Saturday, July 26, 2008

No, not VD, BD (Growing Challenge, and this time it is a real challenge)

It's been a summer of ups and downs so far in the garden plot.

For tomatoes, it has been mostly down. The plants get themselves all tall and proud, then when they've worked themselves into a frenzy of flower buds, just at the point of pollination, the flowers shrivel up and fall over. Darn. Each and every plant, whether in a pot or in the plot, is suffering from a bad case of Blossom Drop, BD. These are tomato plants that should be putting me in a glut of tomatoes so deep I wouldn't be able to swim my way through it, but no, so far I've harvested one tomato from my garden.

One tomato.

I have eight plants.

I have more tomatoes coming, my plants aren't completely barren; nevertheless, they're few and far between, and mostly still completely green. Statistics like this are a deep, deep blow to one's gardening ego, and not satisfied with the state of my beloved tomatoes that I've raised from seed, I've done quite a bit of research. Here are what I've found to be the major causes of blossom drop in tomatoes:
  • High humidity. That is clearly not the case here in Southern California, so this can't be the culprit.
  • Too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer. I fertilized my tomatoes once, soon after I planted them, with liquid seaweed to help them transition and build root mass in their new homes. However, liquid seaweed is not a high nitrogen fertilizer. On the other hand, the plants now grow where peas and fava beans grew during the winter, and those are both nitrogen-fixing crops. Could they have made the soil too rich with nitrogen? It doesn't seem possible, but I'd love your input.
  • Evenings that are too cool, below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. That is clearly not the case around here.
  • Too little water. I've been thinking about this one a lot. I try not to overwater my tomatoes, for several reasons; first, too much water weakens the plants; second, we don't have water to waste in Southern California. While I was in Portugal, I had my friend water three times during that week, just to make sure that the plants had plenty of water, but usually I water once or twice a week depending on need, deeply. Tomatoes have deep roots, the plants don't look like they're suffering from lack of water (no wilting), and when I dig down a bit under the top layer, the soil is never dry. I don't think this is the problem.
  • Evenings and days that are too hot (over 75 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day). Although we have had stretches of heat that were higher, lately it has been in the 60s at night and the upper 80s during the day. Last year, I had days that were just as hot and I still had fruit from at least one plant, but even my mighty Black Krim plant, the variety that I grew last year that took the heat, smiled, and set even more fruit, is dropping its flowers right and left this summer.
None of those reasons seem like the answer. And now, for the kicker: the woman with whom I share the plot has two store-bought tomato plants, I don't know what variety, but the plants are much smaller than mine, and they are covered with fruit.

Someone, some dear, dear reader with deep wisdom regarding the mystery of tomatoes and their wily ways, please help me solve my tomato problem.


This evening, ECG and a buddy were out in the driveway, barbecuing a tri-tip on our kettle grill. As I sat inside, I could hear them laughing, telling jokes and being their silly, ridiculous selves. The majority of me really wanted to go downstairs and laugh along, but the gardener me was too much on edge. My tomato BD seemed insolvable. Researching the problem and finding no clear answers made me angry, and I sat, glaring at the computer monitor, with my molars clenched tight.

Finally, I stood up from the desk chair and marched into the kitchen, my feet fiercely slapping the linoleum. I planned on forcing myself away from the tomatoes and down to the grill, where I'd be sure to have fun. I opened the fridge, looked around in it and considered a beer, but reconsidered and closed the refrigerator. Scanning the counter, my eyes rested on a pile of donut peaches (small, flattened white peaches). A bruised fruit called out to me, and I picked it up, holding it to my nose.

A white peach does not smell like a yellow peach; instead, it is slightly floral, with maybe a touch of rose blossom. I consider a yellow peach as hitting a full range of flavors, from high, medium, to low, but a white peach hits only the upper notes and the lower notes: they're remarkably sweet but have an herbal, almost bitter edge. Put another way, a yellow peach is a nice, solid major triad chord, while a white peach is a more moody diminished triad. These flavors shouted at me to play with them, not to tone them down, but to emphasize their unique quality, and so I did. The following drink is the result.

