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© Sylvia Benito, 2014
23rd of December

Berkley-Green Farm


I decided to visit some of the local farms around Louisville firsthand, to learn about what they are growing and use what they grow in some of the recipes and techniques that I learned in Paris.

The first farm that I visited was Berkley-Green Farm.  This farm was started by Roni Ann Hill.  She and her husband, along with their two children, are tending the most beautiful corner of Earth that you can imagine. When our mutual friend invited me to see their farm, I certainly didn’t expect it to be quite as stunning as it is.  They have cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, bees, and a vegetable garden.  The pictures mostly speak for themselves, but I’ve also included my interview with Roni below.  We talked as we walked on her farm, but between the piglets and the children and the cold, we didn’t get as much talking in as we would have liked so she took some time to write out her responses for us to enjoy.

The pictures are a thing of beauty to behold.  What an intentional, clear, and lovely space they have created for their family to grow!  The farm is a sweet circle of energy; from the act of beekeeping in summer to the making of candles with the bees’ wax to light the winter evenings- this family is living in awareness of the seasons and the song of life.

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Sweet Bees Bringing the Light
Sylvia:  Why do you farm?
Roni:  I love how full my days are on the farm tending the livestock and caring for this land, the rhythm it brings to our days and seasons, year after year. It’s a commitment to the long view, but at the same time, with lots of opportunity for living in the moment.   Most people can understand the ‘sameness’ that comes with the farming lifestyle, but each day is different too. Like being surprised with twin calves just before a record cold spell! It can often be messy and inconvenient, but it’s sustaining as well.
Sylvia:  Why are you farming on this piece of land?
Roni:  I grew up in a farming family and my husband and I moved to this farm soon after we were married. We are fortunate to be part of a supportive agricultural community where many of our neighbors are farming as their primary occupation. There is a wealth of experience and knowledge that we are able to depend upon, and for that we are thankful. It’s a great and uncommon gift -and challenge- to be able to commit to a specific piece of land and make small changes over time. There is no greater act of faith than putting a seed into the ground!

Sylvia:  Why did you pick the breeds you are working with?

Roni:  We choose breeds and develop our herds to be well suited to our land and our way of farming. Heritage breeds do well on pasture, are eager to forage, and don’t require any chemical input. It can involve a lot of trial and error, but I love the puzzle of a diverse farm, figuring out what plants and animals will thrive together and be supported by this farm.

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What to do with the piglet’s lard?!  Why, soap, of course!

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I like this place.  I like these people, these choices they’ve made.  This peace they’ve created here.  To purchase meat, candles, eggs, and other seasonal goodies, please write to them directly at:  roni@berkleygreenfarm.com

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Categories:  Be Well
12th of December

Cooking School, Paris, France.


I considered studying at a cooking school for an entire year before finally making the leap.  It was too much of a cliché, I thought, to study cooking while living as an expat in France.  Who did I think I was, Julia Child?

 

But after a year of eating in Paris; after sampling every millefeuille in the city before settling on Fauchon’s barely sweet, crisp and creamy vanilla bean specked version as the best, after eating the caramel colored roasted farm chicken in morel sauce at De Chez- Eauxs, after being served miniscule live shrimp flash sautéed in their shells as an appetizer at Spring, after sampling homemade chocolate gelato in a sorrel emulsion at Yamt’cha- I was in awe of the culinary finesse of this city and I surrendered.  I signed up for a series of courses at the school of Alain Ducasse, in the 16eme arrondissement.

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I speak French, so I mistakenly thought I would fit in.  I did not fit in.  It was readily apparent on my first day that I was American; my questions were stupider, more basic.  My knife technique was laughable and my general abilities were infantile.  I was the only idiot who didn’t know how to gut a fish.  In the beginning, if I asked the chef a question, he’d answer but he would refuse to look in my direction as he spoke.

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I studied at the school long enough to not only be acknowledged, but to become familiar with all of the chefs who taught at the school and to even feel an abiding affection for them.

 

This same chef, a year later, teaching a class to my son Luca.  I think he is almost smiling.  (The chef;  not my son).

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The chefs were poets in the kitchen.  I could watch them chop an onion ten times in a row and never find it a bore.  I was a good student, an attentive and hungry student. I learned how to make a jus de viande perhaps twenty times in those courses and it never felt dull to do it again.  Each time was a meditation in perfection, a meditation on meat.  Alain Ducasse is known for preserving the essence of French cooking while modernizing some of the techniques for the modern palate.  A jus de viande as taught in Ducasse’s classes is light, powerfully packed with flavor and totally free of grease.  It’s pure, like a broth your Mother might give you if you were sick.  It’s perhaps one of the most important things you can learn in a French cooking school.   That and a good bouillon de poulet.  (chicken broth).  It takes time to make a good jus.  It’s easier to buy a package of beef broth.  I’ll show you how to make a good one in a future post!

