Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Floating Sauna and Dogtown: An Annisquam Escape

A Floating Sauna and Dogtown: An Annisquam Escape I had the good fortune of housesitting recently in Annisquam village, part of Gloucester, Massachusetts. This tiny village, part of the northeast coast of Cape Ann, sits on Lobster Cove, a tributary of the Annisquam River. Full of sailboats, old New England style clapboard houses and cottages, Annisquam is off the beaten path and a step back in time. Overlooked simply because it is a residential neighborhood without many attractions and only private beaches, Annisquam is worth a trip.

I first learned of Annisquam last year, when my friends opened a little restaurant perched on stilts above the Cove. I’ll be writing about them, and their Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove, in a future article. I spend lots of time in this area but too frequently I am just a commuter. Staying the weekend changes everything.

Housesitting up on the hill, I stay in a beautifully restored carriage house at least 100 years old. This house is the perfect marriage of new and old, history and modernity. Art from the Montserrat College of Art, in nearby Beverly, adorns the walls, photographs from local artists pop up throughout. An extra large basement door leads to a room with troughs for the horses that used to live here. A Tuscan grill stays in the fireplace, porches wrap around each level. I sit on a bed-like swing on the porch upstairs, swaying, relaxing, watching the water reflect the light. The garden below is bursting with tomatoes and squash is ripening, the grass shorn just recently enough so that the smell still pervades. The dirt road beside the house is barely used; delineations of property lines are only evident by the hedges lining the yards. The partitions seem like afterthoughts, like the homes were originally part of one estate, sectioned off over the years. This house is breezy and soft, welcoming and relaxing in a way few houses ever really can be. I beg of these friends to leave me, and their twenty-year old cat, alone there more often.

Back Porch, overlooking the water

I wake up to the kitten asking for food. She and I go get the newspapers, I have a coffee, she has “beef dinner” from a can. I head down the hill for a croissant at the Market Restaurant, newspaper in hand. The sun is out. Today is a lovely day to do whatever I please in this idyllic hideaway. I decide it’s a beach day, a hike day, and a dinner out day, all in one. I meet my friends Justine and Lily a bit later at the Willow Rest, the local breakfast and lunch counter and market for fresh produce, artisanal crackers and cheeses, and crafts made by residents of Cape Ann. We eat BLTs, early summer strawberries, and the first Black Mission Figs I see this year. I chat with Melissa, the owner, about hikes through Dogtown, and she sends me off in the right direction.

Dogtown Entrance

I head up to Dogtown Commons, a place I had read about in Anita Diamant’s The Last Days of Dogtown, a fictionalized novel about this nearly 400 year old community (now abandoned) in the center of Cape Ann. Dogtown, so named for many fabled reasons, none of them proven, was a place that afforded inexpensive living conditions and access to the main road that connected Rockport and Gloucester, the two main towns of Cape Ann. Over the years, it became a place for widows, freed slaves, unemployed fishermen and stonemasons, and anyone unable to afford living in either town. In its heyday, around 1750-1800, cottages and dirt paths dotted the landscape to create a secluded and protected community. Wild dogs were part of the land, and could possibly be the reason for the name. The region was associated with witchcraft, for single women often used herbs to heal illness for lack of funds to see doctors. There are stories of women demanding toll payment to pass by their homes or over their bridges, dinners of squirrel and beans, and people working together to survive. It is difficult to know exactly what occurred there, but the last resident was found in critical condition and taken to town. No one has lived there since.

Number 15 in Dogtown

I expected to see evidence of life there. I wanted the cellars to be apparent, foundations of houses to remain, but I was expecting too much after two hundred years. Dense woodland had taken over, bringing all the structures to their knees and eventually to decay. Now a protected network of trails, there are reservoirs to visit, hikes to go on, but no real signs of life otherwise. I saw many rock walls, which in my mind were the last remains of a community there, again delineating property in a place where such measures seem unnecessary. These walls ran throughout and every once in a while something more concrete caught my eye: a large, ornately carved “34” in a giant rock, a “15” elsewhere- centuries old addresses. I wanted to get to The Whale’s Jaw, an outcropping of rock that looks like an open whale’s mouth popping up from the land, but was deterred by its distance. That, and the six million bugs flying around my head. I tried to remain cool and not let the dragonflies and horseflies and all the other biting bugs bother me, but I couldn’t help it- I ended up sprinting for half of the hike. I’ll return in another season to see the stonemason’s carvings of inspirational advice, “Keep Out Of Debt” and the like, that Roger Babson commissioned during the Great Depression, but won’t rush to find the Whale’s Jaw, which apparently fell in 1989.

