On Italian Coffee

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I am obsessed with coffee. More specifically, with Italian coffee (espresso) and the drinks based upon it. But it wasn’t love at first taste. Like many Americans, the first shots of espresso I encountered here at home tasted burned and bitter. But slowly, through travel in Italy and experience with my own machine at home, I came to experience the magnificent glory of a proper shot of Italian coffee.

Technically speaking, a shot of espresso is made by passing water through 7 grams of finely ground and tamped coffee at 195 degrees and 9 bars of pressure, resulting in a one ounce shot in about 20 to 25 seconds. Of course, this requires a machine of quality and sophistication. Italians simply call the drink “un caffè” (Italian for “a coffee”), and it is the foundation of Italian coffee culture.

Properly made, espresso’s character is expressed best by the concept of concentration. That is, instead of thinking of it as stronger, as many do, I think it makes more sense to think of espresso as more concentrated than American coffee. Just as a raisin represents the concentration of a grape, so to does a shot of espresso represent the concentration of coffee in a small, intense, and rich package. Like wine, espresso is rich in aromatics and flavor compounds, and the complexity of its flavor and texture is its chief virtue. Because of its unique extraction method, espresso also contains a layer of “crema” on top of the shot. This crema is the emulsified oils of the beans sustained in tiny micro-bubbles of air. It is one of the unique and divine properties of espresso.

In addition to a classic shot of espresso, Italians drink a wide variety of espresso-based drinks. Most famous, of course, is the cappuccino, a breakfast drink made with a shot of espresso and twice that amount of frothed milk. Italians inevitably think of this drink as a morning beverage, which only tourists order after noon. For later in the day, one can order a caffè macchiato, which is a shot of espresso “stained” (which is what macchiato means) with just a touch of frothed milk. There is also caffè corretto with a shot of grappa or other liquor. There’s also caffè lungo with extra water, caffè ristretto, with less, and caffè Americano, with a lot of water to satisfy American tourist tastes.

Once I had had a proper espresso in Italy, I wondered why it wasn’t made right in the US. Everyone seems to have the same high-quality, Italian-made machine. Why wasn’t it right? Once I bought my own machine and began to learn about proper technique, I realized that attention to detail at all steps makes a huge difference. Indifference or lack of knowledge anywhere along the way can derail the entire result. Beans must be of high quality, freshly roasted, and freshly ground. Water must have great flavor. Tamping and grinding must be done correctly. One’s machine must be meticulously cleaned to perform optimally. In Italy, being a barista is a serious profession, not a weekend or night-time job for college students.

But most importantly, one has to have experience of what good espresso is. Without a standard or target, one doesn’t even know what to aim for. This is especially obvious in the poorly frothed milk one finds at coffee bars in the US. Properly frothed milk should have the appearance and texture of wet paint, like a thick and luscious cream. This result is produced by the incorporation of tiny air bubbles into the milk as it is heated. Frothed this way, the milk can be poured into lovely designs in the cup, known as latte art. For reasons I don’t completely understand, milk frothed correctly also tastes sweeter. Poorly frothed milk, by contrast, look more like soap suds and lacks refinement and delicacy. It often tastes flat or burned. Because some people think milk with lower fat froths better, much of it is quite flavorless.

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Because few of us have easy access to a coffee bar making espresso well, our only option is making it at home ourselves. One can purchase a high-quality home machine with grinder for just under $1000, which seems like a lot to spend until one considers how much daily joy such a machine can bring. Although we’re about to upgrade at the restaurant to a machine more suited for commercial use, we’ve used the Rancilio Silvia for some time, which is one of the best machines for home use. We recommend it highly and would be happy to give recommendations for its use and maintenance. We use coffee beans from La Colombe in Philly and Caffe Fresco near Wilkes-Barre, both of whom do an excellent job. Two coffee bars which do a great job making espresso are capogiro (also a gelateria) in Philly and Square One, in Lancaster City.

Old Tioga Farm Vegetables

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We always try to explain to our guests that Old Tioga Farm isn’t simply a restaurant but actually a farm. In fact, to us the farm is the heart of it all, with the restaurant being one important expression of our commitment to sustainable agriculture. This model of a “farm-based” restaurant is the one that so inspired us in Italy, especially at Lago Scuro near Cremona. It’s a rare model in the US, but one which we find deeply meaningful.

