Thursday, 10 September 2015

Dining as performance art sparks up our evening

Recently, Greg and I visited Michael Smith’s Fire Kitchen at the Inn at Bay Fortune, purchased by the famous chef earlier this year and extensively renovated. The old kitchen and way of food service are out, and a new method is very much in. So popular, in fact, that we had to wait a couple of weeks for a reservation to this family-style eating experience.

The previous day, we received a reminder: arrive at 6:00 for the oyster-shucking cocktail hour. So, what did we find when we got there  at 6:01? In the first place, not many other people.  I knew being on time would be the equivalent of being too early; my dining companion still has to learn this. However, we were warmly greeted by a chilly hostess in the cool autumnal air outdoors. She explained the procedure for dinner, then went indoors to find a coat!   

We admired the new reception area (blond wood ceiling and birch trunks room divider).   Once the doors to the kitchen were open, which reminded me of waiting for the doors to open at  the Maple Dining Room at Christie Gardens, a few of us straggled into what was the former main kitchen.  We ate, not Colville Bay, but Fortune Bay oysters harvested about as locally as you can get — about 500 feet away in the sea. Local provenance is the byword here.  

With Bloody Mary ice on top, they were delicious.

We eschewed the gin and tonic, figuring at $13 a mason-jar drink, we could imbibe at home for much less money and equal effect.

Greg and I were not quite sure what to do with ourselves for the next 45 minutes while we waited for dinner to begin, so we sat in the lounge and watched other people arriving, while at the same time avoiding making eye contact with them, as they were with us. Is everybody here an introvert?

Carrying our coats with us, as the former coat closet was now a mini-store for cook-books by Michael Smith,  we decided to explore the dining room, found our name chalked on a slate, determined we would have to sit across from each other at dinner  (no sotto voce comments possible, darn it), and hung our coats on the back of our chairs. 

More people had arrived and seemed to be gravitating to the other end of the long room where the new ovens are. There, we found the next stage: pastrami salmon with lemon caper aioli being assembled on crackers by a very young man (to our elderly eyes). He could barely keep up with the  demand. Mmmm good! There was also smoked beef  with beer mustard, also very good as, initially, the beef was not too rare for my liking.

More drinks could be added to our tab were we to indulge in local beers.  Again, we passed: too pricey.

I got a big kick out of talking to the young chef unwrapping the baked beets plucked earlier in the day from the Inn’s garden. Rail thin and wearing a baseball hat backwards, he was cheery and chatty. I asked him, wasn’t the heat from the fire a bit much on his back and he said he was used to it. He told us they burn maple, birch and something else and that there is not a lot of hardwood on the island so they have to source some of the wood in New Brunswick …well, still pretty local! (All the gravel for driveways here comes from New Brunswick too, by the way.  Some things just can’t be helped.)

Here is our take-home menu.

In addition to place-setting menus, the courses for the night’s feast were written on the wall  on brown wrapping paper suspended from what looked like an antique paper roll, with an  impressive serrated edge at the bottom. On another wall, the 40-plus ingredients for the salad were listed. Inspecting these items relieved me of the necessity of talking to total strangers. I said to Greg, we should have gotten a group together, so we would know people.

However, that all changed when we got to our tables. We were saved by a retired teacher and co- owner of tourist cottages, who introduced herself and encouraged the rest of us to do likewise. We did and soon we were finding lots to talk about with one another.

Course after course arrived  with explanations from one of the chefs as to their significance. Sourdough yeast for the bread  takes a month to develop from potato mash, so even the yeast is local!  The resulting 12-grain Red Fife sourdough bread was irresistible, especially with brown butter.

The Taste of the Island Board was delectable. The peas could have been younger, but the dilled beans were yummy. There was way too much pate, delicious though it was, and too few crackers.  Jeff McCourt’s cheese from Glasgow Glen was pizza-flavoured — and it was “gouda.”

Cue the chowder:  all local sea food, delicious.

The invitation to smash the sand crusted on the baked halibut drew several volunteers. After whacking the sandy crust, the participants shared their adventure on their I-phones, while the chefs removed cabbage leaves from the fish, placed there  to protect it from the grit. Served with cauliflower, it was a bit bland… Even the spicy sea rocket provided from local beaches by the Inn’s forager didn’t spark it up quite enough.

However, the occasion itself kindled energy in the crowd.The conversation noise level rose, while course after course was presented. I found out the back stories of my seatmates (I already pretty much know Greg’s). Not telling them here … as what is said in the dining room stays in the dining room. It was just so convivial. 

