Fleur-de-Potluck

Belgian Beauty

Belgian Beauty

Dinner parties were my mother’s era. Potlucks are mine.

We had two this week.

The first was Monday night. After a day of work, the rule is KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid. Pesto pasta piled into a crockpot to keep it warms turned into Upside Down Pesto Pasta when I took a turn a little too fast and it tipped in the trunk. A single serving was lost; after a quick cleanup around the lid of the crockpot, the rest was just fine.

Friday night’s potluck was with a different crowd and I had the day off to play. I found a recipe that included ingredients I had in the kitchen or the garden, and no cooking, always a plus in the summer.

Vietnamese Watermelon Salad

3 cups seedless watermelon, cut in ½-inch pieces

3 cups cucumbers, chopped in ½-inch pieces

3 ½ tablespoons lime juice

3 tablespoons hoisin sauce

¼ cup chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped mint

1/3 cup peanuts, chopped

Combine cucumbers and watermelon. Cover with plastic and refrigerate at least 15 minutes. Drain off liquid (I drank it mixed with ice water). Combine lime juice and hoisin sauce, mixing well with a fork. Add herbs and toss cucumbers and watermelon with dressing. Chill. Top with peanuts before serving.

Wide, flat Romano beans are one of my favorite summer vegetables. They’re not easy to find at farmers markets, where stands have caught onto the bean rainbow of green, yellow, and purple, but some how missed those velvety Italian Romanos. I’m growing them successfully this year—the rabbits ignored them while chomping down on the Royal Burgundy and edamame plants.

I like to steam Romanos in a little water, but I decided to dress them up a little. In a separate pan, I browned some pancetta cubes. As the meat browned and the fat melted, I added sage leaves and a good splash of balsamic vinegar flavored with figs (a wonderful gift from Sabine and Richard last Christmas). With a sizzle and hiss, I had a glaze of ham, sage and caramelized vinegar to pour over the beans.

For dinner, the night after the second potluck, we had corn on the cob, leftover Vietnamese Watermelon Salad (“This is like dessert,” my mom said.) and my dressed Romano beans, with a slice of multigrain bread to mop up the leftover glaze. Home-gown heaven. Laurie Lynch

Ag Progress Hit: The luffas captured the attention of APD-goers. The CDT ran a photo on their webpage (but it got bumped from the print newspaper by the coronation photo of the Grange Fair Queen.) While politics is everywhere, including Ag shows, we have photographic proof that at least two of the three Centre County Commissioners visited the luffa tunnel. One of them, a garlic groupie, stopped by Lemont Farmers Market after APD and bought out my garlic supply—and said he always thought luffa sponges came from the sea…until Centre County Master Gardeners set him straight.

Corn Quiz: OK, eaters. How do you consume corn on the cob? Do you eat it “typewriter style”—nibbling across the “cartridge” in a straight line until you get to the end, and then, Ping! back to the beginning and down a row…or, do you take a bite and then move down, encircling the cob? There could be other methods, I’m sure, but these were the two discussed at a recent gathering. What’s your technique…and why?

Written on Slate: “Your whole life passes in front of your eyes before you die. This is called living.”   Terry Pratchett

Fleur-de-Rookie

Curing Garlic PSU Style

Curing Garlic PSU Style

August is Garlic Month for me.

Besides having a barn draped with curing garlic for the month of August, my mom and I spend Wednesday afternoons selling garlic-planting packages at Lemont Farmers Market. We have Great Bulbs of Fire (Georgia Fire, Asian Tempest & German White), Stinking Rose Bouquet (Spanish Roja, Metechi & Music) and new this year, the Granary Garlic Collection (Zemo, Quiet Creek and Chesnok Red).

On the first two Fridays of August, I taught a course at the house called Garlic 101 through Penn State’s OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) for students of a “certain age.”

The first class, on the morning of Aug. 7, I told the class I knew what I was doing exactly a quarter of a century ago. I was picking basil in the garden and chopping home-grown garlic to make a batch of pesto. That evening, my pesto baby, Marina, was born. In celebration of her first quarter century, she and Koen had friends over for a pesto tasting party with basil and garlic grown in their Belgian garden. The circle of life, in our family, is shaped like a bulb of garlic.