The agricultural business we operate is a CSA offering vegetables and bread. CSA stands for “community supported agriculture”, a marketing model in which customers make a commitment to a particular farm for an entire season in exchange for weekly delivery of produce. It helps the farmer by giving him/her pre-sold product and it helps customers by giving them guaranteed access to produce of the highest and freshest quality. Most importantly, It is a marketing model that puts relationships and commitment at the heart of economic exchange. It makes the whole thing more personal.

Our CSA runs for 22 weeks, from early June through mid-October. Each week members choose which items they would like for that week.We deliver to homes and central pick-ups sites in Bloomsburg on Mondays and Wilkes Barre on Thursdays. Pick-up at the farm is also possible, even encouraged. CSA “shares” range in size from 5 items per week ($350) to 10 items per week ($600). We also offer bread shares (the same bread we make for the restaurant), for $110 for the 22 week season. CSA members also have the ability to make advance reservations at the restaurant. We follow organic and sustainable methods but are not certified.

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Growing vegetables commercially is very meaningful work for us. In a complex world with many problems and few simple solutions, growing food for local customers feels like one important step in the right direction, a step we can take to make the world a better place, if only in a small but concrete way. Buying produce from a local farm keeps money in the local community, ensures fresh, high-quality food for customers, keeps harmful chemicals out of our soils and water, and keeps more small farmers in business. It’s a win-win for everyone.

For more information on our CSA, contact us by e-mail: justin@oldtiogafarm.com

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Best Gnocchi in Rome

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I can make excellent puff pastry, fresh pastas of all kinds. I can cure my own guanciale, pancetta, and salami. Most of these were even successful on the first try. But I can’t make gnocchi. I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. It’s not hopeless, and I hope that someday I will finally master it, but so far it has eluded me. I don’t think I’m alone. The variety of recipes alone suggests the challenging nature of making gnocchi. Some people say to use baking potatoes, others say never use baking potatoes. Some call for egg. Others think that egg will ruin the gnocchi dough. This sort of disagreement says a lot. With only one exception, every dish of gnocchi I’ve ever made or been served in a restaurant is heavy and totally uninteresting to me. The exception are the gnocchi all’ amatriciana served at Ristorante L’Arcangelo near the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome. L’Arcangelo is operated by Arcangelo and Stefania Dadini. I first learned of the restaurant from Katie Parla, who has been my mentor in Roman restaurant culture. You can download her Rome dining app here. L’Arcangelo is one of those restaurants which does certain things better than others, which I find utterly incomprehensible and unacceptable, but so it goes. Luckily, it does gnocchi right. Not only does it do gnocchi right, it does it better than any other place in Rome. This isn’t surprising since most Roman restaurants use industrially produced gnocchi. Honestly, the gnocchi at L’Arcangelo are the only gnocchi I’ve ever enjoyed eating.

The best gnocchi in Rome.

The best gnocchi in Rome.

I had always heard that gnocchi should be light and weightless, but I’d never experienced gnocchi like that. L’Arcangelo’s are. They offer the most delightful contrast of weightlessness and substance, just like a well-made pillow, to which gnocchi are sometimes compared. Not only are the gnocchi at L’Arcangelo the best in Rome, so is the all’amatriciana they’re sauced with. The sauce is made with guanciale and tomatoes, and though many places do it well, L’Arcangelo’s is the best I’ve had. The whole dish is perfectly seasoned, rich but moderately portioned. I think they’re the best thing I’ve ever eaten in Rome.

There are many tricks I can try in making my own gnocchi. Some bake the potatoes instead of boiling them to reduce moisture content. Arcangelo says he boils the potatoes with equal parts salt and water. Some day I’ll figure it out. In the meantime, I have the gnocchi at L’Arcangelo to aspire to. Thursday is the traditional day to serve gnocchi in Rome, but Katie’s promotion of L’Arcangelo’s gnocchi have convinced him to serve them most days. You won’t see them on the menu, though. You have to ask. Tell him that you heard about his gnocchi from Katie, and he’ll take good care of you.

