Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Language of Flowers.

I've been thinking about flowers.

I'm not sure why I'm preoccupied with blooms, especially on these dreary, fall days. Maybe it's because of the impending bleakness of winter. Rationally, I know that we need the winter's chill for gorgeous spring peonies and tulips. From a business perspective—I need the calm of winter to prepare myself for the insanely busy spring. 

But right now, when I should be clearing the gardens for cool weather crops, planting garlic, and sterilizing hundreds of trays to be ready for spring transplants, I keep looking at the perennial bed, with it's overgrown black-eyed susan and lavender in need of deadheading. Just staring out the office window, willing a garden fairy to come and rip it all out. Then, instead of transplanting strawberries from the potager, I turn pages of awe-inspiring floral design books that recently arrived from Barnes & Noble.

How I love gift cards.

And while there are endless seed packs that need to be inventoried and fraise des bois seedlings that need to be started, I stalk floral websites, like Floret Flower Farm and Saipua.
I'm obsessed.

Honestly, the reason I began gardening was to ensure I'd have a continuous supply of fresh flowers, without needing to rely on some guy's guilty red roses. Historically, I've despised red roses, although Peter advocates that I let go of my aversion. (For the record, he's not the cause of my red rose animosity.)

My first gardening memories were planting annuals. Following alongside my mom, she dug holes around the lamp pole and on the side of our house. I placed a petunia in each hole, alternating red and while blooms, then backfilling dirt while she firmed each plant into place. Sometimes, we planted marigolds. And snapdragons. And my childhood favorite--pansies, with their mysterious little faces and rich hues. Up north, though, we planted those in the spring, not in the fall like I do now.

When I started gardening on my own, I swore off the basics—searching for interesting flowers with impossible to pronounce Latin names. I read, studied, enrolled in Master Gardener courses, and bought flowering plants compulsively.

Still, my flower obsession has been overshadowed in the past few years by creating kitchen gardens and an heirloom veggie plant business. The pleasure of gardening became a job, another task that consumed my time and became an obligation rather than a pleasure.

Maybe I've been thinking about flowers, because of the one-year anniversary of my mom's passing. Even in the late stages of Alzheimer's, deadheading flowers calmed her. Maybe it's because I'm desperate to regain the joy of gardening. Maybe I want it to be a source of pleasure again, not just an obligation.

And maybe, because I'm consumed with flowers, I fell in love with my most recent read, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.

Diffenbaugh's characters are heart-wrenching. Victoria, recently emancipated from the foster care system, can only connect to the world through flowers and their meanings. I worried for her safety as she made a home in a park next to the small garden she created.

“The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love,” according to the book's jacket copy. When Victoria receives unwanted attention from a flower vendor, she replies with a bloom of rhododendron: “beware.” He follows with a clipping of mistletoe: “I surmount all obstacles.”

I held my breath.

And finished the book in one day.

The characters are flawed, which makes them so credible. Tattered and bruised, cynical and tired—but I rooted for them. And cried for them.

I'm an emotional wreck.

As much as I loved the story, Diffenbaugh's “Victoria's Dictionary of Flowers” is an amazing addendum. Using numerous resources, such as The Floral Offering: A Token of Affection and Esteem: Comparing the Language and Poetry of Flowers written in 1851, Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway, and Flora's Lexicon by Catharine H. Waterman, Diffenbaugh compiled a dictionary to describe the meanings communicated by flowers and edibles, as Victoria does within the novel.

I've spent days reading the dictionary, making lists of the flowers in our gardens, deciphering their meaning.

And I started thinking about that nasty perennial bed, as well as the other plantings in front of the house. What messages greet guests when they come to our home?

Sunflower: False riches

Black-Eyed Susan: Justice

Azalea: Fragile and ephemeral passion

Camellia: My destiny is in your hands

Clematis: Poverty

Columbine: Desertion

Coreopsis: Always cheerful

Crocus: Youthful gladness

Daylily: Coquetry

Daffodil: New beginnings

Forsythia: Anticipation

Hibiscus: Delicate beauty

Hollyhock: Ambition

Hydrangea: Dispassion

Iris: Message

Lantana: Rigor

Lavender: Mistrust
(Nice. Lavender borders the walkway to the front entrance.)

Lilac: First emotions of love

Lily: Majesty

Pansy: Think of me

Phlox: Our souls are united.

Rose, yellow: Infidelity

Strawberry: Perfection
(Ironic, as our pots and baskets of strawberries are looking pretty ragged right now!)

Tulip: Declaration of love.

While the language of flowers may be a lost communication in our Skype and Tweeting world, there's a beauty in knowing the subtle, blossoming messages.

