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Colonia: Uruguay’s many reasons why

“Better to marry a neighbor than a stranger.”
Uruguayan proverb

Perhaps that is why Buenos Aires (Argentina) is fond of calling this Uruguayan city their “48th barrio.” It’s not imperialism or condescension, it’s 300 years of history. Founded in 1680 by Portugal, Colonia del Sacramento is a mere 50 minute high-speed ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Colonia suffered a violent history for over a 140 years as it ping ponged between Portugal’s Brazil and Spain. Finally, with significant Argentine assistance, the former Brazilian province, known today as Uruguay, achieved it’s independence in 1828.

old town Colonia with lighthouse
oldest house in Colonia 1690

Colonia’s renowned historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the finest districts of 17th and 18th century South American colonial architecture. It is a popular tourist attraction for visitors from Buenos Aires especially during the summer as its position on the northeastern side of the Rio de la Plata provides a cooling breeze. The Barrio Historico de Colonia, within walking distance of the ferry terminal, contains portions of its fortified wall and the City Gate with its  still functioning wooden drawbridge. Original cobblestone streets radiate from the tree-lined Plaza Mayor. Shops, restaurants and intimate inns are interspersed among residential 18th century houses.

original city gate, drawbridge and fortified walls
“300 years of struggle and love”

I was visiting in late June which is the beginning of winter in Uruguay. Because of the country’s long Atlantic and Rio de la Plata coast line, Colonia was pleasant in the breezy 60’s (F.) The entire historic core is closed to traffic except for business owners and residents. Many visitors rent bicycles and scooters – many residents use similar vehicles – but it is an easy town for walking. In the summer season Colonia is as crowded as any popular historic waterfront town, especially with Argentines.

Casa del Almirante Brown

Among notable attractions are the Lighthouse and convent ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco. The Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento was  constructed in 1808. The 18th century Portuguese Museum has Portuguese furnishings, jewelry, uniforms and old maps of Portuguese naval expeditions. The Casa de Nacarello, is an 18th century upperclass house museum. The Casa del Almirante Brown houses artifacts and documents of the city’s different periods and cultures. Of note is that the Irish-born Admiral William Brown was instrumental in gaining Uruguay’s independence, is regarded as the “father of the Argentine navy” and a national hero in both Uruguay and Argentina! The oldest church in Uruguay, Iglesia Matriz, dating from 1695, is found in Colonia as well.

Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento, Plaza Major

There is a new town to Colonia that is commercial and conveniently seperated from the historic zone. It continues the city’s traditional base as a trading hub between Argentina and Uruguay.

Top: new maritime terminal, historic train station Bottom: Buquebus ferry

Buquebus ferries make 5 to 6 round trips between Buenos Aires and Colonia daily from its new modern and efficient terminal at the Northern Dock in Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires). The trip takes less than one hour. Same day excursion specials are also available. From both Colonia and Buenos Aires, Buquebus ferries sail to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.

Cafes in Colonia (yes… that is a former windmill & a dining table in an antique car)

There are dozens of restaurants in the Barrio Historico de Colonia. It has always been my experience to avoid any restaurant that has waiters outside overly eager to “capture” a tourist – of any nationality – and explain their menu. I’ll make a generalization based on hundreds of restaurant meals in dozens of countries – this tactic sends up the proverbial “red flag” that the food is mediocre and overpriced. Colonia, especially around the Plaza Major, has many such establishments. On the other hand, I am partial to restaurants that have water views, even if the menu is not extraordinary. Simple food, well cooked and presented, acquires a special aura when accompanied by a beautiful setting. Uruguay, like Argentina, is known for the excellent quality of its grass-fed cattle and natural farming methods.  In recent years there has been an increase in vineyards devoted to organic grapes and wine production.

a profusion of flowering plants even in winter

Restaurant Dos Puertos filled that criteria. Set one block from the waterfront, the outdoor seating had a clear view of the sun dappled Rio de la Plata. Even though it was winter, the temperatures in the 60’s were fine for an outdoor lunch. My first course was their interpretation of what the menu clearly said was Caprese Salad – thick slices of tomato, fresh basil with slabs of Gruyère cheese. If you are very fond of Gruyère you would be in heaven – personally, I would have liked the fresh mozzarella a Caprese Salad requires. My entrée was grilled fresh Sea Bass, simply seasoned, accompanied by a vegetable medley that had obviously come from a freezer bag, but at least they were not over cooked. It was not a memorable meal, but the service was friendly and the view relaxing.