A 90-year old woman and her 50-year old son shared a birthday, and of course everyone in the room belted out Happy Birthday when their cake was marched in.   Want to know where on the Island to go for afternoon ballroom dancing lessons? Now I know. 

I didn’t think I would like family style dining, but it turned out I do. Four hours after we arrived, we all said goodbye and wended our happy ways home.

If I had a word of advice, I’d say make the main entree portions a bit smaller. We sent way too much chicken back to the kitchen as we simply couldn’t eat it all.  Same with the excellent brown butter mashed potatoes. The beets, zucchini and roasted onions were very enjoyable, and the quantity was just right.

Also I was told that some of the garnishes the forager finds are few and far between on the beaches. Now that local plants are used in quantity at many restaurants, I worry we might be enjoying the results on our plates but over-foraging in the woods and beaches.

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to returning anytime I want an energetic, participatory, delicious dining experience. Good for Chef Michael for embarking on this rollicking adventure in Prince Edward Island hospitality and local foods.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Walking in a weedy wonderland

I toiled last summer to design and outline a seven-circuit labyrinth in the “back 40” at the cottage. Then the lawn guys carved out the path. 

Greg collected and placed rocks to define where it leads. Last, I covered the path with mulch to keep the weeds at bay.

In September just before we left, we planted bunches of three daffodils each around it — 28 bunches in all, as it turned out, a nice coincidence with their being 28 days in the lunar month. Unlike the labyrinth at Chartres, the seven-circuit type doesn’t have actual lunations to mark the lunar calendar, but the little clumps of daffodils were a reminder of the moon and all it signifies.

It was neat and tidy when we left last fall. In fact, practically all labyrinths I have encountered are just that—neat, tidy, and dare I say, almost perfect. Here is the one at the convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine in Richmond Hill:

Source of photo:

It is similar to mine because it its outlined in stones.  So you can imagine how I felt when we returned this spring and found this:

My first thought was: oh no, it is so overgrown! In fact, it was so invaded by dandelions I thought I should call it a dandelinth. The daffodils were slightly past their prime, their yellow completely outshone by the dandelions’.

My dismay was assuaged by the fact that the path was still visible, and I enjoyed walking around it while looking at the various stones. They were all the same (red sandstone) yet unique (in shape and size).  

I thought about this difference in sameness for a while and also about rocks: calm, solid, perpetual, unchanging.

Of course, I immediately began to weed as I walked. Then I reflected that I was treating the labyrinth as a thing to be worked on rather than as a means for inner quiet, meditation, and even mystical experience. None of the other labyrinths I had enjoyed required my on-going  care and keeping. They were usually made of cement and other materials which prevented the infringement of weeds. On them, I could just quiet my ego and follow the path on an inner pilgrimage. This one pleaded for my objective attention and hence, the engagement of my ego.

So at first I thought what a pity it was that I did not have the “right” attitude towards it. Would I ever feel I was not working on it as merely an artefact and just let myself experience what walking its path offered my inner Self, my soul?

So then  I decided I would pull weed weeds from the path only on the way in. Being bent over and humbly weeding would suit the penitential nature of the way to the centre, at least according to one way of looking at the walk in. Each weed could be a flaw in myself or a trouble in my world or a trouble in the world at large, which needed to be pulled for personal and worldly improvement nay, even perfection.

Then on the way out, I would refrain from working on it and have a true Sabbath — a time of opening my soul to whatever God/the holy spirit/the divine within/the mystery of nature wanted to put there. It would be redemptive.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. In or out, I could not resist pulling up the twitch grass, dandelions and other weedy things.

Then I had something of an epiphany. It is all right to be a Martha working all the time: Unlike the biblical Martha, I was enjoying it. It had a rhythm. Yet, I did not feel impelled to totally weed everything, nor did I weed with any pattern or intent:  A swath of twitch grass which I had been happy to ignore going in would attract my attention coming out.

So, not only was the labyrinth not perfect, neither apparently was my plan to do things right. 

I reflected on the word perfect. It has come to mean flawless, but if you go back to the Latin root, it means “through” from  per and “made” from feci, the past tense of facere, “to make or do.”

So in its literal sense, “perfect” means to work through or make through. It is a process or experience, not a product or a goal. It is in actual hands-on doing (for me, at any rate), that I feel attuned with the creative and behind that, the Creator,  and that I feel an attachment,  even love, for this inanimate weedy object, my labyrinth.

Now I feel  more attached to it than if it were flawless. As I go round the path, obscured by the greenery along the border, I am taken by surprise by the twists and curves. I have to pay attention to how I am walking to avoid tripping. The way is not clear to my immediate vision even though I know the way is there, and all I have to do is to follow it. Nevertheless, I have to weed it out to keep the way passable.  How like life this is. The way is there, but not always easily seen. 

