Written by Barbara Robert
Tuesday, 26 May 2009 21:45
I have many passions. Two at the top of the list are cooking and traveling - so combining the two is my idea of vacation bliss. I was introduced to the travel/cooking combo years ago when I went to relax on the beaches of Ko Samui, Thailand and discovered a Thai cooking school just a short walk away from my thatched roof bungalow. Six days of cooking classes later I knew that I was on to something. That I would try to find a way to cook my way through future vacations.
One of my husband’s passions is bicycling. A couple of years ago, when planning a special vacation to celebrate his and a good friend’s mutual “significant” birthday, he found what he thought was the perfect vacation for us all. One that would make the guys happy riding their bikes through the rolling countryside and the gals happy learning about Italian cooking, wines, and touring the quaint Tuscan villages: a cycling and cooking tour in Tuscany. My husband knows me well. If I could take cooking classes in Tuscany, I might even be willing to ride a bicycle up some steep Tuscan hills. That trip was heaven and is definitely tops on the list of trips to repeat.
A couple of weeks ago we did something similar with a group of friends on our annual couples bike trip – there were 12 of us. We created another version of a cycling and cooking tour. But this time we didn’t have to get on a plane and cross the ocean to a foreign land. We did, however, ride our bicycles onto a ferry to Vancouver Island in British Columbia with the panniers loaded down with enough clothes and rain gear for the four day trip. Our final destination was Fairburn Farm in the Cowichan Valley, the agricultural heart of the island, an idyllic bed-and-breakfast and culinary retreat profiled in The Seattle Times, Gourmet, and Saveur magazines. You have to remember, we were traveling by bicycle to get here, and although we knew we were close (think GPS), we thought we might have made a wrong turn when the country dirt road passed a sad stretch of logged tree stumps. But a sign on a tree said that we were ‘nearly there,’ so we continued on and finally saw the red and white farmhouse peeking through the trees.
Fairburn Farm is over a century old and models itself like an Italian agriturismo; a working farm that offers meals and overnight accommodations. We were met by Mara Jernigan (a professional chef, cooking teacher, and leading voice for the Slow Food movement promoting local foods in Canada) who also doubles as the keeper of the guesthouse, and her able assistant Rosie, also a professional chef.
After the long ride – in unusually warm weather for early May I might add – and a hot bath for me, our group relaxed on the large farmhouse porch overlooking the rolling countryside and the huge garden. We watched as the resident chickens, water buffalo, goats and sheep ate their evening meals.
The following morning, some of the group headed out on their bikes to explore the Cowichan Valley and the small towns of Cowichan Bay and Duncan. But for the rest of us, it was time for what we’d particularly been looking forward to – our cooking class where we would make dinner for the rest of our group. I’m a big planner and like to know what is going to happen so when we arrived, I asked Mara what we would be cooking. Since she has a strong connection to the land, and uses what is fresh at the moment, she said that when we saw what was available in the garden, she would decide the menu.
With shovels, knives, scissors and baskets in hand, we cooks followed the chef out into her expansive garden and started the harvest. We dug carrots, turnips and green garlic. We cut tender leaves of colorful lettuce, kale shoots and any herb we could find – chives, mint, oregano, tarragon, thyme and parsley – lots of parsley for the delicious green goddess salad dressing. Finally, we pulled tender stalks of rhubarb from the ground that would later become our dessert.
With our baskets brimming, we returned to the farmhouse to see what could be made with our bounty. Sitting at the long table, we drank mugs of the house mint “tea” - fresh chocolate mint leaves steeped in boiling water - and created our menu.
Mara doesn’t feel that she must raise or grow everything herself and supports local farmers and shops with what she can’t provide (i.e., grass fed meat, some cheeses and bread, asparagus, etc.). Earlier in the day, she had picked up some fresh grass fed chicken legs that later she would show us how to debone, and Rosie surprised us with a big bag of asparagus she got from down the road on Cobble Hill.
We all headed off to the huge gourmet kitchen, donned aprons, and set out to prepare the meal. It went something like this: Mara sprinkled one of the many countertops with equal portions of semolina and white flour and some of us went to work gently mixing in water to make an eggless dough that later would be rolled into little cavetelli pasta shells, then boiled and mixed with the kale shoots and green garlic – the trick here was to use our fingertips just right to pull the dough and ‘flip’ it, making a perfect little pocket to hold the sauce. Once she had the pasta-making crew well on their way, she moved over to the butchery table and showed us how to debone a chicken leg, hopefully leaving no tender meat morsels behind. When all of the legs were filleted, we gently massaged them with olive oil and a generous sprinkling of herbs, and then let them marinate until later when they would be grilled, and then roasted to finish them off. For those not rolling pasta or dissecting chickens, we were set to work either making a delicious rhubarb cake with a coconut crumb topping that would later be topped with fresh whipped cream, or cleaning the greens and herbs, or mixing the green goddess dressing with our new favorite kitchen tool – the immersion blender, or scrubbing and peeling carrots and turnips that will be blanched and roasted, or trimming the asparagus.
I love asparagus. It, along with rhubarb, is one of the first veggies of spring. Because tender, crisp asparagus is a delicious treat, I am a purist when cooking it – either by simply blanching it or roasting it to bring out the nutty flavor. When Mara said that we would be smothering our fresh – just picked an hour ago – green spears with cream and parmesan cheese, I wasn’t so sure about it. Why hide the flavor of this sweet delicacy? Mara knows her stuff and the dish we created was heavenly. I wanted to lick the plate to get every morsel of the sauce. Mara doesn’t typically use recipes in her cooking classes. She thinks that if we can read a recipe, then we can make anything. So, for most of our dishes, we just mixed a little of this and a little of that, cooked it, and voilà, it was delicious. When I came home from the trip, I gathered all of the ingredients to see if I could come up with something that tasted like our creation. I think I came pretty close. Try it. I think you’ll like it too.
Asparagus with Cream and Parmesan
1 bunch of asparagus, about ½ pound trimmed
¼ finely grated parmesan cheese
1/8 tsp grated fresh nutmeg (or to taste)
½ cup heavy cream
Blanch the asparagus in boiling, salted water for about 2 or 3 minutes, until bright green. Remove from water and set aside. Pour the cream in a wide saucepan and throw in the asparagus and nutmeg. Cook on medium high heat so that the cream reduces considerably - maybe five minutes – it will thicken. Stir in the cheese and serve.