Belon oyster. Follow this with a sip of Muscadet and a nibble of buttered bread and you know the real meaning of life at that moment. The cost of paradise that day ?Twenty francs or about 5 dollars.

Another beautiful meal I had was in Dinan, it was the hotel's restaurant, as I remember. Ahhh, Sole Normande á l'ancienne...sole poached in cream with oysters. What to drink with Sole Normande? Sparkling Normandy Cider, period. Why, you may ask? Normandy and Brittany do not produce wine of any type. But, they do make the best hard cider in France, which goes perfectly with their rich, creamy, buttery cuisine. You will enjoy French food even more if you drink wine from the region the dish came from. An example, beef bourgignon with burgundy, since that is the region it came from, n'est pas?

So, send your francophile progeny to France if you can. See the difference when they return. In their eyes you'll see a fleeting glimpse of an adult in love...with food.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Rites of Passage...

There used to be a time in November when every country boy in New Hampshire participated in a right of passage, known in my parts as a "hog butcherin' ". Sounds like some kind of Druid festival, doesn't it? Far from it. It was a kind of communal gathering for those who raised pigs in the area to help dispatch and prepare your pigs for the freezer. For the most part, it was a men only social gathering with plenty of old timers who always had many a story to tell to us "young'uns" about the old traditions in the early 1900's. Most of the men there had known each other for 50 years or more. Naturaly, there was a good amount of dirty jokes being told, usually out of earshot of young boys, and hard cider was the drink of choice for all.

Clarence was a pig farmer who lived in the "boonies" on the Ashland/Holderness line on top of Holderness Hill. He was the host of this gathering and was as typical as they come...a bit laconic and had a very dry wit to boot. True to his roots, he had a variety of animals; ducks, geese, a donkey, sheep and cows and the biggest pigs in central New Hampshire. Now, most of us raised our pigs to weigh in at around 250-275 pounds come Fall. Clarence must have given the pigs miracle grow...they were 500-600 pounds if they were an ounce. This is fine if you like more fat than meat, plus it means that the pigs were well over a year old.

Usually at these get togethers there are different areas for different jobs; the pen where they shoot the pig, an area for eviserating consisting of a stout tree limb and block and tackle, sturdy tables for butchering and the "pig bath" . Contrary to what animal rights groups tell you, no one I ever met enjoyed taking the life of an animal, it was a somber occasion done as quickly as possible, one shot only. Since we were young, our fathers told us the truth about what will happen to "Wilber" come Fall and to not get too close to him least we get our feelings hurt. Once the pig has been dispatched, bled and eviserated, he is lowered into the pig bath. It is a tank of 170 degree water that has pine "rosin" in it, which, when you dip the pig, it sets the bristles. From there is where the boys start their work, shaving the pig with razor sharp knives...yes, 11 year old boys with knives! Back then, it was not unusual at all for boys as young as six or seven to own a pocket knife, always a gift from Dad. I still have mine, it is my most valuable possesion. Shaving pigs is messy work, the bristles cover you from head to toe, but, it was part of your job and cosidered very important.

The old timers there were the supervisors and let the young men (50's and 60's) do all of the heavy lifting . They had a sense of humor that bordered on the macabre at times. One came up to our table and let out a hellacious sneeze and dropped a pigs eyeball right on the table. The first words out of our mouths... "Jeezum Crow!", we dropped our knives and ran towards the woods, when we looked back, we saw the old timers laughing their asses off and knew we had been had.

The best part of the whole shebang was the dinner. The wives would come up and start cooking in the afternoon, usually something that they made at home. Home made baked beans, corn chowder, rolls, jonny cake, pickles, and of course, baked ham. Butter for the rolls was always hand churned and yellow as sunshine which came from Guernsey cows along with the milk they brought. The milk was un-pasturized, and raw. Funny, no one ever got sick from it. Why? Simple. Start with a healthy cow and clean the its udder well before you milk them and make sure the bucket is clean and sanitized, that's it. Least we forget, dessert. Apple desserts in every form imaginable; pies, spice cakes, Betty, crisps, baked apples with maple syrup, you name it. True to our tradition, apple pie always is served with a slice or two of "rat" cheese. Rat cheese does not come from rat milk! It is super sharp Vermont cheddar, usually 2 or more years old, and makes your mouth water when you eat it. No self respecting New Englander eats mild cheddar. Children are weaned with this stuff. If you want the real Mc Coy, try Shelburn Farms raw milk cheddar,Grafton, or, available almost every where, Cabot extra sharp or Hunter's. This tastes like the cheese of my childhood, especially Cabot's Reserve and Grafton Extra Sharp.