The tall weeds and grasses at the side form a tunnel which in my four-year-old imagination, I am exploring and clearing. It is play, not work.

Finally, it’s not about having a belief (weeds are like flaws and must be pulled out) but about having the experience (I care for the labyrinth and it provides me a path). I dislike apportioning a moral value to the poor twitch grass. It’s not the fault of the weeds that I pull them up; it is just what I have to do to keep a clear path. And I have learned not to be annoyed by them.

In a sense, I am not walking on the labyrinth,  I am the labyrinth and all that it signifies about going in those contained circles to an inevitable centre.  The interruptions by the weeds in my way are moments for pausing, stooping, pulling, and standing up again: sort of doing physically what we are to do spiritually in our journey.

A day or so after having these thoughts, I read a quotation from Rumi in something Richard Rohr wrote in his daily meditation:

I want to...instead of being
irritated by the interruption and daily
resentments, feel those as kindnesses.

Admittedly, it’s easier said than done, but after I leave the labyrinth and return to my daily life, I hope this  pattern  of response to life becomes more embedded in me.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Village Feast in Souris was a great success

A contingent from Camp Gagetown NB provides chowder from their field canteen each year. The woman behind the soldier talked to us about one of the charities this event benefits: Farmers Helping Farmers   building cookhouses in Kenya. 

Greg bought the hat, as it unexpectedly got sunny later in the day. You can't have too many hats. 

The mobile kitchen cooked up the lobsters.

From the tent behind the diners, the sale of local oysters, fresh from Colville Bay, benefits one of the other charities,

Some of the folks in our group enjoying their meal are Kathy, (then a space where my place is), Lynn, Ron (the doctor who sewed up Greg's arm), Maureen, and Kathy.

Joanne is enjoying the meal.

Main course after the chowder: Steak, delicious potatoes and a bit too much gravy, whole grain bread, salad, and a Kenyan side dish whose name escapes me.

All those hats and potato sacks....hmmmm... In the background is the dessert tent, where strawberry shortcakes were on offer.

You line up for your steak at the flag indicating the appropriate stage of doneness. The extremes were" Bloody" and "Burnt."

In the background is the chowder canteen provided by the troops at Camp Gagetown, NB. It was yummy!

Afterwards, the kids swarmed the fire truck and took turns sounding the siren. The hay bales, which marked the paths to take from one food serving to the next , a la IKEA, were provided by Springwater Farm  a great place to visit.

With a $100 donation, several brave souls volunteered to be installed as honourary Islanders.

First, on goes the Ann of Green Gables hat.

Then the potato bag shirt.

Chef Michael Smith explains the ritual involved in becoming an honourary Islander.

Chef Michael introduces the participants to oyster shucking.

Lord help me - it's alive!

Down the hatch:

How to get the elastic band off the claws without getting pinched!

How to peel a potato!

There's where the bridge is on the map.

Chef Michael Smith has the piper lead in all the volunteers, who made the day a success.

Here are some of the crew members. This event involves practically everyone in and around Souris.

My little table centre is now re-potted on the deck.

Bonnie had us all over to her house for drinks and conviviality before the feast.

Grant, Bonnie, Greg and Kathy are heading home afterwards.

There were lovely bouquets like this one everywhere.

All in all the day was seamlessly well-organized down to the last delicious detail.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

R is for Ruts

I enjoy Sue Grafton’s alphabetical murder mysteries. In W is for Wasted, she writes that “every good mystery takes place on three planes — what really happened; what appears to have happened; and how the sleuth … figures out which is which.” I couldn‘t agree more.

As I said in a blog a while ago, when we arrived at the cottage, Greg reported on "some ruts" in the untended part of our field. I was too busy sorting linens and food stuffs and generally getting the cottage back to liveable form to pay a lot of attention to his observation.

However, a few days later, I went for a stroll in the field. Our mowers make paths so we can meander down to the water and back; it’s very peaceful, full of birdsong, interesting spiders, and all sorts of wild flowers:

But that day, my goodness, what had happened!  Much of the field was torn up. Deep muddy ruts cut across it in several places. It appeared as if a couple of brontosauruses had engaged in a battle of the epoch. A person could twist their ankle in the up-heaved dirt.

I felt trespassed upon. Not only had someone come on our field without permission, they had damaged it, had so far not ‘fessed up, and had not made things right.

But as Ms. Grafton points out, appearances can be deceiving. What had gone on?

