The Local Food Report: Four Season Farm

This post, I'm afraid, is a bit fraught for me. I'm supposed to write about Four Season Farm, and the guru Eliot Coleman and his spritely, lovely wife Barbara Damrosch, and their penchant for winter gardening. The trouble is, the picture that keeps coming back to me is this.

It's the town closest to the farm, Harborside, Maine, or maybe Brooksville, I can't remember to tell the truth. The picture was taken from the street, peering down a roadside hill, lens teetering out into the mist. It's where the fishmonger and I got engaged. He asked (of course) while we were walking, just minutes before the interview, so that when we showed up for lunch with Eliot and Barbara, I was flustered, to say the least.

But to their credit—or perhaps in testament to my fascination with the idea of growing winter produce in Maine—soon after entering their busy kitchen, I became so enthralled with the couple I just about forgot the ring. I swapped diamonds and white gold for spinach and carrots, and couldn't have been happier with the trade.

It started with lunch. First of all, we had the pleasure of sitting down not only with Barbara and Eliot, but also with their farm hands, a couple who had come over to think about buying a greenhouse, and their adorable, cheeky child. The table was set for twelve and the food cooked entirely on an old-fashioned gas cookstove, complete with a cast iron cooktop and tourquise enamel paint. The first thing I did, of course, was to swoon over it, a sentiment Eliot promptly dismissed. Please don't encourage her! he laughed. It was straight out of a 1930s kitchen, detailing and all, and he seemed to think it should go back.

But then there was lunch, which on November 7th, tasted more like September 28th. It was whole wheat pasta with carrots, Tuscan kale, red pepper, cauliflower, and maybe even broccoli. There was some sort of a lemon tahini sauce on top, which I originally thought was perhaps the only item bought from away, until we went out to get the greenhouse tour and I encountered the lemon tree. Yes, we were in Maine, and yes, it was November, and yes, there it was with three others in a row, churning out Myers like a champ.

This greenhouse was heated, the only one. It had a woodstove and a washing station, so that the workers could scrub the lettuce and carrots for market and still keep their fingers on. The other greenhouses—those with the leeks, the spinach, the candy carrots—were all insulated, but none had heat. They simply relied on a double layer of plastic, with a few inches of air trapped in between, to soak up what radiance they could from the day.

The land was amazing—part of the original Nearing Farm, that Helen and Scott and the back-to-the-landers so revered in the 50s and 60s. Eliot bought a piece and cleared it himself, and today it's a year round commercial farm. He and Barbara sell to local grocers and schools, and in the summer operate an out-of-the-way farm stand. They have interns coming and going, learning their ways of coaxing the land into production come snowfall or hail or rain.

There is certainly a lot to learn, what with tools and techniques and selecting seeds. Luckily, for those of us who can't spend a year on the land, they've written book upon book to inspire. The Winter Harvest Manual and Four Season Harvest I think are the best; they help with picking out spinach and raddicchio and radishes and whatnot, and how to best cover the plants. They span a wide ability range, too, from novice to accomplished hand.

There are a few other resources any aspiring winter gardener should check out: Moveable Greenhouses (in case you're looking to offload some serious bucks), and Grower's Supply if you simply want to get started, sans cash. There are also lots of winter seeds available through Johnny's online, and through FedCo in Maine.

But even if you don't make it this far, there's a winter recipe from Barbara to enjoy—butternut squash and leek soup, with a dash of tomato paste, and a good dose of chicken broth. It's quick, easy, and fantastic, and warm right down to your toes.


adapted from a Barbara Damrosch recipe, published in Food + Wine, February 2003

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 leeks, white and tender green parts only, coarsley chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 quart chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 large butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice (3 cups)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
several leaves sage
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream

Melt the butter in a large heavy saucepan. Add the leeks, celery, and garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the stock, squash, tomato paste, and sage. Season with salt and pepper and simmer over moderately low heat until all the vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes.

Puree the soup in a blender, then return it to the saucepan. Stir in the cream and cook until just heated through. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.


Anonymous said...

Great piece on WCAI today about Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman.

Elspeth said...

Thank you so much! I'm very glad you heard it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jayne: a great story on Damrosch and Coleman. It's wonderful to think about year-round gardening, and honestly, it doesn't even seem that hard once you get organized for it. Thanks for another inspiring story, Elspeth! ~A Maine Reader

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