I was just listing some of the fresh herbs that we will bring to market for the "In Season" section of this web site. The spell checker didn't like the word "Arugula". When I right-clicked for its suggestions, I got "argyle", "regular", and "Uruguay"! Obviously my spell-check program needs to get a little more hip! With the growing interest in fresh vegetables and traditional cuisine, Arugula, though admittedly more popular in Europe, has become at least familiar to many American shoppers.
We were the first growers to bring Arugula to the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market. Sometimes we called it "Rocket", which is an English version of the French name, "Roquette". Arugula is the Italian name of this tantalizingly spicy/nutty flavored herb, and this is the name that seems to be winning out.
I remember early days offering customers a taste of this unfamiliar green. I also remember the customer who, after her first taste, widened her eyes, screwed down the corners of her mouth, and announced I had ruined her day! And then there was the customer who was delighted to find bunches of Arugula on our table after just returning from Italy. When I asked her how she ate Arugula in Italy, she lowered her voice, dropped her head, looked side to side, and whispered, "With raw meat." I think she was worried about being carried off by the Veg-Police in this vegetarian-friendly town. Despite never tasting the dish, I can see how the sprightly flavor of Arugula could share the plate with a raw meat dish and not get upstaged.
We mostly take our Arugula in salads. It is one of the key ingredients of our salad mix, which is also an item that we were first to introduce to the Farmer's Market. But that's another story. For now, I'll just appreciate those bright little red lines that embellish the word "Arugula" each time I type it. They remind me how special this herb is, and also let me feel a rare superiority to my computer. Substitute "Argyle" for "Arugula"? Now really!
Heat and rain - it has been downright tropical and this would have been the year to grow papayas and mangoes. :) Instead we'll have to settle for our homegrown tomatoes that we have been enjoying for a week or so. They have such a sweet and rich flavor. I have always said that our vegetables taste like fruit, and our fruit? Well - oh, but I said I wouldn't go on any more strawberry rants! (They did taste like ambrosia!)
The rain and heat is helping the vegetables to grow, but the weeds are happily growing as well. We have been cultivating nonstop it seems. Along with the weeds, certain insect populations have exploded. Many of you who garden know about the flea beetles in the early spring. Some of those little buggers are still hanging around. There are no great treatments for flea beetles that I know of. A lot of organic practices depend on timing. In the spring, if we can protect the vulnerable plants until they are big enough to resist decimation by these voracious little beetles, then we can accept a few chewed leaves on each plant. So keeping the plants healthy by creating a healthy soil, and using manual methods of protection (row covers) at vulnerable times will usually bring a crop home without resorting to stronger methods.
We do use some organically accepted insecticides that are botanically based, but we try to rely on a watchful eye, good timing, and benign technology in order to coexist with the fascinating and fecund insect world. We're willing to share a bit of our crop in exchange for the privilege of working within nature rather than outside or against it.
I sort of fell off the Frog Log for a while. We had some catching up to do after the party. It probably isn't the best time to schedule a party right in the middle of the growing season, but we're not sorry! Hopefully we'll get some rain soon to bring the crops home. Tomatoes are just on the cusp of ripening. We have been eating some early starters and they are delicious!
We are cleaning up the farm for our festivity tomorrow. We hope that many of you can make your way out to Frog Holler, perhaps some of you for the first time. Even if the weather threatens, we can move the food and festivities into our "party barn", as my three-year-old buddy, Arianna, calls it.
The Party Barn is the latest incarnation of a building that has served in previously much more work-oriented capacities. When we moved to Frog Holler, the barn was a big, beautiful classic animal barn, with a huge haymow and stalls for draft horses in the lower floor. Apparently, Frog Holler had been a working orchard with trees planted in the 1940's by Dr. Gesell. (See "History" for more background on Dr. Gesell. Also the June 11 Frog Log.)
When the Gesells were no longer involved, one of their caretakers kept sheep on the farm. Apparently he had an innovative idea for managing the sheep. He kept them in the former horse stalls, but he never got around to cleaning those stalls! When we moved in, the entire lower floor of the barn had become, I kid you not, a chest-high layer of compressed sheep manure. Well, this turned into gold for us. We had the youth and strength to get pickaxes and shovels and remove every smidgen of that valuable waste. We spread it on the garden and, I believe, are still reaping the benefits, after thirty-five years, of our former tenant's lack of industry.
Then the barn burned. That was a black day. The stone foundation stayed intact and we were able to rebuild a still classic looking but smaller barn on the same site. Ken designed this barn to house the cider-pressing operation that we were just starting up. Perhaps because we had those old apple trees on the land - the ones planted in the 40's but now gnarly and overgrown - we thought we would just pick the apples and make cider. Easy! We found a very old commercial cider press, set it up, and then realized that thirty-year-old untended apple trees don't really produce many apples! So we bought an even older truck (1948 Ford flatbed painted red, white and blue by the former owner) and Ken scoured Southeast Michigan for apples that we could press. As we usually do things, our cider pressing operation was small, very hands-on, and made very high quality cider.
But it was hard work. The truck and machinery were prone to breakdowns (and mechanics would shake their heads when Ken drove in with that rig). The barn was unheated and with water constantly spraying on the apples to clean them, it got pretty nippy in the winters. And it isn't easy to single-handedly wrestle with fifteen-bushel boxes of apples. So we added a few years to Ken's life when we stopped pressing cider. But we still have customers coming to our market stall and wistfully asking if we will start pressing again. It was very tasty cider!
We were able to stop pressing cider when we became more adept gardeners and Cathy started teaching yoga. We are thankful to the cider-pressing years because as a "day job," it supported us so that we could stay on the farm and learn how to grow things. But Ken never looked back when we stopped. So we scraped all the apple crud off the barn walls and floor a few summers back, set up the sound system for musicians and held a big party to re-christen the barn into its new life. Please join us on July 2. See the gardens, woods and pond at Frog Holler - and the Party Barn!