White Peach G&T (Or, if your tomatoes have a bad case of BD, fix yourself a G&T)
You will need:
1/2 white peach (or one whole donut peach), peeled and cut into chunks
5 mint leaves
1 teaspoon simple syrup
2 ounces gin (Hendricks works well here, with its very clean, very herbal flavor)
Tonic water and ice to taste

To make the drink:
In your favorite highball glass, energetically muddle the peach with the mint and simple syrup. Add the gin and stir to combine flavors, letting the gin sink a bit into the peach before moving to the next step. After a minute or so, add ice and tonic water to taste, and stir to mix flavors.

Sip the drink, smile, and go downstairs to laugh with the boys.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Lisbon, Portugal

What time of the day is it for you? If it's morning, perhaps you can make yourself a cafe bombom, a shot of espresso enriched with sweetened condensed milk. Midday? Pour a cool glass of vinho verde to sip while you read. If you're getting to my site in the evening, when your work is done and you're not going to need to think very hard for the rest of the day, perhaps a dribble of port would do. Whatever you do, allow yourself the time to enjoy the images of Lisbon, because it was a fascinating, frustrating city, but boy it sure looks good.

ECG and I spent a week in Lisbon. He had to be there for a conference; I had to be there because, "My husband gets to go to Lisbon, so gosh darn it, I'm going to go too!" The first weekend in Portugal, before the conference began, we hiked together in Sintra on Saturday, and we explored Alfama together on Sunday, poking around in all sorts of neighborhoods on our long walks. This was all very fun and relatively easy, because ECG speaks Portuguese. On the other hand, when I was alone during the days of the workweek, it took a lot of preparation for me to leave the hotel room by myself each morning. I reviewed the route I planned to take over and over on the maps, trying to ensure I wouldn't get lost (to little avail, as I always got lost). And, I practiced whatever phrases I may need to use. I wrote those phrases down in my little notebook, but of course, when the time came to use them, I stammered and stuttered and tried to speak in Spanish. No matter what others have told me, Spanish and Portuguese are not close enough so that if one understands the first she should understand the second. Although I very much enjoyed the sights and experiences I was I able to have in Portugal, each sight and experience required much testicular fortitude. I feel that in Portugal, I earned my traveler's stripes.

What follows are some of the observations I made while exploring Lisbon, with and without my husband.

The History
Everywhere I looked in Lisbon, the history of the country is right there, tangible. It is impossible to forget its former naval might and its history of empire, because remnants of that history are everywhere, in the architecture, the churches, the food.

I visited a monastery one day in a neighborhood called Belem. The primary purpose of this brotherhood of monks (now defunct in Portugal with only two outposts left in Spain) was to pray for the safety of the sailors at sea and to take their confessions upon return. This building is one of the most beautiful I've ever stepped into, with cloisters of honey-colored stone and intricate tile work and windows. This was no severe, humble abode for tightly-wrapped ascetic monks; this was the home of the people who the Portuguese believed kept their empire afloat. If these brothers were going to spend their lives praying for sailors, Lisbon was certainly going to make sure that their lives were comfortable.

Also evident everywhere in Lisbon is the aftermath of the 1755 earthquake that devastated the city. Measuring 9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake caused huge initial damage, followed by a tsunami and a city-wide fire. Very few structures date from before the quake and those that do bear the scars of history.

Earthquakes haven't been the only difficulty; a visitor can easily see, by the remnants of embattlements and castles, that once upon a time, this was a culture of war.

The Tiles
Everywhere, gorgeous, handpainted tiles that add color and temperature control reflect light into the narrow streets of the buildings they line. The Moors brought tiles with them to Lisbon, and now tiles cover the floors, the ceilings, and the walls of many (maybe even most) of Lisbon's buildings. Some whole streets have tiled houses, each house with different colors and patterns. My favorite tiles are the ones that don't have people or animals on them, but intricate geometric designs.

The Food and Drink
Unfortunately, I failed to take pictures of some of my favorite foods because I was too busy eating them. One day with a little time away from the conference, ECG and I went to lunch with his Portuguese colleague at his cousin's restaurant. It was quite a walk away from the museum grounds that housed the conference, set in this neighborhood on a steep bank that used to be the city's shanty-town, but has begun the process of gentrification. It was the best meal of the trip. We started with amazing smoky salami and aged goat cheese with good bread. ECG ordered a steak—decent—and I took a recommendation and ordered the octopus—amazing. My plate was large and oval, with a pile of pink, tender, large, grilled octopus tentacles set on a puddle of pale green olive oil and garlic slivers, flanked with broccoli on one side and roasted baby potatoes on the other. Oh my. We washed down our meals with vinho verde and I finished up with a slice of the sweet, aromatic melon I encountered everywhere in Lisbon. (On a side note, does anyone know what kind of melon this is? Everywhere I asked, everyone just told me it was called melao. The fruit itself was elongated, the flesh honeydew-like but more succulent, and ranging in color from white near the rind to a soft green then salmon pink near the seed cavity.)

