Tag Archives: writing

My First Fig

26 Dec
by Francine

Growing up in the midwest and always living in places with cold winters, the only fig I ever encountered where those of the Newton variety which I’ve always found found to be delightfully crunchy.  When I moved to England I started noticing figs from faraway places in the supermarket, but I wanted to hold off on having a fig until I was in a place that had figs growing on a tree. Since it might be that figs are one of the last fruits I’ll get to have for the first time in my lifetime…

I tasted bright pink dragon fruit for the first time in Vietnam and saw the cactus-like way it grows; I was introduced to the very smelly durian by Chinese friends, and I bought fragrant mangosteens from a smiling Chinese fruit vendor after seeing the very cute fruit piled high in all the street market stalls (more on mangosteens in a future post because they are just so delightful).

Anyway, I promised myself that I’d wait to have figs until I was in a place that had figs on their list of local seasonal fruits.A photo of a fig tree  Thankfully this happened sooner than I expected.  We went to Macedonia (the Former Yugoslav Republic) back in September and as we drove from Skopje (the capital) to Lake Ohrid we were amazed at the beauty of this tiny mountainous country. We also noticed its bounty…vines heavy with grapes, watermelons everywhere, and the ripest tomatoes of our lives crowning every dish. 

We arrived at our guesthouse on the shore of Lake Ohrid just as the sun was going down and we sounded like a crazy flock of seagulls muttering ‘wow, wow, wow’ over and over.  It was SO beautiful, seriously one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever visited. 

A photo of the Sunset over lake Ohrid

Our private balcony was framed by creeping vines, purple flowers and an unobstructed view of the lake.  Just when I was thinking that things couldn’t get any better, the jolly and very kind guesthouse owner, Pavel, leaned over our balcony and presented us with a bowl of perfectly ripe figs, asking us if we liked them.  He then pointed to a nearby tree that was completely heavy with ripe figs!A photo of figs

I immediately had one; and as the juice dripped down my chin, I was so glad that I waited to have a fig that was so ripe it would fall of the tree into your hand.  A photo of a figI was pleased to find out that the crunchyness of fig newtons comes from the seeds which are interemingled with the delicate flesh.  And how pretty that tangled flesh is…upon close inspection it looks like a the center of a rose.

I had no idea that Macedonia would have ripe figs, but it was such a wonderful surprise.  If you ever get a chance to visit Lake Ohrid, you must! And if you ever find yourself in Ohrid you must stay at Pavel’s guesthouse (Grebnos Stonehouse Apartments); he was a wonderful and welcoming host with a deep love and pride for his beautiful country of Macedonia.

Do you remember the first time you had a fig?  Have you ever plucked one from the tree?  I’d love to hear!

ps. Sorry it took me 3 months to get this post up…I’ve been wanting to share this figgy tale with you since it happened. ;)  Hope you’re all well…thanks for reading!


A what nut?

12 Sep
by FrancineA photo of cobnuts at the supermarket

Last week I was poking around our local supermarket when I noticed a new item.

“Cobnuts,” I said aloud to Scott (my plus one), who was on the other side of the aisle rustling through onions.

“Cobnuts!” he said excitedly. 

“What are they?” I asked.

To which he selected a handful for us to crack open at home, promising I’d enjoy them.

After turning to the internet for answers, I’ll tell you what I learned about cobnuts.  They are commercially cultivated hazelnuts, the most popular is the Kentish Cobnut which has been cultivated in the region since the 1500s.  I also discovered that you can buy  cobnut oil, grown and produced in Kent.  (Remember when we visited a Kentish tea room?  Click back tomorrow, I’ll share some photos from our weekend day trip to the prettiest castle in Kent.) A photo of cobnuts Even though cobnuts are technically grown and sold commercially, Scott recounted childhood memories of checking to see if the cobnuts on the bush-like tree in his childhood garden (yard) were ready for picking.  He told me that the nuts required frequent checking to ensure you got a handful before the squirrels started munching on them too.