During the class, I had garlic roasting in the oven. Not only did it add authentic fragrance to the lecture, students got to smear the stuff on crackers for tasting. I also read my favorite garlic quote: “Tomato and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good.” That gem comes from Alice May Brock, a woman who ran Alice’s Restaurant, made famous in a ballad by Arlo Guthrie.

After class, a student named Jim pulled me aside and told me a wonderful story. When he was a young buck in the late 1960s, he and his buddies called up Alice and asked if they could meet her. They ended up staying with Alice in the Berkshires for the weekend—partying and eating and creating their own chapter of anti-war folk music history. My mother questioned what he was talking about, and I mentioned there was a song by Arlo Guthrie with the words, “You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant,” and that he actually visited Alice’s Restaurant and met Alice. “Hmmm, you can get anything you want?” she said with a twinkle in her eyes and a raised eyebrow. “Except Alice,” his wife quickly added.

At the second Friday class, I once again crossed the line from teacher to student. First, David told me his father went home to Italy in 1942 and brought back a family heirloom, simply called Italian Red Garlic. He and his family have been growing it in the U.S. ever since. He shared the garlic with his fellow Houtzdale buddy Frank, and oh, the stories Frank told.

Luffas taking off!

Luffas taking off!

Frank is a member of a garden cult I didn’t know existed–Competition  Gardeners. There is actually a Pennsylvania Great Pumpkin Growers Association that has an annual weigh-off in nearby Altoona each October. Frank was spouting off his stats right and left, but heck, I was the teacher, not the student, and didn’t have a pen in my hand. Luckily, I Googled the results of the competitions and can give you a sampling of his accomplishments:

Frank has grown a 3.42 pound tomato, a 99-pound watermelon, and, ta-da-ta-da…a 694.5-pound pumpkin. He drove a giant pumpkin to a resort in the Poconos in the back of his pickup. The manager was so impressed that he gave Frank’s family a free vacation at the resort. By the way, Frank’s experiment this summer is growing peanuts in Clearfield County—along with a patch of okra.

But getting back to garlic, Frank grows David’s Italian Red—300 bulbs a year and consumes them all—except for what he plants. He puts the scapes around his flowers to keep the deer away, makes a mean dip from ramps he finds in the woods, and dries much of his garlic to make garlic powder that he puts on everything. Not only did he share his method for making garlic powder—he shared the numbers: 275 cloves of garlic yield one quart of garlic powder.

No sooner had he finished the garlic powder lesson, he jumped to another passion…privy digging, a topic he sometimes teaches, that combines back-road archaeology with glass bottle treasure hunting. Meanwhile, I’m hoping I have enough energy in the next couple of weeks to make a pint or so of garlic powder. As for the privy digging…there is an old foundation of the original farmhouse in the old llama pasture that I mow around. The area is ripe for privy digging…if only I could find the time. Laurie Lynch

Jo sizing up our luffa.

Jo sizing up our luffa.

Ag Progress Days Update: Our luffas are looking grand in the high tunnel. We have one that measures 21 inches long—take that, Frank. Meanwhile, I was photographing the beauties and fell off the table that holds the water barrel. Rather than grabbing a luffa vine and swinging down a la Tarzan, I reached for the 55-gallon water barrel that I had just filled—it broke my fall, but I ended up with a bloody mess on my knee. Gardening is full of adventure

Written on Slate: Everything in moderation, including moderation. Oscar Wilde

Fleur-de-LuffaFamily

May Seedlings

May Seedlings

Last winter, one of my Master Gardener friends asked for suggestions on what to plant in our Ag Progress Days high tunnel this year. I suggested luffas. At our next meeting, Chris handed me a packet of seeds from Renee’s Garden.

Luffas, it was.

Few Centre County Master Gardeners have grown luffas, but I had the benefit of raising them over several years on our chicken fence at the Hottenstein Road chicken coop, next to the F-d-L cutting garden.

Just before I left for Belgium, I handed Chris a dozen or so healthy seedlings to plant in the high tunnel. While I was gone, Chris planted them and attached twine to the bar above the raised bed so that the luffas, being vigorous vines, would have direction. Up.

June 25, I got an email, photo, and another assignment from Chris. “Look at me, I can climb” was the subject line message. Here’s the photo. Chris named her Lucy Luffa. “You and Marie can name the rest,” she wrote.

