I had a great time this weekend preparing for the planting season, and planning planning planning. First, we stacked wood, an ongoing process that has taken many hours this spring. Wood for the sugar house next year, wood for home heating next year (both the wood-heated furnace and the woodstove in the kitchen), and wood for whatever else, maybe to sell, maybe to trade. I tried out the splitter a couple times, and I'll probably do a lot more stacking as the spring continues. My favorite type of wood is what we call "Sweeties"–the small, thin branches that are smooth, gray and round, mainly from beech trees. It looks almost fake when you take in the sight of a Sweetie Pile.
I spent a full day raking up dead leaves from around the house–one of the most satisfying Saturday activities I've ever done. I think the leaves acted as a kind of mulch, keeping weeds from growing, because underneath the layer of leaves was fresh soil, and occasionally a cluster of stubby green flower stalks. I raked leaves into large piles and then scooped them up with outstretched arms into a handmade wooden garden cart. Once the cart was full, I wheeled the cart down to a corner of the still-bare garden bed (one of three surrounding the house), and emptied the leaves into a large pile, for later use. I guess we'll save it for layers in the compost pile, or mulch in the garden. It was hard work on my arms and my back, raking all day, and I cleared layer after layer of leaves in the spring sun. But it felt really good. I thought about what I would have been doing three months ago, when I lived in New York City, before moving to rural Vermont. Nothing that felt nearly as satisfying as sitting on the porch looking at the work I had done–fully by hand. And it's pretty cool not to use a leaf blower, not to waste fossil fuels, and to incorporate a kind of quietness to work, to the movement of my body, and to the soil and the flowers that I swear to you were growing even as I walked past. And what a sight it is to discover a stone wall that has been hidden!!
Then it was attacking a huge, dead Echinacea brush-pile, that was an ugly mass of hardened, reed-like sticks with little hairy heads. We took that thing to task with a big machete, a gift from a friend who is about to start an oyster farm in Rhode Island. And when all the hacking was through, we took a walk around the property. It's hard to describe the way Vermont feels at the beginning of spring. For months and months, all has been covered in a thick layer of white. Now, it's as if the whole landscape is slowly coming to life. The ice is shifting out from the center of lakes, rivers are running, moss is peeking out on rock faces, and worms are long and pink in the black dirt. I even came across a frog, wedged under a boulder.
Another "hard labor" project of the weekend was rock heaving. Scattered between the cow pasture (where the three lazy Angus plot their escape) and the woods, is a decent piece of land that is made un-usable because of a smattering of boulders and stones, that make tractor work and pasturing impossible. We've got our minds around making this into grassy pasture. So away I went–in my work jeans tucked into rubber boots, looking like Oliver Twist, kind of, dirt smeared on my face and all–and gathered the rocks, and heaved them into a circular area, cleaning up the pasture, and making a big rock pile. We used the tractor for the larger boulders we couldn't dig up with a rock-digger or a shovel. I'm so sore, I can't even tell you. But again, in the best way. Now, if we ever need to build a stone wall, there they are, waiting in a nicely symmetrical pile. Or we can have a cool bonfire area, with stone seats. Then I got some wire cutters and unwrapped some nasty babred wire that had been wrapped around a telephone pole by the house's previous owner (who is now our neighbor, and the town Cemetery Commissioner). I'd never used a wire cutter before, and there was a lot of rusty metal. But damned if I didn't unravel the whole thing, with some help from Ted, my noble housemate and teacher. I keep surprising myself, getting so into this kind of work. But I love it.
On Easter Sunday, I woke up late (which is 8:30am, and never happens) and raced downstairs. I had two lumps of dough that had been rising since the previous night in the fridge. The best recipe I've found yet (and to be honest, one of the two I've experimented with), which is Mark Bittman's Easy French Bread Recipe. I tweak it and refrigerate the dough overnight, which works really well.
Easiest and Best French Bread
1 pound bread flour (use King Arthur flour, which is a cool Vermont-based company that is actually employee-owned!!)
2 tsp salt
1 tsp RapidRise Yeast
1.5 cups of water (or a tiny bit less)
Place flour, yeast, salt, and water in a food processor, until the mixture has become a shaggy ball that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Remove from mixer. Form the boule (round loaf) by shaping the dough into a ball, using as little flour as possible. Use your hands/fingers to work your way around the ball, tucking the dough down and inward into itself and stretching the top. When the top is smooth, pinch the bottom together to seal it and place in a towel-lined basket (with a bit of flour) seam-side up.
Allow to rise for 2-6 hours. Preheat oven to 450° 30-minute prior to baking.
So, I threw the dough in the oven (I put a little ceramic dish of water in there to evaporate into steam to make a good crusty bread) and it came out just in time for Easter omelets. I went to a Seder the night before, and had incredible lamb, and gefilte fish which, let's be honest, leaves a lot to be desired. Holidays are a good excuse to bake, but I think I'm going to save money on buying bread by baking three loaves every weekend, and freezing them for the week. I live with two other men who eat with two hands shoveling food in at once, so that's a lot of bread. Now I'm hooked! I want to plant grain in the garden, and so I'm voraciously devouring Small Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon, and learning the ropes of growing my own. It's not as complicated as I would have thought! And hopefully one of these days we're going to build our own masonry bread oven.
I'm having the best time. I look at Frida all curled up in front of the wood stove at night, snoring like an old man, and I'm sure I feel as content as she does.
I can't wait until the laying hens arrive this week.