Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Never-Ending Twilight of Midsommar’s Night in Copenhagen

The Never-Ending Twilight of Midsommar’s Night in Copenhagen
I had never been this far north before and didn’t fully realize the difference it makes in a day.

I was celebrating the Summer Solstice in Denmark, called Midsommar’s Night there, where there is daylight for nearly 24 hours around this time of year. The sun just barely rises to make a long, soft arc over the horizon before tucking back in. It doesn’t reach overhead like a midday noon sun normally would; it just flirts with the sky and the landscape alike, traveling its parallel course. Midsommar’s night is the longest day of the year with the most hours of sunlight, and for centuries people have celebrated this day.

Originally a Pagan holiday, people gathered to light bonfires to warn away witches and evil spirits. It was often the day where the elders would gather the healing herbs used in medicines for the coming year. Over time, it also became the celebration of Saint John the Baptist, whose birthday may have been around then. Still, to Northern Europeans, it is a day to gather to appreciate the never-ending twilight and the long days of summer.

Sun lowering over the horizon

In Copenhagen, the lakes (called “søerne”) that divide downtown from the rest of the city and the many beaches are flooded with Danes armed with blankets and beers. They gather to build giant bonfires floating on the water’s edge. Often topped with a figure of a witch, the fires are lit as the night wears on. One can walk and watch as the city rids itself of evil spirits for another year, watching as the witches burn into the changing color of the night.

Crowds gather along the banks of the søerne of Copenhagen

I walked from the train station toward the lakes. There were crowds out in numbers that reminded me of the fourth of July in the US. Groups carried baskets of food and blankets, laughing and conversing jovially in the streets. Copenhagen is always crowded with walkers and cyclists, but this day was different. The people were out in droves. With good reason too: the sky changed from blue to grey to shades of melon- orange and even greenish at times. There were odd moments where the sky seemed brighter than the ground, where the earth seemed to be attempting to convince the sky of the time of night and shade of darkness it was supposed to be.

Crowds celebrate at outdoor cafes and along the banks 

The five rectangular shaped lakes reflected the color of the sky and time seemed to stand still. Without a setting sun, knowing the time was difficult. I rounded the lakes, crashing parties, listening to the lilt of the Danish accent, watching the burning of the witches and trying to capture the true color of the sky in a photograph. I eventually hopped on the Metro and went to the beach. It was ten p.m. and still plenty of sunlight shone.

Windmills line the coast

I exited the train at Amager Strand and waltzed along with the crowd. I had no idea where I was going. I knew vaguely of a beach and some baths nearby, and figured at least that I would find people celebrating. It was a funny feeling; it being so light out but relatively late, being a single woman without a map was a looming thought. If I should ever be out alone in a foreign place at midnight, I figured Denmark on the lightest night of the year was a good bet.

I wandered through a collection of gardens on the way to the beach. There are suburban plots all over Scandinavia for those that live in the city center. These were larger plots, some with tiny one-room cabins on them for weekend getaways. There were high shrubs distinguishing plots and creating privacy. I knew I was intruding by being there, I felt the trespass palpably. I couldn’t help it though, the hedgerows led me through a labyrinthine puzzle of blooming flowers and colorful tiny cabins. It was too folklore-ish and fairy tale to have just walked past. I remember a man peering out of his doorway as I tried to snap a photo of his home; I felt his sneer was a result of the photo and trespass, but in hindsight, I realize he also might have been really surprised to see someone in his yard at midnight.

Pathways between beachside gardens 

I eventually left the garden maze and found the beach. There were thousands of people lining it. Bonfires lit the coast with windmills in the background reminding me of Denmark’s progressive policies, regardless of its affinity for burning wood in the open. Music, dogs and fire dotted the landscape.

I walked to the water. The weather this time of year is still not completely warm. It was a windy night; I wore my travel uniform of jeans, jacket, giant scarf. The landscape was shades of grey; the water, sky and windmills so monochromatic at this late hour that the fires were the lone breaks in the scenery. The beach leads to a pier with a round bathhouse on the end. There are swimmers this time of year—in just a week I’d be swimming in the canals of Copenhagen with my sister— but on this night I couldn’t imagine taking the plunge. I dipped a toe in and decided that was sufficient for now.

Fires alight the celebrations

There were structures on the beach that were used for changing rooms and restrooms, made of beautiful weathered wood and growing out of the sand. A ramp slowly elevates from the sand, inviting you to walk up the platform, steadies for a bit up high, then lowers down to the sand again. I walked over it without realizing that I’d just walked over the restrooms, I just thought it was a piece of art on the beach. It’s things like this that defined Denmark for me; artful public spaces that are executed with forethought, beautiful design, and unobtrusiveness.

