My bus stop to and from work is positioned right off one of Montreal’s busiest highways, the 40. It’s a strip of steel and pavement that moves all day long in inexhaustible waves of blaring horns, blaspheming drivers, exhaust pipes spewing gasoline fumes, and every so often, the crunch of metal-on-metal resulting from a driver eyeing their cell phone instead of the road. It’s a purgatorial feast for the senses, to say the least. But it’s also a daily necessity, getting me to and from my place of work. I try to remember that with convenience comes sacrifice, sticking my nose in a book to distract me from the highway and its noxious offerings. Sometimes, though, it’s a hard beast to ignore.
Not unlike the man behind Whole Larder Love and others of his ilk, I’ve become more sensitive to the drawbacks of city-living. This isn’t say that I intend on becoming a tree-dwelling hermit, or have what it takes to walk around in cold cow muck each morning at the crack of dawn, in a uniform of denim overalls and wellies. But there are days when those things sound much more appealing than ingesting smog and hurrying around with commuters who’ll toss you to the curb if it means getting to the bus faster. Frankly, on those days, real cow muck sounds like the better kind of bullshit.
Since I will likely never become a farmer, or goat-herder, or cultivator, I rely on intermittent opportunities to take a break from the city. Like the one that presented itself out of the blue in late August, when my friend Rose asked if I wanted to spend a three-day weekend on a farm in the Eastern Townships. A three-day escape to the country? Man o man,
It just so happens that Rose’s mum (the lovely and talented, Gwynne Basen) operates a small-scale farm in the hamlet of Dunkin, near Mansonville, Quebec. True to its name, every inch of Abbondanza is plentifully bestrewn with plants and produce – from the keyhole garden overflowing with squash and the colossal heads of cabbage lining the garden path, to the long tendrils of heirloom tomatoes, greenhouse peppers and bright patches of nasturtium flowers, it is a sight to behold. A plant nirvana.
If there was ever an antidote to city-fatigue, this would be it.
The Friday we arrived, Rose and I busied ourselves prepping produce for the Saturday farmers market. At the kitchen table, we took turns sorting, packing and weighing fresh leaves of kale, spinach, mesclun, as well as different types of Romano, fava, and string beans in a spectrum of colours, ranging from iridescent-purple ones, to slender, aubergine-coloured ones that magically turn green when they’re cooked. Every so often, for, ahem, “quality-control” purposes, we’d sample the mustard and mizuna leaves, letting them warm our mouths with their peppery bite, as we continued to make our way through the mounds of greens laid out on the table.
Once all the produce had been sorted and tucked away for the night, we all sat down with some wine and a pre-dinner plateful of crisp, tempura-battered zucchini blossoms, inspired by Ottolenghi’s recipe and served alongside his (totally brilliant) spicy-sour lime dipping sauce. After dinner, and a couple more glasses of wine, we each sauntered off to bed, falling asleep to the sound of crickets.
The next morning, we packed up the car and headed to the market with Gwynne. Alongside the beans and greens, Rose and I arranged pint-size baskets of heirloom tomatoes and fingerling potatoes, a few heads of lettuce, and twine-bound bundles of carrots, onions and turnips. Local residents came by in batches, chatting with Gwynne and selecting produce to take home. By noon, there was nary a piece of produce left on the table.
Clearly, the locals have good taste.
Back at the farm, I helped with lunch by assembling a quick salad of Gwynne’s heirloom tomatoes, layered with shreds of milky Buffala mozzarella, basil, dill, nasturtium flowers, and sprinkled with crunchy salt flakes and a thin drizzle of olive oil.
We ate it on the porch steps, between two willowy hydrangea bushes fluttering with honeybees. After soaking up the last of the tomato juices from my plate with a heel of crusty bread, I sat there, toes in the sun, my heart filled with gratitude.
It was a weekend of perfect, quiet moments; a weekend of deep, clear breaths and introspective calm; a respite from the smog and the concrete, and an introduction to true farm-to-table living. Gwynne’s gardens and greenhouse are not only stunning, but also a testament to her commitment to real food. It’s thanks to dedicated people like her that we’re reminded of what food should look and taste like, and how something so seemingly simple – the flavour of a perfectly ripe tomato, for instance – can be profoundly enriching.
If you’re interested in visiting the farm, Gwynne offers a variety of workshops – from sustainable gardening practices to stone-wall building. For details, you can visit the site here.
I hope autumn has been good to you, lovely readers. Be well, eat well xx
Stuffed Harvest Squash – serves 2 as a light main, with a side salad
- 2 medium-sized squash (pattypan work quite well)
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 stalk celery, finely chopped (or 1/4 bulb of fennel)
- 4-5 leaves of Swiss chard (stems on), finely chopped
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 can (or 1 ½ cups cooked) white cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 tsp. fresh thyme (stems removed), chopped
- 1/4 tsp. fresh sage, chopped
- 1/4 tsp. chili flakes
- salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1) Place the squash flat side down in a large pot. Add about 1 inch of water, cover, and bring to a boil. Cook for about 8 minutes, until a fork easily pierces the top of the squash. Remove from the pot and set aside to cool.
2) Preheat oven to 375° F. When cool enough to handle, slice off the top of the squash and scoop out the flesh (leaving a wall of about a 1/4-inch of flesh on all sides of the squash). Chop the scooped out flesh coarsely, and set aside.
3) Heat a glug of olive oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat and sauté the onions and celery for about 5 minutes until softened (but not browned); add garlic, diced squash, and remaining seasonings and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the white beans and cook on low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring from time to time.
4) Place the squash in an baking pan or dish. Spoon the stuffing into each shell, packing tightly (don’t worry about over-stuffing). Return the “caps” of the squash back on top and bake for about 20 minutes in the preheated (375° F) oven. Allow to cool for a couple of minutes before serving.
Note: if you have additional stuffing, let it cool, then pop it into the refrigerator. It’ll last a few days and might come in handy for weeknight dinners – reheated with a bit of oil and parmesan, tossed into pasta, or heated up and lightly mashed as a topping for toast.