Thursday, June 30, 2011

One Odd Apple

The several dozen apple trees (probably over a hundred all together) growing on our Wisconsin land come in many shapes and sizes.  The trees range in size from around eight feet on the small end to over twenty feet tall (guessing, but some of these trees are really big).  Some are compact in their growing habit, and some majestically sprawling, with stout horizontal branches that invite you to climb up and take a seat in the cool shade on a hot afternoon.  Quite a few are composed of many trunks, acquired from shoots pushing up from rootstock in their carefree years before we arrived to harass them, try to get them to make something of themselves, and a few are miraculously kempt, requiring only a few judicious pruning cuts to give them a shape that would be quite at home in a real orchard.

And while most of the trees are found in irregular groupings in the open areas on our property, there are a number of large, healthy trees that now find themselves growing in the middle of the woods--mainly among the younger stands of birch and aspen.  Some of those trees may be wild, seedling trees, or they may have been planted on purpose, and only later in life became isolated in the forest as those faster-growing species colonized the area.

What all these trees have in common is that, regardless of differences in size or posture, they look like apple trees.  The main trunk or trunks rise to a certain height, then branch out to form a spreading crown.  Wild and unruly though many of them are, they are recognizable even at a distance as apple trees.

All but one.  That's the Anomalous Apple, so I think of it, pictured above, as best I could manage--its trunk starts at the very bottom left and angles toward the upper right.  It's growing no more than a couple of feet from the much, much larger trunk of a mature white oak on the north side of our land--that's a limb of the oak visible behind the Anomalous Apple.

I first noticed Anomalous this winter on a snowshoe walk through the woods.  Here was a tree that had to be some kind of fruit tree, and its bark said apple to me, as did the bare wood of the small dead branches which were the only branches close enough to the ground for us to really see.  It wasn't a plum or cherry, the most common wild fruit trees on our land.  It really seemed that it had to be an apple tree, except that the trunk, instead of rising to the usual four to six feet, then spreading its arms to make apples, the trunk surpassed that height and just kept going, straight up, right into the branches of its companion oak, with only minor, twiggy side branches along the way.  It looked like an apple that yearned to be a pine tree, is what it looked like. 

Well, I'm not a forestry expert.  I decided to keep an eye on it and see what it would turn out to be, once it leafed out and, perhaps, even bloomed.  Likely it would reveal itself to be something quite obvious, in hindsight, and certainly not an apple.  Except, it is.  Or, I'm pretty well sure that it is.  It leafed out, and the leaves looked like apple leaves, only unusually large, perhaps to compensate for its sunless situation.  It blossomed, and examined through binoculars, those blooms well over our heads did indeed look like apple blossoms.

You can just make out the fruit in the photo above--it's awfully hard to shoot, aiming upward at the brighter sky from below in the dark woods.  Here's a tighter crop:

The little apples are mostly around the edges of the picture.  It's a curiosity, for sure, and I can't wait to find out what those apples taste like once they ripen.  While we speculate about which of our other trees might be wild trees, unique to our little plot of land, this one, this Anomalous Apple, we're sure about.  Apple trees take a long time to reach full size, but oaks take even longer.  Somehow an apple seed found its way into the old oak and maple woods, managed to germinate, and, against all odds, survive for all these years in what has to be one of the more uncomfortable situations an apple tree could find itself in. 

It would seem, once again, that Great Nature has found a way.  Now we are only left to ponder, Why?  Maybe just because it can.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

At Bide-A-Wee, June 2011

This is the fourth summer since we purchased our Wisconsin property, "Bide-A-Wee Land," just long enough to really start to get a feel for the place.  We've seen enough changes of season to be able to anticipate, a bit, but there's enough variety in those seasonal turnings that we can still be surprised, or find new things to notice, with each progression.

One very broad observation that we've made, starting in the very first year we owned the land, is the stunning transformation that occurs between, say, mid-May, as the trees are just starting to leaf out, the thickets to thicken, the meadow plants to gain momentum, to the end of June, when the real heat of summer comes in, and with it the astounding profusion of greenery that takes what was previously a rather obvious landscape and elaborates it with layer after layer of texture, color, contrast, depth, and life.  It's particularly striking on our very hilly acres, as the elevation compounds yet again all those layers, and the spare scaffold shapes of winter trees fill out and up, turning hills into mountains, modest inclines into imposing cliffs.

