Piedmont Farm Tour, North Carolina, April 28-29, 2018

A chicken on a leash, a herd of bison and a Burmese farmer sowing rice; these are just a few of the things we saw when we visited some of the farms on the 23rd annual Piedmont Farm Tour.  The farms ranged from tiny but productive urban farms to rural farms of more than 100 acres.  Over two days we visited 9 of the 45 participating farms and, I think, learned something from each of them.

Our tour began on Saturday.  The first stop was Ninja Cow Farm, a family-owned farm in suburban Raleigh.  We knew when we got out of the car that we were at a “different” kind of farm.  Several girls were greeting visitors, and each either had a chicken in their arms or on a leash.  In nearly sixty years this was the first time I’ve seen chickens on leashes.  Ann Marie got to hold one of the chickens and you could tell they were used to being cuddled.

The farm sells pasture raised beef and pork and farm fresh milk, as well as products from farms they’ve partnered with.  They had quite a variety of products in their store.

After browsing the store, we went on a tour of Ninja Cow Farm, led by a young man called Spork.  Again, this is a different kind of farm.  The farm feeds the cattle and hogs produce from the local farmers markets.  As Spork explained, the produce has a flaw, it might be a bruise or a spot, that makes it unsalable.  Ninja Cow makes the rounds each day and collects whatever produce would normally end up in the dumpster and feeds it to their livestock.  The cows and hogs looked happy and well-cared for so I guess it works.

Ninja Cow

Our next stop was the Well Fed Community Garden, an urban farm in Raleigh.  From the road it looks like any other house in the neighborhood, with a few more plants and a small greenhouse.  The garden partners with Irregardless Café, who buys 80% of the organic produce and donates the remaining 20% to volunteers and neighbors.  Garden manager Morgan Malone took us on a tour of the farm.

The garden makes great use of the tiny 1 ½ acre lot.  It was still early in the season but there were rows of lettuce and the greenhouses had seedlings ready to be transplanted.  They also have some hydroponically grown lettuce in one of the greenhouses.  There’s quite a variety of veggies as well as herbs, figs and even kiwi.  They also have a few mushroom logs.  Later in the year they’ll grown tomatoes, melons and squash.  The front of the property has a pollinator garden.

Well Fed Community Farm 1

Our third stop of the day was another small urban farm, this one located in downtown Raleigh adjacent to Peace College.  The non-profit Raleigh City Farm was established in 2011 on a one-acre vacant lot.  Farmer James Edwards gave us a quick tour of the farm.  I asked him what made him want to garden in the middle of the city.  He said, “I just like growing things.”

The tour was quite interesting.  The perimeter of the farm is lined with pollinator attracting plants.  Inside that border, there are rows of lettuce, mustard greens, and a variety of early season produce.  There’s a small fruit orchard, but it was too early in the season for the trees to be producing much.  A crop rotation maximizes production of the tiny farm.

The plants are watered by an irrigation system that starts with the collection of rainwater from the roof of the business next to the lot.  From the collection tank, water is distributed over the crops as needed.  Harvested crops are sold weekly at the on-site farm stand, providing convenient access to healthy, fresh produce for urban dwellers.

Raleigh City Farm

Next up on our tour was Funny Girl Farm in Durham.  This 180-acre farm was the first large farm we visited.  This is where I learned the difference between a high tunnel and a greenhouse (high tunnels have no climate control; greenhouses do).  We also learned a lot about mushrooms.  Funny Girl Farm has around 3,000 mushroom logs and they take mushroom farming very seriously.

Funny Girl Farm utilizes a lot of environmentally friendly techniques in their farming.  They use reduced tillage because it doesn’t harm the fungi that helps the plants grow.  By rotating a variety of crops and using cover cropping between production crops, they manage to keep the soil healthy.  The sell their produce through their CSA or at their on site farm-stand.