Home cooking in Monti

At the beginning of my culinary education, I learned an important principle of Italian cooking from writer Marcella Hazan, who explained that it is not restaurants but home kitchens, especially rural ones, which offer the best cooking in Italy. According to Marcella, to suggest that a restaurant’s cooking tastes of the home is one of the greatest compliments one can offer. This attitude made a deep impression and has shaped our approach to cooking at Old Tioga Farm. Although I’m not inspired by novel cooking and believe that good cooking emphasizes not the chef but the ingredients themselves, every cook or chef still imparts something of his or her personality to his or her cooking.

This fact was clearly demonstrated to me while dining recently at l’Asino d’oro in the Monti neighborhood of Rome. L’Asino is run by Lucio Sforza, who was based for many years in Orvieto before moving to Rome several years ago. Though I enjoyed many excellent meals during my recent week in Rome, my two meals at l’Asino stand out as the best example of rural home cooking which I experienced there, and I can’t help but think of Sforza himself when I think of those dishes. I had the good fortune to eat there for lunch one day (best deal in Rome…three courses, wine, and water for 13 euro) and dinner the next.

Best deal in Rome.

Best deal in Rome.

Well-made, naturally fermented bread.

Well-made, naturally fermented bread.

Crostino with ricotta and pecorino.

Crostino with ricotta and pecorino.

Soup with potatoes, broccoli, and chard.

Soup with broccoli and chard.

Ravioli sauced with tomatoes and mushrooms.

Ravioli sauced with tomatoes and mushrooms.

Turkey meatballs braised with tomatoes.

Turkey meatballs braised with tomatoes.

The first thing I notice when I dine at l’Asino is the lack of pretense. There is no drive to impress, only to nourish. Portions and seasoning are delightfully moderate, allowing one to enjoy a series of small plates without weariness. Vegetables are abundant and feel like the foundation of the dishes. Flavors are easily comprehensible and traditional. It it the cooking of the countryside, the cooking of the poor, the cooking of the home. Dining at l’Asino, I can forget I’m in the heart of Rome and be momentarily convinced I’m dining at the home of a farmer in the Umbrian countryside.

Puree of broccoli.

Puree of broccoli.

Artichoke soup

Artichoke soup

Rabbit braised with tomatoes, onions, and pine nuts. Not the prettiest presentation, but delicious.

Rabbit braised with tomatoes, onions, and pine nuts. Not the prettiest presentation, but delicious.

A love letter to Armando al Pantheon

armandoI had the good fortune a few moments ago to dine at Armando al Pantheon, in Rome. Just steps from the Pantheon, Armando offers a paradise amidst a sea of mediocre and embarrassing tourist traps. As my friend Katie Parla has documented, restaurant culture in Rome has declined in the last decade, and it is harder and harder to eat well in the historic center of Rome. And so Armando feels like the most unlikely and precious of gifts.

Armando is a traditional Roman trattoria. That is, it is family run (multi-generational), small (about 30 seats), and traditional (mostly classic Roman dishes). By a stroke of great luck, it was the first place I ever ate in Rome, and I’ve been going back ever since. The kitchen at Armando is run by Claudio, while his brother Fabrizio runs the dining room, and what is most remarkable about Armando is that Claudio’s cooking is pitch perfect every time. In a city where even the best restaurants do some dishes better than others, Armando has a consistency which places it in a special class.

All good cooking, like most good things, is based on having good taste. This is the difference between a decent and a great string quartet performance, or a decent performance and great performance of a play. Good taste is hard or impossible to teach, but those that have the gift can perceive it. Tonight at Armando, I had one of the most classic and simple of Roman pastas: spaghetti all’ aglio, olio, e peperoncino (garlic, oil, and hot pepper). As I’ve written before, this is one of the most devilish sauces, because its minimal ingredient list requires everything to be perfect and balanced. At the center of successful cooking is proper seasoning with salt, the ability to draw out flavor from ingredients, but in a subtle and unobtrusive way, in a way that simply makes the ingredients taste more of themselves. This is this gift Claudio seems to have. Every bite of his cooking is full of character, but one never tires or wearies eating his cooking, as is the case in so many restaurants, particularly good ones in America. In America, so many chefs seem trained to produce flavors which are exciting for a few bites, but quickly make one weary through over-seasoning or lack of freshness. Others restaurants, such as the one I visited for lunch today, offer excellent dishes, but portion size is so overwhelming that the dishes can hardly be enjoyed through the end before weariness sets in.

