Astiana Tomatoes: Born in Italy's Piedmont, Bred in Oregon

Forgive me, dear readers, but I'm about to be in head-down tomato processing mode for the next couple of weeks. I've got two sheet pans of chopped tomatoes in the oven that need to come out in 30 minutes, so this is going to be quick. They're the tail end of 60-pounds of the red-ribbed beauties known as Astiana tomatoes from Ayers Creek Farm, the first round of the 150 or so pounds I plan to process this year and squirrel away in the freezer for the winter.

I know, crazy, right?

A tomato ready for market can take years of careful selection.

Those tomatoes, with just the right balance of tart-to-sweet, are the product of more than a decade of selecting seeds for flavor, plant health and field-hardiness on the part of Carol and Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Oregon.

Carol describes the discovery of this signature fruit thusly:

"We came upon the fruit at the market in Asti [in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy], marked 'Nostrano.'  We knew it was the local variety, far less ornamental than the perfect, glossy imports displayed nearby. Had tomatoes not been on our shopping list for that night’s dinner, we might well have walked on by, but made the decision to select a few for the sauce. Their flavor was a wonderful surprise and it was after dinner that I scooped out all the seed I could find from the compost bucket."

(Anthony would remind me here that Italy's Piedmont is on roughly the same latitude as Oregon, meaning that the seeds could be adapted to our maritime climate.) 

Harvest also means
selecting seeds for next year.

From that less-than-a-handful of seeds they worked over the years to adapt them to their Wapato Valley soil and climate to grow the tomato of their dreams. It's important to point out that since tomatoes yield only one crop per year, selecting and planting for reliable results can take a decade or more to achieve the desired result. Then it requires painstakingly selecting seeds each harvest season in order to have enough of a selection for the next year's crop.

Plant breeding is truly the commitment of a lifetime, and the knowledge of Anthony and Carol's hard work makes my enjoyment of these amazing tomatoes all the sweeter.

Roasted tomatoes

My method of roasting is super simple, and to me respects the integrity of the fruit's best qualities, not to mention giving me the maximum flexibilty when it comes to using them.

Preheat the oven to 400°, roughly chop the tomatoes into two-inch chunks, load onto two sheet trays skin-side down and roast for an hour. Cool enough to pull most of the skins off (most easily done by hand), load into quart freezer bags and you're done. If you want a sauce-like consistency, cool completely and run through a blender or food mill.

For a smoky flavor, you can build a fire in your wood-fired grill, spread the hot coals out and put a layer of tin foil over the grates, leaving the edges open so smoke can escape. Roughly chop the tomatoes as described above and place skin-side down on the foil. Place the lid on the grill and roast tomatoes until they are cooked, about 45 minutes to an hour. 

Limited quantities of Ayers Creek Farm Astiana tomatoes are available during their brief season at Rubinette Produce and at Real Good Food.


Here's a recipe for a fabulous tomato soup, one that I think rivals the best you're likely to find.

Creamy Roasted Tomato Soup

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) butter
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. flour
2 qts. (8 c.) roasted tomatoes or 3 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes with their juices
2 c. chicken broth
1 Tbsp. kosher salt plus more to taste
1 tsp. celery salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

In a Dutch oven or large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender and translucent. Add garlic and continue to sauté 2 minutes. Add flour and stir, making sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, for 3 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes, salt, celery salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Remove soup from heat and, using an immersion blender,  purée the soup thoroughly until smooth*. Add more salt to taste, if needed. Serve.

* I don't mind a little texture from any bits that don't get totally blended in, but if you want a completely silky smooth finished product, you can press it through a fine mesh sieve, which will catch any remaining seeds or other bits.