Paths through Dogtown

To wash off all the bugs, I took at swim at Lighthouse Beach, a private beach set beyond a large, grassy hill. Once you top the hill, the ocean opens out in front of you, lighthouse blinking to the right. If the tide is low, there will be sand. I’ve napped on this beach before, dozing in the sunlight and warmth, oblivious to the dogs and children playing around me. I took a dip, wandering out into the tide, floating out beyond the waves to look back at lovely Annisquam. The water here is clean and clear, no seaweed slithering around your toes. A nearby beach has so much mica in the sand that it is named Diamond Cove, and has phosphorescence in the water at night. I refer to that beach as Disco Beach instead, for the entire place sparkles.

Lighthouse Beach at sunset

I met my friends Christa and Ed for what I believe to be one of the coolest and singularly memorable events of recent memory. Ed picked us up on his boat and ushered us over to a floating sauna that can be moored at any dock up and down the Cove. Currently attached to a houseboat, this sauna is a square cabin with a wood-fired stove and benches inside, a platform surrounding. We lit the sauna, enjoying homemade sangria, bread and hummus while it heated. The sun was lowering on the horizon, creating a sunset of such radiant colors and reflections on the water that it seemed fictional. We hopped into the water, swam around a tiny skiff called Thumb Tack. 

When time, we entered the 200-degree sauna, lit pink from the setting sun and relaxed. In such heat I have a tough time acclimating, but after the chilly swim and the hike I ran through, I was able to calm down to enjoy it. We poured some water on the stones and forgot to smack one another with the birch, becoming quiet and sleepy. When the heat is too much, I exit, stepping onto the platform, and jump into the cool river. I can feel the cold water but it is overpowered by the incredible heat I still feel radiating out of me. I count my blessings. I feel beyond lucky to be treading water next to a floating sauna, surrounded by beautiful sailboats and lush trees, watching a bright pink sun settle into the horizon. Christa splashes into the water, flush red with sauna heat, and we talk about how to make this our lives forever.

Sauna floating on the river

After three saunas and three swims, we are salty and hungry. I drive the boat, my inaugural voyage, to the Market Restaurant, where we have wine, oysters, rocket with anchoiade toasts, and pyramid pastas stuffed with beef short ribs. We are nearly sedated and are completely at peace. I make my way back to my carriage house and settle in with the kitten. I go to sleep by the sound of waves, wake to birds chirping.

View of the sunset from inside the sauna

The Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove is located at 33 River Rd, Annisquam.

The Willow Rest is located at 1 Holly St, Gloucester.

The entrance to the Dogtown Commons trails are on Cherry St, Gloucester.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania May Soon Be Dismantled

Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania May Soon Be Dismantled “NO PHOTO! NO PHOTO!” This man screamed at my friend Grace and me as we entered the gates at Christiania. We quickly pocketed the camera, completely startled that he was coming at us quickly, motioning that he’d take our camera away. Apparently, Christianians do not want their home recorded by passing tourists.

This was the part of town to come to. While Nyhavn and the Little Mermaid were the type of attractions all the guidebooks sent you to, Christiania is the counterculture, off-the-beaten-path site in Copenhagen. It was where you went to see the part of town whose inhabitants were not interested in your Fodor’s guide recommendations. Surrounded by a decorative brick wall and tall trees, one realizes the protected and enclosed quality of the place on first glance.

Welcome to Christiania

We had heard it called a “squatter’s settlement” and an unregulated zone. The self-proclaimed autonomous zone in the Christianhavn neighborhood has been home to a population that believed themselves to be not only self-governing but outside of the Danish law and, to a certain degree, Danish property. Over the years, Christiania has been a thriving arts community, a marijuana haven, and a generally communal area. It has been decided, by my count at least three times, that the land is in fact Danish property and that the occupants of the settlement will have to comply with Danish law. Just last week, another such ruling decided in favor of the Danish government, yet again threatening to dismantle the community and use the space for development. For a long time, Christianians were free from regulation as long as they paid their federal taxes and electricity. This seemed like a compromise with a built-in agreement that the squatters were living on Danish property. However, it was rights to the use of the land that the occupants always demanded, not ownership of it. It is these rights that are being contentiously debated right now.

Started over 40 years ago, the squatters entered an abandoned military base and formed a commune. Tolerated by Copenhagen’s and Denmark’s governments alike, it only began to be a source of controversy when drugs and the drug trade became rampant. In 2005, one incident of violence marked a turning point in the government’s role in Christiania’s regulation; no longer were they given a free reign to do as they pleased.