This elusive quality of balance and taste is what we strive for at Old Tioga Farm, and dining at restaurants such as Armando inspires us to seek that same ideal. Great cooking is not at all about being a “celebrity chef”, but rather about the ability to be humble enough to make one’s cooking about honoring the integrity of high-quality ingredients.

As my friend Katie explained today, even many Romans have lost the taste for quality that is needed to appreciate Armando. If you find yourself in Rome, go to Armando. You might not speak Italian, you might not be Roman, you might show yourself immediately to be a tourist, but express delight in Claudio’s cooking, heap praise upon the wonderful dishes that come from his kitchen, and you’ll earn gratitude and appreciation from one of Rome’s finest restaurants.

Apple Tart

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We’ve been making a lot of tart and pie crusts this winter, and it has reminded me of an important axiom in our kitchen: trust your instincts and don’t assume recipes and established wisdom are right. About 15 years ago when I started making pie crusts, I followed the old precepts: keep the butter ice cold from the fridge, don’t over work the dough, let the dough chill before rolling, mixing by hand is better. The results were good, but something seemed missing. Slowly it dawned on me that the colder the butter is, the more liquid has to be added to the dough. If the butter softens just slightly, it has more power to make the dough come together with less liquid and therefore less gluten development. So now I mix the butter/flour and let it sit a few minutes before doing anything else. I used to be so scared of overworking the dough that I hardly got it to come together at all, which led to cracking and other problems rolling it out. Now I roll the dough out, fold the ragged edges in on themselves, and repeat that process several times, which produces a uniform, well-integrated dough easy to roll out without any chilling. Finally, though I love working by hand, a food processor is so much more efficient distributing liquid throughout the dough, that when I use the processor I use less liquid, and therefore develop less gluten. My pie crust results have never been more uniformly successful or delicious.

We love apple tarts of various kinds in our house. Recently, we’ve been making the simplest, most classic version possible, with just apples, a little sugar, spice, and finished with a jam glaze.

While teaching our kids to love a wide variety of good and adventurous foods has been more challenging than we had hoped, when it comes to making a sweet treat, our rule is that if you want to eat it you have to help make it.
Our six-year old son Peter helped me make it recently, and I’m happy to share the recipe.

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1) To make the crust, combine 150 grams flour with 110 grams butter along with a big pinch of salt and a very big pinch or two of sugar. Process about 5 seconds in a food processor until the butter pieces are the size of small peas.

2) Let the mixture sit for 5 minutes, then (with the machine running) add just barely enough liquid to make the dough come together (about 3 or 4 tablespoons). I use milk, but you could use water if you had too. Vodka is also great because it is flavor neutral but won’t develop gluten.

3) Without chilling the dough, place it on a well floured board and roll out to about 1/4 inch thickness. Fold the ragged edges in, and then roll out again, and repeat two or three times until the dough is uniform.

4) Roll the crust out a final time to a thickness of about 1/4 inch and place in a pie or tart pan. I often just use a cast iron skillet, which works wonderfully.

5) Refrigerate the dough (covered with plastic) at least a few hours, or preferably overnight. I get less shrinkage and better results with more chilling.

6) Prick the crust all over with a fork, and then place thin apples slices in a slightly overlapping concentric circles. Top with a generous dusting of sugar and little spice (cinnamon maybe, or nutmeg, or whatever).

7) Bake at 375 degrees until the apples and crust are both nicely browned, about 45 minutes. Depending on your oven, you might want to let it bake a few minutes in a lower position to nicely brown the bottom of the tart.

8) Place the tart on a rack to cool. Meanwhile, quickly bring some jam, thinned with a little water to a simmer, and when it seems like a nice thick syrup, use a pastry brush to brush syrup all over the tart, crust and apples.

9) When slightly cooled, garnish with powdered sugar and serve!

This photo makes me smile.

This photo just makes me smile.