My detective work was made easier in that I could see clearly where a track came from and where it went.  It cut diagonally  across the field next to ours and then continued across our field until it ended in the torn up sections next the property line with another neighbour.

I spent a sleepless night convincing myself that I didn’t need to lose sleep over this, and then I called on the neighbour whose field was also affected. We had a confab, inspected our fields, shared our hurt feelings, and concluded the other neighbours were tearing down trees (on their side of the property line, mind you) and might mash up our fields again. We decided we had to act.

But what exactly to do?  Our paramount hope was that we could restore our fields while at the same time maintain “good neighbourly relations— a value held dear by Islanders. People trust each other to do the right thing.

For example, our cottage was built over the course of about six months, and I saw it only once during the construction process. The next time was when it was all finished. Everything worked out fine. We chose a great builder. We had our field mowed by a company whose owner we did not meet for literally years. He had the field mowed, trusting us, sight unseen, to pay him, and we trusted him to mow properly. It worked. As in many rural neighbourhoods, people don’t lock their doors around here, a habit that can have disconcerting consequences.  A friend of ours from Upper Canada awoke from a nap and found a stranger in her kitchen; he turned out to be the plumber she had called.

So tact was paramount, but so was firmness. We decided it was better strategically not to include Greg right off the bat. He is big, and with his beard, he can look quite severe especially when things don't go right. We did not want to set off more testosterone than absolutely necessary.

We felt a couple of bewildered five-foot-two grannies would be more likely to get the results we hoped for: reparation of the field with neighbourly feelings intact. It felt like a tall order.

Evening came.

My neighbour reported that she had seen activity in the driveway of our prime suspects. We hopped in her car, drove around the corner and parked in their driveway.  “I parked behind them so they can’t leave,” she said, clearly way ahead of me.

A gaggle of 20-year-olds stood in the driveway looking at a large piece of earth-moving machinery. They did not look pleased to see us:  no smiles, no hellos.

I did not know where to begin, so I said the first thing that came to mind, “Boy, that’s a big piece of machinery.” As a conversation opener, it was a non-starter.

My companion in sleuthing came more directly to the point, “We need to talk to whoever’s in charge here.”

Then we introduced ourselves and explained the reason for our visit:  We were simply puzzled by the ruts in the field, as it seemed to have been torn up by some kind of big machinery. Did they know anything about that?

Three of the yoots  (yes, it was a My Cousin Vinnie kind of moment) faded back leaving the fourth  alone to explain there had been a family emergency last December when the furnace quit and they had to replace it. It was easiest to come over the fields, rather than up their driveway, “We thought, it’s just a farmer’s field.”

I expressed my sympathy for the plight of a family in a freezing cold house, but nevertheless, it seemed to me asking permission would have seemed a wise and proper thing to do. My compatriot agreed.

But no, youth-in-charge had had no way of contacting us for permission. And anyway, his father had asked him to do it.

Ah well, there you go… I did not press that point beyond making it but persevered in the real purpose of our visit.

“So when can you get it fixed?”

“Well, later when we are not so busy.”

“Well, maybe we should get your phone number so we can contact you later.”

Neither he nor I had any paper or pens, so my friend went back to her car to retrieve some. While she rummaged around, I said only half-joking, that it was lucky they had not destroyed the labyrinth because if they had done that, I would probably have come over and personally lynched him. He looked a bit startled at that remark. I was a bit surprised at myself as well.  I think I intended to say “throttled.”  So I navigated the topic around to other happier times when Greg and I had chatted with him and his dad in previous summers.

I added that I did want to be a good neighbour and would not want to stand in the way of their dealing with an emergency. I left other of my thoughts unspoken.

My partner returned, and we all exchanged names and phone numbers. Dad did not have a phone number, alas. “Oh well, then we can call you if need be?” I said.

“Oh, I see my dad every morning.”

“Ah, well, that’s good then.”

“So when might your dad get at this work? End of this week, maybe end of next week?”

He’d have to ask his dad.

While this was going on, one of the other yoots began hitting the shovel part of the machinery with a sledge hammer thereby making it very difficult to talk. (Apparently, they were under a time limit to disassemble it).  I ignored the noise, figuring it was not my problem. Finally youth-in-charge told his friend to “stop that.” He did.

Much easier on the ears. Then mission accomplished, we thanked them, got in the car, drove back to the cottage, and had a cup of tea to calm our nerves.

Now what would happen?

As it turned out, youth-in-charge did speak to his father, who came over a couple of days later. After some preliminary chatting about the awful winter and the slow spring, we discussed fixing the muddy mess. I reiterated I understood things were different in an emergency and added  the fields didn’t have to be garden perfect, just smoothed out so we could walk safely on the paths .

