Mother Earth Living

Round Robin: Notes from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

People often ask us what we do in the winter, implying by their tone some misconceptions about farm life. Once the fields are blanketed with snow, doesn’t all the farmwork cease, and aren’t we bored with the idleness? Do we just snooze around the woodstove?

Well, when the wind whips around the old farmhouse, as it does now on blustery February days, we do, indeed, spend more time around the woodstove, reading, studying, writing.

There is plenty to do, though, on a farm in winter. Wood must be cut for the fireplace as well as for fence rails and posts. The horses must be shod for traveling on ice, our antique farm equipment repaired, the animals fed, their pens cleaned every day; cream must be turned into butter, milk into cheese, and on and on. It’s routine work but never boring.

It’s not the amount of work we do in the winter so much as the stress of working outside in all kinds of ­weather, trying to keep hands and feet warm, navigating ourselves and the animals over rough terrain. It takes a lot of energy to lead a thousand-pound cow through drifts of snow or across a sheet of ice to the water hole 40 yards from the barn and return safely with both the cow and a five-gallon bucket of water.

I guess this is why my mind seldom turns to gardening at this time of year. Unlike other serious gardeners I know and have read about, I don’t dream about my gardens in the winter, nor do I pore over the catalogs, nor do I start seeds early, pushing the season to get a head start. No, I’m locked into winter with the elements, with the barn animals that stoically accept their restricted regimen, with the plants resting in the frozen earth, with the wildlife around me whose only signs of life are the crisscrossing tracks along the half-mile lane to the mailbox.

We rarely see people in the winter, for the snow-packed lane is closed to all but skis, snowshoes, sleds, or foot traffic. That’s why we were astonished recently to see a short, blocky figure puffing up the last hill. It was Isidore, a fellow from the French side of the island, bringing a gift of bear oil from a recent encounter with a black bear. Isidore is a great hunter who knows the ways of wild animals. Jigs had once mentioned that bear grease makes the best harness oil for keeping leather supple, so Isidore traipsed in with his ­present.

We got to talking about frico (fricassee), the Acadian national dish here that has its origins in the original settlement of farmers from western France in the 1600s. Just about anything qualifies: it doesn’t matter if you make frico from stewed rabbit or even sardines so long as the main flavoring ingredient is pickled chives. In early summer, when the long chive leaves are at their fattest, Isidore’s wife cuts them and packs them into a wide-mouth jar, spreading salt over each layer. Then the jar goes into the fridge, where the salt creates a brine that keeps the chives bright green and crunchy. To use them, she rinses them quickly under cold water (some people don’t bother with this step) and squeezes them gently. She tosses the chives into a pan sizzling with a little fat, adds cut-up meat and water almost to cover. When the meat is almost done, she adds chopped potatoes and cooks the stew until the potatoes are just tender. “That’s frico!” Isidore proclaims ecstatically, slapping his knee.

We give him another cup of tea (China tea with our catnip, mint, and lemon balm added), and he’s off, refusing Jigs’s offer to hitch the team to the sled and take him out to his car.

In the early evening after chores, as we crunch on the snow back to the house, the milk pail swinging, the dog running ahead, we can’t help noticing that the light lingers longer every day, leaving rosy streaks on the horizon. Soon Jigs will make the magic pronouncement “Time to order seeds”, and I will reach for the bag where the catalogs are stashed and begin to unlock the sealed-up world of herbs, flowers, and gardens that has been hibernating with me all winter.

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  • Published on Oct 26, 2010
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