A photo of a cracked open cobnutAfter my internet research, we cracked open our cobnuts.  The green frilly casing was soft and easy to remove.  We cracked open the strong shell with a pair of pliers.  The next step was to remove ALL of the skin… I was told that even a small speck of skin will turn your tasty treat bitter and vile.A photo of the skin peeled

Once all the skin was removed, it was time for my first cobnut…the taste was sweet and earthy, it reminded me of the smell of freshly shelled peas, but since then I’ve heard it described as similar to coconuts.

We quickly munched through our handful of cobnuts and purchased some more on our next visit to the store. They are only in season for a few weeks and the wild ones are probably available for an even shorter period of time due to the gastronomic preferences of grey squirrels. A photo of a ready to eat cobnut

I loved discovering them at the store.  When I was in China new food discoveries were a near daily occurrence, but it hasn’t happened as much in my new home.  But when it does it makes me as excited as squirrel discovering a cobnut tree!

Do you know, can you pick wild hazelnuts in your area?  Have you ever tried a cobnut?A photo of the cobnut stages

Snapshots from England: Breakfast Edition

10 Jul
by Francine

When I was in elementary school, we lived on an Iowa farm (it was a research farm run by Iowa State so it was a big farm with lots and lots of cows). 

In front of our house there was a large feed lot that was often full of cattle.  In the fall when the calves were weened it was very noisy!  BUT the best part of having cows in your front yard…cow friends. 

I would go near the fence and hang out with some of the cows, stroking their soft noses and watching them munch on silage.  Most of the cows were black and dark brown, but there was one that was a pale brown and had a dark nose. It was my favorite.

Around that same time I came upon a framed print of a Jersey cow and I was super excited. “Yes! This is my favorite kind of cow,” I remember proclaiming. Since there weren’t any Jersey or dairy cows on our farm (ours were beef cattle), I was left to admire the ones that were fawn colored and dream of pretty Jersey cow friends.  (The print I discovered as a cow-loving child looked similar to this.)A photo of Jersey milkWell you can imagine my delight when I arrived in England and discovered that you can buy the milk of Jersey cows from the supermarket!  (You can also buy Channel Island milk which is a blend of Jersey and Guernsey milk.) We recently got some and discovered that it makes the best lattes!  It’s 5% fat so it’s extra creamy.  And of course, I don’t mind seeing my lovely Jersey cow friend on the label. :)

On Sunday morning we also had some fresh eggs from Sondes Place Farm.  The eggs are from different breeds of chickens, which is why contents of the egg carton resemble a rainbow and the yolks were deliciously golden.A photo of the eggs

We also made some bacon.  The brand I prefer to buy from the supermarket is called Spoilt Pig.

A photo of the yolks

Another breakfast treat was some leftover treacle tart, I’d gotten Saturday afternoon at this cafe

“What is treacle tart?” you might ask (I asked the same thing).  The answer is sweet, slightly lemony with just a touch of shortbread crust.

A photo of our breakfastIt’s fun to have a leisurely breakfast on the weekend.  Do you have any weekend breakfast traditions?

Also, do you want to see the absolute cutest little lamb?  I saw this little guy when I was looking up the farm from where our eggs came from.  He has one black leg and pink-est ears ever!  Can I get an awwww….?!

PS. I feel the need to disclose my general ignorance about cattle.  I don’t know much about them except that I enjoyed having them around as a child.  If you are cattle farmer and reading this post, I apologise for my probably improper use of the words ‘cows’ and ‘cattle,’ I know there’s a difference, but that’s all I know. ;)

Mustards Grill: Yountville, CA

15 May
by Francine

Mustards Grill: Yountville, CA

A photo of the dining roomBack in January when I visted the Napa valley, I drove past Mustards a few times.  I was intrigued because the words STEAKS, CHOPS, RIBS, GARDEN PRODUCE and TOO MANY WINES edge the restaurant’s awning. 

After 3 days of driving past Mustards, which is right on St. Helena Highway (the main road through the valley), I visited their website and discovered that Cindy, the founder and executive chef of the restaurant (and a girl raised in Minnesota), planted an organic garden years ago when it was an unusual thing for a restaurant to have. 

