Locus Amoenus I: Farm Kitchen

In ancient Roman literature, one common trope is the locus amoenus–the lovely or pleasing place. Usually a garden or woodland, the locus amoenus is a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and natural beauty. The concept features in works by authors as early as Homer, and it was reveled in by the later pastoral poets before being passed on to the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locus amoenus is a place to retreat to, often with overtones of Elysium on earth.

IMG_0367The kitchen in Kulmbach.

It’s no Virgilian garden, and certainly not beautiful in any classical sense of the word, but one of my most treasured loci amoeni is the farm kitchen in August. Some of my earliest memories are of our kitchen at home, during harvest season–standing on a chair at the sink and pushing zucchini through the food processor, steam billowing off the pots of sterilizing jars on the stove. The whole process was somehow magical, my mother some sort of goddess of cooking. How does she know how to do all that, to transform hundreds of pounds of vegetables into something we can eat for the next six months?

There was a rhythm to it all which I found comforting and intimate. Harvest, wash, snap, cut, boil, strain, can, bag, label, freeze–after so many Augusts, I have the feeling that I could do it almost in my sleep. And when the garden is at its peak, it’s a race against time. Put up the food or lose it.

IMG_0365Pesto-making station–fresh basil, garlic cloves, roasted hazelnuts, olive oil. 

Here on the farm in Kulmbach, in August and therefore at the height of harvest season, I’ve worked in the kitchen nine hours a day for the past three weeks. It’s the same locus amoenus from my childhood, now thousands of miles from home. I have all the recipes from my mother, the same laundry baskets full of beans or squash or apples, the same damp cutting boards and buckets of peels and pits left over afterwards. It’s so strange, to be doing this in a foreign country, alone, without my family, in someone else’s kitchen–and even more strange, how familiar it all is. It seems like there is nothing separating me from all those past Augusts, or from the current harvest season at home in Vermont, where my mom and sister are standing in the kitchen doing the exact same thing I am.

Last week, though, I wasn’t alone. There was a little girl here from France, Sofia, who spoke fluent German and Italian and babbled on for hours about her recent vacation in Sicily. She helped me make apple sauce, and I gave her the pot to lick when we were finished. “When you were little and helped your mom in the kitchen, did she let you have the pot when everything was done?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “Yes, she did.”

IMG_0417The all-important Speisekammer, with everything that has already been canned or preserved–almost full and it’s only mid-August!

Travelogue VI: WWOOFing in Kulmbach

kulmbach st. petriKulmbach. With castle, of course. 

8. August, 2014. The amount of contrast this life affords is astonishing to me. Just a week ago I was drinking champagne, trying to figure out which fork to use in the cafe after the opera. And now I have dirt permanently stuck under my fingernails and have just spent the last eight hours cutting up cucumbers and stuffing them in jars. Wahnsinn.  

I’m currently in the tiny town of Kulmbach in Bavaria, working on a farm as a part of WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). It’s an exchange program of sorts, where people travel all over the world and work for their keep on farms, gaining skills and networking and learning languages. We’ve had WWOOFers on and off at our place for years, and when it works it is an absolutely fantastic experience.

The couple I am staying with now spent the last five years WWOOFing themselves, in Japan and Serbia and Africa and Switzerland, and have just begun their own farm. They have a little of everything, and of course too much work to do–huge sprawling garden, orchard with plums and apples and pears, four pigs, fifty chickens, two donkeys, geese, dogs. When they moved in, the barn was falling in from decades of neglect, the garden hadn’t been tended in years, there were no fences or watering systems or cleared trails. They, along with a seemingly constant stream of WWOOFers from around the world, are just starting to take things back.

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I’m thrilled to be here. I loved my month with the Wuerzburg program–dress up every evening, go to concerts and modern art museums, talk about Musil and Nietzsche while drinking wine on some gorgeous terrace somewhere, be refined and intellectual and decadent. But I love this too–dirt and animals everywhere, the electric fencer half taken apart on the kitchen table, neighbors dropping in with a basket of dill to talk in broad dialect about the excess of cucumbers.

And honestly, it’s what I know best. I’ve spent my Augusts in a farm kitchen since before I could walk. I can snap beans in my sleep.

IMG_0363Heinrich and Henrietta, plus a friend. Animals that have names don’t get eaten. 

Differences in atmosphere aside, though, here there is still this internationality that I find so staggering. Right now, we are four or five countries all together, all with drastically different worldviews and upbringings. That’s the wonderful thing about good people, though–that somehow it all works out in the end and the household runs smoothly and we have fun. I love the dynamism of it all, the fluid approach to language, where the conversation at dinner flows back and forth between English and High German and Finnish and Bavarian depending on who is trying to make themselves understood. Last night we sat around the fire and sang–I taught them all Irish drinking songs, and learned German folk tunes and a bunch of mournful dirges from Finnland. I explained to my hosts that a cruise and a crusade are not the same thing, and learned the difference between Teig and Teich and Lärche and Lerche. Tricky stuff, that.

IMG_0315Getting ready for dinner in front of the fire, sitting on sheepskins–eat with your hands. 

IMG_0335Afterwards, singing until midnight because tomorrow is a rest day and we don’t have to get up early. 

At this time of year on a farm, everything revolves around food. Breakfast is after chores at 8:30, with two loaves of fresh bread (wheat ground on the farm), one with raisins and one with pumpkin seeds–also cheese and pickles and blackberries and juniper syrup in tea. Then everyone leaves and I make 25 pounds of pesto while the bread-and-butter pickles started last night heat up to be canned. At 1pm it’s time for lunch, and the girl from Finnland fries carrots and beets while I make a cucumber salad–yoghurt, fresh mint, salt and pepper. There’s also chocolate zucchini cake and an apple pie with the first of the apples from the orchard. After lunch, someone brings an entire laundry basket of beans in from the garden, and we wash and snap and boil and freeze until 6pm, when it is time to get ready for dinner.  I make two platters of tomato, mozzarella, and basil leaves, with calendula blossoms on top for a garnish. My host’s little brother  shows me how to make Zwetschgenknödel for dessert, which are a sort of Austrian plum dumplings and absolutely delicious. We spread a feast in front of the fireplace, and eat the tomatoes with chicken roasted over the flames.

IMG_0309Vegetables everywhere–there’s even pumpkins, tomatoes, and basil growing in front of the farmhouse, as if the huge garden out back wasn’t enough.

IMG_0361Apple orchard. There’s almost too much fruit for the branches to support. 

The sheer abundance and richness of it all is staggering. Inside, baskets and barrels and cans upon cans of food, and outside a jungle of greenery and vines and fruit. The Garden of Eden.

IMG_0338The colors are brilliant. 

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….And the infamous Zwetschgenknödel. Suuuuper lecker!!!

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