Their hens are pasture raised.  Their natural diet of bugs and seeds is supplemented with vegetable scraps and spent grain from a couple local businesses.  Their mushroom logs are cut from trees on the property and can be productive for up to five years.  It’s quite an operation.

Funny Girl 1

Our final stop on Saturday was Carolina Farmhouse Dairy in Bahama.  Carolina Farmhouse Dairy is a Jersey cow farm that produces yogurt, smoothies and kefir which they sell at several area markets.  They’re in the process of upgrading their milk barn, so we saw how they currently milk their cows while seeing how the coming changes will increase their production.  Along the way we got to snuggle a couple calves.  Turns out they like head scratches and neck rubs.

AM and Baby Calf

On Sunday, we headed west.  First up was Sunset Ridge Buffalo Farm in Roxboro.  This was probably the best farm tour and you could tell they do it a lot.  We rode around the farm in a covered wagon while the farmer explained buffalo and buffalo farming to us.  It was very interesting.

Buffalo are quite energetic.  A buffalo, according to the farmer, can jump a six-foot fence if so inclined.  He said that if you can drive your pickup truck into a fence and the fence stops the truck, you’ve probably built a fence that will hold a buffalo.  The pen they use for vaccinating the buffalo was made of the heavy duty galvanized steel you normally see along the sides of the road.

Sunset Ridge 2

Buffalo may look quite docile as they graze in the field, but they’ve never really been domesticated.  You must be very careful when working with them; if one decides to, it can easily overturn a tractor.  When the farm rounds up the herd for health checks and vaccinations, they look for the one who seems most cooperative at that time, get that animal started and hope the rest follow.

After the tour we stopped at the farm-stand and purchased a variety of buffalo meat.  We’ll be exploring buffalo cuisine in the next few weeks.

After Sunset Ridge we headed to Maple Spring Garden in Cedar Grove.  Growing vegetables and herbs using organic practices, this 80-acre farm had some beautiful vegetable gardens.  Sunshine Dawson and Fern Hickey gave us a tour of the high tunnels, greenhouse, mushroom logs and herb gardens.  They’ve been growing organically since the early 70s and sell at both the Carrboro and Durham Farmers Markets.  The herb gardens are new to the farm; Sunshine is using her education in herbal medicine to expand the business in a new direction.

Maple Springs 1

We met Larry and Lee Newlin on our next stop, their Peaceful River Farm in Chapel Hill.  The Haw River is adjacent to the farm, hence the name.  Larry came from a landscaping background, and it shows.  The farm is beautifully laid out to make the best use of the land yet maintain an aesthetically pleasing view.  As Larry explained, they used a farm coach, Tony Kleese, to help them design the layout of the farm.  The twin market gardens were inspired by the Edwardian Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, England.  Larry knows his stuff.  The farm is beautiful.

Lee is the culinary educator and holds cooking classes and farm dinners at Peaceful River Farm.  A cancer survivor, Lee’s research into healthy food is one of the driving forces in the farm’s use of organic practices to grow pesticide-free produce.

Peaceful River’s produce can be found at the Fearrington Village Farmers Market and the Saxapahaw General Store as well as in dishes served at several are restaurants.

Peaceful River 1

Our final stop on this year’s farm tour was the one I was most interested in.  Transplanting Traditions Community Farm is a 7-acre non-profit farm in Chapel Hill. Through a partnership with the Triangle Land Conservancy, 35 Burmese refugee families grow native Burmese crops as well as well as crops native to North Carolina and sell their produce at local farmers markets.

Most of the refugees belong to the Karen and Chin ethnic groups, and fled ethnic persecution in Burma.  Most were farmers in their home country and now farm their part of Transplanting Traditions after working full time jobs, many as housekeepers at nearby University of North Carolina.  The farm provides much needed income for the families as well as giving them a community where they can feel at home.  There are a lot of bamboo structures, including some beautiful hoop decorations.