I think I might tackle the perennial bed, make it more welcoming.

And then, belatedly, plant a garden for my mom.

 Zinnia: I mourn your absence.

XO ~


Monday, October 10, 2011

Outstanding in the cold, cold field.

What is the magic of Leicester, NC? When I look out over the fields, hike through the mountains, or just sit on a porch swing and read, a quiet peace descends, blanketing the normal daily stresses and rejuvenating this frazzled mom. Last year, Peter and I visited Leicester for our first Outstanding in the Field dinner at East Fork Farm. This summer, we escaped our house construction craziness at Randall Glen, a fabulous farm hideaway in the mountains of Leicester. And once again, Peter and I journeyed back up the mountains to enjoy our second Outstanding in the Field dinner, this time at Gaining Ground Farm.

There's something about the virgin visit to an Outstanding in the Field dinner. A slight anticipation, an eagerness to learn about the farm and local producers, the experience of dining with strangers under the stars. Last year, as Peter and I drank wine while the moon rose over the meadow, sheep bleating behind our backs, we agreed that we should never go back. Any attempts to replicate that magical evening would fall short. It was perfection.

Of course, though, when tickets went on sale last spring, I couldn't resist. We would attend Outstanding in the Field as seasoned veterans. And this time--we wouldn't forget our plates. Plus, honestly—after a week quarantined with sick kids while Peter was traveling, I was very happy we planned an evening out.

We knew it was going to be chilly in North Carolina, but even with a sweater and boots I was poorly prepared for a dinner in the field. In fact, as we left our car, we noticed the trend of serious winter gear among the other guests. Hats, scarves, coats, was as if snow was forecasted. How would the chef keep dinner warm? How the heck were WE going to stay warm? No fear. Sadly, the weather turned our Outstanding in the Field into Dinner in the Barn.

Greeted by Leah, coordinator extraordinaire with the Outstanding in the Field crew, we were welcomed into a smallish outbuilding for champagne and hors d'oeuvres. Of course, I was enamored with the drying herbs and flowers.

Looking at the tools used for wreath-making, Peter pointed out that he finally knew a use for our ironing board. What a comical husband I have.
Charcuterie with Crostini, Lusty Monk Mustard

I confess. I am not a charcuterie fan. I appreciate it from a foodie perspective, but it's just not my thing. I also am not a mustard lover, but I do adore the tagline of Lusty Monk Mustard:

“Indulge. Repent. Repeat.”

Now, that is a slogan by which I can live.

Did you know that in medieval Europe, it was widely believed that mustard was an aphrodisiac? Some monks were forbidden to eat mustard, while other monasteries embraced mustard making and turned it into an art form. How can a former marketing girl not love the brand “Lusty Monk Mustard”? Genius name.

Herbed chocolate lab* canapé, lavender honey, French breakfast radish, microgreens
*A confession. I had no idea that herbed chocolate lab was a cheese. I thought, well, this is odd. Chocolate, radishes, microgreens? Huh. Quite yummy, even if there wasn't any chocolate. Sadly, I ate it before I remembered to take a photo.

Jacques Copinet Brut Champagne NV
A blend of 25% pinot noir and 75% chardonnay grapes from the family estate in Montgenost in the Marne Valley. The grapes are directly harvested by hand from the family vines. Directly savored by many happy guests, including Peter and me.

After searching for patches of sunlight for warmth, we gathered for introductions.

Gaining Ground Farm, the host of our highly anticipated dinner, is an organic haven of produce and heritage breed beef. Farmers Anne and Aaron Grier, a lovely young couple with an 11-month-old baby, farm on family land. When asked about their start on the farm, the couple recounts their early days of living on the land in an old school bus. For three years. (Now, that is dedication to a dream!)

The Griers understand the importance of caring for the land that provides their livelihood. Rotational grazing of the herd of Red Devon cattle, no chemical or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, green manures, and free ranging chicken contribute to balanced, biodiverse land. Along with the produce, Anne interplants flowers among crops to attract pollinators. She creates both fresh floral and dried arrangements.

The guests were led on a brief farm tour, meeting Anne's Jersey milk cows and the flock of free-ranging chickens...

...through the outbuilding filled with curing garlic...

...and to the fields of organic produce.

The Griers sell their produce, flowers, and meat to restaurants, through a CSA, and at several area farmers' markets. Currently, they have 20 CSA members, but by the interest among the guests, I think those numbers will ramp up considerably in the future.

After the tour, we hiked up a small hill to the barn for dinner. “Barn” is quite a misnomer. It was a gorgeous barn-like structure with lovely wood throughout (hickory?), obviously used for events rather than feeding livestock. The tables were arranged in a kind of snail shell design—spiraling continuously outward from the center of the barn. While I was quite happy that we'd be dining inside, I still missed the drama of seeing the tables artistically arranged in the field.