Lucy, 6-25-15

Lucy, 6-25-15

Chris went to high school with my middle sister, Lee Ann. My mother has told her on numerous occasions: “I have five daughters and they’re all Ls. Laurie, Lisa, Lee Ann, Larissa, and Leslie.” Chris decided Marie would be the perfect person to help me name the Luffa family.

We came up with Lucky, LuLu, Luvvy, Laffy Taffy, Loopy, and Loony, and a whole lot of Laughter. Chris has a way of convincing you to embrace a project.

The luffa tendrils hugged the strings Chris hung, and the vines took off toward the tunnel’s support ribs. Then, bright yellow flowers appeared like headlights on an evening drive. My “Luffa Baby Alert” email went out July 24. While I was filling up the irrigation barrel on my watering day, I noticed tiny luffas smaller than my pinky.

Well, days later, our luffas lassoed the ladder we use to check the water barrel level, and completely took over a bamboo grid we used last year for our Square Foot demonstration plot, swallowing it whole. (Luffas are members of the cucumber family. The young fruit, under 7” long, can be cooked and eaten like squash, or eaten raw, as a substitute for cucumber, but most often they are grown to maturity so the fibrous tissue “skeleton” can be used as a bath or sauna sponge.)

Pollinator at work

Pollinator at work

During our next work session, I tied purple twine connecting a support bar on the backside of the high tunnel to the support bar opposite it, giving the vines traveling room. Purple, I figured, would become invisible once the luffas make contact.

By Ag Progress Days, I expect Lucy, Lucky, LuLu, Luvvy, Laffy Taffy, Loopy, and Loony will create a shady cave of leaves, flowers, and fruit  inside the high tunnel. We may have to post a warning for visitors to enter at their own risk—they just might get caught up in the Luffa family. Laurie Luffa Lynch

Perks of Volunteering: One evening, while working at the MG high tunnel and demonstration gardens, we had a special visitor. A bald eagle perched high above us in the tree row. Magnificent. The eagle’s back was toward us. I’d guess it was a good two feet from the top of its white head to the tip of its white tail. It was the first bald eagle I’ve seen in the wild. When we have an environmental success, we must revel in it.

Luffa fruit

Luffa fruit

Perks of Attending APD: Penn State’s Ag Progress Days, August 18-20, is at Rock Springs amidst the university’s experimental farms. It is free, open to the public, filled with educational displays and the latest in farming equipment—and could pay off big time if you are an ice cream fan. This summer, there is a special Penn State Passport Program. Visitors get their “passport” stamped at each of the 15 Penn State exhibits (Master Gardeners are in the Yard & Garden Tent—and you can see the Luffa family in the nearby high tunnel, if you dare.). Turn your passport in and you get chance to win…Berkey Creamery Ice Cream for a YEAR (1/2 gallon per month).

Perks of Reading to the Bitter End: It’s cantaloupe season and I made Chilled Cantaloupe Soup over the weekend. It is so easy and so delicious. Place one chilled cantaloupe (peeled, seeded and chunked) into a blender with 1cup plain yogurt, ½ tsp. vanilla, and grated nutmeg to taste. Liquefy and serve in bowls, garnish with fresh blueberries or chocolate mint leaves. (Next time I make it, I’m going to try fresh grated ginger instead of nutmeg.) The chilled soup gets foamy and can be refrigerated for two days or so. It has a lovely color and can double as a treat for breakfast or a low-calorie dessert.

Fleur-de-Music

Nonna in her concert throne with Marina, 2014

Nonna in her concert throne with Marina, 2014

If music gives us a soundtrack of our lives, mine has certainly spun into fast-forward in the past four years.

At Lemont Elementary, I think everyone tooted on the flutophone for a year or two. There was one brief moment in the late 1960s when I owned a guitar. I still remember my guitar teacher’s name, but no chords. In college, I listened to my Porgy & Bess album more than The Beatles or The Rolling Stones; I was smitten with the South.

At Charleston’s Spoleto USA festivals I was introduced to “scat singing,” Rachmaninoff, Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd, and helped Ella Fitzgerald find an authentic barbecue joint. In the baby years, music was Raffi, Barney the purple dinosaur, and the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round… As the kids grew older, music consisted of the “routine” pieces at Kutztown twirler events, saxophone-induced howling from the family Bouvier, and my singing of Janis Joplin tunes as I drove the curves of Eagle Point Road.