Farm Bulletin: A Nod to State Fairs Past

Oregon State Fair, circa 1996, by Anthony Boutard, Ayers Creek Farm:

Among the activities on hold this year is State Fair, traditionally held over Labor Day weekend. Here are a few moments from State Fairs in the mid-1990s. The animals shown at the fair are the blue ribbon winners from the 36 county fairs, culminating in the big event before returning to classes. The intense concentration on the part of the young animal owners underscore their serious purpose. A lot of work has gone into this moment. State Fair is the wonderful blended fragrance of dung and saw dust, muted light and sound to keep the animals calm, and a lunch and nap next to the stall after a late night at the arcades and amusements. A short distance from the show buildings the noise of the rides, arcade bells, and the unceasing calls of the barkers and sellers of treasures found only at fairs, interspersed with the fragrance of fried foods of every sort.

Farm Bulletin: Celebrating the Grain Harvest

My parents moved to The Dalles when I was in college, enabling me to explore the area of Oregon from Dufur to Tygh Valley to Maupin in the often blast-furnace temperatures of summer—one year it hit 112 degrees. I was enthralled by the high rolling hills of wheat, entranced by the wind that ruffled the waves of grain like some pale ocean stretching to the horizon. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm reminds us of the ancient rites of the harvest.

The Lammas or Lammastide, falls on the first of August. It is the English “Loaf Mass” celebrating the new grain harvest. The day falls about midpoint during the grain harvest. The loaf is made from the newly harvested grain and used in the Mass. The use of the new grain is symbolic, gratitude for the new harvest. The granary would still have months worth of grain in storage, a hedge against a poor harvest. It may be months before the new grain finds its way again into a loaf.

Waves of scattered straw from the harvested durum,
Lammas Eve, 2020—the birthday of Juliet Capulet—Ayers Creek Farm, Gaston.

It is also notable that the Lammas falls during a busy time, so there is no time for a feast or festival, just a loaf of bread for a modest Mass to say thank you. The harvest feasts and festivals will have to wait until the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox. This year, the first of October.

Photos by Anthony Boutard. Top photo of wheat and scabland, Wasco County, Oregon, August, 1997

Farm Bulletin: A Tour of a Bavarian Community Forest

Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm was raised in the wilds of Western Massachusetts; his father, Cecil Boutard, was the Horticultural Director of the Berkshire Botanical Garden. So it's not a huge surprise to learn that Anthony decided to study forestry at university, then was lured out west to work for 1000 Friends of Oregon, a conservation organization. Here he recalls a trip to Bavaria as a graduate student.

Here are a few photos of the Iphofen community forest that I took as a forestry student in June of 1989. The Bavarian Forest Service led us on the ten-day tour. There was a foundation in New York that funded exchanges between Germany and the US for forestry and music graduate students, so all expenses for the field trip were covered except beer and meals. That said, on many of the stops, our hosts were eager to provide a fine board of victuals defining their region.

An oak standard with coppiced beech trees.

The walled Bavarian town of Iphofen maintains a community forest. It is managed in the manner described as "coppice with standards." The coppice provides firewood that is apportioned to each chimney within the walled city, as well as small wood used for firing bread ovens. The standards are large trees harvested for lumber, the sale of which provides funds for the town. The detailed forest records go back to the 14th century. The oaks grown in the region are on a 350 year rotation and are highly valued for making veneer. Traveling the area, you will see oaks at various points in their 350-year life.

“Chimney allotment” for A. Rückel.

The European practice of pollarding urban trees, a form of branch coppicing, or what some wags call “amputrees," arose from the insatiable need for small wood to fire bread ovens. People sometimes regard pollarded trees with their massive knobs as some misguided ornamental effort, but it originated as urban forestry. Sycamores are particularly well-suited to this treatment. The Romans likely introduced the practice.

The Bavarian tradition of parching green small grains gave us the inspiration to try our hand at the craft 18 years ago. Grünkern is produced in Bavaria and parts of Austria from green spelt. It is sold at Edelweiss, the German grocery on Powell. Seeing it, we thought to ourselves, maybe that’s something we could do.

Bundled small wood for firing up bread ovens.

