04 November 2007

Good Life

There is nothing like a late spring afternoon, high in the hills just outside of Grenoble, to get a girl thinking. Amid cows mulling freely in the background and the Alps beckoning with a magisterial silence, I listened to a tale of a man who dedicated his life to things that are no longer done. My French professor, Victor, described his acquaintance, George, who has a farm on Vashon Island in Washington. His Mecca is based on some of the farming concepts still thriving in France. After having six months to explore every market inside Grenoble (and in some cases, beyond the city) I had become fascinated with the lifestyle of small family farms.

I wrote previously of the search for ‘good food.’ In visiting a farm, I sought to confirm my idea that ‘good food’ begins with the very process of its growing – the seed, the soil and the hands that sew. What I found was a substantiation of a philosophy and way-of-things that I have long thought to be true. In caring what we put in our mouths, and in understanding where it came from -- the process of cultivation – perhaps an appreciation will be developed. An appreciation, then, not just for that from which our bodies are nourished, but for the life that is necessary to sustain the planet, thus, us. Not only will ‘good food’ be present, ‘good life’ will be found.

‘Good life’ is perhaps even trickier to define than ‘good food,’ though upon visiting Sea Breeze Farm on Vashon Island, I may attempt to define one version of it.

Have you ever taken the ferry to Vashon Island? If you have been to Vashon, then chances are you have taken the ferry, as there are no bridges or roads connecting the island to the mainland. If each experience is only as important as the journey, then it would have been hard to have an awful occasion on Saturday, when I made the voyage from city to farmland. Accompanied by three faithful friends, we embarked upon an innocent adventure to a faraway mindset on a nearby island. One that is alive and laughing and calm. Where the green and the blue are holding hands still, where the soil nourishes and the hands sooth. Where we found ourselves planted on an afternoon after a foggy Seattle morning turned into a beautiful midday – in the midst of a world where there is human purpose (as in humanity, not profit).

The island is home to many lives and some are available for the roving eye of the visitor to gaze upon. We rested on the wooden bench outside of a local bakery, grazing on some goodies, watching cars and people ebb and flow in the tiny, picturesque intersection surrounded by old, wooden buildings. A gleaming wine shop to our left, where the bottles looked warm, glistening like vintage Christmas ornaments. A modestly grand antique shop with any number of treasures to be found in prints, drawings and obscure books in every language beckoned from up the street. Upon the white fence sat rows and rows of uniquely carved pumpkins – 50 or more – all grinning peacefully at the passerby.

The silence continued when we arrived at the farm. Following the long, unpaved drive to a teetering farmhouse, there were only some goats, pigs, a cow and two rambunctious dogs to greet us. Abiding by the cardboard sign posted upon the glass door of a small outer building where George sells his wares (all on the honor system – there is never anyone to take your cash), we continued through green pastures where chickens softly clucked amongst themselves. Following big, wooden wine barrels as the signs directed us, we began to hear music, laugher and animated voices coming from a tall barn nestled among the trees. The silence of the fading afternoon gave way to vivacity induced only by extreme happiness.

This sensory experience didn’t stop at the ears. In front of us were barrels upon barrels of wine, and behind them lay four large, open vats filled with grapes... and people. This is what one does on Saturday afternoons in October at Sea Breeze Farm: feel the grapes on the soles of your feet, oozing pure juice through the toes and up the ankles. The soft vines adding taste not obscured or eliminated by raw and brutal machinery. A ton of feet creating bottles of wine that will be enjoyed and savored by many tongues. Laughter as it should always be laughed permeated this space where the pressures of the city dropped away, crushed like the grapes under so many purposeful feet.

The cast of characters was diverse: a local politician, children, babies, and neighbors... we even met two women from Oregon on our way out. There were both amateurs (us) and seasoned grape stompers. One man originally from Spain explained his technique: find a spot and stick to it. I was even able to draw George away from his work of refilling the vats with grapes and the glasses with his wine to ask a few questions about his philosophy.

The first words I heard him speak that evening were these: “I specialize in things people don’t do anymore.” Already I knew I had come to the right place. When reminded of this comment George laughed quietly to himself. “That’s what intrigues me – traditional techniques that have been ignored or neglected or succumbed by modern technology.” He relented that, of course, there are often good arguments for using such technology, but at the same time, so much is lost when using it... especially when it comes to food. “The modern strain of food has been to industrialize everything and to take all the passion and flavor and quality out of food (in lieu of) economy, efficiency and consistency, what ever fits the cookie-cutter mold of industrial food production.”

Everything on the farm is done by hand (or foot), from making the cheese to bottling the milk to crushing the grapes. Owing to this little-practiced technique of grape stomping, George explained how he is able to keep the vine on the grapes as their juices are eased out of the skin. Feet are gentle enough not to snap the stems or bruise the grape, so the finished product retains some complexity.

There is quite a paradox of complexity and simplicity on the farm. The jobs never end; there are always new ideas for expansion, such as someday growing grapes on Sea Breeze itself (currently George purchases them from another grower). Though the mindset is decidedly simple. Whether one is crushing grapes, cultivating the land or simply sitting back and looking at what has been accomplished at the end of the day, “its good for the soul.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, George.

Here is the link to the Sea Breeze Farm website. I encourage all living in the Seattle radius (and even beyond) to make the trip to Vashon. I hope it won’t let you down.

Sea Breeze Farm
Sustainable Vashon

I have also included the links to a site on biodynamic farming – a concept quite different than that of mechanized U.S. farming.

Biodynamic Farming

Finally, epicurious, the web home of both Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines, have put together a list of films that explore the various food movements and current food landscapes. They are worth a look.

Gourmet Features Food Films

No comments:

This blog is mostly an amalgamation of images culled from interweb wanderings, falling under categories inspiration and amusement. Please contact me if you would like your work removed from my site.