Installed art in entrance gardens

Hence the adamant “No Photo!” upon entrance. Entering through a curvy walkway with an obscured view ahead (where we finally saw the “no camera” sign), we watched as the first pieces of art became visible. Grace and I walked through a small portion of its 85 acres, lush with greenery and vibrantly painted. Houses and apartments are built with found materials and a kind of anti-architecture that denotes a lack of initial plans when building. This was a wild juxtaposition from the expertly planned and designed city of Copenhagen. Danish bikes and passenger carriages rest unlocked outside of homes, just like outside the gates. Vegetable and flower gardens (some in boats) accompany doorways. I saw more than a few treehouses. The paths meander through woods and up hills, each turn leaving you to wonder whether you’re about to trespass onto someone’s yard; a funny thought when the yard in question isn’t their property in the first place. We came upon an open land, horses nibbling at the grass. Beyond a fence line, ocean was visible in the distance.

Entrance with ornate brickwork and surrounding trees

There is such an abundance of art and art forms that it was humbling to walk through. Clearly the occupants built their own houses and decorated them elaborately. Homemade carved wood furniture and welded dining sets made of giant gears are showcased on the main path. There is art on every surface. I later came to a beer garden and sat for a bit with my sister on a second visit. The garden accompanied a cafeteria-like space with baked goods, sandwiches, coffee and beers. It had a very summer-camp like feel to the building: large, wooden and built for groups. The garden had a mix of tables and chairs in all styles, a cabana and picnic tables, flowers and greenery surrounding it. The population I saw living there were decidedly more “hippie”-like than any living in the otherwise very fashionable Copenhagen proper. Much more hemp and dreadlocked hair there than I’ve seen since my last Grateful Dead concert.

Oh, goodness, okay, I'll stop photographing now. 

A main shopping row opens up directly through the gates. Mostly doorways or windows into buildings for ordering items to-go lined one side of the street, while an open marketplace, bazaar style, was across the road. One can buy Christiania keepsakes, Baja-style pullovers, pipes, t-shirts with Che Guevara and Bob Marley on them, all kinds of food and drink, and plenty of other garage sale/flea market type wares. There was a slightly intimidating air to the settlement given off by the inhabitants that I felt most tangibly in the marketplace. It was as if we were bordering on being unwelcome there and definitely being judged as a tourist. I also was keenly aware of my judgment of them, sensing that they knew I didn’t want a Che t-shirt and just wanted to see the community. I sensed their role as a tourist spectacle, and it was kind of sad. My presence was tolerated in hopes that I may spend a few kroner on their goods. I smiled, bought a beer.

Grace, and later my sister and I, left through the gate that proclaims, You are now entering the EU, as if we had needed passports to enter the strange anomaly of a neighborhood. We were off to explore more of this wildly varied city, appreciating it even more for being the type of place that has allowed a squatter settlement for so many years. Visit Christiania now, for it really could be dismantled this time.

Edible Boston’s Fifth Anniversary Celebrated at Allandale Farm

Edible Boston’s Fifth Anniversary Celebrated at Allandale Farm On a beautiful night at Boston’s last working farm, Allandale, Edible Boston celebrated it’s 5th anniversary in a style appropriate to their mission. Surrounded by friends, family and Boston’s culinary community, we lingered under a big white tent in the middle of fields bursting with growth and potential. As the party began, with our nametags in place, we wandered and snacked, not working for once.
I was a guest of Chive’s, a sustainable event design and catering outfit, also the focus of a feature in the summer issue of last year. I felt a bit covert, as I have been asked to contribute an article for the fall issue, by enjoying the fruits of their labor before I offer any labor myself. Nonetheless, I am a Chive member and excitedly accepted the invitation. I reached the farm, somewhere I have been before but never fail to get lost while en route, and parked in an open grassy field. With lines of cars abutting fields with lettuce and cabbage sprouting, I felt as if we’d been ushered in to sacred land. We walked down a long dirt road, crop rows at odd angles to the left, brooks and trees to the right.

Edible Boston magazine's 5th Anniversary. Julia Frost Photo.

The tent eventually showed itself and we were welcomed first thing by Ilene Bezahler, editor, who willfully accepted the evening’s signature cocktail, named in her honor, from my friend. The welcome area displayed Edible Boston’s magazines from years past posted on the wall and wildflowers on the table to greet you. I promised Ilene that I would be hard at work on my article; she won’t be disappointed!