Caulifower Soup with Tomatoes & Spinach

Cauliflower can be a tough vegetable in the kitchen. Mild by nature, it is hard to know sometimes whether to let it be itself (as in this cauliflower pie recipe I learned from Marcella Hazan) or to liven it up with hot pepper or other assertive flavors. I opted for the latter approach yesterday for lunch with this nice fall/winter soup making good use of tomatoes and spinach preserved for just this sort of occasion. I’m a big believer in oversalting the base ingredients in a soup and then using saltless broth to balance the soup’s seasoning. I want to taste the main ingredients in a soup, not just salty broth or water. This balance works well for me. You can use meat or vegetable broth here, or even water in a pinch.

Cauliflower soup with spinach & tomatoes (Serves 2 to 3)

1) Slice 1/4 of an onion (preferbaly sweet) into thin half-moons, and saute for a few minutes in olive oil until softened, aromatic, and beginning to take on some color.

2) Add a little garlic if inclined, and then about ½ to 1 cup quality canned tomatoes along with a significant pinch of salt and a pinch of hot pepper to taste.

3) Simmer a few minutes until the tomatoes are well-broken down, then add about a cup of broth and a ¼ head of cauliflower, cut up into small, bite-sized pieces. Add them to the pot along with a small handful of fresh or frozen spinach.

4) Simmer for 5 minutes or so, until the cauliflower is tender.

5) Garnish with parsley and serve, adjusting the amount of water or broth as needed.

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Craft Beers from Baladin

For a recent birthday celebration, my wife and I opted for a tasting of craft beers from the Italian brewery Baladin. I’ve briefly written on Italian craft beer before, but it’s worth revisiting this important and rich subject.

IMG_1689Of course, even ten years ago this would have been difficult, with the number of craft breweries in Italy increasing ten fold in the last five years alone. Most of these beers are not available in the US, though one brewery which is available in the US, Baladin, is also one of the first and most important.

Founded in 1986, Le Baladin is the child of Teo Musso, son of a winemaker in Piemonte, the Northwestern Italian region famous for Barolo. Though he initially opened a beer shop/pub, Teo has been brewing artisanal beers of high quality since 1996. The name Baladin is a French word for a circus or street performer, given to Teo by a French friend trying to encapsulate Teo’s nature. Indeed, Teo seems a bit of a madman at times, but his vision is compelling. His beers are mostly made in traditional styles but with character that reflects their Italian origin and Teo’s own personality. You can watch some videos on Teo and his beers, with at least partial subtitles, here.

In our region of Northeastern PA, some of Baladin’s beers are available at Sabatini’s in Exeter, near Pittston, which is remarkable since otherwise a drive to Philly or NYC would be required.

Here are the three we recently sampled:

Isaac is a white beer named in honor of Teo’s son, and one of the first beers he began producing. Isaac has the cloudy appearance typical of the style with aromatics of yeast, citrus, coriander, and orange. Teo recommends it as an aperitivo, with vegetable appetizers, or fish.

Nora is an unusual beer, “egizia” or “Egyptian”, as Teo calls it. It is named for Teo’s wife. Brewed with the ancient grain kamut, the beer is an homage to Egyptians as some of the first brewers of beer. Accordingly, it is intended to evoke somewhat exotic and spiced aromas and flavors. In place of hops, one experiences ginger, orange, honey, and spices. Teo recommends cured meats, cheeses, artichokes, and asparagus as suitable pairings.

Super is Teo’s take on a Belgian pale ale, though it clearly reflects Teo’s personality as much as that tradition. Also described as an “amber ale”, it evokes tropical fruit and marzipan. There is a clear almond aftertaste. As Teo has described it, Super is “harmony turned into beer.” He recommends it with braised meats and cheeses.

IMG_1706I am no expert on beer, Italian or otherwise, but I hope these brief notes may inspire anyone who can access these beers to try them. They are not cheap, but they are very interesting and distinctively Italian. Besides Sabatini’s in Exeter, one can find them at Whole Foods in Plymouth Meeting and Eataly in NYC.