But, what had actually happened?  Well, the ground wasn’t frozen in December, was very wet, and the truck carrying the new furnace got stuck and had to be towed off the field. No wonder it looked like a saurian playground.

 “And this won’t likely have to happen again?”

“No, it won’t.”  

“Well, okay then.”

And a couple of days later, the equipment operator  he hired came over and restored our fields to a walkable state.  The undergrowth will grow back soon enough. So all is well again on the happy little island. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Smarter than the average squirrel, we are

It’s only 9:00 in the morning, and already we have had an exciting day. We caught the squirrel!  The latest chapter of the story began  last night when we heard rattling outside the  window — about 10:30, just after we had gone to bed to bed.  

I threw  a jacket over my nightgown, grabbed a flashlight, and ran out to the driveway. I could see a squirrel fussing at the air vent. Earlier, Greg had taped the flap down with very sticky packing tape — a temporary solution until our builder’s “boys” (his employees, not his offspring) could  fix it properly.

I shrieked. The squirrel ran into the woodpile. I ran in to the house. Greg and I discussed  tape;  I felt we should tape the vent even more, as one side of the flap had been bent.

As I went to the back door, I jokingly said I’d better open it carefully or the squirrel might come in. Well, those were words well-spoken, as there it was right on the porch.  I startled it so it jumped through the railing. I jumped back into the house. Clearly this was a squirrel afraid of nothing: Mother Courage and her as-yet-unborn Children.

Yes, photos I took of her of her last night proved conclusively that she was not celibate or a bachelor after all:

I reopened the door and we crept out into utter darkness — lit only by the motion light, pointed in the wrong direction. I held both of our flashlights, so the light would be brighter for Greg’s  re-taping. That done, we went back to bed.

At 6:00 in the morning, I heard not only scrabbling but also tiny shrieks. Were these squirrel labour pains??? They originated in a different location: the gap in the siding under the eaves. I had inspected it yesterday. Horrors! Was the squirrel now nesting in the wall under the eaves? Did we now have seven or eight squirrels where before we had only one?

Pulling on a pair of pants over my nightgown, I left the house and checked the siding; indeed, there was a wider gap now.  Then I checked the trap. The cream cheese container with the peanut butter bait had been pulled nearly out of the cage, which of course was empty. But there were little claw marks across the peanut butter.

At this point Greg joined me, and as we were discussing the state of affairs, one of our neighbours came by. She was walking her dog. It was 6:30 a.m.  No, we didn’t usually get up this early. We exchanged squirrel stories. Apparently someone’s daughter had her car disabled when she visited because a squirrel got into the engine and chewed up the air filter. This was not encouraging news.

While we chatted two squirrels ran, no — gamboled — through the branches of the fir trees. They were playing tree tag — maybe to bring on labour. My sense of vicarious fun diminished rapidly.

Really and truly, I knew deep in my heart that Greg and I were smarter than the average squirrel. That would be both of our brains taken together, mind you.

We toyed with the idea of putting some mouse poison from the mouse traps we had strewn around the inside of the cottage but decided that would be bad for other wildlife.  Our neighbour said someone, maybe her husband, used to just shoot them. I wasn’t sure of my ability in that regard and could envision shooting up the cottage in a wild attempt to coordinate aiming and firing. Also we don’t own a gun, so there were complications in that regard, but I must admit I had given it serious thought in the middle of the night.

Greg came up with the brilliant notion of attaching the bait container to the bottom of the cage so it couldn’t be moved. He did this.

Just for the heck of it after breakfast, I went out and lo and behold, there was movement near the vent… in the cage… Busted!

A very angry, frustrated, frightened squirrel was trying everything she could to get out. She had eaten all the peanut butter. 

Long story short, we put the cage in the trunk of the car in a box lined with plastic just in case she was a car-sick type of squirrel — or worse. 

Then we drove off to Little Pond where there are fewer houses and more woods and let her go in a secret surrounding. 

She ran off instantly, went partway up a tree where she paused and looked back at us. “Of all the nerve,” she seemed to say.

On our way, we had noticed the Little Pond bakery was open, and after we had said good bye to our erstwhile tenant, we dropped in and bought hot biscuits fresh out of the oven and some iced cherry squares. Now you know what traps us.

Speaking of which, flushed with success, we reset the trap as soon as we got back and then settled in for another cup of coffee and a hot biscuit each to celebrate.

Epilogue: Just finished this when I heard a noise, went out and there was another squirrel staring up at me from the woodpile … I told him he was not as cute as he looked. Film at 11:00, as they say.