The Bavarians parch the spelt ears on a large iron pan in a structure called a darre. During the first few years, we produced both parched wheat and spelt. The spelt had a caramel-like flavor and Greg Higgins [of Higgins restaurant] made a beautiful fruit compote with it. The spelt was very difficult to thresh and clean without special equipment, so we had to drop it. We continued with the wheat. Though memories of the grünkern years linger, building a darre is not in our future. In his book De Agri Cultura (160 BCE), Cato the Elder describes parching of grains.

Plain sawn lumber stacked with stickers, air drying in an open shed.

The breads of Bavaria have a robust flavor and dense texture without feeling heavy. Carol makes a lovely sourdough bread from our soft red wheat and durum which reminds me of my travels in Bavaria and Switzerland. It is a lunch or evening loaf, sliced on the thin side and toasted with some sardines, herring, cream cheese or cured meat. Carol uses between 10 and 15 percent durum in all her loaves. The addition of durum improves the crumb of the bread.

Farm Bulletin: Just the Facts, Ma'am

I once introduced an essay by contributor Anthony Boutard as a "bulletin from the real world," a ground-level—and occasionally whimsical—perspective on the life he and Carol have nurtured at their organic farm in the Wapato Valley west of the city. His writing describes the polar opposite of the sometimes frantic, crowded and, especially now, anxious lives of city-dwellers. While the investigative report below could have recorded a grisly crime, it is offered here as balm:

We have a pair of bluebirds that have settled in one our new boxes. Everyday, the tree swallows haze them, hoping to take over the box. They succeeded last year, building a nest on top of the dead bluebird chicks. The grim side of nature. I decided I would rethink my approach to building and siting boxes in the hopes of providing the bluebirds a better home.

Bluebirds generally nest in the hills, where the population of swallows is lower. Not so many mosquitos and other small flying insects. The bluebirds feed on larvae and sedentary insects for the most part. At our elevation, the mosquito-eating swallows thrive presenting stiff competition for nest sites. A string of wetlands also favor the swallows in terms of dietary needs.

This year, I placed some boxes where they can be defended, tucked into trees which break the swallows’ dives. On some, I added a perch board and provided a longer lip on the lids. Bluebird experts caution against such perches, arguing that predators can use them. From my observation, nest predation by tree swallows is more of a problem than any other threat, so I threw caution away and added perch boards. 

At 3:20 today, I went to observe the box from a discrete distance. The female left the box around 3:29. They spent a moment on the power line and then dropped down to forage in the grass. At 3:36 a swallow flew over the box. The bluebirds returned to the box in a wink of an eye, I didn’t even see them return, and the male placed his body across the entry to protect their nest. 

The swallow made a few passes and flew away, and the male moved away from the entry, but remained on the perch.

A few days ago, the strafing by four swallows lasted nearly 15 minutes, with the male tucked up tight against the entry the whole time. It was amazing to observe. The bluebirds have their routine down.

This time I had my camera and captured the bluebirds’ reaction. Per Detective Joe Friday, just the facts:

 1. At 3:29, female emerges to join her mate for a quick meal.

 2. At 3:30, they meet up at the cable before dropping into the grass to feed.

 3. At 3:36, a threat is seen and they return to the box with the male defending its entry.

4. Threat abated, at 3:40 the male shifts away from the entry, but remains vigilant.

Incident report duly submitted and attested to,

Anthony Boutard, farmer

Photos by Anthony Boutard.

Farm Bulletin: Chicories Are Here!

A heads-up from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm:

We have started delivering the Arch Cape chicories to our restaurant accounts and some selected stores. These are Rubinette Produce on N.E. Sandy and New Seasons Market at Cedar Hills, Raleigh Hills and Grant Park. Those New Seasons stores are on the delivery route. When we see something special in the produce section, we communicate our pleasure to the staff. Chicories are a very small bit of their portfolio, and the Arch Cape just an atom. A complimentary remark helps catch their attention when it comes time to reorder. If you don’t see them, inquire.