Fields at Allandale Farm

With signature cocktail in hand—local Knockabout Gin, strawberry puree and St. Germain—we chatted with friends and cohorts. Liz, the new farm manager at Apple Street Farm talked with Devon from Russell Orchards. Taza Chocolate had a few representatives there, as did Formaggio Kitchen , Mozzarella House, Turtle Creek Wines, Batch Ice Cream, Westport Rivers Winery, Island Creek Oysters, Thatcher Dairy and Soil + Seed Gardens. Future Chefs, a Boston-based organization that prepares motivated, low-income youth for employment in the culinary field, were the hosts of the evening. Dressed in their chef’s coats, they served and coordinated the hors d’oeuvres brought by the guests. Chive had brought smoked redfish with Maitland Mountain Farm pickle relish on baguette toasts and a summer fruit compote on black olive shortbreads. Their two Future Chefs learned the ingredients and their origins, offering them to guests knowledgeably and with poise.

Guests snack on Iggy's Bread and Formaggio cheeses. Julia Frost Photo. 

Even ducks attended. Julia Frost Photo.

Edible Boston, a member of Edible Communities, a family of magazines that serve their localities throughout the United States and Canada, is dedicated to local, seasonal food. The magazines are printed on a hefty, matte card stock, include beautiful photos and articles introducing the reader to the bounty of their backyards. They highlight local cheesemakers, beekeepers, farmers, chefs, artisans and more. The voice of the articles is one of reverence for the efforts made by the artisan; appreciative of the dedication they show by continuing to make their craft in a way that is specific to their home. Oftentimes, I end up picking up the magazine, free at many local food shops, reading it cover to cover, only to buy as many of the products featured as I have access to the next day. The magazine relays each feature’s story passionately and appreciatively; for it is through a producer’s labor of love and a desire to live life as it could be possible that a new career and a new product are born for us to enjoy.

It is appropriate that the celebration was held at Allandale Farm. Located in Brookline, MA, they hold the record as Boston’s last working farm, having tilled the same soil for over 250 years. They make their own honey, have greenhouses and fields, flowering and edible plants for sale. They have a beautiful farmstand as well, where I buy not only milk in glass bottles, but local fruits, small batch granola, their honey, and all the seeds and Ball jars I’ll need for the season. It is the type of shop that entices you with nothing but artisanal products, offering you the opportunity to get everything you need and want in one place. It truly is the Edible magazine come to fruition. I have spent so much time there admiring the selection and Allandale’s dedication to Boston-area producers. While I was smitten just by walking through the stand, they raised the bar by posting a favorite poem on a blackboard, Weathers, by Thomas Hardy.

"Weathers" by Thomas Hardy

As the night came to a close, we ambled back to our cars. The sun had set but there was still sufficient light to see the farm. I made my way through the field, glimpsing the sparkling flashes of lightning bugs on my way.

Find an Edible magazine in your community and help them reach a celebratory anniversary, for life will only become more delicious if you do.

Bluegrass fiddle and guitar played. Julia Frost Photo. 

Visit Allandale Farm:
259 Allandale Road
Brookline, MA  02467
617-524-1531 (voice)
Store Hours:  Weekdays 10am-6:30pm, Weekends 9am-6pm

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Nordic Summer Cuisine Inspires

Nordic Summer Cuisine Inspires I was so inspired by an exhibit I happened upon a few years back at the Danish Design Center in Copenhagen that it truly affected my life’s course.
Focused upon Nordic cuisine and agriculture, the exhibit explained that the unique climate of the far north offers benefits often unrecognized. Scandinavia produces fruits of the same sweetness as those in Southern European countries due to the long daylight hours experienced there. What Denmark lacks in intense sunlight, it makes up for with a longer duration of sunlight hours. Their fruit ripens more slowly over a longer season, giving the fruit deeper aromatics and more layers of taste, for in the ripening process, it is structural elements that form first, then taste and aromatics later. Fruit that ripens more slowly will have more time to develop stronger sensory-pleasing qualities. They pride themselves on their short transport times of Scandinavian produced products, for leaving the fruits on the plants until just hours before reaching the customer allows for optimum taste, freshness and nutritive benefits. Realizing the intricacies of agriculture, I was driven to refocus my studies and career; I left my original area of study of horticulture and switched to farming and food production. This was a moment of the stars aligning for me: goats, cows, fruits, and cooking took over my thoughts.

