Friday, November 20, 2009

Monkeys Taught Me To Love Swiss Chard

This week, an article in Macleans magazine brought to light the excessive waste produced because of strict regulations on the appearance of produce. When I lived in Italy, and we grew our own twisted and leggy carrots, we learned that even when our arugula was bug-bitten and our potatoes were looking everywhere, they were still edible, and better, they were delicious. Grown without genetic modification or pesticides, all of the vegetables we grew at La Petraia were truly ‘slow’: We planted, we fed and we harvested our vegetables proudly.

Four culinary students and I stayed in Chianti for the summer and worked at the agriturismo in Radda: La Petraia. We were all completing a stage, meaning; we were there for the experience (and working for free). We had our housing paid for and we were given a weekly grocery allowance so that survival was possible during the three months that we would be there. A restriction on our grocery list was vegetables. We were not allowed to buy vegetables because we had to eat what we had grown. It makes sense, until you start going mental from monotony.

Harvesting without the use of pesticides never seemed so right. We had no problem growing asparagus – and we often had to harvest them twice daily because they grew so fast. There was no need for anything but the earth, the rain (or the irrigation when it was August and drought season) and our care. So when the kitchen had already used a bunch of asparagus for that night’s dinner guests, we were sent home with asparagus. And when pink, yellow and white-legged swiss chard was overflowing in its patch only the size of a small dinner table, we were sent home with swiss chard.

Swiss chard has a long growing season. In Canada, I use Foodland Ontario to keep track of what is in season when; but the calendar shows me what months. In Tuscany, our strawberries were in season for two weeks in the beginning of June, and grew alongside the asparagus. Asparagus grows like little rockets erupting from their underground layer, but their season is over quickly too. It is the swiss chard that survives and thrives.

For one week, our fridge was filled with clear bags of zucchini and so ever day we would make pasta with zucchini, zucchini sticks, fritters, and bread until we had had enough. We would take the bags of vegetables home at night, and in the morning, we would bring them back to work and before we were caught, we would chuck the zucchini into the compost pile and be consumed by guilt. Zucchini season was still in full swing when the chard began.

We honestly didn’t know what to do when we harvested such an abundance of swiss chard. I often say that people don’t buy local because they are uninspired. There are only so many times you can eat a beet salad before you begin to protest and whine when you see it on a menu proudly displayed as a seasonal. Cooking anything but Italian food is difficult in a small town, where you are as likely to find soy sauce as you are a store that doesn’t take a two-hour lunch break. So when I found myself mixing dried herbs and spices to make a swiss chard hot and sour soup I demanded an alternative.

The next day, after we had been handed our two clear bags of swiss chard, we stopped on our way home. Exactly half way home, along a windy road with 16% inclination (or at least that’s what the sign with falling rocks told us) there was a big yellow sign pointing down a dark driveway: Parco Nazionale de Cavrilglia. I knew there was a zoo beyond the dark forest on either side of the road leading in because on one of the first drives to work, we were stopped by a lama. He stood is the centre of the road and looked straight at us as if to say, “Yeah so what? I’m a fucking lama. Move on”. Someone in the car explained that many years ago some lamas had escaped from the zoo but decided that they liked the area, stayed and started a family. Cute, but unexpected and possibly even untrue.

We drove in and found a parking lot and a small store selling ice cream, popsicles and drinks. After our popsicles, we wandered down a path behind the little snack bungalow. There, we found MONKEYS! Looking over the chest-high cement ledge - on my tippy-toes - we looked down into a pit of Japanese Macaque monkeys grooming, swinging and screeching at the children on the other side of the fence down below. One leaf of swiss chard fell from their sky. I looked around and none of the other monkey-gawkers had noticed and so I threw in another. A little monkey shuffled over and the instant he showed interest, so did his (I presume) mama. Soon our bags were empty and the monkeys were sitting cross-legged or squatting, munching on pink and white and yellow swiss chard and looking up at us adoringly.

We visited almost every day on our way home from work, saving some for the other animals. But the ostriches weren’t interested in anything but showing off their big legs (not knowing that they were being drooled over by four culinary students with a love for all food and lot of imagination). The mouflon (wild sheep) weren’t impressed with anything despite their beautiful big space shaded by a surprisingly Canadian-looking forest. There were also horses, and Canadian geese and one very large boar who was always asleep- but none of them were interested in our swiss chard. Only the monkeys.

As if their selective appetite for swiss chard rationalized it, we visited a few more times, until swiss chard season was over. It was the tomatoes’ turn to burst with fecundity, but I promise the monkeys didn’t see one red morsel. Every morning in August we would pick baskets of plump red and sun-warmed tomatoes from only two rows of vines no more than 10 feet long; And every morning the next day we would do it again. We made pappa al pomodoro, tomato sauce, tomato chutney, sun-dried tomatoes and tomato basil sorbet. The Italians were given tomatoes and they didn’t complain about variety, they made it. The next time I grow swiss chard, I will honor it and experiment. Maybe swiss chard pesto, or braised with a lamb dish, or mixed with goat cheese and stuffed in an omelet, or made into chutney. Whatever I do with the swiss chard, those cheeky monkeys won’t be getting any.

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