Arch Cape chicories.

The chicories are heading up two weeks earlier than last year. The February full moon is 11 days earlier this year—February 8th versus February 19th last year—a likely factor. We enjoy the idea of the moon as the conductor our lives. In her gibbous state last night, she traveled the fair sky of the ecliptic with gentle light borrowed from the sun, extending the hunting hours of coyotes. Their exuberant choruses through the night played off against the amorous calls of the great horned owls. We are keeping an eye on their nest as the female will be settling down soon.

A couple years ago, we saw a post where these lovely heads were chopped cross-wise for a salad. It was jarring to the loving farmers' eyes, a shock and abomination that lingers to this day. These chicories should be taken up with our digits, i.e. our fingers, not a fork, and nibbled slowly, contemplatively down the blade. Savoring the sweet nub of the root before picking up another. It is a salad to linger over lovingly, not forked up in haste. To prepare them for this ritual, we cut from the tip of the root nub to the base of the leaf, and then tear them apart lengthwise in four or six pieces. In this manner, as shown above the elegance of the blade is retained, along with the sweet nub. They are best dressed lemon juice which, as a fruit juice, confers a measure of sweetness to the raiment.

In 2017, we encountered a small cluster of chicories heading up January. It was clear that they were a genetic amalgam of the various sorts we had planted over the years, prompting us to start the "Bald Peak" project. We put them in pots so as to isolate them for pollination purposes, and harvested the seed that August. Last July we planted a row, and now we are selecting plants for our second seed harvest. We enjoyed walking the seed row with our friend Myrtha Zierock this week. Below are some examples of the heads we encountered. They were growing in the Arch Cape rows, and thus fair game for the harvest knife. The seed we harvest in August will ripen too late to resow. It will be planted in the July 2021 for harvest in January 2022. All this requires a schedule because we also breed to grow seed for the Arch Cape. In any given year, only one type of chicory can be grown for seed so as to avoid undesirable cross-pollination. 

Why go to all this bother and expense? Most chicory seed is produced in Europe, and is well-adapted to the day-length and weather conditions on the continent. The varieties are highly localized. We were constantly disappointed by the quality of the crop when grown in Oregon. One year, the crop from a prominent and respected seed company only yielded 10% harvestable heads, the others were subpar, to put it politely. Other times, we had germination problems. Because the seed was adapted to areas with relatively dry winters, the plants did not have good rot resistance, leading to tip burn and bottom rot. Useful traits reside in the populations, but they need to be amplified by the rigors of our climate and selection. Farmers put up with enough grief; seed quality shouldn’t be heaped into the emotional equation. Consequently, we now manage and produce our own seed.

Farm Bulletin: Appreciation for a Well-Grown Potato

If you love potatoes like I do, you can do no better than to read the following appreciation from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm, who apparently wrote a treatise on the spud when he was a mere sprout. As mentioned, he and Carol only grow them for personal use, but they can be obtained for a short time at open farm days, one of which falls this weekend, December 14 and 15, from 2 pm to 5 pm. They are, indeed, worth the drive.

This summer, the Bonnotte made headlines as the world’s most expensive potato, apparently with some selling at auction for roughly $270 per pound. There is no good explanation for this high price other than there are some people with too much money. It is good that they share some of it with farmers. The potatoes are grown on Noirmoutier, a sandy island off the Atlantic coast of France where the farmers enrich their soil with seaweed. The entire crop is sold as new potatoes, before the tubers mature.

Bonnette potato, $270/lb.

The report piqued my attention. My term paper for Biology 104, Plants and Human Affairs, was titled: "Of Things Algal in Nature, A look at the economically important algae of New England and the Maritime Provinces." One section was devoted to the use of seaweed as fodder and fertilizer. The coastal areas of these areas historically used seaweed as a manure; the proper term for a natural material used for the improvement of the land. They carefully gathered the wrack from the beaches and plowed it into the soil. Seaweed is rich in phyto-colloids which help retain moisture and nutrients.