Trading Traditions 3

One farmer was in the process of sowing drought resistant rice and there were a lot of leaf crops already growing throughout the farm.  Later in the season they’ll grow Bok Choy, Edamame, eggplants, squash and numerous other vegetables for sale, either through their CSA or at the Chapel Hill and Carrboro farmers markets.

It’s quite an interesting operation and concept.  As Project Director Kelly Owensby said during the tour, the farm is now nationally known.  Wherever she goes, when she says she’s with Transplanting Traditions, people say, “hey, I’ve heard of the farm.”  There’s a waiting list of families who want to be a part of Transplanting Traditions and other similar farms have been started around the country.  Transplanting Traditions is an inspiring and interesting place and a great place to end this year’s farm tour.  We’re looking forward to seeing what next year’s tour holds in store for us.

Cafés, Portugal, March 2018

Travel can be stressful, with planes, trains, or even ships that must be caught, unfamiliar roads to follow, schedules to be met and new languages to learn.  It’s nice to be able to slow down from time to time and to stop at a café for a coffee or a glass of wine.  We experienced a lot of interesting cafés and we took advantage of them to stop and relax for a few minutes on our journey.  Here are just a few.

Aveiro is home to one of our favorite cafés, A Mulata.  It’s a tiny place on Avenida Santa Joana and a block from the Museu do Aveiro.  A Mulata has a nice breakfast and fresh baked goods with a lot of vegetarian options.  It was also a quiet place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine or beer.  We like quiet.

Porto’s most famous café is Café Majestic.  Opened in 1921, this art nouveau café was a favorite of British author J.K. Rowlings, who is rumored to have worked on the first Harry Potter book here.  The notoriety that comes with being associated with anything Harry Potter means that the café is always crowded with tourists.  We were looking for a nice quiet atmosphere where we could sit and enjoy breakfast and coffee, and Majestic was not the place for us.

Majestic Cafe

Fortunately, Porto has another iconic café just a short walk from Majestic.  Named for a Brazilian indigenous people, Café Guarany has been a popular gathering place for Portuenses since 1933.  It’s a beautiful restaurant.  Renovated in 2003, the interior’s centerpiece are two paintings, “The Lords of Amazonia” by University of Porto alum Graça Morais.  We had a wonderful breakfast at Guarany and, later, stopped there again for dessert and coffee.

Braga has a pair of nice cafés in the Arcada at Praça da República, Café Astória and Café Vianna.  We chose to have breakfast at Café Vianna.  In operation for over 150 years, the café is supposedly where the 28 May 1926 coup d’etat began.  Portuguese novelists Eça de Queriós and Camilo Castelo Branco are said to have been visitors to the café during its long history.  We enjoyed a relaxing breakfast while we planned our day.  Located at the end of Praça da República, it proved to be a nice place to people watch.

Cafe Vianna Interior

Coimbra is home to another interesting historic café.  Located in what was once an auxiliary chapel, Café Santa Cruz has a wonderful interior, with vaulted ceilings and stained glass.  Opened in 1923, it’s another great place for coffee and a snack.  It’s location on Praça 8 de Maio and next door to Igreja de Santa Cruz make the café a good place for people watching.

Ze Manel dos Ossos, Coimbra, March 2018

My wife and I look upon dining out as an adventure.  We do a lot of research to find interesting and unique restaurants wherever we go.  I had done a lot of research into restaurants in the cities on our itinerary.  One restaurant that came up over and over was Ze Manel dos Ossos, in Coimbra.  The fact that it was just a short walk from our hotel was a bonus.  This would be our dinner destination.

Ze Manel dos Ossos is tucked down a little alley just a block from Largo da Portagem, a central square across from the Santa Clara bridge and a popular for shoppers and tourists.

A light rain was falling when we arrived at the restaurant.  Ze Manel dos Ossos is a very small restaurant with nowhere to wait inside for a table to become available, so we waited in the rain with a young man from Greece and his dinner partner, a young woman from Croatia, and, eventually, a man from Lisbon.  The young man had done his research as well and was not going to give up a chance to dine at Ze Manel dos Ossos.

