The running of the sap.

maple sugaring
Maple syrup season came and went at Penelope Jane Farm. Michigan late February and early March temperatures mean harvested sap is hauled in quickly and quietly from the back five, barely documented by the bundled-up people. This year’s evaporation system was fueled by the house’s gas service, which worked well for replacing a pesky fire (whose temperature is difficult to maintain and control). Mr. farmer kindly processes sap outside the house (in the cold) until it reduces to fitting into a stock pot.  Being able to put away just under two gallons will go a long way to a year’s sugar supply.
And just like that spring descended on Michigan, the memory of winter fading by the minute. One is forgiven for being easily seduced by the fragrance of this new season, especially when the attraction begins, vicariously on the social media, with springs around the world- bursting forth sometimes months earlier. Even just a few hundred miles south, @KayDubsTheHikingScientist was posting images and information about spring ephemerals weeks before they could be spotted in mid-Michigan. And thank goodness because temperatures for the most part remained under 50°F until the end of April. Northerners needed to look forward to those flowers.
While the sunshine and heat could not have come soon enough, we aim to remember 70°F is sweeter after the long winter’s sleep. Just as a walk in the woods is welcomed after a day spent in high heels and meetings, often the experience of great loss allows one to appreciate life with a renewed vigor. So, we put back, put up, and stock away; the whispering of changes soon to come.
Check out the impressive use of horse power for sap collection at Stitchdown Farm’s Instagram. Much appreciation to Stitchdown for keeping old skills alive. Similarly, LaLa Earth  (@lala_earth) makes mouths water with their mushroom infused maple syrup. And you have to love a limited offering. Maple trees can give the gift of sap for a small window in late Feb-early Mar when temperatures exceed 32°F during the day and recede to freezing overnight. Syrup is an opportunity to experience closeness to the sources of our food. The more we know about our food, the better choices we can make about what is fueling our bodies.

Double Burden

Dried Super Health Food

An interest in eating well naturally led to taking some courses in nutrition. The following is a look into nutrition from the perspective of the microbiome:

The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies the coexistence of malnutrition in overwieght/obese persons and individuals stunted or wasted (due to undernourishment) as a double burden*. This double burden includes individuals suffering from non-communicable diet related diseases, and the inclusion of these forms of undernourishment at an individual, family, or population level.

In a family unit, members can experience varying forms of this double burden. One family member’s food access might be insufficient for growth, resulting in low weight for height or low height for weight. Later in life, and upon increased access to food sources, this individual may suffer from obesity due to an over abundance of nutrient deficient foods and the body’s compromised ability to process a diet of highly processed, high fat foods. Another family member may experience diet related auto-immune disorders, like allergies. These varying experiences, even among individuals with similar genetic makeup, can be investigated from the perspective of the gut microbiome. Early life plays a major role in the composition of microbiota of the digestive system, from type of delivery (vaginal or caesarian section) to breastfeeding to the use of antibiotics. The composition of an individual’s gut microbiome is continually evolving throughout life- being affected by diet, lifestyle, and environmental influences.

In an effort to promote health, policy makers have enacted taxes on sugary drinks to discourage consumption of certain nutrient deficient foods. These efforts are met with mixed feelings- some are supportive of regulation and others are concerned with increased regulation. WHO, and any health organization with influence, has an opportunity to share information for possible health related diet and lifestyle choices. It is credible organizations sharing data and research as it becomes available, which keeps the public well informed. Because of the transfer of gut microbiota from mother to child during childbirth and through breastfeeding, the education of prospective parents is key to giving children a diverse microbial start in life. Aside from education, possible strides toward the reduction of malnutrition might include making nutrient dense foods accessible and commonplace.

Accessibility and promotion of nutrient dense foods is the ongoing focus at Penelope Jane Farm.

* The World Health Organization The double Burden of malnutrition Policy Brief WHO/NMH/MHD 17.3

Bring on the Fall Harvest

IMG_1078Fellow sustainability foodies have likely swooned over Kevin West’s Saving the Season, because a recipe book that includes poetry and historical references is rare. Rare and welcome.

The author provides information on the origin of dishes, and when necessary, refers to a plant by its scientific/botanical name; features a curious reader appreciates. Historical notes are included, like the journey of the Blenheim apricot to American tables, as well as interviews with food writers and a recipe for Nocino (a beverage made with immature English walnuts), all of which provide distinction on the crowded food scene.

On to the pickled beets.

A combination of red wine and star anise transform the earthy beet. Mr. West prepares the vegetable with a scrub, a trim, and a boil. Once soft, the roots are peeled and chopped while the vinegar, wine, sugar and spice come to a boil. The beets are packed into sterilized jars, covered with pickling liquid, and processed in a hot water bath.

With peaches ready for preservation, a jar of cherry brandy in the cupboard alongside dilly beans and sweet pickles; Saving the Season has been a reminder that not only is preserving food at the peak of ripeness worth the trouble, it’s a privilege. The winter is looking pretty yummy.


Cooking up a Storm

Farm to Table sounds simplistic when one stops to think about the many people and processes were involved to put a potato onto your plate. All systems are subject to analysis, and our industrialized food system has had its fair share of negative attention of late. The humane treatment of animals, debate over genetic modification, and concern over widespread sugar addiction are all topics getting recent attention. Debate aside, how lucky are we to walk into any grocer in North America and find bananas, regardless of the season?

Systems can be improved upon, and there’s no real need to reinvent the wheel. So, how will the current culture and societal norms around food evolve? Instant disappearance of all fast food chains and processed foods are unlikely. Is it cheesy to think that someone notices when you bring your lunch to work, or when you pull out a snack brought from home instead of grabbing a bag of chips from the convenience store? Is it silly to assume that if more of us were demonstrating an evolved food culture, those around us might be influenced to do something similar?  Will food be the gateway to other conscious environmental change?

Whatever our relationship with food, there’s room in the market for the idyllic. The big names in the food industry are watching how consumers spend their food dollars. When demand shifts toward say, local sourcing or high quality ingredients, it’s likely the new demand will be met, and perhaps even with gusto.

If you’re looking for me, you’ll find me in the kitchen, cooking up a storm.

What wild means.

“Children still long to experience the freedom of the day; I am convinced that the inclination survives, even if they aren’t given license to follow it. They want to confront the world on their own terms. They want to discover what ‘wild’ means, and to find it for themselves.”

-Robert Michael Pyle, author of The Thunder Tree

–Quote found in Richard Louv’s Vitamin N, who also authored Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.