The potato and other members of the nightshade family are heavy feeders and reward their cultivators' attention. You can throw every amendment on a turnip or a radish with slight effect. Lettuce and other greens are meager in their returns. The hungry spud, though, rises to the occasion.

Carol escorts potatoes to the harvest shed.

Seaweeds provide the potatoes with a rich source of iodine, vanadium, iron, boron, copper, cobalt, zinc, molybdenum and manganese. These are trace minerals deficient or wholly absent in our washed-out soils, or the sandy soils of Noirmoutier for that matter. They wash out of the soil and into the ocean. So seaweeds and sea salt are means of closing the mineral loop. Consequently, we have always been generous with seaweed when preparing our potato bed.

The seaweed most commonly used in agriculture is Ascophyllum nodosum. Acadian Sea Plants, Nova Scotia, produces a high quality, easy-to-handle dried kelp meal that we use as a soil amendment. It is relatively expensive, around $90 for a 50-pound bag. Maxi-Crop Kelp Meal is harvested from the Norwegian kelp beds, and is roughly the same price. Maxi-Crop has a soluble form we use in our seedling production. We add 50 to 90 pounds to the potato bed.

Potage bonne femme.

The other soil amendment we use for the potatoes is a finely ground, mineral rich rock marketed as Azomite. It is from a deposit in Utah where a volcano erupted into an ocean. Once again, it provides a wide spectrum of the elements. We add about 100 pounds of this ground rock to the bed.

Are these ministrations worth the effort and money? It depends on how you regard the spud. If it is used as a cheap starchy substrate for cheese sauces, butter or sour cream, or for deep frying, certainly not. The potato’s flavor is not the point of the endeavor. Sort of like the modern varieties of popcorn that are specifically bred to confer no confounding flavor in the kettle mix. If you are preparing a simple potage bonne femme, leek and potato soup, as we did for the staff at Sweet Creek Foods this Tuesday, a fragrant, flavorful potato is essential. The better the potato, the better the soup. A large pot disappeared in short order. As garnishes, we included freshly grated horseradish, ground cayenne and finely minced speck from the Alto Adige.

Anthony titled this "Desirée."

We don’t grow potatoes commercially; they are for our own table. Just not worth explaining the difference in price for a carefully grown potato. When we have extras, as we do this year, we sell them at the open days. Though it is comforting to know that in France, quelle suprise, they are esteemed enough to grow carefully, and the farmer is rewarded for the effort. We must admit, a tinge of envy, too.

Farm Bulletin: Response to a Reader

Under normal circumstances I don't post reader comments, but in this case I felt contributor Anthony Boutard's response to the question about short-straw grains, from his previous post about the durum wheat he grows at Ayers Creek Farm, was important to understanding the whole story.

A reader commented:

I read a book recently that said the short straw varieties were specifically developed for warm climates like Mexico and India where rust is a serious problem. In your climate I'm guessing it's a wash.

Anthony Boutard responded:

Often the second half of a story is left out to create a myth, this is especially true with respect to the “Green Revolution.”* Short-straw grains allow fungicidal sprays to penetrate into the planting more effectively, and that is one of the reasons they are favored. In the spring, spray buggies douse the field to control rust and tall plants would make it hard to get the penetration needed for effective control of the disease. Outside of organic systems, rust is managed by fungicides.

Pesticide spraying rig.

Tolerance for rusts in grains is genetic and I see no evidence that it is linked to straw length. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. Next spring, take a moment and see where the rust and other fungal diseases develop in the grain field. It is in the low areas where airflow is impeded. You can easily see the yellowing of the plants in these patches.