Local berries

Much earlier though, in preparation for my trip to Scandinavia (I would be traveling to Sweden and Finland too), I watched enough Rudy Maxa, Rick Steves, Globetrekkers, and other travel shows to know all the perks of traveling during this early summer season. Steves even made a point to mention that on the island of ­­­Aero, one can bike up to a roadside stand and take a pint of the fresh summer strawberries, paying by the honor system in a can left behind. I desperately wanted to do that. My mother says that during a period in my youth, all I’d agree to eat were strawberries, and in all honesty, I still give them slight preference. And, if strawberries were singled out as a tourist attraction in their own right by a travel professional, I knew they were something to look forward to.

Little did I know that I wouldn’t have much seeking to do; strawberries were literally bursting in every corner of town. While I never made it to Aero, pop up fruit stands and markets accompanied every train station entrance, plaza and street corner. In addition to fresh strawberries, peonies were in bloom and the new potatoes were being unearthed. I was in heaven. Each day, I buy a pint of berries and a cappuccino, the purveyors of both recognizing me and acknowledging my appreciation of their offerings. I settled in quickly to a place I realized had my exact same priorities.

Great packaging on Danish Ice Cream Bars

It became almost comical. I’d purchase another pint, photographing it like it was the tourist at all the sights, snacking and walking end to end of the city. Had I not later experienced a complete hard drive meltdown that erased most of my photos, you too would see the evidence of my pink stained fingers and red lips. The berries were small- compact little fruits with the sweetest flavor with just a trace of tartness. The farmers selling them picked daily, and I knew that if nothing else, what I tasted was a freshness that proved supermarket berries at home to barely be recognizable as fruit. These berries were the berries my mother used to make us pick each June for preserving, but the Danish ones were better. What I also loved was the seemingly unregulated stands selling them: these were not organized farmer’s markets like in the US, nor were they the outdoor markets you find throughout Europe, these were one farmer at one stand in the middle of a plaza. I felt sneaky buying them, like a risk taker who shunned The Man for the elicit berries, even though I knew full well there was nothing illegal about them. Just pure deliciousness.

So it was these strawberries (and Finnish potatoes but that’s another story!) that helped direct my interests toward food and agriculture. The exhibit at the Design Center inspired an in-depth report on the governmental regulations on agriculture in Denmark and a study of the dairy industry there. It was during this study that I dove into the comparisons of farming small scale versus large, organic versus conventional, growing single crops versus diverse production, cooperatives versus single producer, and artisanal versus mass produced. Over and over again, I learned the arguments to each side and weighed the benefits of each. I admire the Danish government for adhering to such strict regulations that each farmer and food producer is nearly—by default—organic, since in order to maintain the health and integrity of Denmark’s water and soil no chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides or antibiotics are allowed. Danish farmers must learn to care for their farms through a nearly holistic approach, caring for the land, water, crops, soil and animals in one interdependent network.

Organic Ice Cream Treats

I began to look for the red organic (okologisk) symbol in Denmark. This was given to products that adhered to all governmental requirements to transition to organic within a four-year span. I also began noticing the artisanal products, especially the dairy, rampant in Copenhagen. It was clear there were two parties involved; one was clearly the more industrial, of an older school, often the cheaper option of butter and milk, and then there were the newcomers. These had modern packaging and were cooler in every respect; obviously made and marketed for the younger set. In talking to Danes in their twenties and thirties, I learned that those were the products you’d serve your friends when they came over, never the other stuff. It seemed funny, for even tiny markets in train stations to be carrying whole lines of artisanal chocolate milks and small batch cheeses. But this is a city with nothing but flat, green grazing land surrounding it, a long dairying history, and a neon sign hovering above a main street that reads “Drink ½ a liter of milk each day for good health,” in Danish, of course. After a few days of seeing chocolate milks everywhere I went, I began incorporating them into my daily routine, trying to test all the brands before shipping out.

Toms Cacaomaelk- My Favorite Chocolate Milk!

I went home from this trip a month later and knew that farming and food would be what dictated the rest of my life. I wanted to find all the artisans and small producers I could. I wanted to support those that worked with the environment, not against it or in spite of it, and hoped that my very large country could one day adopt some of the same approaches of the place that inspired me so. I look at hours of sunlight differently, fruits with more reverence when there’s still dirt on them, and will always pay a little extra to try a small batch cheese or chocolate milk. I have found such pleasure on this culinary and botanical journey, and now that I also write about artisans, food and travel, I’ve found an even more satisfying outlet. I hope to offer the tiniest bit of inspiration for others through these articles, as I have been doubly inspired by what I have experienced, eaten, read, and seen.