After sitting to watch the fires for a while, I took a last look at Sweden across the water, and retraced my steps to the Metro station. I finally got home around 2:30am and went to sleep with my bed near the window. It never got dark that night; it stayed a color that promised the sun’s quick reappearance. And indeed, it had resurfaced by six that morning, when I rolled over and finally covered my head with a pillow to get some rest.

View of the baths off the Amager coast
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I had never been this far north before and didn’t fully realize the difference it makes in a day. I was celebrating the Summer Solstice in Denmark, called Midsommer’s Night there, where there is daylight for nearly 24 hours around this time. The sun just rises to make a soft arc over the horizon before tucking back in. It doesn’t reach overhead like a midday noon sun normally would; it just flirts with the sky and the landscape alike, traveling its parallel course. Midsommer’s night is the longest day of the year with the most hours of sunlight, and for centuries people have celebrated this day.
Originally a Pagan holiday, people gathered to light bonfires to warn away witches and evil spirits. It was often the day where the elders would gather the healing herbs used in medicines for the coming year. Over time, it also became the celebration of Saint John the Baptist, whose birthday may have been around then. Still, to Northern Europeans, it is a day to gather to appreciate the never-ending twilight and the long days of summer.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Twenty-Four Hour Whirlwind Introduction to Montreal

A Twenty-Four Hour Whirlwind Introduction to Montreal I made a tiny dream come true yesterday.

I had been talking about Quebec and, specifically, the restaurant Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, for years. I was heartbroken to have missed the quadricentennial anniversary of Quebec City, the first foreign city I ever visited that felt majestic and regal, and I longed to return.

I grew up a few hours south of the Canadian border, and my grandparents each hailed from outer Quebec City. The province has always held a charm and intrigue for me. My mother raised us singing Frere Jacques nursery rhymes and counting as high as we could in French. It has always seemed like a little bit of France right here at home, and I was dying to get there again. I roped in my oldest friend Ben to get in the car to go on a fast forward vacation with me. We had a ten-hour drive and twenty-four hours in Montreal to absorb the sights, eat some of their brilliant and frequently reviewed cuisine, and practice our school-kid French.

Having read everything that the Travel section of the New York Times has written about Montreal, I knew that I wanted too much from this one-day immersion. I pared down my ideal list of restaurants and sights to just two: a dinner reservation at the famous Au Pied and a boutique hotel in Vieux Montreal, the old town section. This area is the first place for an introduction to the city to occur: it has the famous Notre Dame Basilica, the Old Port, The Science Center, the Historical and Archaeological Museum, and the cobble-stoned streets and centuries old architecture. If you have one day to spend in any old city, the odds are that being based in the “Old Town” section would be recommended. I did just this, knowing that we would likely just meander and wander, snacking and snapping photos.

I booked us a room at Le Petit Hotel on Rue Saint Paul Ouest, a charming and modern boutique operation with exemplary customer service. Not only did they make our reservation for dinner, but told us the best places to visit, what to skip, and took care of our car so we wouldn’t have to bother with parking while in the city center. And I’ll try to just mention this once: the bed was a fluffy cloud of enveloping feathers- I at once succumbed to its embrace and coerced Ben into factoring in a nap to the itinerary. Yes, in a twenty-four hour trip, I made time for a nap.

Meal Number One at Valliers

We set off. Armed with empty bellies and little else, we found the restaurant Valliers, where we ate Atlantic cod BLTs with fresh local lettuces and hand cut fried potatoes with mayonnaise for dipping. I drank a Lillet, we sat in the sun. I dabbled in French but got nervous and confessed my limitations before they were met. I thought of buying French cigarettes, but didn’t. We walked and saw the Basilica, we opted not to spend the $5 for the entrance fee and instead rounded the corner toward the water. Cirque du Soleil is coming back to town soon—it was started in Montreal—to try out their newest show Totem on their favorite test audience. Their large yellow and blue tent was on a Quai jetting into the St. Lawrence River. We had come on a Tuesday, two days before the city was to be wholly overwhelmed by the Grande Prix, an event that the entire city pauses to celebrate. Walking along the Old Port parks, seeing the beautiful river, appreciating the art and cleanliness, we both easily declared that yes, we could live here.

