An Anderson Valley retreat. (at On A Mountaintop in Booneville, Ca)
It was late when I finally arrived to a silent house, the mid-summer evening unexpectedly warm and lit by a creamy moon almost full of herself.
Leaving my wrinkled linen dress in a heap near the basement door, I ventured to the kitchen, opening wide the door to the back porch. Stepping into the balmy darkness, I was overcome by the heady scent of orange and lemon blossoms, almost making me ache for winter’s Meyer and Kaffir citrus circus.
Locating the marble match strike, its exterior deeply mottled from years of use, the long beeswax tapers were lit, their natural perfume the florid honey of illicit afternoon intimacy. Wearying of the silence, I let the live recordings of Wayne Shorter rip through the muted night, his tenor sax elevating the mundanity of rinsing a handful of Rainier cherries, the fat orbs bursting with the high notes of both sweet and tart. A steel container of gelato was pulled from the freezer and set on a wooden board to warm. Homemade the day previous, and by a hand distinctly more deft than mine, it was churned with fresh buffalo milk harvested from a Sonoma friend’s exotic bovid; her opulent gift slowly steeped with vanilla beans and cardamom pods.
Pouring two (and-a-half) fingers of bitter Amaro into a tumbler, I pondered that haughty water buffalo; her coat shiny black, long whiskers protruding from a thick snout ending at nostrils the size of tartlet pans, and a large, blocky head weighed down by two enormous horns the color and texture of cement. Her soulful brown eyes belied her air of superiority; prideful in her understanding that I had driven a considerable distance to score the good stuff from her. The milk of water buffalo boasts 8% butterfat, often twice the amount of that in cow’s milk, depending upon season. And she knows every drop of her milk is precious: a lactating water buffalo will produce only 2 gallons a day, while a lactating cow can offer 12 gallons.
Like cows, water buffalo are ruminants, feeding on plant-life for their nutrients, (as opposed to a feedlot conscripted cow’s industrial diet of corn and antibiotics). With a highly sophisticated digestive system, ruminants ferment the plants in one of their multiple stomachs, and then regurgitate it, and further chew this cud. This re-chewing is referred to as rumination and assists in digestion, thus processing the greens into high value protein.
With a worldwide population of just less than 2 million heads, water buffalo are classified as either Asian or African species. They are further divided into either swamp buffalo, often used for work in Asia’s hotter climes, or river buffalo, the preferred type for milk production.
The milk from water buffalo differs significantly from that of other ruminants, containing a higher content of fatty acids and proteins, along with more solids, rendering it ideal for making cream, butter, and cheese.
An Italian word meaning ice cream, gelato gets its fluffiness from being whipped with air, contains at least 3.5% butterfat, and is composed of 16%-24% sugar, which balances the water content to prevent it from freezing into a solid block (most ice cream in the US is 12%-16% sugar). In the late 1600s, Sicilian chef Francesco Procopio dei Coltello perfected the world’s first gelatiere machine, introducing the world to the wonders of churned dairy.
Refilling my now-empty tumbler of Amaro with more of Calabria’s finest, I pulled up a spoon to the steel container, the gelato now soft enough to reveal its consistency of whipped clouds, and warm enough for the woody, sweet-earth aromas of Tahitian vanilla bean to bloom. The unmistakable palate tingle of cardamom transported me to long ago Sunday mornings of coffeecakes and cartoons. It was, however, the nectar of rich, ambrosial baked milk that had me swooning; once again staring into the eyes of that massive, magnificent, black beast, the water buffalo.
Summer mornings, quiet and early and dripping with the gray fog of northern California, are ideal for working in the garden. Into an old linen housedress I slip, and accompanied only by a mug of Jasmine Pearl tea, enter into the small, green world of my making. Hoping to be ignored by chatty neighbors who often peek through strategically placed shrubbery, I fill our absurdist bird feeder, a wood and iron piece based on the 1920s design of the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, complete with a tiny outdoor pool. The efforts and architecture are seemingly appreciated by the greedy Blue Jays, their ferocity making even the cats cower. Ancient window panes, edged in chipped red and blue paint from a long-ago weekend project, are thrown open, the seed boxes now carpeted with unkempt rows of spicy micro-greens and tiny radishes.
Radicchio seeds, smuggled in from southern Italy and planted the week prior, are finally extending teeny shoots. Roma tomato plants are tied, bondage-style, to copper posts; their splayed, thickish branches coating my arms with a viridescent, resinous and stinky pollen, and making them itch in a most delightful way.
Armed with a pair of oversized Spanish kitchen shears, I wondrously examine a large raised bed, now spilling over with leaves the size of baby elephant ears and sprouting curlicue tendrils, which grasp desperately at an old bamboo trellis firmly situated in its midst. The plant is a volunteer, one of many in the garden; a rogue outgrowth of this lazyman’s compost pile, which is laden with squash and tomato remnants, and their seeds, from last year’s harvest. The squash plant was left to languish, but instead dug in its roots and flourished, announcing its feat with dozens of fat, bijou blossoms the color of a two-day old jack-o’-lantern. I snip a baker’s dozen of the gaudy flowers and their spindly stems, easily filling my harvest basket just as the mid-morning sun muscles through pewter skies, shooing the fog back towards the coast.
Rinsing the delicate flowers, two stunned ladybugs are liberated by the water and sent fluttering from the gossamer folds. Into a bowl of room temperature Sonoma sheep’s milk ricotta went several eggs, their yolks a Cadmium Yellow Deep hue. Tiny leaves from the overly-proliferate Globe basil bush were added, along with a generous handful of Sicilian pine nuts, the edges charred bark brown in hot cast iron. Flaky salt, coarsely ground black and white pepper, and a hit of allspice to fool the palate were gently folded into the mix. Using an antique quenelle spoon traded ages ago for a bottle of Dujac Burgundy with a too-savvy sous chef from a distant restaurant gig, I filled each flower with the rich goodness, twisting the ends tightly, sealing their fate. Each blossom was brushed with a bit of whipped egg and dusted with freshly grated crumb before being blasted in a roasting hot oven. An old Pieropan Soave was uncorked, the smoky, salty notes from the Garganega grape a wonderful companion to the stuffed squash blossoms. We stood at the stove, dirt from the garden still encrusted on our bare feet, and ate them straight from the pan.