Now, as my mother’s caregiver, I’m in the midst of a music explosion. On Friday nights we have Concerts on the Village Green in Lemont. Sunday nights, it is the South Hills Music Picnic Series. We attend Jazz at the Palmer (Art Museum) once a month. At Webster’s Bookstore Café, we sip tea at evening concerts and Sunday Brunch gatherings, listening to live performances of Chilean folk music, the senior center’s Second Winds big band, or a duo called Hops & Vines. This is all FREE music in Happy Valley, and doesn’t include special events such as the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, JazzPA , the Acoustic Brew Series, or anything and everything musically related to Penn State.

It gets so crazy that two questions have been added to my mom’s repertoire of “What day is it? What’s on the agenda? Should I wear a dress?” Yes, when she knows we are planning to go to a concert, the big two are: “Is the concert indoors or outside?” and “Do we need to bring chairs?” Fashion and comfort are main concerns.

This summer, we joined in The Pat Farrell Community Sing, inside, seated on the pews of State College Presbyterian Church. I thought you might be interested in this slice of local history, all of which was new to me.

Fifty or sixty years ago, State College residents got together for a “community sing” each summer week under the direction of Frank Gullo, then director of Penn State’s Glee Club, and Hummel (Hum) Fishburn, then director of Penn State’s Blue Band. This tradition disappeared in the 1970s. The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts brought it back in 2011 to honor the memory of Pat Farrell, a former Arts Fest board president. At that time, the organizers polled community singers, musicians, and other interested folks to compile a list of songs that represented the State College community, which they gathered into The Pat Farrell Community Sing Songbook.

The songbook contains a mix of hymns, folk, patriotic, and protest songs, show tunes, and yes, the Penn State Alma Mater. (For you history buffs, Pat Farrell is recognized as the force behind the change in a few critical words in PSU’s alma mater, written by Professor Fred Louis Pattee in 1901. When I was a student at Penn State, the words to the alma mater said Dear Old State would “mold us into men” and we feisty young women would shout as loud as we could, “and women.” Well in 1975, Professor Pat Farrell convinced the Board of Trustees to substitute “childhood’s gate” for “boyhood’s gate” and had Dear Old State simply “mold us” rather than “mold us into men.”)

The directors of this year’s sing-along introduced each song and got the crowd going. My mom lit up when we sang Do Re Mi and Oh What a Beautiful Morning—she loves old musicals. I had a smile on my face recalling Cat Stevens’ take on the 1931 hymn Morning Has Broken. But I was really captured by one song I don’t recall ever hearing before (although I’ve read since that it has been sung by Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary). The lyrics of A Song of Peace, written by Lloyd Stone between World Wars I and II, touch my heart:

This is my song, O God of all nations,

A song of peace, for lands afar and mine;

This is my home, the country where my heart is.

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.

But other hearts in other lands are beating

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,

And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,

And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

O hear my song, thou God of all nations,

A song for peace for their land and for mine.

I think it is time for a global anthem. This one has my vote. Laurie Lynch

Written on Slate: “Music is the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart.” –Pablo Casals

Fleur-de-MagicCarpet

BasilDisease in the garden seems to be the story for the summer of 2015 so I daydream for a magic carpet ending.

First, Marina’s garlic at the community garden plot was speckled with Leek Rust (they grow a lot of leeks in Belgium). The orange flecks become raised pustules and before you can say GROSS, the garlic has Puccinia allii. The disease can be spread via the soil or wind. At best, it “reduces the vigor” of affected plants. At worst, it kills them. After a series of email exchanges and online research, her stunted harvest was salvaged.

On this side of the Atlantic, my garlic was getting too much rain, but short of dozens of golf umbrellas, what could I do? In the end, my harvest date was delayed from around July 4 to a few days after Bastille Day (July 14), when the rainclouds parted long enough for the sun to shine on Centre County. Yippee! The garlic bulbs actually look good, despite the clumps of potter’s clay clinging to their roots. That task done, it was time to make some pesto.