Waterfront at the Vieux Port

I received an invitation, just as Ben and I were deciding if a second nap on the grass or a beer on a terrace was the right next step, to visit an old school friend at work. We hopped in a cab and headed to the Technoparc, movie studios just five minutes away. Our friend is a co-creator, co-writer and actor in a television show called Blue Mountain State, which shoots in Montreal each summer. It had been years since we’d seen one another, and would be surreal to see him in this capacity. He introduced us to everyone on set, gave us headphones and director’s chairs to sit in, and prepared for his scene (one that required him to be in just his underpants- he joked that the underpants were hung in his trailer as an official wardrobe for the scene). Ben and I looked at one another, astounded at where we suddenly were and who we were watching in this big production. We were so proud of our friend and his accomplishments and totally amazed at the turn our single day in town had taken.

Our old friend taping a scene of his television show 

We had another engagement though and had to run off. “Transportation” from the studio drove us home, a rather nice bonus I thought, and we readied for our much anticipated dinner. I have known about Au Pied for so many years, having spent dinners with friends in San Francisco dreaming of taking a gastronomic tour of Montreal together, and this dinner was going to be well played on my part. I wore a very cute but roomy dress, having learned my lesson with fitted clothing at the French Laundry; a serious eater should wear nothing but loose knits. I stand by this bit of advice wholeheartedly. Ben and I hailed a cab, directed him in French (our confidence growing in leaps and bounds), and were off to pig feet paradise.

Meal Number Two- and the real reason I had to visit Montreal

The restaurant was bustling; full to the brim with diners and ducks in cans and the largest lobster I have ever seen. The open kitchen, brick oven and raw bar greet you with declarative priority: you are here because we both love food. It’s the agreement diners and chefs make. I am amazed that the space is so small, the front wall opens to the street, tables are squeezed in and the staff wears black t-shirts. It is decidedly laid back. I tell Ben that if and when I live here, if I don’t work at this restaurant I will eat at the bar with a frequency that may exhibit a lack of creativity. And I won’t make any excuses.

The restaurant makes it's priorities known as soon as you enter
Flintstonian ribs, duck carpaccio and fois gras poutine.
During many courses that included oysters, duck carpaccio, a chopped salad, fois gras poutine (a Quebecois specialty- it involves covering duck fat-fried potatoes with cheese, gravy and fois gras), ribs with the longest bones ever plated, and smoked sausages, we chatted with the couple next to us. Also on a culinary pilgrimage, we learned that I live in the same neighborhood as them in Boston and that he works at Island Creek Oyster Bar in the Kenmore Square neighborhood. Small world; I was just there last week. I could tell he was in the business by the way he attacked the Duck In A Can entrée with reverence and determination. He, in turn, was impressed that I could hold my own at a table of endless meats and fats. I’m no petit fleur, I told them.

We met up again with our friend to watch Dallas beat Miami in basketball at La Cage sports bar and then to have a cidre at Bar Philemon. We crashed into goose down enhanced and pork and duck fat induced comas back at the hotel. We awoke to find the sun shining again, the rooftops of old stone buildings visible outside the window. We recovered from our indulgences with a bit of the hair of the dog; breakfast of croissant, brioche, fruit, granola, yogurt, a tartine called “Egg On Your Face” with Sriracha chili sauce, and espresso. This café, called Olive + Gourmando, is not only beautifully decorated, it is delicious in every way. I took so many photos I was wary they may escort me out for piracy. Finally sated and out of time, Ben and I readied to leave. We were fully impressed at our gustatory abilities. We called for the car and made our way through the rolling green hills of Vermont and New Hampshire to make our way home.

Olive + Gourmando Cafe, our third and final meal 

We are already talking of our return trip and are getting advice from our friend Erik Desjarlais, of Restaurant Evangeline, the most delicious French restaurant in Portland Maine. I am absolutely smitten with having this little French outlet so close to home. Montreal, it was nice to meet you.

Visit Montreal: http://www.tourisme-montreal.org/

Eat at Au Pied de Cochon: http://www.restaurantaupieddecochon.ca/

Eat at Olive + Gourmando: http://oliveetgourmando.com/

Stay at Le Petit Hotel: http://petithotelmontreal.com/about.html

Watch Blue Mountain State on Spike TV

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Beacon Street Farm Propagates and Backyard Growers Blossoms

Beacon Street Farm Propagates and Backyard Growers Blossoms Beacon Street Farm is literally exploding.

Vegetables are planted on every spare inch of the property, all 1/10th of an acre of it. With squash planning their cascade over rock walls, artichoke returning for a second season, garlic standing tall, and chickens roosting through the compost, Beacon Street Farm has made expert use of its space. Lara Lepionka and her family live on this downtown sidestreet of Gloucester, their purple home set on a high corner lot. With the steep incline of the front and side yards, Lara has terraced the land like a rice farmer in Bali. Her farm produces an incredible array of vegetables from the tiniest of spaces, and it all has a sense of ordered chaos.