Wall of beers at Open Baladin in Rome

Wall of beers at Open Baladin in Rome

If one has the good fortune to find oneself in Rome, Open Baladin is a pub operated by the brewery which features not only the full line of Baladin beers but beers from other Italian micro-breweries as well. Having these beers on draft is even more interesting than the bottlings. Among other things, the head on the draft versions is huge, whereas the head from the bottles dissipates rapidly. The food is an interesting, modestly successful take on American/British pub food. While in Rome, hire our friend Katie Parla to orient you to the food/beer/wine/culture of Rome. Cheers!
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Cooking with guanciale

Guanciale is one of my favorite ingredients. Guanciale is the cured jowl of a pig, and though it is from the head and not the belly, its fat/meat profile is very much like bacon. Like bacon it has an exquisite richness, but unlike bacon is it usually not smoked (though it can be). In Italy, one associates guanciale especially with Rome and the trio of pasta sauces that depend upon it. Spaghetti with guanciale is gricia. Add some tomato and one has amatriciana. Add egg yolks instead of tomatoes and one has the famous carbonara in its true Roman form. Pecorino Romano and plenty of black pepper are essential ingredients of all three sauces as well.

After the pig butchery class I took last weekend at Rooster St. Provisions, I was able to take home one of the jowls, which is curing in the fridge as I write. After four days of curing on salt/pepper, it will be hung in our farmhouse basement at 60 degrees and 75% humidity for a few weeks until ready. Fortunately, one doesn’t need to make one’s own guanciale to enjoy this delicacy. Although still hard to find outside of a metropolis like New York or Philadelphia, we now have at least two artisan producers of guanciale in the US:
La Quercia and Rooster St. Provisions. Both do mail order.

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In addition to bringing home the jowl, I also brought home some guanciale from Rooster Street to tide us over the few weeks until our own guanciale is ready. Enjoy the recipes below for spaghetti alla gricia and penne all’ amatriciana.

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Spaghetti alla gricia, serves 2

1) Salt four quarts boiling water with 2 tablespoons salt and add 120 grams imported spaghetti.
2) While the pasta is cooking, very coarsely chop about 50 grams guanciale and sauté lightly in plenty of highest quality extra virgin olive oil. When the guanciale is lightly browned but not yet crisp, remove from heat.
3) Grate about 1/4 cup or so imported pecorino Romano.
4) When the pasta is ready, drain it and add to the pan with the guanciale. Return the pan to heat, and toss well, adding about half the cheese, generous grindings of pepper, and a little of the starchy pasta cooking water. Depending how much cheese you use and how salty the guanciale is, you might need a touch of salt.
5) Plate the pasta and garnish with additional pecorino, pepper, and olive oil.

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Penne all’ Amatriciana, serves 2

1) Follow the recipe above, adding a little chopped onion to the pan along with the guanciale.
2) When the guanciale is lightly colored and the onion has taken on a little color, add about 3/4 cup high quality canned tomatoes (or fresh in season), a generous pinch of salt, and either black or hot pepper.
3) Cook until the tomatoes are nicely broken down and lost most of their water, about 5 or 10 minutes.
4) When the pasta is ready, add it to the sauce and toss thoroughly, adding a little pecorino.
5) Plate and serve, with a little additional pecorino for garnish.

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Fall Harvest

Today is our last harvest day for our vegetable customers. After a twenty-two week season (almost half a year), the prospect of the end of harvesting is a bit surreal. Of course, it will mean more time for family and other pursuits. But it’s also sad, because it means that our customers will have to return to the supermarket and the week-old produce one finds there.

Buying local produce isn’t just good for the environment and farmers, it’s good for the customer! The flavor of fresh vegetables grown in fertile soil simply can’t be compared to the old, bland vegetables one finds in the supermarket. In our climate, we could operate our CSA year round with a little help from unheated, plastic greenhouses, but our off-campus teaching work would require finding a business partner to help run the farm in the winter. But I think this is inevitable for us in the future because it’s just too sad to send our customers back to the supermarket!

The flavors of fall are different from the flavors of summer, as tomatoes and peppers give way to cabbages and kale, but they have their own appeal. A soup of savoy cabbage and bacon, oven-roasted winter squash with maple syrup, brussels sprouts sauteed in duck fat…these are flavors deeply comforting and nourishing. Some vegetables, like carrots, become sweeter in the fall, especially after they’ve seen a few freezes and some of their starch is converted to sugar. The same is true for kale and brussels sprouts. Leeks might look a little shabby after some frosts, but peel away the out layers and one finds a perfect heart within. Though at first it might seem limited or awkward to eat in season, soon the thought of buying green beans in December and tomatoes in February begins to seem strange indeed. Fall is a time for slowing down and storing up energy for the long winter to come. Eating in season helps connect us to this natural rhythm.

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