Much has changed there since 1970, hearing the local accent is now a rare occasion instead of the norm. But, there are still a few hold outs who still cling to the old ways and that gives me hope for the future of my beloved state. Even though I live in Florida, my soul is still that of a New Englander.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Tales of a Young Man

Ahhh...Fall. The time I miss most in New England. The crisp air, the smell of leaves, the hearty food my Mom used to make, Mc Intosh apples fresh from the tree, the harvest moon and cider from Mr. Wiser's ancient press.

It's a seasonal event that every country boy in New Hampshire remembers and smiles about. The harvest pretty much stocked up the root cellar with buttercup and Hubbard squash, onions, carrots and canned items that we made during the Summer. Piccalilli, bread and butter pickles, hot dog relish, pickled watermelon rind, and strawberry jam awaited us in the dead of winter, like rays of sunshine in jars. Last, but not least,beans, 5 gallon buckets full of dried kidney and pea beans, which every household baked for Saturday night's supper. I'm surprised that there was not a hole in the ozone layer with all the beans we consumed!

Fall is also the time when our pig was nice and plump. Dad fed him quite well on a hearty stew of apples, acorns and corn meal. So much so that the pork faintly tasted of apples when cooked. We all waited in anticipation for the arrival of the hams and bacon from the smoke house down in Canterbury...the best you have ever had, smoked over corn cobs and white oak or maple. My Dad and I would bring them into the house and just admire their handiwork as we got them ready for the freezer. They looked like they were sculpted out of mahogany.

What was left over from the pig (we never named him) were chops, roasts and sausage meat, neatly packaged for the freezer. We even used to make our own salt pork in 10 gallon crocks, which is necessary for baked beans. The "old timers" used to fry up salt pork and serve it with cream gravy and buttered bread! Try that now and they will name a cardiac unit after you.

Have any of you been to central New Hampshire before? We have a very distinct accent which sounds like Down East Maine, not Boston! But, I digress. I'll tell you a story from my childhood written in the way we speak up there.

Well, theya wuz a fahmah who lived down th' road a piece named Bud Wyzah who had a faahm. Ya know th' type...cows, hosses and grew cawn in th' summah. He also made sweet and haahd cidah frum his apple awchahd, 'bout 50 galluns each! Bud, bein' an old tymah, found nuthin' wrong with sellin' that haahd cidah to the local boys at a dollah a gallun. By Jeezum, we picked up a gallun a piece, an' staahted drinkin'...we wuh wicked hammahed by th' end of th' night. In the mawnin, my mouth felt like th' flowah of a chicken coop. Whut I din know that th' wahst was 'bout to come. I looked down at muh belly and it looked like I had swallahed a bowlin' bawl...a small faaht came out, then, I knew I wuz in trouble. I sprinted tuh th' crappah and set down just in time. Everythin' that was in came out includin' a french fry from 1966. I had th' trots for three days straight, lost 'bout 6 pounds, ayup.

The next time I saw Bud, he asked how I liked the cidah and laughed so haahd, his false teeth damn neeah fell out . He had been playin' that game with teen agaahs faw twenny yeahs at least, he said. When Bud made cidah, he nevah filtahd it 'tal. Chunks a' apple an' ground skin waah in the cidah. I think ya git th' pichah.

Bud passed away back in 1977 and with him died a yearly joke he played for two generations. I still make it a point to buy New England cider each and every Fall and always chuckle a bit as I think of that time. Of course, now you pay out the ass for cider, but, back then, we did too.