Restaurant dos Puertos

Like most restaurants, Dos Puertos is primarily a parilla, and stacks of aromatic wood were piled on the side of the building. Pleasant folk music was piped outside. Restaurant prices are slightly higher in Uruguay than in Argentina.  If you are just making a day trip to Colonia, use a credit card rather than exchange money for Uruguayan currency. You can use Argentine pesos in Colonia, but you’ll get a better exchange rate on the dollar with your credit card, even with the bank fee. (Note: Uruguayan currency is not accepted in Argentina.)

at rest in Colonia’s harbor

With the pleasant waterfront surrounding three sides of the Barrio Historico, Colonia is well worth at least a day trip from Buenos Aires with its history, charm, cafes, sailing, shops and galleries. For a longer visit, it makes a good base to explore the beautiful countryside of southwestern Uruguay.

(Note: All photos and collages will enlarge when clicked and very large when double clicked)

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The Puna – Produce Garden of Hawai’i

    

Top Left: Papaya, coffee beans, avocado. Bottom Left: unknown, Asian cucumber, Cacao pods

 

I was startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window. It was the next door neighbor of our rented Hilo water view house telling my wife and I that we had to evacuate. A Pacific-wide tsunami warning, following Chile’s catastrophic earthquake in February 2010, had been issued. Not knowing if we’d see our beautiful Japanese beach house again, we drove the 30 minutes to Volcano National Park, 4,000 feet elevation. The Park is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanos – in an island chain born of volcanos. As we had breakfast in the tropical forest we were struck that we had fled to the sides of an active volcano to escape a tsunami. This is the fragility of paradise; an environment that allows for abundance yet it just may convulse and destroy it all. Fortunately, Hawai’i was spared this time, but that wasn’t the case in 1950.    

Hilo Market

 

Later that week we drove the ten miles into Hilo for a day at the already famous Hilo Market – founded in 1988. I was struck by the vaguely shabby feel of Hilo’s commercial waterfront. Some fine examples of Art Deco, tropical Victorian and Arts & Crafts architecture are in various states of repair or restoration. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land, athletic fields and water activities, but that’s not the reason for its existence.    

For nearly a century, prior to 1950, this land had been Japan Town, a warren of shanties and pan-Asian cooking. The legacy of Japan Town lives on in the Puna’s suburb Asian fusion cuisine. In a brief period of time one morning in 1950, Japan Town was swept into the sea by a tsunami created by one of history’s most catastrophic earthquakes centered in the same area of Chile as the 2010 event. The Hilo Market area occupies land that had been devastated by that tsunami.    

    

As we neared the market, the scents and sights pulled us quickly along.  The main stalls, flower vendors, clothing, crafts, jewelry and a seamstress radiated onto the surrounding sidewalks. The Hilo Market  is not really a building. The main stalls are under a permanent cover with no walls (fortunately or else it would feel like an oven). It’s a bustling place. Organic lettuce is sold next to carnivorous plants. Taro root’s for sale if you want to make your own poi or tapioca. Exotic fruits and vegetables from Asia and the Pacific are in abundance and require conversations with vendors and fellow market goers for preparation suggestions. It’s a riot of color, textures and sounds!    

Top pics: sweet potato cheese cake and "what is it?"

 

The fresh coconut “milk” vendor is a perennial favorite in the tropics. Fresh, iced green coconuts have their tops sliced off with a machete. A straw is all that’s needed to enjoy a truly refreshing drink. Often when finished, the soft green shell is cut in half exposing the pudding-like coconut that can be eaten with a spoon – a double treat !    