The patch of basil my sister Lee Ann planted for me looked beautiful, about knee high and itching to be picked as I passed it on my way to and from the garlic field. I had already made one small batch of pesto but something was off. Days later, going over the recipe in my mind, I realized I had forgotten the walnuts… So, I was ready to fill the freezer with some good stuff. I got a large basket and began pinching off the tops of each branch of leafy basil. As I dropped the clusters into the basket, the undersides of the leaves looked fuzzy with dark blotches. An armful of basil was reduced to a cup of salvageable leaves.

The culprit is Peronaspora belbahrii, which causes downy mildew. This new-to-the-U.S.-disease on basil is thought be transported by infected seed, and perhaps by air. According to Cornell University, where researchers are tracking this devastating basil disease, growers in Switzerland reported downy mildew on their basil crops in 2001. Two years later, there were reports of it in Italy, and the following year, France and Belgium. In this country, it was first discovered in Florida in 2007. It moved to Mid-Atlantic and New England states by 2008, the West Coast in 2009, and Hawaii in 2011. Prior to this century, the only known occurrence of downy mildew affecting basil was in Uganda…in 1933.

Sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, is most susceptible to the disease spores but other types of basil have been affected. Once you have the disease in your plants, you should destroy the crop, preferably on a sunny day, since the disturbed spores will be killed by UV radiation. To prevent the problem, Cornell suggests minimizing wetness and humidity. (Yeah, right.) Seed treatments and fungicides can also be used as preventive measures, and researchers are working hard to develop resistant varieties.

Meanwhile, my Salad Leaf Basil is not showing nasty signs of downy mildew, so I’m going to hurry up and make a batch of pesto before it is too late.

I’m a firm believer of variety in the garden and trying new things. When something goes wrong, there is always something to glory about. This year, I grew my first cauliflower plants. And, they’re doing well. I’m not sure how the two of us will manage to eat all of this cauliflower…but that can be an experiment too.

My chef-phew Wille introduced me to roasting cauliflower with olive oil and a hefty shower of curry and fennel. It has become a standard for me. But to celebrate this first cauliflower event I decided to go for a Moroccan twist. I was checking out some recipes combining cauliflower and lemon and olives, and remembered I had an unopened jar of preserved lemons in the refrigerator…

Roasted Cauliflower with Preserved Lemons & Olives

1 head of cauliflower

1/3 c. olive oil

Four slices of preserved lemon, rinsed of excess salt and cut into eighths

½ c. pitted olives, chopped

1 ½ teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon ginger

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon turmericLilies

Cut cauliflower into 2-inch pieces and mix with oil, lemon, olives, and spices. (You could substitute a fresh lemon for preserved lemon, cutting off bitter ends, slicing thinly and then into eighths.) Arrange mixture in one layer in a roasting pan. Place in 400-degree oven and roast for 20 minutes, stirring a few times.

These exotic flavors brightened our weekday meal and remind me of sitting at my favorite café where my magic carpet is always waiting. Right now, the lilies are in bloom. The fragrance of the Star Gazer lilies wafts of spicy temptation, transporting me to Marrakesh, or what I imagine Marrakesh smells like. But it is the soft yellow trumpets of an Oriental lily that capture my heart. As I stand on the sidewalk where I park my bike, she towers over me. On the porch where I sit and contemplate her loveliness, she looks me in the eye. Borrowed landscapes, borrowed gardens, are always perfect. Laurie Lynch

Written on Slate: “A visit to Marrakesh was a great shock to me. This city taught me about color.” –Yves Saint Laurent

Fleur-de-More

What I learned about beer in Belgium: Don’t reach for Chimay Blue unless you plan to drink it.

Slug Pub

Slug Pub

I’m not a beer drinker—left that grand experiment in my college years—but when I opened the refrigerator and said I was about to take a bottle of Chimay Blue into the patio garden, I heard Koen groan. “Take the Maes.”

Marina and I had sunken a plastic container into the soil near a nasturtium that was chomped the night before. We were determined to get those slugs with our homemade beer trap. All we needed was beer. So, Maes it was.

In the morning, there were seven dead slugs at the bottom of the slug pub—and no more nibbling on the nasturtium. I eventually figured out what the fuss was about. The Maes was left over from a bachelor party weekend; the Chimay Blue is the good stuff.