It's a little startling in some ways.  Through this long spring, after the winter of deep and persistent snows, we really enjoyed the freedom of movement the flattened brown meadows afforded us--we could walk anywhere we wanted, on our own two feet!  No skis or snowshoes required, and nothing to stand in our way.  Now, within the span of about three weeks, the meadow vegetation is waist-high and still gaining.  You can get through it, sure, but the gopher mounds that cover most of the lowlands make the walking treacherous when you can't see the ground, and the blackberries have sprung up, making long pants and tall boots imperative for any bushwhacking. 

So we tend to keep to a few well-worn paths.  Our friends Renee and Mark Bartz helped us out with that a couple of weeks ago--they brought over a 4-wheeler and a deck mower and cut a swath from the cabin down to the north meadow, where some of our best apple trees are.  I got to try my hand at it, too, mowing the hilltop circuit just above the cabin.  It is a lot more difficult to drive a 4-wheeler pulling a deck mower over bumpy terrain than it looks.  I was pleased with myself for not flipping over, or driving into a tree.  Mark, who's lived in this area all his life, said he'd never seen a piece of land quite so gopher-infested as ours.  A mark of distinction over which I am not sure we should be proud....

When a belt fell off the mower partway through cutting the Bide-A-Wee yard, I was left to finish the rest by hand, with my trusty scythe, which is really an extremely efficient piece of equipment once you learn how to use it.  It's better on some kinds of plant matter than others, and it really pays you back to keep it sharp with peening jig and whetstone, but under the right conditions I can cut a mighty swath in very little time.  And it's an excellent workout, to boot (but one must remember to wear gloves, lest one wind up with weeping sores between thumb and forefinger where the blisters have burst, as I experienced last week).

"Mowing the lawn" (and expanding it a bit) after a two-week absence produced this haystack, and another, even larger one:

In amidst the green profusion, of course, there are fruity things happening, too.  Mainly, the apples:

Blackberries, some still in bloom, while many have already set fruit, and it's looking like a good year for them:

A lesser-known wild fruit is the haw or hawberry, fruit of the hawthorn tree.  I've done a bit with haw fruit in the past, and it's something I'm really eager to explore further.  Last year we harvested exactly zero haws--it was that poor a year for wild fruit.  In a good year the bright red fruits, rather like rosehips, hang on the shrubby trees long after the leaves have fallen.  Not all haw fruit is delicious--you really have to taste around until you find a tree with sweet, flavorful fruit.  Fortunately, hawthorn trees are abundant on our land, and in the region generally.

Also abundant, moreso than I ever imagined, are black cherry trees.  They will grow to 50 feet tall or better, with trunks that can exceed a foot in diameter.  Until you learn to recognize them by their bark, though, you won't know that these mature trees are cherries--the first branching on these big trees occurs way high overhead, and the fruit is indistiguishable in the overall canopy of mixed hardwoods where they occur.  The fruit, therefore, we gather from baby specimens. Serviceberries also in the picture, left, with the green cherries top and right.

The prickly ash spreads and fills in on the old farm road, creating "verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways" (thank you John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale").  Prickly ash is in the citrus family, I was amazed to learn, and it produces a profusion of tiny berries in the the fall.  The husks of these berries have two remarkable qualities:  first, they smell very, very citrusy, mainly like tangerine, to my sniffer; second, they produce a numbing sensation on the tongue when you chew them, exactly like Sichuan peppercorns, to which--ta da!--they are closely related.  I've done a little cooking with them, but the jury's out.  They don't seem to retain their fragrant or numbing qualities (that's ma in Chinese Pinyin) once dried, so I think I'll try using them fresh come the fall.

Coming back over the hill toward the cabin, Lily went on point in the greenery.  When I let her go she sniffed avidly down the hill ahead of her, and fixated on a particular spot, but there was no bird.  Likely it flushed ahead of us.

The main meadow, and the "Tardis" outhouse:

On the hilltop circuit, an Aldo Leopold bench that Mary built:

A good place to sit and take it all in.  Summer starts to seem long by this time of year, but we know what an illusion that is.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, June 24, 2011

And the Rest Is Salad....

So for the second longest day of the year, the leftovers from the longest day dinner, reconfigured, did quite nicely.  There was a bit of everything left from our solstice aioli supper--trout, potatoes, beets, asparagus, snap peas.  I picked red lettuce, sorrel, and some smaller purple mustard leaves from the garden, along with a baby turnip.  Mixed the leftover aioli and sorrel-tarragon mayo with olive oil and a little cider vinegar.  Fried off the potatoes and when they were nicely brown added a couple of sliced purple spring onions to wilt, and the beets to warm a bit.  Tossed the greens with the asparagus, peas, and the dressing.