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Gutting a fish.

 

I loved watching the chefs chop so much I actually recorded one of them on film:

 

 

When we returned home, back to the States, after three years in France, I was looking forward to a plentiful supply of kale.  I thought I’d be incredibly grateful to return to foods that are familiar to me and feel like home.  But those first weeks I was back, I was bitterly disappointed with what I found.  We arrived at the height of summer and the strawberries tasted like plastic.  I could not find raw milk anywhere, even though it’s sold in every supermarket in France.  My two year old spit out his first bite of cheese in the States because it didn’t taste like anything he could recognize.  I am not saying anything new here when I say that the battle around the food supply in the USA is an important one.  What is good food?  How much should food cost?  How much should we eat?  How should our food be produced?  Food in the US is significantly cheaper but also often inferior.  I took this picture shortly after arriving.  In what way is this food?  Why would anyone feed this to a growing child?

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Luckily for our family, there are many small farms around Louisville, Kentucky that are producing real food.  There is a tremendously strong local food movement.  I began to discover all kinds of farmers who were giving their life force to the common good.

Their food is still colorful.  But it is actually food.  Not fake food in cartoon boxes.

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Categories:  Get Well
10th of December

On Mange Bien Ici.


I had the good fortune to move with my family four years ago to Paris, France.  We moved into an apartment in the 16th, the only expats in the building.

Our view.

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That first day, the day of our move, I kept waiting for the neighbors to stop by and introduce themselves.  Maybe even bring a basket of muffins.  I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn regarding Parisian culture.  Parisians seemed cold and rude those first months; chilly neighbors, motorcycles driving on sidewalks, dog poop and cigarettes everywhere, disrupting my expectations as to how the world should behave.  I didn’t realize how very American I am until I lived in Paris.  That first year was tough; I was newly pregnant, lonely, and missing the familiar comforts of home.

But there is another side to Paris.  If you are a tourist, you will most likely see Paris at her best; dressed in her elegant evening clothes and displaying her wealth.  You will visit museums and shops, you will sit at a cafe.  It’s lovely.

If you live in Paris, you will see her other face.  She’s a petty, impatient, and complicated lover.  You will get soaked in her rains, you will ruin boots in her puddles.   But if you are willing to stay open to her, she begins to unfold her deepest treasures, the ones tourists never see.  Paris, in fact, gave our family so much that I didn’t even see it all until we left.

One of the biggest gifts that Paris gave us was food.

My food education began on the streets and markets and in the homes.  Paris would turn every concept I held around food on its head.  First of all, being a vegetarian is considered a kind of stupid thing to do.  It’s not fashionable to be a vegan, to be gluten free, to have allergies or sensitivities.  Actually, to run around protesting that you can’t eat something due to “allergies” is distinctly “Americaine”.

Having children who are vegetarian or picky eaters is seen as a serious shortcoming in parenting, as distasteful as having a child who picks her nose at the dinner table.  Food is a national heritage, and learning to eat like a Frenchman is as important as learning to read and write.  A child who eats chicken nuggets at dinner while the adults eat oysters is equivalent to raising a barbarian.  The children are taught in the markets with little touches and tastes and encouragements from the vendors.

 

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In Paris, it is fashionable to eat well.

 

What does it mean to eat like a Frenchman?  Eating like a Frenchman means food is a form of art you create three times a day.  I lived near the marche du passy, a world class market that is open every day except Mondays.  I learned to buy only what I planned to eat for the day, to buy small portions of seasonal and local and extremely high quality food.  I learned that a good eater is one who is open to all kinds of tastes and sensations, an eater whose palate is not constrained.  I learned that eating meat was different when the meat was entirely grass fed, local, and the portions were miniscule.  Small portions, meals cooked with not a single leftover- this is what it means to eat in France.  Food is much more expensive, because farmers are important and well compensated.  A forty dollar chicken is an actual fact of life in France, but that chicken is a heritage breed with a taste that is full and complex, the meat is a golden yellow, a bird that is a far cry from the bland beasts we consume in the US.

This is what my turkey looked like last Thanksgiving.  Butterball anyone?

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There are meals, many dishes, that people eat in France that have been unchanged for decades.  A roasted chicken with green beans?  Why change it?  They have been eating the same dish for generations because it is simply good.  Why add curry or ginger when the actual bare roasted chicken is in itself everything?

 

Most of the food in the market is local and seasonal.  This is not a fad.  It’s always been like this.  They have always eaten tiny spring potatoes from ile de re, and when those potatoes disappear from the market it is time for the green almonds to appear.  When green almonds are gone, they will have peaches.  A peach may cost you three dollars, but it will be perfectly ripe, taut, juicy, rich, impeccable.  It will be good.  It will not taste like plastic.  A basket of strawberries could cost you eight dollars, but until you taste those tiny fraises des bois, you have not tasted a strawberry.  And then they are gone, and will not reappear until the earth has travelled around the sun one more time.  You will not find a green almond in the dead of winter.