She says of gardens, “I feel it’s important for freshness and flavor and it brings people closer to their food.”  After more than 20 years the garden has turned into 2 acres that provide the restaurant with 20 % of their produce year round.  You can read more about their gardening practices which include natural fertilizers and pest control here.A photo of the garden

Review: (Real Local Cooking’s criteria)
Localness:  5

I visited the garden, which is next to the restaurant, before I went inside.  I saw lovely leafy greens growing in raised A photo from the gardenbeds.  They had a variety of vegetables growing in raised beds as well as a small hoop house.  It’s great that their garden is right next to their parking lot; it encourages and allows guests to have a wander before or after their meals.

They also have a huge wine menu.  The wine menu is the size of the W volume of an encyclopedia (remember them?) and it features wines produced in the fertile valley and the rest of California.  While I didn’t have any wine, I would have enjoyed a glass, it was a sunny afternoon, the location was perfect and I was feeling leisurely.

Flavor: 4

It seems that Mustards have featured items that change regularly, if not daily, which they often post about on their facebook page.  When I visited they were featuring some different Latin American dishes, the recipes came from a cookbook, possibly written by someone connected to the restaurant (but I don’t remember).  I decided on a tortilla and black bean soup, and I was very tempted by the tres leches cake.  I also had a simple mixed green salad which I found fresh and fun to eat since I’d just visited the greens in the garden.A photo of my soup

But the best flavor of the meal was simple and happened by accident.  The waiter brought a fresh chunk of crusty bread and plunked it right down on the white tablecloth.  He also set down a dish of soft butter, a tiny dish of sea salt and a small pepper grinder.  It was presented in such a way that it reminded me of how you sometimes get olive oil and black pepper in a little dish, which is perfect for dipping bread.  So I thought, “Oh cool, here you can smear butter on the bread and then dip it in the sea salt and freshly ground black pepper,” so that is what I did. And it was amazing.

Only after I had gobbled up all of the bread made perfectly flavourful by the salt and pepper, did I realize that they weren’t suggesting dipping the bread in those three things, they were just placing salt, pepper, and butter on the table.  Oh well…I discovered a wonderful new way to eat bread.

Pleasant Surprise: YES

At a quick glance this restaurant looks a bit like a roadside attraction and perhaps at one point it was a greasy spoon spot, but it has been transformed.  And taking something old and giving it new life is something that I love! 

Mustards holds onto its roadside diner identity and feel by offering large portions of comfort food…BBQ pork, steak and garlic mashed potatoes and they’ve also left the outside looking a bit boxy.  But they’ve transformedA photo of the salad and bread a diner into a spot for fine dining…there’s lovely dark wood work, black and white tiled floors, windows everywhere to let in as much light as possible and white tablecloths.  They also added a garden and made the restaurant a place that celebrates fresh ingredients.

Perhaps I’m delighted by this because it’s a bit of what my parents have done and are trying to do at Solar.  They aren’t aiming to make it a fine dining establishment, but they have re-purposed an old drive in, invented tasty menu items (baked hot wrap anyone?), planted a raised bed vegetable garden and introduced a once a week FarmerChef special.

The C factor (Comfort+Coziness): 5

A photo of the restaurant's awningI liked that there were lots of windows; it helped create a cheerful environment and it also provided views of the gorgeous golden hills.  The staff was welcoming and friendly.  I felt comfortable dining by myself, but I would have loved to have shared the meal with someone.  It would have been fun to linger over a glass of wine with a friend. 

Ho hum…if someone had joined me I probably wouldn’t have made the bread+butter+sea salt+black pepper mistake, but I’m glad I did that because it was delicious. :)

Overall Rating: 14+

If you ever find yourself driving along Highway 29 between Napa and St. Helena, stop at Mustards Grill.  I think you’ll enjoy browsing the garden, eating yummy food and finishing off a day of vineyard visits with a glass of wine.

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Peach Trees in Minnesota?

20 Apr
by Deanne

A watercolor of a peachToday our bare root peach tree arrived in the mail.  It is too wet outside to plant them so we put them in some potting soil and their home is now our basement.  Now we wait for and dream of a warm and sunny day, perfect for peach tree planting.

I am sure by now you know we are a bit crazy…apple and pear trees planted alongside an old drive-in, joyfully harvesting lettuce with numb fingers and starting a FarmerChef special at a restaurant where most people happily order a plain hamburger.  But crazy is good because it often leads to wonderful surprises. (Who would have guessed it was possible for spinach to continue growing in a MN winter?)