While planning my trip to Belgium, I had two gardens on my mind. The one at my mom’s house, which I abandoned, leaving transplants of tomatoes, peppers, basil, celeriac, and who knows what else for my sister Lee Ann to plant. (She did a great job!) The other was the garden Marina and Koen began planning when they moved into their house in Ghent last October.

Ghent University Botanical Garden

Ghent University Botanical Garden

But Belgium held many more horticultural surprises.

The most formal garden I visited was Ghent University Botanical Garden. Established in 1797, the garden has been at its present location, not far from Ghent city center, since 1902. The 7-acre spread has more than 10,000 species, and includes tropical, subtropical, Victoria, and succulent greenhouses.

Other times, the gardens or plants I discovered were simply by accident. The wisteria trained along the building across from Marina’s place was painstakingly pruned and a work of art; a beautiful foxglove growing out of a chink in the sidewalk, a fortunate fluke. I was just walking down a boulevard when I came across a stunning water garden entranceway, and rounding a corner when I was jolted by the brilliance of a golden chain tree at a neighborhood bar.

Wisteria

Wisteria

I never expected to see so many barge gardens docked along the canals and rivers of Ghent. Many of these floating gardens were practical: potted herbs or privacy vines surrounding the dinner table; others featured low-maintenance ornamental grasses or high-maintenance sculpted topiaries.

Entrance Garden

Entrance Garden

When I rode my bike along the canal into Ghent, I always parked near the office building where Koen works. I knew if I ever got lost, anyone could point me toward the building with the silver Xs, squares, and diamonds. Across the street from that building, I was drawn to a window-well garden under the sidewalk. Day after day I admired it, plump hydrangeas and healthy basil growing under my feet where I expected sidewalk cement, not glass.

Golden Chain Tree

Golden Chain Tree

On my next-to-the-last day in Ghent, I brought my camera—but construction dust had covered the windows. Never fear, I know Belgian women. Throughout my visit, I saw them outside with buckets, mopping, wiping, and scrubbing sidewalks, door stoops, and windowsills. I knew the windows would be clean by the next morning. I returned, and not only were the windows washed but the gardener was there.

Barge herbs.

Barge herbs.

She told me the one window-well garden was outside her basement kitchen, so she planted herbs. The other, outside her living area, was for the blooming hydrangeas. At Christmas time, she replaces those with a miniature Christmas tree and lights. “I can open by basement apartment windows and have the garden inside,” she explained with pride. (Unfortunately, my photos didn’t do these gardens justice.)

Koen's office.

Koen’s office.

My favorite garden was the patio garden Marina and Koen created. It was the garden I woke up to each morning and the last one I saw in the evening. Koen built a planter across the back of the walled patio with wooden pallets, and Marina filled the planter with vegetables (and sunflowers) they grew from seed—heirloom tomatoes, fava beans, salad greens, kale, etc. On a side wall, Koen’s father made the coolest planters out of metal roof gutters for herbs. My contribution, besides occasional weeding, was an Italian jasmine plant, next to the patio table, sharing the lovely scent I have at home in my mother’s atrium. Laurie Lynch

Early patio photo.

Early patio photo.

And More: Al Haring, my country neighbor when I lived in Maxatawny Township, is an email buddy. We often exchange photographs—his are artwork; mine are snapshots of his son Keith’s work that pops up in places like Venice or Brussels. Well, in our last exchange, Al told me that the solo Keith Haring exhibit The Political Line is at the Kunsthalle in Munich through Aug. 30. Better yet, The Political Line moves to the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, Sept. 19 through Feb. 7, 2016. I’m hoping Marina and Richard will make a daytrip to see the exhibit of our Kutztown-raised artist.

Three weeks later.

Three weeks later.

Fleur-de-Veggieday

SkylineIf you haven’t figured it out, let me put it in black and white: I have a new love affair…with Ghent.

Photos of the ornate and ancient brickwork, tile roofs, and canals with arched bridges captivated me long ago. On two previous trips to Belgium, I got as close as a two-minute stop at the train station on my way to somewhere else, each time saying, “I’d really like to visit Ghent.”

This year, I was able to. The storybook views of the medieval city disguise a youthful vibrancy that seemed to spill off the pages the more I explored Ghent with my fork, spoon, and camera.

