Sunday, October 17, 2010

Eat...just like old times...part two

One of my grandfather's four apple trees

My grandparents’ garden, where I spent many a summer reading books and eating raspberries, is still producing in October. There are 4 apple and pear trees, grafted so many times that they form unusual shapes, that bear 20 different varieties for which my grandfather cannot offer names. The simple greenhouse still houses pimento peppers and pickling cucumbers. Portuguese winter kale, paler and softer and sweeter than that which you find in the grocery store, is flourishing and there are still plump blackberries on the (unthinkably smooth) vines. Pumpkins are hiding in tall grass.

The pumpkins in question

When I was little, this garden was my hideaway. I was always a bit of a loner, preferring to spend the long summer days reading books and stuffing my face by myself. The garden was the perfect spot to pass the time: I could sit undisturbed and enjoy the sun and whenever the urge struck, I would just reach up a grab a snack. Cherries, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries and green peas kept my belly full. I remember eating so many cherries that I would get a stomachache. I can also remember afternoons spent with my grandmother in the basement, fingers green from shelling peas to store in the freezer. I am not sure how many of my peas escaped my mouth, but I at least I though I had contributed.
 Pomace from wine making the week before my arrival is pungently fertilizing the resting soil. I am sorry I missed the crush. While many grandfathers make their own “two buck chuck” from commercial wine juice, my grandfather has grapes shipped here and actually crushes his own wine, which is then stored in oak barrels in the basement.

The seeds for this kale came directly from Portugal

Not that a touch of grandfatherly thrift isn’t present: instead of making wine from 17 cases of grapes, he learned that he can create it from fewer cases if he adds raisins. I just found this out. I had always wondered why it tastes like raisins…I guess my palette isn’t so useless after all. I remember as a child watching this process with an intensity befitting a future food geek. On tip toe, I would peek into the pungent barrels, frothy as the yeast did their business. When the barrels weren’t present, I would bound into the basement at speed. When it was winemaking time, some part of me expected that quiet and stealth were necessary so as not to disturb the alchemy at hand. The grapes are crushed via a small hand crank crush that sits on top of the barrels. I always wanted to try and crush the grapes myself and would attempt, each year, in vain to muster up the strength necessary to get the crank a full turn, always succeeding only when a strong hand came to my assistance. One turn, and my work was done. My little hands had made wine.

In this house, the next meal begins as soon as this one is done. Breakfast dishes cleared, one must set to marinating meat for dinner. There are ingredients to be defrosted. More food from the cold room brought up to be crammed, impossibly, into the overloaded fridge.

The basement in any Portuguese home is where the dirty work of feeding a family really happens. There is a second fridge, an area under the stairs that serves as a pantry, barrels for wine, a cold storage room, a deep freeze and of course, a bar where the men congregate to drink and gossip.

Taro...not just for poi...we fry it in the drippings left over from making linguica

In preparation for our arrival, linguiça, or Portuguese sausage, has been chopped, filled and cured in the basement. The cold room is filled with this fall’s harvest (and the surplus of shopping trips that could feed a small army). The a deep freeze is filled with blackberries, raspberries and rhubarb, beans and peas…but not cherries this year, as a late frost stunted the supply down to 15 pounds.

Having been a vegetarian for 14 years, my grandparents are still confounded by what I will eat. Not eating bacon (my childhood favourite) is suspicious. Actually, not eating meat at all is suspicious. The young me ate steak, bacon and chicken with vigor. My grandmother cannot reconcile that my tastes could have changed so dramatically. The first trip back to Terrace after changing my eating habits as a teenager, my grandmother was convinced that it was my mother who would not let me eat meat. She implored my mother at every meal to allow me to eat each dish, as it had once been a favourite.

My grandparents seem to be more accepting, or at least used to my unusual lifestyle choices. The first morning I was here, my grandfather took me to Save on Foods and instructed me to buy whatever I needed. At the checkout, the cashier saw my 82 year old grandfather and a basket full of tofu, plain yogurt, All Bran Buds, veggie burgers, sprouted grain bread and soy milk and astutely remarked that she didn’t think grandpa would be indulging in said delicacies.

This trip, I have initiated an even stranger habit: taking pictures and video of the everyday dishes that my grandmother has made for our family for years. I am actually shocked that she has allowed me to document her in the kitchen. Notoriously camera shy, I managed to convince her that I was not taking pictures of anything but the food and her hands (and if I caught a few of her in the process for my own memory books, no one needs to know).

Where my grandmother has been accommodating, my grandfather has been surprisingly enthusiastic. Each meal, he kept dreaming up new delicacies to document and stories from our food history to be shared. I wish I could document every last bit of this incredible knowledge because my grandmother famously refuses to write recipes. Hers is an expertise that doesn’t bother with such crude utility. For her, food is a living, breathing substance that needs to be expertly coaxed and crafted to perfection despite variations in weather, taste or texture. A recipe does not offer the subtlety required to produce such nourishing fare.

A few of said recipes are to come…stay tuned!

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