The problem with short-straw grains in an organic setting is the rain splashes soil and fungal inoculum onto the leaves and they take longer to dry out in the morning. Rust inoculum that blows into the field can thrive on the wet leaves and stems. Modern varieties are shin high, right in the splash zone. The durum, wheat and barley we grow are over waist high, so the foliage is well out of the splash zone. They do well in an organic setting. Bear in mind, these long-straw small grains have been grown successfully for eight millennia or more without employing a chemical arsenal. That is why we favor them.

Aerial application of pesticides.

The pernicious nature of spraying was driven home when we were planting melons and a neighbor sprayed his wheat field. As the buggy passed by, the brown ground spiders exited in a mass, crawling over our hands and legs. Thousands and thousands of refugees, an indelible moment, along with the chemical stench of the insecticide.

Unfortunately, pushing short-straw grain varieties that require heavy use of chemical inputs including fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides have damaged the health of farmers and ecosystems, especially in countries such as India and Mexico with lax environment controls. The Bhopal disaster was the result of a factory producing carbaryl, the insecticide marketed as Sevin.

Read more about legislative attempts to regulate spraying of pesticides in Oregon.

* Top photo shows an agricultural worker spraying pesticide on a short straw variety in India. These varieties require heavy use of expensive industrial pesticides (note the worker is unprotected from the spray). Often the seeds were genetically modified patented varieties, so farmers could not save the seeds from their crops as they had for millenia, and were forced to buy new seed every year or face prosecution.

Farm Bulletin: Return to Durum

James Robinson, an organic dairy farmer in Cumbria, recently wrote that farmers are always playing the long game. A female calf born today will not enter his milking herd for two years, and it will be two years after that before she will return much profit to the farm. Anthony and Carol Boutard have been developing varieties of organic corn, grains and other crops at Ayers Creek Farm, a process that can take several years before they'll know whether it fits their rigorous requirements. 

Sixteen years ago, we started growing durum, also known as hard amber wheat, for making parched green wheat, or frikeh. The original Economic Botany paper that described the process specified durum, so we abided. Durum is used for couscous, bulgur, fregula, tarhana and flatbreads, and is grown extensively in the Middle East and India. It is the region’s grain at hand, which explains its incidental use as a parched grain. The variety we were growing at the time had a short straw, so the heads were hard to harvest by hand, and it also turned out to be very susceptible to the strain of wheat rust that spread through the valley five years later. We abandoned the durum and started using a soft red wheat, which is a very long straw or tall variety, and resistant to that strain of rust. As we were parching the heads before maturation of the grain, the protein structure of the mature grain was unimportant. Still, we really loved the durum. A couple of years ago, we tried a different strain of durum and it has grown nicely.

Durum wheat at Ayers Creek Farm.

Botanically, durum is a cultivated species developed from wild emmer wheat, about 7,000 years ago. It is a very different beast from the hard and soft bread wheats, which were developed from wild einkorn and two other grass species. Durum and emmer have four copies of their seven chromosomes, and thus are termed a tetraploid species. Bread wheat and spelt have six copies, or hexaploid. Corn is a simple diploid. In the case of durum and bread wheat, the ploidy level simply points to two different ancestries. Although durum has higher protein content, those proteins do not produce as strong a dough as bread wheat. For this reason, it is used for pastas and flatbreads.

The milling fragrance and quality of durum are distinct as well. Because the grain is so hard, it does not mill to a flour using a traditional stone mill. Instead, the stones yield a semolina which we pass through a #26 bolt, removing most of the bran. For comparison, our cornmeal passes through #14 bolt. All foods have a standard of identity that is defined by the Food and Drug Administration under 21CFR137. Cornmeal must pass through a #12 bolt. Farina and semolina are defined as the fraction that passes through a #20 bolt. Flour is the fraction that passes through a #70 bolt. Consequently, our semolina and cornmeal are slightly finer than called for in their standards of identity. Before the development of wire cloth, sieves were made from loosely woven hemp, linen, cotton and silk. The bolt number is number of threads per inch, and silk produced the finest bolts. Mesh and bolt are synonymous, but we prefer the historical reference to a bolt of fabric, even though we now use sieves made of stainless steel wire.