Check out Ghent’s recent claims to fame:

  • In 2009 Ghent became the first city in world to adopt a weekly vegetarian day. Some say Ghent has the highest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita across the globe.
  • Ghent has the largest car-free city center in Belgium—the more biking and walking you do, the more hungry you become.
  • The KAA Gent team (The Buffalos) won its first Belgian Football (aka soccer in the US) Championship in 2015. Must have been all of those vegetables.

Here is the rest of the story:

GravensteenShortly after the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization issued a report saying meat production was responsible for 1/5 of the world’s greenhouse gases, the Ghent city councilor decided that encouraging residents to abstain from meat one day a week would be good for the planet’s climate, good for his citizens’ health, and good for everyone’s taste buds. And that is how Donderdag (Thursday) officially became Donderdag Veggiedag (Thursday Veggieday) in this city of 230,000 residents 30 miles west of Brussels.

According to the visitgent.be website, the average Belgian eats 1,800 animals in his lifetime: 890 chickens, 789 fish, 43 turkeys, 42 pigs, 24 rabbits and other game, 7 sheep, and 5 cows. By abstaining from meat one day a week, each person could save 250 animals over the course of a lifetime.

On Thursdays in Ghent, vegetarian meals are served in schools and government offices have veggie lunch meetings. Non-vegetarian restaurants are asked to limit meats to an alternative section on menus and the city has a Veggie Street Map highlighting vegetarian restaurants, vegan bakeries, and health food stores.

I went to two of Ghent’s vegetarian restaurants, twice.Avalon

Avalon is in the shadow of Gravensteen Castle. If you get lost in Ghent, follow the tram tracks toward Gravensteen and they will take you right to Avalon. It is open one weekend a month, Friday and Saturday evenings for a five-course meal, and reservations are hard to come by. Otherwise, it is only open for lunch. Marina was lucky enough to arrange a reservation for the two of us while I was visiting.

The menu for that night was:

Triomfbal: An apple and celery deep-fried dumpling made with chickpea flour.

Aspergerisotto: Risotto with thinly sliced asparagus, fried onions, and halved cherry tomatoes.

Bloemkoolsoep: Cauliflower soup with almonds and a green herb oil with lime sauce.

Groenteburger/witte bonen/gele bietjes/radijs: Sage puree with yellow and red beets and kale.

Chocoladecake/rabarberijs/aardbei: Chocolate cake with strawberries, and rhubarb-soy ice cream.

The meal was paired with white and red wines throughout the night. Review: Lovely presentations, delicious and unusual combinations, and small but satisfying portions.

The only complaint for the entire evening concerns a table of four on the other side of the room. When each course arrived at their table, out came the camera and FLASH! Food photos are all the rage, but I consider it rude behavior when others are dining.

The restaurant has a cookbook—Avalon: Grow-Eat-Share. Although the title is in English, the rest of the book is in Dutch.

I returned one afternoon for lunch, and serving sizes are much more ample (I ended up leaving a portion of my pasta on the plate—I simply ran out of room. The waitress, the same one who served us two weeks earlier, recognized me and handed me an English menu. The dish of the day was Pesto Pasta with Vegetables. The pasta had “homemade nut cheese” which is something new to me, as well as baby eggplant sliced lengthwise, caramelized red and yellow onions, grilled scallions sliced lengthwise, halved cherry tomatoes, and, of course, basil. Yum.

LekkerLekker GEC (Gent Ecologish Centrum) is across from the Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station and is a perfect place to eat before or after a train journey. You can also get a “take-away” meal for the train ride.

At Lekker, food is served cafeteria-style. Each plate costs 2 Euro, and then you load it up with what you want. The plate is then weighed, and you pay E 1,65 per 100 grams. I paid about E 8 after filling my plate with a red beet, pear and onion chutney, roasted vegetables with creamy dill sauce, tempura vegetables, a mixture of green peas and black beans in vinaigrette, and a salad of pureed avocado with chopped celery and dressed with cilantro and lime. That also included a cup of coffee with a cube of a brownie with hazelnuts.