 

The French meal that will always stand for me as the most incredible meal I have ever eaten on Earth consisted of only three ingredients; pasta, butter, and a truffle.  Our upstairs neighbor had a little plane, and the husband (a very lovely French Morrocan man) flew it from time to time.  He had flown the plane earlier that day to Alba, Italy, to hunt for a white truffle.  This dinner was special to me in many ways; it was one of the first times I had been invited to share in the company of Parisians with nary another expat in sight (expats tend to clump together in Paris).  It was the first time I was fully immersed in a rapid fire conversation of Parisian slang (even though I studied French for ten years, the French spoken on the actual streets is distant from the way it is taught).  It was the first time I had ever seen a real white truffle.  He had found it with the help of pigs, of course, in a field that was policed by several old men sitting on long tall ladders to make sure no truffles were stolen after being found.  This truffle was the size of my balled up fist, and the price?  Maybe close to a thousand dollars?  I’m not exactly sure.  But it was rare.  We passed it around with reverence before we ate.  I took a deep sniff, as if smelling brandy in a snifter, and felt heady with the intense, earthy, fragrant, lush smell of fresh truffle.  My hosts cooked up a big pot of fine linguine and stirred in some melted butter.  The truffle was passed around the table and we each shaved as much as we wanted on top.  Heaven.  Absolute heaven.

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In France, I learned to honor and respect food.   I learned to open my palate to the many textures and gifts of this earth.  But more than anything else, I learned that seasonal eating, eating locally was one of the most profound lessons of mindfulness on the planet.  Eating, cooking, the French way, became a spiritual practice for me.  I cannot say I am a better woman, a more patient or enlightened woman; but I can say I am a woman who takes the time to cultivate beauty on her plate every single day.

 

I used to be a woman who would throw tofu and melted chocolate into a blender and call it chocolate mousse.  Today, I am a  woman who keeps a kitchen stocked with butter, cream, and homemade chicken stock.

 

 

 

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Categories:  Be Well
28th of November

Thanksgiving is Where you Find It


I imagined cooking a huge meal for my first Thanksgiving back in the States.  If there is one meal I know how to cook well, it’s this one.  But this year, it didn’t happen.  My husband needed to take a trip with one of our kids, and so I was alone with the other three for the holiday.  Instead of cooking, we went to serve a meal at the Salvation Army.  This is what the food looked like:

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The energy in the room was restless.  The crowds of people were moved in and out of the room in tight shifts.  The kids all benefited greatly from being there and from being of service.  But there was no sense of “feeding” people, even though the food in the room was overabundant.  The bellies were full, yes, but there was no real nourishment in the room.  A radio blared in one corner.  People did not talk.

 

Before serving, the chef said a blessing with the volunteers.  I could feel his heart inside of that blessing, this beautiful man who has given his life to feeding those in need.  I wished that we had extended this holding of hands and prayer to the hungry souls who walked into the canteen after we began serving.

It reminded me of two of my greatest teachers, Mother Theresa, and Ammachi- who have both said that the greater hunger in our country is the hunger for love.  I could feel this hunger in the room even though we served these enormous plates of grey food.

Would it have made any difference, at all, if the food had looked like this?

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Categories:  Make Well
24th of November

Confessions of a Recovering Food Terrorist


I used to think I knew a thing or two about food.  I used to think I knew a thing or two about life.  I became a strict vegetarian at 14; I didn’t eat anything that moved and I tried to eat organic whenever I could.  These eating beliefs formed a central part of my identity; who I was and how I believed the world should work.  I felt superior when I ate.  Nobody could beat me when it came to healthy eating.  I thought that my ability to eat raw foods or probiotics or spirulina or to chew slowly or to eat only one bowl of food made me a better human being than the one eating a cheeseburger and fries.  In retrospect, those habits maybe made me a healthier human being- but they also made me an inflexible human being, not to mention a real pain to host for dinner.  I will never forget the time I was invited to eat in a very humble one room home in Southern Patagonia, a land where not much flourishes other than the hearty lamb they graze and some root vegetables such as potatoes.  I sat down for dinner and refused, to the bewilderment of my hosts, to eat any meat.  Since there was meat in everything, they hastily cooked me a pot of spaghetti and served it to me with a drizzle of oil on top.  The Mother of the family did not stop fretting the entire time I was there about the fact that I had not eaten any of her food, prepared with such love.  This was not the kind of person I had meant to become.  This was not who I wanted to be.  But years of strict eating had made me strict, fussy.  I wanted to be a joy to host.  I wanted to be fluid, to be free.  I had to find a new way to be awake on Earth, be a good environmental citizen, while still being a good guest.

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Categories:  Get Well
© Sylvia Benito, 2014