On the bed of greens I portioned out the roots, and topped it with poached trout, the very thinly sliced turnip, another drizzle of dressing, and a superfluous (but colorful and tasty) garnish of a sliced strawberry (picked up at a roadside honor stand on the road to Bide-A-Wee, $2 a quart, fantastically fragrant--it has been a great year for strawberries).

A bowl of steaming soup might have been more appropriate to the weather--the high of 63 matched the "record low high" for the date.  But we were not complaining.  With toasted sourdough and a glass of cider, strawberries over ice cream for dessert, we were content.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Solstice Aioli

Going back to that idea of honing a finer sense of the seasons , I can report that it's the season of setting fruit out at Bide-A-Wee.  Last year was a dismal one for our apples, as well as for most of  the wild fruits, except for the wild plums, which seem to come through every year.  This year the hawthorns, black cherries, chokecherries, and serviceberries are all setting up nice crops.  In spite of a cool pollinating season, the apples look good--the largest are already an inch-and-a-half across, and reddening.  We have one more gallon of sweet cider in the freezer--maybe barely enough to get us through to a first pressing of this year's fruit if we ration it carefully.  A couple swallows in the morning is enough to start the day off on a happy note.

It's haying time, too--our friend Renee Bartz told us this weekend that they'd cut their second crop of hay, and now hoped for a few dry days to get it baled (not looking like that wish will come true).  You see this age-old practice taking place all across the Dairy State countryside.  Where one day there was a field of tall grass, the next there's a shorn landscape looking something like a very rustic golf course, except dotted across it are the cylindrical bales of hay, a lovely sort of order brought out of the unruly growth, entropy reversed.

With the cows out on new grass, the raw milk we get from the Bartz's Bolen-Vale farm is the richest of the year.  Last weekend we skimmed the cream from the top of the jar and spooned it over the first strawberries of the summer, and we swooned.

And at the market, the season is that of the first summer vegetables.  The leafy things were pleasant enough, asparagus delightful, but it's greatly heartening--and appetizing--to see the next wave coming in, in this case young beets, snap peas, and most gloriously, the first green garlic.  That market haul, and a successful outing on the trout stream (oh, really, they're all successful, whether I catch fish or not), set the scene for an aioli dinner to mark the summer solstice.  (For the mayo/aioli how-to click here.)

Please note that no adjective accompanies aioli here, nor ever will, unless to make the derisive point that none ever should.  Aioli is aioli is aioli.  Chipotle aioli?  Nah.  Lemongrass aioli?  Skip it.  Garlic, oil, egg yolk, a bit of mustard, a squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, that's what's in aioli.  Oh, now I've read that in Provence some local variations omit the egg yolk, using cooked potato or bread as the binder.  I've never tried it that way.  You could call it garlic mayonnaise and not be far off, except that aioli deserves a more prominent place at the table than is commonly accorded mayonnaise.  It needs to be seen and appreciated, inhaled, dolloped out in copious portions for dipping and dabbing--a clandestine schmear on a sandwich or burger doesn't do it justice.

See the two unctuous globs on the plate above?  The yellow one  on the left is aioli, of course, and the green one is sorrel-tarragon mayo, which only had some garlicky undertones because I chopped the herbs in the same place on the cutting board where I puréed the garlic for the aioli.  I did that on purpose.  To half a cup of mayo I added four smallish sorrel leaves and just a sprig of tarragon, the most assertive of herbs, to my taste.  A dandy combination--but not aioli, mais non.

As for the trout, it was poached in a court bouillon flavored with green onion tops, carrot, thyme, tarragon, cutting celery, black pepper, and some Breton bouillon flavoring containing sea salt, algae, fennel, and some other spices.  We picked it up at a small market in Brittany a good while back.  It seems to keep.

The beets (Menomonie farmers market) and potatoes (not local, I'm afraid), I roasted with olive oil, thyme, rosemary, fleur de sel, black pepper, and chopped green garlic, at 375, for 40 minutes covered, another

15 uncovered.  I peeled the beets first.  And then the asparagus and snap peas (stringed) were blanched in salted boiling water for two minutes.

An aioli plate is the ideal sort of meal for long summer evenings, and this was the longest of all.  We sipped a petit chablis, our glasses
appealingly misted in the humid evening.  The monsoon rains came and went, a downpour, a sunburst. I guess you could say it's summer.