On my last day, when Sabine, Richard and Lais arrived to go on a canal boat tour of Ghent, we had a late lunch at Lekker. Salad, fresh baked bread, and a table outside shaded by a large umbrella made the perfect afternoon meal. Eet smakelijk(D), bon appetit(F), or as they say in the good old USA, Enjoy your meal(E). Laurie Lynch

Café Culture: One of my favorite morning stops was for a cup of coffee. In Belgium, each cup of coffee is served with what I refer to as a sweet amuse-bouche, often with a delicate demitasse spoon. At Barista in Ghent, it was a 1-inch cube of bread pudding. At Le Pain Quotidien in Charleroi, it was a similar portion of raspberry cheesecake or brownie. At Bread Fast in Ghent, it was a tiny Speculoos. No matter where I went, there was always a little something to make my cup of coffee a treat while watching shoppers pass my outdoor café table.B&W Pride

Forget Pennies…Strawberries from Heaven: After years of growing strawberries for our market, I learned the trick for the most delicious strawberries was picking them dead ripe (as well as growing varieties with excellent FLAVOR rather than ship-ability.) But they had to be consumed in the next day or two or they would become mush or mold. Well, in Belgium the strawberries were as good as anything I ever grew, plus they had longer staying power. They were red all the way through, ripe, juicy, and flawless. They didn’t have to be smothered in Belgian chocolate or sandwiched between steamy, crisp waffles and billows of whipped cream. They were exquisite as just plain strawberries.

When I got home, I did a little research. In Flanders, you want to look for the Hoogstraten Aardbei(D) label. Strawberry farms in northern Belgium produce 40,000 tons of berries for this cooperative. In Wallonia, Wepion Fraise(F) is the strawberry to buy. Farms in Wepion and nearby Namur produce about 4,000 tons of strawberries a year. Wepion also boasts an actual Musee de la Fraise with a 35-acre of Jardin des Petits Fruits that I put on my To-See list.

After a little more reading, I found out the secrets to Belgian strawberries, at least those in Flanders. First, the berries never touch straw, or the ground, for that matter. They are grown in raised gutters or troughs in greenhouses. The berry stems fall over the gutter and the berries hang in the air. The plants are watered and fertilized in the gutters, and prompted to grow with LED lighting from March through November. A series of varieties are grown for continuous fruiting. By not touching wet ground, which often harbors disease, the strawberries can be harvested at full maturity, full of sugar and taste. One added detail is that harvesters all grow long fingernails. They use their fingernails to cut the stems, without their hands ever touching the berries.

Kapsalon & Sauce Andalouse: OK, I love strawberries from heaven, but I’m no foodie angel. At times I stray from the healthy and organic and unprocessed. One night Marina and I were at her house, alone and exhausted. Marina suggested ordering out. I was game. She got on her computer and ordered two kapsalons to be delivered to her doorstep.

The translation for the Dutch word “kapsalon” is “hairdressing salon”. Apparently it was named after a hairdresser in Rotterdam who loved to go to the Turkish restaurant next door for doner, shaved lamb cooked on a vertical rotisserie and served in a wrap. But he created his own twist with the add-ons, and thus, the kapsalon was born. From the Netherlands it traveled quickly to neighboring Belgium.

Our kapsalons arrived in aluminum loaf pans. The bottom layer is frites (French fries). Next, thinly sliced lamb and melted gouda cheese topped with shredded cabbage and carrots, and halved cherry tomatoes. You can order a variety of sauces, and I decided to go with Marina’s choice—Sauce Andalouse. Sauce Andalouse is a Belgian specialty—a mixture of mayonnaise, tomato paste, roasted peppers and spices (curry, I’m guessing). Talk about pigging out. I was hooked. I packed a bottle of Sauce Andalouse in my suitcase.The Buffalos

OK, Last But Not Least, The Buffalos: The Flemish sports pages were not required reading to figure out that Ghent is proud of its national champion football team, De Buffalo’s (stet).

There was a two-story team jersey draped on one of Ghent’s stately buildings, and blue-and-white posters of the mascot, the profile of a Native American in full-feathered headdress, in windows of homes and businesses. What, I asked, was going on? The KAA Gent football association was founded in 1900. This, it appears, coincided with visits of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his traveling Wild West Show. The show toured Europe eight times, making its first visit to Belgium in 1891 and its last in 1906. The Native Americans in the show made quite an impression, and Ghent began its love affair with “The Buffalos” of the Wild West.