There was something else missing. The founder of Outstanding in the Field, Jim Denevan, a larger than life, cowboy-hat-wearing land artist, was conspicuously absent. Understandable, as the OITF schedule has grown to encompass more than 80 events, including international venues. I'm sure Mr. Denevan needs a few days off. Still, his presence was missed.

But the food...well, we knew the food would be exceptional. Once again, we were privileged to eat the delicious creations of Chef William Dissen, owner of The Market Place restaurant in Asheville. (Note to Peter: we must, must go to Asheville to check out The Market Place.) Still, a chef can only be as good as his ingredients—and the producers didn't disappoint.

As we sat, chatting with some relatives of Chef Dissen's, as well as a soon-to-be wed couple across from us, we broke bread. Literally. Farm & Sparrow bakery from Chandler, NC, hand crafts bread and pastries in a wood-fired brick oven. They are renown for their use of heirloom wheat, “Turkey Red,” an old Eastern European grain brought to the states in the 1800s. Using a traditional process, the original whole grain is stone-milled on site the day of baking. The dough is mixed by hand, using a slow fermentation process.

It tasted of history.

It's a good thing that I indulged in several pieces of the bread to soak up the liberally flowing wine. I seriously overindulged. Seriously. To the point of giggles.

I'm ashamed.

Did I mention that I had been home all week with sick kids while Peter was in Barcelona?

But enough about my inebriation, let's get on to the food.

Roasted Wild Mushrooms, Braised Baby Leeks & Looking Glass Chévre
Mixed Greens and Beet Vinaigrette

Commanderie de Peyrassol Rosé 2010

Looking Glass Creamery, founded by Jennifer and Andy Perkins, creates small batches of handmade artisan cheeses from goat and cow milk. The chévre was divine—and the leeks! Oh my. I like leeks, but these babies were scrumptious. And the beet vinaigrette was amazing. I wish I was salad so I could bathe in the vinaigrette. It was that good. (Do you know that I only started eating salad dressing within the past few years? Crazy.)


Benton's Bacon Wrapped Warren Wilson Pork

Onion Bacon Marmalade

Celery Root and Fennel Salad, Citrus Vinaigrette

Jean-Marc Morey Santenay “Grand Clos” 2006

Truly, how can anyone go wrong with bacon-wrapped pork? Isn't bacon considered the gateway drug of vegetarians? Warren Wilson College is known for students working on campus—in the garden, on the farm, wherever work is needed. Aaron worked on the farm when he attended Warren Wilson, and the pork provided by the college was deliciously tender.

Next up was a tasting of heritage Red Devon Beef, the heritage breed raised at Gaining Ground Farm. Served with tomato jam, roasted fingerling, purple, and sweet potatoes, broccoli rabe, whole roasted garlic, and mountain herbs. Perfectly tender, rare, melt-in-your-mouth excellence. When presented with such a lovely meat, I question vegetarianism. (No offense to vegetarians—I often wish I could go without meat. But that evening, I was truly glad to be a omnivore.)

Caprili Brunello di Montalcino 2006

And then, dessert...

Barber Orchard Honey Crisp Apple Tart, Blackberry Preserves, and Crème Fraîche
Raw Milk White Russian

It was an outstanding evening, but with an entirely different vibe than our prior experience. Perhaps it was the battling cell phones at our table, with fellow diners preoccupied with the Clemson (and other) football games. Maybe it was the change of venue. 

Honestly, though, while the food was wonderful, I missed the more intimate meetings with the producers, which we experienced last year. Yes, the producers were recognized at our dinner, with many hoots and applause. But last year, they were introduced around the table, where we had a chance to really talk with them and ask questions. Talking heirloom tomatoes with a farmer last year was one of the highlights of the evening for me.

Or maybe the atmosphere was less charged due to the magical, missing Jim Denevan.

In any case, it was a lovely evening with fantastic service, delectable local foods, and good conversation.

And really, really good wine.

OITF was next heading to Tennessee, with the crew piling aboard the big red and white, 1960s bus to set up a dinner the following day. I can't imagine the energy and coordination it takes to organize several dinners a week for hundreds of guests, all in different states with varying venues, producers, and chefs. It's an amazing, awe-inspiring endeavor.

Leicester continues to beckon, with the turning leaves enticing us to another Randall Glen outing. We're debating how we can squeeze in a mountain outing with all of the October obligations, but one thing is certain—Leicester leaves us all feeling rejuvenated.

Happy Fall, Y'all!