    

The multi-cultural quilt that is Hawai’i resulted in a fusion of comfort foods. During the Second World War, that marvel of canned foods, SPAM, hit Hawai’i like a rock star. Overnight, the refrigerator scarce islands of the 1940’s found a food of remarkable flexibility, even if it is lacking in other qualities.    

Tradition meets SPAM and Loco Moco: popular island breakfast

 

The macadamia nut is nearly synonymous with Hawai’i, even though it’s native to Australia. What processors do to this buttery treat is legendary, and for another blog post, but suffice to say, the nut also married SPAM.    

Macadamia: green from tree, dried and shelled

 

Farmers markets are in nearly all small towns, and even between them, on the island. The Sunday market near Hawaiian Paradise Park, south of Hilo, offers a large variety of local crafts, musical entertainment, fresh eggs, Kava (for a relaxing morning), candles and terrific poultry, beef and pork grilled over guava wood.    

    

The lush eastern half of the Big Island is a garden, and even if you are a visitor without a kitchen, the markets of Hawai’i provide not only the best and exotic but a terrific insight into cultural fusion, entertainment and certainly an opportunity to eat authentic prepared island foods.

Peas In A Pod – A love story

        

Susan and Kristen

2007 did not start well for Kristen Coyle, Susan Bailey and Karen Dooley. The three sisters faced a bitter-sweet crossroad. Their beloved parents passed away too soon to enjoy retirement and for these three daughters to share those years. Now the nest egg their parents had saved became an unexpected inheritance for the three sisters. It was the decision of the women to use the money in a way that would both benefit all three and, privately, memorialize their parents. They would open a business, a produce business. In my opinion after 30 plus years in the food industry, I’d say opening a small produce shop ranks very high on the risky scale in an industry that already is a big risk. It took brains, passion and a sense of humor to turn sorrow into Peas In A Pod.       

       

The sisters do not come from a food industry background. Kristen and Susan are both nurses and Karen is a teaching assistant. All were ready to try something different – but anyone can run a food business? Susan and Kristen freely admit that after three years they are still learning – a key ingredient for success. Their Dad, according to Kristen, had an adventurous spirit taking the family on roaming summer drives through the farms of south-eastern Pennsylvania – the famed Pennsylvania Dutch and Quaker farm counties: Lancaster, Chester, Berks, Montgomery and  Bucks. The object was to find, and eat,  the freshest in-season vegetables and fruits at local farms. “Eating a fresh tomato with salt…,” is a strong memory for Kristen. So is growing up in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia surrounded by the kitchen aromas of the many Italian households in the neighborhood and  sitting down to a freshly made family dinner every night – a tradition these three busy, multi-career women still uphold.       

       

I entered the small shop at the intersection of Keswick and Glenside Avenues in Glenside, PA – a leafy, older suburb a mere 10 miles from center city Philadelphia – through a plant framed door that sticks and agitates an old-fashioned bell announcing a customer. Peas In A Pod is in a typical nondescript twin house converted into mixed commercial/apartment space. Out in front of the shop is a covered stand with produce available on the honor system. Inside, Kristen was at the counter and Susan, with helper, niece Mary Kate, were in the kitchen. (Karen had the day off). Frequent customers, of which there are many, are greeted by name; perhaps they have a quart of soup reserved. Customers, now friends by association, linger and chat.  The interior space of the shop is small, simple and functional.       

       

80 South Keswick Avenue was chosen the end of March 2007, and the doors to the shop opened in June – record time for a food business…until the sisters tell me the space was the very small front room – maybe 8 x 10 –  of the three rooms.  From day one the object was to sell produce from local farms that used green-earth farming techniques from southeastern Pennsylvania counties.       