Lara and her husband, Stevens Brosnihan, are both trained and educated artists, and it is apparent in their approach to their four year old farm. In an effort to show that growing one’s own food is an attainable goal, they have fashioned most of their planting beds, terracing, and chicken coop from found materials. There are pathways of brick, stonewalls and planting beds in all shapes and orientations. This creative reuse of materials is part of the core principles they rely upon; Beacon Street Farm aims to not only produce enough food to feed their family, but to do so in a way that is easily duplicated, community based, artful, and inexpensive. A large part of its mission statement is devoted to the community on both a very minute and a more general scale, for it aims to “develop conceptual, community-based projects that speak to people, sustainability, food systems, and the urban ecology,” the website declares. Lara is hopeful that neighbors and visitors will realize the possibilities their small plots of land offer; on a smaller scale, anyone could do some of what Beacon Street Farm does.

Water cachement system and terraced vegetable beds

Tatsoi, carrots, and a homemade stone wall holding in tiny corn plants

With lucky south-facing orientation, Beacon Street Farm enjoys lots of sunlight. Lara notes that the atmosphere of concrete and cars in cities creates a microclimate that can be taken advantage of by urbanites. That, combined with the dark color of her house, allows for earlier planting in the spring, later harvests in the fall, and longer daytime warmth stored up in the hardscape around the planting beds. Urban gardens are not a new idea—wherever there is a dense human population there is likely to be a heavily planted and richly diverse farm space nearby— they have just become less prevalent. Lara is trying to change that in downtown Gloucester.

Every inch is producing food

Beacon Street Farm has endless raised planting beds. Lara opts to raise the beds and bring in compost to avoid the lead-laden soil in the ground. Since the roots of annuals, i.e. most vegetables, do not extend too deeply, a raised bed suffices to support the needs of the plants. She grows lettuces, mustards, tatsoi, tomatoes, chard, kale, artichokes, radishes, potatoes, fennel, peas, squash, corn, and so much more. In fact, her bountiful harvests are large enough to not only feed her family, but to supply restaurants too. She is one of the primary farmers depended on by The Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove, in Annisquam, and Duckworth’s Bistrot in Gloucester. Her greens are delicate and sharp, beautiful, and crisp. To increase my already blooming adoration of her operation, the greens and vegetables are often delivered in wicker baskets.

Peas and Potatoes

With Lara’s mission to make her work duplicable and community-based, she often works with other organizations with the same desire. She paired up with the Cape Ann Farmers Market’s Nikki Bogin and Melissa Dimond to start the Backyard Growers program. Started to help low to moderate income families in the center of urban Gloucester start growing their own vegetables, Backyard Growers is now in its second year. With the help of their partners The Food Project, The Open Door Garden Project, Riverdale Park Resident’s Group, and Gloucester District Schools, Lara and her co-founders have been able to double the size of the operation, now reaching approximately thirty families. The program provides all necessary materials to start a garden: the raised bed, compost, seeds, seedlings, installation, training, and mentoring. With the aim to increase access to fresh, organic vegetables and knowledge and skills in farming, BG wants to create a community more focused on nutrition and self-sufficiency. In doing so, Backyard Growers is reaching a larger community—and making their own—with each growing season. To be eligible, one must live in a specified area of town and preference is given to those in a certain income bracket. Although, anyone can apply that lives in the designated area, for the main goal is to create a supportive farming community where each participant can easily find the help they need. Backyard Growers plans to expand to other Gloucester communities in the years to come, but not before they have a firm grasp on the gardens and needs of current participants.

The lone apple tree and custom designed chicken coop

The day I visited Beacon Street Farm, my coworkers and I planted three types of tomatoes I had never heard of. Obscure heirlooms from Yugoslavia and Germany, we tucked them into an already bursting bed full of herbs and greens. We straddled the beds, balanced on high stonewalls, and passed compost and seedlings back and forth to get the job done. In such a garden, teamwork and able footwork is not only necessary, but much more rewarding. We dug out two beds recently obscured by a compost delivery, drank ice cold water in ball jars, and had some chocolates from the maker down the street. Little Bea, Lara and Stevens’ four-year old daughter, told us she likes everything about the garden- the dirt, the salads, the chickens and the hoses. She splashes around in the spray when it gets too hot, then continues her rounds overseeing progress at the farm.

Very social ladies

To see Lara and Stevens’ artwork, visit http://www.beaconstreetfarm.org/

To get information about Backyard Growers, visit: http://www.capeannfarmersmarket.org/backyard-growers/index.html

And to get information about Beacon Street Farm, visit: http://www.beaconstreetfarm.org/beaconstreetfarm/

Side yard with even more beds