This has been one of those increasingly common years where winter fades into summer without much of a discernable spring. A few weeks ago we had the furnace blasting as the mornings were in the high 30s. Yesterday, Charlotte’s pool was out and we are congregating around it was would a herd of wildebeest on the Serengeti, using our arms instead of our tails to swat pesky insects and splashing ourselves to keep cool. It is with this background that I attempted to plan my most popular class at Ann’s Place: a summer solstice saunter and a supper. The hitch for supper is that everything, save flour, sugar and a few spices, are fresh and sourced from a 50-mile radius.
Now it is usually quite simple as the harvest in mid-June gives me lots of choices for a menu. But this year is different. “We’re at least two weeks behind,” said Lynn, one of the co-owners of Holbrook Farms where I get some of my greens and other vegetables. For me, my garden was way more than two weeks behind as the unrelenting winter made mush of my fall plantings leaving me nothing to start with in the early spring. Raised beds that were frozen solid until mid-April made it difficult to get a leg up on the season. And even when I was able to sow seeds or transplant small seedlings, the cool weather stunted any progress.
So I find myself rethinking the menu. Blueberries are definitely out. My bushes are filled with tiny green berries that should ripen starting in a month or so delivering the biggest crop I have had since they were planted over 7 years ago; but that doesn’t help me now. Last year’s crop was much smaller but ready by early June and the supermarkets were selling local berries. This year they are coming from Georgia or North Carolina instead of New Jersey or Connecticut. Strawberries looked to be another disappointment. Ours have just started to come in, about three weeks late, but unlike prior years the berries are plentiful, small and sweet with a hint of tartness.
But the asparagus is out and thick as well as the rhubarb. I can’t make a swiss chard quiche but I can a spinach/oyster mushroom one. And when I go shopping on Monday, I am surprised by the availability of local strawberries. My sister-in-law brought by some ones her family had picked in eastern Connecticut on Sunday. Things were looking up. The menu was taking shape. And it looked good.
Summer supper menu (origin of key ingredients)
Salad ((claytonia, tango and read leaf lettuce; sorrel; spinach; mesclun; chickweed; chives; tomatoes) Bethel and Ridgefield, CT )
Oil & assorted vinegars (Ridgefield, CT)
Smoked chicken sausage (Lagrangeville, NY)
Smoked trout (Lagrangeville, NY)
Flax seed muffins (gluten-free)
Asparagus/garlic scape pesto pasta (Bethel and Ridgefield, CT)
Asparagus/garlic scape pesto pasta (gluten-free) (Bethel and Ridgefield, CT)
Tomato quiche (Glastonbury, CT)
Spinach/oyster mushroom quiche (Bethel and Washington, CT)
Rhubarb cake (Ridgefield, CT)
Strawberry Rhubarb pie (North Haven, CT)
Fresh strawberries (Storrs and Ridgefield, CT)
Honeysuckle and spearmint tea with stevia (Ridgefield, CT)
Pindar winter white wine (Peconic, NY)
As clients arrived, I offered each a glass of sun tea, which initially was accepted by some with a bit of trepidation but then enthusiastically embraced. The evening was lovely: Temperatures in the high 70s, dry and a slight breeze that kept the population of biting insects at bay. It was a good mix of clients with some dressed ready to garden while others were wearing evening frocks ready to party.
“Thanks for everyone coming. As we are on the cusp of the summer, I feel as if this has been one of those years where we have skipped the better part of spring,” I said. Most everyone nodded in agreement. “So our choices for dinner were a bit different than in the past but I think we have some wonderful additions that will make up for any changes.”
We then started to walk the grounds. The herb garden is always a favorite and I started by giving everyone a piece of sorrel, which has a lemony, tart taste. I then followed up with a tiny piece of stevia, which we are growing for the first time this year. “Put it on your tongue and just let it sit,” I told the group feeling a bit like a Christian minister dispensing communion wafers.
“Wow that is really sweet!”
”That is incredible.”
”What did you call this plant?”
The group lingered for a while sampling the different mint and herb scents. We then started to walk through the grounds. The irises were out in force, while the daffodils were refueling for winter. The jack-in-the-pulpit’s have started the berry forming process and golden rod was making its presence known. I told the clients that we have a delicate balancing act between maintaining the natives and ensuring that no single one becomes too dominant.
“I’m at war this year with mugwort, which is an invasive foreign medicinal herb that has taken over the portion of the property by the labyrinth and threatens to do the same in the back. I’m pulling weeds all the time. The golden rod is not too bad, but I need to thin it out a bit to permit other things to take their place.”
Everyone is listening but spread out in the back garden. Some linger on benches looking at the new statues that were installed last week. Others are asking me to identify different plants.
“That is bittersweet. If you have it in your yard, you want to remove it.”
”This is a viburnum; I’m not sure which cultivar.”
“These are witch hazels. They have a wonderful, delicate little yellow flower that blooms in November.”
As we ended our walk, it seemed as if everyone was at ease enjoying the evening and the grounds.
“We will have dinner at 7, so you can hang out a bit and then make your way back. Enjoy the evening.”
A few clients accompanied me to help lay out dinner. As we all congregated on the veranda I asked if people wanted wine served. Lots of hands shot up making me happy that I brought three bottles. I then read a short passage from, “The Rural Life.”
“But as far as I can tell, no one’s eating the slugs. We try not to. We wash the lettuce for the garden three or four times picking over each leaf carefully before we spin it dry. The profusion of slugs this year reflects the damp, dark weather that has clung since April. Slugs are a kind of animate precipitation, aqueous sloths. The garden is flecked with them in early morning and after I’ve tossed a few of them into the nettle patch, the revulsion they cause dies away—until one turns up on the salad plate.”
Cries of “gross”and “yuck” arose with nervous laughter to this passage. Clients sometimes don’t consider the unintended consequences of eating food that is organic and fresh. The evening and meal passed quickly as conversation filled the veranda with little care or attention to time. We exchanged recipes and memories of the meals and gardens of our youth with every mouthful of food. Worries were gone as everyone was happy and contented with the meal. I brought out dessert late as no one was in a hurry. We lingered until darkness started to descend. Reluctantly we knew it was time to go as the chirping of birds decreased and the bats started to appear for their evening meal. With a slow clean up and an even slower dispersal of clients, the evening was over.