All over, restaurants and markets sell bacalhau, dried salted cod that must be soaked in several changes of fresh water before used in food. We ate it frequently mixed with potatoes and fried into croquettes, but I also ate it tossed with olives, potatoes, hard boiled egg, and drizzled with oil and parsley. I saw it on every menu, prepared thousands of different ways, and from everything I could tell, bacalhau is at the heart of Portuguese food.

Another excellent nibble found all over Lisbon, but decidedly spectacular at Cafe Pasteis de Belem, are the pasteis de nata, little custard tarts that are browned and haphazardly caramelized and dangerously addictive. So good, so simple, so hard to replicate elsewhere.

The basic tipple is vinho verde, a low-alcohol, slightly minerally and spritzy, very dry white wine. It is made from not-quite-ripe grapes and it is perfect with seafood. Like the pasteis de nata, vinho verde is a simple, good thing. When I ordered the house red, I was usually disappointed, but I was never disappointed when I ordered vinho verde.

The Transportation
To be blunt, it would suck to be a handicapped person in Lisbon. There is no shortage of means of public transportation—the trams, public elevators, buses, subways (Metro), and trains are all very easy to use and can get a traveler almost anywhere—but, every sidewalk is a cobbled jumble of black and white stone, roads suddenly turn into stairwells, and streets turn corners and begin steep, unexpected ascents. I can't imagine rolling myself in a wheelchair through Lisbon; healthy women pushing baby carts were struggling enough. I can't imagine relying on a cane or being blind or even just getting old. It is hard to move over the surfaces of Lisbon.

However, when I did notice the elderly (quite frankly, I did not see a handicapped person out and about) on the trams, trains, and buses, everyone made sure the they were helped on and off the vehicle and provided a seat. Perhaps assistance, of this type at least, is a private endeavor here, rather than a public one. One incident that ECG and I experienced together brought this idea home to me.

On Sunday, after ECG and I got lost in Alfama, feeling our way through the tiny alleys and stairways—we decided the only way out was down—we finally made it to a major thoroughfare and walked along it towards the downtown area. Two motorcycles, the first with a couple on it, the second with a lone female driver, rode towards us on the street. Just as they were about to pass us, the first lost control as the driver tried to brake while directly on the tram tracks. The motorcycle slid and fell over sideways on top of the two riders, and one of the luggage racks flew off and slid across the street, thudding like a body against the stone curb. As I stood there trying to figure out whose arms and legs belonged to whom—they were in a twisted mess under the motorcycle—ECG dropped his camera bag and immediately began trying to lift the bike off the riders. Other men joined him, drivers of cars who stopped the street to make sure everyone was okay. Another man called the ambulance. ECG and two others tried to set the bike on its stand, but because of the broken luggage rack, the remaining luggage rack threw the weight of the whole motorcycle off. After negotiating in Portuguese, the three of them pushed-carried the bike further down the street to sidewalk access and used the slant of the street to force the bike onto its stand. The second motorcyclist was with the riders of the first bike, and they were Germans with no Portuguese and limited English. Most of the conversation of assistance happened through intonation alone. As some local men tried to pull the passenger of the crashed bike (clearly the more injured of the two on the fallen bike) towards the sidewalk, others yelled to leave her there, as it was unclear how she was injured and they may hurt her more. The passenger, conscious though shocky, kept insisting, in English, that she wanted to get out of the street.

After a lot of arm waving, concerned yelling, lifting and carrying of very heavy things, finally, the riders were safely on the sidewalk with their luggage, their bikes were pushed out of the way of the tram tracks, and there were more than enough people there to be with them until the ambulance arrived.

The city itself may be hard-tiled and stony, the geography steep and frustrating, but one thing is very clear here: if anyone needs help, Lisbon's citizens will generously provide it.