 For small shops, and any small food business to succeed, it’s necessary to build personal relationships with suppliers. Susan spent days driving through  the countryside and was attracted to the corn fields ofTruck Patch Farms in Bucks County and developed the trust necessary to ensure high quality fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs. Truck Patch is their largest supplier.  Heirloom tomatoes come from Herrcastle Farms and Jesse Hale of Everhart supplies the raw honey. Patterson Farm’s  maple syrup is a personal favorite, and Four Seasons Farm in Lancaster County, as well as orchards in Loyola, PA, supply fruit, especially Pennsylvania’s wide variety of apples. What you will not find at Peas In A Pod are strawberries in January.       

       

You also will not find most of their 21 soups during the months of June, July and August, but, fortunately, their incomparable Crab Bisque is available every Friday year round – otherwise there would be serious withdrawal issues. Susan’s responsible for the soup, according to Kristen. (Susan: “What were we going to sell in the winter? Soup!”) Susan wanted to bake breads, make soup and maybe expand into… (the curse of a new business – expand). Expansion is a decision often made too early. Sometimes bureaucracy is beneficial, especially considering the 2008 financial meltdown. Cheltenham Township made it clear that fire codes allowed a maximum of only two hot plates for cooking – no oven without excessive renovations –  in the compact kitchen (complete with walk in-refrigerator) that was being constructed in the second room.  A third small room became more produce and Cento brand packaged pastas and sauces. Susan had a stint, while being a nurse, at Flying Fish restaurant in Chestnut Hill and still has dreams of adding more in-house made products, but reality dictated that soups and salads were a marketable match. With the exception of crab bisque every Friday (300 quarts), the remaining 20 soups rotate with one or two  available daily – lemon chicken, bean and potato leek are all favorites. I was allowed only the briefest glance at one of their proprietary recipes, some from their Mother.  Fresh salads with in-house dressings are in a refrigerated section and range from garden to chicken to orzo. The two professional grade hot plates are doing just fine.       

       

Peas In A Pod celebrated a milestone anniversary this past June 2010: they’re still in business three years after opening – nearly 65% of all food businesses are bankrupt within the first three years. Not that mistakes haven’t been made – the worst was an early over reliance on expensive certified organic produce. Customers preferred the chemical-free products from many local farms that result in “same as organic” at less cost. An obvious suggestion that  future  marketing of their soups, salads and dressings may be a good idea was met with a look  in their eyes that it was already on the table.

The bell at the front door gently clanged as another customer entered the shop. Kristen said that sometimes the bell rings but no one enters. After a brief pause she adds, shyly, “We know its our parents. They would want to be here. I think they’d be proud.”                    

They certainly would.       

Peas In A Pod       

80 South Keswick Avenue
Glenside, PA 19038-4607
(215) 887-2719

Where to get your goat…

…and your heirloom tomatoes?  In Jenkintown, of course. Now Jenkintown, (Montgomery County, PA) hasn’t been home to a farm in a century, and when I moved here in 1984, a rather small Acme pretty much was it for food supplies. The world for foodies has changed considerably starting in the mid-1990’s. Zagara (short-lived but exciting while it lasted), Whole Foods, Produce Junction, Trader Joes, Peas in a Pod, and the Acme, are all within walking distance or short drives from anywhere in Jenkintown.          

The farms of Philadelphia’s surrounding counties – Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Lancaster and Berks – are historically famous for their products. Yet in this age of diet-by-frozen-foods, we forget that there are places within less than an hour’s drive where leg of goat (grass-fed) is available, as well as drop cherries, raw honey and Thai eggplant.              

Thai eggplant, heirloom tomatoes & carrots

 

This June, Jenkintown inaugurated a weekly Wednesday Farmers Market in the Town Square from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM. For a variety of reasons, today was the first time I had a chance to check it out. I walked the less than 10 minutes from my house not necessarily with high expectations that I’d discover anything different from the normal stands of fresh, small-farm produce I’ve come to expect.           