La Faneuse by Émile Claus, 1896.

Our current durum strain is a much taller plant than the earlier sort, so we have a backup for parching if needed. We suspect it is also a much older strain. One of the key features of “green revolution” grains was reduction of straw length. When draft animals powered agriculture, the straw was as valuable as the grain. Long straw is also easier to scythe, then gather and stack (shock). The gathering and bundling of the plants was a task traditionally carried out by women and children. The captivating and sympathetic paintings of Émile Claus (1849-1924) and Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844 to 1925) document the structure of field economy and society at the time. The early farmers in the west had neither labor nor machinery to harvest and transport the grain. Instead, they would “hog out” the grain by turning swine into the field and shipping the animals or cured hams.

Short straw varieties move through the combine more efficiently and are less prone to falling over (lodging) under heavy applications of fertilizers. On our farm, we appreciate the long straw because it is a good source of organic matter for crops following the grain and efficiency is not a hallmark of our endeavor anyway. We have also observed that the taller grains have fewer disease problems, possibly because of better air movement in the field as the leaves are higher above the ground. Carol has been using the milled durum in her sourdoughs at about 10 to 15 percent. It lends a pleasant sweetness to the bread as well as a moister crumb. Durum is also used to make Indian flatbreads such as chapati.

Read Anthony's response to a reader's question about short-straw wheat, pesticides and the Green Revolution.

Top: Harvest by Léon Augustin Lhermitte, 1874.

Farm Bulletin: Open Days, and a Tally of the Harvest

I was thrilled to find the latest farm update from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in my e-mail in-box this morning, detailing the results of the year's harvest. Please make plans to attend at least one of the open days outlined below. Your holiday table will thank you!

Autumn with his cold and wet demeanor came stomping about early, necessitating careful staging of the harvest. We have accommodated his early entrance and are now in a good state of affairs, able to schedule the remaining open days of the year. We will be open next Saturday and Sunday (9 & 10 November) from 2 to 5 p.m. We will also be open the Sunday before Thanksgiving (24th), as well as the 8th and 22nd of December.

Ayers Creek Borlotti Gaston.

The tomato harvest came to an abrupt end three weeks earlier than last year and we lost all of the zolfini and Dutch Bullet beans; sometimes a farmer has to walk away from a soggy mess rather than try to salvage a harvest of inferior quality. No point in that, tears at the heart worse than simply turning it under. There is fine crop of wheat sprouting there. We do have a few left over from 2018. Fortunately we have a good crop of Borlotti, Wapato Whites, Tarbesque and Purgatorio.  We will have Roy’s Calais flint and Peace, No War cornmeal, and whole kernels for hominy. Pumpkin seeds, cayennes and the small grains also fared well. We are able to shrug our shoulders and admit that this was a much better year than last.

My nephew and his favorite squash.

Among the fresh goods, we will have plenty of Sibley squash, beets, spuds, melons, apples, big white onions and greens. Late August, we planted a mix of bok choi, napa, daikon and turnips as a soup green mix for our own table. We had enough seed to plant about 1,000 feet, so 1,000 feet were planted as it was easier than cleaning out the seeder. We will bag up some as a field run mix. We have dubbed it the Rorschach mix, because there are so many ways you can approach the vegetables. You can pickle them, or use them in salads, stir-fry or soups. Whatever suits the moment and your character.

We have, essentially, run out of preserves, so don’t expect any until the 24th of November. We should have a full selection on the 8th of December if you are looking for Christmas gifts.

Inspiration for a bean label.

