Monday, July 9, 2012

That Other Whaling Town

This isn't the first time that I've dedicated a posting to the emblematic whaling spot, Nantucket Island and it won't be the last - even although I now live in another whaling town founded by disgruntled islanders, Hudson, NY.  Nantucket has been part of my life ever since my late mother read Moby Dick and decided that we should visit the island 26 miles out sea instead of our usual Cape Cod vacation.  We never looked back.  Author Herman Melville  who came to Nantucket for the first time a full year after the publication of Moby Dick  wrote this often repeated description of the island; "Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it.  See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse.  Look at it - a mere hillock, and elbow; all beach without a background."   He got his information from, yes, a map and but also from his trusted friend, and island visitor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. 
I go to the island when ever possible.  I go there because of my HUGE sentimental attachment to the physical aspects of the island including the the way the light, reflected from the ocean that surrounds it and  intensifies all its natural colors; pink rugosa roses, pea soup green beach grass, cobalt hydrangeas, milky-tea colored sand, and the ocean itself which at some moments appears to be Caribbean-island turquoise and other times true north Atlantic olive green.  I go there because the fragrance of those roses knocks me out with its heady aroma and the salt air makes my nose tickle - right now the privet is blooming and you might succumb to its exaggerated sweet scent.  I go there because I have family and friends there.

My sister Laura, and her husband, Jim have lived on the island for decades, and for decades they have gardened.  Oh, this is no commonplace, run-of-the mill garden - there are gardens, plural. The most important garden is a third of an acre that is fenced in to shelter fruit trees, berry bushes, vegetables and herbs from rabbits, deer and other pests.  The garden is meticulously organic and has been chronicled by Laura in her lauded book "Dear Mr, Jefferson, Letters from a Nantucket Gardener" which unfortunately is no longer in print but still available from sources like Amazon and Alibris and other sources that sell out-of-print books.

Nantucket gardens are a few weeks behind most Northeastern USA gardens but then they last a bit longer than most mainland gardens do.   My most recent 4th of July trip found Laura still planting her garden.  Actually, still moving plants from the potting shed to cold frames too.

The partially nude garden gave me the opportunity to view the still empty trellises which are themselves the kind of environmental sculptures that you expect to find photographed in fancy magazines for stories about other people's sublimely decorated homes and gardens.   Laura describes this rectangular-shaped trellis "in the lower trio bed, the coolest bed I have, is for cucumbers.  This it's third year.  My variety this year, as last, is 'Super Zagross'.  It's an Israeli bred cuke of a type  that grows wild in the Middle East - very heat tolerant, thin skin, not at all bitter."   She and Jim construct the trellises with branches found in the woods which surround their home.  They are among the fortunate few islanders who have a woods.   The island was once covered in woods until the settlers began to cut down it down for lumber to build homes. It has never recovered the growth because saplings have been constantly thwarted by the wind that sweeps across the island.  However, Nantucket town is a living museum of magnificent wooden homes in all sizes.

Laura's attention to detail is on full display in the property's various garden buildings.  The Tool Shed is home to the neatly arranged - well - tools.  Laura's has a lot of small tools because, "I garden on my knees."  And for the many,  many small bamboo rakes? "I have so many small rakes because they are very useful and often there are several people using them."

There's a shed that contains terra cotta pots and baskets.  "The baskets are for harvesting - mostly tomatoes.  Clearly delineated and no more than two varieties per basket and obviously they all don't get harvested at once, but over succeeding weeks.  This year I think I have 13 varieties."

My brother-in-law is a beekeeper.  Of course, he's no ordinary beekeeper.  Aside from his clear affection and respect for his honey producers he is an expert in their care and feeding.  He is also the town's go-to person when an uninvited swarm inhabits someones attic, wall or eaves.  He will do the removal with expertise and then increase his own hives with the newly collected swarm or convince an islander to become a beekeeper.

Laura had just harvested her China Stripe garlic when I arrived.  Here it is getting ready to be tied and hung up to cure.  We kind of built part of a meal around the fresh garlic which I sauteed with beet greens and tiny little beets - no larger than an inch or so which got pulled up with the greens.   While sauteed garlic in olive oil with the addition of the tiniest beets whole, and thinly sliced larger ones, and rinsed greens is not a particularly complex dish - it certainly becomes one when using ingredients just dug up from the earth.  Oh man.

A visit to the island is not complete without dinner with my friends Steve and Anna.   I've known Steve since - dare I say - two wives ago.  His present, and best wife doesn't mind the description.  Swedish with the kind of Scandinavian calm that allows most turmoil to pass over her, Anna is a weaver par excellence and a great companion at the beach.   Multi-talented Steve has had many careers - right now he's an oyster farmer.  Talk about good.   However, for dinner he rapidly sauteed small sea scallops (about the size of large bay scallops) in olive oil, added fresh sage leaves, capers, and fresh lemon juice, set the whole thing aflame and then dumped it on spaghetti.  Great choice.

It seems that every summer has a signature beach sandwich.  Last year I couldn't get enough of  Motorboat and Banana's fried fish sandwich out at Rockaway Beach.   This summer it's the Sicilian from Provisions on Nantucket.   Preserved-in-olive-oil Sicilian tuna on an olive oil soaked ciabatta roll with house-made bread and butter pickles, capers and a whole field of arugula seemed like the best sandwich ever this year.


COMING UP, JULY 14th - at the Hudson Farmers' Market Book Tent - Laura Pensiero of Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck, and Gigi Market in Red Hook will sign copies of her book "Hudson Valley Mediterranean".  And she'll serve a little sample from a recipe on page 97 of her book.  10:30am - 12:30 at the corner of 6th and Columbia Streets.

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