But we have been wondering, do peach trees even grow in Minnesota!?  According to the University of Minnesota, our best chance may be to plant them in containers, place them in full sun during the growing season, move them indoors during the winter and carefully monitor their temperature.  Here goes nothing!

Do you have a peach tree or any peachy advice?

(Peach Fruit Watercolor Painting by Vickie Sue Cheek)

Five First Impressions

13 Apr
by Francine

I made it!  My travels went smashingly and my unpacking has only resulted in piles of colourful clothing…getting some wardrobes is weekend project #1.

I thought I’d share with you a some of my first impressions.

1.  The word ‘daddy’ sounds exceedingly cuter when spoken with a tiny English accent.

2.  The standard British supermarket sells a wide variety of meat products. In the US, chicken and maybe turkey are the only birds you’ll find in the poultry section of a major supermarket. 

Here there are duck legs, whole ducks, whole guinea fowls even poussins, which I had to goggle to find out are chickens less than 28 days at slaughter!  And there are rows and rows of bacon. 

There are also more baked beans for sale then I’ve seen in my entire life; I guess it makes sense because (baked) beans and toast is a common thing to eat for breakfast. (I don’t think I’ll be adapting that tradition.)

3.  The cars are teeny.  I keep expecting Mr. Bean to crawl out of one.

4.  The spring flowers and greenery is lovely.  Tulips and daffodils are proudly lining up everywhere.

5.  There are lots of chimneys.

A photo of some houses

Have you visited or lived in England?  What were your first impressions?

Letting Go, A Mother’s Quest

10 Apr
by Deanne

People often ask me if I am having a hard time since my daughter is moving to England.

Since the question is usually asked by a mother, I am sensitive to the fact that it is not really about me and how I am doing, but about the mother asking the question…no doubt, she is acutely aware that her child will leave at some point and she’s imagining how difficult it would/will be to have her child move very far away.

Yes, it is a fact of life that our children leave. In reality, it does bring tears to my eyes. The tears, however, are full of all kinds of emotions, sometimes sad and sometimes welling with peace and hope.

Like most parents, the letting go began when I dropped her off for her first day of kindergarten.

The leaving progressed to waving goodbye as she rode a bus to summer camp and then in high school took planes two separate summers to two far off lands: El Salvador and Romania for volunteer service trips.

A particularly hard good bye was only about 40 miles away from our home on a late August afternoon when she settled into very urban neighborhood in North Philly during her college years. Driving away from a part of town that I did not even want to return to was frightening. I did return and learned to be comfortable. I visited the inner city school where she worked as a reading tutor and sat on her front stoop. To be honest Francine’s wanderings and yearnings have pushed me to grow in ways I didn’t intend or ever even imagine.

The next departure was a happy one when she left for Finland to be an au pair. She was living her dream and truly on her own after college. Dad, brother and I drove her to the Newark Airport and watched her walk confidently down a long corridor on the other side of security.

Each time she left, she came back. It was a given that we would see her again.

By far, the saddest departure was oA photo in the airportn Mother’s Day 2009 when for reasons both of us didn’t really understand and discuss at the time, she felt estranged from us, and left for Vietnam and China. My heart didn’t know if she was coming back and I sensed that she was in some kind of nameless pain. However, my job is not to make my child happy or to solve her inner turmoil. My job is to let go and trust that she will find her way. There was not a day that she wandered away from my thoughts, but I did trust that she would find peace.

When she came back she was in love. I silently watched her joy and anticipation as she planned a trip to India to be with her new love. That was an exciting year because we got to meet Scott when he came to visit us. We too found we had a fondness for this particular Englishman. In March 2011, she left for China again to teach and be with Scott.

Since September, Francine has been with us and we have truly enjoyed tapping into her talents to help us at our family restaurant. We’ve laughed and cried through the ups and downs of waiting for her next adventure to begin. On Sunday the time finally came to watch her make her way through security, this time the departure was the Minneapolis airport and the destination was her new home in England.

Am I sad? No doubt. Am I proud? Surely. Am I full of peace and hope….YES!

Are there any other mothers out there who have felt the same way?  Any mothers anticipating a letting go?