It’s nice to be surprised in your own backyard. Three sizable stands of produce were brimming not only with the normal assortment. Herrcastle Farms (Holtwood, PA, Lancaster County) has an impressive display of heirloom tomatoes and the unusual drop cherry – beautiful yellow color and crisp texture. Tall Pine Farms’ (Rushland, PA, Bucks County) table caught my eye with a half-dozen eggplant varieties, including the crisp, tennis ball sized Thai eggplant that’s great in curry and stir-fry. Farmer Thad of Jett’s Produce (Telford, PA, Montgomery/Bucks County) prominently displays a sign “We grow chemical free.” Isn’t that organic? To Farmer Thad, it’s “organic” minus the bureaucracy, paperwork and high fees to be FDA organic certified. Herrcastle and Tall Pines, as well as many small farms I know in Pennsylvania, agree.             

Drop cherries

 

Not all is produce. In the center of the square at least six long tables were overflowing with cinnamon rolls, muffins, carrot cake, decorated cookies and at least a dozen savory breads including a still warm loaf of Olive Rosemary bread. This carb heaven is the work of Tabora Farm and Orchard (Hilltown, PA, Bucks County). It seems Tabora’s still a farm and orchard with a bakery that produces 160 different baked items per day!              

Tabora Farm's baked products

 

A small stand displayed raw honey, including my favorite, Buckwheat Honey. The product of Everich Honey Farm (Cedars, PA, Montgomery County), I had an informative conversation on the still real threat of Colony Collapse Disorder and the possible ties to the over use of chemicals in American farming. Coffee is in the mix as well with One Village Coffee (Souderton, PA, Bucks County) a company that takes corporate “fairshare” seriously, funding farming projects in third world coffee growing areas. A Little Taste of Tennessee (Jenkintown, PA, Montgomery County) started in April by Pat Walton, a Tennessee native is a new catering business and weekend restaurant in Jenkintown featuring the country foods of that state. At the market, they were offering Ms Ethel’s and Aunt Weeze’s nut brittle and a variety of fresh, crisp pickles – the Bread and Butter nicely under sweetened. Varieties with jalapeño peppers would probably burn my tongue off.          

Two craft stands are in the mix – one selling hand bags made with recycled material, and another table of handmade “Jewelry From a Writer, for Word Lovers” from Words at Play (Elkins Park, PA, Montgomery County). Janet Falon, a writer, creates necklaces and bracelets built with word blocks so the wearer can create a message.          

What really caught my eye, shortly after I arrived at the Market, was a mobile kitchen parked at the edge of the Square. Thinking it was a misplaced Philly Steak and hotdog stand, I finally walked up to the M & B Farview Farm (Hamburg, PA, Berks County) mobile unit to discover a refrigerated/freezer trailer selling grass-fed beef, veal, lamb, goat and pork. With a 142 acre farm (soon to grow to over 200 acres) M & B, from looking at their order form, utilizes every part of an animal offering kidneys, hotdogs, sausages as well as a full line of cheeses from both cow and goat milk. M & B’s ranching techniques would make both an American Indian and an Argentine Gaucho proud!           

Prices at the market are comparable to Whole Foods or anyplace selling premium products, but now you know where they’re coming from – your own backyard.           

           

  Herrcastle Farms, 198-A Douts Hill Road, Holtwood, PA 17532, www.herrcastlefarm.com          

Tall Pine Farms, 1046 Swamp Road, Rushland, PA 18956           

Jett’s Produce, 87 Ridge Road, Telford, PA 18969, www.facebook.com/JettsProduce           

Tabora Farm and Orchard, 1104 Upper Stump Road, Hilltown, PA, www.taborafarmandorchard.com/store/           

Everich Honey Farm, Cedars, PA 19446, (215-565-6422)           

 One Village Coffee,18 Cassel Road. Souderton PA 18964           

A Little Taste of Tennessee, 307 Old York Road,  Jenkintown, PA 19046 (215-432-8028 or 215-906-3903)            

Words at Play, Elkins Park, PA, 19027  (215-635-1698)           

 M & B Farview Farm, 229 Farview Road, Hamburg, PA