We studied the menu so we’d know what we wanted when we were seated.  The best way to describe the offerings would be country cooking, or, as Ann Marie called it, peasant food.  We decided on a half order of braised goat and a half order of bean stew with wild boar.

Half an hour later we were all in and seated.

The restaurant is truly a hole in the wall.  The inside is tiny.  The front half of the restaurant is an open kitchen.  The back half is filled with simple wooden tables and chairs and the walls are covered with small pieces of paper- drawings, doodles and poems.  The waiter called our order to the cook, brought us our bread, a great bean and cabbage soup and a stoneware pitcher of red wine, and we were under way.

The soup, as I said, was great.  The goat arrived in a stoneware pot along with potatoes and vegetables.  We poured the wine and the gentleman from Lisbon, seated at the table beside us, leaned over and told Ann Marie that the wine is homemade on the cook’s farm and is very strong, so please don’t drive afterwards.  He was a really nice guy who said he stops at the restaurant whenever he’s in Coimbra.  And yes, the wine was strong, but very nice.

Remember that we had ordered only a half serving of the goat and a half order of the bean stew.  By the time we had finished the goat, potatoes and veggies, we couldn’t eat any more.  We asked the waiter if we could cancel the bean stew and he laughed and said, of course.  But, he reminded us, that was just a half order!

We really enjoyed the dinner at Ze Manel dos Ossos.  The food and wine were really good, the staff was friendly and seemed to enjoy what they were doing, and the atmosphere was one of a kind.  And, best of all, the bill was half of what we paid at many other restaurants on our journey.  Our new friend was on to something.  Ze Manel dos Ossos would definitely be worth another visit the next time we’re in Coimbra.

Flor da Laranja, Lisbon, March 2018

On our last night in Portugal we had the pleasure of dining at Flor da Laranja, a Moroccan restaurant in the Bairro Alto district of Lisbon.

Morocco and Portugal have a history that goes back to the eighth century.  Moorish influence can be seen in architecture and art (Portugal’s famous azulejo tiles are of Moorish origin) and heard in place names throughout the country.  Despite this history, Moroccan restaurants are relatively rare in Portugal.

We asked our hotel to make reservations at the restaurant, which was fortunate, because without a reservation you will not get in.  The owner keeps the door locked and you must ring the doorbell to get in.  If you don’t have a reservation, she turns you away.  There was never more than three groups dining at one time, which allowed for a very personal and intimate experience.

Stepping out of the night and into the restaurant was our first indication that this would be a unique dining experience.  The interior is bright, with lots of flowers and candles, and Moorish-influenced art and furniture.  Moroccan music added to the vibrant atmosphere.

Flor da Laranja
Flor da Laranja

Flor da Laranja is truly a one man- or in this case, one woman show.  The owner, Rabea Esserghini, does it all, from waiting on the tables, to cooking the food, to answering the door.  I asked her about doing everything herself and she replied that it’s not much different from cooking dinner for her family.  A native of Casablanca, she loves sharing her country’s food with her guests.

And the food is really good.  We started with a glass of white vinho verde, or green wine.  The wine gets its name from the fact that it’s made from young grapes, not from its color.  It’s a bit sweet and slightly bubbly.  With dinner Sra. Esserghini recommended a bottle of rosé vinho verde, which was very good.

For the entrees, I chose a stuffed pepper and Ann Marie chose chicken with preserved lemons.  There were several small plates of eggplant, spinach, chickpeas and potatoes, which were all very good.  Sra. Esserghini made sure I didn’t forget about the sauce from the pepper, actually scooping it up and pouring it over the pepper.  She was right.  The sauce was awesome.

We enjoyed our dining experience at Flor da Laranja.  The food was outstanding and it’s obvious that Sra. Esserghini loves to share her culture and cuisine with her customers.  If you’re in Lisbon I recommend you make Flor da Laranja a stop on your journey.  But don’t forget the reservation.