The good Borlotti crop inspired a new label (top photo); funny how that works. Carved from a cherry block, it was inspired by the lettering of Hector Guimard's signs for the Paris Metro stops. A similar lettering style graced the cover of the Modern Jazz Quartet's album Concorde (1955), over a photo of the Place de la Concorde. Preparing tomorrow’s breakfast, take a moment and listen to Sigmund Romberg’s "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" as performed on that album. The opening bars are a canon from Bach’s "The Musical Offering" with Percy Heath taking the theme on the double bass, and Milt Jackson (vibraphone) and John Lewis (piano) working the counterpoint.

The whole album is a masterpiece.

Dried cayenne peppers.

A new label for the Ayers Creek Cayenne is in the queue. It will be in the Arabesque style carved from a block of shina, Japanese basswood, the same wood as used for the barley label. The asymmetric leaves of our cayenne are very beautiful, and we have a bunch carefully pressed as models. The softer wood carves and prints differently. Shina also chips slightly as the knife moves across the grain, which provides a softer effect. A bit more difficult to carve as a result. American basswood is another wood available. As an aside, King City, Oregon is home to McClain’s Printmaking Supplies, an excellent resource for those of us who are attracted to the medium. They are exclusively mail order.

Queue up Tom & Jerry performing Beethoven’s "Turkish March" as an inspiration for the cayenne label? Nah, a mouse is already used for the flint corn label, and we have no appetite for a copyright infringement claim. To our knowledge, Tom and Jerry never performed an Arabesque anyway.

Grinding the partially dried cayennes.

On the matter of the Ayers Creek Cayenne, we had an excellent crop this year, both in terms of quantity and quality. We have been working with this cayenne for a decade and a half, teasing out its best qualities. The effort has paid off as the fruits is now well-characterized and no longer erratic in quality. They are an amiable companion in the kitchen with a fruity complexity, very much a pepper of Oregon. The “fresh” cayennes measured 13° Brix out of the field, and after two weeks on a rack, the fruits had risen to 23° Brix as the sugars continued to develop and concentrate.

This year we sold some fresh to our restaurant accounts but we much prefer selling them dried. That said, we process fresh cayennes for our own use. We remove the seeds and placental tissue, run the fruits through a meat grinder, salt at 2.5%, and let the mash ferment. When it has aged for a few months in the garage, we will run the ferment through a food mill to remove the skins, then add some vinegar to extend and stabilize the resulting sauce. In the meantime, a jar of the fermented mash is always handy in the refrigerator.

Cayenne seeds and placental tissues.

The caps with placental tissue and seeds attached are beautiful, worthy of an ancient mosaic. It is not strictly necessary to remove these parts of the fruit, but they are where most of the heat resides and are inconsequential contributors to the overall flavor. Moreover, the corky fiber of the placental tissue detracts from the texture. We find the lighter dose of heat makes the pepper easier to use and savor, fresh or dried.

We also make an oil flavored with the cayennes. The dried cayennes are stripped of the cap, seeds and placental tissue, cut up into 1-inch (25mm) pieces. For a quart of oil, we use a quarter pound or so of prepared peppers (100 grams per liter). The oil is heated to 150 to 160°F (60 to 70°C), the heat is turned off and the cayennes are added, steeping until the oil cools. We have used raw sesame oil, grape seed oil and sunflower oil. The result is a beautiful red cayenne oil. Because of the high sugar content in the fruit, do not overheat the oil as you will end up burning the sugars.

L to R: dried cayennes: cayenne oil; ground peppers; fermented sauce.

The oil extracts the fat-soluble carotenoid pigments and aromatics from the flesh. The water soluble components remain in the fruits; specifically the dark anthocyanin-based pigments and the sugars, and these move to the front of the flavor profile. After draining the oil, we run the peppers through a meat grinder to make a separate condiment. The anthocyanin pigments in the ground peppers lend a pleasant touch of bitterness that plays well against their sugars, reminiscent of bittersweet chocolate. 

The photo (above) shows the deseeded dried fruits, the oil, the ground dry peppers after the oil is drained, and the fermented fresh fruit. At the open days, we will have samples for tasting.